Now we move right to the middle of the third century with St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. Today, we’ll look at his letter to St. Cornelius, Bishop of Rome. (As an interesting side note that I’m not sure many Protestants know, the Latin papa (or pappa) meaning ‘father’ is the word that Romans in particular used when addressing bishops. In another of the letters written to St. Cyprian, we see him called Pappa Cyprian. That word, transliterated into English, is Pope.) This letter is short, so you may want to read the entire letter rather than just the excerpt I’ve chosen for this series.
In this letter, St. Cyprian is actually writing in order to convey a conciliar decision of the entire synod of African bishops. All their names are in the salutation. The context of this decision is important. In the previous cycle of persecution some years earlier, some Christians had lapsed under torture or threat of torture and made sacrifice to other gods. A number of those lapsed Christians repented when persecution waned and sought to rejoin the Church. Earlier conciliar decisions had held that they first must undergo a lengthy period of penance, though it could be abridged if they became sick and were in danger of death.
At the time of this conciliar decision, another wave of more intense persecution was beginning. The African council had decided that lapsed Christians who repented and sought reconciliation should be fully received immediately without delay so that they would be strengthened and prepared to stand if need be in the coming persecution. It’s in that context that an entire synod of Bishops, not just one man, says the following.
For we must comply with fitting intimations and admonitions, that the sheep may not be deserted in danger by the shepherds, but that the whole flock may be gathered together into one place, and the Lord’s army may be arrived for the contest of the heavenly warfare. For the repentance of the mourners was reasonably prolonged for a more protracted time, help only being afforded to the sick in their departure, so long as peace and tranquillity prevailed, which permitted the long postponement of the tears of the mourners, and late assistance in sickness to the dying. But now indeed peace is necessary, not for the sick, but for the strong; nor is communion to be granted by us to the dying, but to the living, that we may not leave those whom we stir up and exhort to the battle unarmed and naked, but may fortify them with the protection of Christ’s body and blood. And, as the Eucharist is appointed for this very purpose that it may be a safeguard to the receivers, it is needful that we may arm those whom we wish to be safe against the adversary with the protection of the Lord’s abundance. For how do we teach or provoke them to shed their blood in confession of His name, if we deny to those who are about to enter on the warfare the blood of Christ? Or how do we make them fit for the cup of martyrdom, if we do not first admit them to drink, in the Church, the cup of the Lord by the right of communion?
Those consuming the bread and wine are fortified with the protection of Christ’s body and blood. The Eucharist itself is a safeguard. Those who might end up shedding their blood as martyrs confessing Christ must not be denied the blood of Christ. Physical blood of real human beings is directly related in the thought of these Bishops to the blood of the cup of the Eucharist. Personally, I don’t know how you get more physical and tangible than that.
I’ll point out the obvious. A simple memorial or mere symbol has no power and could not do what they expected the Eucharist to do. The language and usage also doesn’t feel like a fit with Calvin’s purely spiritual meal. Coming as it does in the context of preparation for torture and execution on behalf of Christ, there is something deeply visceral in their usage of body and blood.