The Ritual contains formulas of benediction for many kinds of food, as of lambs, eggs, new fruits and bread. The latter article, when solemnly blessed at High Mass and distributed to the faithful, is called the Eulogy, which means strictly, from its Greek derivation, any blessing or blessed thing, but which, in ecclesiastical language, is specifically applied to blessed bread.
It was customary, during the first centuries, to communicate every day; some even thought that they were obliged to receive the Blessed Sacrament as often as they assisted at Mass, so that if they had that happiness several times a day, they ought to participate, at each Mass, of the Bread of Angels. The increasing temporal prosperity of the faithful, consequent upon the cessation of persecution and the recognition of Christianity by the state, tended, by insensible degrees, to wean their minds and hearts from heavenly things, and to cool their burning love for the Mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood. The inroads of the barbarian tribes of the North, the breaking up of the Roman Empire, and the changes and convulsions which necessarily followed, produced a more disastrous effect upon the souls of many of the children of the Church than did the persecution of the Roman Emperors. This second storm found them unprepared, engrossed with earth and its riches, and it but increased the evil. Practical religion became rarer amongst the masses, and both as cause and effect, the Blessed Eucharist was neglected.
The Church wept over this sad state of things, and did all in her power to remedy it; first, by prescribing fixed times, at which it would be obligatory for the faithful to receive Holy Communion; secondly, by establishing a sacred rite which might supply its place, as far as any earthly thing can supply the place of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God. The times first fixed were Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, but this seemed too often to the rough barons of the Middle Ages, and Mother Church, with the spirit of patient condescension which she had inherited from her Lord and Spouse limited the strict ecclesiastial obligation to one day and its accompanying period, Easter.
The rite which she instituted was that of the Eulogies. They who assisted at Mass but did not communicate, received a portion of blessed bread, to remind them that they ought to hunger after the true Bread which comes down from heaven, of which, if any one shall eat, he shall live forever. The rite is meant to typify also the union of belief and love which should exist among all the faithful, members of the same mystic body, participators of the same Sacred Victim which the Eulogy represents. Cardinal Bona cites authorities for the existence of this custom in the 4th century.
The Eulogies were applied to many of the uses which had, at earlier periods, been restricted to the Blessed Eucharist. Bishops and particular churches sent them to one another in token of communion, whereas the Holy Sacrament Itself had been used, not always without danger of accident, for the same purpose. The sending of wedding cake to absent friends is an analogous custom. Travelers took an Eulogy with them as a heavenly safeguard against the spiritual and bodily dangers of the journey. The Blessed Eucharist used, at times, to be carried in like manner. St. Ambrose relates of his own brother, Satyrus, that being on a voyage and in imminent danger of shipwreck, he implored the Body of Christ from some baptized fellow passengers. Satyrus himself had not yet received the Sacrament of regeneration, being only a catechumen. He obtained his request: the Precious Gift was given to him wrapped in a scarf, which be attached to his neck. He plunged boldly into the sea, trusting to Him for protection Who had supported the sinking Peter on the waves of Genesareth. He reached the shore in safety.
Another view may be taken of the Eulogies; they may be considered remnants of the ancient Agapæ or love-feasts. These were banquets in memory of the Paschal Supper of which our Blessed Lord partook, before instituting the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. They were celebrated in the churches and on the tombs of the Martyrs. All the faithful joined in them and gave one another the kiss of peace. During the first century and a part of the second the Agapæ preceded communion. Tertullian informs us that, in his time; many of the faithful thought it more reverent to receive the Blessed Eucharist fasting. The third Council of Carthage, held in 397, made this practice obligatory, except on Holy Thursday, on which day, holy communion was received in the evening and after the Agapæ. This was done in order to commemorate more vividly the Institution of the Blessed Sacrament.
Abuses soon crept into the celebration of the love-feasts. St. Paul complained of them and severely rebuked the Corinthians (1 Cor. xi.) for the excesses and profanation of which they had been guilty. The disorder had arisen to such a height in the fourth century that the Church was obliged to interfere and denounce the Agapæ. They were not surpressed however without great difficulty.
The blessing and distribution of bread, during the sacrifice of the Mass, still prevails in France and Canada. The families of the parish take turns in furnishing the loaves to be blessed at the High Mass. The bread is taken to the communion rail during the offertory. On great festivals it is profusely adorned with flowers and little banners. The celebrant, attended by two acolythes, blesses the bread, and, in some places, presents a cross to be kissed by the family furnishing the Eulogy. The loaf is cut into small pieces, after it has been blessed, and distributed to the congregation by an attendant of the sanctuary. The recipient of the blessed bread makes the sign of the cross, and is at liberty to eat his piece either in Church or at home. Those who who were not at the High Mass receive a portion from their neighbors who had the happiness of assisting at the sacred function.
Good old French mothers teach their children to say the following little prayer before eating the Eulogy:
|“Pain bénit! je te prend;|
Si la mort me suprend
Sers moi de Saint Sacrament.”
|“Blessed Bread! I take thee:|
if death should surprise me,
supply the place of the Blessed Sacrament.”
The family that gives the bread on one Sunday, reserves a small loaf to send to that family whose turn it is to make the offering on the next week.
The above interesting details have been furnished by a Reverend French friend who has seen and participated in the ceremonies he describes. From a written account which he drew up, at our request, of several customs of his country, we make the following extracts, for which, we are sure, he and our readers will pardon us.
1st. Little wooden crosses of about six inches in length are blessed on the 3d of May, the Feast of the Invention of the Cross. Each farmer provides himself with as many such crosses as he possesses different pieces of land or different productions. There must be a cross for the vineyard, another for the wheat-field, and for each field in like manner. These crosses are fixed with great devotion in their respective places, and by this act of piety the husbandman hopes to draw down the blessing of heaven on his harvest.
2nd Every good Catholic farmer has his seed blessed before committing it to the ground. This benediction takes place on a Sunday in September.
3d. The fields are blessed on the Rogation days, that is, the three days immediately preceding Ascension Thursday. Several large crosses ornamented with hangings, pictures and flowers are erected at the cross-roads and in different villages. A holy procession, bearing crosses and banners, and headed by the Pastor, starts early in the morning. Every family sends its representative to the procession in order to get a share in the blessing. The Litany of the Saints and the Penitential Psalms are sung during the march. From the way-side crosses the Priest solemnly blesses the fields and dwellings of the neighboring country.
The custom of blessing lambs at Easter is very ancient. God commanded the Jews to eat a lamb in memory of their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. With greater reason may Christians feast on the Paschal Lamb in commemoration of their true Pasch, Christ Jesus, and of their passage through the Red Sea of His Precious Blood, from death to life, from sin to grace and hopes of heaven.
Eggs too are blessed at the Easter time, because they are emblematic of the Resurrection. Just as from the egg a little creature issues forth to life, so from the silent tomb, the prison house of death, our Saviour sprang to immortal life and glory.