Reservation and Adoration:
A Historical and Devotional Inquiry
Shirley Carter Hughson
Superior of the Order of the Holy Cross
The Holy Cross Press
West Park, New York
transcribed by Dr
Elizabeth G Mellilo
Reservation in the Early Church
When we discuss the legality of a practice, we are supposed to be considering the laws which have been made, requiring or permitting it. In the case of the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, however, we find that the custom prevailed and had the force of law long before any written Canon on the subject appears.
The first reference to Reservation of the Sacrament is found in the well-known passage in Saint Justin Martyr's first Apology, which was written about forty years after the death of Saint John. He speaks of the Sacrament being taken by the deacons of the Church to the faithful who were absent from the celebration of the Holy Mysteries.
The first definite references to the custom of reserving for many days at a time are found in Tertullian, who flourished about the year 197. He refers more than once to the custom. After his time, references continue to appear until the middle of the fourth century, when it seems certain that in every part of the Church, East and West, the custom was universal.
Three circumstances attract our attention at this point. The first of these is that there is every reason to conclude that the Sacrament was reserved under one kind only, namely the species of bread. It is not possible to judge from Saint Justin's account whether or not both species were taken from the altar to those who were absent. Tertullian's references would seem clearly to imply one kind only. The Reverend W. H. Freestone, in his learned work The Sacrament Reserved, reaches this conclusion. "It is certain," he says, "that the Eucharist was commonly reserved in private, [by this he means in private houses as described by Tertullian], only under the single species of bread."(1) In another place, he goes on to say: "And the high probability that under this sole kind the Sacrament was also at first officially reserved, leads us to recognise that the belief which later found expression as the doctrine of concomitance was ever implicit in certain uses of the Eucharist sanctioned by the Church."(2)
Second, that in the earliest references no mention is made of the Communion of the sick, although before the third century we find mention of the Sacrament being reserved, both in the houses of the clergy and in those of the faithful laity.
This is a point to be remembered, for even those who have done most to give us back the perpetual Presence on our altars, seem, in many cases, to have forgotten that the original purpose of Reservation, in the primitive Church, was not solely for the Communion of the sick, but also for the benefit of those who, for any legitimate reason, might have been kept from being present when the Holy Sacrifice was offered.
In summing up his conclusions regarding Reservation, Freestone says: that "from at least the second century, Christians were accustomed to receive the Eucharist at home when by reason of infirmity, or other sufficient cause, they were unable to communicate at the Liturgy."(3) To limit the use of the Reserved Sacrament to the Communion of the sick, would therefore seem to be a departure from primitive custom.
In our time we have lost in large measure the sense of the value of the Holy Communion outside of the Liturgy. From the nature of the case, most Communions made from the Reserved Sacrament would be those of the sick, and in later centuries Reservation is generally mentioned as especially for that purpose, but surely our people ought to be encouraged to practise this most ancient of all Eucharistic customs, and to claim the privilege of communicating according to the dictates of their devotion, on days when, through any just impediment, they have been absent at the hour when the Liturgy was celebrated.
The third and last point presented by the consideration of the primitive practise is one which is of supreme importance in its bearing on the subject at the present time in the Anglican Church. This is, that beginning in the lifetime of those who might have seen our Lord's Apostles face to face, there is the universal custom of reserving the Blessed Sacrament, which is followed without the direction of any written law or Canon, and without the suggestion ever being made that permission or license should be had therefor from the Bishop or other Church authority.
It appears to have been taken for granted that, as every priest with a cure of souls would celebrate the Holy Mysteries, he would also administer the Reserved Sacrament to his people as need appeared. The fact cannot be gainsaid that for hundreds of years after Pentecost, the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament was as universal as the offering of the Holy Sacrifice itself, and the same right of jurisdiction which enabled the priest to celebrate, gave him the right also to reserve for the benefit of his flock.
i. Freestone, The Sacrament Reserved, p.
ii. Freeston, Ibid., p. 152
iii. Freeston, Ibid., p. 265
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