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Letter to Women

The “Fractio Panis” and the Eucharist as Eschatological Banquet


This was first published by the Mcauley University Electronic Journal on the 18th of August 2002. Republished here with permission of the author.

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The starting point for this paper is the third century fresco called the “Fractio Panis” – the breaking of bread - in the Greek Chapel in the Catacomb of Saint Priscilla. The figure seated on our right is seen in the act of breaking the bread. Initially this figure was simply assumed to be male, until in her 1980 article, Dorothy Irvin argued that the (con)celebrant(s) represented at this Eucharist are in fact women. [1] Since then the fresco has acquired an almost “iconic” status amongst some feminist scholars of Christianity who see it as archaeological evidence that women presided over the Eucharist in the early Church. I also find it a tantalising image, for these and other reasons.

The fresco raises for me a number of questions. The first is the role of women in the early church. The second question concerns the church’s understanding of the Eucharist. These two issues are related. What I find most suggestive about the Fractio Panis, however, is its evocation of the eschatological banquet highlighting the prominence of the eschatological imagination within the early church. But before examining this eschatological impulse I will briefly discuss the question of women’s ministry in the early church.

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Women in the Early Church

The claim that women occupied leadership positions within the early Church does not necessarily translate into the claim that they were priests. Although women were prominent in the early Church, it is difficult to say precisely how this prominence was expressed or interpreted. The titles given to leaders in the early church were secular and without cultic designations, reflecting, perhaps, their actual duties. The bishop or episkopos was literally an overseer. The responsibilities of the episkopos were often the same as, or at least modelled upon, the manager of a household, as 1 Timothy 3 suggests. Wealthy women were often patrons of the early Church and as such were particularly prominent. Paul himself, acknowledges Phoebe, a deacon, [2] as his patron. (Rom 16: 1-2.) For the first two centuries Christianity was a religion practised primarily in the private space of the household rather than the public space of the temple. These household churches would have often found themselves under the practical leadership of a woman.

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One is unable to project back onto early church ministries the esteem and value in which they later came to be held. The office of deacon and its ministry of diakonia — literally “service” — is separated in both Acts and Timothy into the two ministries of the word and of the table. There is, especially in Luke, a propensity to subordinate the ministry of the table to that of the word.. The table ministry, as Elizabeth Schuhssler Fiorenza has suggested, “was most likely the eucharistic ministry, which included preparation of a meal, purchase and distribution of food, actual serving during the meal, and probably cleaning up afterwards”. [3] In any case, presiding over the Eucharist was certainly no priestly activity, at least not in the cultic and hierarchical sense.

The most curious acknowledgment in the New Testament of the prominence of a woman as a Church leader comes from Paul who sends greetings to Junia, part of a husband and wife team whom he considered to be “eminent among the apostles”. (Rom 16:7) As to whether she was an apostle herself or merely highly regarded by the apostles, the text is ambiguous. In fact, it seems that any question that we might ask in the search for a precedent for the ordination of women turns out to be ambiguous. The Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976, after a two year study as to whether women could be ordained to the priestly ministry of the Eucharist, voted 17-0 that the New Testament evidence was inconclusive. [4] This is perhaps because the question itself is anachronistic.

Evidence of women presiding at the Eucharist does not necessarily translate into evidence that women were priests. That early Church structures were relatively indeterminate goes at least some of the way towards explaining how women were able to exercise religious authority. Leadership roles were not initially understood in cultic terms and where women exercised leadership, cultic designations would have been avoided as particularly inappropriate. What is clear is that women occupied significant leadership roles within the community as long as Christianity remained primarily a religion of the private sphere.

Rather than get bogged down in the question as to whether women have been and can be ordained, I want to move the question back a level. In effect, I consider that the presider, whatever her sex (in this fresco), is acting not so much in persona Christi as she is acting in persona ecclesiae. More importantly, her role is related to a certain non-sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist that is to be found in the New Testament and early church where a number of images are held in tension but where the ruling metaphors are eschatological. [5]

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Sacrifice and Sacrificial Metaphors

If the Eucharist was understood to be primarily a sacrifice, then there are all sorts of anthropological reasons why women cannot preside. [6] However, I don’t think that the Eucharist was understood as a sacrifice as such. Rather, I agree with David Power and others that the Eucharist was originally a subversion of sacrifice. If this is the case, the sacrificial metaphors used in the New Testament require some explanation. Context is important, as one cannot assume that all language referring to sacrifice was sacrificial in intent. David Power, for example, argues that in calling Christ’s death a sacrifice a certain violence is done to sacrificial language.[7] We should recall that in the world of the early Church sacrifice was one of the principal means of communing with the divine. Christians were often suspected of “atheism” precisely because they did not sacrifice as the pagans understood it. For Christians in this environment to claim that they too have a sacrifice, but one that exceeds and replaces all others, was, perhaps, the most straightforward way in which to express the radicalness of the Christian break with sacrifice.

I do not wish to get entangled in exegetical debates about the meaning of sacrificial language within the New Testament. Neither do I consider it to be either desirable or possible to “purify” the New Testament of sacrifice. What I am claiming is that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the anti-sacrificial trajectory is a prominent one within New Testament thought. Robert Daly argues, “it is precisely an incarnational spiritualization of sacrifice that is operative in the New Testament and the early Church”. [8] An examination of the way in which the language of sacrifice is used reveals that the idea of Christian sacrificial activity in the New Testament is primarily ethical and practical rather than liturgical or cultic. [9]

To take what would seem to be one rather unambiguous reference to the sacrificial death of Christ as given by Paul: “Christ, our paschal lamb has been sacrificed”, (1 Cor 5:7), it can be shown that the sacrificial metaphor in this case is not necessarily sacrificial in its logic. The association between Christ and the Passover lamb was probably both early and natural to the extent that Israel considered the Passover to be the archetype of the eschatological event and the promise of salvation. According to Daly, “both Josephus and the gospels show that the Passover was a time of intense messianic-eschatological expectation”. [10] The metaphor of the paschal lamb need not suggest a cultic understanding of sacrifice. The paschal metaphor for the Jewish imagination evoked the whole of salvation history from creation to the expectation of the Messiah. A strong argument can be made that the rhetoric of sacrifice applied to the death of Christ is better understood in the light of the eschatological blessings that Christ’s death and Resurrection inaugurated. What is celebrated is the Passover of Jesus. The subsequent identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb invokes the eschatological hope that it is also our Passover.

Applied to the Eucharist, the image of sacrifice is but one among several including the Passover, the covenant, the suffering servant and the messianic banquet. In using the metaphor of the Passover, Paul invokes a whole complex set of images, none of which can be simply reduced to the other. Although these other figures do not decisively negate sacrifice, they do considerably modify the notion of sacrifice in such a way as to render a simple sacrificial reading problematic. As a metaphor, sacrifice offered Christians a natural interpretive key to the meaning of Christ’s death. My argument is that the Christian appropriation of the rhetoric of sacrifice remains valid only so long as far as it is held in tension with other interpretive logics. 

Recent scholarship has tended to link the Eucharist with the Jewish idea of todah understood as a sacrifice of praise that establishes continuity between the Eucharist and the ideal life of the Christian. Typical of this approach to sacrifice is Romans 12:1-2, where Paul argues that this kind of sacrifice is given by Christ’s disciples in a life lived according to the gospel by which they offer their bodies as true worship. That it is Christians themselves who constitute the “new temple” overturns the cultic traffic with transcendence by making the divine an immanent reality not separated from the profane but transforming the profane into a “new creation”. In Christ, all things are reconciled (Col 1:20), both clean and unclean. That the sense of sacrifice in the New Testament and early Church is primarily non-cultic is attested by the fact that the entire community of the baptised “were called priestly long before their officially designated ministers”. [11] The variety of images employed by the New Testament to describe the manner in which our salvation has been achieved in Christ makes a simple sacrificial interpretation of these images difficult to sustain, especially in the light of the primarily eschatological orientation of these images.

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Eschatological Abundance

The very term eschatology is misleading, however, as there can be no knowledge of last things as such. [12] The revelation of the risen Christ did not leave us with a system. The hope to which the Easter experience gave rise came to be expressed in a variety of ways according to whatever conceptual apparatus was available. In the New Testament it came to be expressed in a plurality of symbols: as a banquet (Lk 14:15-24); a wedding feast (Mt 22:1-14; 25:1-13); the new Jerusalem “prepared as a bride dressed for her husband” (Rev 21:2); or as the beatific vision as a face to face encounter in which “I shall know just as fully as I am myself known” (1 Cor 13:12). None of these images exhausts the content of that hope. Likewise, eschatological fulfilment was not only envisaged as a personal spiritual reality, but a political and a cosmic reality as well. According to Irenaeus, the visible universe itself is destined to be transformed and will itself serve the cause of justice. [13]

Justice is, as Jacques Derrida has more recently observed, an eschatological reality. It is not the law, but that which gives us the impulse to change and improve the law. It is the condition of the possibility of the challenge and critique of the law, the laws, society as it is currently ordered.

The Eschatological imagination presents an ongoing and open challenge to the present social order. It invokes the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed, not only as a future reality, but one to be worked for in the present so that it might also be established in the here and now. The eschatological expectation of the early Christians was for the overturning of the present world order and the fulfilment of all God had promised. It meant abundant life, not simply a place of repose after death. This imagery, however, begins to fade once Christianity becomes the religion of the Empire and the Eucharist becomes a sacrifice in the maintenance of the Empire. What makes the Fractio Panis and similar fresci of the third and fourth century so interesting is the vividness and vitality of the eschatological impulse.

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Interpreting the Frescos

Returning now to the Fractio Panis, I believe that its depiction of the Eucharist as an eschatological banquet offers a significant challenge to the status quo of contemporary ecclesiology. There is however some question as to whether the fresco does in fact represent the Eucharist or an eschatological banquet. Many scenes of similar meals have been variously interpreted as funereal banquets, agape feasts, the Eucharist itself, or scenes of the heavenly banquet. Some have argued that they could not be actual liturgical meals because of the number of participants, or the presence of fish and other items, servants, or even on occasion a joint of meat. [14]

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[fig. 4]

The argument is then made that these scenes are in fact memorial meals or refrigeria. [fig. 4, 4a]

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[fig. 4a]

And so the clear Roman elements of say these banquet scenes from the first half of the third century are used to interpret others. [figs. 5 & 6]

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[fig. 5]

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[fig. 6]

I believe that all these meanings are not so much exclusive but simply layers of meaning that co-exist as we have already seen is the case with eschatological imagery which is characterised by plurality and abundance rather any simple one to one correspondence.

Such was the way that the Eucharist itself has been represented. The question as to whether these scenes are liturgical, funereal or heavenly banquets seems to parallel the question as to whether the Eucharist a meal or a sacrifice. Both images have always been present, but for the early Church at least it was the symbol of the meal that had precedence.

It might be worthwhile then to examine the Roman Refrigeria in this light. The idea of refreshment can be seen to add another layer to the symbol of the heavenly or eschatological banquet by reference to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) where the rich man asks Lazarus to refresh his tongue with water. Lazarus of course rests in bliss in the heavenly embrace of Abraham. As J. Stevenson relates:  An inscription from Priscilla tells how , in the year 375 certain persons came there AD CALICEM, i.e. to drink.” [15] Other inscriptions offer similar metaphors such as one inscription that states how on the thirteenth kalends of April (20th March) “Parthenius, took [his] refreshment in God, as we all did.” Stevenson cites other inscriptions that demonstrate that what is ultimately implied by the idea of refrigerium is life in God. “Januaria bene refrigera et roga pro nos refrigeratur anima (Januaria, take thy good refreshment, and make request for us); Refrigeratur anima (May thy soul be refreshed); Antonia, dulcis anima, in pace tibi refrigerit deus.” [16]  

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The layers of meaning and symbolism attributed to the Eucharist is attested to beautifully in one of the Chapels of the Sacraments in the catacomb of Saint Callistus.

At the top we have Jonah lying between two doves - The significance of Jonah in this context is enunciated in Matthew 12:39, where Jesus proclaims that the only sign that this unfaithful generation will be given is the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jonah is as a consequence seen to prefigure the resurrection of Christ, particularly in this context where Jonah I assume is resting under the shade of the vine leaves that the Lord had provided him for his comfort. 

At the outer edges flanking the three central images are two betogaed figures, possibly bearers of some ecclesial office. At the centre we have another banquet scene of seven figures. If we are left in any doubt that it is in fact the Eucharist we have an image on either side to act as a guide in interpreting this scene. To our left is a unique laying on of hands upon a tripod that holds both a loaf of bread and a fish that has Eucharistic connotations.

To the left is a depiction of the sacrifice of Isaac with two figures in the customary posture of prayer. The sacrifice of Isaac was interpreted by Christians as another Old Testament prefiguration of the death of Christ. By the fact that Abraham and Isaac are in the Orant position I would assume that it depicts their response to their reprieve; joy.

Once again, the emphasis is on resurrection, not the act of sacrifice itself. This is important theologically because if redemption is equated with the atonement achieved by sacrifice, then the resurrection, which is not a work of atonement, is not redemptive in any intrinsic manner and the eschatological impulse is undermined. It is the resurrection that lay at the heart of the eschatological imagination. Since Christ is the first fruit of the new creation (1 Cor 15:20), the resurrection stands as a pledge and the foundation of Christian hope. Theologically, the arrangement of these frescos is beautiful. In the fresco at the Chapel of the Sacraments the diversity of images are harmonised through their relation to the central image of the eschatological banquet that occupies the middle of the fresco and which provides the hermeneutic key to the whole.

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 Three 3rd century sculptures from Asia Minor depicting the popular Jonah theme.

The loss of the eschatological imagination

As Robert Daly has argued in his The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice the “incarnational spiritualization of sacrifice that is operative in the New Testament and the early church”, [17] is eventually superseded by “a secondary institutionalizing trend” that sees the reintroduction of the cultic understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice. After the accession of Constantine, Christianity became a state religion and the Eucharist began to function as the official state sacrifice, eventually replacing pagan sacrifice as the means of maintaining the function of the empire. The post-Constantinian liturgies can then be seen to mark the beginning of a process whereby Eucharistic language became specifically cultic in orientation.

The beginning of the establishment of a properly sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist is heralded by the Mystagogic Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem in the middle of the fourth century. Cyril explains that the petitions are offered to God:

on the ground of that sacrifice of propitiation, for the common peace of the churches; for the stability of the world; for kings; for our soldiers and allies; for the sick and afflicted; in fact . . .  for all who need help. . . . for the souls of those for whom this supplication is offered when the holy and awful sacrifice is set before God. We offer up Christ, sacrificed for our sins, propitiating our compassionate God on their behalf, and on our own. [18]  

The return of sacrifice which accompanied the Church’s increasing investment in the status quo also saw a subtle transformation in the Church’s eschatological imagination in which the expectation of the coming reign of God was assimilated into the present achievement of a Christian empire. [19] It would appear that sacrifice is not conducive to a vital eschatology in that it attempts to separate the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the tares in the present. It has too great an investment in the status quo. In the maintenance of the Empire the Eucharist is conscripted to construct and maintain boundaries. It becomes less an eschatological banquet than a propitiatory sacrifice, and the eschaton itself is gradually transformed from a symbol of hope to a symbol of fear as judgement takes the place of the promise of fulfilment. As the real hopes for the irruption of God’s grace in the present reality fade in the face of a Christianised world order, eschatology becomes an other worldly expectation. As Irigaray expresses: “The earth becomes a great deportation camp, where men await celestial redemption. Which God-the-Father alone, in his anger and jealousy, may initiate and bring about.” [20] And in all this the priest acts in persona Christi. He offers the sacrifice of propitiation to preserve the world from God’s wrath and judgement offering him the perfect unblemished sacrifice preserving God’s dignity, reconciling his justice with his mercy.

In the face of this, what seems most significant about the Fractio Panis is not that the person breaking the bread is possibly a woman, but rather the power of the eschatological symbolism that the Fractio Panis and other similar fresci present. A more fundamental question than the ordination of women would be to consider how it might be possible for us to retrieve the eschatological imagination for the renewal of the whole Church?

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 The Anchor, early Christian symbol of hope



[1] Dorothy Irvin, “The ministry of women in the early church : the archaeological evidence”, Duke Divinity School Review. 45. 2 (1980), 76-86.

[2] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argues against the usual androcentric interpretation by which it is assumed that the title “deacon” when used for Phoebe cannot have the same import as when Paul assumes that title himself. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. Second Edition. (London: SCM Press, 1995), 47.

[3] Ibid., 165.

[4] Raymond E. Brown and Thomas Aquinas Collins, “Church Pronouncements”, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer and Roland E. Murphy. (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) 72: 38. 1173-4.

[5] It would seem that there is a correlation between eschatological expectation of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the final days and women’s prophetic leadership. In the ecclesial typology of the East, the bishop was said to be in the image of God of Father; the deacon, of Christ; the deaconess, of the Holy Spirit; and the priests, of the Apostles. [5] The priest, far from being in persona Christi, is only in the image of the apostles, holy men to be sure, but still only men, whereas the deaconess is said to be in the image of the Holy Spirit herself.

[6] The anthropological literature generally considers that the function of sacrifice is to establish identity through communion and expiation. Sacrifice is an unnatural act that seeks to establish culture in the place of nature. It does this by attempting to transcend the natural and messy processes of birth, becoming and decay by establishing eternal social structures and lines of descent. Sacrifice is by its nature exclusive and conservative. Its function is to establish clear boundaries between the sacred and the profane, between those who are pure and those who are impure, between those who are in the club and those who remain outside of it. The function of sacrifice is to support and preserve the God given social order. The problem is not simply that allowing women access to the club grants them access to the privileges of those in authority and power. Although this would be a worthy enough objective, it does not yet explain the deep resistance of the Catholic hierarchy to the ordination of women. Nancy Jay argues - convincingly I feel – that as in no known culture is a woman in her childbearing years allowed perform blood sacrifice, that sacrifice is in fact a remedy for having been born of woman. In that sacrifice establishes social genealogies as opposed to merely natural ones it is, in fact, male child bearing. One might think of the importance of apostolic succession for valid orders in this light. And so as Bishop of Rome might well say to the Bishop of Canterbury: “you say you accept sacrifice, but you ordain women; therefore it cannot be sacrifice as we understand it”. Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992), 127.

[7] David Power, “Words that Crack: The Uses of ‘Sacrifice’ in Eucharistic Discourse”, Worship, 53. (1979) 389.

[8] Robert, J. Daly, The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978) 138. The question arises as to whether sacrifice can undergo an “incarnational spiritualization” and still be sacrifice.

<[9] Ibid., vii.

[10] Ibid., 40. Daly also notes that the Mishnah offers instructions for roasting the Passover lamb in the shape of a cross. Ibid., 41.

[11] David Power, The Eucharistic Mystery: Revitalizing the Tradition. (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 118. Power argues that: For New Testament writers, several ideas worked simultaneously to stretch the use of priestly vocabulary. People’s obedience to the gospel, their deeds of charity towards each other, their prayer and thanksgiving, were called offerings or sacrifices, because in them honor was rendered to God in the freedom and power of the Spirit. Not only that, but the people themselves as an eschatological community were dubbed a living sacrifice, a royal priesthood, a temple holy to God (1 Peter 2:4-10). Ministers were not given priestly names but rather bore secular designations, such as elder or bishop or deacon or presider, intended to underline their service to the community. Ibid, 115.

[12] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 17.

[13] Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, V. 32.

[14] Robin A Jensen, “Dining in Heaven”, Bible Review 14, 5. (Washington, Oct 1998) 32-9.

[15] J. Stevenson, The Catacombs. Rediscovered monuments of early Christianity, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978) 164.

[16] Ibid., 165. Examples taken from A.-M. Schneider, Refrigerium I (Freiburg im Br.,1928), 21-2.

[17] Robert Dally,  The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice, 138.

[18] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 23, 8-10. In The Later Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Cyril of Jerusalem to St. Leo the Great, ed. Henry Bettenson. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970) 46. I am simplifying matters in my interpretation of Cyril. The post-Constantinian liturgies merely mark the beginning of a process whereby Eucharistic language became specifically cultic in orientation. This language, however, refers to the eucharistic action as a whole. It would be anachronistic to interpret this language of propitiation in terms of a fully-fledged Anselmian theory of satisfaction as later churchmen eventually would.  See Kenneth Stevenson, Eucharist and Offering (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1986). For a summary of Stevenson, see David Power, The Eucharistic Mystery, 140-3.

[19] Monika K. Hellwig, “Eschatology”, Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, Vol. 2. eds. Francis Schuhssler Fiorenza and John P. Galvin. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991)  357.

[20] Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Gillian C. Gill, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991),174.


Damien Casey Lectures in the School of Theology, McAuley Campus.

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