South of the baths at Ragatz and the Swiss village of Maienfeld, south of the snow-crowned peaks, Falkniß and Scesaplana, where the setting sun lights up the snowfields of the Glarner and the Rhaetian Alps, lies the deep valley of the Domleschg. It lies in the part of Switzerland that is neither German nor French, but Romansh.
Romansh is the language of the Grisons (great grey mountains) of Switzerland. It is a Latin dialect, similar to Spanish or Romanian. It came to the Grisons with immigrants from Roman Italy who settled there, a thousand years before Georg Cajacob was born in the Domleschg in the village of Bonaduz.
Speaking Romansh, Georg found Latin easier to learn than German. But by 1513, when he was twenty-one years old, he finished his studies at the university of Leipzig in Germany and became a priest.1 He returned to the Grisons, and served for two years at Trins, across the river from Bonaduz where the Domleschg meets the canyon of the upper Rhine.
Georg said the missa fidelium. He baptized babies. He listened to confessions and absolved people from their sins. But he well knew that both he and the people whom he served lived in sin, and he did not feel forgiven. He was a tall, lively young man with a dark complexion. The people called him strong Georg. But he was weak. He lived under the power of sin and had no strength to overcome it. After two years his conscience compelled him to leave the priesthood and he got married.
Getting married did not free Georg from sin. He still felt weak in temptation and longed to know Christ, so he traveled north with his young wife to look for help in the Protestant city of Zürich.
The Protestants disappointed Georg. They did not follow Christ. But the Spirit of God moved his heart when he met Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel, and other seekers at Felix Manz's house on the winter evening of January 21, 1525. Georg asked Conrad to baptize him. Then Georg baptized the others, and they remembered Christ by breaking bread and drinking wine together.
Not long after this, the Protestant authorities caught Georg Cajacob, (by now nicknamed Blaurock2) and imprisoned him in the Hexenturm (witches' tower) prison at Zürich. He escaped several times, but they caught him again and called him to answer before Huldrych Zwingli at the city court.
Zwingli called Georg a "great, foolish dreamer," too ignorant to read German correctly. He accused Georg and his companions of "mocking the church," of trying to "build a church within the church," and of overthrowing "divine and human authority." Especially offensive to Zwingli and the Protestant court was the way Georg baptized people and held communion services in ordinary houses, in secret, and without permission. To this, Georg replied:
Christ the Lord sent his disciples out to teach all people and gave them power to grant remission of sins and, as an outward sign of forgiveness, to baptize them. When I taught this too, some turned in tears to me and asked me to baptize them. This I could not refuse. I baptized them according to their wish and called upon the name of Christ for them. I further taught them love and unity and to have all things in common, like the apostles commanded us. I taught them that they should always remember the death of Christ and his poured out blood. I showed them the practice of Christ in the nighttime meal. We broke bread and drank wine together so that they might remember that they are redeemed by one body of Christ and made clean by one blood, and that through this they were brothers and sisters one of another in Christ the Lord.3
A Nighttime Meal
On Feb. 5, 1525, Hans Ockenfuoss testified before the Protestant court at Zürich: "Two weeks ago I was in Zollikon in Jakob Hottinger's house. Conrad Grebel and some other men were there. They spoke of baptism and the nighttime meal. After that, Conrad took a loaf of bread and divided it among us. He ate from it too and said that from now on we want to lead a Christian life."
Leonhard Schiemer wrote from the prison at Rattenberg on the Inn:
Those who have become one body and one loaf of bread in Christ -- those who are minded alike (gleichgesinnt) -- should keep the nighttime meal in remembrance of his death. Through this, everyone should be admonished to become like Christ, in obedience to the Father.4
Hans Betz wrote from the dungeon of the castle at Passau in Bavaria:
Mark the counsel of God: Christ has set the pattern for a nighttime meal of bread and wine for his commune -- the commune that keeps itself from sin. If she eats the nighttime meal in remembrance of him, death will not overtake her.5
Huddled Around Christ
When I began to read what the Anabaptists wrote, two expressions stood out to me. One was the mention of Christ as our Hauptmann (captain or "head man"). The other was the term kleiner Hauf used for the followers of Christ. Kleiner Hauf literally means a little heap or a huddle. At first I had a hard time picturing the followers of Christ like this. But when I began to see the place of Christ in the Anabaptist movement, it became clear to me. Christ is the captain, and his followers huddle around him. "Look to the captain. . . . Leap to your captain's side," wrote an Ausbund writer.6 Those who follow Christ do this continually to get their directions from him.
Practiced Often and Used Much
The first Christians huddled around Christ by breaking bread and drinking wine in remembrance of him whenever they got together. The Anabaptists, out of love and necessity, did the same.
Christ was the focus of their commune. From Christ in the centre, radiated the love, the evangelization, the discipline, the direction, and the communion of those who broke bread and drank wine in their meetings to remember him.
The bread and the wine helped the Anabaptists to remember Christ's body and his blood. But they broke bread and gave thanks for yet another reason: to follow the example of Christ.
Christ broke bread and drank wine in community with his disciples. "On the night he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and said: This is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, he took the cup, saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till he comes" (1 Cor. 11:24-26).
After his resurrection Christ broke bread and gave thanks on the first day of the week. The apostles and the first Christians did the same every week.
First practised by Christ himself, the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine became the outer witness of the Christians' inner community. In the light of this, the Anabaptists wrote in their first statement of brotherly union7:
Every time we meet as brothers, we should eat the nighttime meal together, to proclaim in this way the death of the Lord. In doing this we help one another to remember how Christ gave himself up and how his blood was poured out for us. In the same way we need to be willing, for Christ's sake, to give up our bodies and our lives for the brothers.8
The first Anabaptists could not have pictured a formal worship service without the breaking of bread. Christian worship without the eucharist (the Greek word for thanksgiving, used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:16) was, before the sixteenth century, unknown.
Michael Sattler wrote:
Do not forget the meetings, but put forth effort to have them regularly. Pray together for all the saints, and break the bread together--so much the oftener (desto fleissiger) as you see the Lord's day approaching.9
When several Anabaptists were asked before the Dutch court in 1534 what they did in their meetings they replied: "In our meetings we read and discuss the Gospel, after which one of us breaks the bread and distributes it to all, knowing that the bread is not able to save us, but it is only taken in memory of the suffering of our Lord."10
Both in the south (Switzerland, southern Germany, and Austria) and in the north (the lower Rhine valley and the Netherlands) the Anabaptists met for the nighttime meal at least once a week. "Small fellowships of Anabaptists sprang up like mushrooms everywhere," reads one report. "They moved from house to house for meetings in order to remain inconspicuous, where they read and studied the holy writings and commemorated the nighttime meal."11
Conrad Grebel stated in one of his letters, "The nighttime meal shall be practiced often and used much.12"
A Wedding Feast
In southern Germany the Anabaptists spoke of baptism as the sign of a believer's engagement (Verlobung) to Christ, and of the nighttime meal as the marriage feast in which the bread and the wine were the rings.
In the Netherlands, Menno Simons wrote:
Oh delightful assembly and Christian marriage feast! Feast commanded and ordained by the Lord himself. Bodily pleasure and bodily appetite do not belong here. But glorious and holy mysteries are set before and desired by true believers in bread and wine!
Oh delightful Christian assembly! No senseless songs, but peace and unity among the brothers. Words of grace. Glorious benefits. Favour, love, service, tears, prayers, cross, and death are set forth with delightful thanksgiving and holy joy!
Oh delightful Christian feast! The unrepentant are not invited. Harlots, rogues, adulterers, robbers, liars, tyrants, and those who shed blood must stay outside. But true Christians come. Born of God, walking with Christ, they come to love and believe. They are members of his body, flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone.
Oh delightful assembly and Christian marriage feast! No gluttonous eating and drinking. No vanity of pipes and drums. But hungry souls are filled with bread from heaven, the divine Word. They drink the wine of the Holy Ghost and sing and play in peace before the Lord.13
The Anabaptists spoke of the nighttime meal as a Geheimnis (secret or mystery) and as the second sacrament.
Gabriel Ascherham wrote:
Drinking from the cup stands for the community we have in the blood of Christ. Those who drink from it become one in the nature of Christ, through the Holy Ghost. It is this understanding of the sacraments which makes the bread and the wine holy when they are gratefully partaken of in memory of the death of Christ. We should eat the bread and drink the wine with solemn respect for God, like the children of Israel ate the passover, because Christ lets us see through it how we become one bread and one body with him.14
Menno Simons wrote:
We believe and confess that the nighttime meal is a holy sacramental sign, instituted by the Lord himself in bread and wine and left to his disciples in remembrance of him.15
But the Anabaptists did not believe that the bread and the wine held a magical saving power. They did not break the bread to free themselves from sin, but as an act of thanksgiving -- like the first Christians who called the ceremony a eucharist. (The Greek word eucharist means "to give thanks." Paul used it in 1 Cor. 11:24.)
Dirk Philips wrote:
So that we may not forget our Passover (the work of Christ) he left for us the nighttime meal of bread and wine, that in the breaking of bread and the drinking from the cup we may gratefully remember his body which was given and broken for us.16
The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didache) written in the first century after Christ said:
As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may your church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.
This parable, known to the Anabaptists, appears many times in their songs and writings. An Ausbund writer wrote:
This is how Christ taught his discipes to keep the Passover in his flesh: He broke for them the bread and gave thanks. He gave them the cup and they drank. . . . With the bread he showed that whoever has his Spirit belongs to him, becomes one flesh with him, a member of his body and of his commune for which he died. He died to redeem his commune from the world. Like one bread is made from many grains, and one wine is made from many grapes, all true Christians become one bread and one wine in Christ the Lord. He sustains us and gives us true love in community with him.17
Menno Simons wrote:
Just as natural bread is made of many grains ground in the mill, kneaded with water, and baked over the fire, so is the Lord's commune. True believers are broken in their hearts with the mill of God's Word. Then they are baptized with the water of the Holy Ghost and formed by the fire of pure love into one body.18
Dirk Philips wrote:
Indeed it is a marvelous and blessed union where all Christians are one bread and one body in Christ Jesus. They are one bread . . . baked by the fire of love. They are baptized by one Spirit into one body, and must like a natural body be one heart and one soul. They serve one another, help one another, and comfort one another, just like the members of a natural body.19
Peter Rideman wrote:
Christ said, "This is the new covenant in my blood." He led us into a covenant of grace so that we have become one bread and one body with him. . . . Therefore, the nighttime meal is a sign of the community of his body. Every member declares himself to be of the one mind, heart and Spirit of Christ.20
Menno Simons mentioned Tertullian and the "feast of love" he described. Then he wrote:
Believers celebrate the nighttime meal as a memorial of the favours and death of their Lord, as an incitement to brotherly love.21
A gathering of Anabaptists at Strasbourg in 1568 agreed upon the following statement of belief:
In the breaking of bread, no rule shall be made whether the servant breaks it and gives it to the people, or whether the people break it and take pieces for themselves. Only let it be done in a spirit of unity so that everyone may partake with a clear conscience and become one body and broken with Christ.22
Before they beheaded him at Schwatz in Austria in 1528, Hans Schlaffer wrote:
The body of Christ on the earth is the community of those who believe on him. Whoever eats the bread of the nighttime meal expresses with that his desire to live in community with this body and to be a part of it in all things -- to stick with the community through joy and sorrow, riches and poverty, honour and shame, mourning and rejoicing, death and life. He expresses his desire to give everything he has, both body and life for his brothers even as Christ gave himself for us.23
The Nighttime Meal in Practice
To picture the unity of Christ and his body, the Anabaptists used one loaf of ordinary wheat bread in their nighttime meals. Because of the danger involved and their desire to follow the pattern of the first Christians, this was almost always late at night.
Menno Simons wrote:
Christ left with his commune the holy meal of bread and wine as a remembrance of his death. But it has been changed into a Romish market. Is a Christian now permitted to observe the deviating, errant, papal daytime meal and neglect the Lord's nighttime meal?24
Conrad Grebel also believed that "the nighttime meal should be celebrated in the evening, after the example of Christ and the apostles, but no fixed time needs to be set."25
Some Anabaptists broke the bread, according to a report from the Netherlands, while seated around a long table. In Switzerland, Conrad Grebel advised against using wafers or unleavened bread.
At Schlatten am Randen, on February 24, 1527, a group of South German and Swiss Anabaptists wrote a statement of belief in which they named as one of the duties of a servant, the "lifting up of the bread when it is to be broken."
"All who come to the nighttime meal should learn what it means to eat the bread and the wine. All should learn how they are to be used and who is to eat them," wrote Menno Simons. "We also instruct people to examine themselves as Paul teaches, lest they comfort themselves with a visible sign and fall short of its significance. Those who do not know Christ and those who ignore his commands eat and drink at the Lord's table to their own damnation.26"
"Discipline, according to the rule of Christ in Matthew, chapter eighteen must come before the nighttime meal," wrote Conrad Grebel, "for love is destroyed if one has community with false brothers."27
The Schlatten statement of brotherly agreement says:
All those who want to eat bread in remembrance of the broken body of Christ and all those who want to drink from one cup in remembrance of the poured out blood of Christ should join themselves beforehand into the body of Christ. That body is one. It is the commune of God, of whom Christ is the head. We join ourselves to it in baptism.
Like Paul says, we may not eat at the same time from the table of the Lord and the table of devils. We may not drink at the same time from the Lord's cup and the devil's cup. All those who live in community with the dead works of darkness have no part in the light. All those who follow the devil and the world have no part with those who are called by God to come out of the world. All those who lie in wickedness have no part in the good. For this reason, all those who are not called by one God to one faith, to one baptism, to one Spirit, to one body with all the children of God's commune may not become one bread with them -- as we become one when we break bread together according to the command of Christ.28
In his Confession of the Distressed Christians Menno Simons spoke of "the Lord's nighttime meal with its symbols and its mysteries." To this he added the following:
If you want to be a guest at the Lord's table and rightly partake of his bread and wine, you must also be his disciple. You must be an upright Christian. . . . Examine yourself before you eat and drink. You cannot fool God. Just eating bread and drinking wine will not please him. Oh no! God left this sacrament with you so that you would carefully conform yourself to the mystery it contains. Not the ceremony itself, but the matter it represents makes a true Christian.
Inner and Outer Community
The Anabaptists believed that the nighttime meal, like baptism, is an outer witness (Mitzeugnis) of inner community with Christ. They believed that inner community without the outer witness of bread and wine is incomplete. Jaques d'Auchy, killed at Leeuwarden in 1559, called those who spiritualized the meaning of the nighttime meal "heretics" and "destroyers of the breaking of bread." But the Anabaptists believed just as strongly that the outer witness without an inner sense of community was incomplete, useless, and actually harmful.
"What does it help to eat of the holy meal if we do not enjoy the fruits it stands for, death to self, love and unity?" asked Menno Simons. "Outer communion profits nothing if we do not live in inner community with the Lord and his body."29 In another article Menno wrote:
Be they emperor or king, rich or learned, all who with a proud heart seat themselves at the Lord's table eat and drink to their own damnation. All who boast of the Lord's name but reject his commands and blameless example eat and drink to their own damnation. All who love houses and lands, possessions, friends, children, the world, favour, ease, and honour in this life more than they love Christ eat and drink to their own damnation.
He who would sit with the disciples and guests of Christ at the Lord's table must be sound in the faith and blameless in conduct and life. Be he rich or poor, high or low, emperor, king, prince, earl, knight, or nobleman, none is excepted from this rule. The pious cannot partake of the nighttime meal with those who err in doctrine and whose lives are carnal. Such people are not in Christ. They must be kept outside until they repent and so become one in Spirit with Christ and his body.30
Without penitence neither water, bread, nor wine avail in Christ, even if they were administered by the apostles themselves. That which avails before God is a new creature, a converted, changed and broken heart, a true fear and love of God, love for neighbours, a subdued, humble, sober, and peaceful life according to Jesus' example. Where there is such a new being there is indeed the true baptism and the true meal. To be baptized externally and to partake of the nighttime meal merely in letter and appearance but not inwardly before God is to mimic God's work. It is hypocrisy and deceit.31
An Ausbund writer wrote:
The Spirit fits us with a new garment when we come to him, when his love burns within us, and when we confess his works in our flesh. The old garment must be thrown away and the old leaven scrubbed out, so that his work may be accomplished within us. The old wineskin cannot contain the new wine. The old man cannot comprehend Christ. He hates Christ and cannot walk on the same way with him.32
The Anabaptists valued the sacrament of the nighttime meal so highly that they partook of it at the cost of their lives. But they rejected the superstitions that had grown up around the missa fidelium during the Dark Ages.
Amsterdam, centre of Anabaptist activity in the north, was only one of the many pilgrimage sites in the German countries of Europe. Thousands of pilgrims came to Amsterdam every year to visit its heilige Stede (holy place) erected on the site of a miracle they said took place in 1345. A sick man there had received the host (the consecrated wafer of the mass). He vomited it up. His wife tried to burn it, but the flames would not consume it. Catholic leaders declared this a miracle and set loose a flood of pilgrims that greatly increased the prosperity and fame of Amsterdam throughout the following centuries.
Dutch and German priests told stories of the host miraculously saving Christians from the Muslims and curing the blind, the sick and the crippled. A lamb could be saved from a wolf by the host. One priest put the host on the tongue of a sick cow and cured her. Many were the stories of how the host had turned into a child or bled when it was broken. People believed that one did not grow older while eating the host.
When the Anabaptists, in the middle of this, began to teach that the bread and wine stayed bread and wine, that Christ was to be found in spiritual community but not in the elements of the nighttime meal, they brought Europe down upon them in wrath. An influential priest of Amsterdam compared the Anabaptists to the plagues of Egypt and called the people to pray at the heilige Stede for a miracle to drive away these "devilish pigs and frogs." Posters and pamphlets were used in the crusade against the Anabaptists. One picture showed the woman picking the vomited host out of the flames with a ring of angels kneeling around her in worship of it. It came with a text lamenting the fact that people were "losing respect for apostolic tradition, the ceremonies of the church, and the pronouncements of its holy fathers."
The Anabaptists replied calmly. Menno Simons wrote:
We are not commanded in the holy writings to argue about the tangible elements of the nighttime meal, for of what substance the bread and wine consist may be felt, seen, and tasted. We should strive rather to conform ourselves to what the elements stand for.33
Conrad Grebel wrote:
The mass is not to be reformed but abolished. The nighttime meal is to be restored as the apostles practiced it. Only the words of Christ are to be used, and they are not be treated as having any magical meaning. In order to avoid a superstitious devotion and a falling away from the spiritual, everything out of the ordinary must stop. No special bread, no special cup, no priestly clothes and customs, and no special singing is to accompany the nighttime meal. It is a meal of community and should not be taken alone, nor by dying persons. . . . All the details of the nighttime meal shall remind the believer of the body and blood of Christ and of the witness on the cross, so that he shall be willing to live and suffer for the sake of Christ and the brothers, the head and the members of the body.34
Communion with Christ
The sacrament of the bread and the wine becomes filled with meaning only when we "know Christ and the community of his suffering, becoming like him in his death."
An unnamed Anabaptist wrote:
All the members of the body of Christ do his work and his will . . . even unto death. They have all become one bread with Christ, the bread that is broken like he was broken on the cross for our sins. Christ is the bread of life. He gave his flesh and his blood for us, and the Spirit teaches us how to eat it right. . . .
The lamb is eaten with sorrow and bitter herbs, for he who will not suffer with Christ, and he who keeps himself back from eating his flesh and his blood -- he who worries about the cross or tribulation -- cannot find the body of Christ. The Lamb must be eaten completely. Nothing shall be left, from the beginning to the end. In all distress and need, we dare not turn away from the Lamb. We are to stay in closest unity with him, not allowing our faith in him or our love for him to grow cold.
Then what is left of the Passover meal must be burned. That is the end, in distress and need, when the flesh dies completely. We must keep the covenant according to his will, and he will, after a time, bring all our suffering to an end.35
After they beat him and drove him out of Zürich on the day they drowned Felix Manz, Georg Cajacob traveled through the mountains of Switzerland and Austria, teaching, baptizing, and breaking bread in the name of Christ. He returned to the Grisons and spoke to his own people, calling them to get up and follow the real Christ to find forgiveness of their sins. Many believed and great numbers gathered in secret to hear him speak -- until the Austrian authorities caught him near Klausen (now the city of Chiusa in Italy), on August 14, 1529. There they tortured him at the Guffidaun castle, condemned him under a barrage of accusations, and burned him at the stake on September 6, 1529.
Before his death, Georg wrote:
Prepare us for the nighttime meal, oh God, through Christ your beloved Son! Clothe us with your Spirit. Free us from death and suffering! When we shall eat at last of that nighttime meal, who shall wait upon us? The one who knows our hearts and redeems us from our sin!
Blessed are those invited to the Lord's nighttime meal! Blessed are those who stay with Christ through all tribulation. He suffered. He hung on the cross, and those who follow him must suffer now. Oh Lord, give us pure love! Give us love to walk our way with joy! When our time comes to go, may we not, like the foolish virgins, find that the door to the feast has been closed. They cried, "Lord! Lord!" But their oil had run out while they were sleeping.
Blessed is the one who watches with the wise virgins. He will inherit eternal possessions, and his eyes will see the clarity of God. The king will break out with a trumpet blast! The elect will join his parade! Therefore Zion, holy commune, look at what you have received! Hold it and keep yourself pure. Then you shall inherit the crown!36
In holy communion with Christ, the Anabaptists followed him . . .
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