Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Church of the Late First Century: Liturgy and Ritual

Reading N°16 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles supplies information on the liturgy of the late first century which is no less interesting than that on the hierarchy. The Christian's life is described as a life of prayer. He must pray at least three times a day.[1] From other sources, we know that the hours for prayer were the third, the sixth, and the ninth,[2] i.e., nine o'clock in the morning, noon, and three o'clock in the afternoon. The Christian's attitude at prayer was usually that of the orant, standing, bareheaded, with hands raised to the level of the shoulders. The Jews ordinarily prayed with their head covered. Slaves were not permitted to uncover their head, but St. Paul directed Christians to pray bare-headed, like free men.

Outside the fixed times of prayer, the Christians were urged "to seek daily the presence of the saints (i. e, other Christians, their brethren), that they might find rest in their words,"[3] and to "be frequently gathered together seeking the things which are profitable for their souls."[4] On Sunday, the Lord's Day, they are to confess their sins, be reconciled with their brethren if there have been any quarrels between them, and to offer the sacrifice.[5]

The prayer formulas mentioned in the Didache are the Lord's Prayer and the prayers accompanying the reception of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. The Lord's Prayer is quoted verbatim, along with the following doxology: "For Thine is the power and the glory for ever,"[6] a doxology that recalls the formula in Paralipomenon: "Thine, Jehovah, is greatness, power and majesty, victory and magnificence."[7]

The Baptism of the Neophytes
Masaccio (1401-1428)
Brief but exact information is given about Baptism. Whoever is to be baptized prepares himself by a day or two of fasting.[8] First, he must be taught all that he is to believe.[9] He will be brought to some body of running water - spring, brook, or river[10] - because running water, being fresher and purer than stagnant water, is a better symbol of the regenerating and refreshing action of the Sacrament. If living water is not to be had, other water may be used that has been gathered in some receptacle; in this case the water is poured three times on the head of the person to be baptized, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."[11] This is the earliest mention we have of baptism by pouring. This method which, as we have already stated, must have been employed in the beginning by the Apostles on various occasions and by way of exception, later disappeared from the current practice of the Church in consequence of the regular building of baptismal pools, which happened wherever Christian communities gathered together and where baptism by immersion was practiced.[12] Baptism by pouring, used only for sick people, was no longer administered except in case of absolute necessity.

It has been remarked how carefully the Doctrine of the Apostles enumerates sins;[13] it even arranges them in two lists, which, after a fashion, might be considered early examinations of conscience.[14] It clearly affirms that sins can be forgiven.[15] We know also that in Antioch, at the beginning of the second century, sinners could obtain remission of their faults by applying to the bishop.[16] The self-accusation of sins, spoken of in the Didache,[17] may not have been a sacramental, but a simple ritualistic confession, similar to that which the Jews used to make to one another in their synagogues.[18]

Agape Banquet
from a fresco in the Catecombs of Ss. Mercellinus and Petrus

Likewise, it is not sure that chapters 9 and 10, containing thanksgiving prayers with regard to a mysterious meal, refer to the Eucharist. The meal alluded to may have been the purified and Christianized continuation of the Kiddush, or Jewish religious meal, and the invocations preceding and following it may be regarded as something like our blessing or grace before and after meals.[19] In chapter 14, however, the mention of the Eucharist is beyond doubt.
On the Lord's Day come together, break bread and hold Eucharist [give thanks], after confessing your transgressions, that your offering may be pure; but let none who has a quarrel with his fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not defiled. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord, "In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king," saith the Lord, "and my name is wonderful among the heathen." Appoint, therefore, for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord.[20]
There has been much insistence upon the identity of the Lord's sacrifice (θυσία) with that of Malachias, and thereby the comparison of the Lord's sacrifice with the Old Testament sacrifices. This, however, leaves no doubt as to the agreement of chapter 14 with the Apostolic and universal Eucharist of the Lord.[21] That is indeed the "breaking of bread," the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, spoken of by St. Paul and St. Justin.[22]

True, the words of institution, the words of consecration, are not mentioned. It is not explicitly said that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, as was later specified in the paraphrase given of this passage in the Apostolic Constitutions. But we should not forget that the Didache was a manual of piety for the use of the ordinary Christian, and not a ritual.[23] Moreover, if we consider the time and place of this book's composition, after Christianity's first contact with the Greco-Roman world, which was so avid of mysteries and so accustomed to look upon Oriental ceremonies as curious symbols, we are not surprised that the Christians were fearful of handing over the holiest of their mysteries to the extremely fanciful and perchance insulting interpretations of the pagans. Herein we find one of the circumstances that best explain the spontaneous origin of the "law of the secret," which did not rest on any written text, but upon a custom that was equivalent to a law and that assuredly had a solid justification. "The way of the Eucharistic prayers as given in the Didache - by suppressing the formulas most closely connected with the mysteries - was in accord with the rule known as the discipline of the secret."[24]


[1] Didache, VIII, 3.
[2] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VII, 7.
[3] Didache IV, 2.
[4] Ibidem, XVI, 2.
[5] Ibidem, XIV, 1 f.
[6] Ibidem, VIII, 2.
[7] 1 Par. 29:11.
[8] Didache, VII, 4.
[9] Ibidem, VII, 1.
[10] Ibidem.
[11] Ibidem, VII, 3.
[12] De Rossi, Bullettino di archeologia cristiana, 1886, p. 19.
[13] Didache, Ch. 1-5.
[14] Ibidem, Ch. 5.
[15] Ibidem, XI, 7.
[16] St. Ignatius, Ad Phil., Ch. 8.
[17] Didache, IV, 14; XIV, 1.
[18] Buxtorf, Synagoga judaica, chap. 20.. Cf. Morin, De poenitentia, Bk. 4, Ch. 2, N° 21 f. Such, at least, is the view of several eminent Catholic scholars, e. g., Funk, Patres apostolici, I, 14, 32.
[19] Batiffol (Études d'histoire et de théologie positive, pp. 71-78), Cagin (L'Eucharistie, p. 254), Duchesne (Bull. crit., 1884, p. 385) and Ladeuze (Revue de l'Orient chrétien, 1902, pp. 339-399) think that there is question here of both the Agape and the Eucharist. The question of the Agape is of considerable apologetic importance. Most Rationalists hold that originally the Eucharistic supper was merely an ordinary meal which, after long evolution, became divided into two distinct ceremonies: the Eucharist and the Agape. Among the noteworthy books on this subject, is that of Baumgartner, Eucharistie und Agape im Urchristentum. The learned author cites and minutely analyzes a vast number of texts, grouped according to the countries whose practice they show. Then he states the following conclusions: In the first century we find, in all Christian centers that we know of, institutions that are perceptibly identical with regard to the Agape and the Eucharist. On Sundays, early in the morning or sometimes about midnight - the hour of the Lord's Resurrection - the Christians met together to celebrate the Eucharist. This latter is connected with religious instruction and includes essentially the prayer of thanksgiving pronounced by the bishop over the bread and wine; the people take part in this liturgical function by saying the Amen and by receiving Communion. Sunday evening, the Christians, following an old Jewish custom, take their meal in common, and this image of their brotherly love is also an occasion for them to refresh and succour their needy brethren: it is the Agape, a meal sanctified by prayer and by the exercise of the charismata of tongues and of prophecy; the celebration of the Eucharist was never connected with this evening meal, but, according to St. Paul (1 Cor. 11), the Agape was an image of the great love which Christ showed to His disciples at the Last Supper. "Baumgartner's work," says Vanhalst (Revue d'histoire ecclés., 1911, p. 721), "forms a solid defense of the Roman conception of the Eucharist. It is of genuine scientific value, harmonizing with the dogmatic conceptions of Catholic tradition." Yet, on several points, particularly on the subject of the Jewish prayers recited before the meal, Baumgartner's study should be supplemented by that of Mangenot, "Les soi-disant antécédents juifs dl l'Eucharistie," in the Revue du clergé français, 1909, PP. 385 ff., and by that of Batiffol, "Nouvelles études documentaires sur la sainte Eucharistie" in the Revue au clergé français, LX, 513.
[20] Didache, XIV, 1-3; XV, 1.
[21] Cagin, op. cit., p. 255.
[22] We do not understand how Rauschen (Eucharistie und Bussakrament in den ersten 6 Jahrhunderten der Kirche, p. 2) can say that one may hardly appeal to the Didache in favor of the Real Presence. If that text were isolated, doubtless it would be obscure; but when compared with so many other Apostolic, patristic, and archeological texts, its interpretation leaves no doubt.
[23] The prayer formulas given by the Didache are, moreover, only indications. We know that, in those early years, the celebrant himself improvised prayers. That practice continued until the fourth and even the fifth century. See Cagin, Te Deum ou lllatio, p. 342, and Souben, Le Canon primitif de la messe, p. 12.
[24] De Rossi, Bullettino di archeol. crist., 1886, p. 23.


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