Early Christian worship

Editor’s note: This continues a series of columns by Father Martin L. Buote on Catholic worship.

Two thousand years ago there were no Churches or churches! Classical paganism had no structure or governing body. Local shrines and temples gave people opportunity to access the deity of their choice. Judaism had a written rule of life, familial and local religious practices, and the Jerusalem Temple for Jews everywhere. The designation of a man who officiated at these religious sites was kohen (Jewish), hierus (Greek), or sacerdos (Roman). None of these terms has survived in modern English.

When Jesus presented His Body and Blood to His disciples at the Last Supper and ordered that there be a ritual repetition, the setting was a domestic meal, not a shrine or temple. Likewise, the ritual repetitions took place in a domestic setting. The person designated to present the sacrificial elements of bread and wine was the father of the household, or the elder of the local group of Christians. These words, father and elder, have survived in English and other modern languages. The Aramaic word for father comes into English as father, and into Spanish as padre. The Greek for elder, presbyteros, comes into English as priest, French as pretre, and German as priester. As we saw in the last installment, the early Christians recognized that they had sacrificial gifts to present to God, and we see now that they did not use the former vocabulary, but used a domestic vocabulary which has given us the English terms “father” and “priest.”

I am citing these terms in several modern languages, not to give a total listing, but just to show that these words have a wide presence in modern cultures.

Since the Christian gatherings for worship were domestic in nature, the place was called exactly that, a gathering house, or an assembly house. In Greek and Latin, that would be oikos ekklesia and domus ecclesia, respectively. In modern languages that assembly appears as igreja (Portuguese), l’eglise (French), etc. Since that assembly house and what took place in it, “pertained to the Lord,” it was referred to in Greek as kyriakon. This Greek word finds modern counterparts in kirk, Scottish, kirche, German and church, English.

Thus, current English words priest, father and church are the very terms used by Christians of the first century! Since the presbyters had the same function of presenting sacrificial gifts, the word “priest” now translates the ancient terms kohen, hierus, sacerdos.

The early Christians felt no need to strive for absolute uniformity in the words and actions of ritual from one Christian community to another. This gave rise to a diversity that has blossomed in the many Rites of the Catholic Church (Coptic, Ethiopian, Chaldean, Malabar, Malankar, Maronite, Russian, Melkite, and, of course, the Roman). There are some 25 rites which form the one Catholic Church. Of these, the Roman Rite is the largest. Many of the Catholic Rites have counterparts among the Orthodox Churches.

It is truly remarkable that these different religious expressions in different parts of the Roman Empire, and even outside the empire, retained such a unity of essentials that they could recognize each other as members of the same Church. Those that did not maintain that core unity have faded, or have been rejected by the Councils of the Church.

Some of these local variations can be seen in somewhat different accounts of events in the Bible. Even today, we find it acceptable that different communities have different forms of the Lord’s Prayer.

One of the first historical records we have of what actually took place at the Christian worship comes from the Roman Legate, Pliny the Younger, about 112 A.D. He interrogated arrested Christians and learned that they met on a fixed day (Sunday) before dawn, sang to God in alternating verses, and pledged themselves by solemn oath not to do any wrong (this is a condensed quotation).

Just a few years later in 150 A.D., Justin, who was martyred in 165 A.D., gave a rather detailed description of Christianity, and Christian worship in a letter to the emperor. What Justin has to say reflects his knowledge not just of the Church in Rome, but also of Christianity in other parts of the world where he had traveled.

There is only room here to give a small portion of Justin’s letter, but I believe it is important, and it gives us a taste of early Catholic worship.

“And on that day which is called after the sun, all who are in the towns and in the country gather together for a communal celebration. And then the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of prophets are read as long as time permits. After the reader has finished his task, the one presiding gives an address, urgently admonishing his hearers to practice these beautiful teachings in their lives. Then all stand up together and recite prayers. After the end of the prayers, as has already been remarked above, the bread and wine mixed with water are brought, and the president offers up prayers and thanksgivings, as much as in him lies. The people chime in with an Amen. Then takes place the distribution, to all attending, of the things over which the thanksgiving had been spoken, and the deacons bring a portion to those absent. Besides, those who are well-to-do give whatever they will. What is gathered is deposited with the one presiding, who therewith helps orphans and widows.”

Father Buote is a retired priest of the Fall River Diocese and a frequent contributor to The Anchor.

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