A glimpse of early Christian worship

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

In the last installment about our worship, I quoted from chapter 67 of Justin’s long letter in defense of Christianity. If we gather everything that Justin said about our worship from all his writings, we have these elements for the picture of Christian worship as known by Justin in the year 150 A.D.

1. No buildings for religious practice but someone’s home, the domus ecclesia;

2. The requirement of Baptism for full participation;

3. Worship on the first day of the week, Sunday; 

4. Readings from both the Old Testament and Christian writers. (The New Testament canon had not yet been fixed); 

5. Exhortation to live according to the teachings of Jesus;

6. Universal prayers; 

7. A kiss of peace;

8. Presentation of the bread and wine to the presider;

9. A special prayer over the gifts; 

10. An extended prayer of thanksgiving; 

11. The Great Amen of the people;

12. Distribution by the deacon of the gifts over which the thanksgiving had been made;

13. A portion of these gifts brought to the sick of the community;

14. The Eucharistic elements are sacrificial;

15. A collection of money, deposited with the presider; and 

16. Charity work done with the funds collected. 

Does any of this seem familiar?

Except for the language (Greek), anyone from the Diocese of Fall River in 2018 would have felt at home in the Christian worship gatherings of the second-century Church: it was the Catholic Church!

As to the language of worship, in Justin’s time Greek was a common language throughout the Roman Empire. Even if a person’s native language was Aramaic, or Coptic, or Syrian, or Latin, or something else, he would likely be able to get along in Greek as well.

Justin indicated that the presider would “give thanks at length” over the gifts. The Greek eucharistein means “to give thanks,” and is the source of the word we use today for the entire worship ritual, and for the elements of Communion: The Eucharist.

The second part of that little quotation, “at length,” was soon to be modified. Not everyone was so glib with words as to be able to come up with new phraseology at each worship gathering, so sometimes there would be repetition from week to week, and sometimes a presider would borrow what he had heard from another presider.

Sometime before the year 215 A.D., the Roman presbyter Hippolytus published a model Eucharistic prayer. This model prayer became very popular in the eastern part of the empire and we have extant copies in Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopian and partly in Syrian and some fragments in Latin. While this model was used over the centuries in the east, it did not enjoy wide use in Rome until the Second Vatican Council in the 20th century. The Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus is now embodied in Eucharistic Prayer II. While there is not room here to put the two side-by-side, here is the Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus as an example of the words of Catholic worship at the beginning of the third century.

The Eucharistic Prayer of St. Hippolytus (also known as the Apostolic Tradition, and as the Egyptian Church Order):

“The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
It is right and just.

We give thanks to You, O God, through Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, Whom You sent us in the final age as Savior, Redeemer, and Messenger of Your will, Who is Your inseparable Word, through Whom You made all things and in Whom You were well pleased, Whom You sent from Heaven into the womb of the Virgin, Who, being conceived within her, was made flesh, and appeared as Your Son, born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin, and gaining for You a holy people, extended His hands in suffering in order to free from suffering those who believe in You. Who, when He was delivered to voluntary suffering, in order to destroy death, break the chains of the devil, trample hell, bring the just to light, set the goal, and manifest the Resurrection taking the bread and giving You thanks, said, Take, eat, this is My Body which is shed for You. Whenever you do this, you commemorate Me. Therefore, remembering His death and Resurrection, we offer to You the bread and the chalice, giving thanks that You have held us worthy to be in Your presence and minister to You. And we pray that You would send Your Holy Spirit upon the oblation of your Holy Church. Give to all those gathered as one who partake of the holy mysteries the fullness of the Holy Spirit for the strengthening of the faith in truth, that we may praise and glorify You through Your Son, Jesus Christ, through Whom to You be glory and honor: Father and Son, with the Holy Spirit in Your Holy Church, both now and forever.”

Justin became a martyr under Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor, in 165 A.D. The presbyter Hippolytus became a martyr under the Emperor Maximin around 236 A.D. The Church was alive and recognizable during these years, but existed in the shadows as an illicit religion until the time of Emperor Constantine.

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

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts