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With the possible exception of Evangelical churches, the rest — Catholic and the oldest Protestant denominations — follow the same liturgical form from the early days of the Church.

To everyone who attends a liturgical service or Mass, I highly commend W.D. Maxwell’s 1937 book A History of Christian Worship: An Outline of Its Development and Form, available to read in full online (H/T: Revd P. Aasman).

Relatively ‘new’ additions — to those of us aged 50 and over — were part of the earliest liturgy: the kiss of peace and the celebrant facing the people, to name but two.

Whilst I realise our betters amongst clergy and lay leaders always said, ‘That’s how they did it in the early Church’, I was never truly convinced. However, Maxwell has a detailed explanation of liturgical developments through the ages.

What follows in the next few posts are highlights from early days up to the Reformation. Maxwell’s book goes up to the early 20th century, but I have not read that far. My interest is in early liturgy, particularly where Communion is concerned and the Protestant consternation with how the pre-Reformation service developed.

First and second centuries

The earliest Christians took elements of synagogue worship — Psalms and Kiddush (bread with water added to the wine) — and adapted them in their services (pp. 3-7). This enabled everyone to understand the liturgical structure and to participate.

As in the synagogue, men and women sat separately. However, men wore no headcovering. Women wore veils.

As New Testament writings were made available, they were incorporated as readings. The Gospels were considered the primary reading source. However, the Apostles’ letters were read beforehand, along with the Apocalypse (Revelation). The earliest Christians were more interested in prophecy than Law.

The primary purpose of worship was — and still is — to re-enact and commemorate what happened at the Last Supper. Although they had no set doctrine regarding the nature of the Bread and Wine, they did believe that it had, in some respect, a presence of our Lord therein.

These services were held on Sunday, to recall Christ’s resurrection. This quickly became known as the Lord’s Day.

Worship followed this form:

– Scripture lessons (as was done in the synagogue);

– Psalms and hymns (the latter they composed themselves);

– A sermon;

– A confession of faith, although the creeds had not yet been written;

– Occasional almsgiving;

– Consecration of bread and wine, the prayer for which included thanksgiving, remembrance of our Lord’s death and resurrection, intercession;

– Passing around the Bread and Wine, adopting the sharing custom of the Kiddush.

– Possible recitation of the Lord’s Prayer;

– The Kiss of Peace.

Although there were variations, the principal worship features were consistent.

In the second century, Pliny described the Christian worship he observed as governor of Bithynia (p. 9). He wrote of an early Sunday morning service which featured a hymn of praise to God and the congregants’ binding themselves with a sacramentum to prevent themselves from sinning. The second service, that of a commonly shared meal, was held in the afternoon. It appears to have had a combined significance of the Last Supper and a sharing among Christ’s followers.

Protestants attending church twice on Sunday might have derived that tradition from the early Christians. The notion of the pietistic ‘love feast’ no doubt derived from the early breaking of bread during worship.

The Didache was written during this time. Interestingly, it includes specific prayers of consecration and stipulates the following (pp. 9, 10; emphases mine):

Let no one eat or drink of your eucharist but those baptised in the Name of the Lord, for it was concerning this that the Lord said, ‘Do not give that which is holy to the dogs’.

Also of interest, particularly to my Protestant readers, is that the Didache specified Wednesday and Fridays as fast days.

In 140 AD, Justin Martyr wrote to Emperor Antonius Pius about worship in Rome (pp. 11-14). He states:

– Worship took place ‘on the day called the Feast of the Sun’;

– The Kiss of Peace preceded the offerings;

– The offerings consisted of donations given by wealthier members and people taking the Eucharistic elements up to the President (Justin’s word!);

– The bread and wine, once consecrated, were not ‘as common bread and drink’ but Christ’s ‘body and blood’;

– What was leftover was later taken to those who were unable to attend worship;

– Partaking of the bread and wine was restricted:

And this food is called eucharist by us, of which it is not right for anyone to partake save only he who believes that the things taught by us are true, and is washed with the washing that is for the forgiveness of sins and regeneration, and so lives as Christ commanded us.

Justin Martyr tells the emperor in no uncertain terms that the pagan followers of Mithras adopted the Christian Eucharist for their own ceremonies:

The evil demons, imitating this [our rite], have taught that the same should be done in the mysteries of Mithras …

He also documented the early liturgy in his other writings. We discover that:

– A clearer demarcation developed at that time between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Upper Room;

– The prayer of consecration included intercessions or litany followed by a People’s Amen and the Fraction, a term that older Catholics remember, meaning a ceremonial breaking of the bread.

– The President, standing behind the holy table (altar), faced the people. Early basilicas were built so that celebrants could position themselves like this, known as the ‘basilican posture’.

– Deacons distributed the bread and wine to the people.

Third and Fourth centuries

Around the year 200, Vigil services appeared (p. 14). These were held at midnight and probably recalled the hours Christ’s followers spent ‘watching’ prior to the Resurrection.

Around 230, St Cyprian wrote about specific days devoted to remembering martyrs.

By now, scholars we call Doctors of the Church began writing about Christian worship. However, details are sketchy in places because this was the height of Roman persecution of Christ’s followers. This ended after the Emperor Constantine converted.

That said, additional uniformity appeared in the liturgy (p. 15):

– A formal Salutation at the beginning: ‘The Lord be with you’ or ‘Peace be with you’ followed by the people’s response: ‘And with thy spirit’;

– The Sursum Corda, a formal call to prayer: ‘Lift up your hearts’ followed by ‘We lift them up to the Lord’;

– The Kyrie Eleison: ‘Lord have mercy’;

– The Sanctus which is still in use (forms vary): ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty, Heaven and Earth are full of thy glory; glory be to Thee, O Lord’;

– Standard litany or intercession responses and conclusion: ‘Lord have mercy’ and ‘Amen’.

People began kneeling in worship during this era (p. 16).

They placed their hands were placed over one’s chest or extended their arms outward when praying.

Other developments included (p. 16):

– Concelebrated services, which were common;

– Deacons were assigned to direct the service for the people; some kept order among the congregation; others were assigned to help with the offertory alms and elements;

– Reading Scripture from a lectern;

– The book containing the Gospel was taken from the altar to the place where it would be read;

– Standing for the Gospel, considered as receiving a proclamation from Christ the King;

– Sermons preached from sanctuary steps;

– A structured distribution of bread and wine: first, the celebrant, to show an example to his flock; then the other clergy in order of status; those who had taken special religious vows; men and, finally, women.

Ceremony began to develop around worship in order to prepare Christians for the Eucharist. The atmosphere was quiet and solemn.

Furthermore, newcomers to the faith and those who were under church discipline were required to leave after the Liturgy of the Word had ended (p. 17). Deacons ensured these people left.

The first part of the Liturgy of the Upper Room was a deacon’s litany for the faithful — living and dead — whose names were written on a diptych. A second deacon’s litany came after the thanksgiving following Communion.

Curtains began appearing during this era to screen off the sanctuary from public view during the consecration (p. 18).

Also of interest is that prior to distributing Communion, the celebrant lifted both bread and wine — the Elevation — and said in a loud voice:

Holy things to the holy.

The people responded with:

There is one holy, one Lord Jesus Christ.

Children took Communion at that time (p. 18):

The children are also communicated, infants receiving the cup only.

Maxwell tells us that, although minor variations of the liturgy existed, it was largely the same anywhere one went to worship. The Roman road network, he says, made it easy for people to travel and helped to ensure conformity.

Services would have been three hours long for those hearing both liturgies (p. 19). Greek Orthodox services still have this pattern; non-members and catechumens must leave after the liturgy of the Word.

I’ll have more in my Tuesday/Wednesday post. Maxwell’s book is fascinating and a must-read!

Next time: More on the 3rd and 4th century liturgy

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