On Sunday all of us gather from far and near. We read from the scriptures and from the writings of the apostles for as long as possible. Then the one presiding at the service speaks to us, urging everyone to live up to what we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray. At the conclusion of our prayers, we greet one another with a sign of peace. Then bread and wine mixed with some water are brought forward. The one presiding offers a long prayer giving thanks. Everyone loudly responding “Amen” concludes this. The eucharist is distributed, and everyone present receives communion. Then deacons take communion to those who are absent.
Those who can afford to contribute financially decide how much to give, and the money is used for orphans, widows, those in distress, the sick, those in prison, or away from home, and all those in need.
Pause a moment and ask yourself what is this a description of? When do you think the above piece originates from?
On the first of June Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox celebrate the feast of Justin, a martyr at Rome. He was born at the start of the second century in what is now the Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank. The tradition is that he suffered martyrdom in Rome around the year 165. He was a philosopher who converted to Christianity – in Christianity he had found the true philosophy.
We still have a number of Justin’s writings, and the quote above is drawn from Justin’s “First Apology”, a work of Christian apologetics in which he is explaining Christianity. It dates from about 150. This is the oldest account of the Eucharist outside the New Testament period and Justin assures us he is describing the teaching of Christ and the earliest church. The Eucharist was clearly the principal, weekly Sunday worship of the church.
If you read the piece above quickly, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a description of the last Eucharist you attended. The Eucharist has been celebrated with essential similarities for about 100,000 Sundays. But sometimes we have cluttered up the essential, graceful simplicity. We have put the emPHASis on the wrong syLLAble. We have added just “another little prayer we love” and another little notice and commentary and explanation, losing the wood for the trees. Liturgical reform and renewal over the last few decades has been about returning to Justin’s graceful simplicity and allowing that to come alive in our own context.
So look at the text a second time and allow it to challenge us to bring more graceful simplicity to our services. This time notice what is not mentioned. Three examples:
There’s no confession and absolution. In the early church the whole of the Eucharist was seen to be reconciling. It renewed the sacrament of baptism which cleanses from sin, and it mediated Christ’s sacrifice “for the forgiveness of sins.” Penitential practices from private medieval piety, however, were embodied into the first Anglican Prayer Book in 1549. Modern liturgical renewal is rediscovering the earlier insight that “as we take part, as we break bread and share the cup, our forgiveness is renewed and we are cleansed” (A New Zealand Prayer Book- He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa, page 403).
There’s no creed. The early church regarded the Eucharistic Prayer as professing the church’s faith. That prayer abounds in credal affirmations. It does not seem coincidental that the people’s proclamation of the creed entered the liturgy when the Eucharistic Prayer ceased to be a vocal proclamation and began to be quietly said far removed from the congregation. The renewed Eucharistic Prayers are once again strong proclamations of the church’s belief.
There’s no blessing. Blessings developed during a period in church history when most in the congregation were not receiving communion during the Eucharist. Whatever our community practice, Justin challenges us to avoid any custom that gives the impression that Christ’s self-giving in communion needs to be supplemented.
The lack of a mention of hymns does not mean there was no music. Maybe the readings, the prayers, and the presider’s thanksgiving were chanted, as was taken for granted in the synagogue, and even in our own context of karakia in Te Reo.
Justin doesn’t have much lead-up to the lengthy readings does he? In the early church the service might have begun with a greeting to which the people responded, then they may have sung something – singing is always a wonderful way to form individuals into a group. Then the presider might have called them to deep silent prayer in which this community became conscious how together they were the body of Christ praying in the Spirit silently together to the Father. That time of silent prayer was collected by a brief “collect” proclaimed by the presider to which everyone gave their loud “Amen” which Justin explains is Hebrew for “so be it”.
Even such a brief preparation for the readings may be later than Justin. Allow that brevity to challenge our practices. I’m sure we’ve all been to services with such a lengthy introduction that by the time we get to the readings there is a decision made that, for the sake of time, of the three readings and the psalm set in the lectionary two or even three are omitted. The purpose of the introduction (“The Gathering of the Community”) is to prepare us to hear what the Spirit is saying to us as the church. Justin knew that in the Liturgy of the Word the emphasis was to be on the scriptures, not on the gathering rite preceding it. He understood the dynamics of letting Christ’s life in the scriptures come alive in us through the sacramental celebration. Let us allow Justin’s challenge to simplify the lines of our services so that the clear foci of Word, and Sacrament, and Service become as real in our own communities as they appear in his ideals.
A slightly shorter version of this article was recently published in the Winter print edition of Anglican Taonga
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