web analytics

As it was in the beginning…

eucharistOn 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

Similar Posts:

13 thoughts on “As it was in the beginning…”

  1. Very nice post, Bosco! thank you.

    I’m curious: you say “The lack of a mention of hymns does not mean there was no music.” – but could the same apply to blessings or confessions? or do we know for sure there weren’t any?

    1. A good point, Maggi. The “argument from silence” is always fraught. I think we in the West particularly have become so quickly & relatively recently used to non-chanting prayers and readings that we are surprised when we go to a synagogue or Orthodox Church where the tradition of chanting prayers and readings continues. We have also very quickly become used to having hymns inserted into the Eucharist. No one in the early church is writing “we don’t have a blessing, we don’t have an absolution, we don’t have hymns” I suspect because they wouldn’t have thought of inserting them. Nor would they write, “we chant the prayers” because they wouldn’t have thought of doing otherwise. It is hard to trace exact historical developments arguing from silence, but until someone can demonstrate otherwise, I’m very convinced to hold to my points.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have been on a journey to understand better, the early church…and you have helped me here. I do not come from a liturgical background but have been drawn to it lately. I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago on the Eucharist and would be interested to have you read it and comment. Thanks again for all you do to help understand the glory of our Father.


  3. Do you remember which chapter from Justin’s First Apology you have drawn this excerpt?

    I resonate with Maggi’s question. I’m not sure that you can have it both ways without some supporting documentation as to your argument out of silence. Give us some supporting thoughts on why you are convinced of your points about hymn’s versus confessions, blessings and pardons. Is “communion” and “Eucharist” different for you? Please explain the difference.

    I think its fair to say based on Justin’s description of this day of worship that this was indeed a “day” of worship. People came from “far and near” the implication is that “gathering” time was not exact, meaning they spent more than a few minutes “gathering”. They read from the “the scriptures” and the “writings of the Apostles” for “as long as they could”. Again there isn’t a set time limit like we have become accustomed to in the West. So this Sunday was likely one that went on throughout the whole day and into evening. What texts are “the Scriptures” and what texts are “the writings of the Apostles”? How much access did the community that Justin worshiped with have to “different” scripture and writings of the Apostles?

    I’m looking into all this myself they were just questions that were spurred by your post.

    I like the notion of simplicity in our worship something that is important. However I’m not sure its accurate to assume that the movement of worship didn’t have all of the elements that we incorporate into them. I think that there’s a good possibility that First Century worship included many more elements than we incorporate into our regular weekly hour of worship.

  4. Caelius Spinator

    I would disagree with one of your arguments from silence: the omission of a creed. There’s plenty of evidence from the Epistles of hymns interposed by Paul (possibly his own work, possibly of others). One of these hymns in particular, Colossians 1:15-20, has very familiar-looking credal material. I wouldn’t be surprised if the recitation of one of the creeds in the Eucharist originated from an older practice of a credal hymn. There’s a church on the South Side of Chicago whose choir does a great job of rendering the Nicene Creed into a Gospel-style hymn.

    1. Caelius, after Justin there are more and more detailed eucharistic liturgy texts, none with a creed, and all confirming my points. The place for a creed in the early church is the baptism rite, not the eucharist.

      What do you see as the function of a choir singing a creed? Are choir members declaring their faith to the congregation? Is it merely a nice piece of music (“Gospel-style”) for the enjoyment of the audience? Does the assembly understand the choir as affirming the faith of all on their behalf?

  5. James McLaren

    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.

    Not in England it hasn’t. Common Worship is awful: it’s long-winded, and it demands that we regard the president as a priest. I see red every time I spot that hateful rubric, The Giving of Communion.

  6. David |dah•veed|

    It is my understanding that much of the singing of the early church was during the advent of the Procession. The procession was originally just the journey of the Saints from the suburbs to the central church and her bishop. Folks began walking from the far corners and villages on the outskirts of the city from many different starting points. As they journeyed inward more joined the procession as they sang songs, hymns and spiritual psalms. At major junctions smaller groups joined the main body until at last there was one large procession making the final steps of the journey together, singing and rejoicing in their common faith.

    1. What you are describing, David, I presume you draw from post-Constantinian times after Justin. I think it very helpful to see the procession beginning in our homes as you describe. The procession of the presider and other ministers needs also to be understood as coming from within the gathering congregation – I think that is lost if the presider and other ministers are not moving through the assembly that they are gathering. At the end of the service then they move back into that assembly and we process out into our daily lives for the service that follows the service.

  7. Thanks John for the invitation to clarify points that I have not made clear. You will understand this is a blog post – not a doctoral thesis.

    If you are looking for original sources, I would start by reading Chapters 66 and 67.

    I am not trying to “have it both ways.. hymn’s versus confessions, blessings and pardons”. You appear to think that I am arguing there were hymns. I think I must not be making my point clear which is that until relatively recently it wasn’t about singing at the liturgy – the liturgy was sung – as it still is in many traditions, including in many synagogues.

    My points are not merely arguments from silence. Justin is a very early source, but after him we have an increasing body of documents. I would, for example, be very interested if you could find an example of an absolution in any eucharistic liturgical text in the first millennia and a half of Christian history. The absence of an absolution in Justin is not an eccentric deviation, it is the norm for most of our Christian history.

    You ask: “Is “communion” and “Eucharist” different for you?” Please explain the question. There are many titles Christians use for the same service.

    I can find no evidence in Justin or subsequent documents of a lengthy, cluttered gathering rite as you indicate. Certainly people would have been mixing with each other and then the presider would have called everyone to attention and very soon they would be reading aloud “from the scriptures and from the writings of the apostles for as long as possible”. If you have any evidence of a longer formal gathering rite from those early centuries of Christianity, again I would be very interested to see them. Personally I am committed to the uncluttering of our gathering rite and the longer period spent on reading scripture than we had inherited from the Medieval and Reformation period.

  8. Robert McLean

    Regarding ‘Communion’ and ‘Eucharist’, I think the point to be made here is not so much that various Christians have various names for the rite, but that sometimes Communion is used by liturgists to describe that part of the rite where the consecrated elements are distributed (the ‘Communion of the People’), as opposed to any other part of the Eucharist as a whole. So in that sense, yes, there is a difference between ‘Communion’ and ‘Eucharist’

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.