‘Was ever such a command so obeyed?”

Pentecost 6 -2011

A history of liturgy

Marian Free

In the name of God, who draws us into God’s presence through scripture, sacrament, prayer and praise. Amen.

 One of the extraordinary aspects of our Sunday liturgy is how much it has in common with the earliest liturgical practice of the church. There are two reasons for this, one is that what we know as the ministry of the word developed from the practice in the synagogue and another is that from the beginning, the believing community used words that Jesus himself had given them at the last supper. A combination of the service of the word and the words of institution formed a pattern that we use for the Eucharist to this day.

The gospels record Jesus’ association with the synagogue. In today’s gospel, after Jesus finishes teaching the crowds he heads for the synagogue to teach the people. In Luke’s gospel we have a brief account of Jesus’ teaching – he stood up to read, was given the scroll, read from Isaiah, then sat down and began to teach. From this we can deduce that Synagogue worship included, among other things a reading from scripture and an exposition on the same.

Worship in synagogues arose during the exile of the Jews to Babylon. The temple had been destroyed and was no longer able to be a focus of or place in which to worship. The Israelites, in exile, far from Jerusalem, had to find a way to worship God and to maintain their national identity. A solution was to meet together in small groups, to read and expound on scripture and to praise God. During this period standardized forms of prayers were produced so that people could pray publicly and communally whereas prior to this time people had prayed individually and privately.

For those who were a long way from home, these meetings served the role of bringing their memories to life and of reminding them who they were. They recalled what God had done for them by the reading of scripture, they sang Psalms and offered praise to God, they responded to the scripture through a reflection or sermon, and they prayed together. In this way, the Jewish people could re-live the whole history of their relationship with God and look forward to a time when they would be restored to their homeland.

When the Jews returned from exile, they were able to rebuild the temple, but the habit of worshipping locally and regularly in the synagogue was sufficiently implanted that the irregular festivals at the Temple no longer provided a satisfactory alternative and so synagogue worship continued alongside worship in the Temple.

Given that Jesus was a Jew and that the earliest believers were also Jewish it is not surprising that the first community continued to worship in the synagogues. Nor is it surprising, that when the first believers were expelled from the synagogue,  they took with them the form of worship with which they were familiar –  readings from scripture (which increasingly included Paul’s letters and then the gospels, psalms, a sermon and intercessions. Over time, the Old Testament reading was omitted and a greeting was added. In the fifth and sixth century the service was elaborated to include an introit, kyries, Gloria and collect, giving us a form that is immediately recognizable today.

We know that the first Christians continued to meet in the synagogues. We know too that they also met on the first day of the week and that then (or at some other time) they met to share a meal and to break bread as Jesus had commanded them (1 Cor 11:23-26).  This form of worship also took shape very early. While we do not know the form used by the New Testament Church, the second century document The Didache provides words of Thanksgiving for the bread and the wine and a prayer for after communion. It also gives an instruction in relation to meeting on the Lord’s day to break bread and offer thanksgiving after the confession of sin.

Also writing in the second century, Justin Martyr records: “On finishing the prayers we greet each other with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of water and mixed wine are brought to the president of the brethren and he, taking them, sends up praise and glory to the Father of the universe through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and offers thanksgiving at some length that we have been deemed worthy to receive these things from him … When the president has given thanks and the whole congregation has assent [with an “amen”], those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water, and they take it to the absent.”

At this time, there were of course no books, so with the exception of the formulas such as the words of institution the language of the Eucharist was fluid. The church therefore required someone who could faithfully represent Christian beliefs and keep the faithful from heresy. It was the Bishop who presided, and who in the absence of written and/or standardized texts said the Thanksgiving which could record the whole history of salvation from creation to the cross!  (Hence Justin’s comment about the thanksgiving being of some length.)The prayer was (and still is) both proclamation and creed and contains within it a sense of absolution. For this reason there was no need for a separate creedal statement, or confession and absolution.

The form of the Eucharistic prayer is still recognizable today. It consisted of the Sursum Corda (Lift up your hearts), the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), the Thanksgiving, the Words of Institution (On the night he was betrayed..), Anamnesis (bringing to mind), the Oblation or offering, the epiclesis (invoking of the Holy Spirit), intercessions and the doxology (Blessing, and honor etc). A major difference from our service today is the inclusion of the intercessions within the Eucharistic prayer.

From at least the 6th century, if not the second century, the two services – the service of the word and the Eucharist were bound together in the form that we know it today. Given the changes that we have experienced over the last forty years, it is remarkable to consider that the form of worship that we use Sunday by Sunday, is much the same as that used 2,000 years ago. It calls to mind the word of Dom Gregory Dix written in 1945: Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; – one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week, and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done just this to MAKE the PLEBS SANCTA DEI – the holy common people of God.
(The Shape of the Liturgy, Dacre Press, A& C Black, 1945, 744.)





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