Early Christianity

There was a new religion growing in the Empire. It was Christianity, and it was looked down upon by many Romans although its practice grew exponentially. Here is a brief synopsis of early Christian worship in the ancient world.

The early Christians were quite different from the pagans in the way they viewed worship. First of all, they had no special holy places or temples. As Minucius Felix stated, "We have no shrines or altars." The place where they worshiped was not particularly important; in fact, it was often just a room in one of the members' homes that was large enough to accommodate them. The whole focus was on the community of believers.

There were two important rituals that dominated the early Church. Baptism was one of these; it referred to a cleansing with water. By being baptized, a candidate was seen as being converted to Christ, and was officially made a member of the Christian community.

The other act was the Eucharist, or the breaking of bread. The Christians believed in the real presence of Jesus, both body and blood, in the form of bread and wine. This breaking of the bread was done in memory of Christ's Last Supper, when He commanded them to "do this in remembrance of me."

The first Christians celebrated the Eucharist in the late afternoon. There were two distinct parts to the Eucharist. First, a common dinner took place. This meal was accompanied with prayer that was basically Jewish in its essence. After the meal was eaten, the breaking of the bread took place. There was a prayer over the bread and wine, and then prayers of thanksgiving. Finally, the Eucharist was shared. According to Tertullian, an early Christian, these communal dinners were called by the Greek word for love, agape. In referring to this meal, Tertullian explains:

"Whatever the cost of the dinner, we consider it profitable
to incur expenses in the name of charity, if we can help
some less fortunate people with the refreshments we provide."

Again, Tertullian explains that:

"Christians do not take their place at the table to eat
until they have first 'tasted' a prayer to God. They
eat only enough to satisfy their hunger and drink only
an amount suitable to modest people."

Toward the middle of the second century, the sacramental meal was celebrated on its own, apart from the common meal. The Eucharist now took place on Sundays, which was seen as the day of Christ's resurrection, and was combined with a service of reading and preaching. Justin Martyr, a leading apologist who lived in the second century A.D., explains this service, or the Mass, as being very simple and basically consisting of prayers by all the members present, and then a kiss of peace. The president of the assembly prayed a long prayer of thanksgiving over the bread and wine, and then everyone present celebrated the Eucharist. At times there was a reading of the prophets and memoirs of the apostles, and perhaps even a homily, that all occurred before the Eucharist.

We have a written form of the early Mass, from the Church Order of Hippolytus, who died in the year 236. The following was recited while the bishop laid his hands on the bread and wine:

BISHOP: The Lord be with you.
CONGREGATION: And with thy spirit.
BISHOP: Hearts up.
CONGREGATION: We have them to the Lord.
BISHOP: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
CONGREGATION: It is meet and right.

A very similar dialogue is recited even today in the Catholic Mass.

Once Constantine embraced Christianity, many changes occurred in the simple service. Because so many pagans were converted, their customs became blended into the liturgy: the practice of genuflection, devotion to religious relics, the use of candles and incense. Also, Christians began to face the East while praying, and this meant that the priest led prayers with his back to the assembly.

However, the basic beliefs of the Church continued. Tertullian's words were still applicable to those assembled:

"We are a society with a common religious belief,
a common body of teachings, and a common bond of 
hope. We gather in meeting and congregation so that
we may join together in our own prayers toward God."

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