So, when everyone goes to church on Sunday, we celebrate the Christian faith. We gather, sing hymns, say prayers, recite readings of scripture, and often perform communion. But, why do we do this in the way(s) that we do? And what historical roots does this tradition have in our faith?
The Sunday Church Service was referred to as the “Liturgy” by the early Christians. Liturgy is the Greek word for “duty” or “public service” as performed by the priests of Jesus Christ. The Greek word is used 6 times in scriptures by both Luke and Paul. Specifically, the word was used in Hebrews 8:6 referring to Jesus as the Priest responsible for delivering the “liturgical work”. The priests performed the service of leading the people in prayer and celebration in Christ’s stead.
And when it comes to the liturgy itself, we see the origins of this celebration in the Last Supper as recorded in the Gospels, specifically: Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-39 and John 13:1-17:26.
At this event, we see Christ perform the following liturgical actions:
1) Bread and wine are brought to the table (the altar);
2) The celebrant (priest) gives thanks;
3) He takes bread, blesses it, & says the words of Consecration;
4) He does the same over the wine;
5) The consecrated Bread, now having become the Body of Christ, is broken and is given to the people in Communion together with the contents of the Chalice, that is, the Precious Blood.
After the Last Supper, Paul recounts these same liturgical acts of sacrifice and celebration again in his first letter to the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 10:15-18 – “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?”
1 Corinthians 11:23-27 – “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
Now, how many of us were taught about the sacrifice that is performed within the liturgy by Christ’s representatives on earth, the priests? The sacrifice is a key piece of our liturgical process. We see this terminology of the sacrifice first crop up in the later letters of the New Testament, specifically in 1 Peter:
1 Peter 2:5 – “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
Ignatius: “Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.” – c. 107 AD, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6
Irenaeus: “Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.” – c. 189 AD, Against Heresies, Book IV, Ch 18, Para 5,
Irenaeus: “Now we make offering to Him, not as though He stood in need of it, but rendering thanks for His gift, and thus sanctifying what has been created. For even asGod does not need our possessions, so do we need to offer something to God; as Solomon says:
He that has pity upon the poor, lends unto the Lord. For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things, as our Lord says:
Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was an hungered, and you gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and you took Me in: naked, and you clothed Me; sick, and you visited Me; in prison, and you came to Me, etc. As, therefore, He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God: thus is it, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission. The altar, then, is in heaven (for towards that place are our prayers and oblations directed); the temple likewise [is there], as John says in the Apocalypse,
And the temple of God was opened: the tabernacle also:
For, behold, He says,
the tabernacle of God, in which He will dwell with men.” – c. 189 AD, Against Heresies, Book IV, Ch 18, Para 6
Irenaeus: “But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares,
In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins. And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.” – c. 189 AD, Against Heresies, Book V, Ch 2, Para 2
Around 161 AD, Justin Martyr compares the sacrifice of the Christians to the sacrifice of the Mosaic Israelites in his Dialogue with Trypho, a contemporary Jew of the period:
“Moreover, as I said before, concerning the sacrifices which you at that time offered, God speaks through Malachias, one of the twelve, as follows: ‘I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices from your hands; for from the rising of the sun until its setting, my name has been glorified among the gentiles; and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a clean offering: for great is my name among the gentiles, says the Lord; but you profane it.’ It is of the sacrifices offered to Him in every place by us, the gentiles, that is, of the Bread of the Eucharist and likewise of the cup of the Eucharist, that He speaks at that time; and He says that we glorify His name, while you profane it.” – Dialogue with Trypho, 41:8-10
Here we see the term “Eucharist” which means “sharing of graces.” In this case, the “sharing of graces” comes from the “Bread” and the “cup” as described by Jesus in one of His most controversial sermons in the Gospels, recorded in John 6:25-59 where those disciples who hear the talk actually leave Jesus and His disciples. This word, “Eucharist”, is still used today in Catholic circles interchangeably with the Mass as a ritual that includes the Holy Sacrifice and Holy Communion.
Justin continues to expand on the importance of the sacrifice to God:
“God has therefore announced in advance that all the sacrifices offered in His name, which Jesus Christ offered, that is, in the Eucharist of the Bread and of the Chalice, which are offered by us Christians in every part of the world, are pleasing to Him.” – Dialogue with Trypho, 117
Now lets look at the words of Justin Martyr in his Apology written in 150 AD where he provides a fuller description of the Liturgy practiced by early Christians:
“But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president (i.e. presiding Presbyter) of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο (so be it). And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.” – First Apology, Ch. 65
“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for rebirth [i.e., has received baptism], and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus” – First Apology, Ch. 66
“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.” – First Apology, Ch. 67
So, not only was the Liturgy of the Mass relatively formalized in 150 AD, it was spreading. The liturgy here that Justin wrote about would take many forms before the Church finally made efforts to formally standardize it in the late 6th Century. Prior to standardization, the first semi-official liturgy recorded that we know of was the Liturgy of Saint James, written around 390 AD. This standardized Liturgy would be used by the Church to formalize the Mass sometime after 590 AD under the Pontificate of Pope Gregory the Great. This formalized liturgy, known as the Pre-Tridentine Mass has many of the prayers that many Catholics still say today in daily Mass. The standardized form of the Mass was reaffirmed in 1570 by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent; after which, it would come to be known by the terminology we still hold today, as the Tridentine Mass.
When we Christians attend our Services, our Liturgies, our Masses, we must remember that our service is there to offer the sacrifice of the blood of Christ back to God to atone for our sins. This offering is made in accordance with Christ’s example, Paul’s description, and the same purpose as written by Peter himself. We do not pray the Mass as a formality, but instead as a solemn sacrament to the most Holy God on High as a testament to our love, our faith, and our obedience to Him in thanks for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His one and only Son.
So, with that: Enjoy your next Mass!
P.S. For you history buffs out there…
Many Romans were not familiar with the Christians of the early Church or the nature of the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist. Some of them had misconceptions about the nature of the religion and the Eucharist like the following from the dialogue “Octavius”, published in 197 AD:
“An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily— O horror!— they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence. Such sacred rites as these are more foul than any sacrileges. And of their banqueting it is well known all men speak of it everywhere; even the speech of our Cirtensian testifies to it. On a solemn day they assemble at the feast, with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and of every age.” – Marcus Minucius Felix, capturing the thoughts of Caecilius Natalis, a pagan, in an exchange with Octavius Januarius, a Christian and provincial lawyer.