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Review: The Mass of the Early Christians

Let me state at the outset that I am jealous of Mike Aquilina for having produced The Mass of the Early Christians. It is the sort of book I wish I had written. (Actually, I pitched a similar idea to some publishers a few years back, albeit unsuccessfully.) It is an accessible summary of what can be known about Christian worship in the early centuries, written by some who obviously loves worship and thinks often and deeply about it.

The book begins with several chapters summarizing the early development of the Eucharist and its centrality to the early church. The author briefly touches on such topics as: the Last Supper, the Christian appropriation of Old Testament sacrificial imagery to the Eucharist, early forms of Eucharistic devotion, and the theology of the Eucharist.

These chapters are informative, to be sure, but the real treasure of the book comes in its major central section, in which Aquilina has collected English translations of nearly every important early source for reconstructing the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper in the early church, from the first century (New Testament, Didache, 1 Clement) to the fourth (Eusebius, Sarapion, Cyril, and others). I’m not aware of another user-friendly resource that puts all these documents together in one place. Lucien Deiss’s Springtime of the Liturgy has many of them, including one or two Aquilina omits (but Aquilina also has some that Deiss omits), but that book doesn’t provide the kind of big-picture summary that The Mass of the Early Christians does. Paul F. Bradshaw’s The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship is unbeatable as a a brief introduction to the subject, but is written for a far more academically inclined readership. Frank C. Senn’s Christian Liturgy covers all the historical, practical, and theological bases admirably and gets high marks for readability, but at 747 pages is more than a little foreboding for anyone who is simply curious about how and why the early Christians worshiped as they did.

In his final chapter, Aquilina invites the readers to imagine themselves as participants in the kind of worship he has described in the preceding chapters. He walks us through “an imaginative venture” that describes in narrative form what it would have been like to be a Christian in pre-Nicene North Africa going to church on Sunday. Some might think such an undertaking would end up being cheesy or contrived, but here it is actually rather effective.

By my estimation, there is only one notable flaw in The Mass of the Early Christians, and I don’t know if I notice it more because I’m a Protestant or because I’m a New Testament scholar. That flaw is that there seems to be little if any discussion of liturgical development in the pre-Nicene period. I come away from the book aware that, if I had not already known that certain liturgical practices had their origin in a particular region and only gradually spread to other communities, I would not have found out about it from this book. Although Aquilina’s style is warm and engaging, he is no slouch when it comes to the scholarship. I’m confident he could have handled this issue without losing his readers or jeopardizing the page count. Having such material woven into the first five chapters of the book would have blown me away!

First, as a Neutestamentler, I understand that the apostles weren’t conducting the Eucharist the same way Cyril of Jerusalem described 300 years later‚Äîand I’m sure Mike Aquilina knows that, too. To me, however, how we got from “point A” to “point B” is the most interesting part of the story, and it was disappointing to find it so little discussed. Second, as a Protestant, especially one in the free church tradition, I am perhaps more attuned to issues of regional and cultural variety in worship. Egyptians, West Syrians, and East Syrians (not to mention Romans, Milanese, and several others!) followed their own inherited traditions about how to conduct the liturgy, and that is as it should be. That is also, in my opinion, an important part of the story of the Mass (Eucharist, Divine Liturgy, Lord’s Supper, etc.) of the early Christians. Diversity within a greater unity ought to be celebrated‚Äîjust as it was, for example, when the eastern-rite clergy participated at Pope John Paul’s funeral in accordance with their distinctive traditions (to offer but one example my readers may remember).

Despite my misgivings on this one issue, I am happy to recommend The Mass of the Early Christians to anyone who is looking for a solid basic summary of worship in the first three or four Christian centuries. Christian leaders, especially non-Catholics, will probably want to supplement this with other resources such as those suggested above, but as a first step into the world of liturgical worship it will be hard to beat.

technorati tags: eucharist, liturgy, mass of the early christians, mike aquilina, patristics, worship

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