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Ancient Christian Worship: The Gathering

Word and Table

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place … (Justin, First Apology 67)

Ancient Christians observed two kinds of service. The Synaxis or “Gathering” was patterned on the syngagogue liturgy and centered on the reading of Scripture and prayer. The Eucharist or “Thanksgiving” was a fellowship meal inspired not only by Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper but by universal customs — both Jewish and pagan — of religiously-oriented meals. Originally, these meetings were distinct; it was possible to have one without the other.

The first Eucharists were actual, substantial meals and not merely the token consumption of bread and wine. By the time of Justin Martyr at the latest, a symbolic eating separated from the original meal setting was known, and eventually became the normative Eucharistic experience throughout the ancient world. As the Eucharist became detached from its original mealtime setting, the Synaxis and the Eucharist become combined into a single service, called the “Liturgy” in the East and the “Mass” in the West. Nevertheless, the two parts remained distinguishable. Tertullian recorded the earliest attested names for these parts, calling them “the ministry of the word” and “the offering of the sacrifice” (On Women’s Dress 2:11). Today we sometimes call them the Service of the Word and the Service of the Table.

The Synaxis is a Christian development of the synagogue service, which was focused upon reading and expounding upon the Scriptures. There are, however, some interesting reversals of conventional Jewish practice. First, in the synagogue, the basic order is Shema (the Creed), Tefillah (the Prayers, the “Eighteen Benedictions”), and then Torah (the Scriptures read and explained). In contrast, Christian worship placed the prayers after the sermon. If the Shema was ever a part of Christian worship, it had fallen into disuse early on, and no other creed was recited during the liturgy until the fifth century. The other reversal of synagogue custom has to do with the relative importance of the Scripture readings themselves, which I’ll discuss in a later post.

Originally, the Eucharist took place during the evening on the pattern of Jewish and pagan religious meals. Eventually (by the time of Justin, at any rate) it became customary to celebrate the Eucharist before daybreak in remembrance of the resurrection. Laws forbidding voluntary associations to gather for evening meals may have been another factor in the change.

Preparing for Worship

Until the end of the fourth century, in both East and West, the service formally began with the bishop’s greeting, after which came the reading of the Scriptures. From earliest times, however, worshipers would gather before the “official” beginning of the service to sing and pray informally.

One of my major pet peeves with nearly every church I have ever been a part of is that worship begins with a series of fits and starts. A hymn, then announcements, then a round of hand-shaking, then another hymn, then a prayer, etc. It doesn’t flow. It doesn’t tell a story or usher me into worship. It’s just a program or [ick!] the “preliminaries” to tide us over until the “real” point of the service — the sermon — begins. I think my brothers and sisters in the praise and worship tradition are on to something by beginning with a longish, uninterrupted time of praise singing. Although I would fault them for the shallowness and narcissism of some (OK, much) of the praise and worship music that has been inflicted on me, this custom is really not too different in principle from that of the early centuries. In the fourth century, Egeria described how, in the early hours before the sunrise Eucharist began, the faithful would gather outside the church doors for “hymns,” “antiphons,” and “prayers” in order to get into the spirit of things.

Local customs would have varied greatly, but at least in the earliest period would have almost certainly leaned toward informality and spontaneity. Theodoret (fifth century) reported hymns being accompanied by hand-clapping and dance movements. In Eddie Ensley’s study of ecstatic phenomena in the early church he remarks, “In addition to the jubilation, psalm-singing and hymns could be improvised. Congregations might react spontaneously with laughter, tears, and sighs and by shouting phrases such as ‘Glory to God!'” (Eddie Ensley, “A Brief History of Jubilation,” The Complete Library of Christian Worship, vol 4., ed. Robert E. Webber [Starsong, 1994] 282.)

The bishop’s greeting was in effect a call to order necessary to quiet the already-worshiping crowd and focus their attention on the Scripture reading soon to commence. Augustine (ca. 426) described an occasion of entering the church on Easter Sunday after a miraculous healing had taken place during the Gathering:

I advanced toward the people. The church was full, and cries of joy echoed through it: “Glory to God!” “God be praised!” No one was silent, the shouts were coming from everywhere. I greeted the people and they began to cry out again in their enthusiasm. Finally, when the silence was restored, the readings from the sacred scripture were proclaimed (City of God 22:8:2).

It is not inconceivable that similar conditions prevailed in the pre-Constantinian era.

Next: The Word of God

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