The Mass of the Early Christians
by Mike Aquilina
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2007)
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Christians “everywhere” were known by their unity and love, and “the breaking of bread and the prayers”. For the earliest Christians, this celebration was “inseparable from the mystery of the Passover”, and when they recognised Jesus in the “breaking of bread”, it was for them the fulfilment of the Jewish rites they had known. In all its glory, this was the new Covenant the Lord sealed with His blood.
Not surprisingly, then, many elements were “transferred” from Jewish practice to Christian worship. Prayers and songs from Jewish liturgy and tradition became part of the Mass, such as the Sanctus from Isaiah 6:3, used in the Sabbath service, the Alleluia from the Hallel Psalms, and various “common refrains”. What was different was that the first Christian liturgies infused Christological and Trinitarian references into the Mass texts.
Meanwhile, the Christian clergy also emerged from Jewish tradition. The “dignity” of the Jewish priesthood, beginning from the time of Moses, was carried over, and early descriptions report how the bishop presided at Mass, assisted by priests.
Records show that wherever there was Mass, the theology, understanding of the Eucharist, liturgical practices and attention to ritual were the same “everywhere”. The Eucharist was always referred to as the Body and Blood of Christ, and it was in the Mass that early Christians “encountered the Scriptures”.
What was it called?
The Mass of the early Christians was known by these terms, which Catholics everywhere now would be familiar with:
the breaking of the bread, the sacrifice, the offering, the oblation, the liturgy (Greek leitourgia – “public service”), the sacrament, the mysteries, the table of the Lord, the Lord’s supper, the chalice, the altar, the passion of the Lord, the presence, the communion, the Eucharist (Greek eucharistia – “thanksgiving”).
“Mass” is from medieval English, derived from the Latin “missa” of the words of dismissal, “Ite, missa est” (“Go, it is ended”).
Mass was first celebrated in secret, due to active persecution of Christians. After Christianity was legally accepted by the Roman Empire (in 313), the Church was finally able to use and own buildings, many of the early ones provided by wealthy families that had converted. Reverence for everything connected to Mass was preserved, from the words of the liturgy to the altar, chalices, and so on.
Part II of the book, The Testimony of Witnesses, comprises chapters featuring the “witness” from the writings and teachings of the early Christians, including the relevant New Testament texts, teachings from the Didache and the Council of Nicea, sermons and reflections from specific “witnesses”, excerpts of early liturgical texts, as well as reports of pagan rumours about the Mass and “apocryphal and heretical texts”!
Here is a small selection from the section.
The New Testament
The texts quoted here are: The Last Supper (Luke 22:14-20), The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-35), the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:1-14, 22, 25-69), the Eucharist at Corinth (1 Cor 10:1-22, 11:17-34), the Breaking of the Bread (Acts 2:41-47), the Heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12:18-29), the Liturgy of Heaven (Rev 4:6-11), the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev19:4-9).
The Didache (Greek – “teaching”)
The Didache, The Teaching of the Lord Through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles in full, very likely the oldest Christian record besides Scripture, has three chapters on the liturgy. These include prayers as well as advice on preparation and participation of the faithful in the liturgy. There is the Eucharistic Prayer, and a post-Communion Thanksgiving Prayer, which we would recognise some of: “Remember, Lord, your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love…” (excerpt from the Thanksgiving Prayer). The Didache also explains the sacrificial nature of the Mass and the need to confess our sins: “Every Lord’s day gather yourselves together and break bread, and give thanks after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107)
St. Ignatius famously referred to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality”, and with the Eucharist the “beating heart” of his teaching, he considered the denial of the Eucharist as “the very mark of heresy”. He is known to be the first to use the term “Catholic” for the Church, and to write about the “priest” (presbyter) as part of the clergy.
“So, clothing yourselves with meekness, be renewed in faith, that is the flesh of the Lord, and in love, that is the blood of Jesus Christ.”
St. Justin Martyr
St. Justin gives us the “most complete description” of the early Mass and he is also known as the “first great Christian apologist”. He explained the Old Testament “types” that “foreshadowed” the Mass.
“We do not receive those as common bread and drink. For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.”
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
In Against Heresies, his refutation of Gnosticism, he produced the first “comprehensive, systematic theological reflection on Christian doctrine”. He explains the Eucharistic sacrifice as the fulfilment of the Old Testament offering of the “first fruits” of the earth. The Eucharist is also the “pledge of the resurrection of the body”, and the Mass is “earthly participation in the liturgy of heaven”.
“Sacrifices… do not sanctify a man, for God stands in no need of sacrifice; it is, rather, the conscience of the offerer that makes the sacrifice holy when it is pure, and thus moves God to accept the offering as from a friend”.
St. Hippolytus of Rome
From St. Hippolytus, we have what is considered the “most complete liturgy” recorded from the first two centuries. This includes the Eucharistic Prayer, and we would recognise most of it, such as this introductory part –
Bishop: The Lord be with you.
And all shall say: And with your spirit.
Bishop: Lift up your hearts.
All: We lift them up to the Lord.
Bishop: Let us give thanks to the Lord.
All: It is proper and right.
Origen of Alexandria (d.254)
Origen is considered by many to be the “greatest biblical scholar” of the early Church, notably for his “spiritual interpretation of the Bible”. He was another who taught about “types”, and his writing includes explanations of the “foreshadowing” of the Eucharist in the Old Testament.
“… if someone celebrates with Jesus, he is in a great room above, in a furnished room made clean, in a furnished room adorned and prepared. And if you go up with him in order to celebrate the Passover, he gives to you the cup of the New Covenant, he gives to you the bread of blessing, he makes a gift of his body and his blood.”
St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 222)
St. Cyprian’s works emphasise how “any tinkering with the symbolism of the sacraments will have devastating consequences—in theology and in life”. As bishop, he dealt with many who were persecuted for their faith, including the “confessors”, those who had stayed firm in their faith when tortured, as well as the “lapsi” (“fallen”), those who had survived by giving in to performing “acts of idolatry”. Some of the lapsi sought readmission to the sacraments, and he is known for his teaching on the “pastoral applications of the Church’s teaching on the sacrament”.
“When the water is mingled in the cup with wine, the people are made one with Christ… that mixture cannot any more be separated”.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
From St. Cyril we have the first recorded explanation of the “Eucharistic species as a change in substance”: “The bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is no longer merely bread, but the body of Christ.”
“… you must be clad in the garments that are truly white, shining, and spiritual…”
The Mass of the early Christians is our Mass. As Aquilina writes, “… we can share in the same table they shared with Christ; for the bread is one, not just everywhere but always; and from one chalice alone has wisdom come to man, from the time of the Fathers to our own day.”
♫ Makes me think of One Bread, One Body