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My dear friends,
The Mass - Part 2
As a background to this segment, remember that the Church is mostly an “underground” and quite revolutionary organisation which puts Christ at the centre of people’s lives and not the current Emperor! As such persecution is frequent. The followers of Chrestus, are often the scapegoats for any civil misfortune. To avoid capture the early Roman Christians sometimes celebrated their gatherings in underground cemeteries known as Catacombs.
In the catacombs Mass was often said using the tomb of a Martyr as a table and with lights “burning in the darkness”. The practice of using candles pre-dates Christianity but took on a much greater significance given Jesus’ various statements such as “I am the Light of the world”. That stone table with its holy relic can, today, be found in the majority of Catholic churches and provides the setting for our celebration. By the mid second century typical Christian worship, according to Justin Martyr, (d. 165 AD) was:
Held on a Sunday. Started with a reading of the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets for a period as long as time permits! An exhortation or homily on the reading given by the President; he challenges the faithful to “imitate these beautiful things”. Congregation stands for prayer. This prayer was for all manner of needs and in one early source it states “they prayed with a childlike confidence”. What a beautiful image of trust in a loving Father!
Kiss of peace. Celebration of Lord’s Supper (elements dictated by the Bishop) with thanksgiving and prayers. The people responded with Amen. A call to self-scrutiny before partaking in The Lord’s Supper was included in the Liturgy. Collection for aid to widows etc.
Meeting dismissed. From very early in the 2nd century the Church Fathers are increasingly clear about the real and true nature of the Eucharistic food. Writers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian to name but a few state that … “I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible”. (Ignatius in his letter to the Romans A.D. 110)
From about the mid second century onwards until the time of Constantine and The Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) there were slow and incremental changes to the style of Liturgy. Mass was still said in the language of the people. In the near East this was mainly Aramaic from which we get words such as “Abba” and “Maranatha”. As more Churches were founded in Greco-Roman Europe the language they used for Liturgy was Greek but in the near East Liturgy was celebrated in Syriac, Coptic and Armenian. Many of the words they used are still familiar to us especially Eucharist (a Greek word, meaning thanksgiving). Next time we’ll look at the development of the prayers of the Mass.
(on behalf of Fr Brett)