Church, Empire, & Culture

Beginning in the fourth century a number of major historical and cultural events impacted the Church, all of which affected the Liturgy as well as the practice of the faith. When considering these events, remember that the basic structure of the liturgy had been established; future changes occurred within the framework of that basic shape. The persecutions that the Christian Church experienced began in Palestine with the persecution by the Jews, and later continued when Rome herself began to persecute the followers of The Way. The persecutions waxed and waned depending upon the current emperor and the need for political scapegoats. Christianity was even accused of atheism in this polytheistic society, for subscribing to the worship of only one God.

The persecutions forced the Church underground. There are two references in the text of the liturgy still used today which harken back to those days of persecution and secrecy. During those years the Church lived within a society that was against it formally and informally, actively and passively.

In both the Eastern and Western Church, after Constantine released the edict of toleration which made Christianity a "legal" religion, interactions between church and state were not only inevitable, but as the Christian Church became one of the most potent forces in the Empire, they became necessary. Not all of these interactions were necessarily bad. Many of them were theologically positive, and enabled Christianity to develop and define the doctrines and practices that became core components of the faith. On the other hand, there were many periods in the fist millennium of the Christian Church which were characterized by a struggle with the state.

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The Conversion of Constantine

Although he was not baptized until just prior to his death in A.D. 337, Constantine embraced Christianity, made it legal, and for all practical purposes made it the religion of the state. With the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., he granted free religious worship and recognition by the state. As a result, the persecution of the Church finally ended, as did the need for secrecy. This caused the first of the major changes in the form of the Christian liturgy.

The persecutions of the Church during the previous two hundred years had waxed and waned, depending upon the Emperor and his orientation; there were periods of relative peace and tolerance, and periods of active persecution and martyrdom. During these periods of tolerance the church flourished, privately and publicly. Yet, as an "illegal" entity within the state, it could not really grow and flower in any large-scale fashion. With the acceptance brought about by Constantine, all of this changed. Now it became possible to publicly erect churches dedicated to the worship of God, and to do so with state support. Christian worship became a public affair, and these changes not only allowed the reversal of the "liturgical contraction" that had occurred earlier under persecution, but out of necessity resulted in an elaboration of the ceremonial aspect of worship. Christian worship was now being seen by non-believers; thus it not only had to be understandable to them, but the necessary sense of reverence and thanksgiving had to be conveyed. It had always been corporate, now it became public.

In addition, worship began to take on an understanding of having a missionary and proclamation role to fulfill that it had not had before. All of this resulted in a more literal understanding of the "do" in Christ's words "Do this in remembrance of Me." The result was a greater focus on action and ceremony within worship. [1]

These enhancements in act and ceremony manifested in a variety of ways. The Church had always worshiped in homes, but during times of toleration, it began taking over secular buildings, and converting them for Christian worship. The new public places of worship were larger, and there was amplification of the service over what had been celebrated in earlier times. Clerical vestments began to appear. The use of chanting and hymnody, having their basis in Jewish worship, became more highly developed in this more public worship and proclamation. There was a heightened sense of drama, with entrances, processions, and censing [2], also built upon Old Testament worship. Icons, as a means of remembering Christ, His Saints, and martyrs, spread in their use. These changes occurred in response to the cultural change that the Church was experiencing with the end of persecution and its open acceptance within society.

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Clerical Vestments

Perhaps nothing better illustrates this process than the development of clerical vestments. The most striking aspect of the development of vestments is that they came out of everyday culture. In the early church, in fact, there was a marked attitude that there should be no liturgical vestments; that the celebration of worship and of the Eucharist should take place in everyday dress. This was in spite of the fact that Exodus 28 describes clerical vestments to be worn by the priests. With the exception of the use of a stole as a sign of office, all dressed alike in "street clothes". This sign of office was present early on, for Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, refers in 190 A.D. to the Apostles John and James who "became sacrificing priests wearing the mitre." [3] St. Gregory of Nazianzus records between 375-400 A.D. that there was "no difference between clerical and lay dress." [4]

The clothing of the day derived from the normal and traditional clothing worn in Greek and Roman society. What brought about the changes in clothing within the Church was what began to happen within society . "What turned this clothing into a special liturgical vesture was mere conservatism. When the dress of the layman finally changed in the sixth and seventh centuries to the new barbarian fashions, the clergy as the last representatives of the old civilized tradition retained the old civilized costume." [5] Again, a change within the culture had resulted in a favorable liturgical change within the Church. Dix goes on to point out that to this "accidenta1" distinction which developed between lay and clerical clothing added "symbolic enrichment" to add Christian meaning to things that had utilitarian origins; and that included the use of lights and censing during the Eucharist as well. [6] Again, elements of Old Testament worship were being retained and, in fact, taking on new meaning in the worship of the New Covenant.

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Beauty in Worship

The beauty and aesthetic aspect of worship must not be taken lightly any more than that of any other aspect of life. Anyone who has walked into a large and solemn church or cathedral, especially one that is old or of a liturgical tradition, knows this: the intuitive and natural sense of the solemn and reverent. It is natural to want to be beautiful, to live in beautiful homes. What is aesthetically pleasing is preferred to the crass. Should one expect anything less in worship, when one enters into deep communion with God Who created all things in beauty? Christian worship is of the Kingdom of God and is to show forth the Kingdom — spiritually and symbolically. Thus, the natural desire to make worship and the church itself both beautiful and aesthetically appealing.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes of the development of the Divine Liturgy that "the faith and experience of the Church are inseparable from Scriptures, which are its source. Everything the Church believes and by which it lives took place 'according to the Scripture'... But this 'according to the Scripture' means much more than fulfillment of prophecies and predictions; it means first of all the inner link between what Christ did and what the Scripture relates — aside from this link neither Scripture nor the meaning of Christ's acts can be understood. The unfolding and deepening reflection of this link is precisely the content of the Christian service, of Church poetry, and even of the rite itself." [7]

Notice the three key words in this observation. First, obviously, is Scripture. It is and must be the basis of all the Christian is and does. The second key word is unfolding. Just as theology and doctrine (the understanding of why and what is believed) took many centuries to develop, so did the unfolding of the form of worship require a similar amount of time to develop and blossom. The third key word is deepening. As with anything in life, for it to become filled with meaning and value requires time. The process of Christian worship itself moving beyond the immediate and the obvious to the meaningful and deep (i.e. "the breadth and length and height and depth" of the faith in Eph. 3:18) required time. And the process of this natural development also included the desire to make worship beautiful.

This is important to grasp as one considers the process by which the Liturgy developed. It can be seen how Christian worship made the natural transition from Jewish worship forms to Christian. Under Constantine the Christian worship and especially the Divine Liturgy continued to change. And the result is a form of Christian worship almost two thousand years old, one that naturally developed and matured under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. How can one account for its beauty, for its aesthetic appeal, for its splendor, other than by this process and the desire of the Church that worship be a reflection of heavenly worship? In other words, that it be deep, beautiful, moving, compelling and meaningful.

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Architecture and Worship

It has been described above how clerical vestments came into being, both to preserve the old dress traditions and to show forth the glory of the Kingdom. An architectural illustration may help explain the significance of what was now occurring within the Christian Church. The most common form for large public buildings in the Roman Empire was the basilica. Essentially a large rectangle, the span of its roof was held up by two rows of pillars running the length of the building. This form constituted most buildings which had been erected for secular purposes and were then taken over for Christian worship, demonstrating that the building in and of itself was not the most important aspect of the "temple". It remained the most common form of church architecture in the West through the Renaissance. The illustration below shows two common forms.

The basilica had inherent limitations. First, the two rows of columns divide the inner space of the Church into three sections, and so the assembly is divided into three sections. Only the center portion could house a "united" congregation; the result was three congregations. In larger basilicas with subdivisions, the result could be five separate groupings. In addition, the length of the basilica resulted in a further separation due to the distance from the rear to the altar.

For the early Byzantine architects, beginning under Constantine, these problems were solved by developing a building where everything was there for its own purpose. The most dramatic aspect of this architectural development was replacing the rectangle with a square building with no columns, but with a dome atop it to cover the span. The bema with the ark, the lectern, and bishop's seat could be centrally located with no hindrance to the believers assembling around the bishops and readers for the synaxis. The assembly would then open for the procession of the holy gifts to the altar and rearrange itself so as to be gathered around the altar. It is easy to see from the diagram below how this architectural arrangement would enhance worship.

Byzantine Church

The Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) begun by Constantine "would become the grandiose model of the new type of Christian church, which may be the best adaptation to its primary purpose ever achieved in the past." [8]

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The Synaxis and the Eucharist

The major structural change in the development of the Christian rite took place by the latter part of the third century. Through this time it was not uncommon for Christian worship to still have two separate components, the synaxis (directly derived from the synagogue) and the Eucharist. The Eucharist was for believers only, and while all were expected to attend, this portion of the service was closed to non-believers. With the removal of persecution and the development of public worship, the need for separate services disappeared. By the end of the sixth century, holding one rite without the other had become very uncommon. The two rites had some similar and overlapping components, which were easily incorporated into each other. Prior to the synthesis occurring, the synaxis and the Eucharist services had the following components: [9]

Synaxis or "Meeting" Eucharist
Greeting & Response Greeting & Response
Lections interspersed with Psalmody Kiss of Peace
Psalmody Offertory
Sermon Eucharistic Prayer
Dismissal of Catechumens Fraction
Intercessory Prayers Communion
Benediction Benediction

It is very easy to see how these two services could be fused together to form two parts of one celebration. In the Eastern and Western Church this synthesis occurred and included liturgical enrichments including the addition of hymns, expanded use of litanies and the inclusion of the Nicene Creed. Two facts show that this synthesis was true to the original worship of the Early Church. The synaxis is very similar to the synagogue service. Further, the Eucharist is almost identical to the Eucharist which Justin Martyr describes in his First Apology as taking place at Rome in 150 A.D.

The early Christian Church inherited from Judaism an understanding of sacred or liturgical time, weekly and daily, with corresponding liturgical services. In addition to Sabbath services, in Judaism there were daily prayer services. These came into Christianity and were the basis of the original "ordo" or order of prayer. There is not a great deal of textual evidence for these first centuries, but it is fair to say that at a bare minimum the accepted norm was morning and evening prayers, which had developed by the mid to late 3rd century into Matins (Orthros in Greek) as the morning service, and Vespers (Esperinos in Greek) as the evening service at sunset.

In the context of liturgical maturation during this period, two points are important to keep in mind. First, liturgical changes of the fourth century were not a radical break with what preceded. Fr. Schmemann says of this period, "It is really impossible to speak of a 'liturgical revolution' in the fourth century, if by this we mean the appearance of a type of worship differing radically from that which had gone before." [10]

The same holds true of the enhancements and beautifications which took place in the early Byzantine period. Gregory Dix in The Shape of the Liturgy states that the main form of the Eastern Liturgy had been "reached by the end of the fourth century, after this the process is no more than one of adjustment and development of detail." [11] He goes on to say that the final shape of the Liturgy was set by 800 A.D., with only minor variations occurring thereafter.

Worth mentioning for those concerned with this "late date", is that most of what we take for granted as normative Christian belief and doctrine is equally late. The authoritative formulation of the doctrines of Christ and of the Holy Trinity were also fourth century products, the work of the early Ecumenical Councils in combating heresy. So was the formulation of the New Testament Canon. The major task of the early ecumenical Councils was defining these doctrines and the Creed and the Canon of Scripture, and these theological definitions then naturally became part of the liturgical structure of the early Christian Church.

Credits

Parts of this page are excerpted from: Williams, B. and Anstall, H.; Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple and the Early Church; Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 1990.

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[1] Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, The Seabury Press, New York, 1982, p. 397.

[2] Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1973, p. 120.

[3] Eusebius, The History of the Church, Dorset Press, New York, 1965, p. 141.

[4] G. Dix, op cit, p. 399.

[5] G. Dix, op cit, p. 404.

[6] G. Dix, op cit, p 430.

[7] Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 19xx, p. 191.

[8] Louis Bouyer, Eucharist, Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1968, p. 64.

[9] G. Dix, ibid, p. 434.

[10] A. Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology; p. 96.

[11] G. Dix, ibid, p. 546.


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