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Celebrating Liturgica Music

Early Christian Liturgics

The early Christian Church came into being as a liturgical church because Jews worshipped liturgically. The New Testament records numerous instances of liturgical worship, which range from pure Jewish practices (such as Peter and John going to the Temple because it was the hour of prayer) to Christian liturgical worship (which confirms that the early Christians met and worshipped following Jewish liturgical practices, and added to them the rite of the Eucharist).

Many present-day Christians do not understand why the worship services of the "liturgical churches" are so different and so structured. A common assumption is that in the New Testament, worship was spontaneous. However, worship in the early Christian Church, like Judaism, followed a specific order or form. This "order" has its very roots in the Scriptures. In fact, all of Christianity worshipped this way for 1500 years; the Eastern Orthodox Church and Western Roman Church have been worshiping this way — more or less unchanged — for nearly 2000 years.

Two words need to be kept in mind when one first experiences liturgical worship: origin and changelessness.

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Early Christian worship had an origin: Jewish worship form and practice. The early disciples did not create new worship practices any more than did Jesus Christ. They all prayed as Jews and worshipped as Jews. The earliest Christians were Jews who recognized and accepted Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah, and the worship that they practiced was liturgical because Jewish worship was liturgical. For this reason we see in the New Testament that the early Christians continued their Jewish worship practices, even while they added some uniquely Christian components. The most central new content was the sacrament of the Eucharist (or Communion) as instituted by Christ at the Last Supper. However, in the early Church this was celebrated as a separate service for many years.

This living continuity of worship from Temple to Synagogue and into the early Christian Church is why there is a highly developed Christian liturgical order in use by the end of the first century, within sixty years of Christ's resurrection.

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Perhaps one of the most striking and unique things about liturgical Christianity, and especially in this age of rapid change and even change for its own sake, is its permanence and changelessness. This is especially true for the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day. This was also true of the Western Roman Church until the past century when the reforms of Vatican II significantly altered the liturgical form of the Roman mass. It has been said that one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Orthodox Church is "its determination to remain loyal to the past, its sense of living continuity with the church of ancient times "[1]. This commitment to protecting the Gospel and keeping its message and praise to God the same stems from the conviction that the faith was delivered to Christians by Jesus Christ. If Christians are going to be "apostolic," then they must belong to the same Church that Christ founded. That Church began in the first century. As one Orthodox scholar points out, "there is a sense in which all Christians must become Christ's contemporaries..." He goes on to assert, "the twentieth century is not an absolute norm, the apostolic age is."[2]

Present-day Christians, then, have to acknowledge the origins of Christian worship, and bear the responsibility of changelessness. C.S. Lewis recognized the changelessness of the liturgy as an extremely important and very valuable characteristic for practical reasons. He went so far as to say it should be like an old shoe; something that fits, something that doesn't have to be broken in all the time, something you don't even notice is there. He concludes these observations by saying "The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God."[3]

The musical forms of early Christian worship were initially Jewish, such as the chanting of Psalms. As the Gentile missions began, Christians began incorporating Greek music forms. The language of worship became almost universally Greek, which was the common language of the Roman Empire, and more and more Greek music forms and theory came into use in the Church. Within twenty to forty years, the Christian worship service was a composite of Jewish and Greek liturgical music forms, following the basic shape of Jewish Synagogue and Temple worship. Within a hundred years, as the Church spread across the Roman Empire and most of its members were Gentiles who spoke Greek and lived in a Greek culture, most of the musical style and theory had become Greek. It still retained some Jewish form and content such as chanting. After the legalization of Christianity in the early 4th century, this music form and style developed into Byzantine music, the Church's first formal music form. Byzantine music was very broadly and consistently used throughout the Church through the seventh and eighth centuries.

Although Greek music was predominant, it was not the only form in use. In Egypt, there was a decidedly different form, as was the case in other parts of the Empire. However, most of the Empire used Greek as its common language, and the Byzantine music became almost universal throughout the Church. The two earliest Christian hymns, "O Gladsome Light" (referred to by St. Justin in about 150 A.D.) (See Sacred Sample), and a "Hymn to the Holy Trinity" (from Oxyrrhyncus, Egypt, probably mid-4th century) (See Sacred Sample), are decidedly Greek in musical form.

The term "early Christianity" generally refers to the time prior to the legalization of the faith by the Emperor Constantine. Theological development occurred during this time, as well. As the Christian Church worked through the implications of what had occurred in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and as they grew in their knowledge and understanding under the leadership of the Apostles such as James, John and Paul, their worship began to incorporate these new understandings. For instance, the earliest church had two Sabbath services: a "Synagogue-type" service and a separate communion service. Over time these were combined. Another page in this section describes Worship in the Early Church, documenting the processes and influences by which Christian worship became formalized, and how the various rites in use locally became standardized throughout the Roman and Byzantine Empire. A further page details later developments in Christian worship as theology and doctrine became defined, and external cultural influences were exerted on the Christian Church.


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] Timothy Ware.; The Orthodox Church, New York, Penguin Books, p. 203.

[2] John Meyendorf.; Woman and the Priesthood, New York, St. Vladimir's Press, p. 14.

[3] C.S. Lewis.; Letters to Malcolm, Glascow, Collins & Sons, p. 6.