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Worship in the Early Church

The early believers in Christ continued in the traditions of their Jewish forefathers, worshiping as they had in both the Temple and the Synagogue . To this worship practice they added the distinctly Christian components which were, in fact, transformed Jewish worship practices. These included Baptism, the Eucharist, the Agape meal, and others. Baptism was also present in Jewish religious practice as a personal repentance for sin. Baptism, like the Lord's Supper, was transformed in both meaning and content by our Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism became not only a repentance for one's sins, but being baptized in the name of the Trinity now also assured forgiveness and incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. Baptism was the once and for all initiatory rite whereby one received the Holy Spirit and came into the Church.

The early Christians with their transformed understanding of the central elements of Judaism had a practical problem: how to conduct worship? They wanted to carry on their old Jewish worship practices while at the same time incorporating this new meaning and content. They accepted the necessity for continuity with the old, and for the celebration of the new, but could not do both together. The result was doing both in parallel. The Temple hours of prayer and the Synagogue worship were kept, but were not centered in Christ. Each day of the week, those Christian believers in Jerusalem would attend the Temple for prayers during the daily cycle, and on Saturday — the Jewish Sabbath — they would attend either Temple or Synagogue.

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The Eucharist and the Resurrection

But what to do about the Eucharist? It could not be added to a Synagogue service, yet it was to be celebrated as the Lord had commanded. The answer was tied to the Resurrection. Jesus had been crucified on Friday, the day before the Jewish Sabbath, and had risen on Sunday, the third day. Thus the day after the Sabbath was seen as the day of the Lord's Resurrection, the Lord's Day. At the Lord's Supper, the parousia or presence of Jesus Christ was experienced in the consecrated gifts; here people encountered Christ's new life in His resurrection. It was only natural that the Eucharist or Lord's Supper should be celebrated each Resurrection Day. Thus, the typical pattern for early believers became Synagogue worship on the Sabbath, followed by gathering for the Lord's Supper on the "next day". For the Jews, the day ended at sundown and the next day began. Sunday began at nightfall on Saturday. As Luke records in Acts 10:7, "On Saturday evening we gathered together for the fellowship (communion) meal" (NEV). The pattern typically became one of worshiping in Synagogue on the Sabbath morning, and then gathering together again in the evening (the next day — Sunday) for the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

In the early Church , the Lord's Supper was celebrated at the end of the Agape (love) or fellowship meal. This was an extension of the Passover supper tradition, and was a means for believers to show each other the love and unity they shared together in Christ. All gathered, each bringing what they were able. At the conclusion of the meal was the Eucharist, the "thanks-giving" for the grace of Jesus Christ. The sacrament conveyed the understanding and symbolism of the Passover Supper, now consummated in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. It is highly probable that it was the absence of this Jewish understanding that accounted for the disintegration and abuse of the Agape meal in the Gentile churches. Paul berates the Corinthians for being selfish, causing some to go hungry, and for drunkenness at the meal which became so pervasive that it even prevented the Eucharist from being celebrated (I Cor. 11:20-21).

What can be seen, however, especially during the early years prior to the Gentile missions, was a link between these old and new worship practices. A Jewish male who became a follower of The Way would have been circumcised as a child, and with his wife and family would continue in the normal Jewish worship pattern with a new Christian understanding. The early Church proceeded in this manner until two things occurred: the Gentile missions brought into the Church people without a Jewish tradition, raising the sort of problems just noted. However, in the earliest days of the Church, converts were expected to become Jews as well as Christians; in other words to be circumcised if male. This in itself speaks strongly of continuity with Jewish worship practice.

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The Impact of Persecutions on Worship

The persecutions shook this co-existence and steered the Jewish Christian worship transition into a more distinctly Christian form of worship. The first persecution was recorded in Acts 6 and 7, and involved the martyrdom of St. Stephen. The early persecutions were by the Jews, and aimed at this new sect that was winning converts from Judaism and was seen as heretical. With the persecutions, the life of the Church was changed because the result was exclusion from Judaism. And that meant exclusion from Jewish worship. Christians were no longer able to gather in the Synagogue , and were unwelcome in the Temple as well as described in Acts 21 when St. Paul is mobbed within the Temple grounds. The active Jewish persecutions excluded Christians from the Temple, and forced them toward new worship practices.

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The Core of Christian Worship

What was this resulting Christian order? The Synagogue worship structure, consisting of a litany of prayers, a confession, eulogies, readings from the Scriptures, an address or homily, and a benediction. This form constituted the core of what was to become specifically Christian worship.

Evidence for this can be found in archaeological evidence from the earliest Syrian churches, as well as in the Apostolic Constitutions and the Didache, and in the continuous practices of the Nestorian Churches. "The old Syrian church appears as a Christianized version of a Jewish Synagogue." [1] There is a bema in the center, an Ark with veil and candle to hold the Word of God, and a seat for the bishop (that is) representative of the seat of Moses. To these Synagogue elements was added an altar, and now the Church had an orientation. The architectural arrangement can be seen in the following illustration.

Christian churches were oriented facing the East for a very specific reason. Christians look to the heavenly Jerusalem from which the Messiah will come, and know themselves to be the "temple of the Holy Spirit." However, the East is the place of the rising sun, and for early Christians this was "the only fitting symbol of the last appearance of Christ in His parousia, as Sun of Justice in Zecharia." [2] Tertullian speaks of public and private prayer to the East as being an Apostolic tradition, and it expressed the eschatological expectation that Christ will appear as the Rising Sun that will never set.

To the core Synagogue structure (commonly referred to as the Synaxis or the Liturgy of the Word) was added the fulfilled Temple worship, the Eucharist, which was inserted prior to the benediction. This included the use of sung or chanted Psalms which were part of Jewish worship, and to which St. Paul refers in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 when he encourages the use of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs". Again, St. Paul's Missionary approach demonstrates this connection, for his approach in any new city was to worship first in the Synagogue using that base for proclaiming the Gospel. The Jerusalem Church was the "Mother Church" for early Christianity, to which the Church at large looked for guidance in all things theological and liturgical. The missionary churches naturally followed the form of the Jerusalem Church. Thus, the Gentile churches which came into being as a result of St. Paul's preaching and teaching had this same Jewish rule of prayer, or order of worship. The similarity to the Synagogue ritual within the first century Church demonstrates an early universal acceptance of Jewish worship origins. [3]

In his book, The History of The Church (18.1), Eusebius, a fourth century historian and bishop, quotes Philo, a Jewish historian writing in the first century. Philo describes the Christian "all-night vigils of the great festival, the spiritual discipline in which they are spent, the hymns that we always recite, and how while one man sings in regular rhythm the others listen silently and join in the refrains of the hymn." [4] This is antiphonal singing of litanies, and certainly reflects Jewish worship practice, which Philo recognizes. By the end of the first century, the Christian Church was present throughout much of the Empire. There were established churches in most of the major cities and many smaller ones. These churches continued following the order of Jewish worship, essentially the Synagogue form with the inclusion of the Eucharist. But, the typical worship of the first and second centuries was by necessity simple. The Church was generally under persecution, so it tended to hold its worship services in secret, and usually in the homes of members. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann states, the liturgical form was commonly "the bishop, surrounded by presbyters (elders) facing the assembly, the Supper Table, on which the deacons placed the gifts (bread and wine) which were being offered, preaching, prayer, the anaphora (prayer before Communion) and the distribution of the Holy Gifts." [5]

The freedom of the first years of the church's life in which she could be liturgically Jewish in Synagogue and Temple and also celebrate the Eucharist were over. What is evident is a liturgical contraction under the duress of persecution. By now the "unnecessary" material of the Synagogue service had been compressed or even eliminated. What was left was a simpler service focused on the Eucharist, but one that still reflects the Synagogue form and contains its major elements. But this liturgical contraction does not imply that the Early Church was primitive, had no ceremony, and subscribed to simple beliefs. In his introduction to The History of The Church. G .A. Williamson says of Eusebius that in his own statements and those of the earliest authorities on which he draws, we see a church which we would recognize as our own. "We shall find the same line drawn between clergy and laity, the same division of the clergy into the three orders of bishops, presbyters, and the deacons, the same practice of Episcopal ordination and consecration, the same insistence on Apostolic Succession and on the establishment by Christ of One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. We shall find Christendom partitioned up into dioceses and archdioceses, presided over and ruled by bishops who are held in the highest esteem." [6]

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Focus on the Eucharist

By the second century, the Lord's Supper (or Eucharist) began to be separated from the Agape meal. Differing opinions exist as to whether this was due to problems such as those in Corinth, or the growing Gentile expansion in the Church with a lack of Jewish perspective. The result was the celebration of the Eucharist without the Agape meal.

The word Eucharist means thanksgiving or the giving of thanks (see Luke 22:16). At the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, Christ's intent was not on the perpetuation of a mere meal or Passover supper. Instead, that meal was fulfilled in the partaking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And it is after the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost that the incredible significance of the Eucharist comes to light. For the Lord Who gave the Church this sacrament became alive again and ascended! He is the living Lord Jesus Christ, Who reigns at the right hand of God the Father. He said not only "this is my Body and Blood," but He also told His followers "unless you eat of my Body and of my Blood you have no life within you" (John 6:53). One cannot get around this point in Scripture.

The early Christians took their Lord at His word, believing that in a mystery, bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and that it was life-giving. That is, through the work of the Holy Spirit, each believer was nurtured by grace (sacramentally) and received spiritual sustenance. Behind this understanding of the nature of the Eucharist was the understanding of worship held by the entire early Church. As Fr. Schmemann tells us, "the worship of the church has at its real center the constant renewal and repetition in time of the one unchanging Sacrament: unchanging that is in its meaning, content and purpose. But the whole significance of this repetition is in the fact that something unrepeatable is being recalled and actualized. The Eucharist is the actualization of one, single, unrepeatable event. [7] This is readily apparent in the portion of the Liturgy or Mass before communion; the memorial which remembers, which "re-presents every Sunday the saving death of Christ in the expectation of the resurrection... the Eucharistic meal has taken the place of the former sacrifices. No other sacrifice can have any meaning but the cross of Christ, celebrated in the Christian meal. Through it, while taking part in His passion, we are being given a foretaste of His resurrection." [8]

These liturgical actions plus the faith of the early Christians were on the Body and Blood of Christ. More specifically, it was the Biblical promise of the reality of His sacrifice made available in these gifts, and the reality of spiritual nurture they bring. Ultimately, it is a question of Life. Jesus said He came that believers could have life and have it more abundantly. He also said He would send His Spirit, the Spirit of Life, to transform believers and all creation, to set believers apart.

The belief of the early Church was that the Eucharist was this transforming life — spiritual life. It was not a memorial experience of the Lord. It was a miraculous experience of the Grace of God in the Holy Spirit. For St. Ignatius this transformation centered around the altar, the place of sacrifice, from which the believer receives the bread of life. On this altar was consecrated the elements which became the life-giving mysteries. [9]

This was certainly the belief of Justin Martyr, circa A.D. 150, who said: "For we do not receive these things as though they were ordinary food and drink... the food over which the thanksgiving has been spoken becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus in order to nourish and transform our flesh and blood." St. Justin called this food Eucharist, thanksgiving or blessing, just as he called baptismal washing "enlightenment". For him this was a real and powerful act of God. [10]

Thus, for Christians now as for the Apostles then, the Biblical promise is that by believing on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and being baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, believers receive new life in that sacrament through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And as believers partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, they continue to receive new life in Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit. This indeed is something to give thanks for! Hence the name Eucharist: the Thanksgiving. This was the uniform view of the early Church. For St. Ignatius, who died in 107 A.D., "thought of the Church as a Eucharistic society which only realized its true nature when it celebrated the Supper of the Lord, receiving His Body and Blood in the Sacrament." [11]

Gregory Dix, in his classic treatise on the development of liturgical worship, states that in the earliest accounts of the Eucharist, the Church places the words of institution central in the Eucharistic Prayer. He goes on to point out that it used formulas which were in keeping with those of John's Gospel, "that Bread which cometh down from Heaven and giveth life unto the world, he that eateth of this Bread shall live for ever." [12] He then quotes St. Ignatius who had described the Eucharistic Bread as "a remedy bestowing immortality, an antidote preventing death and giving life in Jesus Christ."

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Worship and Belief

This belief of the early Church can also be seen in how they worshiped. The early Christian Church was a "Christological Synagogue ". For the majority of the service the Bishop would be seated on the bema or stand thereon. The Ark had become in the Syrian Church the place where the Gospel Book was "enthroned"; and this was probably so throughout the early Church. The Word was taken from the Ark and proclaimed from the bema. By it the believer was led to the altar and beyond it to the Kingdom. This happened literally as well as spiritually! There were no pews in the early Church. This was true almost universally up until the seventeenth century in the West, and is still true in most Orthodox Churches today. Upon the completion of the prayers and Scripture readings, the clergy would take the bread and wine and proceed to the East — to the altar for the Eucharistic meal. The vital nature of the early Christian worship is expressed in this procession toward the East (that is, the Kingdom). "Therefore the whole assembly, far from being a static mass of spectators, remains an organic gathering of worshipers, first centered on the Ark, for hearing and meditating upon the Scriptures, and finally going toward the East all together for the Eucharistic prayer and the final communion." [13]

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The Great Entrance

This movement toward the altar with the gifts is the origin of what is now called the Great Entrance in the Orthodox Liturgy when the clergy bring the bread and wine from the Preparation Table to the Altar before the Eucharist. The only major change over time in the structure of this portion of the Liturgy was the movement of the Gospel into the sanctuary before the Altar, in advance of its reading to the assembled congregation. In part, once again, this was due to the circumstances the Church experienced. For the early Church, the Gospel Book was of inexpressible value, for it was the Word of Life. One of the common goals of the persecuting Romans was to confiscate and destroy the Gospel Book. Thus, along with the sacred vessels, it was kept in a safe place during the week, and only brought out for the service of the Divine Liturgy. This circumstance would have existed through the early part of the fourth century changing only with the end of the persecution of Diocletian.

What transpired then, was the assembling of believers before the Liturgy began, typically singing Psalms of praise in anticipation of the impending communion with God. The clergy would arrive bearing the Gospel Book and the sacred vessels and enter the Church, carrying the Gospel Book to the center of the building (onto the bema in the very earliest churches). Then, after the reading of the Gospel lesson to the assembly, the Gospel Book would be carried to the Altar. From this real experience has come two portions of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy; the Antiphons and the Little Entrance.

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The Antiphons

The Antiphons (two or three are commonly sung) are composed of Psalms that are antiphonally sung by cantor and choir or congregation. These go back to the Psalms sung by the assembled congregation while awaiting the arrival of the clergy. The Little Entrance is the bearing of the Gospel into the sanctuary, and it likewise can be traced to the carrying of the Gospel Book into the church. With the end of persecution it could be kept in the church. Until recent times, the practice was for the Gospel to be in the middle of the church at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, and from there to be carried into the sanctuary during the Little Entrance to be read before the altar. Having been brought into the midst of the assembly, the Book of Life is then carried into the sanctuary, where, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, all of the assembly enter into the Kingdom to partake of the Eucharist.

St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Church as a "Eucharistic community" who realizes her true nature when she celebrates the Eucharist. His view of the Church was the local community gathered around its Bishop, celebrating the Eucharist. It is important to note that St. Ignatius became Bishop of Antioch in A.D. 67 — in the midst of the New Testament era while most of the Apostles were still alive and active. St. Ignatius was the second Bishop of Antioch succeeding St. Peter. Thus we can safely trust that this understanding of the nature of the Church and the Eucharist was representative of that held by the Apostles and the Church at large.

By the end of the first century the basic form or order of the Liturgy was established and universally celebrated throughout the Christian Church, though with regional and cultural differences in expression. The Liturgy had as its center the worship of Jesus Christ and the partaking of His Holy Gifts. In the process she remained true to her origin in Jewish worship which the Lord Himself had practiced and which had been revealed by God. The shed blood of bulls or goats was no longer at the core. This sacrifice was fulfilled for all time in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, which is central still to the life of the Church in the Holy Eucharist. Thus, as the lives of the Apostles ended, as the responsibility for the Church was being handed on to the next generation, her worship of God was established. The basic form of the Liturgy was settled, to be refined and enhanced over the coming years, but never altered in its basic form and meaning.

The major structural change in the development of the Christian rite took place by the latter part of the third century. Until 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 this synthesis, the Synaxis and the Eucharist services had the following components:" [14]

Synaxis or "Meeting" Eucharist
Greeting and Response Greeting and 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. As shown, this synthesis was true to the original worship of the Early Church. The Synaxis is very similar to the Synagogue service. And 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.


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] Louis Bouyer, Eucharist, Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame, 1968, p. 25.

[2] ibid, p. 28.

[3] Alexander Schmemann, Introduction To Liturgical Theology, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1986, p. 154.

[4] Eusebius, The History of The Church, Dorset Press, New York, 1965.

[5] A. Schmemann, op. cit., p. 119.

[6] Eusebius, op. cit, p. 9.

[7] A. Schmemann, op. cit, p. 43.

[8] L. Bouyer, op. cit., p. 32.

[9] Willy Rordorf, editor, The Eucharist of the Early Christians, Pueblo Publishing Co., New York, 1976, p. 61.

[10] ibid, p. 75.

[11] in Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, New York, Penguin Books, 1978. p. 21.

[12] Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, The Seabury Press, New York, 1982, p. 137.

[13] L. Bouyer, op. cit., p. 35.

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