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Celebrating Liturgica Music

Early Western Liturgics

The Dawn of Western Christianity

Christianity was brought to the city of Rome by the missionary efforts of Sts. Peter and Paul, with Peter being recognized as the city's first bishop. Undoubtedly they brought with them the liturgical practices of the Church of Jerusalem. As with the other early Christian communities, we can be sure that the earliest Roman Christians celebrated the rite of Baptism and Eucharist. The earliest document of the Roman Church, the letter of Pope Clement to the Church in Corinth, contains prayers replete with Jewish imagery. [1]

Some elements of Jewish spirituality were undoubtedly part of the early Christian worship, such as the use of readings from Hebrew Scriptures and even the use of Hebrew words such as amen and alleluia. New Testament accounts in Luke 4:16-30 and Acts 13:15-16 indicate early Christians were familiar with Sabbath synagogue gatherings involving proclamation of Scripture and preaching. The Christian word service may also be connected with Jewish use of hymn singing and religious discourse associated with meals. [2] Although the elements of readings, prayers and preaching are found in both fully developed synagogue worship and early Christian liturgy, a direct structural connection between these two traditions is yet to be discovered. [3] A letter of Pliny the Younger written in 112 describes Christians gathering early in the morning for a service of praise and also in the evening for a meal. This dual gathering of early Christians indicates to some liturgical scholars that originally the word and table services of Christian Eucharist were celebrated independently at different times of the day. However other liturgists surmise the word and table services were originally celebrated as a unit, and the second gathering Pliny mentions might have been an agape — a meal with religious meaning but distinct from the celebration of Eucharist. [4]

Because we possess no liturgical documents from the dawn of Roman liturgy we can say only a few things for certain about its earliest practice. Because of the sporadic persecutions, the Church was forced to gather in private homes for liturgical celebrations. Some of the churches in the city of Rome today still bear the names of the owners of the homes where the first Christians met, such as Clement. We also know that the language of worship used in Rome was Greek, since it was the common language used throughout the Roman empire at that time. Like churches in other parts of the world, the Roman Church used the Jewish Calendar to determine the date of the feast of Easter and the following 50-day period of celebration leading up to Pentecost. One point of distinction of the Roman Church is that it always began the Easter celebrations on the Sunday closest to 14 Nisan, unlike some other churches who celebrated Easter on this date, no matter what day of the week it occurred.

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Worship in the Second Century

The first descriptions we have of Christian worship in the city of Rome are found in the Apologia of Justin, a lay member of the Roman community who was martyred around 160. These were written to the pagan civil authorities as explanations of Christian practices; they include an account of the rite of Baptism and two descriptions of the celebration of Eucharist. Concerning the latter Justin writes:

"On the day named after the sun, all who live in the city or in the countryside assemble. The memoirs of the apostles or the writing of the prophets are read as long as time allows. When the lector has finished, the president addresses us and exhorts us to imitate the splendid things we have heard. Then we all stand and pray. As we said earlier, when we have finished praying, bread, wine, and water are brought up. The president then prays and gives thanks according to his ability, and the people give their assent with an Amen! Next, the gifts over which the thanksgiving has been spoken and distributed, and everyone shares in them, while they are also sent via the deacons to the absent brethren." [5]

From this description, we can see that around the year 150 the Church of Rome regularly gathered on Sunday, and that the word and table services were celebrated as a single unit. The liturgy begins directly with scripture readings, and there is already a designated office of reader. At the conclusion of the readings the "president" (from the Greek proestaminos, the one who stands in front of the assembly) — presumably the bishop or his designate — preaches a homily. After the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward the president improvises a prayer of thanksgiving or eucharistia in which all assembled participate with their acclamation of Amen. From the texts of all the later Eucharistic prayers that come down to us, we may assume that this presidential prayer was not freely invented, but followed standard structure and form similar to the Jewish hodayah prayer of praise and thanksgiving. [6] Elsewhere in the Apologia, Justin makes clear that the "gifts" of bread and wine which all share are not considered ordinary food, but the "flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus."

In this account we see the same basic liturgical shape common to all ancient liturgies, Rome does not seem to have any particularly distinctive features. In fact, in 154 Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna visited Pope Anicetus, who asked him to preside in his place at a celebration of Eucharist, apparently without any fear of discrepancies in their respective rites.

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Growth and Latinization

By the year 251 the Church at Rome began to experience significant changes. It is estimated the Christians in the city numbered from 10, 000 to 30, 000. People listed in the financial care of the church included the bishop (Pope Cornelius), 46 presbyters, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 52 members of minor orders (readers, exorcists and doorkeepers), and 1500 widows and other people in need. Also at this time Latin was replacing Greek as the liturgical language in Rome as it had earlier in the Roman provinces of northern Africa. Thus the Roman oratorical style began to make its mark on Roman liturgy — a rhetoric characterized by its simplicity, sobriety, terseness and juridical wording in contrast to the more effusive Greek. The Apostolic Tradition of this period, often attributed to the Roman Presbyter Hippolytus, contains much liturgical information, including a complete Eucharistic Prayer; however, many questions remain unanswered as to its true authorship, which parts may have been later additions, and if it represents an Alexandrian rather than Roman practice.

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Worship after the Legalization of Christianity

The Edict of Milan of Emperor Constantine in 312 brought about further changes. Now the church was free to worship openly and to own property. The Roman bishop was granted the status and privileges of imperial judges. Like their secular counterparts, the bishop now had the right to be preceded in procession by torches, incense and singers. These ritual elements began to enter the liturgy, both to solemnize the entrance of the bishop and the Book of Gospels. With the influx of converts as a result of the legalization of Christianity, the Church outgrew its domestic gathering places. The Christian basilicas, similar in design to Roman court buildings, were simple, large rooms flanked by colonnades with a rounded apse at one end. This new space allowed for stately processions and a splendid performance of liturgy. An organized system of catechesis was necessary to accommodate the many people now wanting to join the Church in its new political environment.

The sacrament of Penance in the West was part of its earliest tradition as attested by Origen and Cyprian. It was seen as a remedy for a post-baptismal "shipwreck" — for grave sins causing public scandal: murder, adultery and apostasy. As in the Eastern church, orders of penitents were formed, but treated somewhat differently. In Rome they were not dismissed along with the catechumens at the conclusion of the liturgy of the word. They were allowed to remain throughout the entire service, but, of course, did not receive communion. Special blessing prayers for penitents before or after communion are recorded in both North Africa and Rome. The penitential period came to an end with a sacramental celebration including an imposition of hands; at the beginning if the fifth century this took place on Holy Thursday.

Although the Church at Rome had celebrated the Easter cycle of feasts from great antiquity, it did not formally celebrate the Christmas cycle elaborately until the fifth century. Taking the lead from the Eastern churches, Rome began celebrating the Feast of Epiphany around the year 400. After the Council of Ephesus in 431, Christmas celebrations were enriched with a nocturnal Mass at the church of St. Mary Major in Rome.

Part of the earliest Christian tradition were prayers said at third, sixth and ninth hours of the day, either as private individual prayers, or domestic prayer services. These prayer times had their analogy in the Jewish hours of prayer. By the fourth century public celebrations of Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) were held in all the major churches of Rome.

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Worship Outside Rome and North Africa

During the time Christianity was being established in Rome, it also spread in the Western provinces of the Roman Empire. Unlike the Eastern churches with several important centers of influence such as Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, Rome was the primary model for Western liturgical practice as indicated by the universal adoption of Latin for all Western Christian rites. We may assume the Western churches outside Rome shared the general uniform liturgical practices of early Christianity with some local variation in ritual detail.

Early on we can see two streams of liturgical tradition in the West: the North African-Rome tradition discussed so far, and the Gallican tradition encompassing the rest of the Western Roman empire, including northern Italy. The term "Gallican" is somewhat confusing in that it is used both generally to describe the liturgical family of Western rites outside the North African-Roman tradition, and specifically to indicate the liturgy of the region of Gaul. Since extensive Gallican liturgical sources are lacking from this early period, it is impossible to say with certainty if their original forms shared the simple, sober Roman character, or if their earliest texts contained the prolix, elaborate characteristics similar to Eastern liturgies that are evident by the time Gallican traditions were recorded in written form.

The Western tradition most similar to the Roman-North African rite is commonly called the Ambrosian or Milanese liturgy. The Eucharistic Prayer quoted by St. Ambrose in 390 is substantially the same as the canon found in later Roman documents. Even in the times of St. Ambrose, the Milanese rite had characteristics that it maintained distinct from Roman practice, such as foot washing as part of the rite of Baptism, and the prohibition of fasting on Saturdays, even during Lent. The practice of singing antiphons and hymns is part of the proud heritage of the early Milanese church.

The Spanish or Visigothic liturgy, usually called the Mozarabic Rite, was practiced in the Iberian Peninsula. It is assumed that North African and Roman sources formed the core of its earliest practice, although later forms show Eastern characteristics as well.

The Gallican liturgy practiced in Gaul shows a greater variety of local practice. A Celtic variant was used by the Irish, Scots and Welsh. A characteristic of Gallican liturgy is the use of a series of short, variable prayers where the Roman rite used a single unified oration. Another distinctive characteristic is the use of centonized readings, where a single reading is made up of passages from several books of Scripture.

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Selected Bibliography

Adam, Adolf. Foundations of Liturgy: An Introduction to Its History and Practice. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992.

Paul Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church, Alcuin Club Collection 63, New York, 1982.

Bradshaw, Paul F. The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. New York, 1992.

Deiss, Lucien. Springtime of the Liturgy. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. Collegeville, MN, 1979.

Jungmann, Josef. The Early Liturgy. Translated by Francis A. Brunner. Notre Dame, IN, 1959.

Metzger, Marcel. History of the Liturgy: The Early Stages. Translated by Madeleine M. Beaumont. Collegeville, MN, 1997.

Wegman, Herman. Christian Worship in East and West. Translated by Gordon W. Lathrop. New York, 1985.


Joseph Metzinger

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[1] Lucien Deiss, Springtime of the Liturgy, pp. 81-85.

[2] Paul Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church, pp. 21-22, 44-45.

[3] Paul Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, pp. 27-29.

[4] Adolf Adam, Foundations of Liturgy, p. 16.

[5] Deiss, pp. 93-94.

[6] For a discussion of the hodaya prayer, see Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search of the Origins of Christian Worship, pp. 16-17, 50-51.