February 26, 2004
Thursday
vol 15, no. 57

chapter eight:



    Tradition Takes Shape


    The evolution of the early Christian spiritual life and liturgy

    The eighth installment of this mega-part series on the History of the Mass and Holy Mother Church deals the early Christian spiritual life and the liturgy as the fathers of the Church developed the Didache which laid out the liturgical practices for all faithful Christians to follow and from that slowly evolved the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Many practices were introduced that were eventually phased out because they were not in harmony with what Jesus Christ had asked of His Apostles.

The Early Catechism

    As the First Century gave way to the Second Century we discover the basis for the faith was tought through the Didache. This was a treatise in two parts called the "Doctrine of Twelve Apostles" which was begun about 65-80 A.D. by Saint Paul, yet not completed until the after 100 AD. There is also speculation that this outline of practically the entire Catholic Doctrine was principally written by Saint Polycarp, a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist in an epistle setting down the Christian rules and the merit of martyrdom, which he ultimately endured. Many believe these writings were combined with the seven epistles of Saint Ignatius of Antioch who, as an old man, was arrested for his faith in Antioch and shipped to Rome to be executed. While on his journey, he put in writing the teachings of the true doctrine including the authority of bishops, in which he wrote in part: "Wherever the bishop, there let the people be, as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church...respect the bishop as a type of God, and the presbyters as the council of God, and the college of the apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a Church." Shortly after reaching Rome, Ignatius was sacrificed to the lions in the 60,000 seat Colosseum.

Sacramentals take root in the infant Church

    Regardless of when the Didache came to be, it became the manual for those missionary disciples who were ministering to believers. Because it was a prayerful groundwork for the celebration of the Eucharist, many perceived it as a manual for the Mass - the first Missal, if you will. It also stood as the standard guide for teaching the faith until Saint Augustine would write the first catechism in the Fifth Century. The Didache was divided into two parts, the first being a moral treatise and the second disciplinary, keying on the administration and ministry of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. It was not only highly regarded by the early fathers of the Church, but also provided insight into how the early Church was governed and the liturgy practiced which was perceived as an initiation rite to be highly guarded from unbelievers. The Didache became a vital catechetical exercise in the process of becoming a Christian. All who endeavored toward this goal had to be born again of water and the Holy Spirit. In the First Century a person became a Christian almost immediately by proclaiming his belief in Jesus Christ. But many wavered because they did not truly know what Jesus asks and also His Teaching. Therefore, in the Second Century those being converted went through a process called the Catechumen stage in which they studied the Didache. The custom was called the Disciplina Arcani or the "Discipline of the Secret." Once a candidate was ready for Baptism, he wore a white robe for a week, then at the conclusion of this was immersed in the water three times for the Trinity. This was performed by the presiding bishop. Right after the catechumen's baptism, he or she was confirmed by the bishop. This custom is still followed in the Eastern Church today.

The Sacraments and Liturgy of the early Church

    With the beginning of the Second Century, the Eucharistic service gradually supplanted the Agape meal and the service was moved from the evening meal to the morning of the Sabbath which was Sundays. Daily Mass and the full liturgy of the Mass did not become the norm until the beginning of the Fourth Century, but in the Second Century the structure of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass began to take shape more clearly. In the early Church Holy Communion was distributed at the Eucharistic service in both species of bread and wine and Holy Viaticum carried reverently by the deacons to those who were sick or unable to be present. Some Christians could receive permission from the bishops to keep the Blessed Sacrament in their home as well as carrying it with them on special journies.

    As for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it was much more vigorous than just confessing their sins as we do today. The early Christians felt that if they were not in the state of Sanctifying Grace they had no right to be called Christians, thus when a Christian committed a serious sin he or she was obliged to don rough garments and join the catechumens. It was a true lesson in humility for all Christians. Absolution was given only by the bishop and publicly. Many today, while not advocating returning to this severe of a penance, feel we need to at least return to this conscientiousness about the seriousness and horrors of being in the state of mortal sin.

    From the earliest times, fasting and penance were an integral part of the Church. Wednesdays and Fridays were special "watch days" in which all prayed and fasted until 3 pm, then gathered together for community prayer and instruction from the Didache. This fasting and praying also was the precursor to setting aside forty days before the Resurrection which became the Season of Lent. During the first two centuries the custom was to set aside the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday for three full days of fasting. As this became easier, the time was extended until it reached the standard 40 days of Lent. Other feast days and seasons evolved as devotions came into existence and the need for remembrance of special events in the life of Christ came to the forefront.

    As accounts of Jesus' Teaching, life and words as well as the virtues and examples of various saints were filtered throughout the Christian world, the need rose to establish reminders and memorials to better understand their religion and commemorate these symbols and spiritual role-models. Today images of saints and their spiritual activities can be detected on the rough hewned walls of the Catacombs and underground cemeteries throughout Rome and surrounding vicinity. The chief symbols were the cross, the chalice, the lighted lamp for wisdom, the anchor for hope, a ship to represent Holy Mother Church, a fish to symbolize Jesus from the account of the loaves and fishes. Our Blessed Mother was prominent in pictures and icons along with her Divine Son. Since there were no public churches because of the persecutions, these images were not set in stone or metal but drawn with great reverence on the walls similar to hieroglyphics of the Egyptians and the early cavemen. Music was non-existent in the early Church but eventually many began chanting the Psalms of David during the Eucharistic service and during prayers.

"By their fruits you shall know them."

    As we all know, the fish became the universal symbol and identification mark for the early Christians. Their dedication to their faith no matter the odds and their exemplary lifestyle made a distinct impression on all. Records show many Christians held public office and also served in the Roman army. Though they could not openly profess their faith, they managed to spread it through their example which drew many to them like magnets, including those captured pagans from distant lands who the Christians embraced lovingly. In this way Christianity was able to spread even faster and farther. Most importantly, their familial bond and total dedication to everything Christ asked allowed them to rise above the world, the flesh and the devil of Roman times and focus on eternity, realizing the trappings of the forum and baths were seats of satan and could not bring true happiness. Through it all they proved that to live Christ's great commandment of loving God and then one another did indeed have great rewards.

    As we shall see in the next installment, their zeal and perseverance also made many enemies. Consequently, countless Christians were slaughtered in the name of Jesus. From their blood rose the seeds of Christianity which would eventually fulfill Christ's edict to take the Gospel to every nation. In chapter nine we shall continue with the Second Century, concentrating on the principals of this era.


A Chronicle of Catholic Tradition
February 26, 2004
Volume 15, no. 57