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Early Christian Worship  

Paul F. Bradshaw

The forms of Christian worship changed and developed considerably during the first four centuries of its existence, not least from a distinctive local or regional diversity to an increasing standardization of practice throughout the ancient world. One of the major factors influencing these changes was the eventual adoption of the New Testament as the Christian scripture, and another was the emergence of the church into public life early in the 4th century. Rites of initiation chiefly involving baptism in water marked the entry of new converts into the community of believers. The central observance was the Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday from at least the end of the 1st century. This was supplemented by services of the word on certain days of the week and by regular times of prayer each day undertaken by individuals or small groups of believers. Annual festal celebrations, the majority of which were associated with the anniversaries of martyrs and others who had died, also increased in number as time passed. Christians understood the worship that they offered through Jesus Christ to be the spiritual fulfillment of the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament. Although at first insisting that they were not a religion like others around them—indeed, they were regarded as atheists by their contemporaries—they ultimately came to adopt the language, images, and terminology of standard religious discourse once their persecution had ceased and the Church had emerged as a cultus publicus in the 4th century. This also coincided with a shift from an understanding of worship as an essentially corporate action presided over by its appointed ministers to one where those ministers were seen as carrying out its liturgy on behalf of the people.

Article

Liturgical Vestments, Vessels, and Objects in Christian Worship  

Joanne M. Pierce

Any history of Christian liturgy must address the origins and development of the various material elements that are used during these celebrations. These have their own specific history, just as does the architectural and artistic context of the liturgy. Many of the specialized garments, or vestments, worn by ministers during liturgical services in several contemporary Christian churches originated in elements of ordinary or honorific dress used in the ancient Roman Empire. Over the course of several centuries, the style and type of vestments used in Western Christianity diverged from those used in Eastern Christianity, until today the differences are more striking than the similarities, even in shared individual elements like the stole and the chasuble. In addition, different kinds of vestments are used by different ministers (for example, the deacon, priest, or bishop) and in different kinds of sacramental and liturgical ceremonies. What a minister might wear at one service, for example evening prayer or the administration of baptism, might not be the same as those expected for the celebration of the Eucharist (the Mass, the holy communion, or the divine liturgy). The same is true for the essential vessels used during the celebration of the Eucharist: the chalice to hold the wine, and the paten, or plate, on which rests the bread to be blessed. Both of these have developed in distinctive styles in both West and East over time. The same is true of many of the other vessels and implements needed for the Eucharist and those used in other liturgical services. Examples include containers designed to hold water, oil, or incense as well as the number and style of altar cloths, veils, and candles utilized at different times and places.

Article

The “Classic” Age of Christian Worship, 4th–6th Century  

John F. Baldovin

The 4th–6th centuries can be considered a classic period in the development of Christian worship. During this time many of the liturgical forms that are still recognizable today were consolidated: the architectural disposition of church buildings, the shape of the Eucharist and the various traditions of the eucharistic prayer, the rites of initiation, the annual liturgical cycle (calendar), and the rites associated with ordination, weddings, the anointing of the sick, penance, and the burial of the dead. This was the period in which the great diversity and variety that characterized the first Christian centuries gradually settled into the basic structures that are familiar today. At the same time, it was the period of the development of the great rites of Christian worship that were centered on the major cities of the Roman Empire: Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Edessa, Jerusalem, and Rome. The new diversity of these rites often corresponded to the various languages in which they were celebrated: Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Latin.

Article

The Development of the “Apostolic Tradition” in Early Christian Worship  

Maxwell E. Johnson

Contrary to the assumptions often held by previous scholars, contemporary liturgical scholarship is coming increasingly to realize and emphasize that Christian worship was diverse even in its biblical and apostolic origins, multi- rather than monolinear in its development, and closely related to the several cultural, linguistic, geographical, and theological expressions and orientations of distinct churches throughout the early centuries of Christianity. Apart from some rather broad (but significant) commonalities discerned throughout various churches in antiquity, the traditions of worship during the first three centuries of the common era were rather diverse in content and interpretation, depending upon where individual practices are to be located. Indeed, already in this era, together with the diversity of Christologies, ecclesiologies, and, undoubtedly, liturgical practices encountered in the New Testament itself, the early history of the “tradition” of Christian worship is, simultaneously, the early history of the developing liturgical traditions of several differing Christian communities and language groups: Armenian, Syrian, Greek, Coptic, and Latin, We should not, then, expect to find only one so-called “apostolic” liturgical tradition, practice or theology surviving in this period before the Council of Nicea (325 ce) but, rather, great diversity both within the rites themselves as well as in their theological interpretations. This essay highlights the principal occasions for Christian worship in the first three centuries for which the textual and liturgical evidence is most abundant: Christian initiation, the eucharistic liturgy with its central anaphoral prayer, daily prayer (the liturgy of the hours), and the feasts and seasons of the liturgical year.

Article

Byzantine and Slavic Orthodoxy  

Alexander Rentel

The Byzantine-Slav liturgical tradition emerged as an aggregate rite from the diverse liturgical practices of the Eastern Mediterranean from the early 4th century. This tradition developed around the city of Constantinople but was also influenced by the liturgical traditions of Jerusalem and the monasteries surrounding Jerusalem. While Constantinople remained the center of this tradition, it also found its home and developed in unique ways throughout the Mediterranean and the Balkan Peninsula, into Ukraine and Russia, and eventually throughout the world. The liturgical tradition itself weaves together the diverse practices of monastic and urban worship, creating very much a hybrid rite. The daily office, primarily drawn from monastic practices, utilizes a mix of invariable texts, prayers, psalmody, and composed hymns of ancient provenance as well as a wide array of variable hymns of different origins and genre. Throughout these services, the monastic elements stand side by side with remnants of the urban cathedral worship. The Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist service, has at its core prayers that go back to the classic patristic age of the church, the 4th and 5th centuries. The entire service, however, betrays multiple layers of influence on its development, ranging from practices of the imperial cult of late antiquity to popular piety. All these elements have come together through organic development and, at times, directed reform to form a vast liturgical tradition with rich textures and complex nuances of meaning.

Article

Medieval Christian Liturgy  

Joanne M. Pierce

The liturgy of the medieval Christian West (ca. 600–1500) provided the structure around which life in Western Europe was structured for almost a thousand years. Rooted in Christian antiquity, in the early central liturgical structures of Initiation and Eucharist, the private and public observance of daily prayer, and the development of a liturgical year, the long medieval period that followed saw a broadening elaboration and expansion of the liturgical life of Christians in many different directions. By the year 1200, theologians had defined seven of the Church’s liturgical rites as primary sacraments: Baptism and Confirmation (from the ancient initiation sequence); Eucharist; Penance (with the emphasis on private confession of sins); Ordination (through various minor orders to the three major orders of deacon, presbyter, and bishop); Extreme Unction (anointing of the sick, now reserved for the gravely ill); and Matrimony (as the liturgical rites for the originally domestic rituals of marriage become more elaborate and set in the church rather than the home). A more fulsome cycle of the liturgical year developed around the ancient feasts of Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and Epiphany, augmented by an elaborate calendar of commemorations and feasts of saints. Monastic influence resulted in a daily round of liturgical prayer, the Divine Office, in which various “hours” of prayer during the day and night were marked by liturgical “offices” of psalmody and scripture—some longer, others more brief. One of the major ways this liturgical growth and diversity can be studied is through an examination of the various liturgical books compiled and used during these medieval centuries, books used for the celebration of the Eucharist (the Mass), for the Divine Office, and for other liturgical rites. In addition to the volumes containing rubrics and prayers for liturgical celebrations, a separate cluster of books contained music to be used during these rites, in a style known as chant; Gregorian chant became the dominant form. The full impact of medieval liturgy as it was experienced in the Western Europe, however, extended far beyond the “bare bones” contained in these books, intertwined as it was with the development of art and architecture, law and commerce, and the political/socio-economic developments that would take Christian society and religion from the twilight of late antiquity to the dawn of early modernity.

Article

Western Christendom, c. 1000–1400  

Timothy M. Thibodeau

The liturgy of Western Christendom (c. 1000–1400) was the product of sweeping ecclesio-political and religious reforms that had a broad and lasting impact on the content and performance of the rites of the Latin Church in the later Middle Ages. Beginning with the reforms of monasticism at Cluny and culminating in the reformed papacy in the age of the Investiture Controversy, a sharp division between the clerical order and the laity was imposed on Christian society. This fostered a heightened sense of divine mystery in the liturgical rites (principally, the Mass) that could only be administered by properly ordained clergy, under the authority of the pope. The triumph of the clerical rule of Christendom coincided with more concrete expressions of the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements in both formal theology and liturgical practice. The Mass liturgy became the summit and quintessence of liturgical piety in this era, eclipsing other forms of liturgical service and becoming the focal point of sacramental theology. With the construction of monumental new churches in the Gothic style, from the 12th through 14th centuries, liturgical performance (including costly vessels and vestments) achieved levels of ostentation that caused some conflict between ascetically minded reformers (the Cistercians) and the proponents of lavish liturgical spaces (the Cluniacs). A thriving tradition of liturgical exposition or formal commentary on the divine offices worked in tandem with these dramatic architectural and artistic developments in the liturgical spaces of Europe. Despite the new scholastic methods of the universities, allegorical exegesis of the liturgy, following a tradition that began in the 8th century with Amalarius of Metz, continued to predominate in the lengthy treatises of expositors who worked in the peak period of scholastic theology, down to and including William Durandus of Mende (c. 1296). The performative aspects of the liturgy also witnessed major advances with the introduction of polyphonic chant, liturgical drama, and para-liturgical processions (such as the Feast of Corpus Christi).