The Apostolic Catechetical Synaxis
Due to their Jewish roots, the first Judeo-Christian communities met in the Temple or in the synagogue (for those living outside Jerusalem) for the reading of the Law and the Prophets, to sing the psalms, and to hear the doctrine or explanations of the Scriptures. The Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists of the early Christian era used the expression synagogue and to go to the synagogue to indicate not only the meeting place of the Jews who lived among the Christians but also the assemblies of the Christians, even after their final break with Judaism.
Christians met less and less in the synagogues after 70 A.D., as they began to hold their own somewhat modified services (which they adapted from the worship of the synagogue) in their own places of meeting. This instruction-and-prayer service later became more formalized and was called the catechetical synaxis, which today is the first part of the Divine Liturgy, called the Mass of the Catechumens.
This service, as we learn from New Testament sources among others, consisted of readings (lections) from the Scriptures, the singing of psalms or hymns, a sermon and prayers.
Whether held on the mornings or evenings of Sabbaths, on Mondays and Thursdays of each week, or on feat days, the services of the synagogue were all very similar in their composition, but there were a few differences. The early Christians based their own prayer service on the Morning Services of the Sabbath.
On the basis and the evidence contained in the Mishnah and the Talmud, we can reconstruct what the first-century synagogue service was like. The general order of the service was directed by an archisynagogus (leader of the synagogue). It consisted of the following:
1. Prayer: Introducing the Shema was a twofold blessing, announced by the presiding leader with the words “Barku el” (“Bless the Lord”). During these prayers the members of the congregation stood facing Jerusalem. The Shema is a kind of elementary creed professing the Israelite faith in the “true and eternal God,” that was then recited. Besides the blessings contained in it, the Shema was composed of extracts from the Pentateuch (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; and Num. 15:37-41). The solemn recitation of the Shema is one of the most ancient features of the Jewish liturgical life.
2. Reading from the Law: This selection from the Law, called the Parascha, was usually chosen by the leader and was translated into the vernacular Aramaic.
3. Reading or excerpts from the Prophets: This was called the Haftara (“conclusion” to the readings), which were also translated into Aramaic, by an interpreter for those who did not speak the ancient Hebrew.
4. Psalms: These were sung while the scrolls were being put away.
5. The Sermon or Midrash: This was an explanation of the Scriptures just read or an exhortation based upon them. The Midrash was delivered by whomever the leader of the synagogue appointed.
6. The Eighteen Blessings: This is called the Shemoneh Esreh which is recited by the “Angel of the Synagogue”, which consisted of benedictions with the added element of petitions.
7. Prayer Blessing: This was intoned by a priest or layman. It consisted of the “Offering of Praise” and the “Aaronic Blessing”.
Like Jesus before them, the Apostles continued to frequent the synagogues. This was an effective way of reaching the Jews and evangelizing them. Unfazed by the bitter opposition and the persecutions, the Apostles continued to work for the conversion of the Jews, not only in Palestine but in the synagogues of the dispersion.
Upon entering a town or a city, the Apostles immediately established contact with the Jewish community and preached in the synagogues. The final break with Judaism was inevitable but it was not the Christians who took the initiative in this break. When synagogues of the dispersion became centers of bitter opposition to the doctrines of Christianity, the Jews themselves took the traditional disciplinary actions against the new believers, whom they considered to be heretics in their eyes, in the form of the herem (excommunication) or the niddui (temporary exclusion) from the synagogue.
Due to their exclusion from the synagogues, the Apostles and their followers were forced to organize their own congregations for prayer and instruction. Unlike the Eucharist, which was celebrated only by the faithful, the baptized alone, these prayer and instruction services were open to the catechumens and those who were just curious.
The Sabbath Morning Service of the Jewish synagogue provided both the inspiration and the pattern the specifically Christian Synaxis. This is very evident from Book VII of the APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTIONS (chaps. 33-38): there the Christian Synaxis is in effect the whole Greco-Jewish Morning Service for Sabbaths with only a few superficial modifications. The double reading from the Law and the Prophets was in usage in Jewish Morning Service in the first century A.D.; thus we find St. Paul speaking in the synagogue “after the reading of the Law and the Prophets” (Acts 13:15). The Christians retained these Old Testament readings in their own assemblies but, since the synaxix was a distinctly Christian service, they added readings from the New Testament. One of these was a selection from the Apostolic Letters, or the Epistles. St. Paul himself ordered these readings, at least in regard to his own letters (Col. 4:16; I Thess. 5:27). The other was from the Gospels, considered most important of all, for it contained the very words of Jesus Christ. The total number of readings in the primitive synaxis was four. Traces of this early arrangement are found in several Eastern Liturgies of today. The Copts, for example, have preserved the four pericopes, though they replaced the readings from the Old Testament with other texts. The Syrian Nestorians still maintain the Old Testament readings. The Byzantine Liturgy and its antecedents formerly had four pericopes, but it reverted to two, the original number in the synagogue.
The singing of the psalms, mentioned by St. Paul (I Cor. 14:26) was most likely taken from the Morning Service of the synagogue. Though the psalmody known as the Smiroth does not follow immediately the scriptural readings in modern day synagogue usage, there is reason to believe that in the first century it did. In the Byzantine/Orthodox Liturgy this primitive psalmody is called the Prokeimenon (in the Slavonic churches it is called Prokimen) while in the Latin church of the West, it is known as the Gradual.
The Christian sermon or homily (I Cor. 14:26) replaced the Midrash. The “common” prayers of intercession, similar in general content and litany type form replaced the Jewish Eighteen Blessings. Just as the Eighteen Blessings was divided by Amen responses, so were some of the very ancient litanies of the Eastern Liturgies. Later the Amen's were replaced by the Kyrie eleison.
Other liturgical practices existed among the first Christians, most of which are still in use today. During services, men were bareheaded, women had their heads covered (I Cor. 11:6-7). Women were not permitted to speak in the assemblies (I Cor. 14:34-35). There was the Pax, or kiss of peace (Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 16-20; I Thess. 5:26; I Peter 5:14), and a public profession of faith (I Tim. 6:12). The people indicated their assent to prayer with the old Hebrew “Amen”. They prayed with uplifted hands (I Tim. 2:8) as does the priest today. Almsgiving or collection for the poor was usually made at the assemblies (I Cor. 16:12; Rom. 15:26). Sunday, as the day of the Resurrection, was probably sanctified in addition to the Sabbath; if this did not happen in all the Christian communities during the lifetime of the Apostles, it certainly did soon afterward.
Liturgy of the Second-Century
The separation of the Eucharist from the meal was begun, most likely, within a generation after the lifetime of the Apostles, although the common meal, or agape, was to continue for several more centuries and even longer in the East. The change may have been desired on account of abuses, as happened in Corinth during Paul’s time, and perhaps necessity forced the issue. With an ever-increasing number of converts, the Christian communities became way too large for the table-gatherings. Thus, the best solution would have been to discontinue the meal and to celebrate the Eucharist as an independent liturgical function. Since the tables were removed from the places of worship, a larder number of faithful could be accommodated in a room.
While the Eucharist was still connected with a common supper, it was celebrated in the evening. It was not necessarily a literal imitation of the Last Supper; as both Jewish and Greek custom had formal evening meals. But after its separation from the common meal, the Eucharist could be celebrated freely at other times of the day. There was another reason that made the change desirable. Sunday was being sanctified in addition to the Saturday Sabbath as the Lord’s Day in memory of Christ’s resurrection. According to the Scriptures, Jesus Christ was the Sun of Justice, the Sun of Truth. This idea took root in the minds of the early Christians. Since Jesus rose from the dead at dawn on the first Easter Sunday, his rising from the tomb coincided with the appearance of the natural sun. Sunrise, therefore, became the symbol of the rising Sun of Justice. Therefore, could not the Eucharist be celebrated at dawn on Sunday morning?
No matter what the reasons for the change, by the start of the second-century, the Christians began to meet before daybreak for their services. Around the year 111-112 A.D., Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Younger, gives us not only many interesting details regarding the government of Bithynia (a Roman province in Asia Minor) but also a brief sketch of Christian practices during his day.
As the governor of Bithynia, Pliny refers the question of investigating the Christians and their punishment to Emperor Trajan. He received an anonymous statement with a list of people accused of being Christians. During examination, some denied that they had ever been Christian; others admitted that they had once been, but had forsaken Christianity some years before. Some even became informers and told him of their meetings: “They aver that the whole of their fault or error is this: that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day (stato die) before daybreak to sing a hymn in alternate verses (secum invicem) to Christ as to a god, and that they bound themselves by a solemn oath not to do any wicked deeds, nor to commit any theft, robbery, or adultery, nor to falsify their word nor to refuse to give up a deposit when they should be called upon to deliver it up. When they had done this, it was their custom to depart, and then to meet again to eat food . . . but ordinary and harmless food.”
Opinion is divided as to whether the second meeting, when the Christians ate their food, was the agape or the celebration of the Eucharist (or both). The first meeting or service was the Synaxis and took place in the early morning before dawn (ante lucem). The Carmen Christos quasi deo dicere secum invicem (“to sing a hymn in alternate verse to Christ as to a god”) can be interpreted in various ways. Generally, Carmen meant a hymn or any set form of words even without a metrical rhythm or rhyme. Secum invicem (“in alternate verses”) may imply antiphonal singing, but it can also be interpreted as a litany type form of prayer, one in which the deacon or celebrant “bids” a petition and the congregation responds to each invocation.
St. Justin, martyr and philosopher, wrote the First Apology most likely at Rome circa A.D. 148-155 in order to convince the public at large of the harmlessness of the Eucharistic celebrations. Considering the times, his letter was very frank, but it had no effect on contemporary opinion.
Justin wrote about the Eucharist as it was celebrated in the city of Rome of his day. If its celebration were radically different from the way they were celebrated in the East, where he had first hand knowledge (he a Greco-Roman, and he had lived in Ephesus for a period of time and had traveled around to various Oriental Churches), he most certainly would have said so. He describes the Eucharistic celebration twice: first, preceded by baptism [chap. 65], then preceded by the Synaxis [chap. 67]. Even though it is not a complete account of the service, it is a good synopsis of what went on in the mysterious meetings held by the Christians:
Thus, after baptizing him that professes his faith and assents to our doctrine, we lead him into the assembly of those called the brethren to say earnest prayers in common for ourselves, for the newly baptized, and for all others all over the world so that we who have come to the knowledge of the truth may also by the grace of God be found worthy to live a good life by deed and to observe the commandments by which we may gain eternal life.
After finishing the prayers, we greet each other with a kiss. Then bread and a cup of wine are brought to the one presiding over the brethren. When he takes it, he gives praise and glory to the Father of all in the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and gives thanks at length because he considered us worthy of these gifts.
After he finishes the prayers and thanksgiving, all the people present cry out in agreement: “Amen.” Amen is a Hebrew expression and means “so be it”. After the one presiding has given thanks and all the people have cried out in agreement, the deacons, as they are called by us, distribute the Eucharistic bread and the wine-and-water to everyone present so that each may partake, and they (the deacons) carry them to those who are not present.
And on the day which is called for the sun, all who are in the towns and in the country assemble together in one place and the commentaries of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, for as long as time permits. When the reader finishes, the one presiding gives a speech in which he admonishes and exhorts all to imitate these beautiful teachings in their lives. We all then stand up together and recite prayers. And when we have finished the prayers mentioned above, bread and wine mixed with water are brought and the one presiding offers up prayers and likewise thanksgivings as much as he can and the people chime in with “Amen.” Then to each one is distributed a portion of the things over which the thanksgiving had been spoken and each one partakes of them, and a share is brought by the deacons to those who were absent.
As there is no mention of a common meal being connected with either description, it is valid for us to conclude that, at least in the West, the celebration of the Eucharist was no longer connected with any such meal. Another interesting item is the apparent fusion of the synaxis with the Eucharist, since nothing in Justin’s description indicates a separation of the two services. Aside from later irrefutable testimony, indirect evidence from Justin himself argues for the distinction of the two rites. On occasions of baptisms, the baptismal ritual took the place of the synaxis. Had the synaxis and the Eucharist already been fused into one, the baptismal rite could not have rightly been substituted for the synaxis. The first sentence of chapter 66 corroborates this, for only the baptized who led virtuous lives could attend the Eucharist and receive it.
Justin uses no other term but Eucharist for the consecrated bread and wine. From this time forward, the word Eucharist is the technical term which refers exclusively to the consecrated elements.
Justin emphasizes the word Amen of the congregation after the thanksgiving prayer of the celebrant. Why this prominence on something which now seems somewhat trivial? The early Christians, having been Jews, valued the term and stressed its use. This “stamp of approval” was merely an outward expression of the spirit, the sense of unity and oneness with one another which the early Christians felt very deeply. With the Amen, the celebrants sacrifice became their own. They reiterated that unity and oneness, with this one word, which was so forcefully urged by St. Ignatius of Antioch fifty years earlier regarding liturgical functions: “…when you come together, there should be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope in holy joy.” It is rather sad that many churches today have lost much of that spirit of oneness. If the day should ever come when virtually the whole congregation receives the Eucharist at every Sunday Liturgy, this spirit of oneness may again become prevalent in the Catholic community.
Three other second century writers provide a few additional details of liturgical information. Two of these writers, Athenagoras of Athens and Theophilus of Antioch give so little information that they hardly worth mentioning. They both point out the fact prayers were recited for the emperor, an important element in the intercessory prayers of future Liturgies. Athenagoras of Athens, in his comparison of the pagan sacrifices with those of the Christians, mentions that the latter prayed with uplifted hands. St. Irenaeus gives more details regarding liturgical functions. He mentions lections and a homily or sermon, an oblation of bread and wine, a consecration which he calls the word of invocation, the word of God, and the invocation of God, and that the Amen was said by every one together.
Many things that are familiar to later Christians were totally unknown in the liturgies of the second century. The clergy did not have any special vestments for the services; they usually wore ordinary clothes of the time, though those particular garments were reserved exclusively for liturgical use.
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