The Divine Liturgy
St. John Chrysostom

A Study of Its Origin and Development

A Course of Study for the

Western Orthodox Theological Institute


Part I

Ancient Liturgies and the Origin of Rites

Chapter I

Liturgies of the Apostles

The only source of information concerning the method in which the Eucharist was celebrated during the lifetime of the Apostles is from New Testament accounts, but these are scanty and meager. They are just a number of allusions, giving no fixed order and no real description of the first Liturgies celebrated by the Apostles or their disciples. It was taken for granted by the sacred writers that their readers had personal knowledge of such things as the daily celebration of the Eucharist. Through the study of these allusions, both separately and collectively and by comparing them to contemporary practices and subsequent Liturgies, liturgical scholars are able to deduce a number of nonessential elements that made up the whole Eucharistic rite in the days of the Apostles.


No matter what else was connected with the Eucharistic celebration, we know that the early Christians obeyed the Lord’s command: Do this in “anamnesis” of me. Do what? Do what Jesus had just done: ‘take bread, give thanks, bless and break it, say the words of institution, and give it to others; likewise with the chalice of wine. These are the essentials of the Last Supper commemoration performed by the Apostles in obedience to the Lord’s command. We know that the Apostles had dedicated their lives to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and they were willing to be killed for it; therefore it is only natural for us to believe that they would also obey him in this.


The question is: How did the Apostles and their disciples carry out this command? Sure, they carried out the essentials, but what were the nonessentials that were connected to the celebration of the Eucharist? Since the Gospel accounts omit nearly all of the details of the Eucharistic supper, it is safe to infer that the paschal ritual was deemed to be essential to it. Also, the paschal meal was eaten only once a year, whereas the Christians celebrate the Eucharist frequently. For the Apostles to have carried out the paschal ceremony on a frequent basis, would have been a violation of the Old Law, to which they (the Apostles) still adhered to.


If the Apostles and the early Church did not celebrate the ritual of the paschal meal in connection with the Eucharist, did they hold to any meal at all? There are many different opinions concerning this, but the majority opinion is that the celebration of the primitive Eucharist was connected with a meal. Of the early Christian writers, starting with the fourth century, the Greeks held that this meal came before the Eucharist; while the Latins maintained that it came after the Eucharist. Saint John Chrysostom clearly states that the meal came after the Eucharist.


The Acts of the Apostles mentions, three times, the “breaking of bread” in the Christian community. This was a common Jewish expression, which meant either having a meal or the preliminary ceremony of bread-breaking at a meal with the usual blessing of the bread and the giving of thanks. Which ever, the implication is clear, we cannot ignore the meal element. The early Christians adapted it to express a new concept that was entirely different from the old Jewish one.


At the Last Supper the term “breaking of bread” had taken on a completely new meaning, totally different from the old concept of having a meal or the preliminary ceremony of bread-breaking at a meal. The command of Jesus, Do this in “anamnesis” of me, would have been unnecessary if the “breaking of bread” still meant the same as it always had, since the Apostles, having been Jews, would have continued with those normal Jewish practices in any case. Thus the use of the expression “breaking of bread”, in the Book of Acts, has an additional meaning, one acquired at the Last Supper. It now denotes the celebration of the Eucharist. In Corinthians, St. Paul states: “And the bread which we break, is it not the partaking the partaking of the body of the Lord? (I Cor. 10:16).


In Acts (20:7-11) tells of Paul celebrating a Mass in the evening at Troas: “On the first day of the week when we were assembled to break bread, Paul discoursed with them, being about to depart on the morrow. And he continued his speech until midnight. And there were a great number of lamps in the upper chamber where we were assembled.”  To put it in plain language, it means: “At Sunday Mass, St. Paul preached the sermon, for he was going away the next day.” It is plain to see that the assembly of Christians and the Eucharist were held on Sunday, though by Jewish reckoning the evening would be that of Saturday. The building was not a church or a synagogue but rather private houses, for there were many lamps in the upper room.


Though nothing more can be discovered from this passage, we can find more detail about the primitive Eucharist in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 11:20-24). Here we find the first definite evidence of a meal being connected with the celebration of the Eucharist. It was called the Lord’s Supper by Paul. Later it became known as the “agape”.  We know of the gross abuses concerning it,

Paul condemned two faults: the first was that each little group or clique began supper without spreading out all of the provisions in common and without waiting for the whole congregation to assemble. The second, far more reprehensible, was that they did not share their food with the poor and the latecomers, who were not attached to any group; instead they consumed their own supplies with such blatant selfishness that some became drunk while others went hungry. St Paul wasted no words when he condemned their unchristian conduct, shameful enough by itself without it being connected with the celebration of the Eucharist. He had to remind the Corinthians how the foundation and the meaning of the Eucharist should remind them of the close connection that the Eucharist has with Golgotha. Doing so without attempting to prove to them that in the Eucharist the bread and wine become the body and the blood of Christ, but rather treating it as an accepted fact, he categorically states that anyone who receives it unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, i.e., the death of Christ.


The first Christians most likely found it natural to combine the celebration of the Eucharist with a meal. Originally Jesus had celebrated it within the framework of a meal. Since the Apostles and most of the very first converts to Christianity were Jewish, they were used to religious meals. In every pious Jewish home, the evening meals, especially the Kiddush, those held on the eve of the Sabbath, had a semi-religious character. There were the more formal suppers, called the chaburah (from the word chaburoth which is the plural form of chaber, meaning “friend”): small private groups of friends and members of a family took part in these formal suppers on Sabbath or holyday eves. Each one brought their own contributions. Whenever the Apostles gathered after Christ’s resurrection, they joined in a common meal. In Jewish tradition, Jesus and the Apostles would have been viewed as just such a chaburoth group among hundreds of others in Palestine, with the exception that their bond of union was much closer then most.


Fortunately, the customs connected with these chaburah suppers are very well known thanks to scholars from rabbinic sources. The main meal (supper) in Jewish homes were governed by the same rules and customs as were the chaburah, but in the latter, the regulations were observed with much more exactness and formality.


Being elective, the preliminary serving of what we would call relishes or hors-d’oeuvre was not considered part of the meal proper. Therefore each guest said the prescribed blessing over them for himself. But once the guests had washed their hands, and the “grace before meals’, had been said, no latecomer was allowed to join. Only those who had participated in the “grace before meals” were considered ‘one company’: they alone could partake of the supper. After this, all the prescribed blessings were said for all the participants by the host or leader alone (except for the blessing of the wine during the main course). 


At the formal chaburah and at every Jewish supper, the “grace before meals” was a beautiful ritual. The father of the house or the leader of the chaburah took bread and broke it while pronouncing the customary blessing of bread, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, the King of the world who bringest forth bread from the earth”; then he eats a piece of it himself and gives a fragment to each person at the table. The entire group was drawn together into a unit, into one company, through the blessing and sharing of the one bread. This blessing of the bread was followed by the main course where all present ate whatever they wished. However, whenever a different kind of food was brought in for the first time, the host or the head of the household would bless it in the name of all present. If wine was served during the main course, each person blessed his own cup with the customary blessing for wine every time their cup was refilled: “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, and the King of the world who createst the fruit of the vine.” When all had finished eating, water and a towel were brought in and each washed their hands. Sometimes, perfume was also offered.


Then, in the name of all who had eaten, the father of the house or the leader recited a rather long prayer called the Blessing or Benediction; which one can compare to our grace after meals. At all chaburah meals and even at all the less formal Kiddush suppers, this Benediction was recited over a special cup of wine, called the Cup of the Blessing. This Benediction began with an invitation to drink of this cup, by the father or host:


Let us give thanks… [And when at least a hundred people took part, he added]

Unto our Lord God.”


The guests answered:


Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth for ever more.


The Leader:

With the assent of those present we will bless him of whose bounty we have partaken.



Blessed be he of whose bounty we have partaken and through whose goodness we live.


The father or leader went on to recite the Benediction, parts of which most certainly predate the destruction of Jerusalem.


After this Benediction, the host/leader sips a little wine, and then passes it around to each of those present. Once again, this final common cup, the Cup of Blessing, gave a sense of oneness to the whole group. Lastly, after singing a psalm, the group broke up. This was the religious character of all formal Jewish suppers, especially the Sabbath meal on Friday evenings,


These religion-sponsored meals with their proper adaptations for Christian use were continued among the first Christian communities. Chapters IX and X of the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (c. A.D. 80-100), prove that the Christians did have such semi-religious meals modeled along the chaburah lines. The similarity between the Jewish and Christian usages is startling:



      1. Regarding the thanksgiving; give thanks thus:


      2. First, concerning the cup: “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy servant, which thou hast made known to us through Jesus thy servant.”


To thee be the glory forever.


     3. Concerning the broken bread: “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge, which thou hast made known to us through Jesus thy servant.”


To thee be the glory forever.


     4. “As this broken bread was scattered upon the top of the hills and, when gathered, became one, so gather thy Church from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom. For thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.” . . .


Both the Jews and the Christians had a Cup of wine and bread which was broken. The Christian blessings for both bread and wine were based on the Jewish.


The Thanksgiving after the meal is similar but without direct borrowing of text from the Jewish Thanksgiving prayer; though the sequence of the three ideas remained identical. The Christian gave thanks for the earthly; so did the Jew. The Christian gave thanks for “spiritual food and drink,” which meant the Eucharist, the center of the New Dispensation or Covenant; the Jew gave thanks for the Old Covenant whose central point was the Law and circumcision. Lastly, the Christian prayed for the Church while the Jew prayed for Judaism and for the “land.”


The fact that the cup preceded the bread (as it did in the Eastern agapes which followed a century or two later) are a completely Christian innovation. These table-prayers of the Christians, which hold a beauty in them, were apparently composed by men who possessed considerable knowledge and appreciation of Jewish customs and tradition. With such a background, the first Christian converts would have regarded the celebration of the Eucharist within the framework of a supper as a matter of course, especially since Jesus himself had set the precedent. When Jesus celebrated the first Eucharist in the form of the paschal supper, he performed the first consecration at the bread-breaking ceremony and the second at the third cup of wine, the Cup of Blessing, after the principal course. Therefore, the meal quite naturally formed a link between the Last Supper and their own celebration of the Eucharist in the minds of the early Christians.


Evidence indicates that the thanksgiving after the common meal was the origin of the anaphora texts, for all the Christian anaphoras were and are introduced by the invitation Let us give thanks to the Lord or Let us give thanks to our Lord God. This is an almost literal translation of that prescribed by the Mishnah at the chaburah meals attended by at least a hundred people: Let us give thanks unto our Lord God. Later, when the Eucharist was celebrated without the meal, a whole new content, though still one of gratitude, had to be given to these ancient Christian meal prayers into which the Eucharistic narrative were woven. The Christian anaphora is still in its nature a prayer for a meal. The fact that the father of the house or leader alone was to pronounce the blessings in the name of all present also fitted in well with the Christian usage: the priest or bishop presided and transubstantiated the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.


Now, returning to St. Paul and his First Letter to the Corinthians, the eleventh chapter becomes much clearer and meaningful. The Jewish regulation was very strict: “latecomers not present for the ceremony of bread-breaking could not participate in the rest of the ceremonies, nor in the meal itself. This alone would have warranted Paul’s insistence that they “wait for one another.” Besides the utter selfishness, immoderation, and excess indulged in by each little clique when they consumed their own supplies, the Corinthians had lost all perspective in the celebration of the Eucharist. Instead of being the center and focal point, the Eucharist became merely the occasion for their “get togethers,” thus the Eucharist was relegated to the background.


There is of course another side to the episode at Corinth. The actions of the Corinthians, is less shocking if one understands that being Gentiles, the Corinthians had no prior background that would have made them regard meals as a semi-religious function, as had the Jews. When Paul introduced the Eucharist combined with a meal, the recently converted Gentiles could not shrug off their familiar practice of the hetairiai, which were clubs which were associated in a broad sense with a religious meaning, but they were really a mere pretext for unethical merry-making.