In response to a request from a friend, I wanted to contrast modern Christian worship as it might look in present-day America with that of the perspective of an ancient Christian viz-a-viz worship. But rather than merely grab at the low-hanging fruit of a straight up contrast or even a stab at satire, I thought it might be interesting to juxtapose the modern and ancient in a different way.
I’ve taken part in many a worship evaluation, and I started to wonder what it might look like if a second-century Christian got a hold of one and filled it out in respect to the worship service he attended. What sorts of things might he say? What perspectives might he offer?
St. Justin Martyr gives some of the fullest descriptions of ante-Nicene Christian worship, and thus I thought he might make a good starting point for this project. I have taken a great deal of liberties, tried to infuse a little bit of humor here and there, engaged in some necessary and flagrant anachronism, but hopefully captured some of the essence of ante-Nicene Christian worship.
So, what might it look like if Justin Martyr was filling out a worship evaluation form? Take a look!
Name: Justin, the son of Priscos, son of Baccheios, of Flavia Neapolis, in Palestinian Syria
Name of Church: Veritas Ecclesia
Date of Visit: dies Solis, XVI Kalends, Februarius, CMXVI
Describe the worship space. What type of space is this worship service held in? What types of seats does it have? What type of lighting? What is at the front or center of the room? Are there windows? Are there religious symbols anywhere? How does the space make you feel?
The last place we met was a little crowded- Fortunatus’ estate is fairly large for someone of his station, but the church at Rome has gotten quite a bit bigger year over year. Nevertheless, they still try and keep a fairly traditional arrangement, of which anyone who is familiar with a synagogue would recognize. The altar is positioned ad orientum (to the east), harkening back to the writings of the prophets, and there is a bema positioned out in front of the altar. The seating was a little tight due to the dual-usage of Fortunatus’ house, and I think I could still smell some laganum wafting in from the kitchen.
Artwork is sparse in this room- Fortunatus has some mosaics on the floor, but they get covered over by all those sitting on the floor. Some of the deacons have the relics of some recent martyrs, which become more prominent on the days we have the worship services in the catacombs and other burial spots for fellow Christians. I guess the Romans don’t care too much if we pretty much take them over, and they make a good place to contemplate one’s end and to remember the blessed who have gone before us and whom we can remember to invoke in our petitions.
Also near the front (on the bema) is a vessel known as an ark which holds the memoirs of the Apostles and the Scriptures. All told the space has a directedness towards the east, giving the worshiper a sense that we are looking expectantly for Christ and his appearing, like the morning sun in its rising. And as we often meet before sunrise, this is especially highlighted.
Describe the order of worship. What happens in worship and how long does each element last? Do you speak or just listen? How do you know what to do? Is the order printed in a bulletin or handout of any kind? Are there any books you use in the service? Are there screens? What are they used for?
Describing the entire order would be too tedious, so I’ll just give a few highlights:
The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the president in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next we all rise together and send up prayers.
When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the “Amen.” A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present they are sent by the deacons.
Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector of all who are in need. (Justin Martyr, First Apology)
Describe the music. What instruments are used? Do you find the songs easy to sing? What styles of music are represented in the service? Are the words meaningful to you?
Music at Veritas Ecclesia is fairly stripped down, with a bit of a vintage Jewish vibe going on. The songs are usually drawn from the text of the Psalms, so they are easy to remember; also, there isn’t an incredibly large selection, so knowing them is not hard, nor are they very difficult to sing. Sometimes we have all-night festivals where we sing on and on; well this can get tricky for everyone to keep up, so the hymn gets made into an antiphon. The worship leader sings (solo) the majority of the text in a regular rhythm, and then the rest of the gathering joins in on a refrain. This form of singing has deep meaning for many in that some believe that the martyr of blessed memory- bishop Ignatius of Antioch- was the one who originated this worship style:
St. Ignatius saw a vision of angels, praising the Holy Trinity in antiphonal hymns, and left the fashion of his vision as a custom to the Church in Antioch, whence this custom spread likewise through all the churches. (Socrates, History of the Church, VI., 8)
I’ve heard that some churches have experimented with different kinds of antiphonal chanting where one side of the room responds to the other, but it may be quite a while before that makes major headway. We don’t have a very big budget for sound equipment, but I was able to secure a recording that might give a bit a of a sense of what our music sounds like.
The words are incredibly meaningful since they are drawn directly from the scriptures or composed as hymns to Christ as our Lord and God. Most of our music has a very long pedigree, and even the new stuff has a certain timeless quality to it.
Describe the prayers. Who prays aloud in the service? Are there different types of prayer during the service? Is the congregation invited to speak or read along? Is there time for silence? How do you feel during the times of prayer?
Everyone prays, but not at the same time, as already stated. The congregation prays (including the Lord’s Prayer) after the reading of the memoirs and the scriptures. This week we prayed this corporately:
“We praise the Maker of the universe as much as we are able by the word of prayer and thanksgiving for all the things with which we are supplied…. Being thankful in word, we send up to him honors and hymns for our coming into existence, for all the means of health, for the various qualities of the different classes of things, and for the changes of the seasons, while making petitions for our coming into existence again in incorruption by reason of faith in him.”
After this the President prayed the Thanksgiving. It was a fairly short prayer and goes something like this:
We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever. (Didache, 9)
After the Eucharist the President continues with another fairly short prayer full of intercessions and thanksgivings like this:
We thank You, holy Father, for Your holy name which You caused to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. You, Master almighty, created all things for Your name’s sake; You gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to You; but to us You freely gave spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Your Servant. Before all things we thank You that You are mighty; to You be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Your love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Your kingdom which You have prepared for it; for Yours is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maran atha. (Didache, 10)
After that the entire congregation says ‘Amen’ together.
The time of prayer is extremely important to us in that we have the opportunity to bring our requests and thanksgivings before God. The ‘Amen’ that we speak is carried over from its synagogal use and is a way for us to bind ourselves together to what has been spoken and brought before God. As we say ‘may it be so’ we are committing our wills to God, so that His will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. We not only murmur this assent but actually shout it in unison, like soldiers marching into battle or champions preparing for the games.
There is some time for silence, in that we are given the chance to examine our consciences and confess our sins. From the earliest times we have been in the habit of confessing our sins to each other, and we are instructed to make confession to each other if we have grievances:
On the Lord’s own day come together and break bread and give thanks, after first confessing your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure.
Let no one who has a dispute with a fellow Christian assemble with you until they are reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be defiled. For this is the sacrifice spoken of by the Lord: “ ‘In every place and at all times offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great King,’ says the Lord, ‘and my name is the wonder of the nations.’ ” (Didache 14)
Describe the preaching. Who is the main speaker in the service? How long does he or she speak? Is scripture read before the sermon or throughout it? Is the sermon based on one main scripture or several? Is the message meaningful to you? Can you summarize the main idea?
The main speaker for the worship service is either the bishop or the presbyter, depending on the size of the congregation. Here at Veritas Ecclesia in Rome we have our own bishop, Bishop Anicetus, who has unfortunately attracted a lot of attention from the authorities. We get visits from officials every so often, but he’s still a pretty fiery preacher. He is really big on dates of liturgical celebrations, and he’s gotten into it with Polycarp (the old codger is pretty fiery himself!) from over in Smyrna about the date of Easter. Truth be told, I’d prefer if that made it less into his sermons, but what can you do?
His sermons are primarily drawn from the readings of the day, either from the apostle’s memoirs or the Psalms or other scriptures. I’ve heard that some of the Alexandrians like to be more topical, but Bishop Anicetus is more of an old-school expository guy. He also likes to bring the fire-and-brimstone a bit, and usually wraps up his sermons by having the congregation swear to stop sinning- “to not commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break our word, and not to deny any deposits when demanded.” (Pliny to Trajan)
Some of the youth think he’s a bit of a downer (or maybe just his sermons?), but once they come around and see his personal sanctity they become inspired. He truly is unconquered.
Apparently there are some Phrygians who get a little more ecstatic in their prayers and prophetic utterances. They’ve caused quite a commotion as of late, but their effects are somewhat isolated in scope. Still Montanus, Maximilla and Prisca are kind of on everyone’s lips, even if no one is quite sure what to do with them. I’ve heard that Montanus has a bit of a martyr complex, and perhaps even encourages it:
Do not desire to depart this life in beds, in miscarriages, in soft fevers, but in martyrdoms, that He who suffered for you may be glorified (Tertullian, De Fuga, IX)
Fortunately, things are a little more laid back here in Rome; Bishop Anicetus is just not inclined towards that sort of ecstasy. I personally prefer the life of the mind myself.
Describe the rituals. Do they collect an offering? How? Do they serve communion? How? Are there any practices you have never seen before? Do you understand their meaning to that worship community? Do they feel meaningful to you?
The offering was voluntary, and for the most part those with means were the ones who participated in it. Many of the attendees at Veritas Ecclesia are lower class, so they often do not participate by providing an offering. The gifts that were given were collected and brought to the President, who is in charge of distribution.
Communion (or the Eucharist as it is called at Veritas Ecclesia) was celebrated among those who have been baptized. Those who have not been baptized were required to leave before the serving began, the rationale being that this is following what Jesus said:
But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, Give not that which is holy to the dogs. (Didache 9)
The elements of the Eucharist were collected following the consecration and serving and some of the deacons take them to those who were not able to attend.
As far as practices that I have not seen before: it is said that at the church in Jerusalem about a century ago bishop James used to go into the temple wearing priestly robes to offer intercessions. (Hegesippus in Eusebius, Church History, 2.23.4-6.) Since the temple has long been destroyed this obviously doesn’t happen anymore, but even other bishops like John took up some vestments of their own, the mitre in particular. (Polycrates in Eusebius, Church History) Most of us, including the bishops, prefer a street dress for the ministers, and since everyone wears robes of some kind, there is no substantial difference between clerical and lay dress. (Gregory Nazianzen)
But fashions are always changing, so I suppose it could be that the clergy will eventually look different than the laity. I’ve heard that some of the Germanic tribes are hipsters of a sort, and I’m personally worried that Roman youth are someday going to fall into that gaudy trend of wearing trousers, but then again I’ve always kind of been a stickler for the toga.
Describe the community. What ages, races, and social groups are present? Do they interact with each other and with you before and after the service? Is there any interaction during the service? What do you sense about their faith and values from this worship experience?
There were people of all ages at Veritas Ecclesia, from screaming infants begin presented for baptism to those who have been Christians from childhood. Some of the wealthy even bring their slaves with them. But the worshipers at Veritas Ecclesia try to submit themselves to each other, and to not engage in unwarranted self-exaltation. This example was set by one of the previous bishops- Bishop Clement- who wrote these things to the Christians in Corinth:
Let our whole body, then, be preserved in, Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect to the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He has given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another. Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence. Let us consider, then, brethren, of what matter we were made, — who and what manner of beings we came into the world, as it were out of a sepulchre, and from utter darkness. He who made us and fashioned us, having prepared His bountiful gifts for us before we were born, introduced us into His world. Since, therefore, we receive all these things from Him, we ought for everything to give Him thanks; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter 40)
There is appropriate interaction in the prayers, but nothing untoward regarding one’s station. That is, the priests perform their function and the laity perform theirs. Again, former Bishop Clement’s exhortation to the Corinthians several years ago is pertinent to the worship at Veritas Ecclesia:
Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his own order, living in all good conscience, with becoming gravity, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him. (ibid, Chapter 41)
The sense received from other worshipers (especially those allowed to partake of the Eucharist) is that their faith is something they take very seriously. In these perilous times it is not something to trivially engage in, but rather is fraught with danger. Yet despite the risk there is a sense that the worshipers wish to perfect themselves in holiness, for their confession is meant to end in absolution and a commitment to avoid all sin. This, in fact, is the oath that is taken.
What about this worship experience was similar to what you’ve experienced in the past?
The experience of this worship service was similar to those in the past, because it is meant to be. There is an understanding by the believers at Veritas Ecclesia that the worship experience is not for us but rather is our worship and service to God. As such, there is a certain divine order to the worship service that we cannot tamper with simply to tweak an experience, for our worship does not belong to us but rather to God. That is why the celebration occurs on Sunday, commemorating the day on which God brought the world into existence and the day on which Christ rose from the dead. (Justin, First Apology)
What was different?
The greatest difference that occurs in worship at Veritas Ecclesia is when the catechumens are brought forth for baptism. Here in Rome we call the laver of baptism ‘illumination’ “because those who learn these things have their minds illuminated.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology) After he has been washed he is led to where the baptized believers are gathered and greeted with a kiss.
Was there anything that made you uncomfortable or that you strongly disliked?
As there is a divine order to the worship service (creation, resurrection, etc.), it is difficult to see how one’s personal likes or dislikes could seriously enter into an evaluation. That being said, Publius sometimes comes in right from washing his camels, and the smell can be frightful. Fortunatus has been promising to put in some windows to air it out a bit, but it has yet to materialize. Publius made a crack about a camel going through the eye of a needle… well, it might be hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven, but I’m pretty sure it’d be pretty easy to toss Publius and his camels through the eye of a needle, especially when he sits next to me in the height of summer.
I’d also have to say that having government officials poking their heads in and out every other week is getting a bit bothersome. It’s starting to seem like they are up to something. Maybe I’m just paranoid…
What did you enjoy most or find most meaningful?
Reading from the memoirs of the apostles and the prophets is the most enjoyable and meaningful part, for it brings me back to my conversion. Whereas the Stoics offered empty knowledge, the Peripatetics only wanted money, the Pythagoreans droned on and on, and the Platonists had left me empty, in the prophets and the apostles I found the philosophy that was true:
A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable. That is how and why I became a philosopher. And I wish that everyone felt the same way that I do. (Justin, First Apology)
Was your understanding of and connection to God enhanced by this service? In what ways?
Definitely. The prophets and the apostles in their love for Christ inspire us to refuse sin and to worship God alone, finding in him the true philosophy. I am encouraged to be strong in my faith no matter what comes, knowing that “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.”