Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
The liturgy in its earliest days
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Nov. 13, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
We can only imagine the questions that the disciples of Jesus had to face after his departure. They certainly felt alone and bewildered, even frightened, often huddled together behind locked doors. Of course, after the Pentecost experience, the gift of the Holy Spirit renewed their courage to come out again into the public arena and proclaim the good news of the Gospel. But as they did so, they also carried with them the words of Jesus at the last supper: “Whenever you do this, do it in my memory.” However, more questions would have to be answered. How would they carry out such a ritual? Where would it take place? Who would be invited? Would this ritual be a literal reenactment of the Last Supper, with all its Jewish overtones, or would it be something entirely new? Would such a ritual be celebrated just once a year, like the Passover?
The followers of Jesus combined the old with the new. They did not consider themselves anything but Jews. Our familiar terms “Christian” and “Catholic” would have been entirely unknown to them, and yet they clearly had something new and exciting to remember and to proclaim. So their first instinct was to continue the rituals of their Jewish heritage, while at the same time developing a rather new liturgical practice based on their belief in and love for Jesus. St. Luke tells us that “They went to the temple area every day, while in their homes they broke bread.” It is most likely that the “breaking of bread” in Luke’s writings refers to the celebration of the Eucharist – that set of words and actions that were unique to the Last Supper.
As tensions developed between Jewish leaders and the followers of Jesus, this twofold way of worshiping would vanish. Jewish Christians would gradually decide that they were no longer bound by Jewish rules and customs. The followers of Jesus would meet only in homes for their unique celebrations. Such meetings were weekly, following the cherished Jewish custom of keeping a weekly Sabbath. Within a few decades the weekly Christian celebration would switch from Saturday to Sunday – the first day of the week, the day of the Resurrection. At first these weekly home liturgies included a real supper, as did the Last Supper, but the liturgy was evolving, and the regular supper was to be set aside so that the full focus would be upon the blessing of bread and wine and the sharing of this holy food in memory of the Lord Jesus.
Another evolution in these earliest days of the liturgy was the addition of Biblical readings and reflections. The liturgy of any local synagogue began with readings from the Law and the Prophets, followed by a commentary – what today we call a homily. Then the Jews prayed what were called the great “benedictions,” the first of which ended with the words, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” (It is from these prayers of benediction that would evolve what is now known as the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.) Christian Jews considered the synagogue readings and commentaries so essential that they included them in their own liturgies. Eventually to this set of Jewish readings would be added the stories and testimonies about Jesus.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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