Developing liturgies for the Eucharist

Well before the end of the fifth century, the Eucharistic rite and the liturgy connected with it had been greatly enlarged. The clergy had become quite distinct from the laity and the presbyters and bishops had become priests patterned consciously after the Jewish priesthood of pre-Christian times and offering a bloodless sacrifice at an altar. The stately, huge church buildings which were erected, especially after Constantine espoused the faith, probably made for an elaboration of a ritual which would be in keeping with them. In at least some sections of the Empire, the sanctuary, which contained the altar, the bishop's throne, and the seats of the clergy, was separated from the laity by a screen and the laity were not supposed to enter it. The altar might be of wood or be a stone slab supported on pillars. The fore part of the liturgy seems to have been an adaptation of the worship in the Jewish synagogue. Variations there still were, but in the chief churches, such as Rome and Alexandria, forms had been developed which had spread widely from these centres and had become associated with particular regions, notably Syria, Egypt, and Gaul.

In general, the following appears to have been approximately the procedure common to all the varieties of the liturgy. When the congregation gathered, the men were on one side of the church and the women on the other. The clergy were in the apse, where was the altar. The youths were by themselves, sitting or standing. The older people were to sit and the mothers with children had a special place. The deacons were to see that all took their proper places and chat no one whispered, laughed, nodded, or slept.

The service began with several selections from the Scriptures, by "readers" who took their stand in the ambo, a kind of pulpit or desk raised above the congregation about the middle of the church where they could be heard by all. The readings were interspersed with Psalms chanted by another of the clergy and taken up at the end by the congregation. The last of the readings was from one of the Gospels and all the congregation rose for it. Then one or more of the priests spoke, the custom apparently being that such of the priests present as desired to do so might address a homily to the assembly.

After the homilies those who were not entitled to be present at the Eucharist were dismissed. First the catechumens left, having first offered up a silent prayer at the invitation of the deacon, while the congregation joined in a prayer offered on their behalf by the deacon by answering with "Kyrie Eleison" — "Lord have mercy" — followed by a prayer which the catechumens offered in a form suggested by the deacon and by a blessing from the bishop. Next, after the same form, those catechumens were dismissed who were preparing for baptism. Then the penitents who had not yet been received back into communion were sent away, with similar prayers and an episcopal blessing.

The communicants alone being left, they responded to a litany led by the deacon with the words "Kyrie Eleison." Then came the Eucharist proper, with the bishop officiating, clad in a festal garment, with the priests around him. There were prayers by the bishop, with responses from the congregation. Among the latter was the Trisagion, Ter-sanctus or Sanctus — "Holy, holy, holy . . . " — in which the choir of angels was believed to join. Early in the service, at the outset of the liturgy proper, the bishop gave the kiss of peace to the clergy, and the faithful interchanged it with one another, the men to the men and the women to the women.

There was then the consecration of the bread and the wine, modelled on the account in the Gospel of the institution of the Lord's Supper. This was followed by a prayer for the Church throughout the world, the Lord's Prayer, a litany led by the deacon, and the blessing by the bishop. Somewhere in the course of the centuries there was added to the liturgy the invocation of the Holy Spirit to descend upon the bread and the wine to make of them the body of Christ.

Then came the communion, the clergy first partaking of the elements in the order of their rank, followed by the members of the congregation. The bread and the wine were given to all. During the partaking of the communion, singers chanted some of the Psalms.

After the communion the bishop again offered prayer and gave his blessing and the deacon dismissed the congregation with the words "depart in peace."

This was the Eucharist substantially as it was celebrated in the fourth century. Changes continued to be made in it. For instance, as the conversion of the Empire was completed, the catechumens diminished in numbers and their dismissal either disappeared or became, in at least one of the liturgies, purely vestigial and formal.

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