The Eucharist was the central and chief form of Christian worship developed in these early centuries of the faith. However, it was by no means the only occasion for worship. Some practices were private, by individuals, and others were by groups or congregations. Several of the customs and forms were taken over from Judaism, often with modifications: others were of purely Christian origin.
The most frequently repeated prayer was that given by Christ himself, the Lord's Prayer, This was used both by congregations and by individuals. The Didache held that it should be said three times a day. In his treatise on prayer Tertullian gave first importance to it.
The times of prayer were frequent. In the second century it was the custom, presumably held up as the ideal to all the faithful, to pray at daybreak and nightfall when normally Christians came together for prayers and the singing of psalms, and at three other hours of the day — at mid-forenoon, at noon, and at mid-afternoon. We also hear of prayers being enjoined at midnight. Bible reading was commended for the individual Christian if there were no communal services on that day.
Sunday was the chief day of worship. Then the first service, at least at some places and in the second century, was before the dawn, with readings from the Scriptures, chants, homilies, and prayers. After it came the Eucharist in the early hours of the morning. As we have seen, the common meal, the Agape or love feast, which in Paul's day seems to have been held in connexion with the Eucharist, was eventually separated from it and held later in the day. It was soon dropped completely, but for what reason is not entirely clear.
The Eucharist was observed on other days than Sunday. Partly after the Jewish custom, two days in the week were marked by fasting and prayer, but they were not those set apart by the Jews, namely, Mondays and Thursdays, but Wednesdays and Fridays. In Latin the word "station" was applied either to these days or to the fasts connected with them. In many places these two days were occasions for the Eucharist, but some Christians felt that they would be breaking their fast if they took communion on them. The Wednesday and Friday fasts were usually concluded by mid-afternoon, and some had the bread and the wine of the Eucharist reserved for them until that hour. In numbers of churches Saturday also became a fast day, or the Friday fast was prolonged into Saturday, and in some churches the Eucharist was not celebrated on that day.
We must note that prayer was commanded before dinner in the form of a brief thanksgiving, with a petition and a dedication to "every good work." The blessing on the meal could not be given by a layman, but only by the bishop or, in his absence, by a presbyter or deacon.
First-fruits were offered to the bishop, who gave thanks for them and presented them to God.
In addition to these regular times of worship, there were special occasions which entailed Christian ceremonies. Among them were ordination, the consecration of virgins, the dedication of churches, and the blessing of marriages. Ordination to the lower ranks of the clergy was by very simple ceremonies. Even that for priests and deacons was not elaborate, but usually consisted of prayers by the congregation and the bishop, the laying of the bishop's hands on the heads of those ordained, and the kiss of peace from the bishop. The consecration of bishops was more extended. The bishop was supposed to be the choice of his flock, including his clergy, and in his consecration all were recognized. The Eucharist was part of the ceremony. The consecration was normally by at least three bishops, but in times of persecution one bishop was held to be sufficient if the act was with the permission of other bishops, and by the sixth century the Pope might officiate alone. As we are to see later, the setting apart of women to virginity and to the service of the Church went back to the first century, and long before the close of the fifth century this was by formal ceremony, often celebrated with great pomp, and always presided over by a bishop, in which the virgin was given the veil as the bride of Christ.
In the fourth century we begin to hear of the dedication of edifices for Christian worship. Buildings erected especially for that purpose multiplied after the cessation of the persecutions in the fore part of the fourth century. Many of these were constructed near or over the tomb of a martyr. Martyrs were held in veneration and either the tomb or some relic of a martyr was so highly prized that eventually, although not until after the fifth century, the presence of a relic in the altar was held to be essential to a church. Until about the close of the fifth century all that usually seems to have been considered neces sary for the consecration of a church building was the celebration in it of the Eucharist. Not far from that time special services of dedication increased.
Christians were not required to seek the blessing of the Church to give validity to their marriage. However, by the time of Tertullian it seems to have become customary to have a Christian ceremony in which the Church cemented the marriage, confirmed it with an oblation, and sealed it with a benediction.
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