In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am returning today to my series of sermons on the mass – its origins and meanings, and the origins and meanings of its constituent parts.
We have so far discussed the introit, the prayerful ritual by which the clergy and ministers come through the nave of the church, and enter through the gates, into the sanctuary and approach the altar. We have discussed the Kyrie Eleison – the ninefold prayer for God’s mercy. We have discussed the ancient hymn, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, based on the angelic hymn witnessed by the prophet Isaiah and St. John of the Apocalypse. We discussed how, at the end of the Gloria, the celebrating priest kisses the altar, turns and greets the people, and then goes to the “epistle corner” of the altar, and sings the collect. In the early Church, and still in our own ritual, the singing of the collect marks the end of the entrance rites of the mass. And with the collect’s “amen,” we come to the “meat and potatoes” of the first half of the mass.
After the collect, everyone sits. In general, in our liturgy, kneeling and standing are for prayer. Sitting is for listening to the Word of God or listening to the sermon. The obvious exception, which proves this rule, is at the Gospel, when all stand as a sign of reverence, because of the sanctity of the Gospel and of the ritual moment of its proclamation.
When all have sat down after the collect, several passages of Scripture are read. These readings, and the prayers which follow them, form the main part of the first half of the mass, what is sometimes called the “mass of the catechumens,” because in the early centuries those who had not yet been baptized would be welcomed into the church for this part of the mass, but would be put outside shortly after the sermon. This is still the practice of some churches in the Christian East. In the Divine Liturgy of Saint James, the principle liturgy of, for example, the Syrian Orthodox Church, just before the offertory, the part of the liturgy where the bread and wine are brought forward, the Deacon stands and says: “Let none remain of the catechumens, none of the unbaptized, none of those who are unable to join with us in the holy mysteries. [Close] The doors. All rise; let us again pray to the Lord!” And the liturgy continues…
A relic of this practice can be seen in the ancient canonical requirement, which some in the Episcopal Church want to abolish, that “no unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion” in this Church (Canon 1.17.7). Those who have not yet been sacramentally incorporated into the Lord’s death and resurrection, through baptism, cannot fully and meaningfully participate in the offering and receiving of his Body and Blood. While anyone who asks for it may receive baptism (after due preparation), all must be done, as Scripture says, “decently and in order,” just as individual grains of wheat cannot be baked into a single loaf before they have been mixed with water. You can apply the heat, but without the water, it won’t have the desired effect. In fact, the wheat will just be burned up and lost.
But it has always been considered important that those preparing to be received into the Church through the sacrament of Baptism be present with the rest of the faithful to listen to the Word of God. And so, as I mentioned, the first half of the mass has sometimes been called “the mass of the catechumens.”
The origins of the first half of the mass, the service of readings, are to be found in the Jewish synagogue worship of the first century. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that the first generation of Christians, at Jerusalem, continued to attend the temple services, just as Jesus had done during his earthly ministry. In the third chapter of Acts, for example, after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, we find Peter and John “going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour,” (Acts 3.1). The temple at Jerusalem was, after all, the center of Jewish worship. The whole Jewish religion, in a sense, centered around the sacrifices and prayers offered at the temple – and to this day the “Western Wall,” all that remains of the Jerusalem temple, is still considered by many Jews to be the holiest place on earth (to which Jews are allowed access). Being pious Jews, the earliest disciples of Jesus would naturally have worshipped at the temple, as I say, just as Jesus had done.
But in the centuries just before the time of Christ, Jews who found themselves dispersed among the nations began to build synagogues, places where they could gather and pray as a community if they did not live close enough to the temple to worship there regularly. Synagogue worship did not replace temple worship – no sacrifices were offered in the synagogues, for example – but the Scripture readings and prayers that took place in the synagogues supplemented the service of the temple, and fulfilled the need of Jews in exile to worship God corporately. And, again following the example of Jesus himself, the earliest disciples also attended the synagogues when they were away from Jerusalem. In the ninth chapter of Acts, for example, we read that, just after his conversion, “in the synagogues [of Damascus] immediately [Paul] proclaimed Jesus, saying, ‘He is the Son of God,’” (Acts 9.20).
In the first century, synagogue worship took place on Saturday, just as it does today. But in addition to worshipping in the synagogues, we find the earliest generation of Christians also meeting together with one another, separately from their brethren who did not confess Jesus, in order to worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Luke, for example, writes: “On the first day of the week… we were gathered together to break bread, [and] Paul talked with [us], intending to depart on the morrow,” (Acts 20.7).
And we know as well, from clues found in the pages of the New Testament epistles, and from other sources, more or less the shape of 1st century synagogue worship – both in the Jewish synagogue Saturday service, as well as the Jewish-Christian Sunday service, which was sometimes called “synagogue” in the New Testament (cf. James 2.2). There were readings from the Scriptures – which meant, for first century Jews and Christians, what we call the Old Testament – because at the time, what we call the New Testament, was just in the process of being written. But there were also readings even from what become the New Testament. We know this because, for example, Paul writes in Colossians: “when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the La-odice’ans,” (4.16). The first Christians read their own writings, in addition to the Hebrew Scriptures, as we still do today. After the readings there were Sermons, or expositions of the readings, delivered by the elders of the community (cf. 1 Cor. 14.26). Psalms and hymns were sung (cf. Ephesians 5.19). Prayers were offered (1 Tim. 2.1-2), and alms were collected (Rom. 15.26).
Psalms and hymns, Scripture readings, a sermon, prayers, and the collection of alms, were the main features of synagogue worship for Jews and Jewish-Christians of the 1st century. The Christians, from the get-go, tacked on to their worship the recapitulation of the Lord’s Passover, what in the New Testament is often called “the breaking of bread.” Although related to the once-a-year Jewish Passover, the Passover of the Lord, and its ritual enactment by his disciples in commemoration of him, was something new.
As for the readings – it didn’t take long for a set schedule of readings to be formulated and used fairly uniformly among the churches. The schedule of readings that was used in the Episcopal Church until 1979 was the standard Western lectionary since very ancient times. Many liturgical scholars think that it dates to the time of Pope Gregory the Great, in the 500’s, and possibly even to the time of Pope Damasus in the 300’s.
Given the belief, shared by Jews and Christians, about God’s self-disclosure in the pages of holy scripture, its obvious why we would want to read the Scripture at our corporate worship – i.e. because that is one of the main ways that God reveals himself to us. And given what Christians believe about the Eucharist – that it is the means by which God comes among us substantially – listening to readings from the Scripture is a fitting way for us to prepare to receive him – to prepare, like John the Baptist, a highway for our God in the wilderness of our hearts (cf. Luke 3.4).
The origins of our service of readings, the first half of the mass, in the synagogue worship of the 1st century, and their substantive correspondence, is also a reminder of our exile from our spiritual home. Just as Jews built synagogues because they couldn’t get to the Jerusalem temple to participate in the worship of the temple, so we live in the midst of a skeptical and unbelieving world, away from God’s Kingdom, the heavenly Jerusalem and its liturgy. Jesus himself gave us the Eucharist, and the Holy Spirit guided its development, so that we could participate even now, albeit in an incomplete and provisional way, in the worship of God in heaven. But even as we “keep the feast” in obedience to Jesus’ command, we should keep our “eyes on the prize,” remembering that we are indeed exiles, and that our earthly worship is provisional, that it is preparing for and orienting us toward something higher, and that one day the curtain will go up, and as Isaiah said, our “eyes will see the king in his beauty; they will behold a land that stretches afar,” (Isaiah 33.17).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The structure of the Mass of the Catechumens, as based on that of the Synagogue service, I have taken from Adrian Fortescue’s “The Mass,” chapter 1.