The Church and the Birth of Christian Liturgy

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


The Church and the Birth of Christian Liturgy

ROME, 12 APR. 2016 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Does the institution of the sacraments by Christ also signify the birth of the liturgy? Can we say that the Church commences with Jesus Christ? Does the liturgy have its origin in Christ? What are the sources of the history of the liturgy? — A.T., Yaoundé, Cameroon 

A: This question, originally in French, would probably require several volumes to answer fully. I will necessarily have to stick to essentials and be relatively succinct.

To the first question we can say yes, the institution of the sacraments can also signify the birth of Christian liturgy since the sacraments form the core of the liturgy. It is true that the New Testament does not reveal most of the ritual elements of the sacraments, and these often developed much later. But every sacrament insofar as it is a prolongation of the Incarnation under a regime of signs is necessarily liturgical in nature.

We can also affirm with total certainty that the Church commences with Jesus Christ. Statements such as Jesus preached the kingdom and St. Paul (or the Emperor Constantine) founded the Church have been repeatedly shown to be false and based on biases or weak scholarship.

Unfortunately, it would be impossible for me to address this question here. Our readers can find good initial answers to these questions in popular apologetic sites such as "Catholic Answers" or go for more in-depth treatises such as Blessed John Henry Newman’s 1845 “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.”

From what we have said above regarding the sacraments, we can also say yes to the question that the liturgy begins with Christ. But this statement must be qualified. Christ is the source of the liturgy on several levels. At the deepest level of all Christ is the source of the liturgy because the liturgy is essentially our participation, through, with and in Christ as members of his mystical body, in the worship that Christ as high priest offers to the heavenly Father. At this level, which is the most important, there is no liturgy without Christ and the Church. 

On the level of the external ritual elements of the liturgy, Christ establishes the essential elements in instituting the sacraments and in giving certain models such as when he blesses children and gave us the Our Father, but he himself did not offer detailed instructions on the structure of the liturgy. This is also logical as he is also the object of liturgical worship, and the Church would need time to digest and transform into prayer the great mystery of his existence. The Church he founded would have to develop and grow in many new cultures while simultaneously remaining rooted in the time when the Incarnate Word walked among us. This is why there are changeable elements such as languages and rites and unchangeable ones such as the use of bread and wine in the Eucharist which are intimately bound up with Christ himself.

The sources of the history of the liturgy are many and complex. Among the most important sources are the Jewish elements. As the Catechism says in No. 1096: 

“Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy. A better knowledge of the Jewish people’s faith and religious life as professed and lived even now can help our better understanding of certain aspects of Christian liturgy. For both Jews and Christians Sacred Scripture is an essential part of their respective liturgies: in the proclamation of the Word of God, the response to this word, prayer of praise and intercession for the living and the dead, invocation of God’s mercy. In its characteristic structure the Liturgy of the Word originates in Jewish prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours and other liturgical texts and formularies, as well as those of our most venerable prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, have parallels in Jewish prayer. The Eucharistic Prayers also draw their inspiration from the Jewish tradition. The relationship between Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy, but also their differences in content, are particularly evident in the great feasts of the liturgical year, such as Passover. Christians and Jews both celebrate the Passover. For Jews, it is the Passover of history, tending toward the future; for Christians, it is the Passover fulfilled in the death and Resurrection of Christ, though always in expectation of its definitive consummation.”

Other sources can be found in the New Testament even though they are not detailed descriptions. Apart from the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament reveals some elements of a distinct Christian worship.

Several times the Acts of the Apostles mention “the breaking of bread” as something exclusive to the Christian community. The writings of St. Paul and Revelation contain examples of early Christian hymns, the fact of gathering on a Sunday and even the name “the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). These texts show that very soon after the Ascension the Christian community had begun to develop a basic structure of prayer to carry out Christ’s commands to “do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) and “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). They also considered that it was Christ’s command to “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This would lead to forms such as the Liturgy of the Hours.

All of this means that it is quite natural that Christian communities would develop different prayer structures in an organic way and would adapt the external forms of worship as the Church grew in number and in precision in articulating its faith in Christ both through conciliar definitions and as expressions of worship. 

Documents are scarce from the generations that follow immediately after the apostles, but they show continuity in the development of structured rites and prayers. 

Among the texts the most important ones are usually considered as being the “Didache,” or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. This brief work, written around the year A.D. 100, contains several prayers and a description of baptism. Other writings of the Apostolic Fathers (some of whom were disciples of the apostles) such as St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp give indications regarding the hierarchical structure of the Church and the structure of liturgical prayer 
An important document from the next generation is St. Justin’s “Apology” (written around A.D. 155-157) which contains the first description of the Mass in a form which is substantially the same as we celebrate today. Among the earliest written texts are those found in the so-called “Apostolic Tradition” attributed (probably incorrectly) to St. Hippolytus of Rome (A.D. 215). In this work we find formulas for ordination and a text which forms the basis of the second Eucharistic Prayer of the current Roman Missal.

In the centuries that followed, the production of liturgical texts continued, and the vast majority of the major texts of the liturgy in all liturgical rites and families were produced during the fourth through the seventh centuries. The oldest known Latin liturgical texts would seem to be from about A.D. 350 or so and the earliest extant manuscripts from around the year 450 to 500 although subject to much debate among scholars.

All in all we can conclude that the liturgy begins with Christ and ends in Christ. The development in different liturgical forms and styles are always rooted in Revelation and develop organically from the paschal mystery of the Incarnate Word.

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