Did worship still feature the Word?

IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, we hear many sermons preached for the conversion of unbelievers—Paul informing the Athenians that in God we “live and move and have our being” (acts 17:28) or telling his conversion story to Festus and Agrippa and arguing further “that Christ would suffer, and that He should be the first who would rise from the dead” even as Festus protested that he was insane (acts 26). But there is much less biblical evidence of what the earliest Christians said and read in their worship as gathered communities—although we do know (acts 20:7–9) that Paul preached until midnight so that Eutychus fell asleep and out the window!

Synagogue worship featured readings of the law and prophets, and commentary on them, and from the mid-second century there is evidence that Christians were doing the same sort of thing. Portions of the new testament—Paul’s letters, for instance—obviously were intended to be read aloud, and from the second century on we know that the Hebrew scriptures were read as well.

The Golden Mouth and the Great Rhetorician of Hippo

After the legalization of Christianity, the church entered into one of its golden ages of preaching. Supposedly, preachers began to use the pulpit when “Golden mouthed” John Chrysostom (347–407) decided he would rather not preach seated in the bishop’s chair (see “what did the worship space look like?” p. 44). Converts such as augustine of Hippo (354–430) had been trained in the great rhetorical schools of their day—augustine had indeed been a teacher of rhetoric—and Christians in general expected the same high level of rhetorical skill from their spiritual leaders that they heard from their imperial leaders.

To hold up their end of this effort, bishops and presiders turned to an ever-increasing collection of biblical commentaries in their preaching and Bible study. By the fourth century, lectionaries prescribing readings for the days and seasons of the Christian year were in use throughout the empire. The sixth century birthed a standard lectionary in Rome for Sundays and feast days that would remain central in Roman Catholicism until a new one was introduced in the twentieth century. Liturgical scholar James White writes, “even pagans came to hear the service of the word and Augustine himself was converted largely through the eloquence of Ambrose’s preaching.”

What you didn’t know about preaching in the Middle Ages

A modern stereotype insists little preaching and scripture reading went on in the churches of the later middle ages, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as preachers of the middle ages worked their way through their widely available and fairly standardized scripture lectionaries, they developed a new style of preaching—familiar to modern ears—that was less allegorical than that of the church fathers and focused more specifically on close readings of the assigned texts for the day. Then as now, preachers had books of sermon illustrations—usually from the lives of the saints—and collections of sample sermons called postils to help them out. The rise of the mendicant, or begging, orders in the thirteenth century (Franciscan and Dominican friars) led to one of many medieval revivals in preaching. One of the chief tasks of these wandering orders was to preach—indeed, for the Franciscans in particular, to preach in such a way as to arouse the emotions of their listeners—and they often built churches designed specifically for this purpose.

Meanwhile, the service of the word—the first part of worship, which focuses on scripture and preaching before moving into the service of the table (offering and eucharist)—was growing ever longer and more elaborate. Early sources testify that it consisted mainly of scripture lessons, psalms, sermons, and prayers.

The Word sung and preached to the people

But later centuries added to this part of the service more and more introductory material, including an introit (service-opening hymn or psalm) and musical settings of the scriptural phrases Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) and Gloria in excelsis (“Glory to God in the highest”). Much of this was designed as “traveling music” to get everyone in place to begin worship. White notes, “acts performed in silence, no matter how essential, always seem to invite verbal or choral accompaniment as if we never quite trust simple action.”

The rest of the service grew as well. Psalm-singing became a longer and more elaborate part of the service, and while creedal statements had long been used in the baptismal liturgy, the nicene Creed came into regular use after the Sunday sermon sometime in the eighth century. In addition, near the end of the middle ages, some priests began to add a vernacular preaching service called “prone.” This effort to better catechize the people was observed before the celebration of the sunday mass. It included parts of the liturgy people would be sure to know such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail mary (adapted from two verses in Luke: the angel’s greeting to mary in 1:28 and Elizabeth’s greeting to her in 1:42), as well as a prayer of confession and a sermon. Later, this service would influence the Reformers as they developed preaching-focused services—although, since pews were coming into vogue by the fifteenth century, the listeners were no longer in danger of falling out the window. CH

Saying grace

Eucharistic prayers varied widely throughout the empire in the early days of the church. The Apostolic Tradition (most likely fourth century, not third as sometimes thought) gives a standard form, although it is intended as a model, not a command. By the end of the fourth century, the prayer was assumed to include certain standard parts:

• the Sursum corda, or opening dialogue (“the Lord be with you/and with your spirit/Lift up your hearts/We lift them up to the Lord/Let us give thanks to the Lord/it is right to give him thanks and praise.”)

• the preface, which contains words appropriate to the day or season

• the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts; Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”), with appropriate material before and after it

• the Institution Narrative, giving the story of Christ’s institution of the Eucharist in words drawn from the scripture passages in the Gospels and i Corinthians 11

• the Anamnesis, which can be translated “remembrance” and includes a recital of God’s mighty acts throughout salvation history

• the Offering of the bread and wine

• the Epiclesis (“invocation”), which asks the Holy spirit to descend on the elements and on the worshiping community

Intercessions for the world and the church

• the Doxology

In the fourth through sixth centuries, Eucharistic prayers, while not departing too far from this outline, began to take unique forms in certain geographical locations. Liturgical scholars divide them into “families”: North African, Alexandrian (Egyptian), West and East syrian, Byzantine, roman (later the standard for the entire Western church), ambrosian (centered on Milan), Mozarabic (centered on spain), Celtic, and Gallican (centered on France and Germany). By the eighth century, the roman prayer, usually called the “Roman Canon,” took on a form close to the one still in use today. CH

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #102+ in 2012]

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Issue 102+

History of Worship Guide

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