Worship in the (supposed) “Dark Ages”

It is the eighth Century in Rome, and the pope is about to preside over the Eucharist.

He has ridden on horseback from the Lateran (his cathedral) to the church where he will celebrate. It is already packed full of worshipers who arrived in processionals from each of the seven regions of rome. Around the altar sit all the clergy and bishops of rome. The pope gets off his horse, enters the sacristy, and dresses in his vestments (see p. 37). Now the service can begin. An acolyte arrives, carrying the gospel book up to the altar; the basilica fills with music as the choir begins an introit (opening music). enter the pope, processing solemnly with seven acolytes and two deacons at his side. As they pass, another acolyte presents a small casket that contains a piece of bread consecrated at the previous Mass. The pope bows before it and proceeds.

The vivid details we know today about this eighth-century worship service come from the Ordo Romanus Primus, a book describing the liturgy as it was celebrated in Rome just before the time of Charlemagne. The Ordo became a model for the celebration of the Mass throughout the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years to come.

From Gloria Patri to Alleluia

The pope makes his way into the upper part of the choir, near the altar, and bows again. “He then rises up, and prays, and makes the sign of the cross on his forehead.” He gives the kiss of peace to all the clergy serving with him—from bishops to subdeacons—who are also gathered in the choir; he signals that the Gloria Patri should be sung. The pope kneels to pray, then rises, kisses the Gospel book, and walks to his throne at the head of the apse facing east. After the choir sings the Kyrie eleison, the pope leads the people in the Gloria in excelsis (“Glory to God in the highest”), “and at once turns back again to the east until it is finished. Then, after turning again to the people, he says Pax vobis [‘Peace be with you’], and once more turning to the east, says Oremus [‘Let us pray’], and the collect [prayer for the day] follows. At the end of it he sits, and the bishops and presbyters sit in like manner.”

The subdeacons station themselves at either side of the altar, and as soon as the higher clergy are seated, one of the subdeacons walks into the ambo—the place where scripture is read—and reads the epistle for the day (there is no longer any Old testament reading). Then a choir member sings the response to the reading. If it is easter, another sings the Alleluia. If it is Lent, a penitential song is sung.

The Gospel lesson

Finally it is time to read the gospel lesson for the day. A deacon kisses the pope’s feet and whispers to him Dominus sit in corde tuo et in labiis tuis (“the Lord be in your heart and on your lips”). The deacon then kisses a large book with an ornate cover containing all the gospel readings for the year. He bears it in front of him as he moves to the ambo accompanied by acolytes with candles and subdeacons swinging incense censers, who arrange them selves in front of the ambo to support the gospel book for the deacon. When the deacon is done, the pope says Pax tibi; Dominus vobiscum (“Peace to you; the Lord be with you”). The people respond Et cum spirito tuo (“and with your spirit”). Meanwhile the gospel book is passed back to the subdeacons who hold it to be kissed by all the clergy in the choir in order of rank. Then it is carefully sealed and carried back to the Lateran.

Although one of many medieval preaching revivals was getting underway (see “Did worship still feature the Word?” p. 16), this service features no sermon after the gospel. nor is there any creed—it was still not a regular part of Western eucharistic worship, though it was used extensively in the baptismal liturgy. Instead, the service begins to move from Word to table.

Bringing the gifts

An acolyte and a deacon cover the altar with a corporal (a white cloth resembling a tablecloth, for the eucharistic elements to be placed on), one “throwing the end to the second deacon so they can spread it out,” and the offertory begins. While the choir sings a psalm, the pope and the archdeacons accept wine and bread (not wafers until several centuries later) offered by the nobility, namely “the chancellor, the secretary, and the chief counselor.” As lesser people bring up their gifts, they are received by lesser clergy. Finally the pope puts his own offering of two loaves of bread on the altar, and “bowing slightly to the altar, looks at the choir and nods to them to be silent.” An offertory prayer is said.

After the Sursum corda, preface, and Sanctus (see “saying grace,” p. 19), everyone bows. In centuries to come, the focus will be on lifting up the Host at the moment of consecration, but here the pope lifts the bread and chalice as he ends a series of prayers with a final doxology: “through him [Jesus Christ] and with him and in him all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy spirit, throughout the ages of ages.”

The community in Communion

The people recite the Pater Noster† (Lord’s Prayer) and exchange the kiss of peace: “the archdeacon gives the peace to the chief bishop; then the rest in order and the people likewise.” Now the bread has to be broken, which takes a while, since many loaves have been brought up. The clergy assist in this, holding out little bags to receive the loaves, which the acolytes bring to them. At the pope’s signal, all of the loaves are broken. the choir sings a psalm, and the pope receives Communion—first a piece of bread, except for asmall fragment, which he puts in the chalice and “makes the sign of the cross three times over the fragment from which he has bitten,” and then drinks the bread and wine together. The people—men first, and then women—follow the clergy. They come forward to receive, standing and taking the bread in their hands, then sipping from chalices of ordinary wine, each with a few drops of the consecrated blood in it. Even then, they sip through a fistula to avoid spilling it.

By no means does every person present actually receive the Eucharist. Ordinary laypeople receive infrequently, because to do so they have to prepare with considerable fasting and prayer. In fact, lay participation in the Eucharist has by this time been reserved for great feast days such as (on St. Boniface’s recommendation) Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

When all who are going to receive have done so, the table is put in order. The pope sits down and washes his hands, then offers a prayer of thanksgiving. The deacons dismiss the people by saying Ite missa est (“It is time for the dismissal”—the word “Mass” comes from this phrase), and the pope and his entourage make their solemn procession out of the church and back to their horses.

Despite the ornate detail of this ceremony, it remained, as scholar Bard Thompson notes, “basically a community service of worship, its corporate character being secured by the fact that it was sung in some communal setting by the celebrant, the assisting ministers, and the choir.” Over the next few centuries, though, there would be a move toward more and more private Masses offered for the repose of the souls of the dead, or for other prayer intentions, each performed by a single priest at one of the many side altars that churches would hurry to build in their sanctuaries to take advantage of this new liturgical trend.

Kneeling to prayIn the background of the Mass droned the low and steady hum of the round of daily prayer that Egeria had noted (see “What sorts of music did worshipers use?” p. 20). Now, however, that round went on inside the walls of monasteries and convents more than it did in public worship. It also took place in “collegial” monasteries, where secular priests might choose to live together in a monastic fashion, praying the daily office and being accountable to each other. (Many cathedrals started such collegial chapters in an effort to reform the behavior of their associated clergy.)

As the early Middle Ages (500–1000) moved into the High Middle Ages (1000–1300), communal recitation of the daily office gave way to private prayer. Beautiful illuminated books of hours emerged to guide the prayers not only of monks in their cloisters but also of nobles in their castles. But the structure of the daily office remained very much the one the 7th-century rule of St. Benedict had laid out, continuing to bathe the day in prayer.

More than a thousand years later, a poet writing in england in the waning days of the second World War reflected back on this age and on these prayers. This was Charles Williams, a member of C. S. Lewis’s “Inklings” circle. Williams pictured the pope privately making the rounds of the shadowed, candlelit Lateran, praying the office before the Christmas Eucharist began, praying for the church and the world, invoking Christ. “The pope prayed: ‘thou hast harried hell, O Blessed, and carried thence the least token of thyself. Thou hast spoken a word of power in the midst of hell.’” Williams pictures the great ceremony of the Eucharist rising as a prayer for peace, culminating in the hundreds of broken loaves. And he pictures the pope in all his finery, after the Eucharist is over, there again in the dark: “Kneeling after the Eucharist, the pope said . . . Magnificat; prostrate, he prayed: ‘send not, send not the rich empty away.’” 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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