II. THE ORIGIN OF THE LITURGY — At the outset of this discussion we are confronted by three of the most difficult questions of Christian archæology, namely: From what date was there a fixed and regulated service such as we can describe as a formal Liturgy? How far was this service uniform in various Churches? How far are we able to reconstruct its forms and arrangement?
With regard to the first question it must be said that an Apostolic Liturgy in the sense of an arrangement of prayers and ceremonies, like our present ritual of the Mass, did not exist. For some time the Eucharistic Service was in many details fluid and variable. It was not all written down and read from fixed forms, but in part composed by the officiating bishop. As for ceremonies, at first they were not elaborated as now. All ceremonial evolves gradually out of certain obvious actions done at first with no idea of ritual, but simply because they had to he done for convenience. The bread and wine were brought to the altar when they were wanted, the lessons were read from a place where they could best be heard, hands were washed because they were soiled. Out of these obvious actions ceremony developed, just as our vestments developed out of the dress of the first Christians. It follows then of course that, when there was no fixed Liturgy at all, there could be no question of absolute uniformity among the different Churches.
And yet the whole series of actions and prayers did not depend solely on the improvisation of the celebrating bishop. Whereas at one time scholars were inclined to conceive the services of the first Christians as vague and undefined, recent research shows us a very striking uniformity in certain salient elements of the service at a very early date. The tendency among students now is to admit something very like a regulated Liturgy, apparently to a great extent uniform in the chief cities, back even to the first or early second century. In the first place the fundamental outline of the rite of the Holy Eucharist was given by the account of the Last Supper. What our Lord had done then, that same thing He told His followers to do in memory of Him. It would not have been a Eucharist at all if the celebrant had not at least done as our Lord did the night before He died. So we have everywhere from the very beginning at least this uniform nucleus of a Liturgy: bread and wine are brought to the celebrant in vessels (a plate and a cup); he puts them on a table — the altar; standing before it in the natural attitude of prayer he takes them in his hands, gives thanks, as our Lord had done, says again the words of institution, breaks the Bread and gives the consecrated Bread and Wine to the people in communion. The absence of the words of institution in the Nestorian Rite is no argument against the universality of this order. It is a rite that developed quite late; the parent liturgy has the words.
But we find much more than this essential nucleus in use in every Church from the first century. The Eucharist was always celebrated at the end of a service of lessons, psalms, prayers, and preaching, which was itself merely a continuation of the service of the synagogue. So we have everywhere this double function; first a synagogue service Christianized, in which the holy books were read, psalms were sung, prayers said by the bishop in the name of all (the people answering "Amen" in Hebrew, as had their Jewish forefathers), and homilies, explanations of what had been read, were made by the bishop or priests, just as they had been made in the synagogues by the learned men and elders (e. g., Luke, iv, 16-27). This is what was known afterwards as the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Then followed the Eucharist, at which only the baptized were present. Two other elements of the service in the earliest time soon disappeared. One was the Love-feast (agape) that came just before the Eucharist; the other was the spiritual exercises, in which people were moved by the Holy Ghost to prophesy, speak in divers tongues, heal the sick by prayer, and so on. This function — to which I Cor., xiv, 1-14, and the Didache, x, 7, etc., refer — obviously opened the way to disorders; from the second century it gradually disappears. The Eucharistic Agape seems to have disappeared at about the same time. The other two functions remained joined, and still exist in the liturgies of all rites. In them the service crystallized into more or less set forms from the beginning. In the first half the alternation of lessons, psalms, collects, and homilies leaves little room for variety. For obvious reasons a lesson from a Gospel was read last, in the place of honour as the fulfilment of all the others; it was preceded by other readings whose number, order, and arrangement varied considerably (see LESSONS IN THE LITURGY). A chant of some kind would very soon accompany the entrance of the clergy and the beginning of the service. We also hear very soon of litanies of intercession said by one person to each clause of which the people answer with some short formula (see ANTIOCHENE LITURGY; ALEXANDRINE LITURGY; KYRIE ELEISON). The place and number of the homilies would also vary for a long time. It is in the second part of the service, the Eucharist itself, that we find a very striking crystallization of the forms, and a uniformity even in the first or second century that goes far beyond the mere nucleus described above.
Already in the New Testament — apart from the account of the Last Supper — there are some indexes that point to liturgical forms. There were already readings from the Sacred Books (I Tim., iv, 13; I Thess., V, 27; Col., iv, 16), there were sermons (Act., xx, 7), psalms and hymns (I Cor., xiv, 26; Col., iii, 16; Eph., v, 19). I Tim., ii, 1-3, implies public liturgical prayers for all classes of people. People lifted up their hands at prayers (I Tim., ii, 8), men with uncovered heads ( I Cor., xi, 4), women covered (ibid., 5). There was a kiss of peace (I Cor., xvi, 20; II Cor., xiii, 12; I Thess., V, 26). There was an offertory of goods for the poor (Rom., xv, 26; II Cor., ix, 13) called by the special name "communion" (κοινωνια). The people answered "Amen" after prayers (I Cor., xiv, 16). The word Eucharist has already a technical meaning (ibid.). The famous passage, I Cor., xi, 20-9, gives us the outline of the breaking of bread and thanksgiving (Eucharist) that followed the earlier part of the service. Heb., xiii, 10 (cf. I Cor., x, 16-21), shows that to the first Christians the table of the Eucharist was an altar. After the consecration prayers followed (Acts, ii, 42). St. Paul "breaks bread" (= the consecration), then communicates, then preaches (Acts, xx, 11). Acts, ii, 42, gives us an idea of the liturgical Synaxis in order: They "persevere in the teaching of the Apostles" (this implies the readings and homilies), "communicate in the breaking of bread" (consecration and communion) and "in prayers". So we have already in the New Testament all the essential elements that we find later in the organized liturgies: lessons, psalms, hymns, sermons, prayers, consecration, communion. (For all this see F. Probst: "Liturgie der drei ersten christl. Jahrhunderte", Tübingen, 1870, c. i; and the texts collected in Cabrol and Leclercq; "Monumenta ecclesiæ liturgica", I, Paris, 1900, pp. 1-51.) It has been thought that there are in the New Testament even actual formulæ used in the liturgy. The Amen is certainly one. St. Paul's insistence on the form "For ever and ever, Amen" (εις τους αιωνας των αιωνων αμην. — Rom., xvi, 27; Gal., i, 5; I Tim., i, 17; cf. Heb., xiii, 21; I Pet., i, 11; v, 11; Apoc., i, 6, etc.) seems to argue that it is a liturgical form well known to the Christians whom he addresses, as it was to the Jews. There are other short hymns (Rom., xiii, 11-2; Eph., v, 14; I Tim., iii, 16; II Tim., ii, 11-3), which may well be liturgical formulæ.
In the Apostolic Fathers the picture of the early Christian Liturgy becomes clearer; we have in them a definite and to some extent homogeneous ritual. But this must be understood. There was certainly no set form of prayers and ceremonies such as we see in our present Missals and Euchologia; still less was anything written down and read from a book. The celebrating bishop spoke freely, his prayers being to some extent improvised. And yet this improvising was bound by certain rules. In the first place, no one who speaks continually on the same subjects says new things each time, Modern sermons and modern extempore prayers show how easily a speaker falls into set forms, how constantly he repeats what come to be, at least for him, fixed formulæ. Moreover, the dialogue form of prayer that we find in use in the earliest monuments necessarily supposes some constant arrangement. The people answer and echo what the celebrant and the deacons say with suitable exclamations. They could not do so unless they heard more or less the same prayers each time. They heard from the altar such phrases as: "The Lord be with you", or "Lift up your hearts", and it was because they recognized these forms, had heard them often before, that they could answer at once in the way expected.
We find too very early that certain general themes are constant. For instance our Lord had given thanks just before He spoke the words of institution. So it was understood that every celebrant began the prayer of consecration — the Eucharistic prayer — by thanking God for His various mercies. So we find always what we still have in our modern prefaces — a prayer thanking God for certain favours and graces, that are named, just where that preface comes, shortly before the consecration (Justin, "Apol.," I, xiii, lxv). An intercession for all kinds of people also occurs very early, as we see from references to it (e. g., Justin, "Apol.," I, xiv, lxv). In this prayer the various classes of people would naturally be named in more or less the same order. A profession of faith would almost inevitably open that part of the service in which only the faithful were allowed to take part (Justin, "Apol." I, xiii, lxi). It could not have been long before the archtype of all Christian prayer — the Our Father — was said publicly in the Liturgy. The moments at which these various prayers were said would very soon become fixed, The people expected them at certain points, there was no reason for changing their order, on the contrary to do so would disturb the faithful. One knows too how strong conservative instinct is in any religion, especially in one that, like Christianity, has always looked back with unbounded reverence to the golden age of the first Fathers. So we must conceive the Liturgy of the first two centuries as made up of somewhat free improvisations on fixed themes in a definite order; and we realize too how naturally under these circumstances the very words used would be repeated — at first no doubt only the salient clauses — till they became fixed forms. The ritual, certainly of the simplest kind, would become stereotyped even more easily. The things that had to be done, the bringing up of the bread and wine, the collection of alms and so on, even more than the prayers, would be done always at the same point. A change here would be even more disturbing than a change in the order of the prayers.
A last consideration to be noted is the tendency of new Churches to imitate the customs of the older ones. Each new Christian community was formed by joining itself to the bond already formed. The new converts received their first missionaries, their faith and ideas from a mother Church. These missionaries would naturally celebrate the rites as they had seen them done, or as they had done them themselves in the mother Church. And their converts would imitate them, carry on the same tradition. Intercourse between the local Churches would further accentuate this uniformity among people who were very keenly conscious of forming one body with one Faith, one Baptism, and one Eucharist. It is not then surprising that the allusions to the Liturgy in the first Fathers of various countries, when compared show us a homogeneous rite at any rate in its main outlines, a constant type of service, though it was subject to certain local modifications. It would not be surprising if from this common early Liturgy one uniform type had evolved for the whole Catholic world. We know that that is not the case. The more or less fluid ritual of the first two centuries crystallized into different liturgies in East and West; difference of language, the insistence on one point in one place, the greater importance given to another feature elsewhere, brought about our various rites. But there is an obvious unity underlying all the old rites that goes back to the earliest age. The medieval idea that all are derived from one parent rite is not so absurd, if we remember that the parent was not a written or stereotyped Liturgy, but rather a general type of service.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX, p. 307-308
Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor
Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York