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The Early Church Was Liturgical

Tim Staples

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Yes, the earliest Christians celebrated the Mass, and they did so in ways that are impressively similar to today’s Mass. In fact, the Church lived as a liturgical community from the very moment of its birth.


Cy Kellett:
Hello, and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host. We’ve been having some conversations in recent weeks with Tim Staples, Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, about the early church and some of the things that are said about the early church. And trying to dig into what’s true about the life of the early church. So this time we ask Tim if there’s any relationship with the current liturgical state of Christianity, for most Christians in most of the world, and the early church. Was the early church liturgical? Thanks for being with us, Tim.

Tim Staples:
It is great to be with you, my friend.

CK:
All right. So the early church did what? And then invented liturgy.

TS:
Yeah. Being a convert, as you know I am, that was a given. The early church actually was like weak Pentecostals, man. They just went with the flow of the Holy Ghost, and preached, and ran the church, and jumped up and down, and praised God. Right? There was no liturgy, that came probably Constantine. Everything came at Constantine.

CK:
Yeah, okay, right.

TS:
But actually nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the early church, from the first century forward, was liturgical. And of course so, because it comes right out of the old covenant. Where you had a very elaborate liturgy centered on the temple, and the offering of sacrifices and such. But every aspect of the liturgy was choreographed in Old Testament times. Not that there weren’t different liturgical traditions, even in the Old Testament, there were. I mean, you had the Pharisees, I should say, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Therapeut. There were different sects among that had their different. But liturgy is everywhere in the Old Testament.

And most people acknowledge that, even our fundamentalist friends. But what they seem to miss is that when Jesus, as you and I say, instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood on Holy Thursday, he’s coming out of a … And I love the book, The Eucharist, by Bouyer, Louis Bouyer. Where he points out how that Jesus is actually following very much along the prayers of the synagogue, when he institutes the Eucharist, the berakhah, the blessing, the prayer of blessing and such. So he’s very much following a liturgical sort of precedent, but of course he makes radical changes. This is my body. No longer is the prayer over a lamb. It’s, “This is my body.” But the point is, it’s in the context of the Passover. He’s instituting the new Passover, and it’s a new liturgy.

Now what’s really important here to understand is that the liturgy, and really this is common sense, Cy, the liturgy began shortly after the resurrection and the ascension, Jesus gave them the power, “Do this in memory of me.” Well, masses began to be said right after the ascension. The churches begin to flourish, and the evangelism begins and such. And we see that in the Book of Acts, right? From the very earliest times, it’s extraordinary the numbers of converts.

CK:
Yes. Right, right, right. 3000, yeah.

TS:
I mean, 3000, that’s a pretty good start there.

CK:
Yeah, that’s a good first day.

TS:
And then a couple days later, you got another 5,000. And then it’s off to the races, how quickly that it happened. Of course, you had signs and wonders following, and what not. But what happens is you have a liturgical diversity, you have different traditions that grow up right from the start. And this is crucial. I want to mention this at the outset, that Father Joseph Yungman, the great expert in early church liturgy in particular, in his book on the Holy Mass, talks about how … He approaches the different language that we see say from Matthew to Mark, to Luke. Even in the Synoptics, you have different language used in the words of institution, when Jesus says the first mass.

Well, this is, for critics of Christianity, they say, “See, this is contradictions all over the place. This is obviously bogus stuff here. They’re contradicting each other.” And what Yungman says … And by the way, St. Paul, if you go to first Corinthians, for example, he has a nuance as well. He tends to go with Luke. Of course, they were pals. But he too has some different take. And how do you explain that? Because see, it’s easier to explain differences, like when you talk about … As Cy I were talking about before. You can take John’s gospel, where Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables. And all of that happens first thing in Jesus’s ministry there in John II. whereas you go to the Synoptics and it’s late. In Matthew’s gospel, he does it way down at the end. What’s up? That’s a contradiction.

Well, this is Tim Staples’ answer. He did it both times. He cleaned house at the beginning, and he clean house at the end. Right? Now that’s not necessarily true because there are those who would argue that with St. Augustan, that the authors, the inspired authors, the evangelists, did not always put things chronological. They arrange things theologically as well, in order to make particular points in their communities and such. And that’s valid. And this could be a case, although I believe it’s a case of it happened twice. Like the Sermon on the Mount. To think he only said that one time, are you kidding me?

CK:
Yeah, sure, sure.

TS:
As one who has traveled and done my conversion story, probably a thousand times.

CK:
Yeah. But the Our Father’s another one. Yeah.

TS:
Yeah. That’s right. You have a little difference between Matthew and Luke. Well, he gave it many times. But now in this instance though, you’re talking about, Jesus only said this once.

CK:
Yeah. There’s no way this happened twice.

TS:
That’s right. This is Holy Thursday. This is when everything’s coming down. But what’s beautiful as Yungman says … And I’ll just give you one example. When you look at Saint Paul in Corinthians, he has … Jesus, it says, After they had sucked, Jesus takes the cup,” and so forth. And, “This is my body. This is my blood.” Whereas in Matthew’s gospel, it’s, “While they were eating.”

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
Right? Now, what’s up here? Well we see there are different liturgical traditions. And we know, for example, Paul is writing to the Corinthians. Well, guess what? They had a supper before. And we see that caused problems. I mean, you know why the church got rid of that. Because people were getting-

CK:
Because you were tipsy by the time you got to communion.

TS:
That’s right. But, this is not. And for those who will argue, “You’re talking contradictions here.” No, it’s not a contradiction at all. Because the fact of the matter is whether he was eat … It says, “While they were eating,” or, “After, they were eating.”

CK:
Yeah. They were at the table.

TS:
They were at the table. The Eucharist is both a meal and a sacrifice. So there’s not a contradiction. But there is a legitimate, different liturgical tradition that grows up. And this really … Light bulbs went on for me on this. Because as Yungman points out, this is going to obviously be the case, when you have the gospel spreading as quickly as it is to the ins of the known earth. And you have different communities, and very early on, different languages, we know. I mean, we could do this all day, Cy, but real quick-

CK:
There were Medes, there were Parthians. There were all those. That says right there.

TS:
That’s right. And that’s right there in Acts II. Yeah. You have all these different … So the gospel is taken out. And let’s just consider our Maronite friends, and our Chaldean friends, that have the anaphoras of Saints Mari and Addai. Which traditionally go back to two of the 70 that Jesus sent out, named Saint Mari and Saint Addai. And that came in Aramaic. Well, that tradition predates Paul writing First Corinthians.

CK:
Isn’t that amazing? Yeah.

TS:
And all the other traditions as well, because they’re taking Jesus in Aramaic. Then they’re translating him into Latin, into Greek, into Syriac and such. And so these traditions … So by the time we’re talking, Paul’s probably the first one to write down … We’re talking 20 years later. So there’s been all kinds of traditions grow up.

CK:
So the slight variations then. It’s the same story but with slight variations. Just suggests that this is how this community kind of memorialized what Jesus had said.

TS:
Absolutely.

CK:
Nothing significantly different, but slight differences tell you that by the time you get to Paul, writing his letter to the Corinthians, he’s referring to something that’s been going on since the beginning.

TS:
And that’s why he says it, doesn’t he?

CK:
Yeah.

TS:
In First Corinthians 11:23, right before the Institution Narrative, what does he say? “I’m delivering to you what I received.”

CK:
Yeah. Right.

TS:
Right? He didn’t just get this drop down from heaven. But he received a liturgical tradition and he is passing it down. And Cy, I have to say, all those years ago when I became Catholic, this was so revolutionary to me. Because coming from a Protestant background where everything’s, “God dropped it down in King James’ English, my friend. In 1611.” So, I mean, you don’t even think about, “Wow, of course there would have been liturgical traditions.” And what’s beautiful, my friend, is everything we’re talking about now, we could dive deeper into the gospels, and Saint Paul, and have a ton of fun. But what you find is right from day one, you pick up where Paul leaves off, and you have these traditions grow.

And one thing you’ll find … And as you know, I always over-prepare for these things. But whether we look at Clement of Rome or Justin Martyr or in Irenaeus, or the Didache. Oh my gosh. Or Saint Hippolytus. Did I say Saint Justin Martyr? All the way to the Council of Nicea. What you see as a common thread throughout it all is the liturgy is presupposed. Of course there’s … What are you talking about? That the Christians of the first 1500 years of the Christian era could not … They wouldn’t even know what … A non-liturg … A what?

CK:
Yeah, but that’s so fascinating. So that even when you get Mark’s Gospel, Matthew, Luke, John, they’re writing to people who are already doing the things that … This is not like, “Here’s a story you’ve never heard before.” Even Paul, 20 years later, I mean, 20 years after Christ, is reciting when he’s giving the litur … He’s not writing out a liturgical prayer. He’s reciting one that they already know.

TS:
That’s right. There was no Baptists to be found. There were no assemblies of God folks to be found. But let me say this, Cy, because this is where it gets exciting. Is like I said, moving forward. Now, let me just take one … What you have is the presentations on the liturgy are basically sort of framed in number one, the Holy Sacrifice. Everything is about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And then number two, it’s the prayers said by the priests at particular times, and such, laid out. And you see it presented in various ways. Let me just toss out two real quick, and we could have a ton of fun here.

The Didache , the oldest extra biblical document we have, which used to be thought to have written about 120, it’s now universal. There’s not a scholar you can find that doesn’t have it in the first century, some as early as 70, 75ish, in that range. Quotes Malakai chapter one, seven through 11, which refers to the Eucharist as a sacrifice. Prophetically, the prophet Malakai is basically hammering the Old Testament priests because they were so corrupt. And right in the middle of God speaking through the prophet, “I will not accept the sacrifice at your hands. You’re giving me the cheap stuff.” Right? They were giving them the malformed lambs and such, and the priests were munching out on the best stuff. Right? And so God is ticked. He kind of says, almost tongue in cheek, like God’s ticked. He says, “Offer that to your King and see what he says.”

CK:
Right? See how that goes.

TS:
“And you’re offering this to me. I will not accept this sacrifice.” And then in verse seven … This is verse six. And then right in verse seven, he says “For,” which is kind of odd. He says, “I’m not going to accept this sacrifice at your hands for, from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same. My name is spoken among the Gentiles and a perfect, pure offering is made. From the rising of the …” Wait a minute. How can this refer to pagan sacrifices? Which roughly fourth century, fifth century BC, they would have been offering things like human beings. And animals, which of course could never take away the sins of the world. So what’s going on here? This is prophetic. And it’s said to be prophetic. And again, among the fathers, the Didache , Saint Irenaeus, and so many more, quote this very text as referring to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

And the Didache is real clear that that’s the center of our worship, is this prophetic sacrifice. And there’s only one sacrifice that can take away the sins of the world. As John the Baptist said it, when he sees Jesus, in John 129, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” So this is the center around which the liturgy grows up. And of course, it’s presented by Jesus Christ. And so then when you look at whether it’s the Didache … And I’ll move forward just a few years to Saint Clement of Rome, who we talked about in some of our earlier segments, Cy. But Clement, people do not go to paragraphs 40 and 41. Everybody goes to 42 through 44, and that’s good, because it talks about the Bishop, and the sacrifice, and Apostolic succession. It’s all good. But what you have to read is paragraphs 40 and 41, which lead into it, because what Saint Clement does is he goes back to the Old Testament, and he puts it into his voice. Speaking as our Pope for the Bishops. He’s saying, “We. This is what we do.”

But, he talks about the high priests, and the priests, and the Levites. And how he says to these knuckleheads in Corinth. And remember, the reason why he’s writing is because they’re going wacko in Corinth. They’re kicking people out of the priesthood who they don’t have the authority to do that with. They’re abusing the liturgy and all of that. And so Clement is writing this very forceful letter, because they begged him. The Corinthians wrote them a letter, “Help. Paul didn’t settle everything here, man, stuff is still messed up.” And so he says, “Look at …” And in fact, I was going to read it, but it’ll take too long. “Look at the high priest, the priests in the Old Testament. They set up liturgies where sacrifices and prayers are made at certain times, not just at any time you want to. But you do it at a certain time and in a certain way, and you say these prayers.”

It’s like, “Oh my gosh,” it’s so perfect for us today, and especially our Protestant friends who think that’s anathema, right? To have allotted prayers and all of that. Right? “You’re taking away from the Holy Ghost,” right? No, you’re not. Because it’s form that brings beauty to worship. This is the way God wills worship to be. And this is Clement’s point. And remember in Corinth, go back to first Corinthians 14, man, what were they doing? Free for all stuff. They were emphasizing the gifts of the spirit and doing crazy stuff. And Paul says, “All things must be done decently and in order,” this is liturgy from Paul.

CK:
That’s it, right.

TS:
And it continues here. And so at any rate, he says “At a lot of times,” and then he gets into details about what the high priest did, and what the priest did, and what the Levites did, but he’s putting it in the present tense and in his own voice. “This is what we do.” And then he leads right into paragraphs 42 through 44 where he applies it to the mass.

CK:
Yes.

TS:
It is glorious. This is liturgy. And then from there, I mean, it only gets more defined.

CK:
This is about the year 90. Is that about?

TS:
80, 80.

CK:
Oh, okay.

TS:
It’s different scholars. It’s roughly between 80, and at the latest 95. But most scholars are around the 80 range.

CK:
So right from the beginning, the church is liturgical then. I mean, clearly it’s baptismal. I mean, that’s the first thing Peter preaches, really, is repentance through baptize.

TS:
And it’s universal among the fathers, baptismal regeneration. Absolutely.

CK:
And it’s Eucharistic right from the beginning. There’s no air in there. There’s no breathing room between … Is that what we’re … I just want to establish that firmly.

TS:
It is. In fact, you remind me now of a third document we could look at. If you look at Saint Justin Martyr and his dialogue with Trypho, he wrote two major works. There’s some other spurious things that he actually didn’t write. Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, which is awesome. And his first apology, which he writes to Emperor Antoninus, defending the Catholic faith. And that is really important for our purpose, because I think it’s right down around paragraph 65 in that document where he describes … And it’s amazing, you brought up baptism. And I didn’t even ask you to do that, it must be the Holy Ghost. But he begins with he’s teaching the emperor about how they bring people into the church. He’s explaining all sorts of things to the emperor.

CK:
Yeah. The emperor’s stoic. Right? He’s a stoic philosopher.

TS:
Exactly. And you see, Justin is really evangelizing him. It is beautiful. But he talks about how they are baptized, and then they’re brought into the liturgy. And thanks be to God, he describes the liturgy for us. And it comes right out of the gospel through Clement, just as we’ve seen. And he lays it out liturgically, “This is what we do.” Saint Irenaeus in Against Heresies, 30 years later, will do something similar. And then if I could, I’d like to … Saint Hippolytus is amazing.

CK:
Okay, yeah.

TS:
Because in his Apostolic Tradition … And this is a flow, right? From the gospels, to the Didache, to Justin Martyr, to Irenaeus. And here we go into … Now Saint Hippolytus wrote a great work called The Apostolic Tradition. And this is a document for new converts. So it’s a great document to go to, because here you have an early priest who would later become a Bishop and Antipope, unfortunately, that’s a cool story. Because he ends up a saint. But Saint Hippolytus is writing instruction for the simple. And so there, he really lays it out, point by point, of why we do what we do in the liturgy. And his prayer, by the way, the prayer of … He has a Eucharistic prayer. That’s one of the oldest Eucharistic prayers we have. And it became the second Eucharistic prayer after Vatican II.

CK:
I’ve got to read this. I don’t think I’ve read Hippolytus. I’ve got to read this.

TS:
Oh my goodness. Yeah. That prayer becomes the second Eucharistic prayer that we pray now.

CK:
Wow.

TS:
It had fallen out of use for hundreds of years, obviously. And was brought back. But Saint Hippolytus, again, instructing, explains the liturgy and the beauty of the liturgy. Why we do what we do, and how this comes right out of the gospels, but has been of course, made to form fit to our communities and such. And he lays down the law, so to speak. And that’s what you get, Cy, throughout the history of the church, until when you get to the council of Nicea in 325 … And I forget, I believe it’s Canon 19 as I recall, it’s right around there. 16 to 19. It’s funny how, again … We said this at the beginning, but the council, at this one particular point, condemns as improper, deacons giving the Eucharist to priests. Right? But what’s cool about it, and you find this is one of the great things about being an apologist. We do this stuff for a living, we get to go back and read this stuff. Because this is what we do.

CK:
And it’s a tough life, huh?

TS:
It is a tough life.

CK:
What a great gift.

TS:
Yeah, It is. But you often see it’s abuses like this that help us to see kind of in passing, like here at the council. It says, “Now this is an abuse, because a deacon, who cannot say mass, can never give the Eucharist to the very priests who have offered the Holy Sacrifice. Right? So in the process we discover, gosh, look how clearly it is laid out.

CK:
It’s exactly like today, yeah.

TS:
And then it gets it into other abuses in the liturgy. Indicating to us that, again, the liturgy is a given. And that’s another thing you find consistent throughout all of the Fathers of the Church, from the Didache, which was again, probably as early as 70ish. Right? And you have the liturgy presupposed. This is probably written before John’s gospel, before the Book of Revelation. Certainly contemporary of Saint John and such. And the liturgy is a given. It’s already going on in Fulfillment to Malakai chapter one.

So, for those that are listening, if you’re a skeptic. And I appreciate because I was there. I believed all this liturgy stuff to be traditions of men, right? This is evil stuff. Actually, you know what I discovered, Cy? And you see this in the early church. The reason why the fathers, whether it’s Irenaeus, or Justin Martyr, or Hippolytus, or Clement, they’re protecting the liturgy. Because the liturgy is the center of worship.

And so when people get out of whack, they call them, in no uncertain terms, back to the unity of the Catholic faith. Because if you deserve the liturgy, you deserve the unity of the Catholic faith. That’s how serious it was. I wish some folks today would realize.

CK:
Well people are.

TS:
They are. But I mean-

CK:
Even you.

TS:
Even when John Paul issued that great document on the Eucharist, where he laid out the abuses and such, and he categorized them, the closer they get to the Eucharistic prayer, the more grave they are. There are some liturgical abuses that can separate you from Jesus Christ and his church. That’s how grave it is. And you get that when you read the early church fathers.

CK:
Could you just give me a descriptive, then, if you have any in your mind, of say what it would have been like to celebrate the mass. And it wouldn’t have had the name, the mass, at that time. Right? That’s a medieval name. Isn’t it?

TS:
Correct, yeah. It actually comes from the Latin.

CK:
But celebrate the Eucharist, let’s say it that way. So what would I have been doing, say, if I was celebrating that with Saint Peter, or Paul, or Timothy, or-

TS:
Yeah. And this is the beauty of it. As Father Yungman would say, you would be going to a mass just like you’re going to today. You would recognize the parts of the mass. It would blow your mind how similar it is. Not that it would be exact, no. Because there were different … And we read about some of the different traditions that were added in, that have long since been discarded. And this gets back to something you said earlier, the essence is the same. The essence of the mass said by Jesus, said by the apostles, said by all these early church fathers that I’ve said, is identical. And uncanny, you would find the parts of the mass.

Again, if you go back to a Saint Justin Martyr writing in 150 AD, when he describes it … Now this is a special mass where you had folks being baptized. And he’s talking about that with the emperor, for catechetical and evangelistic reasons. When he gets into the liturgy, it’s like you’re there. It’s like, “Wow, that’s what we do today. That’s it.” And that is because the liturgy really did begin with Jesus Christ in the context. And that’s why I love Louis Bouyer’s book on the Eucharist. Because that’s his whole theme. He’s kind of answering the nuts that … I shouldn’t say nuts, but people that are erroneous. And in saying that the mass comes from Babylon, and paganism, and such. It’s like, no, nothing could be further from the truth. It comes out of the synagogue and the Jewish tradition, Passover, and so forth. And so it flows right in. And the early Christians just picked that ball up and run with it. But it doesn’t stay static in the sense that there’s no room for any sort of growth. There is. And hence we have the different traditions.

But maybe to answer your question, the differences would be kind of like the differences between going to a Maronite liturgy today, or a Chaldean, or a Byzantine liturgy versus a Latin, right, liturgy. It’s very different in some ways. But you would recognize the essential parts.

CK:
Ah, okay, great analogy. Thank you, Tim Staples. I appreciate that.

TS:
Too much. It’s over already?

CK:
Yeah, it’s over already. But look at this, the early church was hierarchical. It was apostolic. It was liturgical.

TS:
Amen.

CK:
We could do more. It seems like it was Catholic.

TS:
I think so.

CK:
Again, thank you Tim Staples.

TS:
All right, brother.

CK:
And thank you, our listeners. We really appreciate you being here, and we appreciate your support as well. If you’d like to share your financial support with us, you can do that by going to givecatholic.com. And if that’s not something you’re up for right yet, you could share us. You could give us that five star review or let your friends know about Catholicanswersfocus.com. Or about the podcast wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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