St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
Early Christian Tradition
Session Four: The Development of the Church Year & Some Important Sources
Led by and Summary Supplied by Mike Kreutzer
Sunday, November 30, 2003
We examined the Holy Eucharist, and the ways that it was understood and practiced during the first few centuries of the Christian era
We will examine, first, the development of the Church year during the first centuries of the Christian era, and then will turn our attention to some of the major sources of information on the life, belief and practices of the early Church.
Initially, every day was a day of celebration of the new life that believers shared in Christ. That new life was the focus of a weekly sharing in the Eucharist, which quickly came to be celebrated each Sunday. There was no “Church year” as we know it.
By at least the second century, and more likely as early as the late first century, Christians began an annual celebration of “Pascha”: the Christian Passover. The original practice seems to have been to celebrate Pascha together with Passover on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. A group called the “Quartodecimans” continued this practice into the second century, by which time other Christians had transferred it to the Sunday following Passover; the Quartodecimans continued their practice into the fifth century in Asia Minor.
Pascha was a commemoration of the entire “Paschal event”: i.e. both the death and the resurrection of Christ. Irenaeus mentions that is was celebrated during the time of Polycarp, who was martyred around 155. Pascha included both fasting and celebration. Following the Roman model, the normative practice became one of fasting on Friday and Saturday and celebrating on Sunday. However, it is important to remember that a Jewish day begins as sundown. Therefore, the period of fasting began at sundown on Thursday, and the period of celebration began at sundown on Saturday.
By the 4th century, Friday had become “Good Friday.” On Thursday evening, there was an evening Eucharist (a rarity at that time) to commemorate the Last Supper. The great celebration of Easter began on Saturday evening, following a practice that appears to go back to the late 1st century. By this time, the entire week was preceded by an extended period of preparation and was followed by “The Fifty Days” or “Pentecost.”
All of these now comprise the Easter cycle of our Prayer Book. Lionel Mitchell says of the Easter cycle: “The Great Vigil of Easter, with the celebration of the paschal sacraments of baptism and eucharist, is at its core and is its organizing theme, but the Easter cycle encompasses everything from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost. Its theme is the salvation of the human race through the mighty acts of Jesus Christ. In its celebration we become participants in those mighty acts and enter into the risen life of Christ.”
The Rites of the Easter Cycle:
Lent has apparently always consisted of 40 days, but the way that these have been calculated has changed. The original practice may have been to begin the 40 days of fasting after the Epiphany (which, in turn, celebrated Jesus’ baptism), as an imitation of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Later, the practice arose to begin Lent on “Quadragesima Sunday”: our First Sunday of Lent (this continues to be the practice in, for example, the Ambrosian Rite). In the 6th century, the beginning of the fast was moved to the Wednesday prior to Quadragesima Sunday in order to provide for 40 days of fasting. In 8th century Rome an antiphon on that day sang of repenting in sackcloth and ashes. This was interpreted literally in northern Europe, where the practice of imposing ashes on that day began. In 1091 a northern Italian council ordered everyone to receive ashes on what it called “Ash Wednesday.” By at least the early 5th century, and probably earlier, penitents came to the church on the first day of Lent to seek readmission to the Church and to begin a season of prayer and fasting.
The observation of Holy Week as a period of special fasting in preparation for the annual commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus is very ancient. The 3rd century Didascalia Apostolorum from Syria instructs: “You shall fast during the days of the Pascha from the tenth, which is a Monday, and you sustain yourselves with bread and salt and water only, at the ninth hour, until the Thursday. But on the Friday and on the Saturday fast completely, and do not taste anything. You shall come together and watch and keep vigil all the night with prayers and intercessions, and with reading of the Prophets, and with the Gospels and with Psalms, and fear and trembling, and with earnest supplication, until the third hour in the night after the Saturday; and then break your fasts.”
The rites of Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Good Friday) seem to have developed in Jerusalem during the 4th century under the leadership of the bishop Cyril. We find descriptions of them in the journal of a Spanish pilgrim named Egeria who visited the Holy City in 380. Among other things, she was very impressed that the readings and psalms used were appropriate to the time and place (this apparently was something new to her).
The journal of Egeria describes a special celebration in Jerusalem on what we call “Palm Sunday”: “The bishop and all the people… start off on foot down from the Mount of Olives… with psalms and antiphons,… repeating, ‘blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.”
Egeria reports a special evening celebration of the Eucharist on Thursday evening during Holy Week, and mentions a general reception of Communion at that time. When these rites spread to Rome and to the rest of the Church, what we know as “Maundy Thursday” came to include a rite of restoring penitents to the Church so that they could share in these most sacred of mysteries; this practice is mentioned in a letter of Innocent I in 416.
During the 4th century, an observance of Good Friday spread from Jerusalem, first through the East and then through the West. The celebration of the eucharist on that day was already forbidden in Rome by 416, and this quickly became a universal custom. A liturgy of the Word was followed in Jerusalem by a veneration of the “true cross.” In other places, other wooden crosses came to be used in a similar way. A Byzantine custom was the use of the so-called “Liturgy of the pre-Sanctified Gifts” on all fast days; this included the distribution of Communion from previously consecrated bread and wine. This practice was adopted in Rome in the 8th century.
The Great Vigil of Easter is the first of all Christian feasts: its origins reach back to the first century. Early Christians spent the night before Passover (later, before the Sunday after Passover) in prayer and in reading the Scriptures. Then, just before dawn, they celebrated the Holy Eucharist. In the 2nd or 3rd century this became the great feast of baptism. Tertullian called Easter the “day of most solemnity for baptism” although any time during the Great Fifty Days was acceptable.
Our current practice, shared by other Christian churches, incorporates the structure of those early Easter services. A special Paschal candle is lighted, followed by other candles in the church. There is a vigil of readings, psalms and prayers (nine of each are provided in The Book of Common Prayer). Baptism is celebrated. Then follows the Easter celebration of the Eucharist.
Ascension and Pentecost: Eusebius (c. 338) speaks of “that day on which the holy Scriptures attest the ascension of our common Savior into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit among men”: i.e. Ascension and Pentecost were observed as one feast day, 50 days after Easter. About 50 years later, the Apostolic Constitutions describes the ascension as being celebrated 40 days after Easter.
The Christmas Cycle:
In the mid 2nd century, a group of Christians in Egypt began celebrating a feast of the Epiphany (January 6), although it is unclear exactly what they were celebrating. Some seem to have observed this as the feast of the birth of Jesus; others, as the day of his baptism. It soon developed a connection with the first of his signs, changing water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. It may also have been the day when their yearly cycle of readings began.
In Rome about 336, we begin to hear of another celebration of the birth of Jesus, possibly originating in North Africa. A December 25 celebration of the birth of Jesus is first mentioned in the Roman Chronograph of 354, which lists significant days in the Church year. Later in the 4th century, John Chrysostom tries to explain this new, and obviously unfamiliar, festival to his congregation in Antioch. Eventually, it came to be preceded by a time of preparation (“Advent”) which sometimes lasted 40 days, in imitation of Lent. This season was sometimes called “St. Martin’s Lent” since it began near the feast of Martin of Tours (November 11). More often, however, it continued for four weeks. The use of four Sundays seems to reflect Matthew’s list of the ages before the coming of the Messiah: the time before Abraham, the time from Abraham to David, the time from David to the Exile, and the time from the Exile to birth of Jesus.
Other Feast Days:
About the middle of the 2nd century, Christians also began to commemorate the anniversaries of the death of local martyrs. The first known of these was a commemoration of the death of Polycarp of Smyrna who died on February 23, 156. An early account of his death encouraged Christians to commemorate it each year “both in memory of those who have already contested, and for the practice and training of those whose fate it shall be.”
A Short Bibliography
> Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship
> Henry Chadwick, The Early Church
> Edward Foley, From Age to Age
> Howard E. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist: a Guide to Celebration
> Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book
> Rebecca Lyman, Early Church Traditions
> Leonel L. Mitchell, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and the Great Fifty Days
> James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship
Some Sources for Our Understanding of the Early Church (with approximate dates)
> Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians (90-100)
> Didache (100)
> Irenaeus of Lyons (120)
> The Shepherd of Hermas (150)
> Justin Martyr (155)
> Clement of Alexandria (200)
> Tertullian (200)
> Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition (215)
> the house at Dura-Europa (230)
> Didascalia Apostolorum (late 3rd century)
> Serapion of Egypt (350)
> Apostolic Constitutions (late 4th century)
Many of these can be found online at www.earlychristianwritings.com/ .