• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Christian Worship: The Early Years

At the beginning of the second century, Christian ritual was loosely organised. The congregation would assemble at sunrise on Sunday for prayer and towards evening for a meal (agape) – a dinner that recalled the Jewish meal on the Eve of the Sabbath.[1] This evening ritual opened with a blessing over the breaking of the bread and ended with a second blessing over a cup of wine. Prayers were offered either during the meal or after, hymns were sung and at times a spiritual discourse evolved. A “prophet,” if present, would deliver a sermon or speak in tongues.

The houses folk congregated in were typically one-family tenements up to four storeys high. The dining room on top was the only large room and opened on a terrace. This is the upper floor, the “anageion” or “hyperon” frequently mentioned in Acts. The room “high up, open to the light” of which Tertullian still speaks after AD 200.[2] The furnishings would have been consisted of a table and three surrounded couches, the main couch opposite the entrance reserved for the elder, the host, and the speaker as honoured guest. The congregation might crowd the room including the window sills, so that at Troas a young man fell from the the fourth floor (tristegon) only to be resurrected by St Paul.[3]

The legal basis for the holding of property by Christian communities remains moot. It’s possible that congregations were incorporated as funeral associations and held property under that title, or they held property by proxy through a member of the congregation or bishop. The two main purposes of their property were to serve spiritual needs and the cult of the dead.

For the latter, cemeteries were built – often outside cities so the deceased could rest undefiled by neighbouring pagans. The graves of martyrs were marked by monuments and funeral banquets (refrigeria) that involved libations (poured into graves through an opening, the “cataract”). The worship at such sites and structures was closely linked to the pagan celebration of rulers and heroes whose deaths had been marked by heroa (mausolea that could be as little as a niche sheltered by an aedicule or vast temples with apse and rotundas).[4] These often snowballed into full-blown festivals such as that on the site of S. Sebastiano on the Via Appia, which commemorated St Peter and Paul from the mid-third century onwards.[5]

Christian custom required slight modifications of Roman traditions, which favoured burial in family groups (including slaves and freemen) regardless of personal religious belief. Moreover, Christianity abhorred cremation, which remained standard for the poor in Rome even after the well-to-do had returned (c. AD 150) to the custom of burial. Hence Christians could not use the mass graves of the lower classes (the columbaria) crowded with urns on shelves and niches.

The solution was found by constructing large communal cemeteries either open to the sky or underground (the first in Rome being the Callisto Catacomb, which was built in the early third-century). Based on archetypes derived from the pagan group hypogaeum (simplified, regularised, depersonalised), catacombs went out of use during the early sixth century, however, under the impact of the political and economic catastrophes that resulted in decreases in the labour force and a collapse of land values.

By the early third century, the common meal was relegated to rare occasions: meals offered to the poor (agapai) and the aforementioned funeral banquets held. The regular service consisted of two parts. The first attended by catechumens and the faithful was comprised of scriptural readings, sermon and common prayer. The second was reserved for Christians and involved the procession of the faithful bringing offerings for the poor and the church, then the Eucharist. The bishop, flanked by presbyters, presided over the assembly from a platform (solium) seated in an armchair like a Roman magistrate.[6] The congregation was seated outside this presbytery, supervised by deacons and arranged in a set order (the Syrians placed children in front, then men with women behind them, meanwhile in Rome men took one side of the room and women the other).

In Rome, these house-churches (which grew as members collected funds to purchase the property of neighbours) were known as tituli, the term titulus being a legal one, derived from the marble slab that bore the owner’s name and established his title to a property. By the early fourth century, the parish organisation of Rome rested on twenty-five tituli, known under various names such as titulus Clementis, titulus Byzantis etc. These tituli exist to this day in name and law, indeed, each titulus is still assigned to one of the cardinals of the Roman Church as his title church.

[1] Postulants and catechumens were not admitted to the “breaking of the bread” and probably left the room before the climax of the meeting. Baptism (originally administered only in flowing water) was performed in standing water as early as the second century.

[2] Tertullian, Adversus Valentinianos.

[3] Acts of the Apostles, 20:5-10.

[4] See A. Grabar, Martyrium (1948) for further reading.

[5] It’s worth noting that the only difference between a Christian banquet hall at events such as this was the fact osteria weren’t typically covered with invocations of the Apostles and the records of feasts in their honour.

[6] Against the strong opposition of his brethren, as early as AD 265 the bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosate, claimed flamboyant quarters and the appurtenances, both architectural and ceremonial, of a Roman ranking magistrate: a “lofty throne” atop a dais, an audience chamber, and the performance of acclamations upon entering the meeting room for services (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VII, XXX, 9).

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