Sacred Times, Rites and Services


The law of Constantine, issued in 521, relative to the observance of Sunday, contains the following prescription: "On the venerable day of the sun, let the magistrates and the people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however persons engaged is agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting." [Cod. Justin., III. xii. 3.] Later emperors re-affirmed this law, and added the prohibition of theatricals and other public spectacles on Sunday. [Cod. Theod., VIII. viii. 1; XV. v. 2; XV. v. 5; Cod. Justin. III. xii. 11.] Decrees of similar import were issued by authorities of the Church. The council of Laodicea, for example, discountenanced the practice of resting on the Jewish Sabbath, and prescribed that Christians should honor the Lord's Day, and, when possible, refrain from work on the same.

[Canon 29. This action indicates that in some communities in the East the Jewish day was observed. Very likely it was in places where a large proportion of Christians were of Jewish antecedents. It is not to be presumed that such neglected the Lord's Day, but rather that they observed two days of the week. Somewhat remarkably, the Apostolic Constitutions (ii. 59; v. 20; vii. 23; viii. 33) prescribe this double observance. In this they conform to the general view respecting the independence of the Christian day; but in their marked deference to the Jewish day they cannot be taken as an exponent of the mind of the Church at large. The general verdict agreed with Augustine's words: "Dominus sabbatum solvebat" (Serm., cxxxvi).]

The central conception of the Lord's Day was the same as heretofore. It was regarded as the weekly festival of the resurrection, -- not a fast day, but a day of joy; and, in conformity to this feature, the standing posture in prayer was alone regarded as suitable to its observance, and, indeed,was formally prescribed. The sanctions of the day were also substantially the same as those which were quoted in the previous centuries. Its independent Christian basis, as opposed to any Jewish origin, was universally acknowledged. "In no clearly genuine passage," says a very thorough investigator of the subject, "that I can discover in any writer of these two centuries [the fourth and fifth], or in any public document, ecclesiastical or civil, is the Fourth Commandment referred to as the ground of the obligation to observe the Lord's Day. In no passage is there any hint of the transfer of the Sabbath to the Lord's Day, or of the planting of the Lord's Day on the ruins of the Sabbath. If the Sabbath appears, it appears as a perfectly distinct day." [J. A Hessey, Sunday, Lect. iii.] The utmost connection predicated in the first five, perhaps we may say six, centuries between the Jewish and the Christian day appears in the idea, very rarely expressed, that the former was in a sense emblematic of the latter. A conspicuous example of this is seen in the decree of the second council of Macon, in 585, "that no one should allow himself on the Lord's Day, under plea of necessity, to put a yoke on the necks of his cattle; but all be occupied with mind and body in the hymns and the praise of God. For this is the day of perpetual rest; this is shadowed out to us by the seventh day in the law and the prophets." This assigning of a typical force to the Jewish Sabbath was quite different from distinctly asserting that the Sabbath law of the Jews was still in force, and was to be regarded as governing the Lord's Day. The emphasis, nevertheless, upon Jewish precedents was a step toward the latter conception.

Among the other days of the week, Wednesday and Friday were very largely distinguished as fast days. At Rome, and in some of the neighboring churches, Saturday was reckoned among fast days, and tended to take the place of Wednesday in this respect. Roman usage naturally became the usage of the Latin Church; still, this result was wrought out but slowly. We learn from Augustine, who decided very emphatically for liberty in this matter, that Western custom was divided in his day. [Epist. xxxvi.] In the East, the practice of fasting on Saturday, even in the lenten season (the Saturday commemorative of Christ's repose in the tomb alone excepted), was steadfastly denounced.

Aside from saints' days, the chief addition in this period to the yearly festivals was Christmas. The first distinct reference to its observance belongs to the pontificate of Liberius (352-366). It appears at this date to have been a well-known festival at Rome. In the East, its introduction was some years later. Chrysostom, in 386, spoke of it as having been known in Antioch for less than ten years, and heartily commended its general observance. In Alexandria, the celebration of Christ's nativity was incorporated with the feast of Epiphany until about 430, when we find indications of the observance of Christmas Day proper.

The reasons which dictated the choice of the 25th of December are involved in obscurity. No general tradition which makes this the time of the nativity can be traced back. In the absence of other data, there is not a little plausibility in the supposition that the location of Christmas was influenced by the fact that heathen Rome was wont to celebrate joyous festivals--such as the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, and Brumalia--in the closing days of the year. To place Christmas at this point, subserved a practical end, since it turned the minds of the people to a new and better occasion of rejoicing. It should be remembered, however, that this is supposition rather than ascertained fact.

Yearly festivals in honor of Mary, the chief apostles, John the Baptist, the martyr Stephen, and of the saints collectively, were quite generally celebrated before the close of the period. Many individual saints received a local commemoration in different quarters. The festivals in honor of the Virgin, which had their beginning within or upon the border of the period, were the following: (1) the Annunciation of Mary, on the 25th of March; (2) the Purification of Mary, or Candlemas, on the 2d of February; (3) the Ascension, or Assumption, of Mary, on the 15th of August. A definite recognition of the first of these is not found till the seventh century; the second was sanctioned by Justinian in 541 or 542; the third, by the Emperor Maurice (582-602). The basis for this last was a legend which began to be circulated at the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century, and which taught, that, after the soul of the Virgin had been carried to heaven by Christ and His angels, her body was carried thither from the presence of the apostles, and was united with the soul.

The tendencies toward sacramentalism, already sufficiently strong in the latter part of the preceding period, show an increased momentum in these centuries. Not content with a rational emphasis upon baptism as a seal of adoption into the family of God, many indulged a decidedly superstitious estimate of its virtue, and depended upon it as an instrument of a kind of magical absolution. The intemperate language of the most eminent theologians encouraged the exaggerated notions. Thus Chrysostom says, "As the element of fire, when it meets with ore from the mine, straightway of earth makes it gold, even so and much more baptism makes those who are washed to be gold instead of clay; the Spirit at that time falling like fire into our souls, burning up the image of the earthy, and producing the image of the heavenly, fresh coined, bright and glittering, as from the furnace mould… To have been born the mystical birth, and to have been cleansed from all our former sins, comes from baptism." [Hom. in Joan., x.] Frequently, that this wholesale remission might be enjoyed late in life, there were long delays in receiving baptism. An earthquake or pestilence was very apt to hurry up the delinquents. Easter was the favorite season for baptism; though, in the East, Epiphany was also chosen. Infant baptism was universally recognized in theory; but in practice, especially in the East, there were many instances in which parents delayed to have it administered. The current mode of baptizing was the threefold immersion. The import attached to this form of the ordinance is expressed by Chrysostom as follows: "When we immerse our heads in the water, the old man is buried as in a tomb below, and wholly sunk forever; then, as we raise them again, the new malt rises in its stead. And this is done thrice, that you may learn that the power of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost fulfilleth all this." [Hom. in Joan., xxv.] Immersion, however, was not strictly identified with the essence of baptism, as is evident from the indulgence granted to the sick. [Council of Neo-Cæsarea, Canon 12; Council of Laodicea, Canon 47.] Besides exorcism and anointing, various practices were connected with baptism in different quarters; such as breathing on the candidate, giving him a taste of consecrated salt, clothing him, after his reception of the rite, in a white garment, and presenting him with a mixture of milk and honey.

Strong language was used in describing the mystery of the eucharist. Nothing less could have been expected of an uncritical, mystery-loving, ritualistic age, considering the terms employed at the institution of the ordinance. The consecrated elements were evidently regarded as something more than mere symbols of the body and blood of Christ. This, however, does not import that transubstantiation was an accepted dogma. On the contrary, there are very weighty evidences in the writings of Athanasius, Augustine, Theodoret, the Roman bishop Gelasius, and others, that the consecrated elements were regarded as the body and blood of Christ only in virtue of their symbolical import, and their being accompanied by Christ's mystical presence. The sacrificial character attributed to the eucharist does not contradict this conclusion; for the fact of a sacrifice might very well have been emphasized long before it was thought that the elements were transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine constituted the mystical body and blood of the Redeemer by the presence (as was believed) of a divine component, and, made objects of religious awe by this fact, furnished sufficient basis for the idea of sacrifice that was developed. If any writers held a more ultra view, and conceived of an actual transubstantiation of the eucharistic elements, it was only a matter of individual opinion, no part of an accepted creed. The extravagance of rhetorical usage makes interpretation, in several cases, very difficult. Baur concludes that even in these cases an actual transubstantiation was not designed to be taught.

[Kirchengeschichte, ii. 281. Wenn anch den Worten nach in so vielen Stellen der Kirchenlehrer schon jetzt von eigentlichen Verwandlung die Rede su sein scheint, so ist diess doch keineswegs im Sinne einer dogmatischen Behauptung zu nehmen; die Ausdrücke, die daranf hinzudeuten scheinen, lösen sich bei genauerer Betrachtung immerwieder in eine blos bildliche Anschauung auf.]

If this conclusion be accepted, extravagance met a signal retribution; the rhetoric of one age became the dogma of the next. As respects the sacrificial aspect, a very emphatic view was undoubtedly current. The theory was already at hand, that the eucharistic sacrifice is able to benefit the dead. "We pray," says Cyril of Jerusalem, "for holy fathers and bishops, and all who have departed from our midst, believing that it is of the greatest assistance to those souls for whom the prayer is offered, while the holy and awe-inspiring sacrifice lies before us."

[Orat. Catech., xxiii. 9. Augustine speaks on the same subject still more explicitly. His language indicates that already at the beginning of the fifth century the foundation was well laid for the doctrine of purgatory. "It cannot be denied," he says, "that the souls of the dead are benefited by the piety of their living friends, who offer the sacrifice of the Mediator, or give alms in the church on their behalf. But these services are of advantage only to those who during their lives have earned such merit that services of this kind can help them. For there is a manner of life which is neither so good as not to require these services after death, nor so bad that such services are of no avail after death; there is, on the other hand, a kind of life so good as not to require them; and again, one so had that when life is over they render no help … When, then, sacrifices either of the altar or of alms are offered on behalf of all the baptized, they are thank-offerings for the very good, they are propitiatory offerings for the not very bad; and in case of the very bad, even though they do not assist the dead, they are a species of consolation to the living. And where they are profitable, their benefit consists either in obtaining a full remission of sins, or at least in making the condemnation more tolerable." (Enchiridion, chap. cx.)]

Communion in both kinds was the established custom of this age. No one thought, as yet, of depriving the laity of the cup.

The multiplication of costly edifices gave suitable accommodation to the tendencies toward a showy and imposing ritual. A special sanctity was attached to the house of public worship; but eminent teachers took pains to oppose a superstitious veneration of the mere edifice, and emphasized the truth that to the devout Christian every place is holy ground. The same factors entered into the regular Sunday service as in the previous period; namely, the reading of selections from the Scriptures, prayers, the sermon, and the eucharist. The Scripture readings were left quite generally to the choice of the officiating clergy, though a beginning was made toward the prescription of a regular series of lessons. The forms of prayer varied, to a considerable extent, in different churches. Socrates indulges the statement that hardly two churches agreed in their ritual respecting prayers. [Hist. Eccl., v. 22.] Very diverse estimates were passed upon the relative importance of the sermon. In the West, there was a tendency to give it a subordinate place, especially as compared with the eucharistic service. In the East, the more cultured class, in the fourth and fifth centuries, were inclined to regard the sermon as the principal factor in the service; and their love of fine rhetoric not unfrequently found vent in enthusiastic applause. "The sermons were sometimes, though rarely, read or delivered from memory from beginning to end, sometimes given in accordance with a plan previously prepared, sometimes uttered entirely extempore." [Neander, Kirchengeschichte, iii. 443.] Toward the close of the period, the requirement that catechumens and other non-communicants should leave the sanctuary before the celebration of the eucharist was relaxed. The absence of a pagan populace made it appear less necessary to employ precaution against a profanation of the mystery.

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