The Shape of the Liturgy: A little bit of Chapter 2
Dix says that a lot can be told about the particular tradition of Christendom one descends from by how we describe the worship service. Do we go to “hear” a mass “said”? Do we “attend” the early service? Those action verbs are loaded terms, anchors in the sea of liturgical tradition. Dix points out that in the ancient church the worship service was conceived of as primarily something done not said. Something performed not something heard or attended like one might attend a night at the opera or symphony. In fact, there appears to be a “complete absence form the original outline of the rite of anything in the nature of ‘communion devotions’… It concentrated attention entirely on the sacramental act as the expression of a will already intent on amendment of life, and as the occasion of its acceptance and sanctification by God; and so far as the liturgy was concerned, it left the matter at that, in which our more introspective devotion would probably find unsatisfying, though it served to train the saints and martyrs of the age of persecution.” Dix says that this is the first great distinction between modern and ancient conceptions of worship: the ancients viewed worship as an act whereas many moderns understand worship something said or heard.
Often we have a rather superficial view of tradition, not realizing the relative youth of some custom or the relative innovation of a particular way of doing things. Dix points out the posture of communion as one example. In the Anglican Church, it is almost universal to receive communion kneeling, while this custom, Dix says, was an innovation of the Medieval Latin Church. The early church “universally stood to receive communion, as in the East clergy and laity alike stand to this day; the apostolic church conceivably reclined in the oriental fashion, though this is uncertain.” Dix goes on to say, that there are many customs in our “devotional tradition” which Protestants take to be unique to Protestantism, which may easily be traced back to the Medieval Latin Church.
The second great distinction between ancient and modern conceptions of worship is the understanding of the public and private nature of worship. For the early church, “Christian worship was intensely corporate, but it was not ‘public’.” Interestingly, we have almost completely reversed this in the modern church. We have made worship intensely individualistic and anyone may come, in fact, we broadcast many of our services live on the radio and television 24 hours a day. If you can’t turn the TV on and find some suit and tie with a slick haircut going at it on a glitzy stage in front of thousands, you can surely find a priest loaded down with all his bling-bling behind some gaudy table mumbling quietly to himself while showing the Eucharist off to the blue-hued living rooms of the world. The liturgy of the early church, their “specifically Christian worship is from the first a domestic and private thing. They met in one another’s houses for the Breaking of Bread. There was no Christian public worship in our sense at all.” This was not because the Church was uninterested in ministering to their communities or seeking converts to the faith; the worship service just wasn’t the place for that. The early church did have meetings for jews and pagans to attend. “But propaganda meetings were rigidly separated from the ‘worship’, so that they were not even accompanied by prayer.” As I’ve read attested elsewhere, it was the common practice to allow catechumens or those interested in learning about the faith to come to a preliminary part of the service (the Synaxis) were Scriptures were read, Psalms might be sung and a sermon might be delivered. But non-Christians were not even allowed to pray with the Christians, and were asked to leave before the prayers and certainly before the offering of the Eucharist.
Round about here Dix makes the curious claim that “It was the indiscriminate admission to baptism and confirmation of the infant children of Christian parents when all society began to turn nominally Christian which was at the root of that decline of lay communion which set in during the fourth and fifth centuries.” While this is a rather loaded and only passing claim, I trust he might unpack what he means here later. But his conclusion is that “between the seventh century and the nineteenth all over Christendom the clergy were normally the only really frequent communicants.” Apparently the Protestant Reformation did not initially make much of a difference in this regard as far as Dix is concerned.
Thirdly, throughout the early church the word “church” or ecclesia universally referred to the people gathered together as opposed to a building or a place. And in particular, it was the gathering together of the Christians with the ordained ministers of God’s people: the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons. Dix quotes St. Ignatius who wrote to the Christians of Magnesia, “as the Lord did nothing without the Father… so neither do you anything without the bishop and presbyters.” And in another letter to the church of Philadelphia he writes, “Be careful to observe one eucharist, for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one Cup unto union in His Blood; there is one altar, as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons.” Of course the growth of the church soon made it difficult for all of these offices to always be present at every gathering of the church and thus it was not long before bishops could authorize presbyters or deacons to oversee the Eucharist. But Dix notes that down until 1870 the oversight of the Bishop of Rome was still at least symbolically in place for all of the parish churches of Rome where fragments of the bread consecrated by the Pope were delivered to all of the local gatherings of the saints. The small token of bead was placed with the rest of the bread for the Eucharist as a sign of its relation to the bishop of the city.
There are several pages of descriptions about the gathering together of the saints and what that entailed. I’d like to follow up on some of that in a later post. Of particular interest to me is the relation of the offices of the Church to the worship of the Church and this as it relates to communion with and representation of the Trinity. I have often heard it said/ or read it said that the bishop/minister/priest represents Christ. He stands as an ambassador of Christ, a very real and authorized representative, the persona Christi. This point is relevant for a defense of the minister declaring the forgiveness of sins as well as benedictions. I have also seen it used to defend the office of minister against egalitarians who would ordain women to the priesthood or ministry. If the minister stands in the place of Christ in the local assembly, maleness, it is contended, is an essential part of that particular ministry. However that may be, Dix suggests that in the early church the minister or bishop was regularly conceived of as more properly representing God the Father and “it is the church as a whole, and not any one order in it, which not so much ‘represents’ as ‘is’ Christ on earth.” Dix continues: “The whole church prayed in the Person of Christ; the whole church was charged with the office of ‘proclaiming’ the revelation of Christ; the whole church offered the eucharist as the ‘re-calling’ before God and man of the offering of Christ.” The whole church is Christ on earth, and thus Ignatius writes to Smyrna: “Do you all follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father.” So if the bishop or minister is to be considered as a special representative, the early church would have considered him as the “father of the family of God.” Dix points out that this comports well with the Apostolic requirement that a bishop govern his family well, “for if a man known not how to preside over his own household, how shall he bear the care of the ecclesia of God?” (1 Tim 3:5)
Thus as the bishop or minister breaks and distributes the bread, he is imitating the Father: “My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven” Jesus is recorded as saying in John’s gospel. Thus the Eucharistic assembly by the Breaking of the Bread by the Bishop was itself an enactment of the Trinity and its redemption of the world. In the Breaking of the Bread the ecclesia was the Body of Christ, was the Incarnation for the salvation of the world.