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Was There a Liturgy in the Early Church?

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February 14, 2017

Was There a Liturgy in the Early Church?

Some people (including some Christians) think that, in the early church, there wasn’t any liturgy as we have today. They may believe that it was an invention by the Church and not established by Christ Himself. The official written forms of the liturgy we have today are from the 4th century, which is already very early in the Church, before any divisions (amongst Christians). However, is there evidence for liturgies before the 4th century? Historically, the first liturgy was made by Christ Himself when he blessed the bread and wine in the Mystical Supper (last supper) and delegated such authority of changing the bread and wine to His Body and Blood to His disciples, when he said, “Do this in remembrance of Me.” St. Paul confirmed that the Lord taught him to break the bread, which is the Body and the Blood of the Lord. This is confirmed in Rom 15:15-16: Nevertheless, brethren, I have written the more boldly unto you in some sort, as putting you in mind, because of the grace that is given to me of God, that I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering (officiate as a priest) the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost”) where St. Paul confirms his priesthood. In 1 Corinthians 11: 23-25, St. Paul confirms having received the liturgy of the Eucharist from Christ Himself: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’”).

Early on in the history of the Church, as documented in Acts 2:42 (“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers”), the Church (the assembly) were steadfast on the teaching of the Apostles in praying the liturgy and eating the Eucharist. The holy apostles in turn did the same after the descending of the Holy Spirit on them on the day of the Pentecost. Acts 13:2 (“As they ministered [leitourgeo] to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’”)

 Nowadays, all the traditional/apostolic churches still use their own liturgies. Although such services are different in wording, they all have the main skeleton of essential prayers for the sanctification of the Eucharist as demonstrated to us by St. Justin Martyr, c. 100-165 AD (First Apology): “On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members [liturgy]… The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time [Read Bible]. When the reader has finished, the president [Bishop or priest] of the assembly speaks to us [sermon]; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray [liturgical prayers]. On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability [institution narrative to change bread/wine into Body/Blood], and the people give assent by saying, “Amen”. The Eucharist is distributed to everyone present, and the deacons take it to those who are absent. Therefore, there is clear evidence of a traditional ancient root to today’s liturgical practices, which are an essential part of our congregational prayers. The liturgy of the Eucharist was always fundamental to Christian practice.

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