Part Two: Body Language of the Early Church
Worship in the Early Church
There’s early, and then there’s EARLY.
For some of us, the early church might as well date from our childhood or that of our parents. For me, that was the church, or the way the church expressed its faith in liturgy during the 1950s and early 60s, and, for most of us, in the United States of America.
The actual layout of our liturgical rituals had been standardized at the Council of Trent in the 1500s, but this was based on centuries of development the mass underwent from the time of the first Christian communities meeting in Jerusalem and in the communities established by the apostles.
We have very little solid proof of exactly how those early Eucharistic meals were organized, but we do know that the people gathered in homes for the breaking of the bread and to hear stories from the life of the risen Jesus, as well as letters from Paul and other apostles.
They gathered around a low table in the earliest times. When their numbers outgrew the home, they met in larger spaces, where a meal setting was no longer feasible, and one table stood at the head of the assembly—a table that began to take on the character of an altar as well. There were no pews; people stood.
If you’ve ever tried kneeling on a hard dirt or flagstone floor, you can imagine why that was not the preferred posture. Besides, standing to pray was the norm in Judaism, which would have set the pattern for early Christians as well.
They would have stood with raised hands, which was also the prayer attitude of the Mediterranean world. In Psalm 141 we read, “Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice.” And there is the story of Moses praying as Israel defending itself against Amalek in battle. “As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.” When Moses grew tired, Aaron and Hur had to hold up his hands for him until the battle was over. Pictures from the catacombs depict Christians with upraised hands, as we now see the priest pray at mass.
So the presider—bishop or presbyter—definitely prayed this way, but did the people share in that gesture? I feel most confident researching such questions with Fr. Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J., who wrote the seminal history of the eucharistic liturgy, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development. This detailed history received its imprimatur and nihil obstat in 1950, and was published in 1951, a decade before Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. In that sense, it was free of the liturgical politics of the post Vatican II church, and, thus, quite objective.
I must say I’m a bit sensitive about this matter of hand gestures at mass, having been soundly scolded by a fellow Catholic, into the early morning hours, for lifting my hands at the Our Father or waving at the sign of peace. Are there, as she insisted, some gestures that are just for the priest?
I was gratified to find in Mass of the Roman Rite (I,239) Jungmann’s answer:
Just as the priest at the altar stands before God in reverential readiness, so also the faithful; they are the circumstantes. In line with this, it was an understood norm in olden times that the people followed the motions of the bishop or the priest when he said the prayers an, in general, in all the rest of his deportment, so that like him they stood with hands uplifted and facing east.
Participation in the Liturgy
This was full, conscious participation in the Eucharist, presider and people united in one act of worship.
As the centuries passed, and the church became a central fixture of the town, worship drew in many who were not committed Christians. In the Middle Ages reception of communion fell off, and people tended not to stay for the whole mass, let alone participate with the priest. Passivity began to be the norm, as choirs took over the parts of the mass once acclaimed by the people.
In all fairness it’s important to realize that there were reasons for the lack of participation. Latin had once been the language of the people in the Western Church, but as time went on, with the fall of Rome, local language took over, and only the educated were taught Latin. There were no prayer books until the invention of the printing press, so those of the Middle Ages were left to follow the mass as best they could, with the priest facing away from them and many of the prayers said in a low voice. Of course there were no sound systems, so listening to the readings would have been difficult even in their own vernacular.
The Norm Becomes the Rule
This norm of passivity became the rule. Not only was it difficult for the people to participate; it was unseemly for them to do so. An “Amen” shouted out by a member of the congregation would have been unthinkable. This continued, affirmed by the Council of Trent in the 1500s, into the years right before Vatican II—my childhood.
Altar boys learned the responses—the Confiteor, the Et cum spiritu tuo, the Suscipiat—and prayed them for us. The choir sang.
I confess that I was very envious of my brother, who could whip out those Latin prayers at quite a clip. There was competition between the two servers, one on either side of the altar, to finish the longer prayers first—rather like the people today who can get to the end of the Creed several seconds before the rest of us.
Opening the Windows
In 1962 I went to France to study, and attended a small neighborhood church for daily mass. There the people actually spoke those prayers of the altar servers. Finally I was able to pray them as I had done under my breath in those years growing up. Change was on its way after many centuries of norms based, not on fervor or engagement, but on basic passivity.
The bishops of the world had begun to come together in Rome that year for the Council, and with them the scholars who had researched the worship of the church over the centuries, including Joseph Jungmann. They saw that our authentic worship involved participation by the whole people of God, and was never intended to belong only to the presider.
There we were as a church, taught to be quiet during mass and keep our hands folded, and yet now we were to participate. This was a challenge. Imagine you’ve been driving along the Interstate, looking at the scenery, and suddenly realize that you have no idea where you actually are. You know where you should be, but this doesn’t seem to be that place. Where did you take the wrong turn? How far back do you have to go? Is there a short cut to the right highway?
The Church too, guided by the Holy Spirit, had to reroute. The highway where we belong is the one we’re on our way to. Christ has not changed, but our world has, and, like the world of previous times, altered the way we are able to carry out the work of liturgy. And, as when you find yourself on the wrong road, the best way to locate the right one is to go back and figure out how you got off the right highway. Sometimes it’s not so much “wrong” as it is just not the most direct. The same goes for the mass.
Meanwhile, put simply, we are learning to be a people that worships actively as a community. Rules are less important than that vision we have before us, that we encounter God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ when we gather for the Eucharist. Christ is the Who, the What and the Why.