I realise this post is a bit late in coming; I point to the great Feast of Christmas getting in the way last week! On Christmas Eve and Christmas, we read one of the earliest accounts of Christian worship, in Justin’s First Apology beginning at chapter 61. From what I have read and seen, the only verifiably earlier description of any sort is the Didache (but prove me wrong if you can; it was posted by Lincoln in the run-up to this project here and here and here).
The Didache is a different sort of description of Christian worship in that it is a church manual, its successors being the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus and, eventually, the books of canon law (which, I argue, should be sexier), the missals (a fine example being the Bobbio Missal of the sixth-century), and the breviaries of the Middle Ages.
Justin, on the other hand, is giving a purely descriptive account, ostensibly for outsiders, with the goal of demonstrating the harmlessness of Christian practices — here you will find no cannibalism or incest!
Instead, Justin describes for us, in ch. 61, the process of Christian initiation, including instruction, prayer, and fasting, culminating in the act of baptism in the threefold name. Having been baptised, converts are expected to lead upright lives.
In ch. 65, Justin takes up again the more descriptive, rather than apologetic, aspect of this portion of the treatise. Immediately following the baptism comes a time for prayer, and then the newly-baptised receive bread and wine (a practice reminiscent of the Apostolic Tradition) after the prayer of thanksgiving by the president of the company — some take left-over bread and wine to those unable to be present.
In ch. 66, Justin lays out for us a very basic eucharistic theology that, in my opinion, affirms the Real Presence of Christ in the elements.
Finally, in ch. 67, we get a description of regular Christian worship. They meet on Sundays; in the assembly ‘the memoirs of the Apostles’ or the writings of the prophets are read, a sermon follows, then a time of prayer. After the time of prayer comes the Eucharist. After the Eucharist, people bring their gifts to the president who distributes them to the needy.
These are significant moments in the history of Christian worship in large part because they look so much the same as what goes on today. In 155 at Rome, Christians baptised in the threefold Name, they met on Sundays for Scripture-reading, preaching, prayer, and the Eucharist. They gave their gifts and helped the poor.
Furthermore, the description of everyone fasting together with the catechumens serves as a reminder of the roots of the Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican/Lutheran practice of Lent, for Easter became the traditional time for baptisms, and the fast extended to forty days out of commemoration of Christ’s own fast of forty days.
As far back as we can actually perceive general Christian worship practices, whether in a manual such as the Didache or a description such as Justin’s, we see the regular celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday, the public proclamation of Old and New Testaments with preaching, and baptism in the threefold Name of the Trinity.
The people who helped forge and determine which documents are our New Testament, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, worshipped in this way. Perhaps our modern worship leaders should also at least become acquainted with these forms of worship, even if they choose not to become ‘liturgical’.