A Sometimes Humorous Look at the Liturgy of the Early Church

As you may know the Catholic Faith was illegal in the Roman Empire prior to 313 AD when the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan permitting the Christian Faith to publicly flourish. Prior to that time Church buildings as we know them today were rare. Mass was usually celebrated in houses.

Now careful here. These “houses” were usually rather large, with a central courtyard or large room that permitted something a little more formal than Mass “around the dining room table.”  I remember being taught (incorrectly) that these early Masses were informal and emphasized an informal communal quality and were celebrated facing the people. Well that isn’t really true. People didn’t just sit around a table or sit in circle, not at all. They sat or stood formally and everyone faced one direction: East.

In the drawing  above right you can see the layout of an ancient House Church from the excavated 3rd Century House Church at Dura Europos (Syria). Click on the picture for a clearer view. The assembly room is to the left and a priest or bishop is conducting a liturgy facing east at and altar against the east wall. A baptistery is on the right and a deacon is guarding the entrance door. The lonely looking deacon in the back of the assembly hall is there to “preserve good order” as you will read below. The Picture below left shows the baptistery of the Dura Europa House Church.

What is remarkable about these early liturgies is how formal they were even though conducted under less than ideal circumstances. The following text is from the Didiscalia, a document written in about 250 AD. Among other things it gives rather elaborate details about the celebration of the early Catholic Mass in these “House Liturgies.” I would like to print an excerpt here and make my own comments in RED. You will find that there are some rather humorous remarks in this ancient text towards the end.

Now, in your gatherings, in the holy Church, convene yourselves modestly in places of the brethren, as you will, in a manner pleasing and ordered with care. [So these “house liturgies were NOT informal Masses. Good order and careful attention to detail was essential].  Let the place of the priests be separated in a part of the house that faces east. [So, even in these early house Masses the sanctuary, the place where the clergy ministered was an area distinct from where the laity gathered. People were not all just gathered around a dining room table.]  In the midst of them is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated. Likewise, and in another section let the lay men be seated facing east. [Prayer was conducted facing to the east, not facing the people].  For thus it is proper: that the priests sit with the bishop in a part of the house to the east and after them the lay men and the lay women, [notice that men and women sat in separate sections. This was traditional in many churches until rather recently, say the last 150 years.] and  when you stand to pray, the ecclessial leaders rise first, and after them the lay men, and again, then the women. Now, you ought to face to east to pray for, as you know, scripture has it, Give praise to God who ascends above the highest heavens to the east. [Again note, Mass was NOT celebrated facing the people as some suppose of the early Church. Everyone was to face to the east, clergy and people. Everyone faced one direction. The text cites Scripture as the reason for this. God is to the East, the origin of the light.]

Now, of the deacons, one always stands by the eucharistic oblations and the others stand outside the door watching those who enter [Remember, this was a time of persecution and the early Christians were careful only to allow baptized and bona fide members to enter the sacred mysteries. No one was permitted to enter Sacred liturgy until after having been baptized. This was called the disciplina arcanis or “discipline of the secret.” Deacons guarded the door to maintain this discipline], and afterwards, when you offer let them together minister in the church. [Once the door was locked and the Mass begin it would seem that the deacons took their place in the sanctuary. However it also seems that one deacon remained outside the sanctuary and maintained “good order” among th laity.] And if there is one to be found who is not sitting in his place let the deacon who is within, rebuke him, and make him to rise and sit in his fitting place…also, in the church the young ones ought to sit separately, if there is a place, if not let them stand. Those of more advanced age should sit separately; the boys should sit separately or their fathers and mothers should take them and stand; and let the the young girls sit separately, if there is really not a place, let them stand behind the women; let the young who are married and have little children stand separately, the older women and widows should sit separately[This may all seem a bit complicated but the bottom line is that seating was according to Gender and Age: the men on one side, the women on the other, older folks to the front and the younger ones to the back. Also those caring for young children should be in a separate area. See – Even in the old days there was a “cry room!”] And a deacon should see that each one who enters gets to his place, and that none of these sits in an inappropriate place. Likewise, the deacon ought to see that there are none who whisper or sleep or laugh or nod off. [Wait a minute! Do you mean to tell me that some of these early Christians did such things! Say it isn’t so! Today ushers do this preserving of good order but the need remains!] For in the Church it is necessary to have discipline, sober vigilance, and attentive ear to the Word of the Lord. [Well that is said pretty plain and the advice is still needed].

10 Replies to “A Sometimes Humorous Look at the Liturgy of the Early Church”

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I saw a video where I lot of these worship gatherings were used for courtship as well. If that is so, come to mass to worship but who knows, maybe there’s a spouse waiting for you too.

    1. I have not heard that. But it is a human trait that any gathering can also be used for courtship. Many years ago when I was in college one of the great motivators to get me to go to church was the pretty girls in the choir! 🙂

  2. Many thanks. My spouse and i really take pleasure in browsing well written articles and blogposts about dining room furniture and together with different decorating recommendations. I am getting ready to do springtime remodeling, and am always looking for useful info to inspire me.

  3. Sadly much of the information in your article is wrong from findings in archeology of the last 40 years. Dura Europos is not the only house church. Ruins have been found in Spain, Africa, England, and France. These are quite different than the one you talk about. Please read: A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity. By Margaret Y MacDonald and Carolyn Osiek, with Janet Tulloc. You also might want to read the Didache, The most complete remains of house churches are found in rural estates. Yes these were informal gatherings with widely varying liturgies. After Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, the house churches were gradually closed down by the government over a period of 200 years. The ritual you cite is from the 4th or 5th century, after Constantine’s clergy took over, and an imperial hierarchy was in place.
    The Disdcilia is very fragmentary. Current versions are “filled in” by Apostolic Constitutions and fragments from Greek texts that were written many years later to make it “understandable.” What the original said is debatable. Much of the Disdcilia actually deals with women deacons and use of Jewish Prayers for worship. The Vatican keeps trying to create a house church movement that it was somehow the head of. A centralized church organized around a Pope never existed, councils governed an ad hoc organization. As for which way people faced worshiping, presiders faced the people until the around the 10 century. Suggest a rewrite.

    1. MNS: Sounds like you’ve been influenced by radical feminist theories. Such revisionist history is extremely dubious and driven more by agenda than true scholarishp. Suggest a jetison.
      By the way, I cited not liturgy from the 4th or 5th Centuries. The Didiscalia is ca 250 AD

      1. Indeed, MNS is either misguided or misunderstanding the sources. First, I know of no source that indicates the celebrant ever faced any direction other than east until after the Reformation. Depending on church architecture, that could mean the celebrant was facing the people–this was certainly the case in many of the older Roman churches such as San Clemente and even St Peter’s. Imperial cathedrals with westworks also seem to have had chapels with altars that allowed the priest to face the people–while still facing east. The architecture would determine what the people saw, but the underlying orientation was always to the east.

        In addition, anyone who suspects that the Christian hierarchy was a post-tenth century creation should really pick up Eusebius. Or Egeria. Or Augustine. Or really, just any Christian who wrote anything. Just pick up the books and read them.

        More to the point, there was no such thing as “informal” religious gatherings until the 1960s. There is no culture on earth that approaches the divine in a cocktail-party format, other than modern, WESTERN, Christian churches–NONE.

  4. A uniform early liturgy does not seem probable. The movement grew too far, too fast, and among peoples of different cultural backgrounds. Some of the components seemed be more consistent than others from the start, such as the Eucharistic meal. That much we can accept. The gathering around the reading of scriptures and prayers did not have to take place around a table. But why is it difficult to conceive that the Eucharistic meal was consumed around a table and that the people faced each other when they did? I cannot imagine it any other way.

  5. I worked in the French Basque country in the 1960s The men and women sat separately in church – one sex in the nave and the other in the galleries on the side and back walls of the church.

  6. Note also that at the very first Eucharist the Apostles and Jesus all reclined on the same side of the table, with Jesus at the place of honor, at the end of the table.

  7. Thank you for this article I found in fascinating. The debate about West and East facing liturgy for Mass in one which I expect will not go away but will in time result in a further re-odering in churches. For a long time I felt very lonely at Mass after the ICEL translation of the English normative rite came into use. That is not to say there in no place for vernacular nor that I see the rite as commissioned by Trent as the last word. There was a noble tradition of prayers and sequences lost in that ‘new’ rite too and liturgy may be organic but must always be holy.The silences of the old rite could provide a sacred place for acknowledging God’s wonder-work but prescriptively it must perforce not be the only way to please and worship God. Benedict XVI said movingly that the rites may now one inform and shape the other. That is a blessing indeed for it is in that patient tolerance that we will uncover the best we can offer God and in that patient prayerful tolerance and charity lies the true history of the Roman liturgy and its power to change men and women for the better by the grace of Christ.

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