It’s Not About You

We have come to the conclusion of the Easter Cycle as we celebrate Pentecost this weekend. All through this period we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Fully the last two-thirds of Acts has focused on the Evangelical Mission of St. Paul as he made four journeys into Asia Minor and then into Greece. The final chapters of Acts deal with Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and appearance before Roman officials such as Felix and Festus, as well as Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem and Caesarea.

Paul appeals his case to Rome and is sent there on ill fated journey that shipwrecks at Malta. Finally making it to Rome, Paul is imprisoned and awaits the trial that will either vindicate him or seal his fate. The story seems to be building to a climactic conclusion and we, the readers,  are ready to see Paul through his final trial. But then something astonishing happens: the story just ends. He is the concluding line of the Acts of the Apostles:

[Paul] remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:30-31)

But Luke! Don’t just leave us hanging! Did Paul go on trial? We he acquitted as some traditions assert and then made his way to Spain as he wanted? Or did he loose his appeal and suffer beheading right away? What was the outcome? We have seen Paul so far and now the story just ends?!

How can we answer this exasperating and unsatisfying end?

The simplest answer is that the Acts of the Apostles is not about Paul. It is about the going forth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. Luke has, to be sure, personified this going forth of the Gospel to the nations by focusing on Paul. But once Paul reaches Rome and, though under house arrest,  is able to freely preach the Gospel there (for there is chaining the Word of God(2 Tim 2:9)), the story reaches its natural conclusion. It is true, others had preached the Gospel in Rome before Paul, but since Paul has been the way Luke illustrates this going forth of the Word of God, the entry of Paul into Rome means the story has reached its goal. From Rome the Gospel with go forth to every part of the Empire, for every road led to Rome and away from it. Now that the Gospel has reached the center hub and is being freely preached, it will radiate outward in all directions by the grace of God.

But what about Paul and what of his fate? It doesn’t matter. It never WAS about Paul. It was about the Gospel. Paul himself testified to this when he said, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)

We are often focused on personalities and frequently we loose track about what is most important. And, frankly the personality we are most focused on is very often ourselves. Acts never really was about Paul. And your life is not about you. It is about what the Lord is doing for you and through you. We often want things to revolve around us, around what we think, and what we want. But, truth be told, you are not that important, neither am I. We must decrease and the Lord must increase (Jn 3:30).

Some of these notions hit hard in the self esteem culture in which we live. But in the end our true glory is not our own glory, but the glory of God radiating in us. If we decrease, the Lord increases. But that does not mean we are swallowed up and lost in Christ. Rather, it means we truly become the man or woman God has always made us to be, one who reflects the very glory of God. Perhaps it is best to let Paul himself end this:

For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of (Jesus) Christ. (2 Cor 4:5-6)

This video is of the conclusion of the Acts of the Apostles. The scene begins with Paul speaking to Jewish leaders in Rome. The epilogue in the video which shows Luke leaving Rome is not part of the Acts of the Apostles.

Ordination to the Priesthood – The Church’s Physical Link to Christ and the Apostles is”Hands On”

We are entering the season for ordinations. And perhaps a worthy reflection is to recall that one of the great glories of the Catholic Church is her historical link to Christ and the Apostles.  The Catholic link to Christ himself and the apostles is not merely some moral unity, or a kind of invisible union, it is not merely a knowledge through books and historical data, precious those these things are.  No indeed, there is more at work here. There is also an actual physical union through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In this sacrament, there is a laying on of hands that stretches right back to the Apostles and Jesus.

Unique to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches – Only the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches can make the claim that they historically go back right to Christ and the Apostles. Every other Christian (Protestant) denomination lacks this antiquity. They were all founded less than 500 years ago, some even less than 100 years ago. Further, they literally severed the physical, hands on connection to Christ by casting aside the ministerial priesthood and hence the laying on of hands that signifies this sacrament.  They have ministers, but not priests. The Anglicans are an exception, in that they consider their ministers to be priests. Yet they are not considered by the Catholic Church to have valid orders since they went through a long period wherein they did explicitly abandon the intent to hand on the priesthood, hence the link was severed.   

Biblical and Patristic roots – It is clear in the Acts of the Apostles that when the apostles chose successors and co-workers to share in their apostolic ministry they “laid hands” on them. Paul and Barnabas had hands laid on them for their work as Apostles (Acts 13:3, 1 Tim 4:14 etc.). Paul later counsels Timothy to be careful on whom he “lays hands” when appointing bishops and deacons (1 Tim 5:22 etc). All the earliest documents of the Church such as the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch make it clear that this laying on of hands continued. This laying on of hands came to be known as “ordination.”

Every valid priest has “connections” – The Catholic Church through this laying on of hands actually preserves a physical link to Jesus himself and the Apostles he chose. History for us is a “hands-0n” kind of history, a “hands-on” link going back 2000 years. Every validly ordained Catholic bishop has this physical as well as spiritual link to the apostles. Every Bishop is a successor to the apostles. The priests share in this office and this link (though not in its fullness) for they too have hands laid on them by the bishop. I am often humbled to think of the “connections” I have with the early Church.

The Faith is literally handed on – So fellow Catholics, “stay connected” and rejoice in our “hands on” historical heritage. Now you know why it is said that the faith is “handed on.”

The following video shows highlights of the ordination of priests. In this case the ordination took place in Portland Oregon. I would like to show you highlights of our beautiful Washington ordinations but I am not aware of any film footage I can post. But this is a beautiful video.

Where is Christ after he dies on Friday afternoon and before he rises on Easter Sunday?


Where is Christ after he dies on Friday afternoon and before he rises on Easter Sunday?  Both Scripture and Tradition answer this question. Consider the following from a Second Century Sermon and also a mediation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

An Ancient Sermon:

 Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.” [From an Ancient Holy Saturday Homily ca 2nd Century]

   Consider also this from the Catechism which I summarize and excerpt from CCC # 631-635

 [The] first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell [is]  that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.[Acts 3:15; 1 Peter 3:18-19; Romans 8:11; 1 Cor 15:20; Heb. 13:20] Scripture calls [this] the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.[1 Peter 3:18-19] Such [was] the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they awaited the Redeemer: It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior …whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”[cfPsalms 89:49; 1 Sam. 28:19; Ezek 32:17ff; Luke 16:22-26] Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. [So] the gospel was preached even to the dead. The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption. Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”[1 Peter 4:6] Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”[John 5:25; Mt 12:40; Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9] Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”[Heb 2:14-15; Acts 3:15]

For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead that, though condemned in the flesh in human estimation, they might live in the spirit in the estimation of God. (1 Peter 4:6)

The Story of Abraham – Hope for the Rest of Us!

One of the beautiful things about the Bible is that it does not present our heroes as epic figures who never fell. Rather it presents us with real human beings who struggle and eventually “get there.” As an example, I was talking the other day with someone who remarked, “Too bad we can’t all be strong in faith like Abraham.” Ah Abraham, the paragon of faith! Well….eventually but Abraham had some very bad moments in his journey that we ought not to overlook. Surely he became strong in faith but only after some pretty bad falls along the way. Consider some of Abraham’s struggles.

  1. Abram (He was only called Abraham by God later), was told, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you (Gen 12:1) And he does. At one level this is remarkable since God gave him no road maps etc. He just said, “Set out”  and Abram did,  trusting God would direct him. But note a little detail that I would argue amounts to a lack of total obedience: So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him (Gen 12:4) Oops, where did his nephew Lot get included? Now some many argue that this is no big deal, but for the record God did not mention Lot in his instructions. And sure enough,  Lot’s presence will cause trouble later on. There is always trouble lurking when we do not wholeheartedly obey God.
  2. Abram gets to the Holy Land and God shows him its beauty.He reconnoiters the land and eventually pitches his tent near Bethel, a name which means house of God. So there he is right where he ought to be, in the House of God, on the Land God had shown him (cf Gen 12: 5-9)  Only one problem though, there is a famine in the land. Will Abram Trust God who has called him to this land? He will not! He goes off to Egypt (Gen 12:10), trusting Pharaoh to feed him but not God. God never said, “Go to Egypt.” It is dripping with irony that Abram leaves a place called “Bethel” (house of God) to go to the house of Pharaoh.
  3. In Egypt Abram does something awful. His wife Sarai (only called Sarah later in the narrative) is very beautiful and Abram is worried that men will want her and thus kill him so they can have her. So Abram tells a lie and has her lie too, asserting that she is his sister. (Gen 12:11-13) He even goes so far as to allow her to be placed in Pharaoh’s harem! (Gen 12:14-16) This is all to protect his own hide and gain influence. Lets just make it plain, he pimps out his own wife. Pharaoh eventually discovers the lie and, suffering its consequences, denounces Abram (Gen 12:17-19).  In effect Pharaoh fears God more that Abram. It takes Pharaoh to get Abram to go back to were he belongs. So Abram returns to the Holy Land, to Bethel, not because of his faith but because of Pharaoh’s threats (Gen 12:19-20).
  4. Ok, so at least he’s back where he needs to be, in Bethel, right? Well now the Lot mistake manifests itself. Abram and Lot actually did quite well in Egypt and return with flocks that are so large that the Land cannot sustain them both together (Gen 13:1-8). Now notice, the Holy Land could sustain Abram but not Abram and Lot together. This inability of the Land to sustain them both goes back to the original disobedience of Abram in bringing Lot in the first place. Lot and Abram agree to part company and Lot picks the choicest of the land, which at that time was where the dead sea is now (Gen 13:8-12) Ok, end of problem right? Not exactly.  The text says that Lot “pitched his tent toward Sodom.” (Gen 13:12). Now you know where all that is going to lead. In the end it will be another distraction for Abram who brought Lot along when he should not have. Lot has bad judgement and has no business associating with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. All of this draws Lot into a big mess in which his family is corrupted. His Wife cannot turn her back on  Sodom and is killed, his daughters are also corrupted and later attempt incest with him (gen 19:30ff). All this is a distraction for Abram who should never have brought Lot in the first place.
  5. God promises Abram and Sarai many descendants. But both Abraham and Sarah falter in faith several times with regards this. Abraham’s first struggle comes when, after many years of promises from God, no child has yet been born. So, in effect he says to God, “Look, I know you got a little carried away by all this offspring talk  so I guess I’m going to have to settle on giving my inheritance to my steward, Eliezar.”  But God says, NO, not that one, but rather your own issue will be your heir. (Gen 15:1-4). Later, Sarah, also despairing that God can deliver  suggests adultery and that he sexually exploit Hagar her slave girl and have a child by her. And he does! (Gen 16:1-4) Ishamel is born and the ugliness begins between Hagar and Sarah (imagine that!) (Gen 16:4-6). God once again has to rebuke Abraham and remind Abram of his promises. Sarah, paranoid at Hagar’s newly exulted position as the mother of Abraham’s only Child not in jealous rage tells Abraham to commit an act of great injustice and to drive her into the desert with her child. He does! (Gen 18:23ff)
  6. God renews his promises to Abram and Sarai and changes their names by entering into a covenant with them (Gen 17:1-15). As God renews his promises for multiplied descendants Abraham falls to his faces and laughs (Gen 17:17). Later, Sarah laughs too (Gen 18:2). Finally Isaac is born (a name which means “He laughs”) which commemorates the struggle of Abraham ad Sarah to believe what God is telling them.

Do you see? Abraham’s journey was marred by some pretty ugly setbacks. But ultimately Abraham doescome to believe God and he receives the fruit of faith in His Son Isaac. God prepares one final test to strengthen Abraham’s faith (Gen 22). He tells him to offer his son in sacrifice. This time Abraham does not draw back. He sets out for Moriah to obey God. Isaac asks, “Where is the Lamb for sacrifice?” Abraham has finally made it to faith and he simply says to his son, “God will provide the Lamb.” (Gen 22:7-8). Abraham has arrived. He has come to trust God and knows that obeying God will not be without its reward. And God DID provide the lamb as you know.

But Abraham didn’t simply “have faith.” He had to get there by years of struggle, setbacks, and hard lessons. He had to learn that to obey God brings blessings. To disobey God spells trouble. He had to learn that God means exactly what he says and to trust him in all things. If Abraham, the great hero of faith had to go through all this to arrive at faith, maybe there is hope for you and me too. But we too are summoned to learn of faith and grow in it. We are called to obey more and more perfectly and to stop trying to improve on God’s plan. So the example of Abraham is not just a relief to those of us who struggle it is also a road map of what we must do. Faith has to grow and we have to let it.

Here’s an old gospel song that says, “A Saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.” Maybe there is hope for us too, if we get back up.

To Study History Is To Become Catholic

To know history is also to become Catholic. We, along with the Orthodox are the only Churches that stretch right back to Christ and the Apostles. The true faith has literally been handed from the apostles to their successors the bishops through the laying on of hands. We have a living Tradition of cherished teachings and memories going back to Chirst himself.

Sadly the upheaval of the 16th century led to the Protestant denominations of today which were largely severed from history and Tradition. Sola Scriptura! (Scripture alone!) the cry went up, as if Scripture could be divorced from the Church, and sacred history that gave it birth. An immense and ahistorical rupture severed many Christians from their sacred inheritance.

Today there are often claims by many in the Protestant denominations that some Catholic teaching or another is either unbiblical or was invented in the Middle Ages or later. But to study history puts the lie to this claim and to read the Fathers of the Church is to enter a very Catholic world. To read the Fathers throws opens a door to the earliest centuries of the Church stretching back to as early as 100 AD a the very close of the Apostolic age. It is almost like a seamless garment. As the last Book of Scripture was being written around 90 AD, the first letters and documents of the Fathers began being circulated among the faithful. They cast light on the earliest history of the Church and we discover that world to be Catholic, a world wherein sacraments are on glorious display along with Scripture, a world where in authority and unity are insisted upon, a world of Bishops, Priests, Deacons and of the Popes. Protestant imaginings of the Church simply do not stand the test of history which testifies overwhelmingly to things Catholic.

Last week we looked at a few of the teachings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Now we do well to cast our gaze  on St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in North Africa. He was one of the first Fathers to write exclusively in Latin. He was baptized in 245 A.D., martyred in 258 A.D. He was a prolific writer of numerous letters and teastises. Here is just a sampling of his writing that testifies to the Catholicity of his world:

On the Necessity of Holy Communion received in s state of graceAs the prayer [Our Father] continues we ask and say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We ask that this bread be given us daily, so that we who are in Christ and daily receive the Eucharist as the food of salvation may not, by falling into some more grievous sin and then, in abstaining from communion, be withheld from the heavenly Bread, and be separated from Christ’s Body…He Himself warns us saying, “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, You shall not have life in you” (Jn 6:54). (Treatise on the Our Father, 18)

On the Baptism of Infants and the Necessity of BaptismOur Council [of African Bishops] … all formed the judgement that it is not right to deny the mercy and the grace of God to any one that is born….We must do everything we possibly can to prevent the destruction of any soul….For just as God draws no distinction between persons, so neither does He between ages, but shows Himself Father equally to all….it is our view that it is to be observed most particularly in the case of newborn infants; they have all the more claim upon our assistance and God’s mercy for the reason that, right from the very first moment they are born, in their crying and wailing they are doing nothing else but imploring our help. (Letter 64 to Fidus, 2,3,5).

On the Effects of His Own BaptismWhen the stain of my past life had been washed away by means of the water of rebirth, a light from above poured itself upon my chastened and now pure heart; Afterwards, through the Spirit which is breathed from heaven, a second birth made of me a new man: doubts immediately clarified themselves, the closed opened, the darkness became illuminated, what before had seemed difficult offered a way of accomplishment, what had been thought impossible was able to be done….What was born of the flesh…had now begun to be of God, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit was animating it. (Letter to Donatus, 4)

On Those Who Break Away from the Catholic Church and try to form other ChurchesIf someone does not hold to this unity of the Church can he imagine that he still holds the faith?…He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother. If anyone outside the ark of Noah was able to escape, then perhaps someone outside the pale of the Church may escape….Does anyone believe that in the Church this unity….can be divided and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? Whoever holds not fast to this unity holds not to the law of God…. . he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ” nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church”  (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4,6, 9)

On the Authority and Primacy of the PopeThe Lord says to Peter: I say to you, you are rock and upon this rock I will build my Church… (Mt 16:18). It is on one man that He builds the Church and although he assigns like powers to all the apostles after His resurrection ….nevertheless, in order that unity might be clearly shown, He established by His own authority a source for that unity which takes its beginning from one man alone. A primacy is given to Peter whereby it is clear that there is but one Church and one chair (“The Unity of the Catholic Church,” 4)…..There is one God, and one Christ, and one Church and one chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering. (“Letter of Cyprian to All His People,” 43)

On the Confession of Sins to PriestsFinally, of how much greater faith and more saving fear are those who…confess to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. Thus they remove the weight from their souls and seek the saving remedy for their wounds, however small and slight they be…I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned, confess his sin while he is still in the world, while his confession is still admissible, while satisfaction and remission made through the priests are pleasing before the Lord. (“The Lapsed,” 28).

St. Ignatius of Antioch – A Witness of the Early Church

Cardinal Newman once said, “To Read the Fathers of the Church is to become Catholic.” This is perhaps no better illustrated than By St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose feast we celebrated Saturday. He wrote very early,  about 110 A.D. He also knew the Apostle John. Hence he is an important witness to the life and think of the earliest days of the Church. He wrote six letters to the Christian Communities at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna and one Letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. In all these letters he clearly reflects Catholic teaching and demonstrates that the current Catholic understanding of authority in the Church, the Eucharist and Church life are consistent with the ancient Apostolic Age.

In celebration of his Feast Day consider a few of his teachings and see how Catholic the early Church was. Consider also how false is the claim of some non-Catholic denominations that they have returned to the “simplicity” of the early Church and overthrown teaching that only emerged later. St. Ignatius of Antioch gives a real portrait of the early Church. His writings debunk fanciful notions of a decentralized Church devoid of significant doctrine and presents a Church that clearly defined herself and was  insistent on orthodoxy and Union with the local Bishop, a Church that was centered around the Eucharist Altar of the Lord. Go with me therefore to 110 A.D. and hear the voice of Bishop Ignatius Theophorus of Antioch who wrote these letters on his way to martyrdom in Rome:  (The full text of these letters is available at HERE and HERE

  1. The grave Sin of no longer attending Sunday Mass – Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses Matthew 18:19 such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. (Ignatius to the Church at Ephesus,  5)
  2. The Power of the Eucharist and Unity in the Liturgy – Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith…obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ. (Ignatius to the Church at Ephesus 13 & 20)
  3. Of the True Presence in the Eucharist and the fate of those who deny this truth – They [heretics and schismatics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.  (Ingnatius to the Church at Smyrna,  7)
  4. The Sacred Liturgy is only properly celebrated in union with the Bishop – Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God. (Ignatius to the Church at Philadelphia,  4)
  5. Of the necessity of respecting authority within the Church and of preserving union with the Bishop – Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters [i.e. priests] do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance [of their bishop], but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all. It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honour of Him who has willed us [so to do], since he that does not so deceives not [by such conduct] the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible….I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ,… As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled.  (Ignatius to the Church at Magnesia 3,6-7)
  6. Without Holy Orders there is no Church – In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church…(Ignatius to the Church at Tralles,  3)
  7. Obedience to the Bishop is essential to one who claims to be obedient to God – See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Ignatius to the Church at Smyrna, 8)

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].

Church History for your Ipod

wittOn my last vacation (back in February) I listen to the first ten episodes of a Church History Series by Fr. Michael Witt Assoc. Professor of Church History at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. The whole series has over 40 hours of listening where he systematically goes through Church History in a very conversational manner. The talks are entertaining and memorable and given by a priest who clearly loves the Church. They can found here:

Early Church History by Fr. Michael Witt

To get to the talks click on the upper left square. The talks are then listed on the left hand side of the screen and if you click on the talk  you are given the the notes and the audio begins. You can right click on the sound horn and select the option “Save Link as” to download the talk to your computer. The talks are in mp3 format.