From hearth to altar

The Christians of the first three centuries necessarily had to worship at a domestic level. For those with a background in Judaism this was natural particularly as the Eucharist had roots in the Kiddush meal that took place in the home and formed an important part of Jewish faith and custom.

Early Eucharists

The domestic setting of worship was also a part of pagan custom. A shrine to the gods was sited in the courtyard of the house facing the main room where acts of worship would take place. When a household became Christian it was natural for the shrine to be retained but centred on Christ possibly with a figure of the Good Shepherd and with a simple altar in front.

The worshippers would gather in the main room. The priest, possibly peripatetic, would arrive and have a change of clothes provided for him in which to conduct the Eucharist. No doubt these clothes were decorated with Christian symbols and became the origin of our Eucharistic vestments. At this period Christian worship could only take place at a domestic level.

The ability of the early Christians to express their faith varied depending on the region and the attitude of the local proconsul. Dura Europos was a significant Syrian city with a considerable Jewish presence. Here, in the early third century, the Christian community took over a number of terrace houses and joined them into one, remodelling the interior to provide a baptistery and Eucharistic hall. Here, and at a few other places, it was possible for the Eucharist to be celebrated in a more open manner.

Modern experience

The experience of the early Christians was reflected in my own ministry. In the early Sixties I was appointed priest to a new housing area. The congregation met for the Eucharist in a house with upwards of thirty people crammed around a table altar with the overflow seated in the hall and on the stairs. At the end of the Eucharist the silence was palpable. When the school was built the congregation moved to the large school hall and later, when the church hall was built, we used that for worship. Some years later, after I had moved, the permanent church was built.

A radical change took place early in the fourth century when Constantine Great enabled Christians to profess their faith openly. Christians were then able to move from a domestic setting for the Eucharist to a public profile. Obviously the model of the pagan temple would not be suitable because of its associations and also it was not designed for congregational worship. It was the genius of the early Christians to look to the secular basilica.

The basilica

The basilica was the visible centre of power throughout the Empire where public business was conducted. It comprised a substantial meeting hall possibly with aisles on either side. In the front was an apse with speaking stands or ambos left and right and seating for the local dignitary and other officials facing the people. Usually above the apse a mosaic symbolising the Emperorís authority was placed. It was this form of building that was ideally suited for Eucharistic worship with very little adaptation.

The change in venue from the domestic to the public scene brought about a change in the ceremonial of the Eucharist. It now became appropriate for the holy mysteries to be conducted with reverence and dignity. No doubt the Christians of that period drew not only on the traditions of civic usage but also the procedures of the Byzantine court. Incense was almost certainly part of the ceremonial with its eastern association in covering offensive smells from the nostrils of important personages.

An indication of the grandeur of the worship of the Byzantine church is to be found in the sixth-century church of San Vitale in Ravenna. On either side of the sanctuary are two magnificent mosaics of the offertory procession. On one side is the Emperor Justinian bearing a large golden paten surrounded by the clergy, while on the other side is the Empress Theodora bearing a gold chalice supported by her ladies-in-waiting.

Ongoing challenges

The development from hearth to altar raises the question of how the Christians of the fourth century reacted to this radical change. They passed from the intimacy of the domestic with its close relationship with their brothers and sisters in the Faith to what they may have found to be an impersonal experience in a large basilica with many enquirers crowding in.

The tension between the close and intimate of prayer at a domestic level and the inspiring grandeur of worship in the setting of a splendid church with magnificent music and ceremonial has always been present within the life of the Church. Vatican II under Pope John XIII saw the need to bring a more intimate note to the Mass by introducing the westward facing position and by the use of the vernacular.

Since the Sixties the western world has become not only increasingly secular but also multi-racial and multi-faith. I believe that the challenge that faces all Christian communities today, and especially those of us of the traditionalist persuasion, is how to communicate the essence of our faith expressed through the Mass to the present age. Both the hearth and the altar need to be kept in balance. ND

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