The Mass in 155 AD

The Mass in 155ad

One of the earliest accounts we have of how the early Christian community worshipped comes from Justin Martyr in about the year 155AD.

“On the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place of those who live in the cities or the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president in a discourse urges and invites us to imitate these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers. After the prayers, the bread and the wine and the water are brought and the president sends up prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the congregation assents, saying the Amen. Then the distribution and reception of the consecrated elements by each one takes place and they are sent to the absent by the Deacons. Those who prosper and who so wish contribute as much as they can. What is collected is deposited with the president for the care of the widows and the orphans, for those who are sick or in prison and those who are sojourners or strangers amongst us. The president is the one who takes care of all those who are in need. We hold this common gathering on a Sunday.”

We would feel quite at home at liturgy in Justin's community, since it is so similar to what we do now. After gathering on Sunday, probably at somebody’s house, they listen to a reading from the writings of the prophets. Our first reading at Mass is usually from the Old Testament and that is often one of the prophets. Then there was a reading from the memoirs of the apostles. The apostles' memories of what Jesus said and did are recorded in the gospels from which we too read at Mass.

After the readings, 'the president in a discourse urges us to imitate these noble things'. That is a great description of what a homily is - breaking open the readings and urging the faithful to apply them to life today.

After the homily, the community stands up together and offers prayers. At this point, we too stand for the Prayers of the Faithful. Then the bread and wine and water are brought. We call it the Preparation of the Gifts, when the gifts of the bread and wine and our monetary contributions are brought to the altar.

Next the Presider prays a ‘prayer of thanksgiving’ over these. That is exactly what we are doing in the eucharistic, or 'thanksgiving', prayer. Our eucharistic prayer does not depend on the ability of the Presider, however, because several are given in the missal.

Then the distribution of the bread and wine takes place and it is taken to the absent, in the same way that we receive communion from the table and special ministers take it to the housebound.

It is wonderful how this pattern of worship has come down to us through all the changes of history.

Elizabeth Harrington