3.5 – Early Christian Worship and Art (24 min video)
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– Well, for this final lecture this week, we’re going to turn our attention to the worship and somewhat the art of the early church. So I’ll kind of start out with a bit of a curious detail. And that’s kind of a strange detail that Rome allowed colleges, not like colleges of today. these were more or less clubs of like-minded individuals. And while the colleges that was allowed in the days of Rome, even while Christians were being persecuted, were burial colleges or burial clubs. Now that may seem rather strange to mention that, but the reason why I mentioned that, you could probably figure this out, is that gave Christians an access to a form of worshiping and practicing their faith in public.
They could get together in a cemetery and they could bury their dead, often those who had been executed by the Roman government, and they could actually worship the one true God.
And that’s why some of the earliest Christian sites in the Roman Empire, especially in Rome itself, would be the cemeteries of Domitilla and of Priscilla.
These cemeteries were protected by law, even though they were burying people that had been condemned to death. So these served as a place of worship. Not only did cemeteries serve as a place of worship, but based upon the book of Acts and what we know about the history of the early church, probably for the first 200 years or so, most Christians met in the homes of fellow believers.
Sometimes they would meet out in rural areas, but much of the time they were looking for any place allow them to worship. That’s why Justin Marger, for example, says that we assemble wherever is convenient since our God is not confined to a temple like those of the Romans and the Greeks.
He’s recognizing that you can worship God anywhere, that the Old Covenant with all of its ways associated with a specific temple in a certain place has been superseded.
It’s been replaced by the New covenant with us actually being the temple made holy by God who is Emmanuel who dwells with us and within us.
In terms of the homes where Christians often met, the typical Roman home of the time had a dining room called a triclinium. This dining room was a place of course for feast that was quickly turned into Christians as being a place both for worship and for what they called their agape feast.
Agape being a word that means not just love, but unconditional love. The love that God actually has for us. And those feasts were typically an extension of communion itself. What’s curious about these dining rooms is they typically had a little section in the wall, a little opening or alcove that would sometimes be big enough for a few people to sit in, or sometimes it was rather small.
That’s where often in Roman days, the household gods would be placed. But in Christian times, the scriptures themselves, if the church had its own copy, would be deposited right there, seen as the most important possession of the household and of the church.
There was typically a table for communion. Typically, there were couches laid around. But in terms of there being chairs or pews for the people to sit in, that was not the case. Most of the time people stood for the entirety of the church service. That was actually a tradition that continued through the Middle Ages as well. But what’s really curious about this is if you look at the New Testament, it’s made very clear that the church is not the building. The church or the ecclesia to use the Greek word is the people themselves. We do of course find church buildings probably by the 200s or the early third century. For example, some of the oldest church buildings are in places like Aqaba by the Red Sea in modern day Jordan, or the Megiddo Church up in Israel.
Both of those churches are long gone. Some people think that perhaps the oldest church was actually in what was ancient Persia, which we now call Iran. It’s a place called the Thaddeus Monastery, named after the disciple Thaddeus, and it’s thought that it was actually founded in the year 66 AD. There’s still archeological remains there. But all of these churches are long gone. In fact, the earliest churches in the city of Rome, which eventually allowed them to be built, many of them were destroyed under the reign of Diocletian, somebody we’ll definitely talk about in a future lecture. By the time of Constantine, you suddenly see a change in actual church buildings being built, often out of converted basilicas, which were essentially courts.
We’ll talk about those also in a future lecture. But if you want to have an idea of what the typical home church looked like, which also gives us a sense of Christian art, take a look at what is the oldest surviving church, which was a house church, in the city of Dura Europos on the Euphrates River.
And so in here, you have the typical dining room. You have the alcove for the scriptures to be placed in. It has things like a baptistry in the corner so that as new Christians come in, they can be baptized as they join the church.
But it’s also covered in Roman paintings and frescoes, those paintings made in wet plaster. But the paintings at Dura Europos are not of your typical mythological characters. Rather, they show characters like Adam and Eve, or they show Jesus as the good shepherd, or they’ll show stories like the healing of the paralytic, the lame man by Jesus, or Christ and Peter walking upon water. In fact, it’s thought that these are the earliest paintings of Jesus as far as we can tell in all of history. You could, of course, also see amazing frescoes in the catacombs. The catacombs outside of Rome and throughout other parts of the empire are some of the greatest archeological remains of the early church. They were of course, underground cemeteries, places where the dead were buried. That was something different to the Romans. The Romans typically cremated their dead and then spread their ashes out or kept them in an urn. The idea of burying the dead, which the Christians did, something that was kind of foreign and strange to the Romans. Well, these early Christians not only buried their dead in the catacombs, but also held various worship services there and sometimes even hid out there during specific times of persecutions.
What’s curious about the catacombs, especially the ones outside Rome, is not only do they have miles of underground tunnels that are often two stories tall and hold things like hundreds of thousands of people, but they also sometimes have specific rooms that were designed for worship, especially the worship of singing.
There are some rooms that were designed to capture the acoustics of a choir or a congregation as brilliantly as they possibly could. Jerome, commenting on the catacomb, says this. He says, as a visitor, if you enter into the catacombs, you’ll walk, quote, “where in subterranean depths the visitor passes to and fro between the bodies of the entombed on both walls.” And where all is dark, that the prophecy here, the prophecy of Psalm 55, finds fulfillment. The living go down into Hades. Hades being another word for hell or for death. In other In other words, the Christians had the symbolic moment where they were entering down into death and then rising again. It was a promise that the people, the bodies rather, that they were bearing there would not see corruption ultimately, but would be raised from the dead.
To see that hope, all you have to do is, for example, read some of the inscriptions, some of the epitaphs from the catacombs. Philip Schaff records these epitaphs simply say things like in peace or he or she sleeps in peace, live in God or in Christ or live forever.
Or look at this one, he rest well, or God quicken thy spirit. And this one, weep not my child, death is not eternal or Alexander is not dead, but he lives above the stars and only his body rest in this tomb.
In other words, it was the hope of the resurrection the Christians were known for. You can also see the unique Christian art down here. Thomas Howard, a church historian says, “The very foundations of Christianity “are the doctrines of creation and incarnation.” So it is inevitable that Christianity should robustly celebrate human flesh, created in the image of God, made the habitation of the incarnate God and redeemed for the vision of God at last.
In other words, he’s saying it would be normal to celebrate the physical life which has been redeemed by God, sanctified by his incarnation. And part of that celebration would be the celebration of art itself. So when you look at the ancient art, the frescoes of the catacombs, You’ll see numerous depictions of the cross as one example, which itself would have been strange to the Romans because the cross was a symbol of torture and death, specifically death for slaves and criminals and barbarians, anybody who wasn’t a Roman citizen. But you’ll see other symbols. You’ll see a dove representing the Holy Spirit. You’ll see a ship showing safety on the journey that is life. You also commonly see a palm branch. The palm branch became a symbol of victory as it always was, but was also a symbol specifically of Christians who had been martyred. So often in Christian art, if you see somebody holding a palm branch, that means they were martyred and that’s how they achieve their victory, their eternal reward. Then of course, you’ll often have the rooster, which is both a hint at Peter’s betrayal, three ties for the rooster crows, but also for the fact that Christ will come like a thief in the night before the rooster crows.
Curiously, you’ll also find things like the vine, because Christ does call himself the true vine. And of course, based upon the letter of Clement, you’ll find a phoenix showing the very idea of resurrection. Perhaps my favorite would be depictions of Christ as a good shepherd. It’s a rather remarkable fresco because, well, for one, he looks like a Roman. He looks youthful. He’s beardless. He has the typical Roman short hair. He doesn’t look like your long brown haired blue eyed Jesus. He looks Roman. And in fact, that was the case of how Christ is depicted in all cultures. He was always shown to be like that culture because he was God incarnate in the flesh. And yet perhaps even more than this one, I love the fact that in the catacombs of Domotilla, there’s a depiction of Christ as Orpheus. I don’t know if you remember who Orpheus was, but Orpheus was the guy who went into the underworld, into Hades to rescue his wife, and was told that he could bring her out from death, so long as he didn’t look at her. And of course, as he’s about to emerge with her into the land of the living, He turns back to help her and she perishes for all eternity. Christ was seen as a proper Orpheus. He was the new Orpheus who actually could save his bride, his wife, that is us, the church, from everlasting death and would actually do it properly.
Well, besides the place of worship, and of course the art that went along with that worship in many cases, there’s also the time of worship. We know, for example, from the book of Revelation, that John refers to the first day of the week as being the Lord’s day, that is Sunday. In fact, that became the tradition of the church. Not that they were disregarding the Sabbath rest, but that they were celebrating the resurrection which occurred on the first day of the week. In fact, sometimes they would even meet at sunrise because that’s when Mary Magdalene witnessed the resurrection of the Christ on that very first Easter Sunday. Eventually, not just were Sundays set aside as a day of worship, but a church calendar began to take shape with three primary seasons. The first season being the season of Passover and Easter that would last all the way unto Pentecost, which served as the second season, celebrating the beginning of the church, roughly 50 days after Easter.
That was followed by the season of Epiphany and Advent, which came both at the end of the year as we know it now, and the beginning of the following year to celebrate the incarnation of Christ.
Epiphany, which we now celebrate on January 6th, is typically associated with the arrival of the magi, or the wise men, but the early church associated it with the actual incarnation and the birth of Christ.
And so you have the shaping of the Christian calendar, the church calendars, we know it with a celebration of the incarnation, that is Christmas, a celebration of the death and resurrection, the whole Passover and Easter season, and then especially the celebration of the beginning of the church at Pentecost.
Well, in order for people to come into the church, Christ made it very plain in the Great Commission that baptism went along with discipleship.
And so we know from the first century that not only were people baptized into the church, but they often had sponsors, people who actually had often led them to the gospel and would often teach them in the ways of the gospel.
So they would actually know what it meant to be a Christian. begins probably the whole tradition of having godfathers and godmothers at a baptism. They’re there to witness the baptism of the individual, but they’re also there to serve as a mentor, as a type of parent, father or mother in the actual faith. Eventually, the church developed the tradition of actually having catechumens, people who wanted to become Christians, who would And we sometimes go through a year or even two years of discipleship before actually receiving the baptism.
Sometimes the baptisms would be done at midnight, often the midnight leading into Easter. So basically you were going into death, which is what baptism symbolizes, and then you’re rising again with Christ. Sometimes they’d be done at Pentecost. One of the earliest examples we have of baptism in the early church is known as the didache. It means simply the teaching. It refers to the teaching of the apostles. It talks actually about baptism, saying if you can use running water, because John once baptized the Jordan River, then do that. If you can’t, then use still water. If all you have is a little bit of drinking water with you, then pour it three times on the head while you baptize the person in the name of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It’s also a worthy tradition that the newly baptized would typically wear white robes for the first week after having been baptized. It was to symbolize to the world at large that they have been made clean, not by the washing of baptism, by what it symbolizes, the actual the finished work, the atonement, the justification that Christ accomplishes.
We also have excellent accounts of what the early church worship was like. Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, describes it like this. “On the day called Sunday, all who live in the cities or in the country, they gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles,” that would be the Gospels, “or the writings of the prophets,” that would be the rest of the New Testament, or the Old, are read for as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has ceased, the president, that’d be the pastor, instructs us by word of mouth, that’d be a sermon, exhorting us to put these good things into practice. Then we all rise together and we pray, and as we’ve already said, bread and wine mingled with water are brought, that would be communion. And the president, in like manner, offers prayers and thanksgiving according to his ability, and the people assent by saying amen. Distribution is then made to each and they share in that for which thanks have been given. And the deacons take portions to those who are absent. This shows you the centrality of communion to the early church, how important it was to them. That even those who couldn’t be there had communion brought to them. And those who are well off and are willing to do so, they give as much as each desires. And the money thus collected is deposited with the president who takes care of the orphans and widows and those who are in straight through sickness or any other cause and those in prison and our visitors from other parts.
In short, he looks after all who are in need. We also have depictions of what they actually sang during this time. In many cases, they would have sung the Psalms. We have it from say Mark 14, that Jews and disciples sang prior to his arrest. We have Paul and Silas, for example, singing in prison. Not only do they sing incredible Psalms, but they would also sing things such as Mary’s Magnificat, when she finds out that she’s going to give birth to the Christ. Or they might sing, for example, the Gloria of the angels when they announce the birth of Christ or the blessing of Simeon when he holds the infant Christ.
Sometimes it was very specific verses from the letters of Paul, such as 1 Timothy 3.16. “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness. He was manifest in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on the world, and taken up in glory.
” Just imagine what that would be like put to music. Or perhaps this one from Ephesians 5. Imagine this one being sung at a sunrise service, especially in a place like a cemetery, because it goes like this. Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. This is why the early church fathers, when they talk about, for example, the singing of the early church, they talk about it in terms of harmony, harmony with the world and the universe at large, what we sometimes call the music of the spheres.
For example, Clement of Rome wrote this, “Let us consider the entire multitude of angels, “how standing by you, they minister to God’s will. “For the scripture says 10,000 stood by him “and 1,000 ministered to him and cried out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabbath. “The whole creation is full of his glory. “Let us therefore gather together and concord by conscience, cry out earnestly to him as if with one voice, so that we might come to share in his great and glorious promises.
” That idea of harmony, that idea of singing with one voice, it’s all over the early ideas of the church. In fact, if you look at Clement of Alexandria writing just in the next century, he says, “We want to strive so that we, the many of of the church may be brought together into one love according to the union of the essential unity.
As we do good, as we do good, may we similarly pursue unity, the union of many, which the divine harmony, there’s the musical idea, has called forth out of a medley of sounds and division, and it becomes one symphony. Following the one leader of the choir and teacher, the word and resting in the same truth and crying out, Abba, father. That harmony extended into prayer. Tertullian tells us that they prayed not just for the people that specifically may have had certain prayer requests, but they also prayed, he said, for the emperors, for their ministers and those in authority, for the security of the world, for the general peace, and for the postponement of the end.
Sometimes they would pray the Maranatha, which is a word that simply means, Oh Lord, come, often without raised arms. There were also readings and sermons as Justin Martyr talks about, as well as collections for the poor, for widows and for orphans. But the height of the service was the Eucharist. That’s a word that literally means Thanksgiving. We of course call it communion. It was something the early Christians also had yet another name for. They called it an agape feast, a feast of love, referring to God’s actual love, the fact that he had undergone the judgment of God, had borne the sin of the world, and offered his own body in place of ours.
Thus, communion is remembering and proclaiming what he has done until he returns. What’s most amazing about this is that this agape feast was actually a full meal. Something that was eaten to the point of satisfaction and something that was always eaten with incredible thanksgiving. In other words, it was something that the world couldn’t afford. It was something the Romans couldn’t understand. It was something that brought together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, and that radically changed the world for the better. Something we’ll take a look at in the next lesson.