Should we always go back to the Earliest Liturgy? The Case of the Didache

In last week’s post,   I mentioned how the early Eucharistic liturgies were not fixed: the celebrant would produce most of the prayers as he went along, speaking from the fullness of his heart. I also stated that it is an error to be archaising: saying that we need to go back to what we had before. To be clear, it might be that we should revive old practices, or it might not, but it is always a question of judgment on a case by case basis. There are some things it is good to revive, and some which it is not. I would offer as examples, having the altar face to the East as a good one. When the sun rises over the altar during the morning liturgy it is a wonderful sight, and it can move the whole person in a way that indoor lighting cannot. On the other hand, the very first liturgies we know of had no Institution Narrative, that is, they did not have the words of the Lord “This is My Body,” and so on. I think it would be a retrograde move to delete the Narrative just because it was not in the first liturgies.

It has occurred to me that many people may be unaware of just how poor the evidence for the ancient liturgy (what we often call “the Mass”) really is, and how the evidence which is actually available points to a significant fluidity in its celebration. Some people think that the Mass as we have it went back all the way to the Apostles. Unfortunately, while much is unknown, it is known that there was a great deal of variety and that many of the prayers if not most were extemporised, that is, made up by the celebrant as he went along. This does not mean that what he said made up off the top of his head. The celebrants spoke in accordance with knowledge, understanding, and the tradition of the Church.

One of the ironies is that both traditionalists and modernists criticise contemporary forms on the basis that they are not like forms from the past. Hence, sometimes modernists say that they are restoring something which had been lost: an argument made about the new order of the Latin Mass which was said to go back to some ancient models.

Even more ironic is that one of the “models” taken after Vatican II was a document they called The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus from Rome. However, it turned out, on closer inspection, that the grounds for believing it to have been that long lost book were very weak indeed. As time went by, more and more scholars questioned this. Finally, the full scale study by Bradshaw, Johnson, and Phillips concluded that it was probably “an aggregation of material from different sources, quite possibly arising from different geographical locations and probably from different historical periods …” (The Apostolic Tradition, p. 14) I shall return to this later, for this text refers twice to the Eucharistic offerings as being antitypes of the Body and Blood of Christ. I only wish that there was an ancient Latin liturgy which spoke that way. But there is not: this material is Eastern.

However, the chief points are these (1) first, to wish that the liturgy should be like ancient liturgies is a dangerous principle, it can be used to justify very many changes, and no one would be pleased by all of them; and (2) second, no one knows as much about the ancient liturgy as they think they do (and particular as they thought they did in the 1950s and 1960s).

What then, is known about the ancient liturgy? Apart from the New Testament, the earliest clear witness to the liturgy is a short Greek book known as the “Didache,” the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. What is so striking is how it is, in some ways, very reminiscent of our present liturgy, and in other ways most dissimilar. This is important: the history of the liturgy is a history of continuous change in continuity.

This is thought to have been from ancient Syria, and to date from about the year 100, although this is not certain. However, it was a popular document, and was copied as late as 380 which is long after the conditions for which it was originally written had disappeared. Incidentally, this goes to show that the fact that a book is copied does not mean that the circumstances of its production still applied: it may mean only that the later readers received it with reverence, and perhaps found some of the ideas interesting. In chapter 9, it contains what some believe to be the oldest surviving Eucharistic prayer yet known:

Now concerning the Thanksgiving (Eucharist), thus give thanks. First, concerning the cup: “We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory forever.” And concerning the broken bread: “We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.”

In chapter 10 there is also a prayer for thanksgiving after the consumption:

But after you are filled, thus give thanks: “We thank You, holy Father, for Your holy name which You caused to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory forever. You, Master almighty, created all things for Your name’s sake; You gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to You; but to us You freely gave spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Your Servant. Before all things we thank You that You are mighty; to You be the glory forever. Remember, Lord, Your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Your love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Your kingdom which You have prepared for it; for Yours is the power and the glory forever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If anyone is holy, let him come; if anyone is not so, let him repent. Maran atha. Amen.”

It then adds this note: “But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire.” This last sentence shows, first that the prayers in the Didache are probably for the congregation, not the celebrant, as I have already said. But they do sound very much like the prayers which celebrants say today. Second, that there were prophets travelling from church to church shows just how ancient this document is (but in chapter 8 it has the Our Father in exactly the form it has in St Matthew, and has other references to it, which raises the question how old is the Gospel of St Matthew?) Third, note that prophets were allowed to say as much as they desired. Clearly this means that unscripted prayers were being used in the ancient liturgies of the first century A.D. So, on the argument that there have been changes in the liturgy and we should go back to them, what should we do if someone claims to be a prophet? Let him or speak as much as they want?

There is much more in the Didache which is of some interest for the early liturgy and for the practice of the first Christians, but the upshot is this: there has been development in the liturgy, and to say that we should go back to what we used to have is not maintainable unless one wishes for chaos and for endless argument over what should be done. This is why the central position of an authority for the liturgy is so vital, especially today, when the Church is so large and opinions so various and so vehemently held.

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