In particular, the public Mass or Eucharist service took a broad pattern fundamentally unchanged to this day that crosses confessional and denominational lines. The communities of Christians also began to enlarge a calendar of feasts and special observances throughout the year—including Christmas, first celebrated in 385 in Rome but not universally until about three centuries later.
All this was brought about by the startling new reality that, for the first time, Christians could worship and pray together in public without fear for their lives. The stealthy quick services to which only trusted believers were admitted suddenly became public religious events supported by the state that even curious outsiders could attend.
My post of June 7, 2015, Kristianoi at Prayer, explained the principal, recurrent and most important ritual derived from the Last Supper, known by the 4th century as the Eucharist. In Sanctifying Time, posted August 16, 2015, I also explained a parallel, educational gathering called the Synaxis, which included opening prayers and hymns and three biblical readings and concluded with explanatory remarks by the presiding priest or bishop.
After Nicea, when services became public, the Synaxis and Eucharist were joined into one service, with the Nicene Creed recited between them. The public service started with the Synaxis through the sermon—at which point catechumens preparing for reception into the Church through baptism, communion and confirmation departed—then came the creed, a few prayers and the Eucharist proper.
Ever notice what happens after the few prayers that follow the sermon and creed (the prayers vary a little depending on the denomination)?
The priest or minister says, “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” to which the congregation replies, “And with you” (or words to that effect in both cases). Then, as if nothing has happened, the priest moves to the altar and says, “The Lord be with you,” which is met with a hearty “And also with you” from the people, followed by “Lift up your hearts” and a joyful little litany of thanksgiving.
Sound a little repetitious? It’s not; and it is.
The first exchange marks the point at which the Synaxis ended and people were dismissed with a wish that the Lord abide with them. The second is the opening of the pre-Nicene Eucharist, a hearty invitation to partake in the joy of the common union to come.
Why were they kept intact? The only plausible explanation is custom, in particular the custom of the people. Almost without exception the oldest words used in services are those the people—as opposed to leaders or celebrants—say.
Changing what a whole congregation says is a lot harder than changing what one leader says. Indeed, most of the food fights through the centuries among liturgical specialists are about the words said by leaders at worship.
Lest this seem to resolve all matters of worship until modernity, keep in mind the social geography of Christianity at the time. There was no single prayer book followed by all Christian communities.
These communities split into four major groups:
- The East, meaning Greater Syria (modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and parts of Iraq and Iran), which had two major liturgical, or worship, families: the Assyro-Chaldean Rite, which worshipped in Aramaic (also known as Syriac), with a “Persian” variant in Antioch that avoided all Christological statements; and a “western” family that later became the Maronite Rite in Lebanon, which evolved to use Arabic.
- Byzantium, meaning the rite of Constantinople, which was Greek and became the basis of Orthodox worship.
- Africa: the Coptic rites of Alexandria, which used the Coptic language, an afroasiatic tongue written with the Greek alphabet; and the Ethiopia rites, which used a Semitic tongue known as Ge’ez.
- Western: four families of rituals, all in Latin—the Roman, Gallic (France), Hispanic or Mozarabic in later use (Spain) and Milanese, inspired by St. Ambrose of Milan (northern Italy).
It’s no surprise that among a network of secret groups, no one kept a central list of all martyrs and, when in the open, each community favored the people it knew. Moreover, some communities preferred the solar Roman calendar, others the Jewish lunar calendar, plus other variants, so there was very little uniformity in timing. This calendar problem was raised at the council of Constantinople by none other than Emperor Theodosius, who wanted everything neat and uniform, to no avail.
The end result was a very lively yet catholic Christianity that changed some of its spots according to the place and language of believers.