How Our Lord celebrated the first Divine Liturgy is clearly delineated in the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper. We have had portrayed for us there the simplest elements of that Most Holy Sacrifice.
Our Lord took the bread and wine and prayed over them, He offered them up to the Father with a blessing and then consecrated them, changing them into His Own Precious Body and Blood. He then gave them to the apostles in Holy Communion. Communion. Oneness. With Him. PHYSICAL one-ness with Him, as “well” as spiritual.
The Saviour told the apostles to do the same thing. To do it in commemoration of Him, and to bear witness concerning Him until the end of time. They did so faithfully. Wherever they preached the Gospel they also celebrated the Eucharist.
At first the Jewish-Christian converts continued to pray and perform their religious worship obligations in the Temple at Jerusalem. They went to the synagogues, reserving the celebration of the Eucharist until the evening hours when it was usually joined to the communal meal they then took as a matter of custom. It was in this way that they obeyed the Lord to “do this in commemoration of Me” when He instituted the Blessed Sacrament as an evening meal.
Problems, however, arose swiftly, as they always do when someone either sets himself apart or is seen by others to be set apart – or even to be simply “different” somehow. It wasn’t long at all before the Jewish authorities initiated a persecution of the Jews. The Romans as yet had no part in it – it was, for them, a purely local and religious matter to be settled among the Jews themselves. Soon, however, the politics of the region brought down the Legions of Rome upon Jerusalem, and with the rage of Rome, Jerusalem was quite literally destroyed.
Simultaneously, alongside the destruction of Palestine and the levelling of Jerusalem, gentiles were beginning to join the Christians at an ever-increasing rate. More and more thousands of Gentiles were entering the Church. It became quite impossible, if only because of the numbers, to frequent the local synagogue and to be a Christian at the same time. The numbers of converts made the one impossible, the persecution made the other equally impossible.
Christians, however, never completely outgrew their synagogal background. Among those elements which were borrowed from our Jewish heritage came the service we still call the “Liturgy of the Catechumens.” Today we refer to it more commonly as “The Liturgy of the Word,” but it reflects in form (and almost as much in content) the old synagogal forms, by which the Christians now held their own synagogue services, which quickly developed into a kind of synagogal service in the morning, and a Eucharistic service in the evening. The format eventually developed over the centuries into the entire form known as “The Office,” “The Divine Office,” “The Liturgical Hours,” or any of a dozen other appellations which came to describe those processes by which Christians have ever sought to turn the entire day into a way of worshipping, glorifying and praising God. Beginning with the “Liturgy of the Catechumens” in the morning (something like “lauds” now), frequent prayer during the day (probably as a matter of simple convenience developing into naturally marked times such as mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, early evening, etc.), and completed at the end of the day with the full Eucharistic service combined with a meal or supper which we still remember as “The Agape,” the Feast of Love.
It is not difficult to understand, however, that it swiftly became difficult for people to gather twice for service on Sundays, particularly under the burdens inflicted by growing persecution. Frequent movement to and from identifiable locations would quickly prove the undoing of a clandestine group simply trying to stay alive. The era of the Great Persecutions (64-313 A.D.) made it necessary to assemble secretly. Not every city had “catacombs.” So, at a very early date, it became customary to join the synagogue service together with the Eucharistic service into one sacred function. Very soon into the Christian era we have the Divine Liturgy already formed into its current form, at least in broad outline.
First one would find the “Liturgy of the Catechumens” as the beginning part of the service. So-called because the catechumens, those converts still taking instructions in the faith but not yet baptised, were allowed to be present ONLY at this portion of the service. The Eucharistic Feast itself was only for the initiates – and the Byzantine Liturgies to this day commemorate that fact by calling for the catechumens to depart just prior to the profession of faith. There would be readings from the sacred scriptures (at that time, mostly the Old Testament; much of the New Testament had not yet been written, and much of what had been written had not yet percolated its way throughout the entire community, though much had). Then would follow the “Liturgy of the Faithful” from the fact that only baptised believers could be present during the celebration of the Eucharist. Today this is still called the Liturgy of the Eucharist (literally, in Greek, “Thanksgiving”) because the Liturgy proper, or the confection of the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, took place at that point – the chief characteristic of the Christian service.
During the early days of the Church, both Saturday AND Sunday were kept as holidays but soon Sunday came to be preferred because the Lord had risen from the dead on a Sunday – and again, two consecutive holidays with the attendant need for communities to gather in common made the community itself increasingly vulnerable to police detection and penetration. The fact that it was also on a Sunday that the Holy Spirit had descended upon the Apostles in the Upper Room did not damage the speed of the trend to adopt only Sunday as the proper holiday of observation.
There is a remnant, however, even today remaining in the Byzantine Rite of the early state of things. Liturgically, Saturday is “still” a liturgical day in the East. And the Liturgical Day still begins at sundown. And the Liturgical Year still begins on September 1st. Even though Sunday is the Day of Obligation, on which all are obliged to render public worship to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Saturday in the Byzantine Rite is not a fast day, except for the Saturdays of Lent, and even in Lent the Liturgy is always celebrated on Saturday, whereas during Lenten weekdays the Liturgy is NOT celebrated. Only the “Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified” is celebrated traditionally on Lenten weekdays, and that is not truly a liturgy because it lacks a consecration. It is, in fact, Vespers joined to a communion service, and the consecrated species are actually consecrated at a prior Liturgy. Hence, of course, the name “Pre-Sanctified.” Additionally, there are many Saturdays during the Liturgical Year that have Propers of the Liturgy, like the Sundays. There “are” no “propers” for, say, the Sixth Wednesday after Pentecost. There IS for the First Saturday of Lent; or for Lazarus Saturday; or Akathistos (Ἀκάθιστος) Saturday; or for the five All Souls’ Saturdays. Saturdays in the Eastern Rites are “almost” as sacred as are Sundays.
The persecutions lasted more than 200 years – a long time. A time quite long enough for necessary practices to harden into traditions, habits of mind and attitudes. Constantine issued the famous Edict of Milan in 313, not, as customarily has been said, “establishing Christianity as the state religion,” a false statement, but establishing their freedom to practice Christianity without let or hindrance, just as the other religions in the Empire had been accustomed during the entire history of the period. It simply restored Christians to equal status. The establishment of Christianity as the state religion came considerably later. Strictly speaking, however, the Edict of Milan did no more than permit Christians to come out of hiding, build churches and basilicas and hold services freely, without fear of punishment, persecution or discrimination, as often and as long as they wished, whenever and however they so chose.
At that point, the development of the Liturgy flowered greatly, bringing with it a richness and diversity quite unexpected by everyone involved. And bringing with it problems which nobody could have foreseen, and difficulties which, because unanticipated, would have the most serious consequences for the history of the world.