Last week, I briefly recounted two versions of conventional story of the Christian Church—Protestant and Catholic—that are most familiar to educated people in our society. I promised to retell those stories, adding an Eastern Orthodox dimension to our current collective understanding of Church history. In all of this, my goal is selfish. I hope to save myself from having to answer the inevitable question I am asked when introducing myself as an Orthodox priest: “Orthodox, eh? Orthodox what?”
So here’s the beginning of that story. In the early first century A.D., a man named Jesus was crucified under the Roman authorities. Shortly afterwards, his disciples began to claim that they had encountered Jesus risen from the dead, that all should believe in him as the Son of God and be baptised in order to be saved from their sins.
Within three generations, Jesus’ followers had preached their message far and wide, establishing communities of “Christians” (literally, “Christ-worshippers”) throughout the Mediterranean region of the Roman Empire. These followers, or “Apostles” (literally, “ones who are sent”), had even gone to the extent of writing down their proclamation as Gospels of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In addition, the letters of certain Apostles were preserved as examples of the apostolic message to specific communities and persons.
Some of these writings would eventually be compiled into the New Testament. For the most part, however, Christians of the first century did not possess the New Testament in any complete form. Their Scriptures were still the Jewish Scriptures—the Law and Prophets—which they interpreted in the light of what Jesus had done and taught (as explained by the Apostles and their appointed teachers).
How did early Christians worship? While we do not know a lot, we know more than you might think. According to the Acts of the Apostles, “they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) The Apostles taught that Jesus himself had initiated the “breaking of bread,” through which Christians partook of his body and blood. (Matt. 26:26-27; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; Luke 24:30) Breaking bread was known as the Eucharist (from the Greek, “I give thanks”), because it took place at the conclusion of the Jewish meal of thanksgiving or blessing in which the main celebrant would give thanks to God for all His works among His people.
Teaching, then, along with the Eucharist, prayers and fellowship, formed the basis of early Christian worship. A late-first-early-second-century Christian document known as the Didache (available online at www.ccel.org) adds more detail. For instance, it tells us that Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays (Didache 8), that they prayed at regular hours (Didache 8:3), that they met every Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist (Didache 14) with specific, prescribed prayers for their services (Didache 9-10). In addition, they elected as their leaders bishops and deacons (Didache 15:1-2) to oversee and serve their communities.
As far as historical sketches go, this is not bad for a time period generally thought to be shrouded in mystery. Still, the exact order of early Christian services are relatively unknown. The New Testament offers almost no details, and we have nothing resembling, say, a service book from the first century. Why is that?
The Apostle Paul points to an answer in his second Epistle to the Thessalonians: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15) In encouraging his hearers to stand firm in the apostolic proclamations and teachings about Jesus that he delivered to them (see 1 Cor. 11:2), Saint Paul reveals that these traditions could be both written and oral. He is transmitting an entire body of apostolic experience that goes beyond what is written.
Our culture so often depends on texts to interact with the world. As a result, it’s a real challenge for us to realize that from its inception, Christianity was not constituted by a particular book or collection of texts. Rather, the Christian faith was in a personal encounter with the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. And this encounter was handed down to subsequent generations from the Apostles who met him on the road to Emmaus.
This “handing down” or tradition certainly involved the texts of the New Testament and other early writings, but it was more than that. It was also an unwritten practice of prayer, worship and asceticism passed down through demonstration and experience. By participating in this whole way of life, which continues even today, a baptized Christian can personally share in the original apostolic experience of the One who makes himself known in “the breaking of the bread.” And that Christian can then go out to proclaim, as the Apostles did so long ago, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”