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Catholic Activity: The Liturgical Life of Christians at Rome in Post-Apostolic Times



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It may scandalize us moderns to learn that St. Hippolytus fell into a quarrel with the lawful Pope. His contemporaries, however, did not judge him so harshly. Moreover, we may say with St. Augustine: "Branches too numerous or luxuriant upon the Christian tree, the heavenly Surgeon cut off with the knife of martyrdom."


Our interest in the liturgy makes St. Hippolytus' book, The Apostolic Traditions, particularly precious because it shows the liturgical life of the Christian at Rome in the first centuries. In it we find a description of the ancient Mass with the oldest texts, also the prayers at baptism, at the agape, etc. What interests us most, however, is the liturgical life of the early Christians. We shall center our attention upon three points: the Eucharist, the Divine Office, and the reading of Scripture. Daily Mass at that time was unknown, for only on Sundays was the holy Sacrifice offered. The faithful took the consecrated Bread home with them. And they were bidden to "watch carefully that no one not of the faith eat of the Eucharist. or that a mouse or something else come upon it, or that part of it spoil. It is the Body of Christ, the Food of all the faithful, and it should never cause disgust" (ch. 29). There was no difference between ordinary bread and that set apart for the Eucharist.

The Christians were admonished to come often to church in order to be instructed in the word of God: "They should remember that they are hearing God speak through the instructor.... The God-fearing Christian should feel that he is suffering a great loss if he does not go to the place where he will be taught the faith. And when an occasional speaker comes, let no one of you miss going to church . . . you will hear things of which you had never thought and benefit from that which the Holy Spirit gives you through the mouth of His preacher; thus your faith will be strengthened through what you hear. Therefore let everyone endeavor to go to church in that place where the Spirit is actually speaking. But if on some particular day there be no instructions, let everyone take up the holy Scriptures at home and read such a portion as to him seems beneficial" (ch. 32).

Of special value are the admonitions given to the faithful on prayer. From these we see that the Christians of the first centuries observed hours of prayer almost as found at present in the Divine Office.

Concerning Prime: "All the faithful, men and women, upon rising in the morning before beginning work, should wash their hands and pray to God."

Terce: "When you are at home, pray at the third hour and praise God. But if you are away when this hour comes, pray in your heart to God. For at this hour Christ was nailed to the Cross."

Sext: "In a similar way you should pray again at the sixth hour. For at the time when Christ was nailed to the Cross, there came a great darkness. Prayer should therefore be said in imitation of Him who prayed at that hour, viz., Christ before His death."

None: "The ninth hour too should be made perfect by prayer and praise . . . in that hour Christ was pierced by the spear."

Vespers: "Once more ought you to pray before you go to bed."

Matins: "At midnight rise from your bed, wash yourself and pray. If you have a wife, pray together in antiphonal fashion. If she is not yet of the faith, withdraw and pray alone and return again to your place. If you are bound by the bond of marriage duties, do not cease your prayers, for you are not stained thereby. It is necessary that we pray at that hour (i.e., Matins), for at that hour all creation is resting and praising God. Stars, trees, water are as if they were standing still; all the hosts of angels are holding divine services together with the souls of the just. They are praising almighty God at that hour." What an inspiring passage!

Lauds: "In like manner rise and pray at the hour at which the cock crows . . . full of hope look forward to the day of eternal light that will shine upon us eternally after the resurrection from the dead." Motivation for these "hour prayers" of the early Christians was the conviction that daily they were reliving Christ's death and resurrection. Every new day was a day of resurrection, and daily they were raised with Christ on the Cross. It is an example that should spur us on to give the Mass, the Breviary, and the Bible the place of honor in our lives.

Activity Source: Church's Year of Grace, Volumes 1-5 by Dr. Pius Parsch, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1964