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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Learning Worship from the Church Fathers

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

In a post-Reformation church, the sacraments have been down played in the life of the church out of a concern to ensure Christians are resting in the work of Christ alone, rather than in the performance of rituals. In recent years, the church has started to recognize the importance of the sacraments in nurturing believers’ faith in Christ, and the danger in trying to separate the material and spiritual realities in a dualistic worldview. As a result of new theological questions about the sacraments, the teachings of the early church are especially important to serve as guides for the 21st century church. For the early church, the sacraments took a central role in the life of the church. Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Egeria all provide examples of how the early church used the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, in their worship and ministry.

Justin Martyr indicated that not only was the Eucharist important in the context of the worship service, but was important for believers unable to attend the weekly gathering.

"And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion." [1]

While it is important in contemporary ministries to visit the sick, elderly, and bedridden, a sacramental role in visitation ministry has been neglected. The opportunity for those who are unable to attend the worship service to partake in the Eucharist meal that their brothers and sisters in Christ partook in includes them in the body of Christ in a profound way that mere visitation does not. Utilizing this ancient practice in the contemporary church could deepen pastoral ministry to those kept from the worship services by their physical circumstances.

On the matter of baptism, Egeria presents the process of preparation for baptism as just as important as the sacrament itself.

"If someone is found guilty he is told to go away, and the bishop tells him that he is to amend his ways before he may come to the font….They have here the custom that those who are preparing for baptism during the season of the Lenten fast go to be exorcized by the clergy first thing in the morning." [2]

Egeria’s testimony reveals that the early church took seriously the spiritual elements of what occurred in conversion alongside of the physical act of baptism. While exorcism may not be necessary for everyone’s baptismal preparation, clergy should recognize that in the act of baptism, the new convert is making an act of defiance against the evil one and the ways of this world, an act that the soon-to-be baptized believer should be prepared for. Her account also reveals the high priority the early church placed on repentance before baptism. Her words indicate conducting what seems to be a trial of those seeking baptism. The contemporary church probably does not need to go to such lengths, but ought to show care for those seeking to be baptized and endeavor to guide the new convert into repentance and obedience in preparation for baptism. The contemporary church has in many ways been very open to those seeking baptism for the first time, which is to be commended, but at the same time, can learn from the early church to take special care of the new convert in preparation of baptism.

Finally, Hippolytus provides a corrective to the contemporary notion that all prayers given in the worship service must be extemporaneous in order to be considered genuine. He says, “If indeed he is able to pray sufficiently and with a solemn prayer, it is good. But if anyone who prays, recites a prayer according to a fixed form, do not prevent him.” [3] The church has been blessed with a rich heritage of prayers, from the Psalms to liturgies to the prayers of the saints who have gone before, and it would benefit the church to take advantage of this great wealth, especially in the context of the sacraments. Hippolytus’s words are given in the midst of his own recommendations for prayers before the Eucharist. The use of prayer forms allows the church to teach its congregants how to better engage with the reality of the sacraments, lead them to Christ through the signs, and teach them how to pray better as one people.

[1] Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. LXV

[2] Egeria’s Travels, 45.4, 46.1

[3] Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 9.4-5

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