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Worship and Devotional Life: Christian Worship


The death of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion and his resurrection on the first day of the week constitute the root paradigm of Christianity and, as such, are central to Christian worship in all its dimensions. Because that death and resurrection occurred at Jerusalem at the time of the Jewish Passover (Heb., Pesa; pascha in the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic), this paradigm is frequently referred to as "the paschal mystery." Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (5:7) identifies the death of Jesus with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs, and that same identification is made in the Gospel of John (19:3236 refers to the prohibition against cracking the bones of the lamb eaten at Passover). References in early Christian literature to the Cross or to the death of Jesus should most frequently be understood as including Jesus' resurrection and glorification, the total paschal mystery as that paradigm of salvation in which the Christian participates.

Christian Initiation

The public ministry of Jesus began with his baptism by John in the river Jordan. The accounts of that baptism report that when Jesus came up from the water the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the voice of God proclaimed him to be the Son of God. This outpouring of the Holy Spirit is referred to (Acts 10:38) as an anointing by virtue of which Jesus is the expected "anointed one" (the Messiah, or Christ). Such ritual washings as the baptism of John were common in Judaism in the first century of the common era, and many scholars suppose that the early Christian baptismal rituals were influenced by the initiatory ritual employed for converts from paganism to Judaism, where circumcision was followed by a ritual washing.

Early Christian baptism

The earliest accounts of Christian baptism focus on the confession of Jesus as Lord, usually in response to preaching, and on the ritual washing. The earliest church order, Didache (before ce 100), describes that washing, following extended catechesis, as preferably accomplished by immersion in running water, but it allows for water to be poured over the initiate three times. In either case, the baptism is to be performed "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." It is uncertain whether such references to the anointing and sealing of Christians as that in 2 Corinthians 1:21 refer to an actual anointing with oil in first-century initiatory ritual, but such anointings do appear in the course of the second century. In Syria an anointing prior to the water bath was called rushma ("mark") and has been interpreted as a Christian surrogate for the circumcision that preceded the water bath in Jewish proselyte baptism. Elsewhere such baptismal anointing was associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus and so was performed after the water bath. Such postbaptismal anointing (referred to as the "seal") was frequently accompanied by imposition of the baptizer's hands upon the initiate. Such is the pattern reported for North Africa by Tertullian (On Baptism 78).

The most extensive of the early church orders, the Apostolic Tradition (third century), usually assigned to Hippolytus at Rome, reveals a more extensive initiatory process. After three years as catechumens (learners), candidates for baptism are selected after careful scrutiny and enter a final period of intensive preparation under direct supervision of the bishop. At the end of that period, concluded with a two-day fast, the initiates keep vigil through the night from Saturday to Sunday until cockcrow. Then, stripped of their clothing and having renounced Satan and his service, they are anointed with an exorcised oil. Next, entering the water, they profess belief in each of the persons of the Trinity in response to a threefold creedal examination and are immersed after each profession. Coming up from the water, they are anointed with another oil, the "oil of thanksgiving" (later known as chrisma or muron ), and reassume their clothing. They are then led to the bishop before the gathered congregation and anointed again by him with the imposition of his hands upon their heads. The bishop then kisses each initiate, and they take their places in the congregation to participate in the prayer of the community and in the eucharistic meal for the first time. This complex initiatory ritual set the pattern discernible, with significant variations, in later centuries. The Eastern churches maintain only one postbaptismal anointing, while the anointing by the bishop was eventually separated from baptism in the Western church, coming to be known as "confirmation."

It is widely supposed that the initiation described in the Apostolic Tradition took place on Easter at the conclusion of the paschal vigil. In the course of the third century such paschal baptism became the norm in most churches, and many scholars have suggested that the custom was much more ancient. Such a time for baptism is rendered particularly appropriate by the baptismal theology of Paul (Rom. 6), which associated baptism with participation in Christ's burial and resurrection, and by Jesus' references to his coming passion and death as his "baptism" (Lk. 12:50).

Normalization of infant baptism

While primitive baptismal practice with its extensive catechesis took adult baptism to be normative, in the third century the baptism of young children, although opposed by some, was practiced frequently. By the fifth century it was perhaps more common than the baptism of adults, and by the sixth century the catechumenate was reduced to a formality. Vestiges of that formative process perdured, nonetheless, and were still evident in the rites used by Western Christians at the time of the Reformation. The reforms of the sixteenth century removed from the baptismal rite many of the ceremonies that had belonged formerly to the catechumenate, and the postbaptismal anointings were also dropped from Protestant baptismal practice. Infant baptism continued to be the norm, however, and increasingly a postbaptismal formative process of instruction and discipline led to a rite of confirmation after age seven for both Catholics and Protestants, although for Catholics that rite usually followed well after admission to the Eucharist.

Opposition to the baptism of those too young to make a personal profession of faith occurred from time to time in the Middle Ages and became a significant wing of the Reformation with the Anabaptists. Since the seventeenth century, such refusal to practice pedobaptism and the insistence on believers' baptism has been characteristic of several Protestant churches, the Baptists being the most numerous. While Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and churches of the Evangelical and Reformed traditions continue to baptize infants, as do the Eastern churches, liturgical studies in the twentieth century have focused attention on the rich initiatory rituals of the patristic age, and restoration of that classic passage through catechesis to baptism, anointing, and eucharist has held an important place in the agenda of recent liturgical reform, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the Roman Catholic church being a significant instance.

The Holy Eucharist

As early as the Didache, participation in the communion meal, or Eucharist, was limited to the baptized, and such participation in the Eucharist is regularly found as the conclusion of the initiatory process. The Eucharist is, indeed, the locus of that koinōnia, or communion, which is the mode of the Christian's unity with other Christians in the unity of the church, and of the church's unity with Christ: a unity expressed and realized in the believer's feeding on Christ's body and blood through the eucharistic signs of bread and wine. The Didache speaks of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, and this may reflect a sense of continuity with the zeva todah, the "thank offering" of the Second Temple period in which those who offered a sacrifice consumed part of it, thus keeping communion with God, to whom the victim was offered.

In later centuries both this offering of the eucharistic gifts of bread and wine to God as a memorial of and thanksgiving for Christ's death and resurrection, and the consecration of these gifts to identify them with Christ's body and blood, would achieve explicit expression in the eucharistic prayer, the central prayer of the Eucharistic liturgy. The Apostolic Tradition presents the text of a eucharistic prayer that opens with a dialogue between the officiating celebrant and the congregation which has remained virtually unchanged in the West, and proceeds to a thanksgiving for the redemptive work of Christ, which comes to its climax in a recitation of the charter narrative describing the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus on the night before his crucifixion. The earliest such institution narrative is that in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (chap. 11), written around 55 ce, which many exegetes consider to have been a text transmitted through liturgical tradition.

In the Apostolic Tradition that narrative's concluding command, "When you do this, make my memorial," is followed at once by the clause that accompanies the narrative in virtually all early liturgies, although the wording varies considerably. Such a clause, known technically as anamnēsis ("memorial"), is generally believed to have been attached to the institution narrative from the first inclusion of that narrative within the body of the eucharistic prayer. In the prayer of the Apostolic Tradition the anamnēsis reads, "Remembering therefore his death and resurrection, we offer to thee this bread and cup, giving thanks to thee that thou hast made us worthy to stand before thee and to minister to thee." This is the earliest extant example of such an inclusion of the narrative and the anamnēsis in the body of the eucharistic prayer, but it is typical of the prayers of the fourth century and later. In the Apostolic Tradition the anamnēsis is followed by an invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the oblation of the church, praying that all who receive the holy gifts, being united, may be filled with the Holy Spirit for the strengthening of faith. Such an invocation of the Holy Spirit is referred to as an epiklēsis.

That pattern for the eucharistic prayer was expanded in most of the Eastern empire in the fourth century. In the first place, after the opening dialogue, a praise of God as creator, hymned by the heavenly hosts, was added before the christological thanksgiving. Such an opening praise of the creator, ending in the singing of the Sanctus (a liturgical hymn already in the Temple liturgy reflected in Isaiah 6:3 and continued in the synagogue liturgy after the destruction of the Temple), is characteristic of eucharistic prayers of Cappadocia, Syria, Palestine, and eventually Alexandria. A second development in these fourth-century prayers is the focusing of the epiklēsis on the oblations of bread and wine, invoking the Holy Spirit for their consecration as the body and blood of Christ. Also, the older content of that supplication, the gathering of the church into union with God, was expanded into a series of intercessions.

Influenced perhaps by a transitional phase in liturgical evolution at Alexandria, a different pattern for the eucharistic prayer emerged in the West. First visible in northern Italy in the late fourth century (in De sacramentis, a series of postbaptismal instructions commonly ascribed to Ambrose of Milan), this Western eucharistic prayer appears in virtually its final form in the Gelasian Sacramentary, an eighth-century document reflecting usages of sixth-century Rome. In this Western pattern the opening dialogue leads into a variable prayer of praise and thanksgiving, sometimes general in its content but more frequently phrased to reflect the varying emphases of particular feasts or seasons of the liturgical year. This variable praise leads into the Sanctus, and thereafter the prayer is relatively invariable and comes to be known as the Canon Actionis or Canon Missae, titles that reflect its regularity. This canon is supplicatory throughout, with intercessions and commendations of the eucharistic gifts preceding and following a prayer for their consecration, the institution narrative, and anamnēsis.

This Canon Missae became the standard eucharistic prayer for all the Western church from the ninth century. Unlike the Eastern prayers discussed above, this Western prayer contained no explicit invocation (epiklēsis) of the Holy Spirit for the consecration of the eucharistic gifts as Christ's body and blood. Theological reflection associated that conversion of bread and wine increasingly with the words of Jesus in the narrative of the institution: "This is my body" and "This is the chalice of my blood of the new and eternal covenant." While occasional theologians expressed the view that such identification of the gifts with the body and blood of Christ was to be understood symbolically or typologically, a more realistic interpretation prevailed, especially from the eleventh century, and this encouraged a perception of the Eucharist as a sacramental representation of Christ's redemptive sacrifice, complete and efficacious even if none but the celebrating priest received Communion. That the people were disinclined to frequent Communion is indicated by the requirement of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that all must communicate at least once annually.

In spite of the moderating expressions of sensitive theologians, such emphasis on the sacrificial character of the Mass (as the Eucharist was known in the West) and diminution of its character as communion meal grew stronger in the later medieval period and established the eucharistic agenda of the Reformation. While the reformers' understandings of Christ's presence in the Eucharist varied widely, there was broad agreement on two matters: the suppression of all reference to the Eucharist itself as a sacrifice and insistence on general reception of Holy Communion as constituting the divinely instituted memorial of Christ's death on Calvary, itself the sole and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. For the reformed liturgies the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist, already central in medieval tradition as the formula of consecration, achieved even greater prominence, its scriptural origin excepting it from the general reaction against liturgical elements that could be ascribed to human composition.

Protestant eucharistic liturgies in general sought to give expression to the cardinal principle that it is only faith in the sufficiency of Christ's redeeming work which justifies sinners. Protestants opposed all liturgical practice that could be interpreted as a human "good work." Even so, such major reformers as Martin Luther and John Calvin assumed that the Eucharist would continue to form the core of the Christian observance of Sunday as it had from the first century, but the popular disinclination to frequent Communion proved too strong in the end, and in Protestant worship the Eucharist became an occasional observance, being celebrated only monthly or even less frequently. This brought the reading and preaching of the word of God much more strongly to the fore and established the contrast between Roman Catholic and Protestant forms of worship still visible today, although the extent of that contrast has been reduced vastly in the twentieth century, especially as a result of the Second Vatican Council (19621965).

The Liturgy of the Word

As early as the second century the eucharistic meal was preceded by readings from the scriptures, preaching, and extended prayers of intercession. Justin Martyr, in chapter 67 of his first Apology, addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius around 155 ce, describes the assembly of Christian worshipers on Sunday and tells us that on such occasions there were readings from the "memoirs of the apostles" or the prophets for as long as time permitted. Then the "president of the brethren" preached about what had been read, exhorting the congregation to perform good deeds. After that, the congregation prayed in common for themselves and for all the church. At that point, the gifts of bread and wine for the Eucharist were placed on the table, and the eucharistic prayer was begun.

The basic outline of the Liturgy of the Word has remained largely the same to the present, although introductory entrance rites (chants and prayers) appropriate to rich new architectural settings of the liturgy were added from the fifth century on. By that time, too, other musical elements, such as the singing of psalms or verses with "Alleluia" between scripture readings, as well as within the Eucharist proper, had begun to appear in many areas. In spite of these enrichments and eventual variation in the number of scripture readings, the basic picture given by Justin is still clearly discernible.


While in most traditions today the sermon retains the place it had in the second century, at the conclusion of the scripture readings, preaching has never been limited to that liturgical context. Throughout Christian history the gift of prophetic proclamation has been exercised within, parallel to, and apart from the regular ritual patterns of Christian worship. While preaching has regularly been considered a responsibility of officiating clergy, it has not been limited to them. At times, patterns in the official cultus have come to leave little place for preaching, and in such circumstances preaching has flourished alongside that cultus and on occasion as a vehicle of opposition to it. Even where preaching continued within the traditional Latin liturgy in the later Middle Ages, it frequently formed the centerpiece of a larger bloc of catechetical and devotional material in the vernacular, known by the collective term prone. Its variable content established by the preacher, a prone might include such didactic materials as the Ten Commandments or the Apostles' Creed, practical pastoral elements such as the announcement of proximate fasts or festivals or the publication of the banns of marriage, and devotional elements such as intercessions (replacing the Latin prayers of the faithful, which had fallen into desuetude in the early medieval period). Such a prone, including the sermon, might be found before the eucharistic liturgy, at its midpoint following the scripture readings, or apart from the liturgy. This provided the format for the Preaching Service, which achieved great popularity in some quarters of the Protestant Reformation where proclamation of the word of God in preaching took on the character of an alternative to the liturgical tradition. Such a preaching tradition continues to form the mainstream of much Protestant worship today, set in a context of instructional and devotional elements of the free composition that characterized the medieval prone. Other strongly homiletical traditions have set the sermon in the context of the Liturgy of the Word, even when no eucharist followed, or in the context of the traditional Liturgy of the Hours.

Liturgy of the Hours

Scholars disagree in their reconstructions of the regimen of daily prayer among Christians of the first two centuries, but there is broad agreement that this regimen, however described, grew out of the Christian continuation of patterns of daily prayer in first-century Judaism and the daily service of the synagogue, which furnished the public framework of that prayer.

The Didache (chap. 8) orders the Lord's Prayer three times a day, but it is not clear what hours are intended. The third-century Apostolic Tradition speaks of seven times for prayer during the day, the frequently mentioned third, sixth, and ninth hours, plus evening, midnight, cockcrow, and morning. These hours, interpreted as commemorative of moments in Christ's passion or focused on expectation of his triumphant return, are set forth as occasions for private prayer, although it seems that the morning hour (and occasionally the evening) were also times of public assembly. In the fourth and following centuries, public offices of prayer in the morning and evening form the daily pattern of the church's liturgical prayer, although monastic influence led to a much more complex regimen. The fully developed monastic liturgy consisted of a major vigil at cockcrow, and other assemblies for prayer at around 6:00 am and at every third hour thereafter until the hour of retiring. The establishment of urban monasteries in connection with major basilicas brought a conflation of this monastic regimen with the simpler cathedral hours of prayer, and in the medieval period all clergy were obligated to recite a liturgy of the hours deeply shaped by the presuppositions of the monastic tradition.

Sixteenth-century reforms of the hours of prayer, such as that by Thomas Cranmer in the English Book of Common Prayer, returned to the simpler regimen of two hours in the day, morning and evening, but Cranmer's work still betrayed such monastic characteristics as the systematic reading in course of all the psalms (albeit within the space of a month, rather than a week as had been the custom). Twentieth-century reform of the Liturgy of the Hours in the Western churches has continued this emphasis on the morning and evening offices as times of public liturgical prayer, while providing for certain of the intervening hours for private use.

Liturgical Articulation of Time

The Liturgy of the Hours reveals the Christian perception of times as themselves symbolic of the paschal mystery and as the framework within which the church watches for the coming of Christ. However, derived as this daily regimen was from the traditions of Judaism, the hours of the day were not the only time cycle to receive Christian expression. This was equally true of two other important cycles in the Old Testament, the week and the year.

Liturgical week

None of the numerous scholarly efforts to get behind the Jewish seven-day week and to discover its origin apart from the history of Israel has achieved definitive success. That seven-day cycle seems to have been present with the earliest settlement of Israel in Canaan, and the question of the ultimate origin of the week must remain unsettled. What can be said more surely is that the cycle was defined by the treatment of every seventh day as a day of rest for servants and draft animals and, by extension, for the whole people. This Sabbath (meaning "to stop" or "that which stops") recurs every seventh day without regard to other time cycles, such as the month or the year, making the week an independent cycle. Not originally a day distinguished by obligations of worship, the Sabbath came to afford peculiar opportunity for public worship because of the rest from ordinary employment which it demanded.

While early Christians participated in the worship of the synagogue as opportunity afforded, it is likely that the Sabbath, with its extended synagogue liturgy, was an especially important occasion for Christian witness. Some have suggested that the Christian observance of the first day of the week, Sunday, found its beginnings in the gatherings of Christians for their characteristic table fellowship following the conclusion of the liturgy at the closing of the Sabbath at sundown. Others have insisted that it was in the evening from the first day to the second (Sunday to Monday) that Christians began to assemble, on the model of the appearances of the risen Christ reported in John 20. What seems sure in either case is that the first Christians continued to observe the week as defined by the Sabbath and that, once growth of the movement required gatherings at a longer interval than daily, assemblies of a specifically Christian character were on the first day of the week, the day of Christ's resurrection.

Several writers have suggested that, because that weekly assembly was the time of the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper (kuriakon deipnon; 1 Cor. 11:20), the first day of the week came to be known as "the Lord's Day" (kuriakē hēmera). Whether that is the reference of that phrase in Revelation 1:10 or not, it is clear that the term was used for the first day of the week as early as the Didache (chap. 14). Sources from the second century speak of that first day of the week, the first day of creation, as the Eighth Day, the day beyond the creation itself and the day of the new creation accomplished by Christ's paschal sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7). Such thought reflects the strong sense of Christ's spiritual presence in the community constituted by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), a "realized eschatology" that throughout Christian history expresses the sense of the presence in worship of both Christ's redeeming action in the past and a prolepsis of his future appearing in judgment at the end of history. The meeting of that memory of the past and that hope for the future in the Eucharist on each Lord's Day has been a constant dimension of classical Christian liturgical experience.

Beyond that festal Sunday, the weekly celebration of the paschal mystery, Christians very early began to observe every Wednesday and Friday as fast days (Didache 8). Friday was the day of Jesus' crucifixion, and most early interpreters of this custom treat Wednesday as the day of his betrayal by Judas Iscariot. However, one third-century source, Didascalia apostolorum, places Jesus' arrest in the early hours of Wednesday, a chronology that would put his last supper with his disciples on Tuesday night rather than on Thursday, as is the more common tradition. This alternative chronology, Annie Jaubert has suggested, may reflect the impact on early Christianity of the Essene community at Qumran. The unique calendar of that group always situated the Passover in the night from Tuesday to Wednesday and was so arranged that all important liturgical days occurring on fixed dates of the month would fall on Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday. (It remains unclear how such a calendar of exactly 52 weeks, only 364 days, would adjust for its significant error.) Tertullian speaks of these Wednesday and Friday fasts as "stations," a term encountered earlier in the Shepherd of Hermas, and it is clear that in the third century they were days of liturgical assembly, even for the Eucharist, in addition to the assembly on Sunday. While always secondary to Sunday, the primitive prominence of Wednesday and Friday continued in the later history of the Christian week and is still manifest in various ways in the several traditions.

According to Tertullian (On Fasting 14.3) it appears that some Western Christians (probably Romans) were deviating from the common practice of the church by ordering certain Sabbaths (i.e., Saturdays) in the year to be observed with fasting, a custom that Innocent I (Epistle 25, ce 416) reports for every week at Rome. Tertullian had complained that fasting on the Sabbath was forbidden except for the Sabbath before Easter. In this he seems to reflect correctly a tradition still followed in all the Eastern church, a tradition probably rooted in the Jewish prohibition against fasting on the Sabbath. This suggests a much stronger continuation of Sabbath observance among Christians than some writers (e.g., Willy Rordorf) have supposed. Such continuation of observance, if there was any, would concern the Sabbath rest rather than a day for liturgical worship. The association of rest from secular employment with Sunday rather than the Sabbath stems from the time of Constantine, but the direct identification of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath and its rigorous observance according to Old Testament norms appears first in English and Scottish Protestantism, especially in the seventeenth century. Apart from that, the term Sabbath has continued to be understood to refer to the seventh day of the week and was employed to designate that day in all medieval liturgical books.

Liturgical year

While it seems likely from such texts as Acts 20:7 that the beginnings, at least, of the Christian week go back to the apostolic period, other passages such as Colossians 2:16 suggest that liturgical time patterns of Judaism were considered, at least in the gentile mission, to be matters of little importance, given the expectation of the proximate Parousia. Still other texts, however, make it clear that even Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, was far from insensitive to the festivals of Israel and did not hesitate to relate them to the paschal mystery.

The Christian Pascha

Many scholars have, with modifications, held to the notion that the celebration of the annual paschal festival of Easter was established on the Sunday after Passover at Rome in the apostolic period. This assertion can be documented only from the fifth century, and many other scholars consider it to be contravened by documents of the second century that seem to assert that there was no annual observance of Pascha (Easter) at Rome prior to Soter, bishop there from 165. According to Karl Holl, the Passover, continued by Christians at Jerusalem in the night from 14 to 15 Nisan, was accommodated to the structure of the week, by moving the feast to Sunday, only after the establishment of a gentile hierarchy in Jerusalem following the Bar Kokhba Revolt (c. 132135). Prior to that, the Christian Pascha would have been observed annually on the same date as the Jewish Passover, being in fact a continuation of the Jewish festival, reinterpreted in light of the tradition that identifies the crucifixion of Jesus as coinciding with the slaughter of the lambs for the festival of Passover at the Temple. By the time of such an adjustment of the Christian Pascha to the structure of the week, Christians of Jewish background had been driven out of Aelia Capitolina, the new Roman city built on the ruins of Jerusalem, to settle elsewhere, some in Mesopotamia, others in Asia Minor. It is in that latter area, especially, that we discover our earliest documents of a Christian celebration of Pascha, kept on the Jewish date in the night following 14 Nisan, the anniversary of the Crucifixion. Late in the second century, controversy developed over whether the Christian Pascha should be observed on that date or whether its preliminary fast should be terminated only on Sunday, the weekday of the Resurrection. This controversy was finally concluded by a decision in favor of a Sunday Pascha by the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325. By that time, however, the Pascha was almost universally observed on Sunday, and the original one day of fasting (now the Sabbath) had been extended to six days, the Holy Week that is still the most solemn time of the year for Christians.

Even when transferred to Sunday, the paschal solemnity continued to be spoken of as a memorial of the passion of Jesus. Much more than that was included in the content of the festival, however, and it can best be described as a total festival of Christ celebrating the incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, and glorification of the Savior. That unitive content was refracted, especially during the fourth century, and distinct events came to be associated with particular days: the death of Jesus with Friday of Holy Week, his resurrection with Easter Sunday, his ascension into heaven with the fortieth day after Easter, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church with the fiftieth day, corresponding to the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuʽot), or Pentecost. From the end of the second century, at least, that entire fifty-day period from Pascha to Pentecost had been kept as the extended paschal rejoicing, and recent reforms of the liturgical year have sought to restore the integrity of that festal period.

Christmas and Epiphany

Since the eighteenth century it has been commonly observed that the celebration of the nativity of Christ on December 25, first discernible at Rome around 336, represents a Christian adaptation of the winter solstice festival established by the emperor Aurelian in 274 ce. Some more recent studies have revived interest in the hypothesis of Louis Duchesne, who suggested that the date was arrived at by counting forward nine months from March 25, a date taken in the West in the third century to be that of Jesus' death. Duchesne held that the impatience of symbolic number systems for fractions made this to be as well the date of Christ's conception. However arrived at, that date would have coincided with the solar festival at Rome, and later data make it clear that the themes of the two festivals merged in the celebration of Christmas.

Coincidence with pagan festivals has also been argued for the early Eastern date for the nativity of Jesus, January 6, the Epiphany (Gk., epiphaneia, "manifestation"), although the argument is much less firm in this case. Here again, Duchesne's computation from a fixed date for Christ's death (April 6 in Asia Minor, according to the fifth-century church historian Sozomen), taken to be as well the date of the Incarnation, would yield the nativity nine months later, on January 6. That date seems to have been treated as the beginning of the year and, with that, the beginning of the reading of the gospel. Preference for a particular gospel in a particular church would lead to the association of different themes with the festival of Epiphany: at Jerusalem the reading of Matthew led to an emphasis on the nativity; at Alexandria a preference for Mark emphasized the baptism of Jesus; at Ephesus the predominance of John stressed the Cana wedding feast. While such an explanation is only hypothetical, those three themes are associated with Epiphany in the later fourth century. By that time the December 25 festival of the nativity had been accepted in the East (with the exception of Jerusalem and Armenia), and the January 6 festival of Epiphany had been adopted in the West. At Milan, Epiphany celebrated the baptism of Jesus, but at Rome it formed a duplication of the nativity observance, limited to the commemoration of the visit of the Magi. That visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the miracle at Cana formed the tria miracula that were celebrated at Epiphany in Gaul. There a preparatory period, eventually six weeks, preceded the nativity festival, and this was adopted in the seventh century at Rome, though shortened first to five weeks and later to the present four. As Epiphany and Christmas had been considered the beginning of the liturgical year, so this season of preparation came to be considered the beginning of the year, and it is with the first Sunday of Advent that Western liturgical books begin.


The emergence of Pascha as the preferred time for the rites of initiation, in accordance with the death/resurrection theology of baptism taught by Paul, led to the development of a period for final catechesis and ascetical formation prior to paschal baptisms. While such a period is indicated as early as the third-century Apostolic Tradition, its length is indefinite prior to Nicaea. Thereafter it is spoken of as the fast of forty days and spans a period of six weeks either prior to Easter (as in Rome and fourth-century Alexandria) or prior to Holy Week (as in Syria, Constantinople, and eventually all the Eastern churches). The forty-day duration of the fast has traditionally been associated with Jesus' fast immediately following his baptism by John, and recent studies have supported Coptic sources that place the original fast of forty days immediately following Epiphany (celebrating Jesus' baptism) at Alexandria. After Nicaea the prepaschal situation of the fast is universal, although its separation from the six-day paschal fast in the Eastern rites may still reflect the wider separation of them in early Alexandria. There, Coptic tradition maintains, the fast of forty days concluded with the administration of baptism in the sixth week and the Feast of Palms on the following Sunday, an arrangement similar to the later Byzantine conferral of baptism on the Saturday of Lazarus, the day before Palm Sunday. After Nicaea that Palm Sunday is the day before the paschal fast and, in the late fourth century, is considered to be the first day of Holy Week at Jerusalem.

Although preparation for baptism constituted the original agenda of the Lenten period, by the end of the fourth century in the West it was also a period for the ritual humiliation of penitents, those who for grave sin had been severed from the communion of the church. Such penitents were publicly reconciled in Holy Week so as to be able to celebrate Easter as restored Christians, and their penitential exercises during Lent gave that color to Lenten piety. In Byzantine tradition, which has known no such formal reconciliation of penitents in Holy Week, the Western penitential concern was long absent from Lent, although similar penitential piety did enter that tradition through monasticism from the eighth century on.

Christian liturgical traditions that observe the Lenten fast experience Lent as a time of ascetical development, of "dying to self," so as to participate fully in the renewal of life in the celebration of Christ's resurrection. This participation in Christ's dying and rising, focused in the annual observance of Lent, Holy Week, and the fifty days of Easter rejoicing, is that same paschal mystery experienced by each Christian in baptism, in every celebration of the Eucharist, and indeed in every dimension of the complex of worship and sacramental life for which the paschal mystery of Christ's redemptive death and resurrection is the root paradigm.

See Also

Anamnesis; Baptism; Christian Liturgical Year; Christmas; Church, article on Church Membership; Cult of Saints; Easter; Epiphany; Eucharist; Initiation; Jesus; John the Baptist; Liturgy; Lord's Prayer; Monasticism, article on Christian Monasticism; Pilgrimage, articles on Eastern Christian Pilgrimage, Roman Catholic Pilgrimage in Europe, Roman Catholic Pilgrimage in the New World; Sacrament, article on Christian Sacraments.


The principal liturgical texts relevant to Christian initiation are presented in English in Edward C. Whitaker's Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, 2d ed. (London, 1960), and John D. C. Fisher's Christian Initiation: The Reformation Period (London, 1970). Texts relevant to the Eucharist can be read in English in Prayers of the Eucharist, Early and Reformed, 2d ed., edited by Ronald C. D. Jasper and Geoffrey J. Cuming (New York, 1980), and Liturgies of the Western Church, edited by Bard Thompson (New York, 1961). The best survey of the whole range of the history of Christian worship is The Study of Liturgy, edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold (London, 1978). The limitations of the magnificent overview by Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (Glasgow, 1945), have been addressed in a new edition (New York, 1982) with appended notes by Paul Marshall taking account of some more recent developments. Josef A. Jungmann's The Early Liturgy: To the Time of Gregory the Great (1959; reprint, London, 1966) is an excellent survey, less detailed than his magisterial two-volume Missarum Sollemnia: Eine genetische Erklärung der römischen Messe, rev. ed. (1949; reprint, Freiburg, 1958), translated as The Mass of the Roman Rite, 2 vols., rev. ed. (New York, 1959).

For more particular studies of rites of initiation, G. R. Beasley-Murray's Baptism in the New Testament (New York, 1962) is the standard treatment of that period. For the patristic period, see Hugh M. Riley's Christian Initiation (Washington, D.C., 1974), and for the medieval, John D. C. Fisher's Christian Initiation: Baptism in the Medieval West (London, 1965). Aidan Kavanagh's The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (New York, 1978) examines reforms since the Second Vatican Council against the background of the earlier tradition. Much recent concern with the Eucharist has focused on the eucharistic prayer, and several contributions to this discussion, which have appeared in the liturgical journal Worship, have been collected in Living Bread, Saving Cup: Readings on the Eucharist, edited by R. Kevin Seasoltz (Collegeville, Minn., 1982). For a systematic treatment of the evolution of that central prayer of the Eucharist, see Allan Bouley's From Freedom to Formula (Washington, D.C., 1981).

New Sources

Bond, Gilbert I. Community, Communitas, and Cosmos: Toward a Phenomenological Interpretation and Theology of Traditional Afro-Christian Worship. Lanham, Md., 2002.

Bradshaw, Paul K. The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship. London, 2002.

Davies, Horton. Worship and Theology in England. 3 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1996.

Hurtado, Larry W. At the Origins of Christian Worship. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2000.

Lang, Bernard. Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship. New Haven, Conn., 1997.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. The Reading and Preaching of Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1997.

Swanson, R. N., ed. On Continuity and Change in Christian Worship: Papers Read at the 1997 Summer Meeting and the 1998 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society. Woodbridge, U.K., 1998.

Thompson, Bard, ed. A Bibliography of Christian Worship. Metuchen, N.J., 1989.

Webber, Robert, ed. The Complete Library of Christian Worship. 7 vols. Peabody, Mass., 1993.

Thomas J. Talley (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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