On Giants' Shoulders

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

An Early Witness

Sometimes when I talk with Protestant friends about the Catholic Church they have objections to things that they feel are not part of the earliest teachings of the Church. They have been taught, as I was, that some doctrines were added in the Middle Ages or at least after the Church became the official religion of the empire. One of the things which convinced me of the truth of the Catholic faith was reading some of the earliest witnesses to the faith. These were men taught by the apostles or by people who themselves had been taught directly by the apostles. This week on Sunday the second reading in the daily office came from one such early witness. Justin Martyr was born around the year 100 and wrote this probably around 150. He was scourged and beheaded for the faith in 165 under the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Listen to his description of early worship and teaching.

"No one may share the eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.

We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

The apostles in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: 'Do this in memory of me. This is my body.' In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said:'This is my blood.' The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through the Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or in the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue which we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.

On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give their assent by saying, 'Amen.' The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.

The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, or in prison, or away from home. In a word, the takes care of all who are in need.

We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration." Justin Martyr, First Apology in defense of the Christians 66-67.

So here we have early proof in the Church's teaching on baptism, on the real presence in the Eucharist and on the Church's practice of Sunday worship. These are not medieval changes, they are not changes that happened after the conversion of Constantine. They are the teachings of the Church of the early second century. The skeletal outline of worship which is described here is nearly identical to the outline of worship that you will find in a Catholic Church to this day. There are details missing, some of which are found in other early accounts, but the outline is the same.

Cardinal Newman, writing in the 19th century, said, "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant." So much of what I was taught as a Protestant child, as a Protestant teenager, and even as a Protestant adult bore no relationship to the actual teachings of the early Church. As I have taught English literature in the past few years and have delved into English history I've begun to understand why this was. The Protestant reformation in England was accompanied by a violent suppression of the Catholic faith and a propaganda campaign against Roman Catholicism. As a result even in the twentieth century English Christians who held nearly all the teachings of the Catholic Church, such as C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers, still had an aversion to Rome and the papacy. This English attitude was even more pronounced in the earliest settlers to New England, who found even the Church of England, too papist for their sensibilities. My family, my husband's family, and most of the families of my friends are descended from those early New Englanders. It is no wonder that the Catholic Church was not even on the radar screen for us when we were growing up. It's no wonder that my grandparents, perpetual searchers after the faith of the early Christians, never found it. What is amazing to me is that I, by the grace of God, did.

My challenge to my Protestant friends continues to be, "Read the early fathers. Find out what the early Church really taught. Then compare it to what you've been taught about the early Church. Don't be afraid to examine what you've been taught. Be a truth seeker. There are treasures to be discovered."


At 7:20 AM, Blogger Kitchen Madonna said...

I like to call on the intercession of the early Church Fathers too. Like St. Ignatius of Antioch who wrote so persuasivley about the Eucharist as he was being dragged in chains from one end of the Medittereanean sea to the other to go to his maryerdom in Rome.


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