The Worship Service: Basics
- Origins of the Mass: Justin Martyr
- A second-century weekly liturgy with two
parts (1 Cor. 16:20-24? Acts 2:42?)
- Service of the Word: Bible readings, sermon,
- Service of the Table: Kiss of peace, presentation
of elements, eucharistic prayer, "amen," reception,
- The Classical Mass: The Medieval Roman
- Ps. 43, confession and ablution, Introit,
Kyries, Gloria, Collect
- Service of the Word:
- Readings (and Psalms), Sermon, Creed, Dismissal
- Service of the Table:
- Offertory (of the elements), Secret Prayer,
Greating/Prayers of the Faithful, Great Prayer, Eucharistic Banquet,
Dismissal, John 1:1-18
- Interpretation: Mass as Dramatization
of the Gospel
- Postscript: The Mass after the Council
Bibliography and further reading
Robert Webber, Worship Old and New, Zondervan, 1982.
Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Paul Bradshaw, eds., The
Study of Liturgy, rev. ed., Oxford, 1992.
Gordon S. Wakefield, An Outline of Christian Worship,
T&T Clark, 1998.
Patricia Wilson-Kastner, Sacred Drama: A Spirituality of Christian
Liturgy, Fortress, 1999.
Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship,
Doctrine, and Life, Oxford, 1980.
James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God
of Grace, InterVarsity, 1996.
Bard Thompson, Liturgies of the Western Church, Fortress,
Duncan B. Forrester, et al., Encounter With God: An Introduction
to Christian Worship and Practice, T&T Clark, 1996.
Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism
and the Triumph of Bad Taste, Crossroad, 1990.
Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Crossroad,
Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, Notre Dame,
Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, St. Vladimir's Seminary
Christian worship is daily ("offices"); weekly ("Mass");
annual ("liturgical year"). Think of three rhythms
that reinforce each other. We will concentrate on the Mass, which
is the central act of corporate Christian worship, and explore
the other two later in the course.
Origins of the Mass
(The following draws on Robert Webber, Worship Old and
New, 49ff.) At the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr
describes a weekly liturgy with two parts.
Service of the Word (Tertullian), or "Mass of
the Catechumens" (from the 11th century):
- Readings from the Gospels or Prophets
- Sermon by the presider
- Prayers by all the people (standing)
Service of the Table, or "Offering of the Sacrifice"
(Tertullian), or "Mass of the Faithful":
- Kiss of Peace
- Presentation of bread and wine/water to the presider
- Eucharistic Prayer (spontaneous (?) prayers of praise and
thanksgiving, by presider)
- Response: People say "Amen"
- Reception (distribution of the elements, even to those not
- Collection (alms collected and distributed to the needy)
Is this structure already hinted at in Acts 2:42? in 1 Cor.
This develops into a more elaborate order of worship which
becomes the norm in the West. Some of our readings assume familiarity
with these terms.
Medieval Roman Rite
(The following draws on Peter Cobb, "The Liturgy of the
Word in the Early Church," in Jones et al., 219ff.) The
two parts of the liturgy could be held independently, even in
different locations. The liturgy of the Word is derived from
synagogue reading and prayer, the second from the Lord's Supper.
Eventually the two-part structure gives way to a three-part structure.
The most influential worship style was that of the Church
in Rome. Some of this material may even go back to Gregory the
Great (pope from 590, the last Latin "doctor of the Church"
and the father of the medieval Papacy, for whom "Gregorian
Chant" is named).
Singing was at first something people did waiting for the
whole congregation to arrive. What many evangelical churches
think as central in "worship" is originally marginal!
This time of preparation became a formal part of the liturgy
from the fifth century. All was a time of preparation setting
the stage for the Eucharist.
The First Roman Order provides an important picture of what
worship at Rome looked like around 700. Here the introductory
material has taken formal shape as distinct items: Psalm 43,
confession and ablution, Introit, Kyries, Gloria
in Excelsis, and Collect (Gordon S. Wakefield, An
Outline of Christian Worship, 58).
- Introit: Covers the entrance of the ministers (processional).
This may date from the early 400's. It is sung antiphonally (two
- Kyries: The vestiges of a litany, Eastern in origin,
dating perhaps from the 490's. These harden into three Kyries,
three Christes, three Kyries.
- Gloria: Introduced into the Western liturgy probably
by Hilary in the mid-300's. It may have had its beginnings in
morning prayers immediately before Mass, and 'snuck in' to the
Mass proper after a pope used it at the Eucharist at Christmas
Midnight Mass around 500.
- Collect: Apparently Leo I (440-461) introduced this
element. The collect does not gather the people, but "collects"
or sums up their intercessions and prayers. We might call it
a summary. This segue sums up the introductory material
and introduces the Liturgy of the Word.
- A collect's form is:
- Invocation (address to God);
Reference to an attribute or saving act of God (sometimes omitted);
Reason for the petition (sometimes omitted);
Conclusion and doxology.
- Do you see the similarity to the Lord's Prayer, and other
Jewish forms (1 Macc. 4:30-33, 2 Macc. 1:23-24, Acts 1:24-25)?
While the introduction may have arisen "by accident,"
soon it is a deliberate, complex, multivalent, integrated part
of the full worship service.
Service of the Word
This aspect of Christian liturgy has its origins in synagogue
practice (e.g., Luke 4, where Jesus reads from Isa. 61,
then interprets it). For Justin, the reading goes on "for
as long as time permits." In fourth-century Antioch, there
were two lessons from Law and Prophets (like the synagogue),
then one from the epistles (which included Acts), and one from
the Gospel. More common was an order of one Old Testament and
two New Testament readings. These would normally tie the readings
together to emphasize that the New Testament records the fulfillment
of what the Old Testament promises.
- Readings. What to read? Scripture, of course. In fact,
one of the best definitions of Holy Scripture is simply "the
books that are read in Church." One tradition is called
lectio continua, where books were read continuously (as
in many Bible churches, which do nine weeks on Galatians, then
eight weeks on Ephesians, etc.). Bishops typically had power
to decide what to read in Church. But the emerging seasons and
fasts/feasts of the Christian year gradually determined what
Scriptures were proper to read, at least on those occasions.
These two traditions competed with each other (and continue to
compete, even in Bible churches that have abandoned much of the
old structure). By the eleventh century, lectionaries covered
the whole year.
- Psalms. Early Christians would write and hymns modeled
after Psalms. These are called psalmi idiotici ("idiosyncratic
Psalms"). One surviving such early hymn is actually the
gloria in exclesis deo, above. (Charismatic worship songs
do this all the time today.) This practice declined, replaced
by the real thing: Responsive (rather than antiphonal) reading/singing
of the Psalter. A psalm reading, then, became the cantor's and
people's faithful response to hearing the Word. This was done
in between the first two Scripture readings, in effect becoming
a further Scripture reading by itself. So the Roman rite reads
from an Epistle, gradual psalm or sequence, and the Gospel, but
features no Old Testament reading.
(The Revised Common Lectionary, a recent ecumenical reform of
the lectionary in use by most liturgical Protestant traditions,
uses one reading from Law/Prophets, one from the Psalms, one
from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels (in that order),
with selections determined by the Christian year, on the one
hand, and a lectio continua of sorts during seasons in
- Sermon. The Scripture readings set the stage for the
sermon, which is an explication of the Scriptures.
- Creed. The (Apostles' or Nicene) Creed offers an opportunity
for the people to give a personal and collective confession of
their faith. It was set here after the Gospel reading by Charlesmagne
(and in the Middle Ages, who was going to argue against Charlesmagne?).
In the east, the creed was and is said; the West gradually moved
to singing it. By the tenth century, the clerical choir alone
was singing it leaving the people silent.
- Dismissal. Here comes an interesting moment in early
worship. The "mysteries" of the Eucharist weren't for
observers, only for partakers. So catechumens and visitors were
dismissed, at first in silence, later (fourth century) with a
congregational prayer for them and a blessing from the worship
leader. (Note: This comes after the creed; so confession
of faith wasn't enough to make one a full participant in the
community. Baptism was required.) Later, with the rise
of "Christendom," in which all citizens of a realm
were baptized, there was no need for this, and the Roman rite
dropped it. (The Byzantine [Eastern] rite has kept it.)
This is where most of our Protestant services end, because
most of our churches only rarely celebrate Communion. But that
is an innovation (for reasons we will be exploring later). Before
the Reformation, the service always went on to its climax
Service of the Table
The prayers of the faithful. (The following draws on
D.M. Hope, rev. G. Woolfenden, "The Medieval Western Rites,"
in Jones et al., 265ff.) The first act of the newly baptized,
who can finally take full part in the life of the Church, is
to join their brothers and sisters in the prayers of the faithful.
Here we have the Church as such praying together.
At first this was a time of silent prayer, and/or a series
of short petitions, followed by the people's "Lord have
mercy" (kyrie eleison), and a concluding collect. This became
a fixed form, or a "litany," pretty early on. Here
the Eastern Church stuck to standard litanies, Spain and Gaul
were more free, and Roman was moderate.
The Latin "Great [Eucharistic] Prayer" is opened
by the words "Te igitur" ("we beg you").
The entire litany is addressed to God the Father through Jesus
Christ the Son, in the name of the Christian community. Here
are common patterns:
- Thanksgiving: For creation, redemption, and sanctification.
- Sanctus ("holy"): Said or sung by the whole
- Epiclesis ("coming on"): An invocation that
the community's sacrifice be accepted and made holy through the
coming of the Holy Spirit (this has been made much more explicit
since Vatican II).
- Anamnesis ("remembrance"): The remembering
of the narrative of the Last Supper, also called the Words of
Institution. Added to this is the news of Jesus' passion, death,
resurrection, ascension, and (sometimes) return pointing
the Eucharist both back and forward. You will notice many traditional
hymns, Catholic and Protestant, have the same past-present-future
structure. Sadly, many contemporary worship songs seem unaware
of it, and are dropping it.
- Commemoration of Living and Dead: Emphasizing the
communion of saints, living and dead, in Christ.
- Doxology: Praise to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Amen: Proclaimed by all the people.
This is the most solemn, thus the most fixed, moment of Christian
worship. Other parts of the liturgy were much more variable.
In effect, the variable material contextualizes the stable center
of worship locating the eternal, so to speak, in our temporal
After this prayer (in the post-Vatican II Mass), the people
open the Eucharistic banquet:
- Lord's Prayer.
- Prayer for deliverance.
- Breaking and elevation of the host.
- Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God, who take away the sins
of the world, have mercy on us").
- Priest's prayers.
- Priest's communion.
- Communion (host) of the faithful.
- Ablutions (wine).
- Communion Antiphon.
- Prayer after communion.
- Final blessing.
Already in the early Middle Ages, liturgists are seeing in
this structure a detailed resemblance to the gospel. "This
sacred drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was
perceptible to the eye," says Webber. Each part of the liturgy
and the vestments, the utensils, and the motions of the clergy
were invested with meaning from the life of Christ. A typical
example of this approach is found in the writings of Amalar in
the ninth century:
The introit alludes to the choir of the Prophets
(who announced the advent of Christ just as the singers announce
the advent of the bishop) ... the Kyrie eleison alludes
to the Prophets at the time of Christ's coming, Zachary and his
son John among them; the Gloria in excelsis Deo points
to the throng of angels who proclaimed to the shepherds the joyous
tidings of our Lord's birth (and indeed in this manner, that
first one spoke and the others joined in, just as in the Mass
the bishop intones and the whole church joins in); the (first
collect) refers to what our Lord did in His twelfth year ...;
the Epistle alludes to the preaching of John, the responsorium
to the readiness of the Apostles when our Lord called them and
they followed him; the Alleluia to their joy of heart when they
heard His promises or saw the miracles He wrought ...; the Gospel
to His preaching.... The rest of what happens in the Mass refers
to the time from Sunday on, when the disciples drew close to
Him (along with the multitude making their gift-offerings),
up to His Ascension or to Pentecost. The prayer which the priest
says from the secreta to the Nobis quoque peccatoribus
signifies the prayer of Jesus on Mount Olivet. What occurs later
signifies the time during which Christ lay in the grave. When
the bread is immersed in the wine, this means the return of Christ's
soul to His body. The next action signifies the greetings offered
by Christ to His Apostles. And the breaking of the offerings
signifies the breaking of bread performed by the Lord before
the two at Emmaus (Webber, 68-69).
Postscript: The Mass after Trent
In the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent
fixed the entire Mass with an unprecedented universality and
rigidity. (This was a reaction to the forces that had fed the
Protestant Reformation.) Local variations were basically stamped
out (only traditions that could be proven older than 200 years
were grandfathered). Their liturgies were "returned"
to the old Roman form.
Of course, before the era of scientific criticism, it was
impossible for the Tridentine reformers to tell which practices
were truly Patristic (dating from Gregory the Great or earlier)
and which had come later. So Trent retrojected a lot of later,
foreign customs into the Patristic Age and imposed them on the
whole Western Church.
One of these was clericalism a passivity on the part
of the people, and a clerical role that basically took over their
roles that had fallen into place after the ninth century.
Trent deeply hardened the lay/clergy distinction, imagining it
to be Patristic. "The liturgy had been regarded in early
days as 'something we all do together' because that was the way
it had come into being, and that was the way it was done. Gradually
during the ninth and subsequent centuries it came to be regarded
as 'something done by clerics and watched by the people' because
that was the way it had come to be done" (Hope, in Jones,
287). The earlier "High Mass," which was far more participatory
(and which has remained participatory in the Orthodox East) had
devolved into a one-man show, the "Low Mass." Trent
took the "Low Mass" as normative. Whoops!
What do a church full of people do while one priest does the
work they have delegated? Support him with their prayers, and
reflect upon the event. So devotional practices such as rosaries
(borrowed from Muslims) and communal prayers and hymns filled
the space created by their passivity. The Mass thus took on the
look and feel of a church drama in which the people ("laity")
are the audience, to whom the mystery of God is presented for
their salvation and strengthening.
If you see a resemblance here between classical Catholic spirituality
and the "seeker-church" movement centering on Willow
Creek Community Church, you are not alone. The parallels are
striking. Both are basically evangelistic rallies in which God
works through actors while the people remain passive. What goes
around comes around.
The liturgical movement of the early twentieth century came
to fruition in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Liturgy at Vatican
II. It represents a return to the Patristic form of the liturgy.
Its shockwaves are still reverberating through Catholicism and