The Worship Service: Basics
Telford Work

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, prayers
Service of the Table: Kiss of peace, presentation of elements, eucharistic prayer, "amen," reception, collection
The Classical Mass: The Medieval Roman Rite
Introductory material:
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 of Trent

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, 1980.
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, 1998.
Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, Notre Dame, 1956.
Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1988.


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 present)
  • Collection (alms collected and distributed to the needy)

Is this structure already hinted at in Acts 2:42? in 1 Cor. 16:20-24?

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).

Introductory Material

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 alternating choirs).
  • 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 Ordinary.)
  • 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 and conclusion.

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 community.
  • 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 world.

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.
  • Dismissal.
  • 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 beyond.