March 2019   
Liturgy Notes - Where Does Our Liturgy Come From? - Fr. Richard Johnson


The Episcopal Church is one of the “liturgical” churches, which simply means that we, along with Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran Christians, follow a standard form in our worship. Where does this liturgy come from? A simple question, but a complicated answer! The history of how Christian worship developed over the centuries has been the subject of countless books and articles. But let me try to summarize very briefly what we know about the earliest roots of the liturgy.

The first Christians were Jews. They had a kind of liturgy that had been formalized over many centuries. We see traces of it in the New Testament; Luke reports that Jesus “went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom, and stood up to read [from Isaiah.]” (Luke 4.16-17) We know that this was the typical pattern of synagogue worship in Jesus’ time. The rabbi would read from the Scriptures, and then expound on what had been read. We also know that synagogue worship usually included hymns or psalms, as well as prayers.

This kind of worship, then, was the heritage of the earliest Christians. It was what they knew, what had been handed down to them by generations of faithful Jews. When they became followers of Christ, it was natural for them to follow the same pattern. The Lord himself, after all, had worshiped that way!

But there was something new in Christian worship. Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, had taken bread and wine, and given it to his disciples with the commandment to “do this in remembrance of me.” So those earliest Christians faithfully did as he had commanded. Just how this part of their worship developed is shrouded in mystery, for we don’t have many contemporary witnesses to how the young church worshiped. What seems clear, however, is that by the end of the first century, Christians commonly worshiped by taking an adaptation of the synagogue service—prayers, hymns, psalms, lessons, sermon—and then adding the “Eucharist” or Thanksgiving (their early name for what we sometimes call Holy Communion).

Justin Martyr, writing about 150 A.D., described the Christian worship of his day: On the day named for the sun, all who live in city or countryside assemble. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows. When the lector has finished, the president addresses us and exhorts us to imitate the splendid things we have heard. Then we all stand and pray. . . . When we have finished praying, bread, wine, and water are brought up. The president then prays and gives thanks according to his ability, and the people give their assent with an “Amen!” Next, the gifts over which the thanksgiving has been spoken are distributed, and everyone shares in them.

There, in essence, is the pattern that we still follow today, twenty centuries later! Scripture, sermon, prayers, Eucharist—it’s all there. A comprehensive historical view of how things developed from then to now, of course, would have to look at each individual part of the liturgy and see how it developed. We would have to consider what happened at the time of the Reformation to change the way Christians worship. Perhaps we can consider those things another time; for now, we can summarize by saying that the earliest Christians combined the worship they knew in the synagogue with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist; we Christians have followed that pattern for some 2,000 years.

~Fr. Richard Johnson~