St. Justin Martyr (100 A.D. -165 A.D.) was a native of Rome but well-travelled and conversant with both the Greek and the Jewish thinkers of his day. As an early Christian defender of the faith, he is regarded as the second century’s foremost interpreter of Christ as the Word of God, that creative force operative in the universe, as found in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel account. He was martyred, alongside some of his students, and is considered a saint by the Church. He is often pictured with a large axe sunk into his head.
Jesus Christ had not been dead one hundred years when St. Justin composed an outline of the celebration of Mass as observed and experienced in his day. The similarity to every Mass as celebrated today throughout the Church is compelling. St. Justin wrote: “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has ceased, the presider orally instructs and exhorts all to imitate these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the presider in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying “Amen” and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the presider, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”
This primitive Mass has all the elements of today’s most solemn liturgies. The faithful assembled on Sunday. The Scriptures were read and a homily preached. General intercessions were offered. A collection was taken up. Bread and wine were brought forward, consecrated, and distributed to the faithful and to the home bound. The essential liturgical framework was clearly present then and is still present now.
And not only were the rites of the Mass similar to present day ceremonials, the heart of the Mass, the Eucharist, was held in highest esteem: “This food is called among us EUKARISTIA, the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.” After nineteen hundred years a more fundamental and explicit explanation of Holy Communion as the authentic Body and Blood of Christ could not be found!
In this present era when attendance at Mass is at a low ebb, the words of St. Justin regarding second century weekly gatherings is a helpful instruction: “Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that Saturday, and on the day after Saturday, which is Sunday, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.” Sunday was a vitally symbolic day for the first Christians and a day they felt privileged to gather in one another’s company to consider the truths and significance of the teachings shared with them and how such instruction could influence their daily lives. The early Christians were indeed “Sunday-go-to-meeting” folk.
The continuity between ancient times and modern times on the Mass, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Day should be most reassuring for every practicing Catholic!
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