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The Beginnings of Christian Liturgy in Judaism
The early Christians continued to worship in the temple and synagogue, but the eucharistic rite, which is our liturgical act of sacrifice, began as a sacred meal celebrated in a house at a family table.(1) The home in Judaism was also a center of worship. The parents had the duty of circumcising sons and the ceremony was performed at home. It was also the parents' duty to instruct their children. Sabbath meals were occasions for much joy, with their ceremonial berakhot, or blessings, over the food and wine. The meal began with the solemn breaking of the bread by the father or person presiding, followed by a succession of blessings over the food and actions of this ritual. The great blessing of the final cup synthesized this whole pre-Christian spirituality which could rightly be called "Eucharistic”. The Christian prayers of the Eucharist belong to this class of Jewish prayers called the berakhah which gives praise and thanks for God's gifts. Christian celebrations of the Eucharist were the product of the combination of the blessings associated with scripture readings in the synagogue and the blessings associated with the ceremonial meal in the home. To be more precise, the Eucharist took its form from the berakhah over the fast cup which ended the meal. The words and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper, recorded in the synoptics and Paul (Mt. 26:26-30; Mk. 14122-25; Lk. 22:19f; 1 Cot. 11:23ff), follow the normal pattern of a Jewish ceremonial meal (2).
The berakhah, a most ancient expression of the Jewish spirit of prayer, derives from the temple liturgy. It exemplifies the Hebrew ideal of hallowing creation and consecrating everything and every action to God with thanksgiving — or rather, everything is consecrated by thanksgiving. St. Paul expresses this clearly in his First Letter to Timothy:
"Every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected when it is taken with thanksgiving, since it is consecrated by the word of God, and by prayer" (4:4-5).
The berakhah is the chief means that Jews have, both individually and communally, of maintaining a theocentric attitude toward life. In other words, it is their "sacrifice of praise" which sacralizes every act of daily fife. Because Jesus was so devout a Jew, thoroughly imbued with this remarkable attitude of blessing-thanksgiving, the first Christians surely shared fully in this practice of Jewish piety. The spirituality proper to the berakhah is summed up in the whole understanding of Jewish "gnosis": it is an act of faith in God who is made "known" through every creature and every event. This prayer of faith is an act of abandonment to the will of God made known through His word. This sacralization of the whole of rooted in the "knowledge" of God's provident design, found its focus no longer in the sacrifices of the temple but in the common meal of the family gathered together for the Sabbath or solemn festivals. The same can be said of the community meals of the Havurot, those devout communities whose importance has been revealed to us through Qumran. Many scholars maintain that the fellowship of friends formed by Christ and his apostles constituted a Havurot(3) . The Qumran texts, and what Philo and Josephus write about the Essenes, confirm the fact that for the most devout
of Israel, including the Jewish priests, this ritual meal had come to replace the temple sacrifice.
Of all human acts, none lends itself better than the meal to this consecration by prayer of all the gifts God has given. When we Christians consecrate persona or things, we consider them set apart for sacred use. But the Jewish berakhah is in the first place a blessing of God, an act of praise and thanksgiving to Him, and the person or thing is seen as belonging to Him. The berakhah always begins with a formula like: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe..." How much better, it seems to me, to praise God thus for "bringing food out of the earth" than saying our "Bless us O Lord and these Thy gifts...". The blessings over the bread and wine at the renewed liturgy of the Eucharist is just such a berakbab.4
How essential h is for us to grasp the full meaning of the Jewish berakhah which Jesus prayed continually and over the bread and wine of the Last Supper, is emphasized by Louis Bouyer who contends that we can only understand the Eucharist properly through an understanding of its prehistory in Jewish piety. He claims further that
"all the futile arguments and fruitless controversies over the interpretation of the Eucharist among Christians only appeared with the break that took place between Jewish and Christian thought." 5
There are extant numerous documents which enable us to sec the actual passage of the Christian eucharistic celebration from the Jewish berakhah. For example, there are texts of prayers in the seventh book of the Apostolic Constitutions its final form in the fourth century), which are most assuredly Jewish formularies, altered by the Christians who merely added a few words here and there to apply to Christ and the church what had been said of the Word, of Wisdom, or of the people of Israel. The same is true for the famous prayer for the Eucharist in the Didache.
"It is certainly clear from these texts [and others] that the Christian Eucharist is not only derived
from the Jewish berakhab but began by simply taking it over.'(6)
The influence of Jewish piety on the primitive church in its worship can be discerned nowhere so clearly as in the prayers we find in early Christian literature and the earliest Christian liturgical texts.
"Nobody, in reading the pre-Christian forms of the prayers in the Jewish Liturgy and the prayers of the early Church, can fail to notice the similarity of atmosphere of each, or to recognize that both proceed from the same mould." 7
The Christian liturgy emphasizes praise and thanksgiving as does Jewish prayer. The Kedushah or "holy, holy, holy," remains an essential prayer in the Christian liturgy. Jesus' great prayer, the Our Father, is first and foremost a Jewish expression of worship; every element of it finds a parallel in Jewish literature.8 "Amen," "Alleluia," and other responses at the end of prayers, the confession of sins, and the recitation of psalms were also taken over from the synagogue. Historical remembrances, such as the exodus, the passover, which occur in many of the Jewish prayers were used by the church and adapted in a Christian sense. As with the prayers taken from the Jewish liturgy and applied to belief in Christ, so too have the psalms been "Christologized" in the New Testament; the evangelists used them to show Christ's fulfillment of prophecy.
The psalter has often been described as the "Hymn Book of the Second Temple" (520-515 B.C.-70 AD.). Many of the synagogue prayers during this period contained phrases from the psalms, but authorities dispute whether psalms were sung in the synagogue this early. Some argue that from early times, psalms that were appointed to be sung in the temple on certain days and festivals, were also sung in the synagogue. They also maintain that from this custom the use of psalmody in the church ante-dated its introduction in the synagogue. Jewish psalms other than those included in the canonical book of 150 psalms were written in the pre-Christian era. For instance, in the middle of the first century, B.C., a group of messianic psalms (Eighteen Psalms of Solomon) emanated from the Pharisees. This continuing composition of psalms was taken up in the early Christian communities and this new psalmody became an integral part of their worship. Many of the sayings of Jesus preserved in the gospels are in poetic form,(9) notably in its Aramaic form; among them are the Our Father, the beatitudes, and eucharistic discourses in John. The earliest form of psalmody we can irate in the Eucharistic celebration is the gradual (10). A close link between Jewish and Christian custom that goes back to very ancient times is the singing of the Hallel Psalms, the psalms of thanksgiving and praise (113-118), at the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter.
The daily offices prayed by the early Christians have their roots in the practice of pious Jews in the time of Jesus. Three times a day, morning, noon, and late afternoon, at the hours of the temple sacrifices, the devout Jew would turn towards Jerusalem and offer prayer (Ps. 55:18; Dan. 6:11; Acts 2:15; 10:3, 9, 30; 3:1). Through this daily practice, the Jew far from Jerusalem was able to join his personal prayers to the public worship in the holy city. This Jewish custom continued in the church even after it became predominantly Gentile.(11) By the end of the second century, the times of daily prayer were increased to six: from dawn to midnight. How many Christians followed this pattern of prayer we do not know. However, by the third century many individual ascetics as well as com. munities of men and women vowed to a life of prayer and good works were the forerunners of later monastic communities which built their prayer-life around the daily hours of the office.
The Hebrew psalms are the oldest and most enduring prayers of Christians. Revived interest in them, attempts at new translations and musical settings, their use among the laity in morning and evening prayer in parishes, are all hopeful signs of renewal in the worship of the contemporary church. Liturgical scholars, however, remind us that "creative innovation in such renewals can only be effective if it is rooted in a sound knowledge of tradition.(12)
And our tradition is rooted in the Judaism of Jesus' day.
The description I have given of Jewish piety and its influence on the nascent church is not a christianized sketch. Certainly, I have chosen those elements from Jewish tradition and the Judaism of the first century which were related to the emerging church, for Christianity and its spirituality were born precisely from the convergence of these elements. This is not to ignore Christianity's creative newness, but to acknowledge the "providential preparations granted by God."13 Also, our sketch is that of not just any kind of Jewish piety but the piety of those Jews whom St. Luke describes as "waiting for the consolation of Israel" (Lk. 2:25). It is the piety of mainly Palestinian Jews such as those who became the first followers of Jesus.
Sister M. Sharon Burns, RSM, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Chairwoman of the Theology Department, Loyola College, Baltimore, Maryland. She obtained her doctorate in Religion and Religious Education and puhlishes in the area of theology, spirituality and philosophy of religion.
1- Hebert, "Worship in the Old Testament", p. 28.
2- We shall not enter into the discussion held among scholars as to whether Jesus instituted the Eucharist at a Passover meal or at a Havurot (fellowship) supper (the K iddush) on the eve of Passover. In any case, the gospel writers evidently wished to stress the Passover theme in their accounts.
3- CL W.O.E. Oesterley, The Jewisb Background of the Christian Liturgy (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1925), p. 172.
4 - Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. h will become for us the bread of )ife" (R) "Blessed be God for ever." "Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink." (R) "Blessed be God for ever." The Roman Missal: The Sacramentary (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1974), p. 414.
5- Bouyer, "Jewish and Christian Liturgies", p. 42.
6- Ibid., p. 41.
7- Oesterley, The Jewish Background, p. 125.
8- For an excellent work on the Our Father produced by Jewish and Christian scholars, see The Lord's Prayer and Jewish Liturgy, edited by Jakob J. Petuchowski and Michael Brocke (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978). For a very brief table indicating the parallels in Jewish prayers of the elements of the Lord's Prayer, see A.Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development, (New York: Sacred Music Press, Henry Holy and Co., 1932), Appendix I, pp. 301-308.
9- Cf. C.F. Burney, The Poetry Our Lord: The Aramaic Origin o/ the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925); Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospel, and Acts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954).
10- The gradual, from gradus, step, was sung from the step of the pulpit where the lesson for the day was read or intoned.
11- Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., The Psalms in Christian Worship (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), p. 54.
12- Ibid., p. 5.
13-Bouyer, The Spiriuuality o/ the New Testament, p. 26.