Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An early Eucharist, with a history lesson

We rarely see historical accounts of actual celebrations of the Eucharist, but we do have one very early source for what the early liturgy might have looked like!

The service went as follows:

The celebrant talked until midnight.
A member of the congregation fell asleep on the windowsill, subsequently fell out of the window and died.
Celebrant brought him back to life.
The Eucharistic meal finally took place.
The celebrant, having learned much from the earlier debacle, talked until daybreak. (cf. Acts 20. Long winded homilists have an illustrious predecessor)

Many Church Fathers agonized over the issue of how best to keep people from the windowsills, since the problem of falling asleep during homilies seems to have been one of the great crises of the early Church. The early incident accounted above has been cited as possibly the strongest reason for the eventual movement from the house church (with the possibility of a second story), to a one story plan, to reduce the height of a possible fall. A group of third century heretics, however, referred to as the spatium superiorists, held that it was improper for the Eucharist to be held on any floor lower than the second, as the Last Supper had taken place in an "Upper Room", and that to celebrate it on the ground floor was contrary to the command of Christ. Sadly, their homilists did not break with the rest of the Church on the subject of homily length, and fatalities resulting from sitting at the Eucharistic celebration soon reduced their ranks to a level which left them merely as a footnote of history.

A later and more popular solution to the falling-out-of-windows problem, at least in the West, was to build the windows at a level higher than the people, or at least their rears, could reach. This eventually resulted in Gothic architecture. St. Bernard railed against this style, mainly due to his opinion that it was mortally sinful to fall asleep during a homily anyway, and that the design of the church building didn't need to bow to considerations such as coddling hardened sinners. He points out in various homilies that the word used to describe how one moves toward the ground from a higher position is also used for those who turn back to sin. A coincidence? Hardly!

The Protestant reformers took a new and innovative approach. They introduced a device called the pew, which was made to look more comfortable than the windowsill, thus attracting the worshipper away from flirting with death.

After the success of the original pew, many decided to attempt to attract more worshippers by sporting comfortable luxury pews, made to give a better sitting experience than could be found elsewhere in the known world. Pope St. Pius V is said to have quipped that he would have traded the Chair of Peter for any one of the new pews , made in northern Germany. Unfortunately, while fatalities were down, falling asleep during worship services became nearly epidemic.

As a reaction, a new movement formed, which was of the mind that pews should be as uncomfortable as possible, thus encouraging wakefulness. At the same time, in the comfortable pew confession, extant lectionaries show the increasing prevalence of readings regarding the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, as pastors tried to find ways to address the problem.

In more modern times, various groups have tried to deal with this issue which has plagued the Church since the early days of Christianity. In many places, coffee was introduced to keep worshippers awake (note the coffee shops appended to modern megachurches). Unfortunately, in those traditions which have a pre-Communion fast, the coffee (with later appended doughnuts), was placed after the service, negating any positive effect. Following the mandate of the Second Vatican Council to deal with this problem in new ways, Pope Paul VI lessened the communion fast in the Catholic Church to one hour before receiving communion. The stated goal of this was so that coffee hours could occur before the celebration of the Sunday Eucharist, but this failed to catch on.

As can be seen, these issues have a long and twisted history, and one can only surmise what the next move will be as the churches continue to attempt to solve this long-lived problem.

1 comment:

Pumice said...

"Spatium Superiorists?" I did not read your labels and you really had me going until this point. I fully expect this heresy to emerge soon now that you have planted the seed.

Good job.

Grace and peace.

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