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In the early days of the Gospel, while the Christians were generally poor, and when they were obliged to meet in fear of the heathen, their worship was held in private houses and sometimes in burial-places under-ground. But after a time buildings were expressly set apart for worship. It has been mentioned that in the years of quiet, between the death of Valerian and the last persecution (A D. 261-303) these churches were built much more handsomely than before, and were furnished with gold and silver plate and other rich ornaments. And after the conversion of Constantine, they became still finer and costlier. The clergy then wore rich dresses at service, the music was less simple and the ceremonies were multiplied. Some of the old heathen temples were turned into churches, but temples were not built in a shape very suitable for Christian worship and the pattern of the new churches was rather taken from the halls of justice, called "Basilicas", which were to be found in every large town. These buildings were of an oblong shape, with a broad middle part, and on each side of it an aisle, separated from it by a row of pillars. This lower part of the basilica was used by merchants who met to talk about their business, and by all sorts of loungers who met to tell and hear the news. But at the upper end of the oblong there was a half circle, with its floor raised above the level of the rest; and in the middle of this part the judge of the city sat. Now if you will compare this description with the plan of a church, you will see that the broad middle part of the basilica answers to what is called the "body" or "nave" of the church; that the side aisles are alike in each; and that the further part of the basilica, with its raised floor, answers to the "chancel" of a church; while the holy table, or "altar", stands in the place answering to the judge's seat in the basilica. Same of these halls were given up by the emperors to be turned into churches, and the plan of them was found convenient as a pattern in the building of new churches.
On entering a church, the first part was the Porch, in which there were places for the catechumens (that is to say, those who were preparing for baptism); for those who were supposed to be possessed with devils, and who were under the care of the exorcists, and for the lowest kinds of those who were undergoing penance. Beyond this porch were the "Beautiful Gates", which opened into the "Nave" of the church. Just within these gates were those penitents whose time of penance was nearly ended; and the rest of the nave was the place for the "faithful"--that is to say, for those who were admitted to all the privileges of Christians. At the upper end of the nave, a place called the "Choir" was railed in for the singers; and then, last of all, came the raised part or "chancel", which has been spoken of. This was called the "Sanctuary", and was set apart for the clergy only. The women sat in church apart from the men; sometimes they were in the aisles, and sometimes in galleries. Churches generally had a court in front of them or about them, in which were the lodgings of the clergy, and a building for the administration of baptism, called the "Baptistery".
In the early times, churches were not adorned with pictures or statues; for Christians were at first afraid to have any ornaments of the kind, lest they should fall into idolatry like the heathen. No such things as images or pictures of our Lord, or of His saints, were known among them; and in their every-day life, instead of the figures of gods, with which the heathens used to adorn their houses, their furniture, their cups, and their seals, the Christians made use of emblems only. Thus, instead of pretending to make a likeness of our Lord's human form, they made a figure of a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders, to signify the Good Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep (St. John x. 11). Other ornaments of the same kind were--a dove signifying the Holy Ghost, a ship, signifying the Church, the ark of salvation, sailing towards heaven; a fish, which was meant to remind them of their having been born again in the water at their baptism; a musical instrument called a lyre, to signify Christian joy; and an anchor, the figure of Christian hope. About the year 300, the Council of Elvira, in Spain, made a canon forbidding pictures in church, which shows that the practice had then begun, and was growing; and also that, in Spain, at least, it was thought to be dangerous (as indeed it too surely proved to be). And a hundred years later, Epiphanius, a famous bishop of Salamis, in the island of Cyprus, tore a curtain which he found hanging in a church, with a figure of our Lord, or of some saint, painted on it. He declared that such things were altogether unlawful, and desired that the curtain might be used to bury some poor man in, promising to send the church a plain one instead of it.
Christians used to sign themselves with the sign of the cross on many occasions, and figures of the cross were early set up in churches. But crucifixes (which are figures of our Lord on the cross, although ignorant people sometimes call the cross itself a crucifix) were not known until hundreds of years after the time of which we are now speaking.
The church-service of Christians was always the same as to its main parts, although there were little differences as to order and the like. Justin Martyr, who lived (as we have seen) about the middle of the second century (see Chapter III), describes the service as it was in his time. It began, he says, with readings from the Scriptures; then followed a discourse by the chief clergyman who was present; and there was much singing, of which a part was from the Old Testament psalms, while a part was made up of hymns on Christian subjects. The discourses of the clergy were generally meant to explain the Scripture lessons which had been read. At first these discourses were very plain, and as much as possible like ordinary talk; and from this they got the name of "homilies", which properly meant nothing more than "conversations". But by degrees they grew to be more like speeches, and people used to flock to them, just as many do now, from a wish to hear something fine, rather than with any notion of taking the preacher's words to heart, and trying to be made better by them. And in the fourth century, when a clergyman preached eloquently, the people used to cheer him on by clapping their hands, waving their handkerchiefs, and shouting out, "Orthodox!" "Thirteenth apostle!" or other such cries. Good men, of course, did not like to be treated in this way, as if they were actors at a theatre; and we often find St. Chrysostom and St Augustine (of both of whom you will hear by-and-by; objecting to it in their sermons, and begging their hearers not to show their admiration in such foolish and unseemly ways. But it seems that the people went on with it nevertheless; and no doubt there must have been some preachers who were vain enough and silly enough to be pleased with it.
In the time of the Apostles the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was celebrated in the evening, as it had been by our blessed Lord Himself on the night in which He was betrayed. Thus it was, for instance, when the disciples at Troas "came together upon the first day of the week (Sunday) to break bread" (that is, to celebrate the Lord's Supper), and "Paul preached unto them, and continued his speech until midnight" (Acts xx. 7). In the service for this sacrament there was a thanksgiving to God for His bounty in bestowing the fruits of the earth. The congregation offered gifts of bread and wine, and from these the elements which were to be consecrated were taken. They also brought gifts of money, which was used for the relief of the poor, for the support of the clergy, and for other good and religious purposes. Either before or after the sacrament, there was a meal called the love-feast, for which all the members of the congregation brought provisions, according as they could afford. All of them sat down to it as equals, in token of their being alike in Christ's Brotherhood; and it ended with psalm-singing and prayer. But even in very early days (as St. Paul shows us in his first epistle to the Corinthians, xi. 21f), there was sad misbehaviour at these meals; and besides this, such religious feasts gave the heathen an excuse for their stories that the Christians met to feed on human flesh and to commit other abominations in secret. For these reasons, after a time, the love-feast was separated from the holy Communion, and at length it was entirely given up.
In the second century, the administration of the Lord's Supper, instead of being in the evening as at first, was added on to the morning service, and then a difference was made between the two parts of the service. At the earlier part of it the catechumens and penitents might be present, but when the Communion office was going to begin, a deacon called out, "Let no one of the catechumens or of the hearers stay." After this none were allowed to remain except those who were entitled to communicate, which all baptized Christians did in those days, unless they were shut out from the Church on account of their misdeeds. The "breaking of bread" in the Lord's Supper was at first daily, as we know from the early chapters of the Acts (ii. 46); but this practice does not seem to have lasted beyond the time when the faith of the Christians was in its first warmth, and it became usual to celebrate the holy Communion on the Lord's day only. When Christianity became the religion of the empire, and there was now no fear of persecution, the earlier part of the service was open not only to catechumens and penitents, but to Jews and heathens; and in the fifth century, when the Church was mostly made up of persons who had been baptized and trained in Christianity from infancy, the distinction between the "service of the catechumens" and the "service of the faithful" was no longer kept up.
The length of time during which converts were obliged to be catechumens before being admitted to baptism differed in different parts of the Church. In some places it was two years, in some three years; but if during this time they fell sick and appeared to be in danger of death, they were baptized without waiting any longer.
At baptism, those who received it professed their faith, or their sponsors did so for them, and from this began the use of creeds, containing, in few words, the chief articles of the Christian faith. The sign of the cross was made over those who were baptized "in token that they should not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under His banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ's faithful soldiers and servants unto their life's end." The kiss of peace was given to them in token of their being taken into spiritual brotherhood; white robes were put on them, to signify their cleansing from sin; and a mixture of milk and honey was administered to them, as if to give them a foretaste of their heavenly inheritance, of which the earthly Canaan, "flowing with milk and honey" (Exod. iii. 8, etc.) had been a figure. Other ceremonies were added in the fourth century, such as the use of salt and lights, and an anointing with oil in token of their being "made kings and priests to God" (Rev. i. 6; 1 Pet. ii. 5-9), besides the anointing with a mixture called "chrism" at confirmation, which had been practised in earlier times.
The usual time of baptism was the season from Easter-eve to Whitsuntide; but in case of danger, persons might be baptized at any time.
During the fourth century there was a growth of superstitions and corruptions in the Church. Great numbers of converts came into it, bringing their old heathen notions with them, and not well knowing what they might expect, but with an eager desire to find as much to interest them in the worship and life of Christians as they had found in the ceremonies and shows of their former religion. And in order that such converts might not be altogether disappointed, the Christian teachers of the age allowed a number of things which soon began to have very bad effects; thus, as we are told in the preface to our own Prayer-book, St. Augustine complained that in his time (which was about the year 400) ceremonies "were grown to such a number that the estate of Christian people was in worse case concerning that matter than were the Jews." Among the corruptions which were now growing, although they did not come to a head until afterwards, one was an excess of reverence for saints, which led to the practices of making addresses to them, and of paying superstitious honours to their dead bodies.
Another corruption was the improper use of paintings or images, which even in St. Augustine's time had gone so far that, as he owns with sorrow, many of the ignorant were "worshippers of pictures." Another was the fashion of going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in which Constantine's mother, Helena, set an example which was soon followed by thousands, who not only fancied that the sight of the places hallowed by the great events of Scripture would kindle or heighten their devotion, but that prayers would be especially pleasing to God if they were offered up in such places. And thus great numbers flocked to Palestine from all quarters, and even from Britain, among other countries, and on their return they carried back with them water from the Jordan, earth from the Redeemer's sepulchre, or what they believed to be chips of the true cross, which was supposed to have been found during Helena's visit to Jerusalem. The mischiefs of this fashion soon showed themselves. St. Basil's brother, Gregory of Nyssa, wrote a little book expressly for the purpose of persuading people not to go on pilgrimage. He said that he himself had been neither better nor worse for a visit which he had paid to the Holy Land; but that such a pilgrimage might even be dangerous for others because the inhabitants of the country were so vicious that there was more likelihood of getting harm from them than good from the sight of the holy places. "We should rather try," he said, "to go out of the body than to drag it about from place to place." Another very learned man of the same time, St. Jerome, although he had taken up his own abode at Bethlehem, saw so much of the evils which arose from pilgrimages that he gave very earnest warnings against them. "It is no praise," he says, "to have been at Jerusalem but to have lived religiously at Jerusalem. The sight of the places where our Lord died and rose again are profitable to those who bear their own cross and daily rise again with Him. But for those who say, 'The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord,' (Jerem. vii. 4), let them hear the Apostle's words, 'Ye are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you,' (1 Cor. iii. 16) The court of heaven is open to approach from Jerusalem and from Britain alike; 'for the kingdom of God is within you'" (St. Luke xvii. 21).
There were, indeed, some persons who rose up to oppose the errors of which I have been speaking. But unhappily they mixed up the truths which they wished to teach with so many errors of their own, and they carried on their opposition so unwisely, that, instead of doing good, they did harm, by setting people against such truth as they taught on account of the error which was joined with it, and of the strong way which they took of teaching it. By such opposition the growth of superstition was not checked, but advanced and strengthened.