Church History: A Biblical View
Part III - The Nicene Age: Lesson No. 17 - Changes in Worship
I. Public Worship
The changes in doctrine and worship which had been introduced during the Ante-Nicene Age (100-325 A.D.) continued to build and accelerate during the Nicene Age (325-600 A.D.). The public services of the Church were divided into two parts. The first part was open to whoever desired to attend and included Bible reading, singing, the sermon, and prayer. Even though the Fourth and Fifth Centuries are said to have produced some great preachers, preaching was mostly confined to the large urban churches. In the churches of the countryside, and some even of cities, sermons were not common. The prayers which were offered before and after the sermon were in liturgical form. The public portion of the service was followed by the Lord's Supper. This was the most sacred part of the service, and from it the unbaptized were excluded. Continuous efforts were made to increase the dramatic solemnity of the Lord's Supper. This was done primarily by increasing emphasis upon the mysterious presence of Christ in the elements, though East and West differed as to the moment when He supposedly began to be present in them. In the East the iconostasis was eventually put into use, This was a screen or partition on which icons (sacred images or pictures) were placed and which concealed the priest from the congregation while the former celebrated the Lord's Supper.
II. Sacred Days and Seasons
The older festivals, Easter and Pentecost, retained their importance in the passing of time, but others of growing importance were also added. Easter was preceded by the Lenten period of forty days, which was a time of fasting and penitence. By the Fourth Century the Ascension was also generally observed, but the chief festive additions were Epiphany and Christmas. Originally, it was the East which observed Epiphany, a celebration of Christ's manifestation in His birth and baptism. Epiphany was observed on January 6th. Christmas, December 25th, was originally a Western holy day honoring the birth of Christ. As time went by, East and West adopted one another's celebrations, though with different emphases. The East began to emphasize Epiphany as a celebration of Christ's baptism while in the West it became a celebration of Christ's appearance to the Magi (wise men). Though various explanations have been given as to the origin of Christmas and its related customs, it cannot be doubted that its observance was heavily influenced by pagan practices. Two great pagan festivals, Sol Invictus (which celebrated the lengthening of the sun's rays), and Saturnalia, occurred about December 25th, and various aspects of them were incorporated by the Church into the celebration of Christ's birth.
III. Veneration of Sacred Persons, Relics, and Icons
Veneration of martyrs and their relics became increasingly popular. Not only their remains but anything associated with them was highly regarded. Pilgrimages to places where these relics were preserved were also considered marks of special piety. The deaths of martyrs were commemorated in church services, and they were also remembered in prayers. Thus, it was easy to make the shift from a remembrance to an appeal to martyrs and saints in prayer. The feeling had arisen by the close of the Fourth Century that martyrs and saints could make special intercession with God if requested to do so. It was thought that they were able to protect, heal, and aid. They were made guardians of cities, patrons of trades, and curers of disease. In effect, then, the saints and martyrs were made to replace the old pagan gods and goddesses.
The most important of the sacred persons was Mary, the mother of Jesus. As usual, popular elevation of Mary preceded any official recognition of her status. It was naturally thought that the one chosen to be the mother of the Lord deserved special esteem. She was placed above any martyr or apostle and, hence, was thought to be able to dispense blessings in greater abundance than even they. She filled the gap left by the abandonment of the great pagan mother-goddesses of the East. During the Nicene and Ante-Nicene Ages the doctrine of her perpetual virginity began to be pressed, especially by those who highly valued the celibate life. However, the Scriptures make it clear that she had sexual relations with her husband, Joseph, following the birth of Jesus (cp. Matt. 1:24,25; Lk. 2:7; I Cor. 7:1-5; Mk. 3:31,32; 6:3; Jn. 2:12; 7:3-5; Acts 1-.14).
IV. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) Christians must keep the unbaptized from partaking of the Lord's Supper in their services (cp. I Cor . 11:28).
(2) (T or F) "Saints" and martyrs can intercede with God in behalf of people (cp. I Tim. 2:5; Heb. 7:25; I Jn. 2:1).
(3) (T or F) It has been Catholic practice to incorporate pagan or ethnic customs into the beliefs and worship of the Church.
(4) Match the following.
Liturgy A. Sacred image or picture
Iconostasis B. Celebration of Christ's manifestation (at baptism or to Magi)
Epiphany C. Prescribed ritual or procedures for worship
Icon D. Screen filled with icons between elements of Lord's Supper and the congregation
(5) Would it be sufficient for the instruction of the church to merely read the Scriptures without comments by a preacher? If not, why not?
(6) Is there anything wrong with liturgical prayers? If so, what?
(7) What two things tended to solemnize the Lord's Supper?
(8) What is wrong with the observance of special holy days or seasons (cp. Gal. 4:10,11; Col. 2:16,17)?
(9) What three or four arguments could be made to show that Mary did not remain a perpetual virgin?
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