8. Of the Subjects of discourse by the Fathers
Antiquities of the Christian Church
XII. Of homilies
8. Of the Subjects of discourse by the Fathers
It is very justly remarked by Bingham, that their topics of discourse were of a grave and serious character. Their object was to instruct, to edify and to improve the hearer. The leading subjects of their discourses are described by Gregory Nazianzen and Chrysostom. "To me it seems," says Gregory, "to require no ordinary qualifications of mind rightly to divide the word of truth, – to give to every one a portion in due measure, and discreetly to discourse of the great doctrines of our faith; to treat of the universe of worlds – of matter and of mind – of the soul and of intelligent beings, good and bad – to treat of a superintending and ruling Providence, controlling with unerring wisdom all things, both those that are within, and those that are above human comprehension – to treat of the first formation and of the restoration of man, of the two covenants, and of the types of the Old and antitypes of the New Testament – of Christ's first and second coming, of his incarnation and passion, of the resurrection, and of the end of the world, of the day of judgment, of the rewards of the just, and the punishment of the wicked; and, above all, of the blessed Trinity, which is the principal article of the christian faith."
In like manner Chrysostom in reminding his hearers of the leading topics of religious discourse which all who frequent the house of God expect and demand, enumerates the following: "The nature of the soul, of the body, of immortality, of the kingdom of heaven, of hell and of future punishment – of the long-suffering of God, of repentance, baptism, and the pardon of sin – of the creation of the world above, and the world below – of the nature of men and of angels – evil spirits and of the wiles of Satan – of the constitution of christian society, of the true faith, and deadly heresies. With these and many other such like subjects must the christian minister be acquainted, and be prepared to speak on them as occasion may require."
The following extract comprising a brief recapitulation of some of the leading facts in relation to the devotions of the primitive Christians in social and public worship, may be acceptable to the common reader.
"Under a conviction that social meetings held at the commencement and at the close of every day, would prove an admirable preparation for the duties and trials of ordinary life, they adopted the practice of having morning and evening service daily in the church. The hours were fixed so as not to interfere with the routine of ordinary business. Long before daylight, they assembled and opened their meeting with the 63d Psalm, the exordium of which, 'O God, thou art my God, early will I seek thee,' as well as the whole strain of* that pious effusion, made it an appropriate commencement of the duties of every day. They then united in prayer, the burden of which was a supplication for the divine blessing and favor on the members of the household of faith, and for the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom. This was followed by the reading of a short and appropriate passage of Scripture, after which they sang the 90th Psalm, so pathetically descriptive of the frailty and uncertainty of life, and then embodied their sentiments on this subject in a second prayer, in which they expressed their sense of dependence on the care of the Almighty, and their gratitude for their common preservation during the previous night. Another portion of the Divine Word being read, the whole service – scarcely, if ever, exceeding the limits of an hour – was brought to a close by the singing of the 51st Psalm, and a corresponding prayer, in both of which they implored the divine mercy to pardon the sins of their past life, and the divine grace to help them amid the exigencies of their future course.
"The evening service was conducted on the same plan as that of the antelucan meeting, only diversified, of course, by a set of psalms, and a strain of devotional sentiments appropriate to the change of time and circumstances. It began with the 141st Psalm, and a prayer, in which, like the corresponding one in the morning oblation, the divine love was supplicated on the brethren, an extract from the Gospels or Epistles was read, and after this, as the evening meeting generally took place at the time of lighting candles, they sung a hymn in which they gave thanks both for natural and spiritual light, and then prayed a second time for a continuance of the bounty and grace of the Lord. Such were the pious habits of the primitive Christians, that not content with the devotions of the family and the closet, they attended duly as the season returned, the celebration of morning and evening service in the church. Nor was it only the more devout and zealous of them that pursued this daily routine of religious observances. The place of worship was thronged with all ranks of the faithful as much during the morning and evening service, as during that of the Sabbath, and they would have afforded good reason to suspect the sincerity of their religious profession, who should in those days of christian simplicity and devotedness, have confined themselves to the hebdomadal ordinance of the sanctuary. Persons who from sickness, or travelling, or confinement in prison, were prevented from enjoying the privilege of repairing to the assembly of their brethren, carefully observed in private those hours of daily prayer; and men, whose time was engrossed during the day with the labors of the field or the shop – with the speculations of commerce, or the offices of civil and judicial stations, 'rose early before day, and never engaged in any of their most necessary and ordinary worldly business, before they had consecrated the first-fruits of all their actions and labors to God, by going to church, and presenting themselves in the divine presence.'
"But the principal season of public worship among the primitive Christians was the first day of the week. From the time of the apostles, it was customary for the disciples of Christ, both in town and country, to meet in some common accessible place on the return of that day; and while on other occasions, such as those we have described, it was left to every one to frequent the assemblies of the brethren as inclination dictated or convenience allowed, the sanction of apostolic example at once elevated attendance on the religious meetings of that period to the rank of a sacred duty, and an invaluable privilege. The high and holy character the Christians of the primitive age attached to it, is sufficiently indicated by their styling it the Lord's Day; and, from the glorious event of which it was the stated memorial, they hailed it as a weekly festival, on which no other sentiment was becoming or lawful but that of unbounded spiritual joy. Hence fasting, which was so frequently practised in the ancient church, and was allowable on every other day, was strictly prohibited on this; and even the most rigid of the primitive Christians, who sought to aim at more than ordinary heights of virtue by the practice of austerity and mortification, laid aside their habitual aspect of sorrow, as inconsistent with the joyful feelings that season inspired. With one accord they dedicated it to the worship of their exalted Redeemer, and to meditation on things pertaining to the common salvation; and the spiritual views with which they entered on its observance, the congenial tempers with which all repaired to the place of assembly, the common desire that animated every besom to seek the Lord there, if haply they might find him, and to hold fellowship with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ, was at once an evidence and a means of the high-toned piety that distinguished them. Early on the Saturday, it was their practice to accomplish the duties of their household, and fulfil the necessary demands of their business, so that no secular care might disturb the enjoyment of the sacred day, or impede the current of their spiritual affections; and severe indeed was the indisposition, remote the situation, imperious the cause, that detained any from the scenes and occupations the first day of the week brought along with it. So long as heathenism retained the ascendant, and the disciples of the new and rival religion were at the mercy of their pagan masters, it was only during the night, or early in the morning, they could enjoy the privileges of the christian Sabbath; nor could they observe any regular order in their service, at a time when the voice of psalms was liable to betray the secret assembly, – and the ruthless soldier often dispersed the brethren in the middle of their devotions, or compelled them to leave a glowing exhortation unfinished. But the moment the sword of persecution was sheathed, and the religion of Jesus enjoyed the tolerant smiles of a heathen, or the paternal auspices of a Christian emperor, the Christians resumed their much valued assemblies on the Lord's day, – established a certain order in the routine of their service, suited to the constitution and circumstances of the primitive church; and such was the happy understanding among the brethren everywhere, that, with some trifling variations required in particular places, a beautiful uniformity in worship and discipline maybe said to have prevailed in all parts of the christian world.
"Viewing the Lord's day as a spiritual festivity, a season on which their souls were specially to magnify the Lord, and their spirits to rejoice in God their Saviour, they introduced the services of the day with psalmody, which was followed by select portions of the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles; the intervals between which were occupied by the faithful in private devotions. The men prayed with their heads bare, and the women were veiled, as became the modesty of their sex, both standing – a posture deemed the most decent, and suited to their exalted notions of the weekly solemnity – with their eyes lifted up to heaven, and their hands extended in the form of a cross, the better to keep them in remembrance of Him, whose death had opened up the way of access to the divine presence. The reading of the sacred volume constituted an important and indispensable part of the observance; and the more effectually to impress it on the memories of the audience, the lessons were always short, and of frequent recurrence. Besides the Scriptures, they were accustomed to read aloud several other books for the edification and interest of the people – such as treatises on the illustration of christian morals, by some pastor of eminent reputation and piety, or letters from foreign churches, containing an account of the state and progress of the gospel. This part of the service, – most necessary and valuable at a time when a large proportion of every congregation were unacquainted with letters, was performed at first by the presiding minister, but was afterwards devolved on an officer appointed for that object, who, when proceeding to the discharge of his duty, if it related to any part of the history of Jesus, exclaimed aloud to the people, 'Stand up – the gospels are going to be read;' and then always commenced with, 'Thus saith the Lord.' They assumed this attitude, not only from a conviction that it was the most respectful posture in which to listen to the counsels of the King of kings, but with a view to keep alive the attention of the people – an object which, in some churches, was sought to be gained by the minister stopping in the middle of a scriptural quotation, and leaving the people to finish it aloud. The discourses, founded for the most part on the last portion of Scripture that was read, were short, plain, and extemporary exhortations, – designed chiefly to stir up the minds of the brethren by way of remembrance, and always prefaced by the salutation, 'Peace be unto you.' As they were very short – sometimes not extending to more than eight or ten minutes' duration, – several of them were delivered at a diet, and the preacher was usually the pastor of the place, though he sometimes, at his discretion, invited a stranger, or one of his brethren, known to possess the talent of public speaking, to address the assembly. The close of the sermon by himself, which was always the last of the series, was the signal for the public prayers to commence. Previous to this solemn part of the service, however, a crier commanded infidels of any description that might be present to withdraw, and the doors being closed and guarded, the pastor proceeded to pronounce a prayer, the burden of which was made to bear a special reference to the circumstances of the various classes who, in the primitive church, were not admitted to a full participation in the privileges of the faithful. First of all, he prayed in the name of the whole company of believers, for the catechumens – young persons, or recent converts from heathenism, who were passing through a preparatory course of instruction in the doctrines and duties of Christianity, – that their understandings might be enlightened – their hearts receive the truth in the love of it – and that they might be led to cultivate those holy habits of heart and life, by which they might adorn the doctrine of God their Saviour. Next he prayed for the penitents, who were undergoin
g the discipline of the church, that they might receive deep and permanent impressions of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, – that they might be filled with godly sorrow, and might have grace, during the appointed term of their probation, to bring forth fruits meet for repentance. In like manner, he made appropriate supplications for other descriptions of persons, each of whom left the church when the class to which he belonged had been commended to the God of all grace; and then the brethren, reduced by these successive departures to an approved company of the faithful, proceeded to the holy service of communion." – Jamieson, pp. 115–121.
Augustine, for instance, having introduced in one of his sermons these words of Paul – The end of the commandment is charity, – stopped; and the whole people immediately cried out – out of a pure heart.
In the East, where multitudes of the Christians were Jews, who still retained a passionate attachment to the law of Moses, Saturday was long observed as a day of public worship, though not regarded by the Christians in the same light and of the same character with the first day of the week. – Wednesday and Friday began, at an early period, to be held as weekly fasts, which never terminated till three in the afternoon. A number of public festivals were also introduced, in commemoration of the birth, ascension, and other events in the life of Christ, – some of which, Easter, for instance, can boast of a most .venerable antiquity, and of universal observance, – See Routh's Reliquiae Sacrae, vol. iii. p. 236; and Nelson's Festivals.