Baptism Fresco on the Catacombs of St. Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome, Italy
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. Didache (Chapter 1), 2nd Century Christian Writing
There are times I feel like Cuthbert Binns, the History of Magic Teacher from the Harry Potter series who one day falls asleep in the teacher’s lounge, dies and then as a ghost goes on teaching without seeming to realize the difference. I hope that unlike Cuthbert my approach to looking at authority within the history of Judaism and now Christianity is not incessantly boring, and is rather enlightening as we go back through time and examine the story of how we got where we are today. There are times where I want to take a shorter path, but I personally am learning a lot from going back and re-engaging material I haven’t studied since seminary-I have made some new connections that will impact some of my conclusions.
Practices are critical to the formation of identity and they help to shape what the people and any group come to believe. As Prosper of Aquitaine (390-455 CE), a Christian from a later era than I am currently discussing, memorably put it “the rule of prayer should lay down the rule of faith” (Pelikan, The Christian Tradition 1:339) and so the everyday practices of early Christians allowed them to make sense of the persecution they received from the Romans or the struggles they went through in their daily lives. It also gave them the basis of their community and bound them together with Christians across the empire and indeed across the world. Practices may not sound exciting to talk about, but their meaning will be discussed and debated for the millennia to come.
Love is the foundational idea that gets worked out in these practices, a love for neighbor and even for enemy that forms the basis for the actions of the early church. Certainly there will be many times where the early churches (like modern churches) will fail to live up to this ideal, yet in a society with no social safety net the vulnerable (the widows, orphans, immigrant and the elderly or disabled) were often taken in by many of the early churches and given identity and meaning. Certainly there were apologists and early thinkers like Justin Martyr or Origin who tried to make an intellectual case for Christianity, but most people came to Christianity through the example and witness of anonymous Christians, and they were invited into the journey of coming Christian by people who they encountered in the marketplace, their homes and their worksites.
With the persecution by the Roman Empire it was a dangerous thing to become a Christian, and early Christians wanted to make sure that potential converts were truly seekers and not spies. Often there would be a detailed process of catechesis, education in the faith, before a seeker would be admitted to the mysteries of the faith (baptism and then communion or Eucharist). Most of these communities were rather small, meeting in houses, cemeteries, catacombs or in business places both because they could not have afforded a building dedicated for their meetings, but also for fear of being detected by authorities.
Baptism was the mystery of faith that led to identity with the church and mystically with Christ. A person in the waters was made clean, forgiven of sins, regenerated into a new person and received the Holy Spirit. Once a person was baptized they were a full participant in the life of the community, they could worship with all their new brothers and sisters in Christ, they could partake in the Eucharist. Even without any significant conflict the meaning of baptism was pretty much stabilized by the end of the second century with no real conflict over practice and thought (with one exception) until the time of the Reformation.
Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper or Communion was a community meal in which the people present celebrated their unity in Christ, remembered the actions of Jesus during the last week of his life and shared a meal that they understood having both spiritual and earthly realities. The precision of the debates that would emerge during the time of the reformation are not present, but the idea of the Eucharist having the power to transform the bodies of the early Christians from corruptible to incorruptible or they could call it the ‘flesh of Christ’ or even a sacrifice, but the fact that they didn’t nail down precisely what was happening did not stop them from trying to explain what it meant. It would take focusing in on Christology (who Christ was) before the early Church would have the language for the precision of later centuries.
Around both of these realities was worship which focused on Jesus, eating together with the community, sharing their lives together and continuing to confess “Jesus as their Lord” even in the face of hardship. As the church moved into the third century it was still a persecuted group, the basics of structure had come into being (offices like bishop, presbyter and deacon were used-people set aside for helping the community function, but it was not a hierarchical as we are used to and there was not a specific class of clergy) and there was the beginning of movement towards what a canon would look like, what practices would be formational, and at least some commonality in what was to be believed, but a major change was on the horizon, a change that would transform the church from top to bottom. For some the early church was about to experience its triumph, for others it was making a deal with the devil, but in 312 CE the emergence of Constantine, an emperor favorably disposed to Christianity, the church would have to redefine itself yet again and ask itself the questions of authority that continually emerge.