Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Mass of the Early Christians

By Mike Aquilina, 255 pages, Our Sunday Visitor.

The wonderful, almost poetic concluding chapter stands out in this excellent, beginner-friendly yet academic-oriented look at the ancient Mass.

Aquilina imagines a worship day in the life of a persecuted Christian in the Roman Empire – getting up before sunrise and dressing without light so as not to attract the attention of Roman authorities on the lookout for suspicious activities on Sunday (so they could gather up the local Christians); leaving the still darkened house alone or by two and taking secretive, back-ways to the gathering; finally finding the old house of a converted aristocrat, now used mainly as a Christian gathering place and home for the bishop and his priests; and to find within survivors of past repressions, people with scars and missing fingers.

The rest of the book also opens the reader's imagination. Rather than a dry read or a systematic, historical run-through, the majority of the book centers on the church fathers and ancient bishops who developed the theology behind the rite. This leads to interesting reading because a lot of the writings are cryptic references – allegorical, in other words. Ancient Christians felt that the Eucharistic prayer should not be written down for the general reading public, but kept secret.

These early believers also practiced secrecy around this prayer for people at the Mass, as catechumens had to leave after Bible readings were finished.

Aquilina successfully bridges the ancient with the post-Vatican II Mass by emphasizing the humanness, including this deep reverence and respect for the Mass and the sacraments, and the similarities in prayer and practice.

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