The Third Century between Peaceful Growth and Persecution – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass, Part III
Apr 28, 2021

The Third Century between Peaceful Growth and Persecution – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass, Part III

The status of early Christians in the Roman Empire was precarious, and government officials often regarded them with suspicion, but actual persecution was local and sporadic before the middle of the third century. The brutal measures under the Emperors Decius in 250 and Valerius in 258 affected Christian communities throughout the Empire, but they were followed by a period of peaceful growth, until, in 303, the Emperor Diocletian unleashed the last Roman persecution of Christians before Constantine’s official recognition of Christianity in 313.

Dedicated church buildings appear in the second half of the third century. Eusebius of Caesarea speaks about the construction of large “churches”—he uses the specific term—on the foundations of older buildings that had become too small for the growing congregations of Christians.[1] Eusebius also presents the destruction of churches as a characteristic of the Diocletianic persecution. These pre-Constantinian churches could be provided with precious objects for worship, as emerges from the report of a confiscation in the church of Cirta in North Africa dated May 19, 303.

Place of Worship

The Temple background to early Christian worship calls into question the conventional narrative that the early Church identified itself exclusively as an eschatological body of believers that rejected ideas of sacred space and saw no need for places dedicated specifically to ritual and worship. In a recent study, Jenn Cianca argues that Christians met in sacred places that were by necessity temporal, not permanent, and were constituted through ritual, especially the Eucharist. Drawing on insights from social anthropology and ritual studies, Cianca proposes the conception of a ritually constructed sacrality, which “allows for an organic, slower-moving development of early Christian sacred space, rather than reading a sea change into the building of the Lateran in Rome.”[2]

This new perspective also illumines the disputed question whether pre-Constantinian Christian references to “altar” should be interpreted metaphorically or whether they designate material objects actually used in worship. Phenomenologically, the wooden tables for the early Christian Eucharist were very different from the stone altars associated with the slaughter of animals in pagan worship. However, as Stefan Heid shows, the sacrality of an altar did not depend on its form or material, but on its function. In classical antiquity, various objects could serve as an altar for offerings to the gods, including metal tripods, stone pillars, wooden tables, and massive stone altars.[3] Moreover, the fact that an item was not fixed but mobile did not make it profane. Against this background, a portable wooden table that was brought into a Christian meeting place for the Eucharist could nonetheless be considered an altar and be charged with sacredness.[4]

Time to Pray

When we come to consider the day and time for the celebration of the Eucharist, the importance of the first day of the Jewish week is evident in early Christianity. This is the day of Christ’s resurrection from the dead (Mark 16:2; John 20:1, 19), and it is observed in a special way by the community (1 Corinthians 16:2; Acts 20:7-12). The “Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10) is most likely to be identified with the first day of the week, and on this day the Eucharist is held (Didache 14). The Epistle of Barnabas has commonly been dated to 130-135, but in recent scholarship support has grown for an earlier date around 96-98. In this letter, which some churches accepted as part of the canonical Scriptures, Christians are instructed to celebrate not the Sabbath, but the first day of the week, which is acclaimed as the “eighth day, the beginning of another world.” This eighth day is marked by a new creation because it is the day of Jesus’ resurrection.[5] In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr also explains the special significance of “the day of the sun” for the celebration of the Eucharist by reference to the beginning of God’s creation and to Christ’s resurrection.[6]

Given that the Jewish day is reckoned to begin with sunset, the weekly celebration of the Eucharist may initially have taken place on Saturday evening after the end of the Sabbath, as is increasingly argued by scholars. By the early third century, however, Tertullian records that the “sacrament of the Eucharist” or the “sacrifice” at the “altar of God” is celebrated in the morning—presumably on Sunday.[7] Tertullian clearly distinguishes the Eucharist from the convivial “supper of God” or “banquet of the Lord” held in the evening.[8] Tertullian also testifies to the requirement to fast before receiving the Eucharist, as does the Apostolic Tradition, and this points to a morning celebration.[9] In the middle of the third century, Cyprian of Carthage confirms that the Eucharist, which he calls dominicum (literally, “that which belongs to the Lord”) is separate from the evening meal and is held in the morning in celebration of the Lord’s resurrection.[10]

In most religious traditions, the position taken in prayer and the layout of holy places is determined by a “sacred direction.” From the second century onwards, it was a matter of course for Christians to pray facing east.[11] The Didascalia Apostolorum, a fourth-century Syriac Church order based on a Greek original believed to date to the early third century, rules that the liturgical assembly, both clergy and laity, should stand and turn towards the east in prayer.[12] The Psalm verse adduced to authenticate this rule, “Give glory to God, who rides upon the heaven of heavens toward the east” (Psalm 67[68]:34), is understood as a prophecy of the Lord’s ascension. Christ ascended towards the east, the place of Paradise (Genesis 2:8), from where his second coming is expected. A broad stream of liturgical sources from the fourth century onwards confirms the practice of facing east. The lifting up of hearts that introduced the Eucharistic prayer (Sursum corda—Habemus ad Dominum) was accompanied by prayer gestures of the entire assembly: standing upright, raising one’s arms, looking upwards, and turning towards the east.[13]

Unleavened Theology

The works of Christian authors from different regions in the late second and early third century, including Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 202), who was born in Asia Minor, Clement (d. c. 215) and Origen of Alexandria (d. 253), Tertullian (d. after 220) and Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), offer rich contributions to a theology of the Eucharist. Their varied lines of thought converge in a clear understanding of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist and a realistic sense of the presence of Christ in the consecrated offerings and of the salvific effects they bestow on those who receive them in faith. They also testify to the great reverence in which Christians held the body and blood of Christ. Of particular interest is Cyprian’s very influential Letter 63, wherein he contends with groups who use water in place of wine for the Eucharist—a practice that is known from the Syrian Acts of Thomas and other New Testament apocrypha.

Cyprian elaborates a theology of the Eucharist as the offering of an unbloody sacrifice in remembrance of the Passion of Christ. In the sacrifice of the Church, Christ, the High Priest of the New Covenant, offers himself, and the ordained priest acts in the person of Christ by imitating what he did at the Last Supper.[14] Cyprian comments on the sacrificial connotation of wine in Old Testament prophecies and argues that its use is inseparable from the liturgical memorial of Christ’s Passion. Moreover, to reject its consumption in the Eucharist is unfaithful to the Last Supper tradition. To underscore his argument, Cyprian cites the words of institution from Matthew 26 and 1 Corinthians 11.[15]

For previous installments of Father Lang’s Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass series, see Part I and Part II. Part III of the series can be found here: Early Eucharistic Prayers: Oral Improvisation and Sacred Language


  1. Eusebius of Caesarea, History of the Church, VIII,1,5.
  2. Jenn Cianca, Sacred Ritual, Profane Space: The Roman House as Early Christian Meeting Place, Studies in Christianity and Judaism 1 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018), 167. A similar argument is made by Ann Marie Yasin, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community, Greek Culture in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 44.
  3. See Stefan Heid, Altar und Kirche: Prinzipien christlicher Liturgie (Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 2019), 54-67.
  4. See ibid., 149-157.
  5. Epistle of Barnabas, 15,8-9.
  6. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67,8.
  7. Tertullian, De corona, 3,3, and De oratione, 19,1-3.
  8. Tertullian, Ad uxorem, 2,8,8; Apologeticum, 39,16-17; De spectaculis, 13,4.
  9. Tertullian, Ad uxorem, 2,5,3; Apostolic Tradition, 36.
  10. Cyprian of Carthage, Ep. 63,16,4.
  11. See Uwe Michael Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 35-71.
  12. Didascalia apostolorum, 12.
  13. See Robert F. Taft, “The Dialogue before the Anaphora in the Byzantine Eucharistic Liturgy. II: The Sursum corda”, in Orientalia Christiana Periodica 54 (1988), 47-77, at 74-75.
  14. Cyprian of Carthage, Ep. 63, 14 and 17.
  15. Ibid., 9-10.
Father Uwe Michael Lang

Father Uwe Michael Lang, a native of Nuremberg, Germany, is a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri in London. He holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and teaches Church History at Mater Ecclesiae College, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Allen Hall Seminary, London. He is an associate staff member at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and on the Visiting Faculty of the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein, IL. He is a Corresponding Member of the Neuer Schülerkreis Joseph Ratzinger / Papst Benedikt XVI, a Member of the Council of the Henry Bradshaw Society, a Board Member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and the Editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.