After the Peace of the Church: Liturgy in a Christian Empire – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass, Part V
Jun 23, 2021

After the Peace of the Church: Liturgy in a Christian Empire – A Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass, Part V

In 313, the Emperor Constantine granted Christianity toleration and legal status. This act ended the last persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, which had begun under Diocletian in 303, and it was hailed as the “Peace of the Church.” The Constantinian settlement provided social and material conditions in which the religious practice of ordinary Christians could flourish, and many new converts (though not all with pure motives) flocked into the newly built churches. From this period, the first written sources of liturgical texts emerge, and they usually carry the approbation of a bishop or a synod of bishops. It was widely considered necessary to formalize Christian worship in order to retain standards of doctrinal content and of prayer language.

The Antiochene Tradition

The leading episcopal sees of Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt are associated with the formation of the “classical” anaphoras (Eucharistic prayers) of the Eastern Christian traditions. An early example of an Antiochene anaphora is found in the eighth book of the Apostolic Constitutions, a comprehensive Church order ascribed to St. Clement of Rome but compiled in the region of Antioch between 375 and 400. The eighth book contains a complete Eucharistic rite, which used to be known as the “Clementine Liturgy.” This detailed account follows the pattern recorded by Justin in the mid-second century, but offers more detail, listing four Scripture readings (law, prophets, epistle, gospel), a sermon, the dismissal of catechumens, penitents and other groups, prayers of the faithful in the form of a litany, the exchange of peace, offertory, anaphora, communion rites, thanksgiving for communion and dismissal. The typical structure of the Antiochene anaphora can be summarized as follows:[1]

Introductory dialogue with an initial Trinitarian greeting modelled on 2 Corinthians 13:13 (“The grace of…”)

Praise and thanksgiving (“It is truly right and just…”)

Introduction to the Sanctus

Sanctus (Trisagion)


Institution Narrative





The Byzantine Rite developed from the Antiochene liturgical family.[2] Within this tradition, the Eucharistic prayer with the greatest historical impact is the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom, which by the 11th century had replaced the Byzantine version of the Anaphora of St. Basil as the most frequently used in the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). Liturgical scholar Robert Taft has made a compelling case that John Chrysostom, when he became bishop of Constantinople, introduced from his native Antioch an early form of the anaphora that bears his name, revising it for use in the capital.

Another important influence on the Byzantine Rite was the liturgical practice of Jerusalem, where stational liturgies at the holy sites proved to be very popular. This practice was imitated by pilgrims in their local churches, above all Constantinople and Rome.[3] The Jerusalem cycle of feasts had significant influence in both East and West. The Syriac liturgical traditions belong to the Antiochene family but also show particular and complex developments.[4]

The Alexandrian Tradition

The liturgical tradition of Alexandria, the center of Christianity in Egypt, is well documented and may reach back to the third century (see the previous installment on the Barcelona Anaphora). The typical elements of the Alexandrian anaphora can be listed as follows:

Introductory dialogue (“The Lord be with [you] all…”)

Praise and thanksgiving (“It is truly right and just…”)

Intercessions (including the deceased)

Introduction to the Sanctus

Sanctus (Trisagion)

Epiclesis I

Institution Narrative


Epiclesis II


The two epicleses are a characteristic feature of the Alexandrian anaphora. Regarding the first epiclesis, there seem to be two strands of tradition. On the one hand, sources such as the Barcelona Anaphora and the fragmentary Deir Balyzeh papyrus from Upper Egypt (between sixth and eighth century) include a first epiclesis asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the offerings of bread and wine and make them the body and blood of Christ. The second epiclesis, after the institution narrative, petitions for the spiritual fruits of sacramental communion. On the other hand, in the Eucharistic prayer of Sarapion, in the fully developed Greek Anaphora of St. Mark and in its Coptic version, the Anaphora of St. Cyril of Alexandria, the first epiclesis is less specific, asking for the blessing of the sacrifice through the coming of the Holy Spirit. Instead, the prayer for the consecration of the eucharistic offerings forms part of the second epiclesis. Perhaps this could be seen as an assimilation to the Antiochene pattern. The Egyptian version of the Anaphora of St. Basil (which is related to but distinct from the Byzantine Basil and can be classified as West Syrian in structure) might have been used in Egypt since the mid-fourth century. The anaphora is known in its original Greek as well as in Coptic dialects of Sahidic and Bohairic, and it became the standard anaphora of the Coptic Divine Liturgy.[5]

Scripture Readings

While there are no lectionary sources for the celebration of the Eucharist before the late fourth century, it is very likely that, for major feasts and special seasons of the developing liturgical year, the appropriate pericopes, that is, “particular scriptural passages separated from their biblical context,”[6] were used from very early on. The selection of particular biblical texts can be expected above all for the annual celebration of Easter and structured the pre-paschal period of preparation that was to become the forty days of Lent as well as the fifty days of the paschal season known since the late second century as Pentecost. The annual festivals of martyrs, such as Peter and Paul in Rome or Polycarp in Smyrna, would also have been associated with particular readings. Fixed readings for liturgical feasts and seasons are indicated in sermons and writings of Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo.

There is no evidence for the once popular theory that, before the systematic organization of pericopes in the fourth and fifth centuries, there was a continuous or consecutive reading (lectio continua) of Scripture at the Eucharist. When early Christian theologians comment on an entire biblical book in the form of consecutive homilies, such as Origen in the first half of the third century and John Chrysostom in the late fourth century, this did not happen in the context of the Eucharist—leaving aside the question whether they delivered these homilies at all or whether they were literary products. At the celebration of the Eucharist, the presiding bishop would usually choose the readings and there is no suggestion that he was bound to a continuous reading of a biblical book.

Liturgy and Music

It is often assumed that the chanting of psalms and the singing of hymns had a natural place in early Christian worship. However, Joseph Dyer cautions that “[p]salmody was not an essential component of the Mass from the beginning, and the loci appropriate for singing were only gradually occupied.”[7] In Greco-Roman culture, singing at evening banquets was common and Christians followed this custom, but this did not happen at celebrations of the Eucharist in the early morning.[8] Dyer also notes “the possibly thin line that separated stylized reading from simple song in the ancient world.”[9] Thus the formal recitation of texts could have provided an opening for the introduction of chanting psalms. By the late fourth century, psalms were sung in the Eucharistic liturgy between the readings and during communion (especially Psalm 33[34], which was an obvious choice because of the verse: “Taste and see that the Lord is good”).


While the fourth century re-shaped the celebration of the Eucharist—owing to the new public status of Christianity and the possibilities offered by monumental church architecture—the theological and spiritual contents of the “classical” Eucharistic prayers build on the foundations that were laid in the previous centuries. The next installment in this series will focus on the emerging Latin liturgical tradition.

For previous installments of Father Lang’s Short History of the Roman Rite of Mass series, see Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.


  1. For a selection of ancient anaphoras in English translation with useful introductions, see R. C. D. Jasper and G. J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed, 3rd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987).
  2. For a concise introduction with ample reference to further literature, see Robert F. Taft, The Byzantine Rite: A Short History, American Essays in Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992).
  3. See John F. Baldovin, The Urban Character of Christian Worship: The Origins, Development, and Meaning of Stational Liturgy, Orientalia Cristiana Analecta 228 (Rome: Pont. Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1987).
  4. See the overview of Bryan D. Spinks, Do This in Remembrance of Me: The Eucharist from the Early Church to the Present Day, SCM Studies in Worship and Liturgy (London: SCM Press, 2013), 141-170.
  5. On Egyptian anaphoras and the Coptic liturgy, see Spinks, Do This in Remembrance of Me, 94-120.
  6. Cyrille Vogel, Medieval Liturgy: An Introduction to the Sources, rev. and trans. William G. Storey and Niels Krogh Rasmussen (Washington, DC: The Pastoral Press, 1981), 300.
  7. Joseph Dyer, Review of James McKinnon, The Advent Project, in Early Music History 20 (2001), 279-309, at 283.
  8. See Christopher Page, The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010) 55–71 and his collection of sources at 72–83.
  9. Dyer, Review, 284-285. ↑

Image Source: Wikimedia/AB, Emperor Constantine Holding Model of the City of Constantinople

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.