By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Holy Week Notes from a Fourth Century Nun: Worship in the Newly Legalized Church

When the Covid-19 pandemic first came upon us just over a year ago, it was Lent. My church thought at first that our Lenten exile from in-person worship and transition to virtual worship would be brief, and that it would end with the celebrations of Holy Week and Easter that we were used to. Of course, we all know that it did not happen quite that way. As of this writing, we’re anticipating our gathering on Palm Sunday 2021 — not 2020 — as our first time together again for worship. 

Part of the pain we felt came from our inability to see our fellow church members. But part, too, came from our inability to worship according to traditions that have been passed down for millenia. Much of what has been preserved about the church’s early traditions of praise and prayer, and above all of the way they marked Christianity’s holiest week, comes not from official documents or papal pronouncements, but from the diary of a fourth-century nun. 1700 years, ago, she rode along a dusty, dangerous road — almost 2,500 miles of it — from Galicia in northwest Spain to the far-off Holy land. She was fulfilling a dream: to see for herself the places where her Lord had lived, the roads he had walked, and the tomb where he was buried and rose again. Her name was Egeria.

Egeria made it there, and home again, and in between spent three years journeying around the eastern Mediterranean, visiting all the major cities and holy sites. And most fortunately for us, Egeria kept a diary during her travels. She might have created this record to store up the precious memories of the trip for herself, or it might have been a way to share her journey with her sister nuns back home. Either way, this diary provides a vivid picture of daily worship and the celebration of Holy Week in the newly legalized and prosperous Christian faith in one of the major cities of the empire.

Daily, hourly praise

In Egeria’s day, the office — the daily round of prayer that would eventually move behind the doors of monasteries and convents — was still very much daily public prayer. She reports at length the services at the traditional place of the Resurrection (called the Anastasis), beginning with early morning worship by the local monks and virgins “and also some lay men and women, especially those who were willing to wake at such an early hour.” Every day certain presbyters and deacons from the city’s clergy participated as well. They joined “in singing the refrains to the psalms, hymns, and antiphons” until daybreak, with the clergy praying between each hymn. With dawn came more clergy, including the bishop: “He goes straight into the cave, and inside the screen he first says the Prayer for All (mentioning any names he wishes) and blesses the catechumens and then another prayer and blesses the faithful. Then he comes outside the screen and everyone comes up to kiss his hand.

All of this repeated at noon and at three o’clock. At four o’clock, the service also included the lighting of lamps: “The fire is brought not from outside, but from the cave — inside the screen — where a lamp is kept burning night and day.” The usual singing and praying commenced. After the service a procession was made from the tomb to Golgotha, where the bishop repeated a ritual both in front of and behind a cross that stood on the reputed site of the Crucifixion. At each place, the baptized as well as the catechumens approached and kissed his hand. There amid the shimmering glow of “great glass lanterns” and a myriad of candles, he blessed each of them in turn. As the last believers came for their blessings, dusk was darkening into night.

“The whole assembly groans over all the Lord underwent”

Egeria also describes the more elaborate worship at the Anastasis basilica on Sunday mornings. Before dawn people began to gather outside the tomb. They sat “waiting there singing hymns and antiphons, and they have prayers between, since there are always presbyters and deacons there ready for the vigil.” At sunrise, the bishop began the service. All stood to sing three psalms, and after the clergy offered prayers, they incensed the entire worship space “so that the whole basilica is filled with the smell.” Then the bishop took up the Gospel book and read aloud the story of the resurrection to a heart-felt accompaniment: “at the beginning of the reading the whole assembly groans and laments over all that the lord underwent for us, and the way that they weep would move even the hardest heart to tears.”

Although some then — as now — went home to sleep after this early-morning service, the worship did not end: now it moved to the great basilica built by Constantine over the traditional site of Golgotha. From dawn until about ten in the morning, many of the presbyters preached sermons. Then “the monks escort the bishop with hymns from the Great Church to the sanctuary [at the Anastasis]. And when the bishop arrives with hymns, all the doors of the sanctuary basilica are opened, and all the people enter (that is, the faithful; for the catechumens [those preparing to be baptized] enter not).” The baptized Christians took the eucharist together and then departed.

Egeria’s diary also gives us a dramatic account of how Easter was celebrated, as well as an explanation of how those catechumens, who had spent up to three years learning about their new-found faith, prepared for baptism and full inclusion into the Christian faith. At the beginning of Lent, one of the presbyters put forward the names of those among the catechumens who he felt were ready for the sacrament. Each candidate then came to be examined by the bishop seated in his chair in the Great Church: “as they come in one by one, the bishop asks their neighbors questions about them: ‘Is this person leading a good life?’” If he was satisfied with the answers, the bishop approved them.

From Exorcism to the Easter vigil

On Palm Sunday, the beginning of “the Great week,” the bishop and all the people processed down the Mount of olives “with psalms and antiphons, all the time repeating ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the lord.’” The daily round of prayer services included readings about the events of the Passion.

On Wednesday “a presbyter . . . reads the passage about Judas Iscariot going to the Jews and fixing what they must pay him to betray the lord. The people groan and lament at this reading.” On Holy Thursday, participants received the Eucharist at the traditional place of Jesus’ ascension, and then in a singing procession took the bishop to Gethsemane. On Friday, the bishop was seated in a chair at Golgotha and deacons brought him a box containing “the holy wood of the cross,” which all the people — catechumens included — came up to and kissed.

Unfortunately, Egeria was not so detailed about the Easter vigil itself, saying only, “on Saturday . . . they keep their paschal vigil like us.”

From other sources, however — chiefly postbaptismal sermons by Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 387), John Chrysostom (d. 407), and Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) in the east and Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) in the west — we have a fairly good picture of what she might have witnessed, at least as far as the baptisms went.

Naked as the day they were (re-)born

First the candidates, in strong language, renounced sin and Satan. This was quite possibly done outside the baptistery itself and facing westward — away from Eden and therefore toward the devil, for as Cyril wrote, “when you renounce satan you trample underfoot your entire covenant with him and abrogate your former treaty with Hell. The gates of God’s paradise are open to you, that garden which God planted in the East.”

The candidates then, in allegiance to Christ, submitted to be stripped — candidates were baptized naked in areas separated by sex, as a fitting symbol of new birth — and were anointed with oil. They were then either totally immersed in the font or had copious amounts of water poured on them. Preachers regularly associated the act of being baptized with dying and rising with Christ and thus gaining the salvation his death and resurrection had won; as Cyril said, “In his case all these events really occurred, but in your case there was a likeness of death and suffering, but the reality, not the likeness, of salvation.”

The baptized then received new white garments and the kiss of peace. Now for the first time, they could join the community in the Eucharist, as they had been unable to do throughout all the years of their catechumenate.

Of course, Egeria and the others were describing elaborately planned and executed worship services carried out at Christianity’s chief pilgrimage spot. But many of these details were echoed, in smaller and less ornate ways, wherever fourth-century Christians worshipped. We see in her story how foundational the bishop was, not only to church government and discipline, but also to the assembly at worship. We see, at the center and cornerstone of that worship, the Eucharist, celebrated weekly and in many places more frequently than that, surrounded by many songs and prayers.

The “Stuff” of Early Worship

We see the importance of material objects — the wood of the cross, the Gospel book, the lamps, the oil — and sacred places. We see the shape of the Christian year — which actually had two major “hinges,” though Egeria only describes the Lent-Easter cycle. (The other was the commemoration both of Christ’s birth and of his anticipated Second Coming remembered through the cycle of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.) And, finally, we see the careful separation of baptized believers from those preparing to join the community. The catechumens could stay to hear the preaching, praying, and singing, but they were ushered out before the Eucharist to have the Scriptures and the history and theology of Christianity explained to them, and to fast and pray in preparation for the life-changing sacrament they would later undergo.

We don’t know how Egeria’s sisters reacted to her travel diary. Were they amazed? Moved? Surprised? Did they make changes in their own worship practices? However her sisters responded, this fourth-century monastic pilgrim has left to us, her twenty-first-century sisters and brothers, a great gift. Her account has become for us a window into the worship of those who lived in those first generations of Christianity’s legalization in the empire. As we long for the Covid-19 pandemic to recede and allow us to once again join them, through Egeria we can almost hear and see our fourth-century compatriots as they sing, pray, breathe in the incense, kiss the cross, feel the baptismal waters wash over them, and emerge from those waters in gratitude to meet the mysteries of the Holy Meal.

This article was adapted from The History of Worship from Constantine to the Reformation, and is used by permission of Christian History Institute.

Photo by World Maps from StockSnap.

About the Author

Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the managing editor of Christian History magazine, the author of The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism and Church History in Seven Sentences, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, their two daughters, and their dog. (Photo: Luther Oconer)

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