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5. Times of Celebration

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XVI. Of the Lord's Supper

5. Times of Celebration

Under this head two points of inquiry arise.

  1. At what hour or part of the day.
  2. How often, and on what particular occasions, was the Lord's supper celebrated?

In regard to these particulars, there appears to have been no uniformity of practice or harmony of views in the primitive church. A brief summary of the usages of the church at different times is however given below.

  1. The time of day. This solemnity was originally instituted in the evening or at night. Matt. 26:20, 1 Cor. 11:23, and on some occasions was celebrated by night by the apostles; and probably at other times of the day also, Acts 2:46, 1 Cor. 16:2.

    Nothing definite can be determined from Justin Martyr respecting the time of celebrating the sacrament.

    At a later period mention is made by Ambrose, and Augustine, of the celebration of it by night on certain occasions, and as an exception to the general rule. It was afterwards administered in the morning even on the occasions mentioned by them.

    Tertullian speaks of the celebration of it on Easter eve. This, in the fourth and fifth centuries, was the most solemn period for the celebration, both of baptism, and of the Lord's supper; and was observed as such even in the ninth century. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries it was transferred to the evening, and then to the afternoon of the day before Easter, and afterwards, to the morning of the same day.

    The celebration on Christmas eve continued until a late period. To this ancient custom of celebrating the eucharist by night is to be traced the modern custom of burning lighted tapers on such occasions. 

    The Roman laws forbade assemblies by night, even for religious worship. For this reason, probably, the early Christians selected the last hours of the night, towards morning, for holding their religious meetings. This was neither a forbidden nor a suspicious hour, and yet it was sufficient to satisfy their views of the necessity of celebrating the eucharist by night. Other reasons were afterwards sought out, drawn from scriptural representations of Christ, as the Sun of righteousness, Dayspring from on high, Light of the world, etc. Nine o'clock in the morning became the canonical hour as early as the fifth century. And it was settled that the sacrament should be celebrated on Sundays and high festivals at this hour, and at twelve o'clock on other occasions.

  2. Times and Seasons. In the primitive church, it was an universal custom to administer this ordinance on Thursday in Easter week, that being the day of its original institution. In commemoration of this, some contended that the ordinance ought to be restricted to an annual celebration on this day; but the prevailing sentiment of the church was in favor of frequent communion, as a means of quickening them in the christian life; and in conformity with what they believed to be the injunction of St. Paul, 1 Cor. 11:26.

    Whatever theories may exist respecting the original institution of the christian sabbath, it is an established historical truth that it was observed very early in the second century; and that the sacrament was usually celebrated on that day. This was doubtless the status dies, the fixed, appointed day of Pliny. It is distinctly mentioned in the epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, p. 57. The genuineness of the passage has indeed been called in question, and the controversy is still unsettled. The observance of the day may be clearly shown from Tertullian Justin Martyr says, "We all meet together on Sunday;" and the reason assigned is, that this is the first day of the week, when in the beginning light was created, and when also our Lord Jesus Christ, arose from the dead. It was called also dies panis – the day of bread, with evident allusion to the celebration of the sacrament on that day. The weekly celebration of the sacrament was strongly recommended at the reformation, but no positive enactment was made to that effect.

    But we must not suppose that the celebration of this ordinance in the ancient church was restricted to any particular or appointed season. On the contrary, it was observed to a considerable extent daily in the primitive church, and probably by the apostles themselves, Acts 2:42, 46. Irenaeus says, "It is the will of the Lord that we should make our offering at his altar frequently, and without intermission, sic et ideo nos quoque offerre Dominus vult munus ad altare frequenter sine intermissioney Express testimonies to this effect, of a date somewhat later, are cited in the index. 

    The celebration of this rite immediately after the baptism of adults, on the eve of Easter, and of Whitsuntide, has been already mentioned. And also on Christmas eve. It was after the discontinuance of the stated times for baptism and of the festive vigils preceding, that the communion was transferred to the morning, as has been already mentioned.

Serm. 8. in Ps. 118.

Ep. 118. ad Jan. c. 5–7.

Ad Uxor. lib. ii. c. 4.

Amalarius, De divin. Offic. lib. iv. c. .30.

Canones Apost.: Hieronymus contra Vigilant, c. 4, 7: Innocent III. De Myster. Miss. lib. ii. c.21.

See chap. i. §1: Comp. J. H. Boemer, Dissert. 12. juris eccl. ant.: Dissert, i. De stato Christianorum die. p. 5–35.

Ad Nation, lib. i. c. 13.

Apol. i. c. 67.

Advr. Haeres. lib. iv. c. 34.

Tertullian. De Jejun. c. 14: De Idol. c. 7: Cyprian. Ep. 54: Ambros. Ep. 14: Marcell. sor.: Augustin. Ep. 1 18. ad Januar. c. 2: ibid. c. 3: Chrysostom. Hom. 3. in Ep. ad Eph. torn. v. p. 886. ed. Francof.: see also p. 633.


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