Homily – October 23th, 2011
In the two millennial history of our Church, Constantine the Great ranks among the greatest individuals. His rank in the Roman Empire appears in his titled name: Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus. Born about the year 272, he became Emperor from 306 to 337 A.D. Previously, the emperor Diocletian instituted the worst persecution of Christians; Diocletian burned the churches, burned the sacred scriptures, took all holy vessels, confiscated all Christian land, and put worshippers to death. But Diocletian became enfeebled and was replaced. Constantine and the co-emperor issued a letter that became known as the Edict of Milan in 313. In important part, that edict reads thus. When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanurn [Milan, Italy],,,we thought…those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence…we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts, may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence. (from Lactantius; Edward Foley, From Age to Age, 81) This Edict mentions only the Christians, but it extends toleration to other religions. Constantine became involved in Christianity. Shortly before his death, Constantine received baptism. Under his reign, the Church of Martyrs gave way to the Christianization which would sweep across the Empire; an illegal sect becomes the preferred religion.
Parallel to the Church becoming the Empire’s official religion, the settings for Christian worship grew into the basilica. This Greek word fundamentally means “hall of the king.” The basilica could receive a very large number of people. A stone altar dominated the apse, and here the priest celebrated the Eucharist with the people gathering around the altar. Such a structure would invite processions. Also, the music changed to suite a larger audience and a larger structure.
Light and sun imagery became important for Christian liturgy. Christians felt encouraged to pray toward the rising sun, and the churches developed with their apse toward the East.
Only bishops, one in a city, offered the Eucharistic sacrifice. They at first improvised the Mass prayers. However, because of theological controversies, a concern arose for orthodoxy in public prayer. A synod at Hippo [modern Algeria], attended by Augustine, required that prayers at the altar should be directed to God the Father; prayers examined at the ought not to be employed until authorized (Foley 111). Some of the prayers become standardized, and these reside with us today. The Kyrie eleison appears in the fourth century; the people respond by singing this prayer. The Gloria imitates the Old Testament psalms, and it becomes part of the Mass. The Sanctus was sung, perhaps as early as the third century. And the Agnus Dei probably entered the Mass in the Eastern Empire in an early century. Each of these pieces has its own history and each of them employed music. Together, these prayers evidence an emerging standard part of Mass. (Foley, 96-97)
Language matters. The first language of Jesus and His apostles was probably Aramaic, closely related to Hebrew. However, in the Empire, the language of currency was Greek that flavored everyone’s tongue. Every book of the New Testament was written in Greek. Although Christian worship was conducted in whatever language served the local community, Latin would replace Greek, and in time Latin becomes the language for our liturgy. Tertullian and Augustine, both from North Africa, created liturgical vocabulary for the Church. Latin becomes the exclusive language for worship in the Roman Rite; it lasts until the middle of the twentieth century.
given up for you.” “[My blood] will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” These expressions make clear that sacrifice underlies the basic action of the Mass. “Certainly the first-century Christians …understood Jesus’ death as a sacrifice (cf. I Cor.5:7). Paul’s contrast of the Eucharist with pagan sacrifice (I Cor.10:14-22) hints at the fuller identification of Eucharist as sacrifice. St. John’s gospel (especially John 6:51) also carries the notion of sacrifice. Our Eucharist is a sacrificial meal.
This sacrificial spirituality is embedded in the story of the sacrifice of Abraham, in which his son Isaac is never physically sacrificed—though Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22). At the ultimate moment, the Lord’s messenger tells Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy…. I know now how devoted you are to God, since you did not withhold from me your own beloved son” Gen.22:12).
The Christians included sacrifice in their attitude, and always they thought in spiritual terms. In no way did the Christians understand any literal or physical notion. Our Lord’s life and death is fundamentally self-giving. In Gethsemane, Christ prayed that the Lord’s will would be accomplished. On the cross, Jesus handed over His spirit: “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” In the Eucharist, we renew that Sacrifice centers our prayer today: God our Father, “Look with favor on your Church’s offering, and see the Victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself. Grant that we who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III). Amen.