Section II. MONUMENTAL AND LITURGICAL EVIDENCE.
|request for prayer for a dead Christian named Agape|
CHAPTER VIII. Monumental Evidence for the Mass. Part 3
In the Catacomb of Priscilla there is an inscription which belongs to the second century. 1 The deceased lady, Agape, begs that the brethren, when they assemble at her place of burial, and impetrate the Father and Son in common prayer, may also remember herself. This inscription is useful as throwing light on three facts. A liturgical service was held in the Catacombs. It was the practice of those assembled to remember the dead in their prayers. Finally, Agape's grave must have been in a chamber which was used as a kind of chapel. From the small size of the chamber it may be concluded that there were held in it only anniversary offerings on behalf of the dead. There is no warrant for saying that it was a meeting place for large congregations, assembled for Sunday worship.
From a saying of St. Cyprian, also, it is clear that a liturgical service was held in the Catacombs. He refers to a seizure of Pope Sixtus II. 2 When Pope Damasus, in one of his characteristic epigrams, alludes to this event, he represents Pope Sixtus as teaching the Heavenly Law, when he was rudely surprised by soldiers. We know little as to the nature of the gathering. But we do know that it was not a Sunday service. The 6th of August, 258 A.D., which is given by Cyprian as the date of the event, fell on Friday. 3 In the Passion of St. Pionius there is found an account of a similar surprise, effected on a party at the grave of Polycarp. 4 The custom of holding liturgical meetings in cemeteries is, also, implied in the prohibition, addressed by Aemilian to Dionysius, Bishop of Carthage, forbidding Christians to attend gatherings or to enter sepulchres. 5 There is a Catacomb inscription bearing on this subject, whose authenticity has been questioned. A certain Alexander is represented as having been seized in the Catacombs and borne to torture. 6 He was just in the act of genuflecting, and was about to sacrifice to the true God. The writer of the epitaph decries a time, when the very caverns could not afford people an opportunity of saving their souls. This inscription is commonly ascribed to the reign of Antoninus Severus. 7 On the other hand, the character of the style is supposed by some to indicate that it belongs to a later period if it does not happen to be a forgery. 8 There is in it the curious description of the worship as an act of sacrificing to the true God. One would not be surprised to meet these explicit terms in the time of St. Cyprian. But they are strange in the early time to which it is attributed. The Eucharist is, indeed, called a sacrifice from the beginning of our period. But the earlier Christian writers do not speak of themselves as sacrificing ; indeed, it has been shown, they sometimes deny that they sacrifice on account of the association of this verb with discarded sacrifices. Because the word " sacrificing" is foreign to the epoch assigned, one cannot regard this inscription as certainly genuine.
That there was a liturgical service in the Catacombs I believe to be clear. It is also certain that this included the Eucharistic celebration, which was the centre of early Christian worship. Was there held only a memorial service ? Or was there, also, held the regular Sunday service ? One cannot know with certainty. That the Catacombs were not intended in ordinary circumstances for regular worship, may be concluded from the small dimensions of their occasional chambers. That the whole Roman congregation did not assemble there on Sundays for the obligatory Service, may be safely presumed. How could all the Roman faithful, whose number Eusebius 9 described as immense, stream out of the city, in days of persecution, without running imminent risk of being detected ? A limited number may have come to the Catacombs, in days of persecution, even for the regular Sunday service. There is no evidence for the suggestion, but it appears to be entirely reasonable.
The Monumental Evidence for the Altar.
|Christians celebrating Mass in the catacombs.|
But we need not be startled if it is very different from the elaborate and costly altars of the present day. The Eucharistic sacrifice included a religious meal. It was modelled after the pattern of the Last Supper. It was but natural., therefore, that, at first, the ordinary dining tables of the time should have been called into requisition. These were wooden, sometimes square, often round. 10 They rested on frames, or on three legs, or on one. Thus, the table in the Sacramental Chambers of Callistus is resting on three legs, is round, and presumably wooden. A similar one is painted in the Cemetery of SS. Peter and Marcellinus in connection with a banquet scene. Another of the same shape is depicted in a lunette which also represents a fish, two loaves marked with a cross, and seven baskets of bread. 11 It would seem then that a tripod table, of wooden material and circular shape, predominated both in general use and in the Eucharistic service in those early times. Those wooden altars were used for a long time in the service of the Church. Optatus of Mileve complained that the Donatists used altars for fire-wood. 12 Augustine tells how Bishop Maximianus was beaten with wood taken from the altar under which he lay hidden. 13 Legislation requiring the use of stone altars occurred a long time after the period with which I am dealing. Were the martyrs' graves also used as altars in our period ? De Rossi, the great interpreter of the Catacombs, held that there were in these early times two kinds of altars—the portable ones, such as I have described, and the Arcosolia or martyrs' tombs in the Catacombs. The hypothesis is commonly accepted, though without any evidence. De Rossi relied on a supposed decree of Pope Felix I. (269-275), prescribing that Masses should be celebrated on the tombs of the martyrs. 14 It it mentioned in .the Liber Pontificalis. But there are no contemporary authorities which vouch for the authenticity of the decree.
Preoccupied, probably, by the theory of De Rossi, Wilpert supposed that underneath the picture of the Fractio Panis Mass was celebrated on a martyr's grave. 15 There was discovered, indeed, in the place a cavity large enough to contain either a child's grave or the ashes of some martyr. Wilpert tried to prove the practice of celebrating Mass over a martyr's grave from evidence which is, in part, much later than the date of the Fractio Panis. 16 He appeals to the testimony of the treatise De Aleatoribus, 17, which is ascribed by some to Pope Victor, that is, to the end of the second century, and by others to the middle of the third. " While Christ is at hand," the document says, " while angels look on, and while martyrs are present, throw your money on the Lord's table." This rhetorical sentence, as well as contemporary literature of a similar character, would not, of necessity, suggest anything more than a spiritual presence of the martyrs. Thus, Origen seems to speak of martyrs who are present in spirit at the liturgical service. 18 Again, Tertullian describes martyrs' souls as present beneath the altar and crying for vengeance. 19 This is an echo of the famous passage of the Apocalypse, according to which the martyrs testify to their wrongs, under the Heavenly altar. 20 Thus, the literature of the period does not prove the use of the martyrs' graves as altars in the second or third century.
The testimony of the monuments is equally uncertain in this respect. There is a stone altar in the Papal Crypt in the cemetery of Callistus, but it rests beside, not upon, the principal grave, that of Pope Sixtus. Similarly, Arcosolia, or martyrs' graves, are pointed out in the Ostrian Catacomb as having been used for altars, but there does not seem to be a particle of positive testimony in favour of this belief.
That the Eucharistic sacrifice was celebrated near, if not upon, the martyrs' tombs appears to be perfectly clear. The disciples of Polycarp assembled at his tomb to celebrate his martyrdom. 21 Such a practice led in course of time to the custom of celebrating the Eucharist over the martyr's body itself. This development may have taken place only when there was a relaxation of Roman vigilance, which, by the direction of the twelve tables of laws, would have prevented the introduction of dead bodies into houses. The law of Pope Felix I., which by some is ascribed to the beginning of the fourth century, 22 and which ordered the celebration of Mass over the tombs of the martyrs, may have merely enforced a fairly widespread usage. The practice, too, may have been suggested by the passage of the Apocalypse, regarding the martyrs resting under the altar. 23 It was natural that the memory of the martyred Christ should be intimately associated with that of his suffering followers.
In connection with the altar represented in the Fractio Panis, there is shown near the presiding official a sketch of what must have been the early chalice. Like the other appurtenances of the Eucharistic service, it was not far removed in construction from the ordinary cups of those days. To us, who are acquainted with the artistic chalices of the present day, it presents a striking appearance. It is a stemless vessel with two handles. Its broad shape—the lower part being almost as wide as the upper—may have been specially intended for use in the Catacombs. Here, light was defective, and the surface of the altar may not always have been very even. But this chalice, it is likely, represents fairly well those in common use even outside the Catacombs.
In the Ostrian Catacomb, in the Via Nomentana there was discovered another vessel, presumably a chalice, and it is now preserved in the Lateran Museum. It is shaped like a goblet and has two handles.
A chalice which was fashioned without any handle was found depicted on a grave slab in the Catacomb of Pontianus. Near it are represented an anchor, a dove, and three loaves marked with crosses. It is said to belong to the third century. 24
At this early period, chalices were commonly made of glass. Glass was frequently used in the vessels employed for the ordinary purpose of drinking. There were found in the Catacombs several gilt glasses, which are now preserved in the Lateran Museum. They are mere fragments, being the bottoms of glasses used for drinking. On them are represented several Biblical scenes like those which are drawn on the walls of the Catacombs—Moses striking the rock, Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent, Jonas cast from the belly of the whale, and many such Scriptural events. The majority of these must have been used for some religious purpose, most probably for the feast of the Agape. Possibly, some of them are fragments of very old chalices. But many of them cannot be such, for mottoes written on them—as " Drink and Live Long"—are irreconcilable with the august liturgy of the Eucharist. At any rate, they show the early practice of using glass vessels, which may well be expected to find a reflection also in the Eucharist, itself a meal and commemorative of the simple Supper of the Master. Irenaeus, too, in his invaluable account of the heretical juggler who imitated the Christian consecration and wished to show blood in the chalice by converting it from a white liquid into a red, gives a hint that the chalice in liturgical use was made of glass. 25 Otherwise, it would be difficult for the magician to show the change in its contents. The Liber Pontificalis may be cited as confirmatory ; it speaks of glass patens in the reign of Pope Zephyrinus.
As in the case of vessels destined for use in the Agape, so on the Eucharistic chalice there were scenes painted on glass, just as, at present, scenes are engraved in the silver or gold. Tertullian speaks of the ".paintings on the chalices." 26 In another place he speaks more definitely of the "Shepherd Who is depicted on the chalice " 27 Thus the picture of the Good Shepherd was fittingly represented on the chalice which was destined to contain His own precious blood.
2 Cf. Wieland, ibid, S, 85.
3 Eodem loco.
4 Ruinart, Acta Martyrum, p, 118.
5 Euseb., H.E, vii., 71, M.P.G. t. xx, 665 sq.
6 Monumenta Eccl, Liturgica, t, I., cxxxii. Alexander genua flectens vero Deo sacrificaturus ad supplicia ducitur.
8 Cf, Wieland, Mensa und Confessio, I. S. 98, fussnote 4.
9 Eusebius H. E. vi. 43.
10 Cf. Catholic Encyclopaedia Art. Altar, also Dictionnaire d' Archeologie et Liturgie. Art. Autel.
11 De Rossi Roma Sotteranea t. 11 tav. xv., 2.
12 De Schism, Donatistarum,
13 Ep. 185.
14 Liber Pontificalis. Note on Felix I.
15 Fractio Panis, S. 18.
16 Eodem loco.
17 xi. Migne iv., 835.
18 Hom 3 in Jeremiam,
19 Scorp 12, De Oratione 5.
20 Apoc. v. 6, 9.
21 Martyrium Polycarp. c. 18.
22 Wieland, 1. c, 148.
23 Apoc. 6, 9.
24 Cf. Wilpert, Fractio Panis, p. 80.
25 Adv, Haer, I. c. 13. P.G., vii., 580.
26 De Pud., c. 7.
27 De Pud, c. 10.