Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Applauding the Preacher in the Early Church

Ever wondered what teaching and preaching were like in the early Church?
Fortunately we have the first-hand account of Egeria, a Spanish nun who visited the Holy Land in the fourth century. She was thoughtful enough to write to her convent back home with detailed descriptions of the Holy Land and particularly of worship in Jerusalem. Here she is describing the instruction of the catechumens by the bishop of Jerusalem during Great Lent:
His subject is God's law; during the forty days he goes through the whole Bible, beginning with Genesis, and first relating the literal meaning of each passage, then interpreting its spiritual meaning. he also teaches them at this time all about the resurrection and the faith.

And this is called "catechesis." After five weeks' teaching they receive the Creed, whose content he explains article by article in the same way as he explained the Scriptures, first literally and then spiritually. Thus all the people in these parts are able to follow the Scriptures when they are read in church, since there has been teaching on all the Scriptures from six to nine in the morning all through Lent, three hours' catechesis a day. At ordinary services when the bishop sits and preaches, ladies and sisters, the faithful utter exclamations, but when they come and hear him explaining the catechesis, their exclamations are far louder, God is my witness; and when it is related and interpreted like this they ask questions on each point. (46:1-4)
Egeria then describes the introduction to the Christian Mysteries to the newly-baptized just before Pascha (Easter):
Then Easter comes, and during the eight days from Easter Day to the eighth day, after the dismissal has taken place in the church and they have come within singing into the Anastasis [the Holy Sepulcher], it does not take long to say the prayer and bless the faithful; then the bishop stands leaning against the railing in the cave of the Anastasis, and interprets all that takes place in Baptism. The newly-baptized come into the Anastasis, and any of the faithful who wish to hear the Mysteries; but, while the bishop is teaching, no catechumen comes in, and the doors are kept shut in case any try to enter. As the bishop preaches on each point and speaks about it, the appluase is so loud that it can be heard outside the church. Indeed the way he expounds the mysteries and interprets them cannot fail to move his hearers. (47:1-2)
Several points worth noting in this account: It's clear that the role of the bishop was primarily that of teacher and expounder of the Scriptures. (Indeed, in the Orthodox Church to this day the Gospel book is held over the bishop during his ordination.) His teaching of the catechumens first covers the Scriptures and then the Creed, explained "first literally and then spiritually," as was the practice of the Fathers (see here). (This should, incidentally, help put to rest the prejudice that the Church concealed the Bible from the faithful until the Reformers forcibly pulled it out of their cold, dead hands.) What is most delightful, and the reason I selected these passages, is the response of the faithful: they exclaim and applaud almost ecstatically as the bishop interprets the Scriptures and explains the teachings of the Church. These were not the staid, effeminate sermons that have tired many a bottom sitting on wooden pews. Part of the faithful's reaction was due not just to their keen interest in Christian doctrine, but to the fact that these sermons were performed with all the flourish (both rhetorical and physical) of classical Greek oratory. It would be quite a sight to see someone reenact these sermons!

Most important, however, to note is the devision of teaching into that of kerygma-based catechesis for those preparing for baptism, and that of dogma and mystery to the newly-baptized. (In fact, both parts were introduced gradually and systematically, as can be seen from Egeria's full account.) This is a distinction we should be mindful of today. We are to preach Christ crucified, and only then induct initiates into the deeper mysteries of dogma and spiritual life. We are not called to go and preach the dogma of the Holy Trinity, or notions of being and communion, or the practice of the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm: all these are lost, or even harmful, to those who have not first heard the Gospel.

Let's now turn our attention to Antioch at roughly the same time. Glanville Downey, in his marvelous little book Antioch in the Age of Theodosius the Great, recreates the atmosphere of St John Chrysostom's preaching:
If you had passed John Chrysostom in the street, you would hardly have noticed him. At most you would have noted a frail, rather shabby priest. But when, part of the service of the Eucharist being completed, this preacher made his way to the pulpit and began to speak, every man and woman in the congregation knew that this was an experience that did not often occur. It was no wonder that John of Antioch soon came to be known as John Chrysostom, "John of the Golden Mouth." For he had the gift of glorious eloquence, a gift such as not many preachers of the Word before or after him possessed.

The deeply religious mind, the acute and sensitive knowledge of the human soul, the wide and penetrating learning in the Scriptures, and above all, the passionate devotion to the teaching of Christ – all this was magnificently poured forth in a stream of eloquence which would have made him one of the most powerful speakers of the time, whether in a pagan career or a Christian vocation. It was the gift of language in its greatest and noblest dimension, and when it was known that John Chrysostom was to preach, the cathedral was packed. The farmers who came in from the country around Antioch, and the humblest workingman of the city, who understood only Syriac, were grouped at one side of the church, around a deacon, bilingual in Greek and Syriac, who translated the sermon sentence by sentence as it was spoken. A team of shorthand writers took down the preacher's words, for he often spoke extemporaneously, as inspiration came to him. Though the sermon sometimes lasted for two hours, the congregation – standing all the while – never grew weary, and the stenographic reports often record the interruptions of applause which were permitted by custom at the time. (pp. 104-105)
Again the rapt attention and applause! Chrysostom preached in Greek, but each sentence was translated into Syriac for the benefit of the simpler folk. We see something very similar in Egeria's account:
In this province there are some people who know both Greek and Syriac, but others know only one or the other. The bishop may know Syriac, but he never uses it. He always speaks in Greek, and has a presbyter beside him who translates the Greek into Syriac, so that everyone can understand what he means. Similarly the lessons read in church have to be read in Greek, but there is always someone in attendance to translate into Syriac so that people understand. Of course there are also people who speak neither Greek nor Syriac, but Latin. But there is no need for them to be discouraged, since some of the brothers or sisters who speak Latin as well as Greek will explain things to them.
If only some of our Greek and Russian Orthodox hierarchs and clergy would emulate these examples by stooping to employ our vulgar European tongues!

The manuscript illustration aboves depicts the Evangelist Matthew handing his Gospel to St John Chrysostom. I have cited Egeria using John Wilkinson's Egeria's Travels.

P. S. While the Fathers of the Church certain preached with vigor, I don't think they went quite this far.

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