Over the years, I have come to believe that there are a few basic truths that we all share. Many years ago, I learned that “history is written by the winners,” and therefore should be taken with at least a grain of salt, maybe a whole shaker full.
I’m not sure where the second basic truth was first revealed to me. We see this demonstrated on our news reports almost nightly. A scene is recorded by someone and is played back on the news. Eyewitnesses are interviewed, and what they see often does not agree with what the video shows. It is apparent that we all see and hear what we want to see and hear, not necessarily what actually happened, and pass that on as truth.
A third truth possibly came from the same source as the second. We interpret what we experience based on our past. Our past is the result of every previous experience as well as what we have been told about similar experiences of others.
Previously, I spoke of the ancestry of our founders. Another evening, I spoke of the beginnings of our order in Texas. And at another meeting, I spoke of the events surrounding the founding of our order in 1882. My fourth basic truth is that to understand the present, you need to comprehend the past. Life is not a moment in time but is a journey of events that evolve from the previous events. You cannot realize where you are going without an understanding of where you have been.
I have always had an interest in history. I learned quite early not to ask “Why?” too often. Teachers don’t like to get caught in a situation where they don’t know the answer. But not asking was not an option for me. I just had to do the research myself.
Just before the start of Lent this year, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio on the subject of “Can you imagine Lent?” After his talk, Mary and I purchased his book “When the Church was Young,” and this is my source for tonight’s talk. The book covers the first 600 years of the church, picking up after the Book of Acts. Each chapter speaks about the evolution of a small group of dissidents into the powerful force that existed about the year 700.
The persecution of Christians began during the reign of Emperor Nero about the year 64 A.D. Nero wished to blame someone for the disastrous fire that burned that section of Rome that just happened to be where he wanted to build his new palace.
Christians became an easy target as there was some concern about their loyalty. They refused to acknowledge the deification of the emperor. Until Nero’s persecution, Christians were considered to be a Jewish sect and, under Roman law, were exempt from sacrificing or worshiping Caesar due to their centuries’ old belief in one God.
The Romans believed it was expedient to exempt the Jews rather than to execute the entire Jewish nation. Living Jews paid taxes; dead ones didn’t. Rome actually practiced religious freedom for the most part throughout the empire. As long as the religious practice did not threaten the state, people were generally allowed to do as they pleased.
Most of the early persecutions were localized, sporadic and short lived. That changed with the elevation of Decius. The Romans had enacted a statue that made it the goal of the empire to erase Christianity. Enforcement was lax and, generally, the law was ignored. This new edict went into effect on Jan. 1, 250, and it was strongly enforced.
Within three weeks, Pope Fabian was arrested and placed on trial. When he refused to deny his faith, he was martyred. After 14 months of persecution, the early church was devastated. As the church struggled to recover, it realized that many Christians had taken various actions to save their lives. Some Christians had denied their faith to save their lives. Others obtained falsified papers saying they had denied the faith. Still others went into hiding.
There was serious concern as to what should be done with those who had denied their faith or obtained the false certificates. It took decades to sort out what was to be done. The struggles of the early church really had more to do with internal differences than with its place in the empire.
The book is much more interesting than you might believe. If you come across a copy, I encourage you to take a little time and read it. I have three subjects to leave you with.
The first is why the church did everything in Latin until Vatican II. Vatican II did several things to “bring the church into the 20th century. Actually, it did more to return the church to the first few centuries.
In the first century, the most common language throughout the empire was Greek. Alexander the Great had conquered much of the known world, and he and his successors spoke Greek. Greek became the language of commerce. Greek was taught in schools. Greek was a sign of an educated person. As the empire began to crumble in the fourth century, fewer and fewer westerners spoke or understood Greek.
With the division of the empire into East and West, Latin became the language of the West. After the fall of the western empire, Latin was the universal language. Most of the faithful soon became literate, speaking their native language. As the languages of Europe evolved into several different forms and hundreds of local dialects, Latin remained basically constant. Literacy ceased to exist except in the churches and monasteries. The eastern empire, which lasted a few hundred years longer, remained Greek. Vatican II resulted in the Mass being done in the language of the common people, which, in the first and second centuries, was Greek.
What was the origin for Lent?
In the early church, baptisms were generally performed twice a year, during the Easter season and shortly after the start of the new year at Epiphany. Converts were required to go through a period of fasting and penitence. As time passed, the church leaders who were to participate in the sacrament were also required to fast. This gradually led to the faithful going through a period of fasting and penitence.
Why 40 days? That is the length of time Christ spent fasting in the desert. Consider, there are six weeks between the start of Advent and the Feast of the Epiphany, and there are six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday.
Baptisms were performed by immersing the candidate in running water. The Deacon would hold the candidate and ask three questions. As the candidate answered each question, they were immersed. Today, the candidate for the sacrament is asked six questions, which are basically the same three asked almost 2,000 years ago. Water is then poured over the head three times.
The most obvious changes brought by Vatican II was turning the altar around. Until Constantine’s edict, it was almost impossible to have a place designated as a church. Instead, the faithful would meet in the home of a leader or a member with a large enough room. A meal would be shared, there would be some readings, possibly a letter. The bread would be broken and shared. Since there was no place to secure the Eucharist, members were encouraged to take some home to be shared throughout the week.
The book contains many more interesting bits about the early church. My impression was that the church has remained pretty constant throughout the past 2,000 years.