By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
In the First Apology (Defence) of St Justin Martyr, we find a very early witness of the Early Churches’ practice of Baptism, and the Liturgical gathering in which they partook of the Eucharist (Holy Communion).
St Justin was born in 100AD and died at 165AD. If we assume the apology was written when he was 30 years of age, it places the text at 130AD. St John the Theologian and writer of the 4th Gospel, died at approx. 100AD. This places St Justin’s Apology directly within the life of the Churches that were established by the Apostles themselves. Thus, what we find in the writings of St Justin, is one of the earliest witnesses of how Baptism was conducted, what Baptism meant to the Early Christians, and also of the structure of the Liturgical worship and partaking of the Eucharist.
In chapter 61 of the Apology, we read how the Early Church would proceed in bringing someone to baptism. We read that the candidate for Baptism needed to be “persuaded and [to] believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly”. In other words they must believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of His salvation. They must also have a desire to obey and live according to His commandments.
After this, we read that the candidate for Baptism, is to be “instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.” What a beautiful witness to the love of the Early Christians. They believed in the power of prayer and fasting; they would pray and fast along with the person to be Baptised, so that through the unified prayer of the Church, the Lord would have mercy on them for the sins they had committed throughout their lives, prior to their Baptism.
We then read that they proceed to Baptise the person in the name of the Holy Trinity: “then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water”. This is in accordance with what our Lord Jesus taught Himself, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19).
St Justin also uses the term regenerate, which is akin to being born again, or becoming a new person or new creation in Christ. This is explained in detail by our Lord Jesus in the Gospel of St John 3:1-18.
St Justin then proceeds to explain that through repentance and Baptism, we receive forgiveness of all our previous sins committed from our childhood onwards. He does this by repeating Isaiah 1:16-20, which describes the cleansing of our sins through the tender mercies of our Lord Jesus. He then states that through Baptism we become “the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed”. By this he means we are no longer ignorant, but can now choose to follow God, and be instructed in His ways, which gives us knowledge of God and what is right and true. He also explicitly states that through Baptism an adult receives “remission [forgiveness] of sins formerly committed”. St Justin finishes describing Baptism by stating “this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings.”
St Justin teaches us, that through Baptism our spiritual eyes are opened or illumined. Prior to Baptism we were in a state of spiritual blindness, in a state of ignorance of that which is good and pleasing to God. In Baptism we are cleansed from all sin, cleansed of all obstacles that previously blinded us to the beauty of who God is. Thus through Baptism we are regenerated or born again, forgiven our sins, we are illumined, we are shone upon by the light of Christ, who dispels all darkness and fills us with His glorious light and clothes us with His tender mercies.
In chapter 65, St Justin explains that after a person is Baptised, they are to proceed to the Liturgical gathering in which they, along with the Church, will partake of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. He also gives us a glimpse into the structure of the Early Churches’ prayers and worship in Liturgy.
St Justin states: “But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss.”
We see here that the Church would pray for themselves and “for the baptized person, and for all others in every place”, that all may come to know God, live according to His commandments and find eternal salvation. These prayers coincide with the Litanies we pray in all our Liturgies today as Coptic Orthodox Christians, in which we pray for ourselves, all people and for the whole world.
What’s beautiful and interesting to note, is that when the Early Church had concluded the prayers for themselves and “for the baptized person, and for all others in every place”, they would “salute one another with a kiss.” This is the exact same order we have in today’s Liturgy. After the Litanies (prayers for the whole world) are completed, the priest prays the Prayer of Reconciliation and the Deacon states: “Greet one another with a holy kiss. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, O [Lord] Jesus Christ, Son of God, hear us and have mercy upon us…”
We practice the “holy kiss”, to ensure there is peace and reconciliation between all who are present and that there is no division, but rather love and unity in the Church; especially being that the faithful are preparing to partake of the precious Body and Blood of Christ. For those who haven’t witnessed this part of the Liturgy, it’s not an actual kiss between two persons, but rather a unique greeting, consisting of clasping each other’s hands, and then bringing our own hands to our mouths and kissing our own hands.
St Justin then continues:
“There is then brought to the president [priest] of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water.” We see that the practice we observe as Coptic Orthodox today, of mixing wine with water, was an established practice in the Early Church, we have simply continued this same tradition until today.
St Justin continues:
“And he [the priest] taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.”
In the text above the president of the brethren meaning the presbyter/priest of the congregation, praises God and gives thanks for the gifts God has given us, and for allowing us to partake of the Eucharist. In today’s Liturgy we give thanks to God on numerous occasions for His bountiful gifts. An example of this, is soon after the Holy Kiss when the Priest says “let us give thanks to the Lord” and the congregation replies: “it is proper and right”.
Soon after this giving of thanks the Priest starts the Institution Narrative in which he offers prayers for the changing of the bread and wine to the Body and Blood of the Lord. The faithful respond on a number of occasions to the priest saying “amen”, and eventually finish with a loner hymn: “amen, amen, amen…” This likewise coincides with the practice of the Early Church: “And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.”
St Justin continues:
“And when the president [priest] has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.”
In St Justin’s account, the Deacon would then proceed to give the Eucharist to the faithful, and would also ensure that some is persevered and taken to those who couldn’t make it to the service. It shouldn’t trouble us if some details are slightly different from the practice today. For example, today the Priest gives the Body of the Lord to the laity, and the Deacon can only give the Blood. It’s natural that some minor changes have taken place over time as the Church grew and developed. What is beautiful to note, is that the basic structure of what we do today was also in existence in the earliest days of the Church.
In chapter 66, St Justin then goes onto explain in more detail the Early Churches understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist. He states:
“And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”
Here we see that the current practice of the Coptic Orthodox Church, of not giving communion to those who:
- don’t believe the truth of the Orthodox faith: “the things which we teach are true.”
- have not been Baptised, not having “been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins.”
- and are not living a life of repentance and of trying to live “as Christ has enjoined.”
Some people consider the Church today to be too harsh, for depriving the people in the list above of Eucharist, but we must realise that the Church is simply doing that which was taught and practiced in the Early Church.
St Justin continues:
“For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the Flesh and Blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
Here we see that the Early Church clearly believed and taught, that we are not partaking of mere bread and wine. They believed that the bread and wine have been changed by being “blessed by the prayer of His word” by the President/Priest, into “the Flesh and Blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” How beautiful to know what we believe today regarding the Eucharist has always been believed by the Church.
St Justin then explains how they received this tradition:
“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My Body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My Blood; and gave it to them alone.”
St Justin and the Early Church, interpreted what our Lord Jesus said regarding the Eucharist in a literal manner. It wasn’t just a symbol for them. It was truly a partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ.
In chapter 67, St Justin proceeds to explain how Christians would gather together on Sundays to worship in Liturgy and partake of the Eucharist. He explains how “the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost.” Here we see love in action, in that the rich would share with those who were poor when they would meet for Liturgy.
He also states:
“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”
Here we see the same structure and practice as seen and experienced today in a Coptic Orthodox Liturgy. The reading of Scripture takes place first, and then the Priest gives the sermon: “verbally instruct[ing], and exhort[ing] to the imitation of these good things.”
After the readings they would pray as mentioned earlier and then partake of the Eucharist: Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
When writing this paper I was amazed to see that in our Liturgy today, approximately 1900 years after the time of St Justin, we still follow the same structure as the Early Church. We today likewise have the readings from Scripture and sermon, and then afterwards after much prayer the partaking of the Eucharist. This is truly remarkable and displays the zeal of the Coptic Orthodox Church, to maintain and pass on the Apostolic practice and teaching, as unchanged as possible, from “generation to generation,” as we sing in all out Liturgies.
The Priest would then proceed to give food and provision to: “the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.” This reminds me of the zeal or our priests today who visit those who are sick straight after the Liturgy, to bring to them the Eucharist. Our Parishes, also through our Priests, Deacons and Servants, always assist families in need with the provisions they require, imitating the Early Church practice outlined by St Justin.
St Justin then explains why Christians worship on Sundays: “But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.”
Here we see the Apostolic practice of worshiping on Sundays as “Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead”. Since this day is the day we were granted salvation, the day Satan and his hosts were defeated, we celebrate this day every week, gathering together in worship and thanksgiving to our all-merciful God, and to partake of His Holy and Precious Body and Blood. By doing this we are united to Him who is the Head of the Church, and united with one another other as His precious Body.
Having studied these few chapters from St Justin’s First Apology, we are comforted to know that what we practice today as Coptic Orthodox Christians, is not the invention of man. It is the fruit of the Apostles preaching, given to them by Christ and continued in the life of the Church through the Holy Spirit. How comforting to know we are in a Tradition that resembles that of the Earliest Christian Church, and that we hold the same truths. This should make us rejoice in being in the true Church, the Church that was founded by Christ and His Apostles themselves. It also makes us realise the importance of reading and studying the Early Church Fathers, so we can understand our faith and tradition, and have the knowledge and ability to also guide others to the Truth of Christ in His One, Holy, Universal and Orthodox Church.