“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls (Jeremiah 6:16).” The ancient practices of the early Church can teach us to practice peace, joy, self-mastery, and justice. The old disciplines of fasting, constant prayer, Sabbath observance, sacred pilgrimages, tithing, partaking in the sacred meal, and following the liturgical year do for one’s soul as exercise does for one’s bodies or study does for one’s mind. These ancient practices are the means by which one prepares for grace to surprise him or her. They are the habits by which a Christian’s soul is made into the likeness of Christ.
The first ancient practice that is practiced by all Abrahamic faiths is the daily office of prayer. The root of the daily office is Psalms 119, where the psalmist states “seven times a day will I rise to praise your name.” Our Jewish forefathers took this notion seriously. The first written version of daily fixed hour worship and prayer dates back to over four thousand years before Christ. The traditional liturgical “hours” of prayer were held at daybreak, before the workday began, noon, mid-afternoon, sundown, before bed, and midnight. Each session was said to open with a call to prayer, followed by an introductory Psalm, and then a hymn of praise sung. Following was a reciting of former prayers and ending with a regular cycle of readings from the Holy Scriptures. These practices were held so dear by the Jewish people that even four thousand years later, the first century Church implemented the Jewish practice of rising seven times a day to pray. The daily offices were one of the major practices that held the early Christian communities together and even in the 5th century during the legalization and secularization of the church in Rome, the desert fathers moved into monastic communities where the ancient tradition of office could be practiced.
As the Psalms have taught one about the daily office and what prayer is, it also teaches one that prayer has many natural companions. One of prayer’s companions is fasting. Many times the psalmist accompanies prayer with fasting, this is not the psalmist being overly dramatic or trying to get the reader to see how righteous he was, but prayer was accompanied by fasting because prayer was an activity for the whole body. Scot McKnight holds to the idea that the Bible does not say the body just contains a spirit, but he tells us that the Bible says that each person is a spirit and is body. Thus, the whole person, both spirit and body, must be wholly engaged with God. Fasting is the ability for one’s body to remind him or her that praying is not only about the individual, but is an act to fill the physical pain and sorrows of others. Saint Athanasius saw fasting as a way to encounter the formative powers of the sacred rhythms of the church calendar. He saw that the liturgical year moved from mourning over sin to celebrating the good grace of God, encouraging all to fast during times of mourning and to feast during times of celebration.
Another spiritual practice is the sacred pilgrimage. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Yahweh was seen as a nomad, due to His call of Abraham to leave the land of his fathers and travel to a foreign land. Also, God was worshipped in a moveable tent and traveled in a box slung over the shoulders of his followers. Just as wanderers in the desert worshiped God, Jesus Christ became a wanderer in search for the needy, the oppressed, and the sick. Jesus became homeless to proclaim that the mysterious kingdom had arrived. As Christ has wandered through the desert and throughout Judea in search for individuals, a holy pilgrimage is the ability for one to wander after God. As one departs on his or her sacred journey, the destination of the journey is not as important as the journey itself. The journey allows the individual or the community to evaluate itself and enables the individual to leave things behind and gain new understandings in the process.
The next ancient practice that was observed by the early Church was the observance of Sabbath. The idea of Sabbath was not seen as an option, but was observed as a commandment of God. The early church fathers saw that once Sabbath was observed as God intended, it was the best day in one’s life because it is an invitation to enter into the delight of God. Dan B. Allender states that “Sabbath is the holy time where we feast, play, dance, sing, pray, laugh, tell stories, read, paint, walk, and watch creation in its fullness.” When one takes seriously the menuha, the Hebrew word for rest which means joyful response, tranquility, or delight, one can experience a sensual delight in communion with God, others, and creation.
Unlike daily prayer or daily scripture readings, tithing tends not to be in company by daily or even weekly reflection. It is often a background habit that is a reminder to individuals that one’s life is not his or her own. Tithing is like prayer though, in the sense that God is working out His purpose and God generously offers his followers a voluntary place in His purpose. From the Didache to the early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Augustine, and Jerome, the idea that Christians ought to continue the Jewish custom of tithing to God since they have hope in greater things not of this earth. As one opens up his or her tight grip on what is thought as his or her money, one realizes that it has only come his or her way by the grace of God. Thus, it is through the act of tithing that one understands God’s call for His followers to live a life of generosity, compassion, and joy.
Unlike the other Christian practices, the Eucharist is meant to be done together with a body of believers. It was never meant to be celebrated by one’s self. One can pray alone, fast alone, and even go on a pilgrimage alone, on the other hand, the Eucharist forces one to be with others to celebrate the saving acts of Christ within the complete koinonia with other believers and Jesus over a meal. Communal feasts have been part of the Judeo-Christian religion for thousands of years. These feasts have been implemented for the purpose of remembering, celebrating, thanking, praising, and honoring God for the works that God has done and the works that God will continue to do. These meals have also been used for the reconciliation of hate, pain, bitterness, and betrayal as enemies come together in complete selflessness to celebrate the mighty acts of God from a communal stance. This practice joins together the body of Christ as a family at one table for the worship of one God.
The final ancient practice of the early Church is following the liturgical calendar. Beginning with Advent and rolling through the following November, the liturgical calendar represents the life of Jesus Christ, a life that all Christians try to emulate. Thus, the purpose of such a calendar is for the Christian to immerse one’s self repeatedly into the “sense and substance of the Christian life, until, eventually, we become what we say we are: followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God.” Through celebrations from Sundays to saint’s days, the liturgical calendar helps one meld his or her life with the life of Christ and connect to the greater community of worshippers throughout the world, for the liturgical year transcends culture and nationality. While its roots are deep, the liturgical calendar is not merely and ancient practice, but the resounding reality of life in the present lived out of an ancient but living faith.
Dan B. Allender, Sabath (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2008): front cover.
Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2008): backcover.