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History of the eucharistic celebration VI: The Church under imperial protection

English Spanish Rogelio Zelada Profile

The fourth century begins with the great offer of peace presented to the Church by Emperor Constantine. Persecutions against Christians end and the Roman Empire makes a total turn in its relations with the believers in the Lord Jesus. All places of worship that were destroyed begin to be rebuilt, and a new era starts for believers, marked by mass conversions and the remarkable benevolence of the imperial family.

Although he is known as the first Christian emperor, Constantine received baptism on his deathbed in 337. In reality, Christianity was officially declared the religion of the State at the time of Emperor Theodosius, in the year 380. Slowly, the Church immerses itself into the cultural world in which it lives. The emperor assumes a role similar to that of the apostles and often intervenes as if he were the head of the Christian community, a leader like Moses or David called to protect the interests of the believers in Christ. From that position, he convenes councils and intervenes in disputes with heretics.

Under the imperial support of Constantine, the Basilica of St. Peter is built over the tomb of the Apostle on the Vatican hill, even though for this purpose the great cemetery of the wealthiest families in Rome disappears under tons of stone. He gives the Lateran Basilica to the pope as the seat of the bishop of Rome and the first cathedral of the city. In the land of the Lord, he builds the basilica of the anastasis, the Holy Sepulcher. To build this great basilica he will have to demolish Mount Calvary to leave only the chamber that encloses the cave of the tomb and where the cross of Christ was set. He builds another great basilica on the site of the Nativity, the only temple that remained standing after the great Muslim destruction. The emperor sent his mother, Empress Helena, already a Christian, to rescue the relics of the Passion that could be found in the land of Jesus.

The change was so great that some Christians came to believe that the end of the world was imminent. The liturgy is transformed and adapted to reflect the new situation of the Church. They must celebrate the triumph of faith in a public and solemn way.

The celebration of the Sunday Eucharist begins with the assembly gathered facing the square that gives access to the great temple. The procession begins with seven ceroferari — acolytes holding seven large lit candles — a sign of the honor belonging to the bishop presiding over the liturgy. The rest of the clergy, presbyters and deacons accompany this grand entrance, along with widows and consecrated virgins, for whom there is a place of honor in the sanctuary.

The architectural shape of the basilica, which originally was a building to house public events, serves perfectly for liturgical celebrations. The bishop's seat has been placed in the apse, where the chair of the judge used to be. A large wooden table conveys the centrality of the sacrifice-banquet of the new covenant; tapestries and mosaics cover the walls, and votive lamps and rich ex-voto paintings are everywhere.

The assembly, which has entered the sacred precinct after the bishop and the clergy, will remain standing throughout the celebration. The singing of the choir, which will gradually diversify and enrich the melodies that the people will follow with fervor and enthusiasm, heightens every moment of the liturgy.

That modest liturgy, held in secret and risking death during the great persecutions, has given way to other solemn forms that desire to express the triumph of Christ and the Church. It celebrates what is lived and how it is lived. The bishop or the pope are dressed in fine fabrics, especially chosen to give greater importance to the celebration, although these differ little from those usually worn by the assembly.

Laws that appear during the fourth century gradually eliminate the pagan world. Constantine forbids magic and pagan sacrifices; he shuts down their temples and in the year 356 decrees the death penalty for those who contravene these laws and continue to worship idols.

In 380, Theodosius states, “We want all the people under the loving authority of our clemency to live in the faith that the holy apostle Peter transmitted to the Romans....” In 382, ​​Arcadius and Honorius will add, “Guilty of having disobeyed religion, that man (who remains within the ancient Roman religion) will be punished with the confiscation of his house or property where it is proven that he was a slave to this pagan superstition.”

Sunday is officially declared a holiday throughout the empire and the liturgy acquires increased splendor; new basilicas rise over the remains of the holy martyrs, and the great pilgrimages to the Holy Land begin. An intense missionary movement aimed at the evangelization of the villages gets underway, and the parishes and episcopal sees multiply.

Christians, whose greatest desire was to reach the crown of martyrdom, begin to look for new heroic ways of living the faith and retire to the solitude of the mountains or the desert to live a poor, austere life filled with sacrifices. Monks, hermits, anchorites and cenobites live the Christian ideal by practicing mercy, serving the poor and the homeless, and delving into the Word of God, meditating daily on Scripture.

Rogelio Zelada
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