After Constantine established the New Rome – Constantinople – the Great Church of the capital, Holy Wisdom, became the center of ecclesiastical and liturgical influence. The rite of the Great Church gradually spread further afield to become, by the end of the twelfth century, virtually the only rite of the Eastern Churches.
About the middle of the fourth century Cyril of Jerusalem, or perhaps, later, his successor, John, composed the catechetical lectures given to those preparing for baptism. The last five lectures were delivered after the candidates had been baptized, chrismated and had taken part for the first time in the Eucharist. They explained the significance of the rites of initiation through which the newly-baptized had recently passed. The fourth and fifth of these lectures, Mystagogical Catecheses, deal with the Eucharist. They are the first evidence we possess of fourth-century Eucharistic theology and devotion, and they reveal several characteristics significantly different from what we know from previous centuries. From Cyril’s description of the rite in mind-fourth-century Jerusalem it emerges that the Eucharist was quite definitely regarded as a sacrifice. But it was less a sacrifice of thanksgiving than one of propitiation (an act to prevent or reduce anger; win the favor of; appease or conciliate). On the face of it, the eucharistic prayer described by Cyril consists of a brief thanksgiving for creation, an invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) on the gifts and a lengthy and comprehensive intercession. To some historians of Christian worship such a prayer, containing no institution narrative and no thanksgiving for redemption, has seemed so improbable that they have supposed Cyril to be mentioning only the salient features of the prayer. However that may be, what is significant for the development of eucharistic theology and piety is that he mentions only what he does. The chief interest of the mid-fourth-century Church in Jerusalem was in offering a propitiatory sacrifice that would do good to those for whom the prayer was made in as close association as possible with the sacrifice. Several features of Cyril’s description of the service must be noticed.
Before we take a closer look at Cyril’s description of fourth-century liturgy in Jerusalem, we do well to stop and think about what we think of when we offer the Liturgy together. What is the purpose of our prayer? Why do we do what we do? What do you feel when we pray the Liturgy together?