Among the many martyrs of Christianity’s first decades is a man names Justin. History apparently does not leave us his family’s last name, and so he has often been called, simply, “Justin Martyr.” He was born in the year 100 in Flavia Neapolis, a pagan Roman city in the heart of ancient Galilee. This town was built on the ancient town of Shechem, not far from Jacob’s well, and the place where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about the water that brings everlasting life.
He was born into a pagan Greek family, and having studied one system of philosophy after another, he was drawn to Christianity at the age of thirty-three. As a strongly committed layman, he traveled around preaching the gospel. At about the age of sixty-five, while on a journey to Rome, he was arrested and required to sacrifice to the pagan gods. When he refused, he was beheaded, along with five other men and a woman. While he went about preaching, he wrote several important works, parts of which we have with us today. These writings remain valuable sources of information about Christian faith and practice in those earliest decades.
Justin has much to say to those who are interested in the history of our liturgy. Of particular interest is his description of the Sunday liturgy. Liturgy committee members and other good people sometimes expend much energy on whether we ought to stand or kneel, or a number of other topics which would be trivial to early Christians like Justin who were busy running for their lives. Justin reminds us that, to whatever century of Christianity we belong, the central act of our faith, the Sunday Liturgy, remains substantially the same, despite our idiosyncrasies and all the neuralgic issues that seem to divide us. What he described so long ago is remarkably familiar to us today.
He writes, “On the day named after the sun, all who live in city or countryside assemble. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as time allows. When the reader is finished, the presider addresses us and exhorts us to imitate the splendid things we have heard. Then we all stand and pray. As we said earlier, when we have finished praying, bread, wine and water are brought up. The presider then prays and gives thanks according to his ability, and the people give their assent with an ‘Amen.’ Next, the gifts over which the thanksgiving has been spoken are distributed, and everyone shares in them, while they are also sent via the deacons to those who are absent.
“The wealthy who are willing make contributions, each as he pleases, and the collection is deposited with the presider, who aids orphans and widows, those who are in want because of sickness or some other reason, those in prison, and visiting strangers - in short, he takes care of all in need. It is on Sunday that we all assemble, because Sunday is the first day: the day on which God transformed darkness and matter and created the world, and the day on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead. He was crucified on the eve of Saturn’s Day, and on the day after, that is, on the day of the sun, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them what we have now offered for your examination.”