Sundays in the Middle Ages and a Contrast

It's hard to imagine what it would have been like to go to church and be unable to understand what was going on

I can’t imagine not being told why we were celebrating Christ’s death and yet being expected to go through the motions. It would seem exactly like a “mystical spectacle” complete with its own incantations. And this brings us to the heart of the matter – Was the gospel even taught at all? As I partook of the Lord’s Table at church on Sunday, I couldn’t help but compare it to what I had been reading about the Middle Ages. This was more than a ritual to watch from afar and receive vicarious benefit. The gospel was clearly proclaimed.

 

I am continuing my reading of A Brief History of Sunday by Justo Gonzalez. It’s quite a page turner and has whet my appetite to read more church history. Here are some of my impressions after reading about the Middle Ages.

This is the era that adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation – the Communion bread and cup become the actual physical body and blood of Jesus during the celebration of mass. This belief was widely held and spread via stories of a miraculous transformation before it was formally adopted as church dogma. So “popular piety and experiences in worship moved ahead of theological development.”

This doctrine changed the tone of mass from a joyous celebration to a “fearsome experience.” In R.C. Sproul’s lectures on Martin Luther, he described the young Luther as trembling and being barely able to speak when he performed his first mass for fear of mishandling the body and blood of Christ. This belief also changed how communion was served because you couldn’t use bread that could crumble in case the literal body of Jesus would fall on the floor. Thus the priest would place the host in the communicant’s mouth rather than having unconsecrated hands touch and possibly drop a sacred object. In some communities, the cup was even withheld from the common people and only drunk by the priest. Eventually the laity were only charged to take communion three times year. There was also a tradition of masses for the dead because the emphasis was on the ceremony itself, not on participation or even needing to be present.

 Rather than an event in which all participated, the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharist or Lords’ Table, became a mystical spectacle in which very few actually partook of the bread and wine, and the rest were expected to be drawn closer to God by simply being present.

 This is a clear indication that Sunday devotions no longer centered on being part of a community of faith that gathered to share in the bread and the wine, but simply on attending Mass.

This is fascinating but also sad. During this time, literacy was only for the privileged. The Bible was chained to the pulpit, so even those who could read were not allowed to have their own copies to read for themselves. Given this situation, churchgoers would probably believe whatever the clergy told them because they had no way of educating themselves and proving otherwise. (My guess is that questions wouldn’t be very well received either.) Theological urban legends would flourish and be told from one person to the other, so error would be easily propagated.

It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to go to church and be unable to understand what was going on because the entire proceedings were carried out in a foreign language.  I can’t imagine not being told why we were celebrating Christ’s death and yet being expected to go through the motions. It would seem exactly like a “mystical spectacle” complete with its own incantations. And this brings us to the heart of the matter – Was the gospel even taught at all?

As I partook of the Lord’s Table at church on Sunday, I couldn’t help but compare it to what I had been reading about the Middle Ages. This was more than a ritual to watch from afar and receive vicarious benefit. The gospel was clearly proclaimed. I listened, understood, and by faith, I knew that Jesus died for me. What a contrast! And how comforting it was to hear the words “given for you” and “poured out for you.”

Source: A Brief History of Sunday, Justo L. Gonzalez, Eerdmans, 2017, pp. 67-96.

Persis Lorenti is an ordinary Christian. You can find her at Tried With Fire and Out of the OrdinaryThis article appeared on her blog and is used with permission.