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§ 74. The Revolution in Cultus.


The change in the legal and social position of Christianity with reference to the temporal power, produced a mighty effect upon its cultus. Hitherto the Christian worship had been confined to a comparatively small number of upright confessors, most of whom belonged to the poorer classes of society. Now it came forth from its secrecy in private houses, deserts, and catacombs, to the light of day, and must adapt itself to the higher classes and to the great mass of the people, who had been bred in the traditions of heathenism. The development of the hierarchy and the enrichment of public worship go hand in hand. A republican and democratic constitution demands simple manners and customs; aristocracy and monarchy surround themselves with a formal etiquette and a brilliant court-life. The universal priesthood is closely connected with a simple cultus; the episcopal hierarchy, with a rich, imposing ceremonial.

In the Nicene age the church laid aside her lowly servant-form, and put on a splendid imperial garb. She exchanged the primitive simplicity of her cultus for a richly colored multiplicity. She drew all the fine arts into the service of the sanctuary, and began her sublime creations of Christian architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, and music. In place of the pagan temple and altar arose everywhere the stately church and the chapel in honor of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, of martyrs and saints. The kindred ideas of priesthood, sacrifice, and altar became more fully developed and more firmly fixed, as the outward hierarchy grew. The mass, or daily repetition of the atoning sacrifice of Christ by the hand of the priest, became the mysterious centre of the whole system of worship. The number of church festivals was increased; processions, and pilgrimages, and a multitude of significant and superstitious customs and ceremonies were introduced. The public worship of God assumed, if we may so speak, a dramatic, theatrical character, which made it attractive and imposing to the mass of the people, who were as yet incapable, for the most part, of worshipping God in spirit and in truth. It was addressed rather to the eye and the ear, to feeling and imagination, than to intelligence and will. In short, we already find in the Nicene age almost all the essential features of the sacerdotal, mysterious, ceremonial, symbolical cultus of the Greek and Roman churches of the present day.

This enrichment and embellishment of the cultus was, on one hand, a real advance, and unquestionably had a disciplinary and educational power, like the hierarchical organization, for the training of the popular masses. But the gain in outward appearance and splendor was balanced by many a loss in simplicity and spirituality. While the senses and the imagination were entertained and charmed, the heart not rarely returned cold and hungry. Not a few pagan habits and ceremonies, concealed under new names, crept into the church, or were baptized only with water, not with the fire and Spirit of the gospel. It is well known with what peculiar tenacity a people cleave to religious usages; and it could not be expected that they should break off in an instant from the traditions of centuries. Nor, in fact, are things which may have descended from heathenism, to be by any means sweepingly condemned. Both the Jewish cultus and the heathen are based upon those universal religious wants which Christianity must satisfy, and which Christianity alone can truly meet. Finally, the church has adopted hardly a single existing form or ceremony of religion, without at the same time breathing into it a new spirit, and investing it with a high moral import. But the limit of such appropriation it is very hard to fix, and the old nature of Judaism and heathenism which has its point of attachment in the natural heart of man, continually betrayed its tenacious presence. This is conceded and lamented by the most earnest of the church fathers of the Nicene and post-Nicene age, the very persons who are in other respects most deeply involved in the Catholic ideas of cultus.

In the Christian martyr-worship and saint-worship, which now spread with giant strides over the whole Christian world, we cannot possibly mistake the succession of the pagan worship of gods and heroes, with its noisy popular festivities. Augustine puts into the mouth of a heathen the question: “Wherefore must we forsake gods, which the Christians themselves worship with us?” He deplores the frequent revels and amusements at the tombs of the martyrs; though he thinks that allowance should be made for these weaknesses out of regard to the ancient custom. Leo the Great speaks of Christians in Rome who first worshipped the rising sun, doing homage to the pagan Apollo, before repairing to the basilica of St. Peter. Theodoret defends the Christian practices at the graves of the martyrs by pointing to the pagan libations, propitiations, gods, and demigods. Since Hercules, Aesculapitis, Bacchus, the Dioscuri, and many other objects of pagan worship were mere deified men, the Christians, he thinks, cannot be blamed for honoring their martyrs—not making them gods but venerating them as witnesses and servants of the only, true God. Chrysostom mourns over the theatrical customs, such as loud clapping in applause, which the Christians at Antioch and Constantinople brought with them into the church. In the Christmas festival, which from the fourth century spread from Rome over the entire church, the holy commemoration of the birth of the Redeemer is associated—to this day, even in Protestant lands—with the wanton merriments of the pagan Saturnalia. And even in the celebration of Sunday, as it was introduced by Constantine, and still continues on the whole continent of Europe, the cultus of the old sun-god Apollo mingles, with the remembrance of the resurrection of Christ; and the widespread profanation of the Lord’s Day, especially on the continent of Europe, demonstrates the great influence which heathenism still exerts upon Roman and Greek Catholic, and even upon Protestant, Christendom.


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