Rorate Caeli

Msgr. Stefan Heid: “A sacred rite, in a sacred space, on a sacred table, and facing east: This is how the early Christians celebrated Mass”

Translated from the blog Messeinlatino, which in turn credits Il Timone for excerpts from a recent and very interesting interview with Msgr. Stefan Heid, Rector of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, on how the early Christians celebrated. Note that all of our information now definitively undermines the assumptions of the liturgical reformers.—PAK

How the First Christians Celebrated the Mass
Luisella Scrosati
Il Timone, January 2022

There are those who try to deny it, but the Eucharist was from the beginning a sacred rite, performed in a sacred space and on a sacred table, namely an altar. And the priest was facing East. In conversation with Monsignor Stefan Heid, Rector of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology, by Luisella Scrosati (published in Il Timone no. 213, January 2022, on newsstands in Rome and Milan, shipping everywhere on paper or digital

Is Mass a dinner and the altar a table? We have heard this many times, but things are a bit different. We spoke about it with Monsignor Stefan Heid, a German from the Archdiocese of Cologne, born in 1961, rector of the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome, where he also holds the chairs of History of Christian Worship and Hagiography. [...]

One of your publications [Altar und Kirche] questions some assumptions made about the early Christian period, which were considered as fixed points. The best known: that the Eucharist was celebrated in a convivial context; therefore the dining table was used as an altar. Confirming this would also be the use of the term “table” and not “altar”.

Stefan Heid [SH]: In fact, a hundred years ago the science of Christian archaeology put forth certain ideas which, in my opinion, are wrong, ideas which, however, especially in theology, go on undeterred. Among these is the belief that the Eucharist was a communal meal and that even today it should be celebrated in this way.

One must be careful. Certainly Jesus instituted the rite of the Bread and Chalice during a supper in which people ate in a reclining position. Meals in this position were privileged, solemn meals, for which service personnel were needed, so certainly not meals for the poor. But the true core of the Eucharistic rite has always been handed down as a specific, distinct rite, as Paul already shows in his first letter to the Corinthians. The meal in the reclining position is entirely secondary. Even if in Corinth the participants had been reclining on couches—which I do not think likely because of the number of participants involved—for the core of the Eucharistic rite a distinct sacred table was introduced—Paul calls it the “table of the Lord”—unique to the entire community. This is important: there is only one “sacred table,” no matter how large the community.

LS: No dining tables, then, but “sacred tables…”

SH: Definitely not a dining table. The “sacred table” is a sacred piece of furniture that was used for bloodless victims in pagan antiquity. It is as sacred as an altar. “Sacred table” and “altar” are interchangeable terms [in the early literature]. With the expression “table of the Lord” Paul recalls the prophet Malachi and by “table of the Lord” he actually and expressly means the “altar.” Paul already knew the sacredness of the Christian altar, only twenty years after Easter! Similarly, he also speaks of the “cup of the Lord” or the “cup of blessing.” So even the chalice is not a vessel of common use, but a cultic cup.

LS: So has the evidence of tablecloths also been misunderstood?

SH: The tablecloth was already sometimes in use in early Christian times, but it has nothing to do with civilian eating habits as we imagine it today. Rather, the tablecloth is a sign of dignity; in fact, even the official tables of Roman magistrates were covered with a tablecloth. [...]

LS: One more question about the altar: does the so-called “people’s altar” find confirmation in archaeology?

SH: Yes and no. Beginning with the Council, the enormous misconception has spread that, in the primitive church, the priest looked at the people. With very few exceptions, this was not the case. In the early centuries, the altar was usually placed free on all four sides, but the priest stood in front of the altar with his face to the east. The Eucharist also has dialogical elements, but these are only in the manner of an introduction to the [Eucharistic] prayer. The prayer itself must always be facing east. There are some churches—even in Rome—with the façade facing east, and in these cases the priest must stand behind the altar and look toward the people. But the point is not that the community should admire the handsomeness of the priest, but rather that the priest should pray towards the east, towards Christ, the “Sun of justice.” The modern model of liturgy, in the style of a religious entertainment event, has little to do with the seriousness of the early churches. [...]

LS: The so-calle “norma Patrum” [norms of the Church Fathers] and the early Church have been the reference points for many reforms that have taken place since Vatican II. Did history or ideology prevail?

SH: In fact, much ideology is still in place today, unfortunately. Everyone chooses what they like from the early Church. There is plenty of room for manipulation, especially when it comes to our understanding today of the liturgy, the Eucharist, and the Church. Much of what is justified today by appeal to the early Church is just a modern projection. A little more historical clarification would be very helpful in this regard.

Those who are interested in reading more about the early form of the altar may consult this Liturgical Arts Journal article by Shawn Tribe.