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The Church Father’s 5 Steps to Be Deep in History

What Does it Mean to be a Christian “Deep in History?”

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hristianity and Hinduism are both ancient religions. Unlike Hinduism, though, Christianity is based on and founded upon specific historical events which, if we found them to be untrue, would mean our entire belief system is in vain (1 Cor 15:17). To be a Catholic is to understand the implications of this even more so than the average Christian. Catholicism has Sacred Tradition, which was given to us by the apostles, and handed down through the ages infallibly. We have access to the writings of the Church Fathers who give testament to this and all of our beliefs.

Just like Blessed John Henry Newman, I’ve found that “to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” [1] To be deep in history is also to recognize many other things which flow from naturally understanding that the Church Fathers, those who kept that Tradition which came from the apostles, some of which who were disciples of the apostles themselves, had the best understanding of how to interpret Scripture and the entire Deposit of Faith, because they were the closest in time to the source: Jesus Christ. Their line to the source was also more direct than ours. They were a mere few generations from Christ, being taught by people who knew Him, while we are thousands of years from that era and have two thousand years worth of interpretation to sort through. Without the Fathers, we wouldn’t have the Bible, or any way of knowing what the beginnings of our Faith was like. Many gave their lives for their faith and as a result, we can now study them to gain much knowledge and good example.

So, by looking at some writings of the Fathers, I’d like to recommend five things that as Christians, we are called to follow their example on regarding the faith.

1. Be Reverent

Tertullian, prolific Christian author, scholar, lawyer, and apologist of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and convert to the Christian faith [AD 155-240] shows great reverence to the Eucharist in this quote: “We take anxious care lest something of our Cup or Bread should fall upon the ground…”[2] Likewise, Origen, scholar and theologian who wrote 6000+ commentaries on the Bible [AD 185-254] said “You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so you know how, when you have received THE BODY OF THE LORD, you reverently exercise every care lest a particle of it fall, and lest anything of the consecrated gift perish….how is it that you think neglecting the word of God a lesser crime than neglecting HIS BODY?”[3]

Is this how we treat the Eucharist today? Oftentimes, it likely is not. From these two simple quotes, you can clearly see that these men were devoted to the Eucharist. They were devoted to Christ and surely made taking the Eucharist a top priority for them. In those times, it was life or death everyday being a Christian. They understood that each particle of the consecrated gifts were the body and blood of the Lord, and ought to be treated as such. Unfortunately, many people take the Eucharist either irreverently or make no attempt to take communion at all, knowing it is the most tangible form of communion with God we can attain in this life. This is not only disrespectful, but plain dumb. The entire Bible is centered around the story of the Eucharist. It is foreshadowed constantly, and the Last Supper is the climax of the life of Jesus, God Incarnate. The Eucharist is Jesus Himself! As the Catechism puts it, it ought to be “the source and summit” of our lives as Catholics (CCC 1324). If God puts so much value on something as He has with the Eucharist, we ought to value it as much as we possibly can.

Sometimes, I make the mistake of looking at others during the Communion Rite at Mass. This is never good for at least two reasons. First, I should be praying and focusing on the amazing miracle which just happened, thus not revering God myself. Second, the people who I’m looking at are almost never revering God either. Often I’ll see people take the Eucharist flippantly, and walk away with no sign of the cross, no sign of reverence toward God whatsoever, almost like they don’t know or don’t care about what they are doing. I even worry sometimes that people may walk away without consuming the Eucharist, because they do not eat it right away. Looking around at such a time is a recipe for anxious feelings and distractions from God, but it still has taught me valuable lessons about reverence because I do not see it in myself, nor in the people around me, and I think as Christians, we ought to try our absolute best to keep ourselves from letting the mysteries of God become mere routine, as our fallen nature and the devil often persuade us to do.

2. Be Convicted

This one ties in with my first point, because with reverence of the Eucharist naturally comes conviction of sin and respect toward how Christ has instituted the system of forgiveness of mortal sin. If you want to take communion, you must be in a state of grace. Approaching Christ convicts us of this truth. It can’t not. He is perfection, and we are mere humans, tainted by sin. To ensure we receive communion as often as possible, we must take our sin seriously, and avoid it at all costs. The early Church took sin very seriously. At a time when death could be reasonably expected at any time for Christians, it was up to the priests and bishops to give potentially years-long public penances, and public confessions at times.[4] To fall into mortal sin back then was a huge deal, and unlike today, back then, the whole community was tight-knit and to be out of a state of grace with God was also to be in a bad position with His Church, and His Body of believers around you. Therefore, people were more careful. And in order to be more careful, they had to look at sin as God does. They had to despise sin and do everything they could to stay away from it, so as to enjoy life with Christ as much as they could. In a world of relativism and lukewarm faith, this is an example we need to all take to heart.

3. Be Ready to Die for Your Faith

To be a Christian in the first few centuries was to face death every day. From St. Stephen, to St. Polycarp, to St. Ignatius of Antioch, there are so many saints who we venerate today who were murdered because of their Catholic faith. St. Polycarp, a direct disciple of St. John the Apostle was told by the proconsul negotiating his sentence, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, unless you repent.” Polycarp responded: “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil.” Soon after, it was decided he would be burned alive. He was set in the middle of a pile of wood and set to burn; instead of being burned, so the story goes, his flesh turned golden brown like bread and everyone at the stadium smelled baking bread. He was then stabbed to death for his faith. [5] Not only should we be ready to die for our faith, because real persecution is happening around the world though not in the U.S. currently, but we need to follow the example of the Fathers in their devotion to the Mass and the Eucharist. The Martyrs of Abitene are a group of martyrs who died for their faith in 303 A.D. during the persecutive reign of Diocletian. When interrogated after being captured during a secret Mass, one of them was asked why they held the service in their home, knowing it was illegal. He replied, “We cannot live without Sunday.” The word used, dominicum, holds within it more than just the day “Sunday;” it is a triple reference to the day, the Resurrection, and the Lord’s Eucharistic Presence on that day. The Proconsul, knowing he was a Christian already, asked one of them if they had taken part in the Mass, and all he had to do to live was deny it.

His response: “As if a Christian could be without the Sunday Eucharist, or the Sunday Eucharist could be celebrated without there being a Christian! Don’t you know, Satan, that it is the Sunday Eucharist which makes the Christian and the Christian that makes the Sunday Eucharist, so that one cannot subsist without the other?”[6]

4. Be a Christian, in the Original Sense

The word Christian means “little Christ.” If we truly were living up to the word we claim for ourselves, we would be focused on the things Christ was focused on. Some things Christ was most focused on while on earth were:

  1. The truth.
  2. God’s will.
  3. Fulfilling His purpose.
  4. The salvation of others

These, in addition to striving for perfection, which Jesus did not have to do, but which we are called to do, are some ways we can get closer to the original meaning behind the word we use to classify ourselves. Christ was totally devoted to God’s will and the truth. At every moment in time, He did what was necessary to further the truth and employ God’s will. He was always aware of His Father’s Presence with Him, and He was always praying. His every decision was aimed at the goal of fulfilling His purpose on earth, with not a single moment wasted. To be a true Christian is to make the faith what your life is about, not what a small sliver of your time is focused on. If we all lived like this, things would be much different, and we would all be better for it.

5. Respect and Follow the Church as Christ’s Bride, which has Christ’s Authority (the Final Say)

Acts 4:32 tells us “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common;” and Acts 2:42-46 tells us the disciples “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart…”

From this passage, a few key things are revealed about the Early Church. The first and most important thing to notice is that they were “of one heart and mind.” Directly after Christ left them, the Church was united in one belief. Without the Bible written, compiled, or even the Creeds decided yet, the apostles’ teachings were unified and clear to all. What did the Early Church do when it was unified and the tradition was clear? They “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” Notice it says “devoted to the prayers,” not “devoted to prayer.” This is a mention of liturgy. There were specific prayers being said on a normal basis along with the breaking of the bread. They celebrated Mass and were awed by what was happening every day when they received Christ. This seems to be the ideal for the Church. The Church was in its infancy, but it was probably at its purest with the apostles and Mary still around.

Notice, too, how simplified their lives seemed to be. In a sense, things were terrifying, hectic, and very complex, with persecution, Christ being gone, and having to figure out how to carry on with everything. But in another sense, they simplified things down by living communally, sharing and giving away their possessions and money. In the modern world, where everyone is so focused on material things, looking back at how these disciples lived can help us slow down and set our priorities straight.

In Acts 15, the first Church Council occurs in Jerusalem in order to resolve a doctrinal issue. The most important thing to notice here is that while much debate occurs, when Peter gets up to speak, all stop to listen, and his proclamation is the final say. We can tell from his language that he sees himself to be God’s chosen spokesman regarding doctrine. James continues on from what he says, along with Paul and Barnabas, to elaborate on the implications Peter’s decision will have on his community, Jerusalem.

Later, with the Church Fathers, we can see how highly they regarded the seat of Peter. St. Irenaeus, for example, who was a disciple of Polycarp, described the Church of Rome as having the utmost authority: “But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles. Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” [A.D. 189].[7]

Especially when it comes to things like contraception, nowadays, according to the statistics I’ve heard, some people don’t seem to understand what it means when the Church proclaims something to be true or inherently evil. As Irenaeus pointed out almost 2000 years ago, what the Church of Rome teaches is what is maintained as apostolic tradition, meaning it comes with the authority of Christ given to St. Peter. It is infallible. It is non-negotiable. To reject this is to reject Christ. Yet huge numbers of Catholics reject some teachings of the Church, whether it be her teaching on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, or whatever. One of the best things we can learn from the ancient Christians is their respect for the Chair of Peter and its implications on our beliefs.

References:

[1] Newman, Blessed John Henry. ESSAY ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE.

[2] Tertullian. The Crown 3:3-4

[3] Origen. Homilies on Exodus 13:3

[4] Antenucci, Chris. “A History of the Use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Early Church.” Medium, 28 Mar. 2018, medium.com/@chrisantenucci/a-history-of-the-use-of-the-sacrament-of-reconciliation-in-the-early-church-8d0eaf275faf.

[5] “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.” CHURCH FATHERS: Martyrdom of Polycarp, www.newadvent.org/fathers/0102.htm.

[6] Rosica, Thomas, and CSB. “Meet the 4th-Century Martyrs Pope Francis Mentioned Today: ‘We Cannot Live without Sunday.’” Aleteia, 8 Nov. 2017, aleteia.org/2017/11/08/meet-the-4th-century-martyrs-pope-francis-mentioned-today-we-cannot-live-without-sunday/.

[7] Irenaeus. Against Heresies 3:3:2

Author Profile

Logan Winkleman
Logan Winkleman
Logan Winkelman was received into the Catholic Church on Pentecost, 2018 after a two-year, intensely researched conversion from non-denominational Protestantism with the original aim of disproving Catholicism. His educational background in philosophy and personal experience of Protestant Christianity has given him a unique perspective on his new-found faith and the Christian religion as a whole. He resides in Tustin, California, and has spoken at retreats and church events within his home diocese of Orange. He enjoys spending his free time finding God in nature, mountain hiking, spending time with family, and reading.

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