Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Octavius on Building Temples & Altars

When responding to the accusation that since Christians didn't have temples or altars, they must be concealing what they worship, Octavius (as recorded by Minucius Felix) responds:

But do you think that we conceal what we worship, if we have not temples and altars? And yet what image of God shall I make, since, if you think rightly, man himself is the image of God? What temple shall I build to Him, when this whole world fashioned by His work cannot receive Him? And when I, a man, dwell far and wide, shall I shut up the might of so great majesty within one little building? Were it not better that He should be dedicated in our mind, consecrated in our inmost heart?
I, myself am quick to point out to critics of high Church liturgy that the early Church met in home Churches not out of preference but out of necessity. Christianity was illegal for its first 300 years of existence and so they couldn't exactly build "temples and altars". Yet, this apology doesn't seem so obvious to Octavius' accuser and certainly not to Octavius himself whose response hearkens back to Christianity's first martyr:
"the Most High does not live in houses made by men." Acts 7:48
So then what are we to make of all this? First, whatever the immediate context of this particular engagement is, we do have sufficient evidence that not only was the early Church liturgical and solemn (as opposed to supposedly Spirit-driven and relaxed) but that her liturgies were understood in a sacrificial sense. I argued here, if somewhat abstractly, that liturgy is the beginning, climax and destination of redemptive history.

The earliest liturgies of the Church were in perfect continuity with the Jewish liturgies they intended to fulfill! In fact, we know from Scripture that Christians regularly worshiped in Synagogues for a decade or more after Christ's resurrection. From Mike Aquilina's book, The Mass of the Early Christians:
Sofia Cavaletti observes that the synagogue service closely parallels the early Christian Liturgy of the Word, roughly the first half of the Mass, while the sequence of prayers in the Jewish Passover meal closely corresponds to the order of the earliest Eucharistic prayers.
Why then, doesn't Octavius recourse to such an obvious response as I listed above? He doesn't say anything negative about temples or altars - just that the Christian religion shows that God doesn't need them.

I think my apology makes more sense in retrospect than it would from the lips of an early Christian. If I could place myself in his shoes, I might easily see myself replying in a similar way. You (worldly men) look for temples and altars and you have them with your religions but you don't have the truth. What good is an altar if you make sacrifices to false gods?

After Constantine legalized Christianity, it became possible for Christians to build temples (churches) and altars. But even before that - we do have record in fact, that the earliest altars were sarcophagi of Christian martyrs. That tradition is honored until today - Catholic altars are regularly built with the relic of a martyr or saint inside.

So, from Octavius' response we ought not come away thinking negative of temples or altars. God ordained both in the Old Testament and never abolished them. We certainly shouldn't come away thinking that the early Church didn't have them because they represented some sort of religious vanity. As soon as the early Church was able to build them, she did. Even before she could have official altars, she used underground ones - set among the bones of the martyrs.

Yet it would be a similar shame to walk away without grasping Octavius' underlying message (and again St. Stephen who quotes from the Psalms) - God's first temple is our body - and our heart His altar. He neither needs our sacrifice nor is the beneficiary of it. Rather, we receive life from His sacrifice which must be re-presented first on the altar of our heart which He built and in a tangible way in the Eucharist which we receive at the altar we build by our hands.

1 comment:

Tiber Jumper said...

"Rather, we receive life from His sacrifice which must be re-presented first on the altar of our heart which He built and in a tangible way in the Eucharist which we receive at the altar we build by our hands."

Well said!!!
God bless your holy week.