Wouldn’t it be great to have a snapshot into the life of the early Church to see what they believed and taught and practiced on a day-to-day basis? Of course, we have the New Testament, which is divinely-inspired, and tells us about the life of Jesus Christ and the faith of the first Christian communities. Its 27 books, and eight (possibly nine, depending on if you think St.Paul, or a disciple of St.Paul, wrote the letter to the Hebrews.) authors – including the Apostles St.Matthew, St.John, St.James, St.Peter, St.Jude, and disciples St.Mark, St.Luke, and St.Paul – is the scriptural foundation of all Christian canonical beliefs. All of the books were written in the first century by eye-witnesses to Jesus, or by the first disciples of the Apostles. Aside from being the Word of God, these are incredibly reliable historical documents, reflecting direct contact with the person of Jesus and written relatively soon after. Yet, there are also many extra-biblical sources and letters, from the first century and early second century, that describe the life, belief and practices of the early Church. These are the writings of the early Church Fathers, in particular, the Apostolic Church Fathers, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. They are considered “Apostolic” because they had direct contact with the Apostles themselves, thus making their work fascinating and of utmost importance (even though they were not ultimately included within the canon of Church Scripture).
One such document is called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” or known simply as “The Didache.” It is one of the earliest known Christian writings, even possibly predating some of the New Testament books. It is generally agreed to have been written between 50-120 AD, well within the lifetime of some of the Apostles and first disciples. Some of the early Christians even considered it an inspired book, although again it was ultimately not included in the canon. The Didache is generally divided into four different sections concerning: (1) a moral catechesis (ie, “The Way of Life” vs. “The Way of Death”), (2) liturgical instruction, (3) a Church manual for various ecclesiastical and community norms, (4) and a brief eschatology of the parousia (ie, the second coming of Christ). One of the most profound aspects of the early Church Fathers’ writings is that they are thoroughly sacramental in nature, that is, they speak explicitly of the sacraments of the Church. Simply, from an apologetics point of view, they demonstrate that the sacraments and doctrines of the Catholic Church are not something contrived or incrementally slipped into Christianity over the centuries. They are not paganism, or a so-called Roman mystery religion. Christianity holds all of that in contempt as idolatry and blasphemy. Rather, the sacraments, the prayers, the Church, they were all there from the beginning. This is also true in The Didache. The tracts of the Didache, as are all the early Church Fathers’ writings, are decisively Catholic. [of note: The Way of Life specifically mentions not to commit “abortion, or infanticide,” which is probably the earliest known Christian writing explicitly condemning abortion and infanticide. Later, it references The Way of Death, in which they “murder their infants, and deface the image of God.”]
The Didache speaks matter-of-factly about Baptism, going to Church on Sundays, receiving the Eucharist, and making a general confession of sins. For example, as part of “The Way of Life,” the author says “In church, make confession of your faults, and do not come to your prayers with a bad conscience.” Later, he instructs:
“Assemble on the Lord’s Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until they have been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations.”
In the Church manual section, he similarly states, “No one is to eat or drink of your Eucharist but those who have been baptized in the Name of the Lord; for the Lord’s own saying applies here, ‘Give not that which is holy unto dogs.’” The manual gives in-depth instruction of the eucharistic prayers to say over the chalice and over the broken bread, offering us a glimpse into the first century Mass. They are to pray, “Thou, O Almighty Lord, hast created all things for thine own Name’s sake; to all men thou hast given meat and drink to enjoy, that they may give thanks to thee, but to us thou hast graciously given spiritual meat and drink, together with life eternal, through thy Servant. Especially, and above all, do we give thanks to thee for the mightiness of thy power.” The manual similarly gives precise details about how to go about baptizing people saying, “..immerse in running water ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’” It offers a similar prescription for standing water, or simply pouring water over the person’s head. The manual delves also into fasting, instructing people to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, much like the modern tradition, and to pray the Our Father three times every day.
And, how should this affect us? These brief snippets offer us glimpses, from outside the New Testament (i.e., accepted Scripture), into the hearts and minds of the first Christians. They lived a sacramental life in toto. Their daily lives were rooted in Baptism, Confession, the Eucharist, Sunday worship, fasting, and prayer. This is what they called The Way of Life. The Way of Life involves modeling our lives after Christ, that is, among many other things, loving our enemies, living a moral life, being meek and compassionate. Moreover, it instructs us, “Accept as good whatever experience comes your way, in the knowledge that nothing can happen without God.” We are to live out our Christian vocations within our ordinary circumstances and trials of each day, with Christ as our “spiritual meat and drink, together with life eternal.” As some have argued, The Didache could be a form of vade mecum, a small handbook that Christians would have carried about with themselves. It spoke to them of how they should live their lives, conduct themselves and embrace the sacramental life. And so it remains with us!