“Many were gathered together and were praying"
Some New Testament Texts: Matthew 6:9-13; Acts 2:42; 4:24-30; 1 Timothy 2:1f., 8; 4:3-5; Ephesians 3:14-21; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13.
XII.1PAPYRUS “MORNING PRAYER”:
Helper of those who turn to you,
Light of those in the dark,
Creator of all that grows from seed,
Promoter of all spiritual growth,
have mercy, Lord, on me
and make me a temple fit for yourself.
Do not scan my transgressions too closely,
for if you are quick to notice my offences,
I shall not dare to appear before you.
In your great mercy,
in your boundless compassion,
wash away my sins, through Jesus Christ,
your only Child, the truly holy,
the chief of our souls’ healers.
Through him may all glory be given you,
all power and honor and praise,
throughout the unending succession
of ages. Amen.1
2PAPYRUS PRAYER FOR SALVATION: O God Almighty, who created the heaven, earth, and sea, and everything in them, help me, have mercy on me, wipe away my sins, and save me in the present and in the coming age through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ through whom be the glory and might forever. Amen.2
3PRAYER AT MEAL: Blessed be you, O Lord, who has nourished me from my youth and who gives food to all flesh. Fill our hearts with joy and gladness, that always having all we need, we may abound in every good work, in Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom glory, honor, and power be to you for ever. Amen. (Apostolic Constitutions 7-5.49.68)3
4DOXOLOGY IN SECOND CLEMENT: To the only invisible God, Father of truth, who sent forth to us the Savior and Author of immortality, through whom was manifested to us the truth and the heavenly life, to him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. (20.5)
5GENERAL PRAYER FROM CLEMENT OF ROME: We shall pray that the Creator of the universe may keep unbroken the number of his elect in the whole world, making earnest entreaty and supplication through his beloved Servant Jesus Christ, through whom he called us from darkness into light, from ignorance into the full knowledge of his glorious name. Grant to us to hope on your name, the source of all creation. You opened the eyes of our heart in order to know that you alone remain the highest among the highest, the holy among the holy ones. You humble the pride of the haughty, you destroy the reasonings of the nations, you exalt the humble and humble the exalted, you make rich and you make poor, you cause to die and you cause to live, you alone are the benefactor of spirits and God of all flesh. You look into the depths, you behold the works of human beings, you are the helper of those in danger, the savior of those who despair, the creator and overseer of every spirit. You multiply nations upon the earth and you choose out of them those who love you through Jesus Christ your beloved Servant, through whom you trained, sanctified, and honored us.
We pray you, Master, be our helper and protector. Save those of us in affliction, have mercy on the humble, raise up the fallen, manifest yourself to those in need, heal the sick, bring back those of your people who are straying. Feed the hungry, ransom our prisoners, raise up the weak, comfort the faint-hearted. Let all the nations know you that you are God alone and Jesus Christ is your Servant and we are your people and the sheep of your pasture.
You made manifest the eternal constitution of the world through the things you performed. You, Lord, created the inhabited earth, you who are faithful in all generations, righteous in judgments, marvellous in strength and majesty, wise in creating and understanding in establishing the things made, good in the things seen, and kind to those who trust you, merciful and compassionate. Forgive us our lawlessness and unrighteousness, our transgressions and faults. Do not reckon every sin of your servants and handmaidens, but purify us with the cleansing of your truth and direct our steps to walk in holiness of heart and to do the things which are good and pleasing before you and our rulers. Yes, Lord, make your face to shine upon us for good in peace in order that we may be sheltered by your mighty hand and may be delivered from every sin by your uplifted arm, and deliver us from those who hate us unjustly. Give concord and peace to us and to all who dwell on the earth, even as you gave to our ancestors when they called upon you devoutly in faith and truth. May we be obedient to your almighty and glorious name and to our rulers and governors on the earth.
You, O Master, by your majestic and ineffable might gave to them imperial authority in order that we who know the glory and honor you gave to them might be submissive to them, not opposing your will in anything. Give to them, Lord, health, peace, concord, and stability in order that they may administer blamelessly the dominion which you have given them. For you, Master, heavenly King of the ages, do give to human beings glory and honor and authority over what dwells on the earth. May you, Lord, direct their counsel according to what is good and pleasing to you so that by piously administering the authority you gave them with peace and gentleness they may find mercy from you. You alone are able to do these things and better things with us. To you we offer our praise through the high priest and guardian of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be to you the glory and the majesty both now and for all generations for ever and ever. Amen. (59-61)
6POLYCARP: Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ himself, the eternal high priest and Son of God, build you up in faith, truth, gentleness, absence of wrath, patience, longsuffering, endurance, and purity. May he give you lot and share among his saints, and us with you and with all under heaven who shall believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead. Pray for all the saints. Pray also for emperors, powers, and rulers, and for those who persecute and hate you, and for enemies of the cross, so that your fruit may be manifest among all, so that you may be perfect in him. (Philippians 12)
7POLYCARP’S PRAYER AT THE STAKE: O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers, all creation, and of all the race of the righteous who live before you. I bless you that you have counted me worthy of this day and hour in order that I might participate in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, for the resurrection of eternal life of both soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them before you today by a rich and acceptable sacrifice, even as you the unlying and true God prepared, showed forth, and fulfilled. On account of this and for all things I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, your beloved Servant, through whom to you with him and the Holy Spirit be the glory both now and in the coming ages. Amen. (Martyrdom of Polycarp 14)
8AN AUTHOR’S PRAYER: Therefore, I invoke you, Lord God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob and Israel, you who are Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who through the abundance of your mercy has been well disposed toward us so that we might know you, you who made the heaven and the earth and rule over all, who are the only and true God, above whom there is no other God; through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom is the dominion and gifts of the Holy Spirit, give to everyone who reads this book to know you, to be strengthened in you, and avoid every opinion which is heretical, Godless, and impious. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.6.4)
9IRENAEUS’ PRAYER FOR THE CONVERSION OF HERETICS: We indeed pray that they may not remain in that pit which they themselves have dug . . . and that being converted to the church of God they may be lawfully begotten, that Christ may be formed in them, and that they may know the Framer and Maker of this universe, the only true God and Lord of all. We pray these things for them, loving them to a better purpose than they imagine they love themselves. For our love, since it is true, is for their salvation, if they will accept it. . . . Wherefore it does not weary us to extend our hand to them with all our strength. . . . May we be able to persuade them to cease from their error and to stop their blasphemies against their Maker, who is both the only God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (Against Heresies 4.25.7)
Prayer occupied an important place in the daily life of Christians. The Didache provided that one pray three times a day “in the manner the Lord commanded in his Gospel.” There follows the text of the Lord’s prayer as given in Matthew 6:9-3, with the addition of the doxology “Yours is the power and the glory forever.”4 Early Jewish writings provided for prayer three times a day. In place of the Jewish Amidah (the Eighteen Benedictions) and Shema (confession of faith) the Didache substituted the Lord’s prayer. According to Jewish models and early Christian instructions, the Lord’s prayer was not recited verbatim as a fixed form but was an outline or sketch of prayer that was either filled in or supplemented with one’s own petitions.5 Later the third, sixth, and ninth hours were fixed as Christian hours of prayer.6
In addition, provision was made at certain places for daily meetings at the beginning of the day for communal prayer and instruction (VI.26). The use of the first person singular in the papyrus “Morning Prayer” (XII.1) indicates that it was for private prayer. Evening prayer before retiring was private. Clement of Alexandria states, “Before partaking of sleep it is a sacred duty to give thanks to God, since you have enjoyed his grace and love, and so to go straight to sleep.”7 He adds, “Wherefore we ought often by night to rise from the bed and bless God.”8 Christians prayed before and after their meals. Although it is later before the contents of table prayers were preserved (XII.3), there are abundant references from early times that Christians did not partake of food without thanksgiving (XVI.3).9
The Christian life was a life of prayer. Thus for Clement of Alexandria the true Christian “prays throughout his whole life” and not just at the third, sixth, and ninth hours.10
His whole life is a holy festival. His sacrifices are prayers and praises, and reading from the Scriptures before meals, and psalms and hymns during meals and before bed, and prayers again by night.11
And often communicate your thoughts to others, but especially to God at night even as in the day. For much sleep is not to keep you from your prayers and hymns to God.12
The pervasiveness of prayer in the lives of Christians may be seen in the number of prayers written on potsherds and scraps of papyrus or inscribed on tombstones, houses, and churches.13
Morning prayers were made facing the east: “Prayers are made looking toward the sunrise in the east.”14 The posture for prayers at times might be kneeling or prostrate.15 Nevertheless, the characteristic Christian posture for prayer was standing with arms outstretched and slightly raised and the palms turned up to heaven.16 The frequent literary texts are confirmed by the numerous portrayals in catacomb paintings and on sarcophagi.17 This posture was common to Jews and pagans in antiquity. The standard representation in art of a Christian, particularly of a deceased person (since most of the surviving early Christian art is funerary), is as an orans, a praying figure. The paintings may be a symbol of piety, a portrait of the deceased in the perpetual adoration of God or in intercession before him, or may represent the sanctity of the person. The outstretched arms were a standard stylization for prayer, representing for early Christians what Dürer’s “Praying Hands” do for modern Christians. Elevated hands formed the posture of prayer in the congregational assembly and in private prayer. The “lift up your hearts” of the preface to the eucharistic prayer (VIII.5) may have been the signal for the people to rise and lift their arms. The lifting up of the hearts corresponded to the physical elevation of the hands.18
Incense, common in Hebrew and pagan worship, was rejected by Christians.19 It was a material sacrifice, and, as an accompaniment to the spiritual sacrifice of prayer, was rejected in the same way as was instrumental accompaniment to singing (next chapter).
No congregational prayers were recorded, but we do have some good indications of the style and contents of the prayers in the worship assemblies. Clement of Rome (XII.5) gives the kind of prayer that he must have been accustomed to leading in church. It bears definite similarities to phrases in contemporary Jewish prayers and to prayers in later Christian liturgies. Clement moves into an actual prayer from a statement of what the Roman church would pray for. God’s bestowal of saving knowledge through Jesus Christ occasions the transition from third to second person. The power of God is celebrated in his control over human affairs in a series of statements that is a composite of Scriptural phrases, rounded out by reference to God’s election of the church and work of salvation by Christ. Praise is followed by petition as God is asked to be the helper of the needy, the prayer returning once more to the mention of Christ and the church. Clement next praises God as creator, but creation and redemption belong together, and this section leads into petitions for forgiveness and protection. This leads in turn to notice of earthly rulers, and it is clear that good relations with the government is a prime concern for the Roman church (the beginning of the letter mentions two persecutions). The prayer concludes with a renewed affirmation of faith and a doxology.
The letter of Clement was meant to be read in the assembly at Corinth (see Ch. VII, p.87 for the fact that it continued to be read there). Thus, as with Paul’s letters, it is punctuated by doxologies.20 This great prayer at the close may be compared to the brief prayers with which Origen closed his homilies.21
Nearly every phrase in Polycarp’s prayer at his martyrdom (XII.7) has biblical or liturgical parallels. One need not be skeptical of the exact words. Some of the faithful may have overheard his prayer. Even if it is not reported verbatim, the church at Smyrna had heard Polycarp pray enough that they knew his characteristic phraseology. Indeed, if the prayer is wholly the composition of the author, we may have all the more reason to see its wording as a typical prayer from Polycarp adapted to the particular circumstances of his martyrdom. Only the particular Trinitarian form of the doxology may be doubted as belonging to the period of Polycarp. In the mentality of the early church, even martyrdom, or rather especially martyrdom, was approached with praise and thanksgiving. Not all were called to be martyrs; to be so called was a special gift from God to those whose faith was strong. At the hour of his arrest Polycarp’s prayers were not for himself but for others and especially the church.22
Prayers for rulers come in for frequent reference in early Christian literature (in VII.3 it is the one item from the congregational prayers singled out for mention by the apologist Tertullian; XII.5, 6). Tertullian declares:
Christians look up with hands outstretched . . . with head uncovered . . . and pray without ceasing for all our emperors. We pray for long life for them, for security to the empire, for protection to the imperial house, for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever is desired by a person or Caesar.23
Such prayers were an existential concern in the age of persecution. These statements occur often in apologetic writings because Christians had to justify not offering sacrifice to the emperor. Their claim was that their prayers to the God who created the world and upheld the government were more effectual and a better proof of loyalty.
Other references to the objects of Christian petitions are more incidental. The prayers are especially for fellow Christians and their needs (XII.5, 6; VIII.4)24 and are related to the hope for final salvation. But there was also concern for those who needed to be converted to the truth (XII.9).25
The dominant note of the early Christian prayers is praise, and this finds explicit expression in the doxologies. Such words of praise were in use in Judaism. They became a characteristic of Christian prayers as the uniform conclusion to a prayer (VIII.3 and 5 as well as those in this chapter). They also appear at the conclusion of books, letters, and sermons (XII.4 as an example) and as independent pieces (XIII.9). The doxologies are sometimes addressed to God alone (XII.4), sometimes to God and Christ (typically through Christ to the Father-XII.1, 2, 3, 5), sometimes to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (XII.7). More characteristic would seem to be praise to God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit (VIII.5; cf. VIII.4).26 Thus there was summed up the doctrine of prayer: God was the goal, Christ the Mediator, and the Holy Spirit the sphere in which the church prays.
Christian prayer was addressed commonly to God the Father. God is presented as the Creator, the God who continues to act, and the God who cares for human beings. He is the Master and Almighty, but also Helper and Father of Jesus Christ. His past acts are the basis of praise and petition. Recitation of his benefits, or praise and thanksgiving, precede specific requests. The ascriptions to God are phrased in keeping with what entreaties will be made. The central concerns are with the spiritual blessings of salvation, but all human needs come within the scope of prayer. The centrality of redemption in Christ stands out. This was the great blessing that was the basis of prayer itself and of further petitions. The salvation is often presented in intellectual terms (knowledge) in the prayers. The principal novelty, the central distinguishing characteristic of Christian prayer, was the mediation of Christ. The prayer is always addressed through Christ, the Lord and Savior. He was at the heart of prayer as of all acts of worship. He was the “high priest” of Christian intercession. He was also frequently referred to as Servant (or Child).27 The term originated in the Servant Christology of the earliest church (Acts 3:13, with reference to Isaiah 52:13 and other texts; 4:27). It disappeared from the language of the church of the second and later centuries except in prayers. The language of religion is always conservative, and the language of worship is the most conservative aspect of religion. Here was preserved a term from the earliest Jewish Christian belief, testifying to the conviction that Jesus was the chosen agent in the fulfillment of God’s purposes for his people. That faith had a richer content in later ages, but the continued use of the term Servant preserved a continuity in prayer life with the earliest days of the church.
The general structure of the prayers is, following the address to God, to move from praise (often taking the form of recitation of God’s mighty acts) and thanksgiving to petition, then to close with a doxology, ending as beginning with praise. Then the prayer was confirmed or ratified with an “Amen.”28
Besides the “Amen” various other acclamations and ejaculations may also be considered as part of the prayer life of Christians. We find them in connection with the congregational prayers and hymns, as part of the Lord’s supper celebration, in greetings, on inscriptions, at martyrdom, and in other contexts. Such expressions are “Amen” (Ch. VIII), “Hallelujah” (Ch. XIII), “The Lord be with you” (VIII.5), “Peace to you” (common in variations on epitaphs), “Lord have mercy”, “Thanks to God” (the expression of the martyrs). Such short exclamations show how a sense of the presence of God permeated all of life. The people actively participated in the congregational prayers by their responses and acclamations.
The prayers preserved a strong sense of the community, of life in the church, in which the welfare of all was bound together. Thus Christians prayed together, and prayed “our Father.” Prayer was the property of the whole people of God. All actively participated in the prayers of the church. Tertullian, On Shows 25, implies that “to raise your hands to God,” to utter the “Amen,” and to shout the doxology “forever” were alike the expressions of the whole congregation.29
There is a rich doctrinal content in the early prayers. They are a living confession of faith. They are deeply rooted in the great events of salvation, and they are closely related to the daily life activities and needs of the believers. There is a freshness, vitality, and reality about early Christian prayers. They are not mechanical or saying words. The closeness of God and the power of faith are real.
Church, F. Forrester and Terrence J. Mulry. The Macmillan Book of Earliest Christian Prayers. New York: Macmillan, 1988.
Cunningham, Agnes. Prayer: Personal and Liturgical. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1985.
Hamman, A. Early Christian Prayers. Trans. Walter Mitchell. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1961. A rich collection of the prayers from the early centuries of the church in translation.
__________. La Prière. II. Les trois premiers siècles. Tournai: Desclée, 1963. A thorough study of early Christian prayer based on the preceding collection of texts, but not translated into English.
Kiley, M., ed. Prayer from Alexander to Constantine: An Anthology. New York: Routledge, 1997.
1 Quoted from A. Hamman, Early Christian Prayers, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1961), pp. 62f. The prayer has been ascribed to the second century, but that is uncertain.
2 Translated from A. S. Hunt and B. P. Grenfell, eds., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (London, 1903), Vol. III, # 407, p. 12.
3 The Apostolic Constitutions, although compiled in the late fourth century, incorporates earlier material. This prayer is from a collection of prayers included at the end of Book 7. It is of undetermined date, and from its contents might have originated at any age.
4 Didache 8.2-3. The simpler form of the doxology indicates that this addition was quite early. Since all prayer ended with a doxology (see below), the liturgical use of the “Our Father” naturally led to the expansion of it to conclude with a doxology. On the practice of daily prayer, see Paul F. Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
5 Gordon J. Bahr, “The Use of the Lord’s Prayer in the Primitive Church,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 84 (June, 1965), pp. 153-159. See especially Tertullian, On Prayer 10 and Origen, On Prayer 18 and 33. Also, F. H. Chase, The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church, “Texts and Studies,” Vol. I:3 (1891). For the patristic commentaries on the Lord’s prayer see R. L. Simpson, The Interpretation of Prayer in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965).
6 Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 184.108.40.206; Tertullian, On Prayer 25; Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 31. C. W. Dugmore, The Influence of the Synagogue upon the Divine Office (Westminster: Faith Press, 1966), chapter IV, argues that these three hours were not taken from Jewish practice. Cf. D. Y. Hadidian, “The Background and Origin of the Christian Hours of Prayer,” Theological Studies, Vol. 25 (1965), pp. 59-69; repr. in Everett Ferguson, ed., Worship in Early Christianity, Studies in Early Christianity, Vol. XV (New York: Garland, 1993), pp. 243-253.
7 Instructor 220.127.116.11. Cf. his Miscellanies 18.104.22.168 and Instructor 22.214.171.124; Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 35.7; Tertullian, On Prayer 25 refers to prayer at the beginning and end of the day in addition to the third, sixth, and ninth hours.
8 Instructor 126.96.36.199. For rising in the middle of the night for prayer see Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 36.8; Tertullian, To His Wife 2.5.
9 “It is fitting for believers not to take food . . . before interposing prayer”–Tertullian, On Prayer 25; see Clement of Alexandria, Instructor 2.4-44-1 and note 11. For prayers at home, including at meals, see Balthasar Fischer, “The Common Prayer of Congregation and Family in the Ancient Church,” Studia Liturgica, Vol. 10 (1974), pp. 106-124; repr. in Everett Ferguson, ed., Worship in Early Christianity, Studies in Early Christianity, Vol. XV (New York: Garland, 1993), pp. 224-242 (esp., pp. 235-242).
10 Miscellanies 188.8.131.52. That all times and places are sacred and that silent or mental prayer may be prayed at any time are themes of this entire chapter. Cf. Tertullian, On Prayer 23 that one can pray at all times and places; Origen, On Prayer 12 and 31.4-7.
11 Miscellanies 184.108.40.206.
12 From a fragment assigned to Clement of Alexandria’s “Exhortation to Endurance or To the Newly Baptized,” translated by G. W. Butterworth in the Loeb Classical Library.
13 See the collection of some of these in Hamman, op. cit., pp. 62ff., 78ff.
14 Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 220.127.116.11; cf. Tertullian, To the Nations 1.13; Apology 16; Origen, On Prayer 32. Facing east in prayer was common in the Mediterranean world.
15 Justin, Dialogue 90; Acts of Paul and Thecla 24; Origen, On Prayer 31.3.
16 Clement of Rome 2 and 29; Athenagoras, Plea 13; Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 18.104.22.168; Tertullian, Apology 30; On Idolatry 7; On Prayer 17; Acts of Paul and Thecla 34. Tertullian, On the Crown 3 and On Prayer 23 discusses the times for kneeling (a sign of humility) and for standing (a sign of joy and boldness). Standing was the practice on the Lord’s day in honor of the resurrection. Note Justin (VII.2) for the congregation rising for prayer. Stretching out the arms became a symbol of the cross for Christians–Odes of Solomon 42.
17 See the different styles reproduced in illustrations 188 to 194 in André Grabar, Christian Iconography (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1968) and illustrations 25, 26, 58, 96-98, 102, 104, 113-115, 119, 120, 135, 140, 146 in the same author’s The Beginnings of Christian Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967). See our Plates III, VII, VIII.
18 Some confirmation for this suggestion may be found in Hippolytus’ instructions for the love feast (Apostolic Tradition 36). The dialogue between the bishop and people that introduced the eucharistic prayer (VIII.5) preceded the thanksgiving at the love feast, but with one exception. The “Lift up your hearts” was not to be said, likely because the prayer at the dinner was said reclining and not standing, as was the eucharistic prayer. Everett Ferguson, “The Liturgical Function of the 'Sursum corda’,” Studia Patristica, Vol. XII (1975), pp. 360-363.
19 Justin, Apology I,13; Athenagoras, Plea 13; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.17.6; Clement of Alexandria, Instructor 2.8.67; Tertullian, Apology 30.
20 20.12; 32.4; 43.6; 45.7; 50.7; 58.2; 64.1; 65.2.
21 Some of these are quoted by Hamman, op cit., pp. 40ff. Clement of Alexandria’s Who Is the Rich Man? and Second Clement (XII.4) and Melito, On the Passover close with doxologies.
22 Martyrdom of Polycarp 7-8.
23 Apology 30.4; see also Theophilus, To Autolycus 1.11; Athenagoras, Plea 32.
24 See Justin’s summary statement in Apology I, 13, quoted on p. 83.
25 Cf. Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 22.214.171.124-7 for prayer “for the conversion of our neighbors.”
26 Basil in the fourth century discussed the presence of the two forms “in the Holy Spirit” and “with the Holy Spirit” (the latter making the Spirit a joint recipient of the praise with the Father and the Son) and cited examples of their respective use (On the Holy Spirit 25.58ff.).
28 See Origen, On Prayer 33 for the components of prayer: address to God, praise, thanksgiving, confession of sins, petitions and intercessions, concluding doxology.
29 For the “Amen” as a congregational response see VII.2 and VIII.4 and discussion in Chapter VIII, p. 99. Later Jerome tells us that the Roman basilicas sounded like a clap of thunder when the “Amen” was voiced (Commentary on Galatians 1.2).