The Didache: How to Worship

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One of the texts I teach to my high school juniors in my Christian Ethics class is the ancient work known as the Didache (which means “teaching”). It is one of the oldest Christian writings in existence outside of the New Testament and was used for many centuries as a manual of instruction for new Christians. After the initial six chapters that focus on how Christians should live in their personal lives, the next section moves into a discussion of explicitly Christian ritual practices, including Baptism, Eucharist, prayer, fasting, and anointing with oil.

The Didache is an essential witness to the continuity of the Church with the apostles and their successors. Of course, it is quite useful for historians seeking to understand the development of Christian theology and practice, but it is also useful for ordinary Christians like you and me because it puts us in touch with our ancestors in the faith. Like learning the faith at my Grandfather’s knee, reading the Didache provides a warm picture of a hands-on, vibrant faith that was at work in a world so very different from my own, and yet is the same faith “once and for all delivered to the saints.”

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In a previous article, I addressed the first part of the Didache that uses the language of “the two ways” to discuss ethics. I noted that my students were pretty quick to point out that the way the Didache introduces new Christians to the faith seems at odds with what we usually think about theological education. Rather than discussing the Trinity or Atonement theories, the Didache begins by emphasizing that the Christian life is marked by love of God and of neighbor. And now, in this second section, we see a new focus on ritual practices.

Baptism

Regarding Baptism, the Didache says:

This is how to baptize. Give public instruction on all these points, and then baptize in running water, ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ If you do not have running water, baptize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times ‘in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’ Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand.

Clearly baptism was an early practice engaged in by Christians. It was anticipated in the Old Testament through experiences like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-2) and Noah and his family passing safely through the flood (1 Peter 3:21). In both cases, Peter and Paul stress that baptism is a passing from death into life. In this way, it is akin to birth (which also involves water; c.f. John 3:5).

Fasting and Prayer

Fasting, which is assumed among early Christians:

must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The concern with not fasting like the hypocrites is a clear reference to our Lord’s injunctions about fasting in Matthew 6:16-18.

Prayer should involve the recitation the Lord’s Prayer three times throughout the day, praying:

as the Lord bid us in his gospel: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your Kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven; give us today our bread for the morrow; and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but save us from the evil one, for yours is the power and the glory forever.’

The Eucharist

The Eucharist should begin with a prayer over the cup, saying:

We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your child, which you have revealed through Jesus, your child. To you be glory forever.

And, following the cup, a prayer over the bread :

As this piece [of bread] was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom. For yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

This eucharistic prayer is a reference to the mana in the wilderness that was scattered daily (Exodus 16) for the people of God to eat. But as Christ noted in John 6:32, the true bread of heaven is his body.

The Didache specifically inveighs against sharing the Eucharist with those who have not been baptized so as to not “give what is sacred to Dogs,” which is reminiscent of what Jesus tells the Syrophonecian woman (Mark 7:24-30 cf. Matthew 15:21-28).

Class Discussion

When we get to this section of the Didache, my students have a lot of questions. They want to know why it matters what day of the week one fasts (or whether one fasts at all) or why the temperature or quantity of water is relevant. Most are offended that the Didache refers to those who are not baptized as “dogs.” And not a few are bored at the entire discussion.

So, I usually engage like this:

Mr. Jeffers: After reading this passage, do you feel more equipped to live an authentic Christian life?

Student: Not at all. The whole thing seems boring.

Mr. Jeffers: What do you mean by “boring?”

Student: Well, I guess I mean that this text makes Christianity seem like nothing more than a series of mundane activities.

Mr. Jeffers: You mean the fasting, praying, baptizing, and eating?

Student: Yeah. It just seems so anticlimactic, so ordinary. I was expecting a manual for new Christians in the early Church to address martyrdom or the miraculous activities of saints or something. But all we have here are worries about fasting properly and using water of a certain temperature for baptism.

Mr. Jeffers: Do you feel like the Christian life is supposed to be extraordinary?

Student: Yeah, I guess so. Or at least interesting.

Mr. Jeffers: Is your life extraordinary?

Student: Not really. I go to school and church and hang out with my friends and do all of my school work.

Mr. Jeffers: So, you feel you live an ordinary Christian life? One characterized by typical Christian things?

Student: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I’m not the best Christian in the world, but I don’t think I am the worst either.

Mr. Jeffers: And what characterizes ordinary Christian things? What sorts of things do you do daily that mark you as a Christian?

Student: Well, I try to love my neighbor as myself and to always honor God.

Mr. Jeffers: What about prayer? Or fasting? Are those regular disciplines in your life?

Student: I sometimes pray. I’ve fasted once or twice. But I mean, isn’t the whole point loving our neighbor?

Mr. Jeffers: Absolutely. But how good are you at that?

Student: I am okay, I guess. I generally try to treat people fairly. And I help out when others need it.

Mr. Jeffers: Could you do a better job?

Student: Of course! I just need to try harder.

Mr. Jeffers: But how do you do that? How do you try harder? How do you improve at this Christian life business?

Student: I don’t know, read my bible more, pray more, go to church more?

Mr. Jeffers: Exactly! By participating in the training in the Christian life offered by the Church, we become equipped to fulfill Christ’s commands.

At this point, I bring the students back to a meditation on the text of the Didache and we are able to look more charitably at what it has to say. Students notice the importance of running water for baptism (it symbolizes washing and life as opposed to gross stagnant water), but also the clear accommodation to whatever was available. If you can do baptisms out in a river, great. But if you just have a cup of water leftover from an earlier meal, just dump that on the candidate. The point is not the externals, but the externals do serve as signs of the things at which they point.

The students, previously miffed at the idea of having to fast on particular days, quickly warm to the idea. It’s like celebrating holidays. Thanksgiving would be a lot less valuable as a holiday if we all chose to celebrate it whenever we felt like it. There would be no camaraderie, no unity. They start to get it.

Theological Retrieval

And, like that, we are off to the races on this project of theological retrieval. Like tracing one’s ancestry with those popular DNA kits, going back into the Church Fathers is a way of seeing our family more clearly and better anchoring ourselves to the giants that came before us. We read deep in our own past in order to better understand who we are, how we got here, and where we are going.

Let us pray.

Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.

—William Laud (Prayer for the unity of the Church)

This article is the second in a series on the Didache. Click here to read Part I.

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash





Published on

May 3, 2023

Author

Greg Jeffers

Greg Jeffers is a member of Restoration Anglican Church in Richardson, TX. He serves in the Department of Theology at the Covenant School of Dallas, where he teaches high school courses on Ethics and Rhetoric.

View more from Greg Jeffers

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