ST. AMBROSE "ON THE MYSTERIES" AND THE TREATISE "ON THE SACRAMENTS"by Unknown
1. On Catechetical Instruction
The two treatises contained in the present volume, apart from their importance to the student of Christian worship and doctrines, possess this further source of interest, that they illustrate the care of the ancient Church for the adequate instruction of those
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1. On Catechetical Instruction
The two treatises contained in the present volume, apart from their importance to the student of Christian worship and doctrines, possess this further source of interest, that they illustrate the care of the ancient Church for the adequate instruction of those who were admitted to Christian baptism. Each of them consists of addresses given in Easter week to those who had been baptized on Easter Eve. But they presuppose a longer course of instruction which had been carried on throughout Lent, and to this previous instruction Ambrose refers in the opening words of the treatise On the Mysteries. The origin of this system of instruction goes back to the early days of the Church, and the word “catechumen” applied to one who had attached himself to the Church and was undergoing such instruction has its origin in the New Testament.1 As the Church grew in numbers and influence, and its converts were in most cases adults, increasing importance was attached to this side of its activity. The famous school of Alexandria, of which Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen were the most notable heads, represents that activity in its most splendid and striking form. Under their leadership it attracted the more thoughtful and intelligent classes of converts, and developed into a school of Christian philosophy and learning. But in a simpler form the same kind of instruction was going on throughout the Church, and the discipline and training to which converts were subjected before they were admitted to baptism is reflected not only in the series of Church Orders, which give directions for the preliminaries of baptism, but also in the liturgical books which deal with the ordering of Christian worship. The central act of worship, the Eucharist, was divided into two parts. The missa catechumenorum, consisting of lessons, psalms, homily, and prayers, was open to all, baptized and unbaptized, alike. The missa fidelium, or Eucharist proper, was the special privilege of the baptized. The conversion of the Empire flooded the Church with a number of converts, many of whom were Christian only in name, and were unwilling to take upon themselves the full obligations of the Christian life involved in baptism. Crowds flocked into the ranks of the catechumenate, but many stopped there, and the evil custom became prevalent of postponing as long as possible the reception of baptism. The Emperor Constantine was baptized on his death-bed. Augustine, though admitted to the catechumenate as a boy, is another example of one whose baptism was long deferred. Corresponding to these changed conditions we find that the Church in the fourth century, unable to cope with the great crowd of catechumens, reserved the full and complete instruction to those catechumens who expressed their intention of presenting themselves for baptism. The duration of this instruction, of which in the earlier period we have no clear indications, became generally fixed to the season of Lent, the baptism itself taking place on Easter Eve.1 The importance of this work of instruction was such that leading bishops of the Church engaged in it themselves, and also wrote treatises intended for the guidance of catechists. We have examples of these latter in Augustine’s work de catechizandis rudibus and in the Catechetical Oration of Gregory of Nyssa. The best known example of the actual instruction given is the Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem. Other examples may be found among the sermons of Chrysostom, in those of Augustine to candidates for baptism (ad competentes) and to the newly-baptized (ad infantes), and in the addresses of Gaudentius of Brescia to neophytes.
The names of those who expressed their intention of offering themselves for baptism were given in at the beginning of Lent (cp. de Sacram. iii. 2.12), and henceforth they were known as competentes, or at Rome electi, while the corresponding term in the East was οἱ ϕωτιζόμενοι (“those who are being illuminated”). At Milan, during Lent, Ambrose daily instructed the candidates in Christian morals and the elements of religion (de Myst. i. 1), and many of his extant sermons, based upon the books of Scripture read during Lent, are of this character. Thus Ambrose tells us, in the passage just cited, that in Lent the lives of the patriarchs (Genesis) and the precepts of Proverbs were read, and his own sermons On Abraham contain references which show that they were intended for candidates for baptism.
The services at which these lessons were read and the instructions were given were undoubtedly the missae catechumenorum, of which we find survivals in the later Milanese books, i. e. the Manuale (cent. x) and the Ordo of Beroldus (cent. xii). From these sources we learn...
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