Holy Spirit Interactive
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
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The Early Church

Days of Memorial

by Mike Aquilina

We begin these last months of the year by remembering our dead-all saints, all souls. By this very practice we honor them, because they themselves taught us to do it, beginning with the first generations of the Church.

Thereís a sense in which the early Christians kept every day as a "memorial day." They called the Eucharist a "memorial" of Christís death-a God-willed remembrance through which Jesus became really present. And at Mass they marked not only Christís death, but also the days of the saints who died in Christ, especially the martyrs. Very early, the Churchís calendar began to teem with feast days honoring the dead, and the living Christians gained some notoriety for their treatment of the deceased.

Cremation had long been the norm in pagan societies. Jews, however, followed the custom of burying their dead. Christians did, too, and looked upon "Christian burial" as an expression of their faith in the resurrection of the body. Such an oddity was this practice that, in many locales, it earned Christians a derogatory nickname: "the Diggers." Yet the pagans also honored their dead, often with lavish funeral rites. Roman families hosted several banquets to honor their recently deceased: one at the gravesite the day of the funeral, the second at the end of nine days of mourning, others on specified religious holidays, and one major banquet on the birthday of the deceased.

Christians adapted the custom of funerary banquets. In some places they may have taken the form of an Agape, or love-feast, as we find recorded in the New Testament Epistle of St. Jude. Another possibility is that the funeral Eucharist was observed as part of a fuller banquet, such as we find in chapter 11 of St. Paulís First Letter to the Corinthians. In some churches the funeral was certainly marked by a Eucharist at the gravesite. We have a very early record of the graveside practice from the mid-second century in the apocryphal Acts of John. These funerary banquets or Masses may also be the meals we find depicted on the walls of the catacombs.

By the fourth century, the gravesite celebrations-sometimes called refrigeria, or "refreshments"-had gained a reputation in some quarters as raucous, drunken affairs. This was especially true of the festivals of popular saints, where the temptation was strong to knock one back for every glass poured out as a libation. When St. Monica moved from North Africa to Italy to be near her son Augustine, the Milanese bishop, St. Ambrose, discouraged her from observing the refrigeria at all-even in a pious way.

The liturgical scholar Joseph Jungmann noted that the earliest recorded graveside Masses were offered on the third day after the Christianís burial. The third day-what a stunning symbolic fulfillment of our life in Christ! Jungmann sees this custom as the ancestor of our current practice of votive Masses for the dead. And he notes times and places where various churches traditionally observed the seventh day, the ninth, the thirtieth, and the fortieth as well.

Some people see the gorgeous farewell passage in Augustineís Confessions as a turning point in ancient attitudes. There, Monica, who had once avidly marked the refrigerium, now asks her son to remember her in the Mass. It is, they say, at this moment in history that popular sentiment had begun to turn from the rowdy festival to the solemn Mass. Thatís a nice thought, but it seems contradicted by later practice, as Christians continued to mark festive banquets at gravesites throughout the era of the Fathers.

Earlier this year, as I walked through the ancient burial grounds of the Roman Church, I had a "Christmas Carol" moment straight out of Dickens. At the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, I wandered into a "Crypt of Refrigerium" that bore the inscription "Aquilina dormit in pace" (Aquilina sleeps in peace).

May that inscription one day be true for me, and may it this day be true of my ancestors, whom I remember, as the holidays require.


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