The Didache and the Ordo Romanus Primus

Their Social Imaginaries and Contemporary Liturgical Implications

Jeffrey Metcalfe

“A Human being is by nature a political animal.”1


As the Canadian scholar James K. Smith has argued, one might equally say that human beings are “liturgical animals,”2 for our politics do not proceed first from a theoretical idea, but are always and already arriving from a set of pre-cognitive practices, “carried in images, stories, and legends.”3  According to Charles Taylor, these precognitive practices combine to construct a social imaginary which posit answers to the question “what constitutes a fulfilled life,”4 thus creating the ground upon which political choices will be made.  If then, as Smith suggests, liturgy is a practice which operates on the precognitive level, forming a particular kind of social imaginary, then it follows that liturgy will be both a reflection and a production of political reality.

For this reason, it is vitally important to understand the social symbolic function of the church’s liturgy, especially in regards to its central practice of the Eucharist.  The purpose of this paper is to briefly explore two Eucharistic liturgies taken from two different social realities: the Didache, a first century Jewish community’s text, and the Ordo Romanus Primus, a seventh century imperial papal mass.  For when these two liturgies are compared, the contrasting social imaginaries they maintain will create a dissonance with practical implications for modern liturgical practice.  This will be demonstrated through an examination of the liturgies social locations in relation to the center and peripheries of the Roman Empire.  I will then examine how both texts construct a social imaginary through their use of structure, images, and liturgical gestures.  Finally, when these observations are brought into conversation with the modern decline of the church, they suggest a way of moving forward with contemporary liturgical practice while continuing to honour the past.

As with any social ritual, the Didache did not develop out of a vacuum but arrived from a particular context.  Dated by most scholars to be written around the first century, the Didache, meaning “teaching,”5 is an early Christian text thought to originate in Syria.6  This is significant because unlike later Christian writings, the Didache is written in the context of a Jewish Christian community, in which gentiles are welcomed, but have not yet received control of the Church leadership.  Indeed, “the Didache represents the preserved oral tradition detailing step-by-step training of gentile converts being prepared for full, active participation in the house churches committed to the Way of Life.”7

Due to the fact that the Jewish community of Syria existed in the peripheries of the Roman Empire, it is safe to assume that the sub-community of Jewish people participating in the messianic house churches would have been further marginalized, possibly under the threat of persecution.  With this in mind, the importance of providing a strong formation in the counter-imperial narrative of Christian discipleship can be seen as a central function of the Didache.  This is expressed in the very structure of the text, which begins with a series of moral principals on how to live in the world as a Christian (chapters 1-6).  It then moves on to explain liturgical guidelines for baptism, fasting, and the Eucharist (chapters 7-10), creating rituals which draw boundaries between the Christian community and the culture of the imperial world.8  This shifts to a discourse on how to live within the boundaries of that Christian community (chapters 8-15).  Finally, it ends by using apocalyptic imagery to invoke a future in which the suffering of the community, and the violence and hatred of the larger society, will be redeemed through the return of Christ (chapter 16).

Notice here how the structure and content of the Didache combines in order to create a social imaginary of the oppressed.  Although the Eucharistic event is seen as a central practice in the text, it receives very little attention as an object in-of-itself; rather it is seen as a ritual which produces and is representative of the existing social relations within the community.  In continuity with Smith’s argument, this connection between social relations and liturgy makes the Eucharist in the Didache a practice that forms the house church into a community with an alternative social imaginary, in which societal transformation becomes the telos of the liturgy.  Thus he notes that “in a broken, fragmented world, the church is called to be the first fruits of a new creation by embodying a reconciled community; and the way we practice this is at the communion table.”9  This explains the Didache’s emphasis on moral practices and apocalyptic imagery, as both serve as precognitive formation for a way of life outside the imagination of the Empire.

This stands in stark contrast to the liturgical text of the Ordo Romanus Primus, the papal mass of the seventh century. Where the Didache originated on the periphery of the Roman Empire, the Ordo was the Eucharistic liturgy moved into the centre of the Empire, preformed by the gentile ruling class of Rome.  After the Edict of Milan in 313, when the Emperor Constantine enacted a proclamation of religious toleration, Christianity gained increasingly preferential treatment from the state, eventually becoming the religion of the Empire under Theodosius.  As the state and church commingled, ecclesiastical positions shifted from functional to honorific, such that church leaders became important magistrates and councilors of the state.  Indeed, the head Bishop of Rome was given the name Pontifex Maximus, “originally a pagan title of the chief priest at Rome,”10 and was invested with civic authority.

It is not surprising in this drastically different social location, that a dramatically divergent practice of the Eucharistic liturgy would be preformed.  Whereas in the Didache community, the gathering would have been small and private, for the Ordo it entailed a public procession throughout the streets of Rome.  This logic is echoed in the overall structure of the liturgy, which shifts from the formation of a small community of disciples, to a city wide celebration of the Eucharist as such.  In this light, the self-consciously social-political teaching which grounded the Didache’s Eucharist is gone, replaced by an increase in spiritualization, spectacle, and a deeper reification of the Eucharistic elements.

Nevertheless, one must avoid the mistaken conclusion that the Ordo represents a withdrawal from the embodiment of social relations that were found to be present in the Didache.  Indeed, the Ordo is also structured around the formation of a social space.  However, where the Didache focuses on the reconciliation and transformation of the society, the Ordo reflects Christendom ideology in which the church joins in an organic union with the state.  Thus the service begins with a typologically imperial procession,11 followed by a lengthy service incorporating a variety of civil and ecclesiastical positions.

In one such instance, during the offertory, “the pontif goes down to the place where the notables sit, the chancellor holding his right hand and the chief councillor his left and he receives the loaves of the princes in order of their rank.”12  In this way, throughout the service, the pontiff and a variety of other participants preform liturgical actions in a way that makes visible the existing power relations in the Roman Empire.

However, according to Smiths principals, the Ordo Romanus Primus, does not merely reflect the values and politics of the Roman Empire, it also helps to produce them.  As he points out, “liturgies capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and drawing us into ritual practices that ‘teach’ us to love something.”13  In the case of the Ordo, one can see that the visualization of the Roman hierarchy is also that hierarchy’s realization.  Thus the receiving of the offertory gifts from the princes, and communicating them in order of their imperial rank, is a precognitive practice which forms the people in the social imaginary of the Empire.  “The implication of the Ordo is that the worshipers arrange according to class and gender even without walls or seating to enforce this hierarchy.”14

This also explains the greater emphasis on the Eucharistic elements.  In the Didache, the emphasis was placed on the Eucharist as a celebration of a social reality currently present and moving towards a final perfection at the return of Christ.  In contrast, the Ordo conceives of the Eucharist as a sacrifice offered by the church leaders for a spiritual reconciliation between the people and God.  No recognition of the imminent return of Christ was needed, as Christ was present in the elements as such.  This made any mention of an apocalyptic redemption from the violence of the current reality unnecessary, and politically inconvenient.  As the importance of Christ’s transformative presence in the Eucharistic elements increased, the less demanding the Eucharistic liturgy became in regards to Christ’s transformative presence in social relationships.  In other words, the liturgy of the Ordo Romanus Primus both reflected, and produced the social space of the Empire.

In this light one can see that both the Didache and the Ordo form their participants in two dissonant social imaginaries: the Didache as contra Empire, and the Ordo as pro.  This creates implications for the contemporary church’s liturgical practice, as it points to the importance of being conscious of the social symbolic function that each liturgical gesture creates.  In an age in which the structures of the church are rapidly decaying, this becomes even more critical, as groups attempting to reform those structures tend either to do so by returning directly to the old texts, or by ignoring them entirely.15  However, as Smith points “we are embodied, material, fundamentally desiring animals who are, whether we recognize it or not (and perhaps most often when we don’t recognize it), being formed by the material liturgies of other pedagogies.”16  To neglect a critical analysis of how our liturgies form us, and to fail to self consciously use those liturgies to educate the church into an alternative culture, is to capitulate to the dominant social imaginary of capitalism.

Here is where the comparison of the Didache and the Ordo becomes particularly helpful.  If the dominant social imaginary of contemporary (post)christendom life has become more analogous to the social location of the Didache, then it follows that the church must also return to the self-consciously discipleship forming liturgy of the Didache.  For the people of the first century, “potential [church] members assessed the movement not so much on the basis of claims made on behalf of Jesus, who was absent, as on the basis of there experience of the way of life of members who were very much present to them.”17  Contemporaneously, people formed in the liturgies of secular society will decide to join the church based not on its metaphysical claims, but in the way those claims are embodied in the practices of its members lives, creating a more believable and desirous social imaginary.

In this way it becomes apparent that contrasting the social imaginaries of the Didache and the Ordo Romanus Primus creates a dissonance with practical implications for modern liturgical practice.  This can be seen in both liturgies social locations, and in the way they help to produce the social imaginaries of their respective communities.  When these observations are brought into conversation with the decline of the modern church, they suggest a way of moving forward with contemporary liturgical practice while continuing to honour the past.  Nevertheless, it is important to point out that this will not look like naively recreating the Didache and abandoning our current liturgies which are rooted in the Ordo tradition.  To do so would be doing an injustice to the history of the church, as well as negating the positive elements within the Ordo.  Rather what is needed is a contemporary reworking of the texts we have inherited from the Ordo, with the intentionality of the Didache in forming Christian disciples in a social imaginary opposed to the Empire.  That the future of the church might depend on such a reworking cannot be out of the question.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is a postulant for ordination in the Diocese of Quebec, and is presently pursuing a master of divinity degree at Trinity College, Toronto. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.


1 Aristotle, “Politics,” Classics of Moral and Political Theory Fourth Edition. Comp. and Ed. by Morgan Michael L., (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2005), 362.

2 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 40

3 Ibid., 66.

4 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 52.

5 Aaron Milavec, The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. (New York: The Newman Press, 2003), vii.

6 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v., “Didache.”

7 Milavec, The Didache, vii.

8 In chapter 9. 5, the Didache makes a clear liturgical separation between those who have been initiated into the alternative culture of the church community, and those who have not, saying “you must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those baptized in the Lord’s name.” See “The Didache,” in, TRP 2641YY Principals and Practices of Liturgy Course Pack, edited by David Neelands.  Toronto: University of Toronto Blackboard, 2010.

9 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 202.

10 The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v., “Pontifex Maximus.”

11 David Neelands, “The First Roman Order,” Course lecture, TRP 2641YY Principals and Practices of Liturgy from Trinity College (Toronto, ON, November 17, 2010).

12 “Ordo Romanus Primus,” in, TRP 2641YY Principals and Practices of Liturgy Course Pack, edited by David Neelands (Toronto: University of Toronto Blackboard, 2010) 7.

13 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 88.

14 Richard D. McCall, Do This: Liturgy as Preformance (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 122.

15 Here it is interesting to note a resurgent interest in Anglo-catholic piety by a growing number of young conservative Anglicans.  In a recent conversation with a friend who is a Roman Catholic seminarian, he explained a similar phenomenon in which an growing number of young conservative anti-Vatican II Catholic postulants are pushing for a return to the Latin mass, and have even begun wearing their cassocks in public.  The seminarian noted with irony that none of these postulants could actually read Latin, and the majority did not understand the symbolism of the service.  These are perfect examples of the dangers inherent in not being critically aware of the liturgy, as if Smith’s thesis holds true, then by simply returning to the old text a particular social imaginary is being formed which might be detrimental to teaching the faith in our contemporary context.

16 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 33.

17 Milavec, The Didache, 54.


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