In Luke Chapter 9, we see Jesus sending the twelve apostles out as His ambassadors with some very specific instructions. Their primary mission was to proclaim the “Reign of God and to heal the afflicted” (Luke 9:2) In today’s Gospel (Luke 10: 1-12, 17-20), Jesus sends seventy two additional people out with basically the same instructions to fundamentally do the same thing. These two events mark the very beginnings of the Church’s mission to spread the good news of the Gospel.
In today’s world, we have the writings within the New Testament, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and a well defined Church tradition to outline for us the doctrines of our faith, the moral guidelines and liturgical instructions that we are all familiar with. But if you mentally put yourself back in time, back to that very early Church, to the first century after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, all you would have had to turn to for direction, guidance and instruction would have been those early eyewitnesses. But to who or to what did the early Church turn, when the lives of those eyewitnesses were coming to an end and the writings of the New Testament were not yet available? Did they have a Catechism? Was there a written set of instructions for that very early Church? The answer to that question is yes, there was.
There was a very important document titled “Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles (or Nations) by the Twelve Apostles.” It was written in Greek ( Διδαχὴ κυρίου διὰ τῶν δώδεκα ἀποστόλων τοῖς ἔθνεσιν). We know this document existed because it is frequently referred to, and quoted from, in many of the writings of the early Church Fathers. But all copies of this document were lost for centuries, until a written copy of the manuscript was rediscovered by an Orthodox bishop (Bishop Metropolitan Philotheos Bryennios) in 1873. The Greek word for “teaching” is “Didache” (pronounced did-ah-KAY). And since the very first word in this document is “teaching”, this document is commonly referred to simply as the Didache. Even though this document was vitally important to the early Church, and is still important to the Church today, we don’t hear it mentioned too often. But its importance cannot be overemphasized. For example, in our modern day Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Didache is quoted six times: numbers 1696 (on the “two ways,”) 2271 (on abortion), 2760 and 2767 (on the Our Father), 1331 (on the Eucharist) and 1403 (on the Maranatha). You might have heard the Didache mentioned during a televised Mass on EWTN a couple of weeks ago, and it was mentioned in Fr. Kenneth Doyle’s column in the Michigan Catholic on June 14.
The Didache was quickly translated and published after its discovery and is easily available to everyone today. Most scholars agree that this document was written between the years 60 and 110 A.D. But some prominent modern day scholars persuasively contend that the liturgical portions of the document had to have been written no later than 48 A.D. That means that this document is one of the oldest, and maybe the oldest, Christian document in existence today, possibly pre-dating even Paul’s letters.
The document is not very long. It consists of sixteen short chapters, and these can be divided into three parts. The first part, Chapters 1 through 6, provides the moral guidelines for the faithful. The second part, Chapters 7 thru 10, is ritual in content dealing with Baptism, fasting and the Holy Eucharist. And the third part, Chapters 11 through 16, addresses ministry.
The first sentence in chapter one of the Didache introduces the moral choices we all face in life. It says, “There are two ways: one of life and one of death; and the difference between the two is great.” (Didache 1:1) The very next sentence identifies the first commandment. It says, “The way of life is this: first, you should love God, who made you; secondly, love your neighbor as yourself; and whatever things you do not desire to be done to you, do not do them to someone else.” (Didache 1:2)
The remainder of the first six chapters goes on to emphasize the differences between the ways that lead to life as opposed to the ways that lead to death. The beginning of Chapter 2 says, “And this is the second commandment of the teaching: you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children, nor practice sexual deviation; you shall not steal; nor practice magic or witchcraft; you shall not murder a child, whether it be born or unborn; you shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.” (Didache 2:1, 2) That statement was addressed to the early Church. But the advice is timeless. It applies equally well to our society today.
The Didache continues on by describing the Rite of Baptism. It specifies how a candidate is to prepare for reception of the sacrament. And it defines the role of the celebrant, with instructions of what he is to do and say in administering the sacrament.
The document gives guidelines for fasting. It repeats the words of our Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. And it advises the faithful to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.
Three chapters of the Didache deal specifically with the liturgy. There are guidelines for the faithful on how to prepare for receiving the Eucharist, and guidelines for proper conduct during the Eucharistic celebration. It provides instruction and prayers for the clergy. And it lists restrictions for the reception of the Eucharist. For example, it says, “Let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist unless they have been baptized.” (Didache 9:5) It goes on to say, “On the Lord’s day, gather yourselves together and break bread, give thanks, but first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure.” (Didache 14:1) If you will notice, this is the format that we still honor today. We have the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass in which we recall and repent of our sins prior to our participation in the Eucharist. The Didache also contains a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving that it offers as a recommendation to be prayed after the celebration of the Eucharist. And in the Church today, the celebrant leads us all in our common prayer after communion.
The Didache encourages the faithful to persevere, to be steadfast in the faith, and to live in a state of constant preparedness, for the way that leads to life might not always be smooth. It says, “Watch over your life. Do not let your lamps be extinguished or your body unclothed, but be ready; for you do not know the hour in which our Lord comes. Assemble yourselves together frequently to seek the things that benefit your souls. — For lawlessness will increase and they will hate and persecute and betray one another.” (Didache 16: 1, 2 & 4)
The Didache is basically the Catechism of the very early Church. To the modern day reader, much of its content will be very familiar, for the direction, guidance and instruction given to the early Church resembles our modern Church in many ways. Even the recommended Church structure is identical. For example, the Didache says, “Appoint bishops for yourselves, as well as deacons, worthy of the Lord, of meek disposition, unattached to money, truthful and proven; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers.” (Didache 15:1)
I find it extremely comforting and reassuring to know that the Church of today resembles so closely the structure, guidelines, and liturgical format outlined by the twelve apostles of Christ. Scripture tells us that Jesus sent not only His twelve apostles, but also an additional seventy two of His closest and most faithful followers out ahead of Him as His ambassadors. In speaking to members of the early Church in Corinth, Paul said, “Jesus Christ has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. This makes us an ambassador for Christ, God as it were appealing through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19, 20)
We are the Church of today. Each and every one of us is therefore an ambassador for Christ. An ambassador, by definition, is a messenger or a representative appointed by one person or nation to represent it to another. It is, therefore, our responsibility to be Christ’s representative to the society in which we live. Our lives are to be the mirrors that reflect not only the values that are outlined in Sacred Scripture, but also the values that are outlined in this 2,000 year old document, a document that was penned by those original eye witnesses.
As ambassadors for Christ, we have been entrusted with a serious responsibility, one that must not be taken lightly. When Jesus dispatched the original twelve and then the seventy two, He said, “Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ Yet know this: The kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.” (Luke 10:10) As ambassadors, those instructions also apply to us today.
The values of any society are reflected in its laws. It is obvious that not all of our laws accurately reflect the values that we have been appointed to represent. Some of our laws, for example, do not respect the sanctity of all human life and the dignity of marriage and the family. As we all know, we have a law that legalizes abortion. We have a law that will require all health-care plans to cover sterilizations, artificial contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. And now we even have a law to redefine Marriage. All three of these laws violate the teachings of the Church and the values outlined in the Didache. Our message has been delivered. It obviously has not been received. I don’t think any of us are ready to walk away, shake the dust from our feet in protest, and allow our God to look upon our society as He did the city of Sodom. We must, therefore, not surrender and declare defeat. We must continue to reach out and speak up. We must make sure that our message is delivered and received. And above all we must pray; pray that we all do our jobs as ambassadors well, and pray that our great nation does not fail to hear and receive the message of salvation that is available to all through our Lord and Savior Jesus.