St Paul wrote most of his epistles to communities rather than individuals. Often, however, he would end an epistle by extending greetings to people whom he knew in that community and from people known to them. Among the latter mentioned in 1 Corinthians are Priscilla and Aquila “and the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor 16:19).
We first meet this couple in Acts 18 where we are told, “Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them” (vv 1-3). They became close friends of St Paul and left Corinth with him when he continued his travels. “Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila” (v. 18).
Their journey to Syria would take them down the coast of Asia Minor where there were several Christian communities. It seems that Priscilla and Aquila remained in Ephesus, half-way to Syria. St Paul greets them at the end of his Second Epistle to Timothy, who was in Ephesus at the time.
The Jews, expelled from Rome in AD 49, were allowed to return in the year 54. Priscilla and Aquila seem to have returned to Rome at that time. In his Epistle to the Romans St Paul greets them as “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life” (Rom 16:3-4).
The Church in Their House
We learn from St Paul’s Epistles that, both in Ephesus and in Rome, the local gathering of Christians assembled at the home of Priscilla and Aquila. During the age of persecution in the Roman Empire there were no church buildings as we know them; Christianity was illegal so believers met in private homes.
St Paul does not specify what the believers did there, but the description of the first Christians in Jerusalem probably applies everywhere in the first century: “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). As Jews, Priscilla and Aquila probably attended prayers in the synagogue but gathered Christians in their home for the breaking of bread and to hear the apostles’ teaching.
When and where Christianity was tolerated, the Church not only met in homes, it acquired houses for community use. In the twentieth century such a house-church was excavated in the ruined Syrian city of Dura-Europus. This house-church, dating from the third century, was extensively decorated with frescoes much like later Byzantine churches. It even had a separate room dedicated as a baptistery: a pattern which would be employed once church buildings became common.
Every Home a Church
In the first centuries AD the home was the usual meeting place of the Church. In later centuries it came to be seen that the Christian family was itself a Church, a “domestic church.” St Paul taught that the family was an image of God the Father and His family: the Son and all those who in Christ have become adopted children of God: “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14-15). The Church is the heavenly family, uniting all who are in Christ to the heavenly Father. In the same way a Christian family takes its identity (its “name”) from God. It is formed by God at the Mystery of Crowning and is the place where family members are meant to encounter God and help one another draw closer to Him.
In our Eastern tradition, because the home is the icon of the Church, the home becomes a domestic church. The Mystery of Crowning is where the domestic church is consecrated. It is not just a coincidence at a wedding, as the bride and groom circle the sacramental table, and that the same hymns are sung as at an ordination when the priest-to-be is led around the holy table. As we read in A Guide for the Domestic Church, published by the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, a wedding in the Christian East is “an ordination for service in the domestic church. Husband and wife are called to a unique sharing in Christ’s priesthood by their holy crowning. Their home is their church with a little ‘c’.”
Now a church is known not so much by its architecture or its interior design but by the function it plays, the activities it nurtures. A church must be hallowed by the blood of gracious sacrifice, perfumed by the incense of fervent prayer, echoing God’s word and re-echoing man’s response in humble adoration. Anything less and we have Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs”.
Our mothers and fathers must rediscover their role as priests of the home and exercise their sacramental powers: the father by blessing his children and the food that nourishes them, by preaching the most eloquent of sermons by the nobility of his conduct; the mother by enabling her family to celebrate the fasts and feasts of the year and by her tending of the light burning before the icons. The children, too, should learn to assume roles in the domestic church as soon as practicable: they can help read the daily scripture passages and assist in the preparation of the foods proper to our tradition.” A Guide for the Domestic Church offers specific suggestions on implementing many of these practices over the course of the year.
`Another useful resource for living as a domestic church may be found online at www.melkite.org. Download the “At Home” kits for each of our Church’s fasting seasons (Great Lent at Home, The Fast of the Theotokos in the Home, etc.) for reflections, prayers and activities you can use to keep the spirit of these seasons alive in your house church.
Pass On Your Family Traditions
As the passing on of Holy Tradition is one of the main tasks of the priests of the wider Church, so too passing on of the family story is an important role for parents, the priests of the domestic church. Parents should tell family stories with a sense of appreciation, remembering the good things from their own growing- up years as well as the stories they heard from their parents and grandparents. If you have never done this before, sit down some evening and make a list of these stories and lessons as well as the lessons you want your children to learn from them.
The way we tell our family stories can be a great help in bringing our children to see that God is working in your lives: If, with St. Paul, “We know that in all in both the good and bad events of our lives to bring us to where we are in our life now. And so we can tell our stories with a sense of destiny: that God has been at work in our family and is still working, calling us to grow in His love and service. As God worked in the past to bring us to this place in the same way He is preparing us for something else.