The Liturgy: A Lead to the Mind of World Wide Orthodoxy
John Meyendorff, Orthodox Theology and Diakonia,
ed. Hellenic College Press, Massachusetts, p. 79- 90
Secular historians study Christianity as a purely historical phenomenon, and the history implies variation and change. A Christian approach to history does not deny the reality of change, but it presupposes that God-Who transcends history and is not, of course, determined by its laws-also manifests Himself through historical events, which then acquire a normative and, therefore, suprahistorical significance. Thus all Christians recognize-or, at least, should recognize-that in the historical event of the Incarnation, a decisive act of God has taken place. But the event involved also an historical and cultural milieu, which itself acquired a normative character. God manifested Himself at a given moment in history as the Jewish Messiah, and the recognition of the historical Jesus as savior of all humanity is impossible without accepting also the biblical Hebrew context of His life and message.
While the Incarnation occurred once and for all and nothing can be added to its saving fullness, the result of Christ's death and resurrection was the establishment of a community-the Church ( ekklesia )-and the "wild branch" of the Gentiles (Rom. 11.17) then grew out of the original "root." Thus, between the apostolic community and the Church of later times there is also a normative continuity: the unity of tradition, which implies consistency of belief and experience.
For our own contemporary Orthodox Church, Christian Byzantium is the inevitable historical link with the original apostolic community. Since the sixth century, Constantinople has been the unquestionable center of Christian Orthodoxy in the East, and, after the schism between East and West, it acquired primacy in Orthodoxy as a whole. These were de facto historical developments that make it impossible for us to think of Orthodox continuity and consistency in history without referring to Byzantium. Other Christian traditions-Eastern and Western-have also preserved not only the Christian faith itself but also a great wealth of Christian culture, which produced rich fruits of holiness, but-at least in the Orthodox view-Byzantium maintained that doctrinal integrity, that authenticity, which today makes our Orthodoxy orthodox.
It is clear that the liturgy played a central part in maintaining that identity of the Church. Byzantium knew many heretical patriarchs and emperors and was the scene of many pseudo council. No human institution, taken in isolation from the whole body of the Church, could pretend to infallibility. But the liturgical tradition always remained the central expression of the life of the Body of Christ, a witness to its permanence and integrity. Such I is one of the most essential aspects of the Byzantine inheritance which we now share.
But, in recognizing the continuity, we would be blind not to see I the challenge of our secular society and of the great changes which have occurred in our world since Byzantium fell in 1453. In order to face these challenges, a thorough and critical look at the Byzantine tradition is imperative. Neither blind conservatism nor radical change can be seen as adequate responses, and both would be unfaithful to the Christian tradition, as Byzantium itself knew it. Sometimes the best way to kill a tradition is to follow the externals without truly understanding the contents. Living tradition involves that kind of change and adaptability which preserves its continuous relevance; otherwise the Church would become a museum of pomposity and ritualism, quite acceptable in the framework of a pluralistic and basically superficial society but actually unfaithful to Orthodoxy itself.
Thus, in order to be practically helpful, our historical research should seek out the meaning and purpose of the Byzantine liturgical tradition, discover its permanent theological dimension, and provide for a pattern of discernment between what is truly essential and what is historically relative.
My own brief remarks will be limited to two historical issues, which are, however, in my opinion, of central relevance to the topic: the place of the liturgy in the religious outlook and experience of Byzantium and the liturgy considered as a tool of Byzantine cultural, religious, and, to some degree, political expansion and influence in the Middle East and throughout Eastern Europe. Indeed, the role of the liturgy, as a major-or, perhaps, the major-means through which Byzantine civilization was, on the one hand, maintained in the face of Islamic domination in the Middle East and, on the other hand, transmitted to the barbarians in the north northwest, could become the topic of separate studies, which, so far have not been approached in a broad historical perspective.
It is well known that, since the capital of the empire was moved the New Rome, the Church of Constantinople began to build up a very eclectic theological and liturgical tradition. Before be aming itself an independent intellectual center, it welcomed taints and ideas from everywhere. From Alexandria it adopted the ^ stem of the computation of the date of Easter. From Antioch came several of its most distinguished leaders (including Saint John Chrysostom and Nestorios and, in the sixth century, Romanos the Melodos ), bringing Antiochian liturgical traditions to the capital. The arguments of the Christological debates of the fifth and sixth centuries were primarily conceived in Syria and Egypt ; Constantinople tried only to preserve and synthesize the valuable elements of the two trends. However, even the autocratic power of Justinian was not able to impose (except briefly, and essentially by force) this Orthodox synthesis upon Nestorians and Monophysites ; the Nestorians fled and survived in Zoroastrian Persia, whereas the unreconciled Monophysites were soon cut off from the empire by the Islamic conquest.
The resulting permanent schisms and the new political and cultural situation that prevailed in the seventh century put an end to the period of pluralism and interrelation of several major centers in the Christian East. Confronting Islam and facing hew barbarian invasions, Byzantium entered a period of relative isolation and defensive self-affirmation. It is at this time that Byzantine Orthodoxy became practically identified with the Byzantine liturgy. No formal decree of liturgical centralization and uniformity was ever issued, but de facto the liturgy of the " Great Church " of Constantinople became the only acceptable standard of church- manship. Even the Roman Church, though respected as orthodox and accepted in its honorary primacy, was criticized for its departures from Byzantine standards.
The most significant and also the best-known expression of this new sense of self-sufficiency is found in the canons of the Synod in Trullo, which condemned the Armenian Church for not mixing water into the Eucharistic wine (Canon 32), enforce as universally obligatory the Byzantine practice of not celebrating the Eucharist during Lent, except on Saturdays, Sundays, and Annunciation Day (Canon 52), and condemn the fasting practices of Rome and Armenia (Canons 55-56), as well as the ancient Christian tradition of offering honey and milk during the Eucharist (Canon 57). The synod also set up refutations on iconography in accordance with patterns and theological ideas prevailing in Byzantium (Canon 82) If considered together with the numerous other disciplinary decrees of the Trullan synod, these canons faithfully reflect the rigid and self-assured posture adopted by the Byzantine Church on the eve of the period when, after an iconoclastic crisis, it entered a period of spectacular missionary expansion. To the newly converted Slavs and to other nations which remained for centuries in the religious and cultural orbit of Byzantium, the liturgy and practices of the Great Church were presented as untouchable, and converts were generally encouraged to maintain literal and rigid compliance with every detail.
Of course, self-reliance and rigidity were not accepted as absolute principles, and historical changes were inevitable. For example, in the eighth and ninth centuries, the Byzantine Church adopted a large body of hymnography written by Saint John of Damascus and Kosmas of Maiuma, who lived in Arab-occupied Palestine. As late as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Typicon of Saint Sabbas in Palestine gradually replaced the earlier practices connected with the Great Church and the Studios Monastery. Furthermore, the more enlightened leaders of the Church of Constantinople were fully aware that liturgical and disciplinary pluralism was a legitimate and ancient fact in the life of the Church. Most significant in this respect is the case of Patriarch Photios. Since Pope Nicholas I had challenged his elevation to the patriarchate on the basis of norms proper to the Roman Church, Photios answered by a definition of legitimate pluralism as seen from Byzantium. He wrote to Nicholas in 861:
Everybody must preserve what was defined by common ecumenical decisions, but a particular opinion of a Church Father of a definition issued by a local council can be followed by some and ignored by others. Thus, some people customarily shave their beards; others reject this practice through [local] conciliar decrees. Thus, as far as we are concerned, we consider it reprehensible to fast on Saturdays, except once a year [on Holy Saturday], while others fast on other Saturdays as well-Thus, tradition avoids disputes by making practice prevail over the rule. In Rome, there are no priests legitimately married, while our tradition permits men, once married, to be elevated to the priesthood.
There Photios refers to the legislation of the Synod in Trullo, consciously defining it in terms of a local council, whose decrees obligatory only in the East-a moderate point of view, which as soon replaced with a more rigid and formal claim by Byzantine churchmen that the Trullan synod was ecumenical and that the West condemned itself by violating its decrees. The conclusion of Photios ' letter to Nicholas defines a general principle: "When the faith remains inviolate, common and catholic decisions are also safe; a sensible man respects the practices and laws of others; he considers that it is neither wrong to observe them nor illegal to violate them (1) .
However, five years later, in 867, the same Patriarch Photios, in his encyclical letter to the Eastern patriarchs, blasts at the same Pope Nicholas for condoning the introduction of Latin liturgical and disciplinary practices in Bulgaria (2). Indeed, the Byzantine patriarch considered Bulgaria as belonging to his jurisdiction and therefore fully subject to the decrees of the Trullan synod. Thus, the attitudes of Photios in 861 and 867 are contradictory only in appearance. They reflect the conviction, shared by all medieval Byzantines, that the integrity of the Byzantine liturgical and disciplinary traditions expressed the Christian faith in its most legitimate and most authentic form and that, therefore, this tradition was absolutely obligatory within the limits of the Byzantine realm itself, which, according to Photios, included Bulgaria. But, the Byzantines also knew very well of the existence f other traditions and, as Photios did in 861, recognized in principle their legitimacy. There were always those among them who condemned an indiscriminate rejection of the Latin practices by some of their compatriots. After the final schism of 1054, Patriarch Peter of Antioch objected to the attacks by Michael Kerularios against Latin customs and considered the filioque issue as the only serious obstacle to Church union (3). Similarly, Theophylact of Ochrid (d. ca. 1108) formally rejected the ritual accusations against the Latins. He wrote: "Unless one ignores ecclesiastical history, one will not use such arguments; Church unity is threatened only by those practices which have a doctrinal implication." (4) Even in the late period, when negotiations were permanently in the political agenda of the threatened Byzantine Empire, it was universally recognized in Byzantium that a united church would retain liturgical pluralism. This was admitted also in the more conservative Byzantine circles, which included Mark Eugenikos, at Florence. Nicholas Kabasilas, while arguing in favor of the Eastern tradition of invoking the power of the Holy Spirit upon the Eucharistic gifts after the words of Institution ( epiklesis ) appealed to the authority of the Latin liturgical tradition itself in favor of his point of view, implicitly recognizing its legitimacy (5).
However, even if recognized in principle, liturgical pluralism known to the early Church, was never approved of in practice. Through the centuries, the Byzantines identified more and more their basic religious and cultural experience with the liturgy of the Great Church in Constantinople. This became an essential aspect of Byzantine Orthodoxy and was due to many factors which certainly included a mystagogical approach to the liturgy as a visible and symbolic manifestation of an eternal and heavenly order. This conception, inherited from Neoplatonism through the mediation of Pseudo- Dionysios, implied that variety, as well as historical change, was part of the fallen order of things and that the divine presence always implied uniformity and immutability. This mentality was never codified into dogma or canonical legislation, but it reflected a basic aspect of the Byzantine religious and social ethos. Historical change and pluralism were not denied in principle but avoided in conscious practice.
Nowever, it would be a mistake to believe that references to a Neoplatonic world view alone can explain the liturgical conservatism of the Byzantines. One should also remember an even more important factor: the Byzantine Church had never defined its own doctrinal authority in terms which would be institutionally and juridically immutable. Always concerned with maintaining truth against heresy, it did not possess a clear and automatic criterion of what Christian orthodoxy was supposed to be. Of course, it recognized the authority of ecumenical synods, convoked by the emperor and composed of bishops of the entire oikoumene. But the Byzantines also knew that many synods, which were called together in accordance with accepted norms, subsequently proved to be " psuedosynods "; that many emperors proved in fact to be heretics and therefore tyrannoi ; that patriarchs of Constantinople, as well as those of other Eastern sees, gladly followed the doctrines of Monophysitism, Monotheletism, or Iconoclasm, and that, therefore, for all his prestige and authority, the ecumenical patriarch could certainly not pretend to infallibility. So, in the absence of an ultimate institutional security-which they were rejecting in the person of the Roman pope-the Orthodox Byzantines were looking for signs and spiritual authority in the person f individual saints. One of the greatest among them, Saint Maximos the Confessor, was once confronted with the fact that all the patriarchs were condemning him. He was asked what would be his attitude if the Roman Church itself approved Monotheletism ; and he answered by a reference to Galatians 1.18: "The Holy Spirit anathematizes even angels, if they utter teaching contrary to the [true] kerygma." (6) The idea of the Holy Spirit alone being the ultimate criterion of truth was also strongly upheld in the contest of monastic spirituality, where the authority of charismatic leaders was often upheld and even-at least implicitly-opposed to the magisterium of bishops. The case of Symeon the New Theologian is particularly obvious in this respect. In the midst of conflicts with ecclesiastical authorities, he accused them of having received "election and ordination only from men," implying that the divine election is not necessarily connected with formal priestly ministry. (7) Also, in 1340, the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos published their famous Tomos Hagioretikos, which directly appealed to the spiritual authority of the monks in defining theological truth. (8) 8 Examples of similar attitudes could easily be multiplied. Furthermore, monastic charismaticism easily degenerated into an anti-hierarchical, sectarian, or Messalian, direction whenever the given monastic milieus were not also fully committed to a sacramental, or liturgical, understanding of the Church. In fact, the dividing line between Orthodox and Messalian spirituality lay precisely in the role of the liturgy. The prophetic or charismatic role of the Orthodox monks was seen as legitimate only in the context of sacramental and liturgical communion, which itself presupposed the existence of an institutional hierarch. "Celebrating the liturgy to the pure, holy and immaculate Trinity," writes Symeon,"is great and awesome and above all glory, enlightenment, command, authority, wealth, power, and every kingdom." (9) The text and order of the Eucharistic liturgy was also an authority invoked by Maximos the Confessor against the claim made by his Monothe-hte judges that the emperor had priestly authority and could, therefore, define dogma. Rejecting the claim, Maximos answered : During the holy anaphora at the holy altar, the emperors are mentioned with the laity, after bishops, deacons, and every sacred order. The deacon says: 'and the lay people who fell asleep in the faith-Constantine, Constans and the others.'
Similarly he commemorates the living emperors after all the sacred orders. (10)
References to similar texts could easily be multiplied, but it is the acceptance of the liturgy and sacramental experience as a criterion of spiritual authority that is important for us now There is no doubt that in the Byzantine Church the liturgical tradition, the liturgical texts, and the continuous liturgical experience, in which the entire society participated, were seen as an essential witness of continuity and integrity. This approach to liturgy and sacraments distinguished Orthodox monastic charismatics from their Messalian counterparts, and also from Western Latin attitudes. Whereas the gradual development in the West of a juridically authoritarian papacy led to an understanding of liturgical rites as external signs placed at the Church's disposal and easily modified and regulated by Church authority, Eastern Christianity visualized the liturgy as an independent, authoritative source and criterion of faith and ethics. Admittedly, this difference was never formalized and, perhaps, never consciously understood by either side, but seen in historical perspective, it sheds light upon an important aspect of Byzantine civilization.
The second point I want to emphasize is the role of the Byzantine liturgy in the survival and spread of Byzantine civilization throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. In spite of radically new political and social conditions, the liturgy was maintained in areas conquered by the Muslims. Because Islam was basically tolerant of a ghetto like survival of Christianity in its midst, Greek, Syriac, Georgian, and other communities were not only able to survive in the Middle East but even to show some creativity, which eventually contributed to the development of the Byzantine liturgical tradition as a whole. Thus, we have mentioned before the works of Palestinian poets in the eighth century (John of Damascus, Kosmas of Maium) and the adoption in Byzantium itself, after the twelfth century, of the Typicon of Saint Sabbas of Palestine. However, the very fact of the survival in the Islamic world for more than a millennium, of Orthodox Christians, known as "the Emperor's people (melchitai)," is, in itself, an extraordinary historical fact. And there is no doubt that for these people the liturgical celebration was the main cultural channel which tied them to Byzantine civilization. The liturgy was lived as a "trip" to the Kingdom of God, and this divine Kingdom throughout the centuries had a Byzantine shape and appearance. Neither its Byzantine forms nor its words were ever chang ed. John of Damascus, when he composed his hymns, was a conquered subject of the Arab Muslim Caliph, but he also confess ed his uttermost loyalty to Byzantium and never failed to pray Mary, the Theotokos, to put "the people of the Ishmaelites under the feet of the Orthodox emperor." (11)
Of course, the role of the liturgy did not consist only in maintaining the spirit of " Byzance après Byzance " in the minds of Christians in the Middle East. It served as practically the only available source of knowledge about Christian scriptures and the doctrines of Christianity. It was the means of a unique esthetic, intellectual, musical, poetic, and visual enjoyment. Its extraordinary richness, both in volume and variety, made it a substitute for schooling and sermon-listening. Of course, much of its theological content was hardly understood by the majority, but its external forms and expressions gave an appealing sense of initiation into a transcendent and inexhaustible mystery. Also, the liturgy undoubtedly contributed to the preservation of the Greek language in areas where that language was used; and, in areas where the liturgy was used in translation, it maintained the sense of belonging to a wider, universal, Christian tradition.
However, it was outside the Muslim-occupied areas and throughout Eastern Europe that the liturgy served as the major vehicle of Byzantine cultural expansion. Without engaging once more in a description of the Kyrillo-Methodian mission to the Slavs, I must recall here the primarily liturgical purpose and function of that mission. In describing the initial activities of the two brothers of Thessalonike in Moravia, the author of the Life of Constantine Kyrillos indicates that Constantine "taught" his Moravian disciples "the whole ecclesiastical office, matins, the hours, vespers, compline and the liturgy." (12) Translations of Scripture always took the form of lectionaries and were aimed at fulfilling a liturgical function. In a poetic preamble to one such lectionary which began-as was always the case in the Byzantine liturgical tradition with the Gospel of John, a poet (who may have been Constantine- Kyril himself) proclaimed the " Kyrillo-Methodian " philosophy of translation:
I am the Prologue of the Holy Gospels :
As the prophets prophesied of old-
"Christ comes to gather the nations and tongues,
Since He is the light of the world "...
In offering my prayer to God.
I had rather speak five words
That all the brethren will understand
Than ten thousand words which are incomprehensible. (13)
Of course, the idea of the Prologue and the principle of using the vernacular in the liturgy was not a Byzantine or a "Kyrillo-Methodian" monopoly. Dimitri Obolensky reminds us that a contemporary, King Alfred of England, promoted the idea of putting "books which are more needful for all men to know into the language which we can all understand," (14) but it remains true that the Byzantine Church took for granted the principle of linguistic pluralism. This pluralism was also endorsed by liturgical texts, particularly the hymnography of Pentecost day, which were used by Constantine and Methodios in their polemics in Venice and Moravia against the "heresy of the three languages." (15) Of course, the Byzantines were not always fully consistent with the principle. One can recall the oftenquoted derogatory remarks of Greek Archbishop Theophylactos of Ochrid about his Bulgarian flock, whom he describes as "monsters," and as "unclean barbarian slaves who smell of sheepskin." (16) Such texts merely reflect the snobbishness which often prevailed in Byzantine humanistic and aristocratic circles and do not imply formal renunciation of the principle of liturgical translation. The same Theophylactos is the author of a life of Saint Clement of Ochrid, a disciple of Kyrillos and Methodios and a great promoter of their task of "acculturation" in Slavic Macedonia.
It would not be an exaggeration to affirm simply that Byzantine Christian civilization was passed on to the Slavs primarily through the liturgy and only secondarily through the translation of other texts, legal, theological, and scientific. This fact is most evident in the case of the Russians. The famous accounts of Vladimir's conversion in the Primary Chronicle are mostly concerned with the external forms of worship and disciplinary matters: the worship of the Muslims is seen as abominable; that of the Germans as "lacking beauty"; and that of the Greeks, in St. Sophia, as having transported the visiting Russians up to the very heavens. Furthermore, both in the Chronicle and in the numerous Byzantine polemical writings directed against the Latins and available to the Russians, antiLatin arguments connected with the liturgy are notably prominent, particularly the issue of the "azymes," the underleavened bread, used in the Eucharist by Western Christians. There is no doubt that, in the great mass of anti-Latin polemical writings t hat entered Russia from Byzantium, the liturgical arguments were more easily understood than those which concerned fine points of theology. The Russians learned very well the lesson that the liturgy is the very expression of the faith, a precious and unchangeable treasure. They were also aware that they had received that liturgy in a complete, written form, and that literal faithfulness to the Greek original was essential.
Whatever problems this attitude will eventually cause -particularly in Russia -it is unquestionable that, of all the confessional families of medieval Christendom, Byzantine Orthodoxy was the only one which de facto combined a rather strict practice of liturgical uniformity with the principle of unlimited translations of the same liturgical texts into the vernacular languages of various nations. The Latin West, less insistent upon ritual uniformity, remained linguistically monolithic until our own generation, whereas the other non-Byzantine rites have always been roughly limited by the culture of a single ethnic group (Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, etc.). The case of Georgia is, of course, special: I its national liturgical tradition, originally connected with Antioch, was eventually replaced by the Byzantine in Georgian translation. The cultural and religious attraction of Byzantium was apparently irresistible to those nations which, like the Georgians, remained in the fold of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy and thus belonged to the Byzantine "Commonwealth." But this irresistibility did not imply linguistic and cultural absorption, because linguistic pluralism was always admitted in principle and practiced not only in areas remote from Constantinople but also in highly visible ecclesiastical centers close to the capital, such as Mt. Athos.
So, the liturgy was undoubtedly a truly essential factor not only in the everyday life of Byzantine society but also in the way in which Byzantine Christian civilization was preserved and transmitted throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It was also an expression of unity in faith and in political world view, and this expression was more than purely symbolic. Not only did it imply the daily commemoration of the patriarch by the various metropolitans of the see of Constantinople but the name of the Byzantine emperor was also becoming known through its mention in the liturgy. The well-known letter of Patriarch Anthony to Grand Prince Basil I of Moscow, written in 1393 and requiring the commemoration of the Byzantine emperor in Russia, (17) illustrates the use made of the liturgy by Byzantine ecclesiastical diplomats to maintain Byzantine political ideology in Muscovy. Clearly, in the last decades of the empire, this was the last tool which was left at their disposal. However, even then, that tool remained powerful
The purpose of this brief essay is only to stress the importance of the liturgy as a source for the understanding of Byzantine civilization and thus to justify the importance of the topic not only for professional liturgiologists and theologians but also for historians of art, literature, society, and political theory. It is, I believe, unnecessary to stress its centrality for those of us who are involved in implanting Orthodox Christianity in America. Indeed, our use of the Byzantine tradition can succeed only if we understand the mind and central inspiration of that tradition, without idolizing it.
1 PG 102: 604D-15D.
2 Ibid. 733-36.
3 Ibid. 120: 812D-13A.
4 Ibid. 120: 245 B.
5. A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, tr. J.M. Hussey and P.A. McNulty (New
York, 1977), pp. 76-79.
6. Acta Maximi, ? G 90: 121C.
7 Cf., for example, B. Krivocheine and J. Paramelle, ed., "Symeon le Nouveau Theologien," Catecheses, Sources Chretiennes 113 ( Paris, 1965), p. 150.
8 V. S. Pseutogas, ed., in P. Chrestou, Γρηγορίου του Παλαμά Συγράμματα ( Thessalonike, 1966), 2: 563-78.
9. Hymn 19, J. Koder, ed. Sources Chrétiennes 156 (Paris 1969), p. 68. Cf. on this problem J. van Rossum "Priesthood end Confession in St. Symeon the New Theologian", St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 20 (1974): 220-28.
10 Acta Maximi, P G 90: 117CD.
11 Octoechos, Sunday Matins, vol. 8, Canon 2, Ode 9, Theotokion.
12 Vita Constantini, 15.2, F. Grivec and F. Tomsic, in Constantinus et Methodius Thessalonicenses, Fontes ( Zagreb, 1960), p. 131.
13 R. Jacobson, "St. Constantine's Prologue to the Gospel," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 7 (1963): 15-18.
14 The Byzantine Commonwealth ( London, 1971), p. 335.
15 According to the Vita Constantini this "heresy" was held by Latin clergy who maintained that Christians could legitimately worship in three languages only: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
16 PG 126: 508, 308-09.
17 Miklosch -Muller, Acta patriarchatus constantinopolitani, 2: 188-92.