Fr Cyril Vasil', S.J.

Among the various doctrinal and disciplinary points it makes, the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia reminds us that "the faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms" (n. 49), that is, via those phenomena we call worship, liturgy, rite. This rich external diversity in the celebration of the Mystery is especially understood in the Christian East.

'A Church that celebrates the Divine Liturgy'

Identifying the Christian East as a whole as well as the individual Eastern Churches with "rite", primarily in its sense of a specific liturgical expression, is still one of the principal means by which the West views the Eastern Churches today. The members of the Eastern Churches themselves contribute to such an identification when, asked to define or describe the specific nature of their Church, they reply that they belong to "a Church that celebrates the Divine Liturgy".1

In this context it is no exaggeration to state that down the centuries the common image of the Eastern Churches, although they are diverse and able to assume characteristic traits according to their individual culture,2 has been expressed precisely through their rite. This is dependent on the role that the liturgy has in the pastoral and ecclesial life of the Christian East. Indeed, "the Eastern Church is first and foremost a Church that keeps vigil in God's presence, celebrating the mysteries of his Son in the ancient rites handed down by the Fathers in the faith"3.

The Second Vatican Council emphasised this understanding, recalling that "everyone knows with what love the Eastern Christians celebrate the sacred liturgy, especially the Eucharistic Mystery, source of the Church's life and pledge of future glory" (Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 50). The connection between the faith that is professed and the faith that is celebrated is as ancient as the saying, “lex orandi, lex credendi”.

The most ancient chronicle of the Rus' of Kiev, Povest' vremennych let The Chronicle of past times recounts the arrival of messengers of various nations and religions to the court of Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev. Each messenger, from the Islam of the ancient Bulgars, from Chazaro Judaism, from the Christian faith of the German people and last of all the Greeks, proposed that he abandon paganism and adopt a new religion.

After having listened to them all, Vladimir not satisfied with merely a description of the doctrinal contents of the various confessions sent his wisest people to get a first-hand look at how the respective nations were serving their God. Upon their return in 987, the sages related how the mosques and Islamic worship were "without joy". Then they had visited the celebrations of the Germans, "and found no beauty" there.

Last of all they had come to Constantinople. At that point the Slavs from the steppes of the Dnepr were awestruck and in ecstasy when the Patriarch of Constantinople, in the magnificent and suggestive setting of the Hagia Sophia, "ordered the convocation of the clergy and the usual festive office, with spirals of incense and a harmony of chants and choruses". Indeed, the sages told Vladimir: "They took us to where the Greeks offer worship to their God, and we did not know if we were already in heaven or still on earth, because in all the earth there is no equal to the wonder and beauty, nor can we truly relate these things; all we know is that there, God truly lives among the people".4

Contributions of the East: 'mystery' and 'the sacred'

This account although written in a popular, legendary style is a good expression of the religious needs of all peoples, but of the Easterners in a special way. The substance of the account taken from the ancient chronicle of the Rus' of Kiev, with its story of the "competition" and comparisons between the religions, is in some way echoed in the words of the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, which remind us that in the "effort to adore the mystery grasped in its ritual and aesthetic dimensions, a certain 'competition' has taken place between Christians of the West and the East. How could we not give particular thanks to the Lord for the contributions to Christian art made by the great architectural and artistic works of the Greco-Byzantine tradition and of the whole geographical area marked by Slav culture? In the East, sacred art has preserved a remarkably powerful sense of mystery, which leads artists to see their efforts at creating beauty, not simply as an expression of their own talents, but also as a genuine service to the faith" (n. 50).

The concept of the sacred, in which the simplicity of signs hides the abyss of God's holiness, finds its privileged expression in the Eucharistic banquet. Not by chance does Pavel Evdokimov state that the liturgy initiates whoever celebrates it into the mystagogical language and introduces that person into the world of symbols which help him or her to understand the mystery. The symbol whether a temple, icon or cross represents a participation in the sacred in its material configuration. Virtually everything is sacred because everything refers to God. The human being becomes accustomed to living in God's world, in the depths of which he or she discovers an Edenic destiny; the universe is constructed into a cosmic liturgy, in the temple of God's glory.

The sacred reveals a total belonging to God, so that a fragment of time and space becomes a hierophany, although continuing to be a part of the empirical context. There is an ontological communion between the sacred and its material support, a communion that in the Eucharist, the supreme expression of the sacred, becomes a transmutation, a real conversion or transubstantiation: the Eucharistic bread and wine are not a sign or a symbol of flesh and blood, but are indeed flesh and blood.5 The Eucharist reveals the nature of the Church, the community of those called together in synaxis to celebrate the gift of Him who is both the donor and the offering. Thus, the Eucharist anticipates the belonging of all people and things to the heavenly Jerusalem, thereby revealing the Church's eschatological nature.6

The temple or building for worship is the sacred place par excellence. The very rite of its consecration begins by setting it apart from the area of the profane. At the time of consecration the bishop who carries the relics of a saint and lights the first light, represents God who is taking possession of the place and transforming it into his house. The temple becomes the door that opens from earth to God's heaven.

However, both the architecture and the interior structure of the temple continue to "speak", corresponding to the details of "a clear understanding of the mystery" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 49). Indeed, art enters into a happy marriage with the faith lived and celebrated, and in the Eucharist it finds a motif of great inspiration and the preferred place for its realization.

"How could we not give particular thanks to the Lord for the contributions to Christian art made by the great architectural and artistic works of the Greco-Byzantine tradition and of the whole geographical area marked by Slav culture?" (n. 50). In this tradition, observed to this very day, the temple, beginning with the narthex that faces east in the amorphous space of obscurity, opens up and broadens into the central nave that gathers the assembly of the faithful. The nave, that offers refuge like a ship, serves to transport and orient the gaze of the liturgical assembly in a growing purifying initiation towards the sanctuary, towards the Holy of Holies. There is thus an emphasis that the whole church is sailing in an eschatological dimension eastward, where "every day the son of hope arises again" and from which "our Saviour will come again" (cf. Orientate Lumen, n. 28).

Separating the nave and the sanctuary is a wall the iconostasis with icons of the prophets, apostles and saints, surmounted by an icon of the Déisis: the Enthroned Christ, flanked by the praying Theotókos and by St John the Baptist, the Bridegroom's friend. The iconostasis, rather than being a dividing wall, becomes a window through which to contemplate the mystery. The royal doors of the iconostasis, recalling the Lord's words, "I am the gate" (Jn 10:7), open up towards the altar, where every Eucharistic celebration fulfils the words of Christ, "I lay down my life in order to take it up again" (Jn 10:17).

The temple is an ideal image of the cosmos and its parts indicate the various levels of access to the celestial realities. In his Poem on the Hagia Sofia of Edessa, St Maximus describes the temple as follows: "It is a marvellous thing that, in its littleness, the temple can be like the vast universe".

The person involved totally in the Eastern liturgy

Even the person who attends occasionally, who is not particularly instructed in the symbolic and mystical meaning of the various elements, perceives that it is difficult to be indifferent to the liturgical celebration. The whole Eucharistic liturgy is a dialogue between the assembly and the celebrant, assisted by the deacon. Both of them dress in sacred vestments, reciting prayers for each vestment, with a view to presenting themselves before the Lord in joy and uprightness, as is indicated by the prayer for putting on the phelonion (chasuble): "Your priests, O Lord, shall be clothed with justice, and your saints shall exult with joy".

The celebrant acts in persona Christi, while the deacon becomes a herald, a messenger, an intermediary between the Sancta sanctorum and the assembly. The deacon pronounces the litanies in front of the royal doors; however, in order to go between the sanctuary and the nave he uses the smaller doors at the side of the iconostasis. He goes through the royal doors only in the company of the priest, bearing the Gospel or the sacred gifts of the altar. These two "entrances" are accompanied by prayers that underscore the "cosmic" and eschatological dimension of the liturgy, which always occurs in the presence of the whole of creation, visible and invisible.

In fact, in the so-called Small Entrance, the priest prays: "O Lord, our Master and God, who in heaven established orders and armies of angels and archangels for the service of your glory, make this our entrance to be an entrance of holy angels, serving together with us, and with us glorifying your goodness". In the so-called Great Entrance, carrying to the altar the bread and wine that will become the Eucharist, the whole assembly becomes involved in this heavenly dimension with the chant: "Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside all earthly cares that we may welcome the King of all, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts".

The joy, beauty, decorum and solemnity are clear external signs of the Christian faith that is celebrated, of the faith in a "God who dwells among men". As the Apostolic Letter Orientate Lumen recalls:

"Liturgical prayer in the East shows a great aptitude for involving the human person in his or her totality: the mystery is sung in the loftiness of its content, but also in the warmth of the sentiments it awakens in the heart of redeemed humanity. In the sacred act, even bodiliness is summoned to praise, and beauty, which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in the shape of the church, in the sounds, in the colours, in the lights, in the scents. The lengthy duration of the celebrations, the repeated invocations, everything expresses gradual identification with the mystery celebrated with one's whole person. Thus, the prayer of the Church already becomes participation in the heavenly liturgy, an anticipation of the final beatitude" (n. 11).

The joy, beauty and decorum are elements that moved the pagan peoples 1,000 years ago and impelled them to abandon their pagan worship and accept the message of a "God who dwells among men".

Today too, at the beginning of the third millennium, people are seeking joy and beauty things they cannot perceive if they remain in the world of old or new paganism. For these persons, distrustful of the thousands of allurements of the free market of ideas, decorum and the deeply mystical beauty of our liturgical celebrations can become an impetus for a further search for the true meaning of their life, a search that should lead them to Him who is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6).


1 A response by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexis I, to the question of an Anglican visitor. Cf. Mensuel Service Oecumenique du Presse d’linformation, 10 (1997) 7, quoted and explained from the ecclesiological and liturgical point of view by R. Taft, Oltre I'oriente e I'occidente, Rome, 1999, 153.

2 Cf. Orientate Lumen, n. 5.

3 R. Taft, Oltre I'oriente e I'occidente, Rome, 1999, 153.

4 Translated from the Russian Povest' vremennych let, in Serdca ix krepkogo bulata, Patriot, Moscow, 1990, 68.

5 Cf. P.N. Evdokimov, Teologia della Bellezza, ed. Paoline, Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 1990, 133-134.

6 Cf. Orientate Lumen, n. 10.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 September 2003, page 8

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