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
'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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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,
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.