Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 7

Author: Fr Cyril Vasil


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 celebratesthe Divine Liturgy'

Identifying the Christian East as awhole — as well as the individual Eastern Churches — with "rite", primarily inits sense of a specific liturgical expression, is still one of the principal meansby which the West views the EasternChurches today. The members of theEastern Churches themselves contributeto such an identification when, asked todefine or describe the specific nature oftheir Church, they reply that they belongto "a Church that celebrates the DivineLiturgy".1

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

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

The most ancient chronicle of theRus' of Kiev, Povest' vremennych let — The Chronicle of past times — recountsthe arrival of messengers of various nations and religions to the court ofVladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev. Eachmessenger, from the Islam of the ancient Bulgars, from Chazaro Judaism,from the Christian faith of the Germanpeople and last of all the Greeks, proposed that he abandon paganism andadopt a new religion.

After having listened to them all,Vladimir — not satisfied with merely adescription of the doctrinal contents ofthe various confessions — sent his wisest people to get a first-hand look athow 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 inits ritual and aesthetic dimensions, acertain 'competition' has taken placebetween Christians of the West and theEast. How could we not give particularthanks to the Lord for the contributionsto 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 ofmystery, which leads artists to see theirefforts at creating beauty, not simply asan expression of their own talents, butalso as a genuine service to the faith"(n. 50).

The concept of the sacred, in whichthe simplicity of signs hides the abyssof God's holiness, finds its privilegedexpression in the Eucharistic banquet.Not by chance does Pavel Evdokimovstate that the liturgy initiates whoevercelebrates it into the mystagogical language and introduces that person intothe world of symbols which help him orher to understand the mystery. Thesymbol — whether a temple, icon orcross — represents a participation inthe sacred in its material configuration.Virtually everything is sacred becauseeverything refers to God. The humanbeing becomes accustomed to living inGod's world, in the depths of which heor she discovers an Edenic destiny; theuniverse is constructed into a cosmicliturgy, in the temple of God's glory.

The sacred reveals a total belongingto God, so that a fragment of time andspace becomes a hierophany, althoughcontinuing to be a part of the empiricalcontext. There is an ontological communion between the sacred and its material support, a communion that in the Eucharist, the supreme expression of thesacred, becomes a transmutation, a realconversion 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 togetherin synaxis to celebrate the gift of Himwho is both the donor and the offering.Thus, the Eucharist anticipates the belonging of all people and things to theheavenly Jerusalem, thereby revealingthe Church's eschatological nature.6

The temple or building for worship isthe sacred place par excellence. Thevery rite of its consecration begins bysetting it apart from the area of the profane. At the time of consecration thebishop who carries the relics of a saintand lights the first light, represents Godwho is taking possession of the placeand transforming it into his house. Thetemple becomes the door that opensfrom earth to God's heaven.

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

"How could we not give particularthanks to the Lord for the contributionsto 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, observedto this very day, the temple, beginningwith the narthex that faces east in theamorphous space of obscurity, opensup and broadens into the central navethat gathers the assembly of the faithful.The nave, that offers refuge like a ship,serves to transport and orient the gazeof the liturgical assembly in a growingpurifying initiation towards the sanctuary, towards the Holy of Holies. There isthus an emphasis that the whole churchis sailing in an eschatological dimension eastward, where "every day theson of hope arises again" and fromwhich "our Saviour will come again"(cf. Orientate Lumen, n. 28).

Separating the nave and the sanctuary is a wall — the iconostasis — withicons of the prophets, apostles andsaints, surmounted by an icon of the Déisis: the Enthroned Christ, flanked bythe praying Theotókos and by St Johnthe Baptist, the Bridegroom's friend.The iconostasis, rather than being a dividing wall, becomes a window throughwhich to contemplate the mystery. Theroyal doors of the iconostasis, recallingthe Lord's words, "I am the gate" (Jn10:7), open up towards the altar, whereevery Eucharistic celebration fulfils thewords of Christ, "I lay down my life inorder to take it up again" (Jn 10:17).

The temple is an ideal image of thecosmos 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 thetemple as follows: "It is a marvellousthing that, in its littleness, the templecan be like the vast universe".

The person involved totallyin the Eastern liturgy

Even the person who attends occasionally, who is not particularly instructed in the symbolic and mystical meaning of the various elements, perceivesthat it is difficult to be indifferent to theliturgical celebration. The whole Eucharistic liturgy is a dialogue betweenthe assembly and the celebrant, assisted by the deacon. Both of them dress insacred vestments, reciting prayers foreach vestment, with a view to presenting themselves before the Lord in joyand uprightness, as is indicated by theprayer for putting on the phelonion(chasuble): "Your priests, O Lord, shallbe clothed with justice, and your saintsshall exult with joy".

The celebrant acts in persona Christi,while the deacon becomes a herald, amessenger, an intermediary betweenthe Sancta sanctorum and the assembly. The deacon pronounces the litaniesin front of the royal doors; however, inorder to go between the sanctuary andthe nave he uses the smaller doors atthe side of the iconostasis. He goesthrough the royal doors only in the company of the priest, bearing the Gospelor the sacred gifts of the altar. Thesetwo "entrances" are accompanied byprayers that underscore the "cosmic"and eschatological dimension of theliturgy, which always occurs in the presence of the whole of creation, visibleand invisible.

In fact, in the so-called Small Entrance, the priest prays: "O Lord, ourMaster and God, who in heaven established orders and armies of angels andarchangels for the service of your glory,make this our entrance to be an entrance of holy angels, serving togetherwith us, and with us glorifying yourgoodness". In the so-called Great Entrance, carrying to the altar the breadand wine that will become the Eucharist, the whole assembly becomesinvolved in this heavenly dimensionwith the chant: "Let us, who mysticallyrepresent the Cherubim and sing thethrice-holy hymn to the life-creatingTrinity, now set aside all earthly caresthat we may welcome the King of all,invisibly escorted by angelic hosts".

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

"Liturgical prayer in the East shows agreat aptitude for involving the humanperson in his or her totality: the mysteryis sung in the loftiness of its content,but also in the warmth of the sentimentsit 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 bestloved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in theshape of the church, in the sounds, inthe colours, in the lights, in the scents.The lengthy duration of the celebrations,the repeated invocations, everything expresses gradual identification with themystery celebrated with one's wholeperson. Thus, the prayer of the Churchalready becomes participation in theheavenly liturgy, an anticipation of thefinal beatitude" (n. 11).

The joy, beauty and decorum are elements that moved the pagan peoples1,000 years ago and impelled them toabandon their pagan worship and accept the message of a "God who dwellsamong men".

Today too, at the beginning of thethird millennium, people are seeking joyand beauty — things they cannot perceive if they remain in the world of oldor new paganism. For these persons,distrustful of the thousands of allurements of the free market of ideas, decorum and the deeply mystical beauty ofour liturgical celebrations can becomean 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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