Chair, Ecumenism Metro Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Administrator, St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church (Mishawaka, IN)
To explore the importance of the life context, let us examine the icon screen which, in a properly appointed Byzantine church, stands between the sanctuary and the nave where the congregation gathers. (c.f. visuals) In this, the icon screen is reminiscent of the veil in the temple of Jerusalem which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. With the defeat of the iconoclasts and the restoration of the icons in the year 843, this relative of the rood screen found itself embellished more and more with icons. At its most ornate, the iconostasis consists of multiple ranks of icons, reaching from floor to ceiling. The second rank consists of the twelve icons depicting the twelve major feasts of the Byzantine calendar. It is to this rank that I would like to turn.
Unlike the Roman liturgical calendar which begins with the first Sunday of Advent, the Byzantine liturgical calendar begins on September first. (c.f., visuals) Since the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God comes on September eighth, this first feast of the year is also the first depicted on the festal rank of the icon screen. From there, we set off on our yearly cavalcade commemorating the great events of our salvation – focused, of course, on the coming of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. At the end of the liturgical year, we return to a feast of the Mother of God – namely, the Dormition on August fifteenth. Notice the layout: the feasts of the Lord are all situated between feasts of the Mother of God; the Christological icons are book ended by Marian icons. This is significant: the life of Christ is situated within the life of a human being – in this case, within the life of His Virgin Mother. As the first and most faithful follower of her divine Son, the Virgin is thus held up as a model for every believer: Christ’s life and presence should be visible in the life of each one of us. Formal causality is evident.
In a recent article entitled “Religion is not the Problem: Secularism & Democracy”, Charles Taylor offers the following reflection: The category “secular” developed largely within Latin Christendom, initially as one term of a dyad contrasting profane time with the eternal, or sacred time. Certain places, persons, institutions, and actions were seen as closely related to sacred or higher time, and others as pertaining to profane time alone – thus the similar distinction made in the dichotomy of “spiritual/temporal” (for example, the state as the “temporal arm” of the church) (Commonweal, Feb. 25, 2011, Vol. CXXXVIII, Number 4). This is not a Byzantine view: instead of compartmentalization, Byzantines tend to see things organically. The dichotomy between sacred and secular is healed in Christ: the realms of time and space are woven together into the grand tapestry of the Kingdom constantly unfurled throughout human history. Recall what was said above concerning realized eschatology and shekinah.
The unified tapestry of life is unfurled in the Byzantine liturgical calendar. As the events of our lives are organically linked, influencing and influenced by one another, so are the feasts and seasons of the liturgical calendar; this should be obvious from our earlier discussion of the festal icons. The feasts and seasons of the Church year are like a pulse: they measure the times of our lives and provide evidence of life. The liturgical calendar also serves as a “matrix of meaning”: it is a template whose contours give the Christian life its distinctiveness.
The liturgical celebrations of the Church take their place within this matrix of life, and are of a piece with it. As such, rather than being discrete events, individual liturgies are part of a broader flow. This flow is exhibited in two ways.
On the one hand, the flow is visible in the way liturgies are tied to one another. This is seen every Sunday, as Byzantine Christians come together for vespers, matins, and the Divine Liturgy: if we were into the idea of Sunday obligation – which, by the way, we are not – we would see that participation at any one of these closely-linked services would satisfy that obligation. (With the renewal of Vatican II, the universal Church has encouraged us to return to our own living tradition, restoring vespers and matins to their proper place instead of adopting a more Western reliance on “Mass” alone. Indeed, in many ways, vespers and matins display a much richer theology and spirituality than the Divine Liturgy, which is much more sober and “matter-of-fact”; restoring matins and vespers to parish life puts our faithful back in touch with the richness which had too long been neglected.)
The flow is also visible in the ways the rest of life flows in and out of the liturgy. The calendar, with its feasts and fasts, is itself a preparation for the liturgical celebration. Take, for example, the Great Fast – commonly referred to as Lent. For Byzantines, the Great Fast is not about the sufferings of Jesus; rather, it is a season consecrated to conversion – and, as such, is a microcosm of the Christian life. The prayer and fasting and almsgiving are aimed at preparing the person and the community for the lessons conveyed and reinforced in the yearly liturgical journey.
Of course, the Lenten fasting is a preparation for the feasting of Easter. Fasting precedes feasting. This is a common pattern, repeated several times during the year: periods of fasting precede the feasts of SS Peter and Paul on June 29th, of the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15th, and of the Nativity of the Lord on December 25th. In this modulation, we see that preparation for liturgy is both private and communal.
In addition to the preparations for liturgy which are tied to life by the cycle of feasts and seasons, there are some specific preparatory activities which are prescribed for our liturgies. Some of these preparations are long-range; for example, there is a profound spiritual process involved in the writing of icons used to decorate the church in which the liturgy is to take place. A similar spiritual exercise is involved in baking the prosphora – i.e., the leavened bread to be consecrated at the Divine Liturgy. Other preparations are proximate: for example, prayerful preparations are prescribed before Divine Liturgy, including vesting prayers, as well as an elaborate ritual preparing the Eucharistic gifts. During this preparation rite, the priest places a bread particle on the paten to commemorate each intention to be included at the Liturgy – often using bread brought by those requesting the prayers of the community.
The complexity of Byzantine Liturgical practice requires recourse to a multitude of books: celebrating the Divine Liturgy itself requires at least a liturgicon, an evangelary, and an epistolary; vespers and matins and the other “little” hours require a horologion or chasoslov. All of these are governed by the overall liturgical calendar, and the monthly menaion. For other services, we use a book called the trebnyk or “book of needs”; the services in this book are used for those occasions where the life of the individual and the family intersects the life of the Church. It is upon the trebnyk that I will now focus.
First of all, the trebnyk is used for administration of sacraments – or, as we call them, mysteries. Differently from usual Roman practice, many of these stand alone rather than being combined with the Divine Liturgy – namely marriage and initiation – i.e, baptism, chrismation, and Eucharist, for all three should be administered at the same time, even to infants. Funerals, which can be seen to have a quasi-sacramental character, fit this formula as well.
Much of the rest of the trebnyk is devoted to blessings. Blessings play an important role in our liturgical practice, for we recognize the importance of consecrating to God all those things given to us for our use. Blessings are of various kinds. First of all, there are “blessings of objects designated for liturgical use” – vessels, vestments, even incense; in a sense, these blessings fit under what was said earlier about long-range preparation for in-Church liturgical celebrations. A second category of blessings focuses more on the “domestic Church”: at specific times of the year, we bless things for the faithful to use at home. For example, we bless water on January 6th in commemoration of John’s baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan; on Easter, we bless the food with which the faithful will break their Lenten fast; on the feast of the Transfiguration, we bless the first fruits which parishioners have grown in their gardens; and on the feast of the Dormition, we bless flowers which will decorate their homes, thus reflecting the glory bestowed upon our race in the Mother of God. When these blessed objects are taken home, we see a sign that the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular has been healed: the realms of time and space are transfigured by the grace and blessing of the eternal God mediated by the Church. This transfiguration of the entire cosmos is evident in the rest of the blessings contained in the trebnyk: there are blessings for everyone and everything. Nothing is beyond the reach of God’s grace.
As the church building and the public liturgies celebrated therein reflect the beauties of heaven and the eschatological banquet, so does the family home become the domestic Church. As blessings flow down upon the Church from heaven, so likewise they flow outward from the church building to the home and to all centers of human activity, thus sanctifying all of life. We saw this above in what was said of the importance of blessings: the commercium divinum exhibited in the liturgy becomes incarnate in daily life. A visible reminder of this connection between the two centers of Christian life is the icon corner which is traditional in every Byzantine Christian home: reminiscent of the icon screen in the church building, the icon corner makes explicit the implicit presence of Christ in the life of the residents. The chasm between sacred and secular time and space is bridged by the ever-present Christ Who comes to meet us wherever we are.
As I come to the end of my presentation, I fear that my style has been more Western than Eastern: I have done more talking and explaining than showing. I hope that, in spite of this fact, you have been able to sense a bit of what the Byzantine liturgy is about, to understand some of the factors which have shaped it over the centuries. Perhaps you will even be inspired to participate in one of our liturgies in order to experience the fullness. In any event, I hope that our coming together at this time and in this place has helped us to open ourselves to the power of the liturgy, learning to recognize the God Who is where we are, right here, right now.