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Robert Taft S. J.

The Evolution of the Byzantine “Divine Liturgy”

Orientalia Christiana Periodica XLIII, Roma 1977, p. 8-30

How Liturgies Grow:
the Evolution of the Byzantine “Divine Liturgy”

In this paper I would like to locate the evolution of the Byzantine eucharist within the larger context of liturgical history, using it as a “model” or “case study” from which to draw some general methodological principles applicable, I believe, to the growth of all rites.


The history of the eucharistic service can be divided into several periods:
1) In the period of initial information the Lord’s Supper is separated from the agape, the World services becomes permanently joined to it, and the “first statum” of that Dom Gregory Dix called the “classical shape of the liturgy” (1) emerges by the middle of the 2d century in the Apology of Justin Martyr (I, 65, 67):
Common prayers
Kiss of peace
Transfer of gifts
Prayer over the gifts (anaphora)
(fraction) (2)

2) The second period is the period of Church Orders, when written formularies, i. e. actual texts, first appear (3). All of them differ, showing that there was no one “apostolic liturgy” from which they derived. Yet all of them follow the same basic outline first seen in Justin’s Apology.

3) After the peace of Constantin in 313, when Christian worship became the public ceremonial of a church freed from civil restraints and fast becoming an important social force, liturgical development quickened. It is in this period that we first hear of the rite of Byzantium. Indeed, this rite can be said to be characterize this stage of liturgical history. For it is the rite of the new capital of Constantine, the founding of which in 315 inaugurates the new era of Constantinian or imperial Christendom.

This is the period of the unifications of rites, when worship, like a church government, not only evolved new forms, but also let the weaker variants of the species die out, as the church developed, via the creation of intermediate unities, into a federation of federations of local churches, with ever-increasing unity of practice within each federation, and ever-increasing diversity of practice from federation to federation. In other words what was once one loose collection of individual local churches each with its own liturgical uses, evolved into a series of intermediate structures or federations (later called patriarchates) grouped around certain major sees. This process stimulated a corresponding unification and standardizing of church practice, liturgical and otherwise. Hence, the process of formation of rites is not one of diversification, as is usually held, but of unification. And what one finds in extant rites today, is not a synthesis of all that went before, but rather the result of a selective evolution the survival of the fittest- of the fittest, not necessarily of the best.

4) In a further stage of liturgical history, liturgical families continue to evolve, but now as already formed and hence identifiably distinct entities (4).


Now, if one compares these later liturgical developments to Justin’s “first statum” of the Eucharistic service, one sees that liturgical evolution respected this primitive outline in what I have called the third period of liturgical growth, and violated it in the fourth.

What we see happening in the third period, the period of the unification of rites, is a filling in of the basic common outline of the eucharist at the three “soft points”: ( 1 ) before the readings, ( 2 ) between the Word’s service and the Eucharistic prayer, and ( 3 ) at the communion and dismissal that follow this prayer. Note that at the primitive liturgy these are the three points of action without words: ( 1 ) the entrance into church, ( 2 ) the kiss of peace and transfer of gifts, and ( 3 ) the fraction, communion, and dismissal rites. What could be more natural than to develop the ceremonial of these actions, cover them with chants, and add to them suitable prayers? For one of the most common phenomena in later liturgical development is the steadfast refusal to let a gesture speak for itself.

This process often took the form of the permanent addition to the service of rites and ceremonies which in origin hand an exclusively locale scope in the festive or stational rites of a particular time and place. When added to the Eucharistic rite as permanent integral parts, they inevitably lose their original connection to the religious topography of their place of origin- and, hence, too, their original scope and meaning- and assume a life independent of their past. This too is a common occurrence in liturgical history. It is especially noticeable in the rives derived from cities where liturgy was stational: Rome, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, the three most important centers of liturgical diffusion in the period after Chalcedon ( 451 ).

As ceremonial and text rush in to fill the vacuum at the three action points of the liturgy, thus overlaying the primitive shape with a “second stratum” of introit, pre-anaphoral, and communion rites, a contrary movement is provoked. The liturgy, thus filled out, appears overburdened and must be cut back. Now what is fascinating about this next step is the abandonment of the former respect for the primitive shape. For it is universally verifiable that the elements thus reduced or suppressed are never the later, secondary, often questionable additions, but elements of the original core: the Old Testament lessons, the responsorial psalmody between the readings, the prayers after the readings, the kiss of peace, etc. (5).


1. The Shape of the Liturgy, London 1945, 2nd edition.

2. Justin does not mention the fraction and dismissal, but they are part of the classical shape.

3. Beginning with the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, c. 215.

4. As BAUMSTARK wrote: “It seems to be of the nature of Liturgy to relate itself to concrete situations of times and places. No sooner had the vast liturgical domains come in to being than they began to be divided up smaller territories whose several forms of worship were adapted to local needs”.(Comparative Liturgy, Westminster Md. 1958, pp. 18-19).

5. Cf. A. Baumstark, Comparative Liturgy, op. cit., pp. 23ff- though B. is wrong in some of the examples he gives.

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