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Robert Taft S. J.

The Evolution of the Byzantine “Divine Liturgy”

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

The byzantine eucharist

General Characterists

Now it is the last two periods of liturgical history that especially concern us here, and for Byzantine tradition they extend from the end of the 4th century until the beginning of the 16th. From the end of the 4th, because the writings of John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople from 397- 404, are our first witness to its liturgical uses; to the beginning of the 16th because the first printed edition of our liturgy appeared in 1526, and it was the printing press rather than the intervention of bishop, synod, or liturgical commission, that was responsible for the final unification of liturgical usage in the Byzantine East.

Of course one must not picture this unification in rigid, Tridentine categories, for in the East there is no such thing as a “typical” liturgical book, i. e. an official liturgical text obligatory on all. Nor did the advent of printing mark the end of growth and local adaption. But since then the developments are so easy to trace that liturgical history ceases to be a scolarly problem and so becomes relatively uninteresting except as a mirror of local customs, minor variations on a already well-known theme.

The Byzantine Divine Liturgy can be characterized as the Eucharistic service of the Great Church- of Hagia Sophia, the cathedral church of Constantinople- as formed into an initial synthesis in the capital by the 10th century, and then modified by later monastic influence. This is not a truism, to say that the Byzantine eucharist is the rite of Constantinople. There is nothing “Roman” about much of the Roman rite, and nothing “Byzantine” about the present Byzantine Divine Office, which comes from the monasteries of Palestine, and replaced the Office of the Great Church after Constantinople fell to the Latins in the Fourth Crusade (1204).

To the Westerner onlooker, perhaps the most striking quality of the rite that has evolved from the eucharist of the Great Church is its opulent ritualization, a ceremonial splendour heightened by its marked contrast to the sterile verbalism of so much contemporary Western liturgy, where worship often seems just words. The Byzantine mass ritual is structured around a series of appearances of the sacred ministers from behind the iconostasis or sanctuary barrier. The most important of these appearances are the two solemn introits. The minor introit or “Little Entrance” of the Word service, after the opening rite of the enarxis, is a procession with the gospel, said to symbolize Christ’s coming to us in the Word. The other, major or “ Great Entrance” at the beginning of the Eucharistic part of the service, right after the intercessory prayers following the readings, is a procession bearing to the altar the gifts of bread and wine prepared before the beginning of the liturgy. It is said to prefigure Christ’s coming to us in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. Both these fore-shadowings are fulfilled in to later appearances, the procession of the deacon with the gospel lectionary to the ambo for the reading; and the procession of the celebrant to distribute in communion the consecrated gifts, after they have been blessed in the Eucharistic prayer.

Most of the ritual is taken up with such comings and goings. But liturgy is not ceremonial. It is prayer. And so these ceremonies are the ritual expression of a text. In the present-day Byzantine rite the liturgical formulae comprise two distinct levels. While the deacon stands outside the doors of the iconostasis chanting the litanies and leading the people in prayer, within the sanctuary a parallel service is preceeding. Through the open doors of the icon screen the altar is distantly visible, brilliantly lighted and enveloped in clouds of incense, impressing upon the worshipper a sense of mystery and sacredness. Before this altar, within the holy of holies stands the celebrant, his back to the people as he faces the East, reciting in silence the priestly prayers. When the priest has to bless or address the people he comes out. Inside he is talking to God.

This ritual pattern is the result of centuries of slow evolution, in which many rites, at first added for a specific purpose later lost their original scope, then decomposed under the pressure of later changes and additions, acquiring in the process new mystagogic interpretations often far removed from their actual historical roots.

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