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Robert Taft S. J.

The Evolution of the Byzantine “Divine Liturgy”

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

Regressive Traits - The Pre-anaphora

Meanwhile the regressive evolution whereby primitive elements were suppressed in favor of later additions is proceeding. By the 8th century the Old Testament reading (1), the prayers over the penitents (2), and elements of the psalmody have been suppressed (3), and the prayer of blessing that concluded the Liturgy of the Word in the time of Chrysostom has been displaced (4). By the nth century the litany of the faithful has shifted forward (5).

The disappearance from the Liturgy of the Word of its final blessing illustrates another common liturgical development in this period: the gradual blurring of the clear division between the Liturgies of Word and Eucharist. The present prayers of the faithful of the Liturgy of Basil are another example of this. They are really prayers of preparation for the eucharist, and certainly are not original to the Liturgy of the Word. In the same process, the kiss of peace, formerly the conclusion of the Word service (6), becomes detached from the concluding prayers of the synaxis and moved to before the anaphora by the addition of later ritual elements between the pax and the end of the Liturgy of the Word.

The Pre-anaphora

These later elements are the pre-anaphoral rites that now precede the eucharistic prayrer (7). They comprise:

The Cherubic Hymn
Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn ("No one is worthy...")
Transfer and deposition of gifts
Orate fratres dialogue
Litany and Prayer of the Proskomide
Kiss of Peace
Nicene Creed

The persistent attempt to interpret Eastern pre-anaphoral rites in Western terms of "offertory" have vitiated all understanding of what we are dealing with here. The primitive nucleus common to the Eastern and Western pre-anaphora was the simple, unritualized transfer of gifts to the altar by the deacons. In some Western liturgies this did evolve later into rites of offering. Attempts to read Eastern evidence in the same way have proved fruitless. My own analysis of the formulae of the pre-anaphora in the Eastern traditions has forced me to conclude that the "offertory" paradigm is not the model to be used in interpreting these rites. Ideas of offering do find expression, especially in later prayers but they are not the dominant theme. And in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom they find no place whatever in the primitive layer of the rite. In the earliest sources of this liturgy, we find only three elements:

1) the transfer, deposition, and covering of the gifts by the deacons
2) an oration said by the priest
3) the Cherubic Hymn sung by the people during the whole liturgical action.

It is probable that the deposition of gifts included an incensation of the altar, and that the prayer was preceded by a lavabo and by a brief dialogue between the presiding bishop and his con-celebrating presbyters, similar to the Roman Orate fratres.

From this original simplicity the nature and scope of the Byzantine pre-anaphoral rites emerge. They form a twofold preparation for the anaphora:

1) the material preparation of altar and gifts
2) the spiritual preparation of the ministers by prayer, and of the people by a chant evoking the dispositions appropriate to the imminent eucharistie offering.

a) The Great-Entrance Procession

The material preparation of the gifts in the Byzantine tradition has become highly ritualized into the Great Entrance procession, in which today even the presbyters take part. But this must not be allowed to obscure its humble origins in the transfer of gifts by the deacons, originally a material act of no ritual import whatever. Formerly the Great Entrance was a true entrance into the church from outside, for the deacons had to fetch the gifts from the sacristy or skeuophylakion, which in Constantinople was not an auxiliary chamber inside the church, but a separate edifice like the baptistry and campanile of so many Italian churches (8). Hence, the Byzantine Liturgy of the Eucharist, like the Liturgy of the Word, once began with an introit into the church. In both cases the entrance later degenerated into a nonfunctional procession around the inside of the church that ends where it begins, in the sanctuary. Here we have a perfect example of rites which perdure, supported by newly acquired symbolic meanings, long after they have become detached from their original practical purpose.

b) Preparation of the Ministers

While the deacons were bringing in the gifts, the presiding minister washed his hands, requested the prayers of his fellow ministers, then together with them said the following Prayer of the Proskomide:

Ο Lord God almighty, who alone are holy, who alone accept the sacrifices of praise from those that call upon you with a whole heart, accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bring us to your holy altar, and enable us to present to you these gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our own sins and for the faults of the people, and make us worthy to find favor in your sight, so that our sacrifice may be acceptable to you and so that the good spirit of your grace may rest upon us and upon these present gifts and upon all your people.

The prayer asks for three things:
1) that the ministers be conducted to the altar,
2) that they be enabled to offer there the eucharist
3) that they be made worthy so that this offering will be acceptable, and the Spirit come.

It is not a prayer of offering but a prayer of preparation for the true offering, the anaphora. It is a prayer of accessus ad altare in which the ministers pray God to make them worthy of the ministry they are about to perform. It exists only in function of what is to follow, a pattern also seen in the two prayers of the faithful. In the first, the ministers pray for the grace to intercede for their people, i.e. for the grace to say the intercessory collect that immediately follows.

But since our pre-anaphoral oration is entitled "Prayer of the Offering" (Εὐχή τῆς προσκομιδῆς) it is almost always misinterpreted and mistranslated—understandably so. Actually, this is not the title of the prayer, but of the whole eucharistie rite of which this prayer was but the first formula, a fact that was later obscured by the addition of numerous other elements to the pre-anaphora before this title (9).

c) The Entrance Chant

While all this is going on, the people are chanting the Cherubicon (10), a refrain that was added to the liturgy under Justin II in 573-4 A.D. Today this troparion stands alone, but from what we know of the history of liturgical chant this cannot have been its original form. In the early centuries there was no such thing as a free-standing liturgical song, i.e. a non-scriptural composition sung independently. All early liturgical chant was psalmody, and ecclesiastical songs had no independent liturgical existence, but served only as refrains to be repeated after the verses of a psalm. And in fact the historical evidence seems to indicate that the Cherubicon was added to an earlier antiphonal psalm at the transfer of gifts, Psalm 23/4:7-10 with alleluia as refrain.

So the Byzantine liturgy had an introit antiphon not only with its first entrance, just like the Roman antiphona ad introitum; it also had one with its second entrance, like the Roman antiphona ad offertorium. The later degeneration of the psalmody has obscured its original form, but the parallel in both cases is exact.

The object of the chant, however, has often been viewed too narrowly, because the misinterpretation of one word has appeared to restrict its meaning to the entrance of the gifts. The chant reads as follows.

We who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thriceholy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, let us lay aside all wordly care to receive the King of All escorted unseen by the angelic hosts. Alleluia. . .

The phrase "to receive the King of All" is usually taken to mean "to welcome Christ entering now in the procession under the symbols of bread and wine". But υποδέχομαι means receive in communion, as can be seen not only from Byzantine liturgical terminology but also in the Protheoria (1055-63), the earliest Byzantine commentary to interpret the phrase (11). So the chant does not refer only to the procession, but is an introduction to the whole eucharistie action from anaphora to communion. It instructs the faithful that they who are about to sing the thrice-holy hymn of the Cherubim (the Sanctus of the anaphora) must lay aside all worldly care (Sursum corda] to prepare to receive Christ (in communion).

A study of numerous other Eastern Hymns for the transfer of gifts has confirmed this conclusion: they are not offertory chants, nor merely processional antiphons, but are introductions to the whole eucharistie service, and serve to instill in the faithful the sentiments appropriate to the action about to begin. Thus understood, the Great-Entrance chant assumes a broader, more balanced liturgical role, tempering the exaggerated symbolic importance assigned in the later medieval period to the Great-Entrance procession itself. At the entrance we indeed welcome the gifts, symbol of Christ—but only with a view to their consecration and reception in communion.

d) Creed and Pax (12)

I do not intend to trace the origins of the numerous other, lesser formulae that• have been added to the pre-anaphora since the middle ages, but two older elements must be mentioned. The first, the creed, stands somewhat outside the scope of these rites. It was added during the Monophysite crisis in the 6th century, and drew with it some lesser formulae that have obscured the second rite, the kiss of peace. This fraternal greeting, an original member of the primitive shape, has since the nth century been exchanged only by the clergy. As we mentioned previously, its original purpose was to conclude the service of the Word.


1. MATEOS, Célébration, op. cit., p. 131.

2. This prayer is testified to by John Chrysostom (cf. F. VAN DE PAVERD, Zur Geschichte der Messliturgie in Antiochfia und Konstantinopel gegen Ende des vierten Jahrhunderts. Analyse der Quellen bei Johannes Chrysostomos (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 187) Rome 1970, ρρ• 45jff, 467) but there is no trace of it in our liturgical MSS from the 8th century on.

3. E.g. at the Trisagion and prokeimenon (MATEOS, Célébration, op. cit., pp. 106ff, 133-4, as well as at the koinonikon (see below, p. 376-3 77)•

4. Chrysostom seems to indicate the presence of this prayer at the end of the 4th century (VAN DE PAVERD, Messliturgie, op. cit., pp. 464, 467) but it is not found in any Byzantine liturgical MSS.

5. See above, p. 362.

6. See TAFT, Great Entrance, op. cit., pp. 50-51, 375-78.

7. On the history of these rites, see ibid.

8. MATHEWS, Early churches, op. cit., pp. 13-18, 84-5, 87, 89, 58ff, 178.

9. See TAFT, Great Entrance, op. cit., pp. 352-55.

10. For a complete study of this chant see ibid. ch. 2.

11. The passage from the Protheoria is in PG 140, 441. The whole question is discussed in TAFT, Great Entrance, op. cit., pp. 62-68.

12. Cf. TAFT, Great Entrance, op. cit., ch. II.

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