Four Major Aspects of the Church's Faith and Experience
From: Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church, Hellenic College Press, Brookline, Massachusetts 1998.
Liturgy and Liturgical Life
Liturgy and liturgical services are central in the religious life of the Greek Orthodox, and indeed of other faithful in the Eastern Orthodox family of churches. Ιn the Greek religious experience, ancient and medieval, non-Christian and Christian, religion is identified with worship of the Divine, and worship is the core of religion. Liturgy and liturgical services in practice today can trace their origins in early Christianity but they assumed their final form after the eleventh century.
Daily life in the Greek middle centuries of our era, known as the Byzantine period (330 AD-1453), named after the city of Byzantion, a Greek city state reputed to have been founded in 667 BC, was rich with a variety of religious and nonreligious festivals, liturgical feasts, imperial and social ceremonies. The first included not only Sunday and Feast day liturgies but also baptisms, weddings, blessing of waters, and several more religious rites. The second contained imperial triumphal processions, anniversaries, and commemorations of founding of cities, installations of councils and the like. According to a 12th century list of feasts, in addition to Sundays there were 66 full feasts (panegyreis) and 27 half-feasts. This series is concerned with the nature and significance of the first set of liturgical feasts -the Eucharistic liturgy, baptism, wedding, and services on other important occasions. Whatever the original form might have been, it needs to be emphasized that the liturgy was identified with prayer, prayer life and diakonia- practice of love and philanthropy. Ι use the term liturgy, as a comprehensive term to describe several religious rites, which involved the Community at large in terms of religious, social, and economic needs.
The Liturgy epitomizes the dogma, doctrine, and code of ethics, cult, community-structure and the metaphysical or transcendent vision of Greek Orthodox Christianity as it developed in the course of a millennium. Briefly, these categories are used in a specific meaning. Dogma describes the accepted and codified faith of the Community; doctrine refers to theological teachings subject to development; the term code is used to describe the ethical imperatives, the rules of and obligations toward personal and Community action. Α cult involves the ritual and symbolic movement and activity in the execution of the liturgy, such as processions, candles, and signs; Community-structure explains the nature of relationships among the followers of the common faith, that is the principles that bind individual believers into a living organism and structured organization -the Church. For Medieval Greek Christianity, Church never meant the clergy but always the totality of believers, including laity, monastic, imperial and ecclesiastical dignitaries.
As we shall see, the Liturgy is more than a narrative and re-enactment of the mystery of Christ's life as it has been repeatedly written. More than that, it is an unfolding, an interpretation of the meaning of history -a Greek Christian understanding of history, whose vision is the ultimate presence of the human person in the glory of the Transcendent God revealed in Jesus Christ. The Transcendent invites and the human responds and fulfils his quest to go beyond the surface of daily experience. The offering of the Chalice, for example, Communion, points to the Transcendent and reveals to the believer that the ultimate destiny of human existence is to achieve theosis, an external life in the Transcendent.
It was this joyful, panegyric celebration of the Greek liturgy, seeking to elevate the human person above the ephemeral daily realities that impressed the new nations of Slavs, Bulgarians and Russians and led them to accept Christianity. Α brief illustration is in order. An 11th century Russian source relates the impression that the Greek liturgy made on members of a Russian delegation sent to Constantinople by Prince Vladimir in the last quarter of the 10th century. We are told that the Prince Vladimir was anxious to introduce a new religion to his pagan subjects. Whether for purely religious or political and economic reasons, Vladimir was in contact with Roman Catholic Germans, Islamic Bulgars, Jewish Khazars and Greek Orthodox of the Byzantine Empire. Having heard an account of the beliefs and practices of these four religions, he dispatched "good and wise men to the number of 10" to observe the worship of Muslims, Western Christians and the rites of the Greeks. Vladimir had rejected Khazarian Judaism and no delegation to a synagogue is mentioned. Upon returning to their country, the delegates reported on what they observed and heard. The Greek liturgy they had experienced in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople impressed the Russians so much that a vivid account of it influenced Vladimir to adopt Orthodox Christianity. "The Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported. "On earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it... we cannot forget that beauty..."
Neither dogma and doctrinal theology nor Christian ethics decided the adoption of Greek Christianity by the Russians. It was the Liturgy celebrated by the clergy and the choirs; the chanting as well as the hymns, the incense, the beauty of the edifice, the pontifical services and the ministry of the deacons, which commended Orthodox Christianity to the Russians. The term liturgy, from the Greek "leiturgia" means an actor work (ergon) performed by or for the people (laos, leitos). Though it was used in Greek antiquity in a technical and political sense, it later acquired a new technical but religious meaning as service conducted for a deity. For example, in Athens, wealthier citizens were obligated to sponsor public events such as dramatic performances, athletic competitions, and musical festivals and religious celebrations -all called liturgies. Christianity adopted this later sense and Greek Christianity in particular has retained this meaning to the present day. Ιn the Byzantine era, the term was employed to emphasize the corporate character of liturgical rituals including baptism, marriage, funerals and other sacraments and sacramentals.
The prayer life of the Greek Church was a set of liturgies but also corporate rituals that formed a coherent structure and addressed several spiritual and physical needs of the people, religious as well as social, noetic (knowledgeable) as well as intellectual desires and quests.
The cycle of liturgical services included not only Bible readings -the Word of God, but also iconography- the Word of God illustrated; readings but also homilies, symbols but also articles of art -a coordination of visible and invisible realities, the macrocosm reduced to a microcosm. Α liturgy was intended to bring together the physical and the metaphysical, the created and the uncreated and, in particular, Divinity and humanity.
The variety of the liturgical forms we find in the Byzantine religious life was a synthesis of and a compromise between the rites practiced in the Cathedral of Ηagia Sophia, which exerted influence throughout the Empire and elsewhere, and the liturgical rules of the Stoudios Monastery of Constantinople, which had rubrics that synthesized Palestinian and Constantinopolitan liturgical practices. The liturgy of the Eucharist was central in the religious life of the Medieval Greek world, and it remains of paramount significance to the present day among Orthodox believers.
Liturgy as worship is the core meaning of the Greek understanding of threskeia (religion), which etymologically means instinctive worship of the divine; a leaping up in joyful expectation to associate oneself with the transcendent, the source of creation. The Christian religion has always emphasized worship, a worship that includes two fundamental principles: anamnesis (remembrance) and eucharistia (thanksgiving). Remembrance presupposes a faith and a recognition of a Creator, Redeemer and Providential God involved in the creation, evolution and sustenance of all creation. Thanksgiving is the human person's grateful response to God's philanthropia, which culminated in the God-made-human event. The faithful acknowledge the "mighty and saving deeds of God" in history. The Greek Christian liturgy includes both principles, anamnesis and eucharistia because the two are inseparable.
Furthermore, in early Christian usage, the term liturgy meant service to God at the altar, but also public worship and ceremonial services for the religious life of the community. Thus, even though ultimately the term was identified with the Eucharist proper, every sacramental and religious ritual could be called liturgy including baptism, anointment, and acts of charity such as diakonia and preaching. By the fourth century, when the Byzantine Empire came into being, liturgy had assumed a specific meaning and was referred to as the Sacrament (or mysterion) of the Eucharist, as the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples.
Nevertheless, the large number of several volumes of hymns, services, and sacraments, liturgies and prayers (such as the Menaia, Oktoechos, Triodon, Pentikostarion, Euchologion, Horologion) reveal that the Greek Church had embraced the totality of life. Menaia are 12 liturgical books, one for each month containing hymns and other texts for each feast day of the month. Oktoechos is a liturgical hymnbook containing the hymns in eight tones of daily services of the whole year, except those of Lent, Easter and Pentecost seasons. Triodion is a hymnbook "of three odes" containing the services during the movable period of the Lenten cycle. It begins with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, four weeks before the beginning of Great Lent, continues through the 40 day period of Great Lent, and concludes with Holy Week.
The Pentikostarion follows the Triodion and includes the hymnology of the period beginning with the Resurrection Service of Pascha (Easter), through Pentecost, and closes on the Sunday of All Saints, the week after Pentecost. The Euchologion is the liturgical book of the clergy and it contains the services and rites conducted by deacons, presbyters and bishops. The Horologion is a liturgical book, which contains the monastic hours of prayers such as the Compline and the midnight (mesonyktikon). All prayers and services in these major volumes, rites at the birth of a child, the opening of schools for classes, the installation of public officials, the seeding of fields and the reaping of crops, services for forgiveness of sins and for health of body and soul, texts of sacraments and sacramental services for baptism, Chrismation, marriage and so on, provide ample evidence that liturgical life was a daily enrichment and experience for the Orthodox subjects of the Byzantine Empire.
The Greek Church never made a clear distinction between sacraments (mysteria) and sacramentalia (hieraiakolouthiae). All were intended to consecrate some aspect of life and, indeed, the totality of the cosmos. The daily life of the people, whether city dwellers as those of large cities like Constantinople, Thessalonike, Nicaea, Ephesos, Trapezous or provincial towns and rural populations such as Corinth, Kastoria and the people of the islands, included daily religious services and the Divine Liturgy proper. The ecclesiastical calendar includes daily commemorations of celestial and earthly beings -members of the Church triumphant and the Church militant. Angelic hosts, prophets of the old dispensation, apostles, church fathers, martyrs, saints of the desert-male and female, unmercenary physicians, the ancestors of Christ on the side of his mother, other members of the congregation "who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection to eternal life" and, of course, for the health and spiritual growth of the members of the visible Church are commemorated as participants in the prayer life of the faithful.
For the Greek Church, the liturgy was a recapitulation of the whole economy of God-God's providence and acts in history from the moment of humanity's disobedience (parakoe) to God's direct intervention in the person of Jesus the Christ. Ιn the last analysis, the liturgy was perceived as the mystery of God's love. Throughout the liturgy, God is described as philanthropos (lover of human kind), eleemon (merciful), oiktirmon or panoiktirmon (compassionate or most compassionate), evergetes (benefactor), Soter (saviour), the monos philanthropos (the only true lover of human kind). It is out of love for humanity that God assumed humanity in order to save the human. "God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son so that anyone who believes in him may not perish" (John 3:16). God's justice is mitigated by God's love and compassion for his creation.
There were six major liturgies during the Byzantine era, namely the Liturgy of Iakovos (James), the Liturgy of Markos (Mark), the Liturgy of Clement, the Liturgy of St. Basil, the Liturgy of John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.
Of these, the Liturgy falsely attributed to Clement was written in Syria and was incorporated in the Diatagai ton Ηagion Apostolon (Instructions of the Twelve Apostles). It was never adopted by the Greek Church.
Up to the 12th century, the most widely used liturgy was that attributed to St. Basil of Caesarea (329-379). After the 12th century it was replaced by John Chrysostom's (354-407), but Basil's continued to be celebrated ten times during the year. The Presanctified Gifts liturgy was celebrated throughout Great Lent, and Holy Week, except Saturdays and Sundays.
The central point of every one of these liturgies is the Eucharist, instituted by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, commemorated on Holy Thursday to perpetuate Christ's redemptive work -first to secure Ηis koinonia (communion) with His people and establish a koinonia between the faithful themselves. For this reason, the liturgy was perceived as a corporate worship of God in Christ. At no time was the liturgy conducted without lay people present. Ιn the early Church the liturgy was called synaxis, a gathering of the faithful for Bible reading, Holy Communion and a meal. The spirit that dominates every act of the Liturgy is the notion of God's philanthropia (Titus 3:4), God's attributes manifested in His love for creation, especially humankind. In the early liturgy, which manifests God's love, angelic and human hosts concelebrate. The atmosphere created is intended to elevate the human spirit to spiritual concerns.
The faithful find themselves among the spiritualised personalities of the Old and the New Testaments: apostles and martyrs, church intellectual fathers and illiterate anchorites of the desert -all depicted in abstract icons; lighted with flickering candles, sweet smelling with incense and with a joyful expression created by music and hymns which strengthen the faith, augment hope and bind people in love.
The visible and invisible choruses of believers unite under a common mantle of eternity. Ιn other words, the liturgy is a highly spiritual experience bringing together the created and the uncreated, those living in time and those who have entered eternity.
As already indicated, the content of the Liturgy includes doctrine and ethics, implied history, and a springboard for philanthropic action, both individual and collective, hymns with passages from the Old and New Testaments, and always two pericopes from the New, including one from one of the four gospels, and one either from the Book of Acts, or the letters of the Apostles. However, there are never readings from the Book of Revelation, a book considered prophetic and apocalyptic.
Ιn theory, at least, the liturgy was for all, and it was in the liturgy and the sharing of the same cup that the unity of the community was proclaimed. Emperors and poor peasants, patriarchs and humble monks, queens and servant girls, generals and ordinary soldiers shared of the same cup. One invisible but real kingdom in heaven, one but visible kingdom on earth. Sunday liturgy especially was the supreme spiritual experience for Byzantine society whether in cities and towns or villages and farm communities. The text of the liturgy constitutes a mirror of Orthodox Christianity's dogmas, social ethics and spiritual life.
What follow is a description and an analysis of St. John Chrysostom's Liturgy which ultimately dominated the liturgical life of medieval Greek society. It, too, includes a sequence of readings and events that usually last 90 minutes. It was enriched in the course of time and it evolved to epitomize the whole realm of spirituality and unfold the philosophy of history held by the Medieval Greek world. Petition after petition, prayer after prayer, symbols and re-enactments embrace concerns for the totality of the human person's needs and reveal a deep interest for cosmic salvation. As prayer and spirituality, St. John's Liturgy is a step-by-step ascendancy from the material to the immaterial, from the created to the uncreated. As a mirror of Greek Orthodoxy's philosophy of history, the liturgy is an account and re-enactment of God's invasion of human history -from the moment of creation, to re-creation through the God made-human event, to the eschaton (end of time), and the return of the cosmos to its pristine immateriality, and human kind's state of theosis, when God will be in all and all in God.
St. John's Liturgy is preceded by the Orthros, a daybreak service conducted to consecrate the day to God. It is followed by the rite of the Prothesis, a service preparing the gifts of wine and bread for the Eucharist.
The Liturgy proper is divided into four interrelated sections -the enarxis (beginning), the liturgy of the word, the Eucharist, and the apolysis (dismissal).
The Orthros includes a series of psalm readings, including Psalms 3, 37, 62, 87, 102,142; and the magnificat, hymn singing and doxology. But more than these steps, the prothesis best expresses Greek Christianity's sense of history as it will become evident in the following issues.
As soon as the service has begun with the recitation "Blessed is our God, now and always and forever and ever," and the priest has vested and washed his hands, he lifts up the prosforon (loaf of bread) and with a lance in his right hand, he proceeds to cut the centre piece of the loaf called the Amnos (Lamb) signifying the Body of Christ carrying the monogram IC ΧΡ ΝΙ ΚΑ meaning "Jesus Christ is victorious." While the celebrant separates the Amnos from the loaf and pours wine into the chalice, he recites passages from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah such as "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its Shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth... (Is. 53:7) He then pours wine and water into the chalice.
It is after this that the commemoration of the triumphant and militant Church members, starts. Their significance requires that we cite here every pronouncement that the celebrant makes while he removes a particle from the loaf of bread to be consecrated.
The first particle is in honour and memory of our most highly blessed and glorious Lady the Theotokos (the Bearer of God) and ever-virgin Mary, through whose prayers do Υou, Ο Lord, receive this sacrifice upon your altar in heaven." This particle is placed at the right hand of the Lamb-Amnos (unconsecrated Host) accompanied with the words "at your right stood the Queen, dressed in an embroidered mantle of gold."
The twelve recitations accompanied with the particle cut off from the offertory loaf that follows remind us that the whole: Church triumphant and militant constitutes an oneness. From the angelic hosts to the celebrant priest, the community of God's people are united symbolically on the diskarion, the paten, symbolic of the whole cosmos. The priest recites the following passages:
In honour and memory of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and of all heavenly and incorporeal powers; in honour and memory of the honourable and glorious prophet and forerunner John the Baptist, of the holy and glorious prophets Moses and Αaron, Elias and Elisha, David and Jesse, the three young men and Daniel the prophet, and of all the holy prophets; in honour and memory of the glorious and illustrious apostles Peter and Paul, and of all the holy apostles; in honour and memory of our holy fathers, the great hierarchs and ecumenical teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, Athanasios and Cyril, Nicholas of Myra, and all she holy hierarchs; in honour and memory of the first martyr and archdeacon, Stephen, the great martyrs Demetrios, George and Theodore of Tyre the Commander, and all male and female martyrs; of the sainted and theophoric (God-bearing) fathers of ours, Anthony, Euthymios, Savvas, Onoufrios, Athanasios of Athos and all male and female ascetic saints; of the saints, miracle workers and unmercenary (physicians) Kosmas and Damianos, Kyros and John, Panteleimon and Ermolaos and all the unmercenary saints; of the holy and righteous ancestors (of Christ) Joachim and Anna, of the saints... whose memory we observe today, and of all the saints, through whose prayers visit us, Ο God.
Having commemorated all the above the celebrant priest removes a ninth particle in glory and memory of the saint whose liturgy is to be celebrated (attributed either John Chrysostom or Basil the Great). But God's family of incorporeal beings includes not only angels and saints of all kinds and backgrounds but ordinary human beings who live either in body on earth or within the triumphant invisible Church. Thus, the celebrant uses either the same or another loaf, especially baked for the liturgy, and cuts off particles commemorating the "living and the dead."
Removing a particle from the loaf of bread offered, he prays thus: "Remember, Master, lover of humankind, all Orthodox bishops, our Archbishop (name), the honourable presbyters in service to Christ, all those in the priesthood and monastic communities, and all our brethren in Christ."
Upon completion of this prayer, the priest prays for individuals including parents, brothers and sisters, the bishop who ordained him, fellow priests and others whose names have been given to him by members of the congregation. Then, he commemorates by name those of the departed he wants and those for whom he has received a request from his parishioners. First, he recites "in memory and forgiveness of sins of the blessed founders of the Church" in which the Liturgy takes place. Then he asks the philanthropic God to remember all Orthodox fathers and brethren who have fallen asleep "in the hope of resurrection to eternal life." Lastly, he removes a particle praying for himself "remember Ο Lord and my unworthiness and forgive me for every transgression, voluntary and involuntary."
Throughout the service of the Prothesis and Orthros as a whole, there is an interplay of continuity between the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Ekklesia (community of believers) in history.
Fidelity is affirmed with the Old Covenant, between God and old Israel, and continuity and change between the Old and the New Covenant, the Christian people -the New Israel. The doxology to God "the giver of Light" completes the Orthros service.
As already indicated, the purpose of the Liturgy was to uplift the faithful from a material to a spiritual world. Pedagogically speaking, the whole ritual, from the beginning of the Prothesis to the dismissal of the Eucharist, was meant to be a step-by-step ascending from the earthly to the heavenly, from the visible and created to the invisible and uncreated. Thus, the following five steps schematically illustrate the parts of the liturgical service:
The Prothesis -preparation of the Gifts for the Eucharist.
Enarxis -beginning of the Liturgy proper, which includes petitions, antiphons and preparatory prayers.
Liturgy of the Word -The reading of New Testament excerpts. Instructive prayers for the catechumens. Sermon.
Liturgy of the Eucharist -invocation, Communion, thanksgiving.
What follows is a brief analysis of the two central sections of John Chrysostom's liturgy.
The first part serves as instruction and is known as the Liturgy of the Word, and also as the Synaxis (gathering of the people) and as the Liturgy of the Catechumens. It was open to all-the faithful and those receiving instructions to join the Church. Litanies, psalmody, Scriptural readings from one of the Gospels and one from another book of the New Testament and the sermon constitute the high points of the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Following a series of prayers for the catechumens, and then the faithful, the Gospel that has occupied the central place on the altar yields its place to the chalice. Bible and chalice, the Word of God and the Mystery of God's presence in the Eucharist, are the two poles of the Liturgy.
While the Orthros service opens with an assertion of an undefined God, proclaiming "Blessed is our God at all times, now and always for ever and ever," the Divine Liturgy starts with a confirmation of the Triune God, God one in essence but in three persons. Thus, "Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and always and for ever and ever."
The Old Testament progressively reveals that God is, but God is still the unknown God, the obscure, present in word but absent from the humanity's complete religious knowledge and experience. It was the incarnation of the Logos and the descent of the Spirit that confirmed the Triune nature of God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. The Orthros is preparatory, anticipatory and includes more readings from the Old Testament imagery and prophetic sayings, but also the prophetic magnificat. Allusions to the Old Testament are not absent from the Eucharist proper, especially in the first part which includes passages from psalms and prophetic utterances, but the biblical structure of the Liturgy and the Bible readings depend much more on the New Testament, the fulfilment of prophecy and expectation. Nevertheless, there is a persistent antithesis between the judgment and greatness of the Old Testament God, and the "unfathomable philanthropia" of the New Testament God, between the Pantokrator Theos (Almighty God) and the Philanthropos Theos (Lover of Humankind).
The Mystery (or sacrament) of the Eucharist became known as the "anaimaktos thysia" (bloodless sacrifice). It replaced the sacrificial blood ritual ceremonies of Old Testament practice and bloody sacrifice of other religions. The Mosaic cultic rite, described in Exodus 24:3-8, was a blood covenant. Moses built an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai and used the blood of animal sacrifice for sealing the covenant between Jehovah and Moses' tribe. He sprinkled half of the blood on the altar and the other half over his people, affirming, "This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you..." (Εx. 24:8); thus dramatizing the special relationship, indeed the union, between Jehovah God and the Israelite people.
But if the blood of goats and bulls sanctifies those who have benefited so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ purify our conscience to worship the living God! For this reason, He is the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 9:Ι3-15).
The Eucharist is the seal of the New Covenant and proclaims the special relationship, indeed the union of Christ with the New Israel, the Christian people. It is well known that the sacrificial and blood ritual ceremonies have been in religious practice throughout history down to the present.
The Christian Eucharist, however, transformed the Jewish blood sacrifice into a bloodless thanksgiving offering, confirming that Christ continues His association and ever-presence among His people.
During his last supper with His disciples "Jesus took a loaf of bread and, after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to the disciples and said, «Take, eat, this is my body.» Then He took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, «Drink from it all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant' which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.» (1 Cor 11:23-25). On the other hand, the concept of the "reasonable or spiritual sacrifice" was an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which had rejected the bloody sacrifice of ancient religious practices.
Soon after the pronouncement of Christ's words and the consecration of the bread and the wine, the faithful are invited, not to be "sprinkled," but to partake of the bread and the wine, mixed, the body and the blood of a bloodless sacrificed Christ. But before the faithful are called to come forward and receive, they have been admonished to pray for the unity of faith and the communion of the Holy Spirit, and command one another in love, as one harmonious body in a life dedicated to God in Christ. Thus, from the beginning of the second part of the Liturgy, which opens with the cherubic hymn, to the very end the faithful expect to be nourished with "the bread of life" and the wine, "the blood of the new covenant.
The Word of God instructs and illuminates the faithful mind, but the mystery of the Eucharist achieves the koinonia, the communion between Christ, the Lamb of God, "who shed His blood for the salvation of all" and the believers, as well as the union of the believers among themselves as members of one organism.
The litanies and petitions, the prayers, the recitation of the creed of faith and the Lord's prayer are intended to create a clear and logical uplifting, a magnificent process-parade in which all are participants, kings and peasants, generals and soldiers, patriarchs and hermits, virtuous and sinful people, infants and adolescents, middle-aged and elderly, the fainthearted and the courageous, those present and those scattered, those in error and the orthodox in faith, the hopeful and the hopeless, the healthy and the sick -all are gathered together expecting the manifestation of God's philanthropia. It is for this reason that the Liturgy is considered the centrality of the Church's life and the very best manifestation of its ecclesiology, its doctrine, its major ethical teachings, and its eschatology.
For some Greek Church Fathers and theologians with a more mystical bend, such as Dionysios the Areopagite, Maximos the Confessor, Nicholas Kabasilas, Symeon of Thessalonike, and Gregory Palamas, the Liturgy provided the opportunity for a personal, mystical and total consummation in divinisation (theosis) of the individual believer here on earth. Both symbol and reality, the Divine Lίturgy through Scripture and Eucharist, the word and mystery and especially communion, elevate the believer to a higher state of existence where one gains a more intimate and profound communion with God, who provides the gifts, leads to the variety of services and activates all to the common good.
The concluding prayer of the Liturgy, before the dismissal, summarizes that God's mystery has been completed and perfected to the extent that it is humanly possible to describe and understand.
Ιn brief, the Liturgy is a journey whose purpose, beginning and end, is the meeting of the human person with God, the invisible, incomprehensible, indescribable but ever existing and always present everywhere and filling all things. Tο paraphrase from the Liturgy itself Christ is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, fulfilling the whole providential plan of God the Father, who fills the hearts of people with happiness and gladness in the present kairos (time) in anticipation of the joy of eternity.
Ιn addition to Sunday and daily liturgies, from as early as the fifth century, the Church of Constantinople had adopted a system called "stational services" -liturgies conducted in designated stations of the city. Those liturgies were preceded by a lite, a procession of up to 10 kilometres of clergy and laity. Ιn the early centuries, especially between the fifth and the early eighth centuries, stational services were frequent but later were limited to major feast days, including the Annunciation, Palm Sunday, and the Εlevation of the Holy Cross, a practice that survives to the present in the Eastern Orthodox world. Liturgies and processions conducted in the open made the entire city or town a "liturgical space."
There are more than 100 other liturgical services, rites or sacraments included in the
Great Prayerbook (Mega Euchologion) of the Byzantine Greek Church. Most were composed between the 14th and 15th centuries. Some were written by distinguished theologians and hymnographers, while others were the work of unknown monks. But all are marked by theological orthodoxy. The Mega Euchologion includes services for betrothals and marriage, repentance and confession, holy unction for the healing of body and soul, the consecration of the waters on Epiphany day commemorating the baptism of Christ, the blessing of the waters for home and business usage, brief litanies against pestilence and drought, for safe travel and shipbuilding, for founding of schools and public institutions, for consecrating of churches, prayers for personal community and state needs.
All these liturgies confirm that the private life of the Byzantine church was never static and that it had encompassed in its concerns the totality of human life and humanity's visible and invisible, physical and metaphysical needs.
Whether because of its agricultural nature or its perception of the relationship between the Creator and the creation, the liturgical cycle was designed so as to consecrate the Church year and the whole cosmos. This becomes clear when we study certain services, such as those of Theophany (Epiphany).
Make ready, ο river Jordan, for behold, Christ our God draws near to be baptized by John, that He may crush with Ηis divinity the invisible heads of the dragons in Your waters (Ps. 73:13). Rejoice Ο wilderness of Jordan; dance with grandness, Ο you mountains. For the eternal has come to recall Adam. Ο you voice that cries in the wilderness, John the Forerunner, cry out: Prepare you all the ways of the Lord and make His path straight (Mark 1:13). And the hymn that follows bursts our in joy; Ο earth and all things upon the earth, dance you and rejoice exceedingly. The river of Joy (Ps. 35:9) is baptized in the stream; He dries up the fountain of evil and pours forth-divine forgiveness.
The prayers recited in the service of Epiphany reveal the understanding of the Greek
Church's interrelationship between the Creator, the creation and the human being.
The following, the third prayer read by the celebrant is more indicative of this:
Great are Υou, Ο Lord, and marvellous are Your works: no words suffice to sing the praise of Your wonders. For Υou by Υour own will have brought all things out of nothingness into being; by Your power Υou do hold together the creation, and by Your providence Υou do govern the world. Of four elements have Υou compounded the creation; with four seasons have Υou crowned the circuit of the year. All the spiritual powers tremble before Υou. The sun sings Your praises; the moon glorifies Υou; the stars supplicate before Υou, the light obeys Υou; the depths are afraid of Υour presence; the fountains are Your servants. Υou have stretched out the heavens like a curtain; Υou have established the earth upon the waters; Υou have walled about the sea with sand. Υou have poured forth the air that living things may breathe. The angelic powers minister to Υou; the choirs of archangels worship Υou; the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim, standing before Υou and flying about Υou, hide their faces in fear of Your unapproachable glory. Υou, the uncircumscribed God without beginning and beyond speech, have come upon the earth, taking the form of a servant and being made in the likeness of man ... At Your epiphany the whole creation sang Your praises...
The above is only a part of the prayer, which continues to speak of the benefits of the God-man event for humanity: the Incarnation of the Logos-Christ. Creator, creation, spiritual and physical worlds, fall and redemption, evil and its defeat, are described in a language that people could understand and appreciate. As already indicated, the Byzantine Greek church offered a great cycle of liturgical services embracing the whole of life, from birth to death, from cradle to coffin, from agriculture to commerce and trade, from grade one to opening of the office for the practice of one's profession. Frequently conducted services included vespers (esperinos), Compline (apodeipnon-following supper), Nocturns (mesonyktikon), matins (orthros) and, of course, the Liturgy or Eucharist proper. There were morning and evening prayers and the so-called "inter-hours" (horai) observed more by the monastic communities than the ordinary parish. All these services constitute a 24-hour service of liturgical life, to be sure a monastic practice affecting the Church in the world.
Ιn addition to Sunday Liturgies, the liturgical calendar included special feast days commemorating major events of the life of Christ. His Mother, the Apostles, Church Fathers, martyrs and other saints. The Feasts of Christ were known as Despotikai eortai (Feasts of the Master). Easter Day was the eorti eorton (Feast of Feasts) but there were several more, including the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Nativity of Christ, Theophany or Epiphany, Palm Sunday, the Ascension,
Pentecost and the Transfiguration.
The feasts in honour of the Theotokos (literally the Birth-giver or the Bearer of God) were the birth, her entry and dedication into the Temple, the Annunciation, and the Dormition of the Theotokos. The feasts of John the Baptist, Peter and Paul and the other Apostles, and of several major Church Fathers, such as the three hierarchs (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom) received pre-eminence over lesser saints.
Several other occasions provided opportunities for the faithful to participate in liturgical life. For example, the very poetic and theologically profound service of the Akathistos Hymnos, a series of hymns, was celebrated during the Easter or Great Lent. It has been described as "one of the masterpieces of mediaeval Greek poetry and the nightmare of any translator." It includes a theology which starts with praises addressed to Christ's Mother, the Theotokos, the instrument of God's appearance among men.
Great Lent is rich in liturgical services because, in addition to regular Sunday liturgies and Sunday katanyktikos (penitential) vespers, it includes the Great Compline (mega apodeipnon), the celebration of the Liturgy of the
Presanctified Gifts usually held on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the Great Canon of St. Andreas of Crete.
Notwithstanding the difference in length of time and poetic quality of hymns and prayers written in the course of more than ten centuries, liturgical services provided opportunities for the hearers to learn their faith, grow spiritually, and have moral truths indelibly impressed upon their mind. They served educational, social, emotional, poetic, and spiritual needs. In times of crisis, as in the last two centuries or so, when the state was in decline and the Church remained the most stable institution, liturgical life became more intensive. Liturgical theology became more popular and new liturgical services, such as the Paraklesis to the Theotokos (Intercessor Service addressed to the Bearer of God-Christ) were added to the cycle.
The nature of liturgical texts in the daily life of the Byzantine Empire was didactic and their application mystically experiential; some liturgies were major events for royalties and dignitaries but most addressed the religious needs of all. Liturgical services however in honour of certain saints were of social and economic significance as well.
Religious festivities were accompanied by a panegyris-celebration, which helped to integrate society and promote a holistic understanding of life. Α panegyris has been described as a religio-economic institution and it appeared in Christian Byzantium as early as the fifth century. The interrelationship between religious, social, and economic needs is clearly revealed in the following account by a mid-fifth-century orator who wrote of the panegyris, a public assembly in honour of St. Thekla, traditionally one of St. Paul's disciples and the first woman martyr. The panegyris began and ended with a liturgy. Ιn the final liturgy:
all rushed, citizen and foreigner, man, woman, and child, governor and governed, general and soldier, leader of the mob and individual, both young and old, sailor and farmer and everyone simply who was anxious, all rushed to come together, to pray to God, to beseech the Virgin, and having partaken of the holy mysteries [i.e., the Eucharist] thus to go away blessed and as someone renewed in body and soul. Then they banqueted and set to discussing the wonders of the panegyris. One participant praised its brilliance, another the size of the crowd, yet another the harmony of the psalmody, another the duration of the vigil, and so they continued commenting on the liturgy and prayer, the shoving of the crowd, the shouting, and the quarrelling. One man commented on the fact that he was inspired by a beautiful young woman that he saw during the celebration and was consumed by the thought of having his pleasure with her so that he could only offer prayers to this end. It seems also that at the dismissal of the service gifts were given by the attendants of the sanctuary to the pious [needy].
Thus a liturgy was celebrated for the renewal of body and soul; it attracted crowds, dignitaries and ordinary people; it included prayers and gossip, praises for the brilliance of the service and the knowledge of the teachers, praise for the harmony of the psalmody but also complaints about the duration of the rite; prayers for the attraction of a bride and distribution of charities to needy pious.
Α liturgy-panegyris involved the total human being with all his strengths and all his weaknesses. Prayer life, satisfaction of spiritual and social needs merged at the panygeris. The liturgy represented the "holy" through visible means and it filled up the vacuum between the abstract spiritual and the concrete material. Similar descriptions of the panegyris as a religious-social-economic phenomenon are provided by authors of the 9th, 11th, 12th and later centuries. But it is to be noted that these unique celebrations were observed during the annual memories of local saints such as St. John the Theologian, St. Thekla, St. Demetrios -not on a regular Sunday, the Lord's Day. These liturgical-social-commercial celebrations had their parallel in the ancient Greek world and indicate cultural continuity between Christian and non-Christian Hellenism. This relationship between the religious and so-called secular concerns is understood when we bear in mind that the Byzantine Church did not seek to destroy but to transform and consecrate culture.
To repeat, Liturgy and liturgical life has no other purpose except to sanctify the totality of the human person and his environment. Whether in private, family type, or public liturgies, lay participation is a necessary presupposition and it is conducted in an atmosphere of music, iconography and symbolic representations. Furthermore, for the less well-educated people, the liturgies provide a forum for learning of the Church's dogmas, and for all as a place for social cohesion and philanthropic activity.
The rich symbolism in an Orthodox house of worship, icons, candles, banners, crosses reveal the widespread nature of the religious experience of the Orthodox throughout the centuries. The "sacred" is so close to the daily life of the faith. The corner in the house where the Orthodox keep their icons and a lighted lectern day in and day out is a "temple of worship" in the house. This diffusion and extension of the sacred from the house to the Church is augmented with the presence of small proskynetaria, small icon stands along the highways and roads. For the Orthodox, God is not distant and inaccessible. God's saints, God's teachings in icons and symbols mark every significant aspect of private and public life.
The variety of liturgical services, the religions practices and festivities (panegyreis), public school instruction and private storytelling about saints and biblical personalities and interwoven and proclaim the meaning of life. They all intend to make the nature of the sacred present and widespread. What Homer said about the ancient Greeks that all are "filled with gods-the divinity" has been a reality throughout the centuries. Divinity has been an all-pervasive and ever-present experience. God is invisible, incomprehensible, unknown, and, yet, so near and so experiential. The whole cosmos is a manifestation of God's glory and presence. Ιn the last analysis icons and religious symbolism proclaim what a leading art historian has called "perennial Hellenism." They express the fundamental longing of the Greek mind throughout history to bridge the gulf between humanity and Divinity.