Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Word from the East (continued)

When you come to worship the Lord in the Byzantine liturgical tradition, you come to meet the Lord of Glory. The worship in the early Church had a strong eschatological dimension, for many expected the imminent return of Christ. Churches faced east (ours still do), the place of the rising sun and hence of the return of the Light of the World. “As lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt. 24:27). We face east because it belongs to Christian worship to expect the return of the Lord. (When you die, you’re supposed to be buried facing east, too, though that’s not always possible.) Many of our liturgical texts have to do with preparing, in one way or another, for Judgment Day.

Worship in the Byzantine tradition helps to ease our sense of exile from Paradise—by taking us there! It is understood that what we do in our churches here on earth is not merely a humble imitation of the heavenly worship, but an actual participation in it. As we read in the Book of Revelation, the angels and saints worship the Lord unceasingly. For the time we are church praising God, we “plug in” to that heavenly choir, for the Church is one both in heaven and on earth, and the Lamb of God is one, in the glory of heaven and upon the altars on earth.

In the same way, the icons that adorn Byzantine churches are not mere reminders of the presence of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints—they are spiritual portals through which they are actually present. The angels and saints unceasingly worship the Lord, and you are there! A Byzantine church is never without a “congregation,” for every Liturgy is crowded with heavenly worshippers.

On this topic of participating in the heavenly liturgy, the late Fr Alexander Schmemann makes an interesting point. He says that we shouldn’t think primarily of Christ descending from heaven to our altars during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Rather, the Divine Liturgy is a movement of ascension: rather than coming to where we are, Christ takes us up to where He is! He promised his disciples that they would eat and drink at his table in his kingdom (Lk. 22:30), and that is what we do in a mystical way during the Divine Liturgy.

The presence of God is always a transcendent mystery in Byzantine worship, and hence must be approached with reverence. The design of the churches (e.g. the sanctuary separated from the nave and inaccessible to all but clergy and acolytes) and the structure of the Liturgy itself (e.g. in its hieratic language and solemn ritual) foster that sense of mystery and reverence. But there is also an invitation to intimacy, lest one’s holy fear and trembling would prevent his approach to the Holy Mysteries. We kiss the sacred images and the holy cross, and we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the Son of God, at once the most reverent and intimate of liturgical acts.

Another way of expressing the mystery of God is by covering the holy things. To hide or cover something is meant to communicate, in a non-verbal way, that this is holy, a divine mystery. The sanctuary is set off from the rest of the church by a screen of icons, and usually by a curtain as well. This is the Holy of Holies. It is to be veiled: the eyes of even the seraphim cannot look upon the blinding glory of God. When the deacon carries the Gospel book in procession, he covers it with his orarion (stole), for the word of the Lord is holy. Likewise the gifts prepared for the Eucharistic Sacrifice are veiled: they are elements of a divine mystery. This is the main reason why Eastern Churches do not have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. According to Eastern religious sensibilities, that which is most holy is not to be exposed to view, but remains under the veil of mystery. As it is said, nothing is revealed by gazing on the consecrated Host, because the senses only perceive bread. What is revealed to the senses can be seen in the icons of the mysteries of the life of Christ, which occupy one tier of the iconostas. There is depicted visually the mystery that can only be interiorly known by actual communion in the Holy Eucharist.

(Another reason there is no exposition, benediction (outside of the Liturgy, anyway), or similar Eucharistic devotions is a historical one. The Byzantine Churches did not suffer from the medieval Eucharistic heresy begun by Berengarius, so no special practices were needed to emphasize the Real Presence, the faith in which was never so threatened in the East. In a similar situation, the West was relatively unscathed by the iconoclastic heresy that ravaged the East. Therefore the East developed a detailed theology of sacred images to counteract the heresy, while such a theology remained undeveloped in the West.)

Finally, before I go back to monastic silence, I’ll say something about silence. I’m not sure how things are in the Byzantine churches on the parish level, but here in our monastery we permit zero small talk in the church. I have no qualms about walking up to people who would chat in the house of God, reminding them where they are, and asking them to step outside if they wish to continue their conversation. If it is a liturgical principle that there is to be unceasing praise during the times of services, it is also a principle that there is to be unceasing reverence through silence when a service is not in progress. Singing and silence belong inside the church; conversations belong outside. Divine intimacy is not expressed through cheap human familiarity, but through the rituals prescribed by the Church for the sake of bringing man to God and God to man.

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