Things I Like About Eastern Christianity (Part 3)

I have never experienced Eastern liturgy as an arena for different theological tendencies. Western liturgy offers lots of creative options. Just one example: In a Roman Mass you can (and have to) select one of several Eucharistic Prayers, a lot of hymns (if any – you can even omit them), write the Prayer of the Faithful completely by yourself, chose from different options for the Opening Rite etc. All these options make it possible to adopt the liturgy to different communities and situations, but: They can also turn into an instrument of power. Those who arrange the liturgy exercise power over those who join the service without knowing what is going to happen. Western liturgical ministers are permanent decision-makers. There is no way to avoid this role, and it needs much theological knowledge and sense of responsibility to fulfill this role in a good manner.

Eastern liturgical offices are much more regarded as roles in a sacred play. At first sight bishops, priests, deacons, and cantors are very dominant compared to the people. This gives Eastern liturgies a very hierarchical (and male dominated) touch. But all these ministers make almost no decisions at all on single liturgical elements. Even when the cantors chose the melodies for several chants, the texts themselves remain undiscussed. They are given, not chosen.

Of course, this makes Eastern liturgies somehow inflexible (I learned that in English the word “Byzantine” can mean “inflexible”, and it is obvious where this comes from). It takes decades of discussions among theologians and bishops before any minor changes can be adopted. But on the other hand, this inflexibility can be a spiritual value: Liturgy is a treasure that is traded to us by our predecessors and it is meant to be passed to our successors. It is like a flowing river that we get into and out of every now and then, but the river always stays the same.

Do not misunderstand this as an objection to the liturgical reform by the Second Vatican Council. What I am talking about has to do with the general Western idea of permanent progress and improvement. We can see this much earlier than in the Second Vatican Council: at least since the beginning of the Middle Ages. The impact of this idea of permanent progress on how the Western world dealt and still deals with liturgy is obvious.

Being an Eastern liturgical minister means nothing else than playing a role in a sacred play. While Western ministers so often exercise power over me as a simple churchgoer, Eastern ministers have never done.

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9 comments

  1. Having a sense that the liturgy is “given” is something that is important to me. I feel it places the priest and other ministers on an even playing field in regards to liturgy – he can’t make the liturgy an expression of himself that I have to conform to.

  2. Perhaps my biggest critique of the Ordinary Roman Liturgy (which I favor over the Extraordinary Form) is the plethora of options. I have no issues with using multiple Eucharistic Prayers but their use should be prescribed. One could come up with several workable schemes. One could also cycle through the prefaces in Ordinary Time as this would ensure periodic exposure and deeper internalization of a wider variety of prayers. And perhaps in the Easter Season, when there are so few Sundays compared to the availability of Prefaces, a few of the Prefaces could be pruned away.

    Bishops Conferences could compose prayers of the faithful for Sundays of the Privileged Seasons at least (or throughout the year) based on the full breath of Catholic Social Teaching which would help overcome ideological polarization. And this would probably raise the quality of the prayers which are often as understandable as some of the more confusing collects from the current translation.

    If a national or diocesan hymnal is not possible for all parts of the liturgy, perhaps such a hymnal could be used for the Preparation of the Gifts/Offertory and the Communion Rite and then allow the individual parishes wider freedom in the selection of the opening and closing music. This would go along with way to build unity in a diocese or territory. I know that unity should not be confused with uniformity but uniformity is a tool that can be prudentially used to build greater unity.

  3. Treating the liturgy as an ontologically untouchable thing, handed down by God, and before which all must render obeisance, flies in the face of liturgical history which demonstrates very clearly that liturgy is actually the work of human hands and has evolved and developed over many centuries in many different ways and in many different places. There is no reason on earth why it should not continue to evolve and develop, except that many want it frozen in a kind of stasis at whatever point in history they particularly favour.

    The answer to Devin’s comment about prescribing the use of particular options lies in GIRM para 20, which in its current translation reads:

    Since the celebration of the Eucharist, like the entire Liturgy, is carried out by means of perceptible signs by which the faith is nourished, strengthened, and expressed, the greatest care is to be taken that those forms and elements proposed by the Church are chosen and arranged, which, given the circumstances of persons and places, more effectively foster active and full participation and more aptly respond to the spiritual needs of the faithful.

    [My emphases]

    In other words, options cannot be prescribed: they need to be selected and arranged. How to do this? By looking at the Lectionary for the day in question. It is entirely possible to select Penitential Act, Eucharistic Prayer, and so on, with regard to the readings of the day, in the same way as hymns and songs are similarly selected, bearing in mind also the capabilities and ethos of the community. Similarly, intercessions can take the readings as their source of inspiration, while not forgetting issues of current concern (and I note in this connection that USCCB and others have provided intercession resources for the current immigrant crisis).

    It would, of course, be far easier to follow laid-down instructions and prescriptions, and of course large-scale selecting and arranging for each individual celebration is hard work. But we need to do it!

    1. “There is no reason on earth why it should not continue to evolve and develop, except that many want it frozen in a kind of stasis at whatever point in history they particularly favour.”

      And yet oddly, some today in the west want to keep the liturgy frozen forever and always circa 1978 or 1982!

      1. Lee, I don’t think your assessment is historically or factually accurate. My memory of 1978 is spoken responsorial psalms in most parishes in my area, spoken Lamb of God, sung congregational communion antiphons did not exist, presidential chanting of preface or orations was much less common than now, people did not bow reverently before receiving Communion, it was rare (if not unheard of) for a congregation to chant a Sanctus or Agnus Dei in Latin chant, the Book of the Gospels did not exist, females were not allowed to be altar servers, readings were often enough read from the missalette by lectors, Communion under both forms was less common than now, and so forth. This is just off the top of my head. I honestly don’t know of anyone who wants to go back to the previous state of affairs in all the items on my list.
        I would re-word your statement something like this to express my own understanding: The Order of Mass in the missal of Paul VI is a good, responsible revision which gives us a liturgy as act of the congregation under the priest, in accord with the Second Vatican Council. Its structure and basic format is good. And now… the task of receiving this liturgy, of inculturating it, of promoting a liturgical piety around it, of building of practices and attitudes and aesthetic artifacts in accord with its foundational principles – all this is the work of not just decades, but probably centuries. So the work is ongoing, we don’t stay frozen in time, we keep moving forward, but it all starts from the solid foundational principles of Vatican II and structures of the reformed liturgy. Our main challenges are spiritual, cultural, and artistic. They are not structural.
        awr

  4. I think liturgy can be ‘given’ and also include options, as the Roman Rite provides. Presidential improvisation is quite another matter.

  5. “Byzantine” does not mean inflexible – it means overly complicated with connotations of Machiavellian deviousness. I believe the origin is from the politics of the Byzantine Empire, not from anything liturgical.

  6. I recently read that the Traditionalists claimed that the Russian patriarch praised the revival of the Trent Rite as a return to tradition. I wonder what he would think of the historical reference below.

    Years ago I had read an interesting tidbit about an Earl of Oxford whom many scholars consider as the real author of The Shakespearean canon. A tidbit indeed but of thought-provoking interest!

    “Moreover, Dr. Magri points out that while Oxford was in Venice, he attended Mass at the Greek Orthodox Church because the Greek Orthodox liturgy more closely resembled the Protestant service than the Catholic.”

    1. Many Orthodox parishes got their start in and with the help of Episcopal parishes, especially at the dawn of the 20th century. The (Orthodox) bishops often encouraged them to go to the Episcopalians rather than the RCs. There is even a famous picture of Patriarch Tikhon of Russia at the ordination of the (Episcopal) bishop of Fond du Lac. There was much dialogue between the Orthodox and Episcopalians.
      My own parish has a large family of former Armenian Orthodox who were told to come to us by their priest back in the 1920s since their nearest parish was over 50 miles away. The funny thing is, back then you couldn’t tell the difference between our celebration of solemn high Mass and the (rare) celebration of a RC solemn high Mass. Possibly that ours would have been a bit “higher up the candle.” Eventually they all converted and we often have wonderful baklava and bishi at parish dinners!

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