The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is a chance to experience heaven on earth
A little-appreciated facet of the Catholic Church is the true diversity of Eucharistic liturgies available to Catholics, who are offered many forms and rites to meet their spiritual needs. In the coming weeks, Aleteia will feature pieces by Catholics writing on how and why a particular liturgy speaks most deeply to their spirit, and their worship. Here, Aleteia news editor John Burger shares what he loves about the Byzantine Divine Liturgy.
As we await the beginning of the service, we are deep in conversation—not with other people in church, but with those represented in the images before us.
There is Christ, for example, who said once, “My sheep hear my voice.” There is his Mother, pointing to her Son. She once said, “Do whatever he tells you.” There are icons of the Apostles, gathered around Christ at the Last Supper. Images of persons who trod the earth with Jesus, and members of the Communion of Saints who have a special place in our heart.
They all have something to tell us, and as we come to church this morning, carrying the cares of life, they speak to us anew, leading us to a deeper understanding of what role those burdens play in the plan God has for us.
Father ______, who has been prayerfully preparing to once again take us to that Mystical Supper that is depicted in the icon high above us, opens the central doors from inside the sanctuary and bows to Christ’s faithful. We stand and bow in return. Those doors, called the Royal Doors, have something to say as well: they are illustrated with icons of the Four Evangelists and one of Mary being greeted by the Angel Gabriel. As the Virgin opened herself to the Mystery of the Incarnation, paving the Way for our salvation, these doors allow us to enter the Kingdom, at least for the time of this service.
“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever,” Father intones, making the sign of the cross with the book of the Gospels, facing the altar. We sign ourselves and sing in response, “Amen.”
We will spend this time with the Master, listening to His voice, becoming closer disciples, obeying His command to “take and eat.”
We could be in any Orthodox church in Greece or Russia or Bulgaria—or, as in my case, a Byzantine Catholic church in North America. This service—the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom—has spiritually sustained Christians since at least the 4th century. Orthodox and Eastern Catholic immigrants from Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, as well as Melkites from the Near East brought this liturgy to our shores. In time, Catholics who had grown up in the traditions of the West—Roman Catholics—learned about these strange rituals, and some were drawn in. Church leaders such as Pope St. John Paul II, who sang of the beauty of Eastern Christianity in his 1995 encyclical Orientale Lumen, encouraged Catholics to familiarize themselves with the liturgy and spirituality of the Byzantines.
The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has undergone little change since the time of that great Church Doctor for whom it is named. Greek in origin, it is filled with supplications to a merciful God: so much so that a first-time visitor can be forgiven for feeling that the repetition of Kyrie eleison seems endless. After the 10th century Prince Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity for his nation, having been duly impressed by the report of his envoys to the Church of Constantinople (the former Byzantium, hence the term Byzantine), the Greek phrase was rendered as Gospodi pomiluj.
There is everything here that is essential for the valid celebration of Mass—the Scripture readings, the profession of faith, the consecration and consumption of the Eucharist. Some would say there is more than enough, what with the constant repetition, the endless crossing of oneself (going from right shoulder to left), the insistence on doing things in threes, such as the prayer called the Trisagion: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!”
Practically everything about this liturgy gives honor to the Holy Trinity.
In a time when Roman Catholics have become accustomed to having so much more Scripture at Mass than we did before Vatican II (an Old Testament reading, an except from one of the Letters of the New Testament, a responsorial Psalm and the Gospel reading, and a three-year course of different readings to boot), some may find the Byzantine practice of only one New Testament reading and one Gospel, with the same ones repeated year after year, a bit sparse.
But take a closer look and you will find so much Scripture integrated into the prayers of the liturgy itself. Most obvious is the recitation, in the early part of the liturgy, of the Beatitudes.
And the reverence for the Word of God is impressive. I once attended a Divine Liturgy in New York City that was at once a valid Mass and a premiere of a new setting of the liturgy by the Ukrainian-Canadian composer Roman Hurko. It was beautiful and moving, and while I listened, it struck me just how much the liturgy prepares the worshiper before the chanting of the scripture readings. It is far more involved than a simple introduction, expressing sorrow for sins, singing the Gloria and listening to a quick prayer. The Litany of Peace, the Divine Liturgy’s first set of prayers, beseeches God for all manner of intentions: for peace and salvation, primarily, but also for the unity of Churches, the leaders of the Church, our nation, good weather, good harvest, etc. And then there are several prayers of praise, settings of psalms (“Shout for joy to the Lord all the earth…”) and, as I said, the Beatitudes. By the time one is done, one feels that one’s heart is like a garden in spring: the soil is well worked and ready to receive the seed which is the Word of God.
The word “liturgy,” after all, derives from the Greek leitourgia, meaning “work of the people.” The congregation does indeed have a lot of work to do, singing the responses and making prostrations in accordance with the prayers. And there are no musical instruments to support them—Byzantine liturgies are strictly a capella. So it is very much upon the individual to put his heart and soul into the praying of the liturgy.
So when the deacon or priest finally chants before the first reading or the Gospel “Wisdom, be attentive,” the worshiper is, or should be, fully awake.
Similarly, there is spiritual preparation for the people to receive the Word-Made-Flesh in Holy Communion, particularly with a prayer that is prayed as part of the Offertory—
Let us who mystically represent the cherubim
And who sing the thrice holy hymn
To the life-creating Trinity
Now lay aside all cares of life
So that we may receive the King of all.
—a beautiful reminder that we are, for a moment at least, away from the world, with all its burdens. We are within the precincts of the Kingdom of God.
This is what the envoys of Prince Vladimir knew when they told him about their experience during the liturgy, “We knew not whether we stood in Heaven or on Earth.”
Later, just before we are summoned to partake in the Mystical Supper, we pray together, in all humility:
I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. I also believe that this is truly Your pure Body and life-giving Blood, which I pray make me worthy to receive unto the remission of sins and life everlasting.
Placing ourselves on the cross next to Christ, we continue:
Remember me Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Remember me Master, when you come into your kingdom.
Remember me, O Holy One, when you come into your kingdom.
Granted, there are many factors that influence one’s personal preferences when it comes to liturgical worship. In my case, I had some significant exposure to the Christian East as I was growing up, and my journey in musical tastes has dovetailed with my turning East liturgically (check out Rachmaninoff’s Russian Vespers).
Plus, God speaks to one in one’s own language. By that I don’t mean, necessarily, Latin vs. one’s mother tongue, English or Spanish, Slavonic or modern Ukrainian. But the language of prayer, it seems to me, is some mysterious unspoken way the chords of the heart resonate in response to a Voice heard in the silence. There is something about the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, with its almost hypnotic repetitiveness and flowing quality, that fosters an interior silence, in spite of the constant vocalization of priest, deacon, choir and faithful.
It has the potential to slow down your interior sense to the pace of calm breathing.
If you have read thus far, perhaps you are curious. Stop in any Sunday morning. You might not encounter ministers of hospitality falling all over you, and you might very well get some surprised looks from older parishioners who seem to retain some suspicions of outsiders, perhaps from growing up in communist societies or the kind of nationalism/parochialism that seems to have attached itself to the Orthodox world.
Don’t let it deter you. You are not an outsider. You are a member of the Communion of Saints, and the icons will welcome you. That should be your focus.
And don’t get flustered trying to follow the liturgy in the pew book, which in many cases will have Cyrillic or Greek writing on one side and English on the other. Just let yourself experience the liturgy. God will touch your heart as He sees fit. Realize that we are approaching Mystery here, and we cannot comprehend it now. Simply be in Mystery’s presence.