The Byzantine Liturgy (Ninth Century) Part I

Themes: Biblical, Denomination, Liturgy, Scholar, Services

The Byzantine Liturgy is the product of a complex evolution that began before the time of Christ. Like its Western counterpart, the eucharistic service of the Eastern Orthodox churches consists of two parts. The first, the Liturgy of the Word, developed from the services of the Jewish synagogue. The second, the Liturgy of the Faithful, evolved from the prayer of blessing or bfrakah of the Passover and other Jewish religious meals.

Originally the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Faithful were two separate services. By the fourth century, the two services had been combined. This is possibly due to the influence of the church in Jerusalem where, according to the pilgrim Egeria, the people gathered at Golgotha for the Liturgy of the Word and processed to the tomb of Christ for the Liturgy of the Faithful. Since other communities had only one church building, they imitated the church of Jerusalem by celebrating both services in the same place.

The Byzantine liturgy belongs to the West Syrian family of liturgies and is related to the third-century Apostolic Tradition, the fourth-century service found in Book VIII of The Apostolic Constitutions, and the Liturgy of St. James in use in Jerusalem by the fifth century. Although its roots are in Antioch, it reached its final form in Constantinople, the capital of the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. The great influence of the imperial city eventually led all churches of the East that adhered to the Council of Chalcedon to conform to its liturgical usage. In 1194 Theodore Balsamon, the Patriarch of Antioch and noted expert on canon law, declared that all Orthodox must follow the liturgical traditions of Constantinople. Today all but a few Western Rite Eastern Orthodox as well as several groups of Eastern Rite Roman Catholics follow the Byzantine liturgy. Since the liturgy of the Eastern church underwent only a few changes following the ninth century, much of the commentary below also applies to the contemporary eucharistic service of the Orthodox church.

By the end of the fourth century, the imperial church used two anaphoras, or prayers of consecration, the central prayer of the liturgy. One bore the name of St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople (398–404), the other that of St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (370–379). Although some scholars have questioned this tradition, contemporary scholarship leans toward the opinion that both played a major role in compiling the texts attributed to them. It is probable that St. Gregory of Nazianzus introduced the liturgy of Cappadocia as revised by St. Basil, his close friend, when he became Bishop of Constantinople in 380. It is also likely that St. John Chrysostom revised the liturgy of Antioch, his home, for use in Constantinople when he became its Bishop in 398. During the ninth century, the church of Constantinople used the Liturgy of St. Basil on most Sundays, reserving the shorter Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for weekday celebrations. Thus our commentary will focus on the Liturgy of St. Basil.

Although it is possible to reconstruct the eucharistic service of Constantinople from the homilies of St. John Chrysostom or the seventh century Mystagogia of St. Maximus the Confessor, the Barberini Codex contains the earliest text of the Byzantine liturgy. Written in southern Italy between 788 and 789, this important document contains the text of the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and several other services. Unfortunately, the Barberini Codex only contains the prayers of the celebrant and omits the rubrics, litanies, antiphons, and other hymns. However, with the help of other sources such as a commentary on the liturgy written by St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople between 715 and 730, it is possible to obtain a fairly close picture of the Divine Liturgy as celebrated in the imperial church during the ninth century.

The major theme of the Byzantine liturgy is the entrance of the faithful into the kingdom of God. The clergy and faithful also considered the liturgy a sacrifice or offering. As the principal act of worship of the church, it was a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It was also the offering of bread and wine as symbols of the offering of creation to God by a grateful people. The believers of ancient Byzantium also considered the Eucharist a remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ. Finally, the faithful offered themselves to God by their participation in the liturgy.

The biblical accounts of the worship of heaven contained in the sixth chapter of Isaiah and the book of Revelation had great influence on the development of Byzantine worship, which conscientiously imitated the worship of heaven. The building itself became an image of heaven. The robes of the clergy became images of the robes worn by the elders or presbyters during heavenly worship as portrayed in Revelation. Since both Isaiah and Revelation mention incense, it played a prominent role in Byzantine worship as a symbol of the sweetness of the kingdom of God and of the prayers of the saints ascending to heaven.

Just as the worship of Judaism and biblical texts describing worship in heaven greatly influenced the worship of the early church, the architecture of the biblical temple and synagogue also played a major role in the development of ecclesiastical architecture in the Eastern church. The earliest church buildings in Syria contain the same arrangement as the temple and synagogue. The area for the reading of the Scriptures became the pulpit or ambon. The seat of Moses evolved into the throne for the bishop. The Holy of Holies that contained the Ark of the Covenant in the temple and the scrolls of the Law in the synagogue became the sanctuary containing the altar or Holy Table. Significantly, Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians refer to the sanctuary as the Heikel, from the Hebrew word for the Holy of Holies. In Constantinople, ecclesiastical architecture reached its highest development in Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. A vast domed structure, the Church of Holy Wisdom set the pattern for all subsequent churches in the Eastern church. There were no pews, only a few seats for the elderly and infirm, as the faithful stood during the service, the men divided from the women. A large platform, the ambon, for the reading of the Scriptures, stood at the center of the nave. At the eastern end of the cathedral, a waist-high barrier with three doors, the ancestor of the modern iconostasis, separated the sanctuary from the nave. A path, the bema, also separated from the nave by waist-high barriers, led between the ambon and the sanctuary. A marble table, the altar or Holy Table, stood at the center of the sanctuary, which ended in an apse containing a series of semicircular steps, the synthronon, which provided seating for the clergy during readings and sermons. A circular building, the skeuophylakion, or sacristy, stood northeast of the main church.

Believers in ancient Byzantium considered the church building an image or icon of the kingdom of God. The dome represented the vault of the heavens. The image of Christ the Almighty, or Pantrocrator, in the dome symbolized Christ ruling over the universe, especially his church, an image of the kingdom of God. The mosaics and paintings portrayed the saints and the entire company of heaven, which mystically joined the faithful for the celebration of the Eucharist, the banquet of the kingdom of God. The barrier between the nave and the sanctuary, symbolized the mystery of the Eucharist and the division between heaven and earth. The Holy Table at the center of the sanctuary, which represented heaven, was an image of the throne of God.

The bishop, or patriarch who presided over the Eucharist, symbolized Christ, the true minister of the sacrament. The priests symbolized the twelve apostles, and the deacons and altar servers, the angels of heaven. Originally the clergy wore formal attire of a gentleman of the fourth century. However, as styles changed, they continued to dress in the traditional manner for services, leading to the development of specialized vestments. By the ninth century, the robes of the clergy had gained symbolic meaning. The bishop and priests wore an inner gown, the sticharion, symbolizing the robe of baptism. Over it they wore a stole, the epitrachelion, with both ends fastened together with a hole for the head, signifying the robe of Aaron and the cloth by which Christ was tied as he was taken to the cross. The large cape-like vestment, the phelonion, symbolized the cross carried by Christ to his Passion. On this, as a symbol of his role as chief shepherd, the bishop wore a large woolen stole, the omophorion, wrapped over his neck as a shepherd would wrap a wounded lamb around his neck as he carried it to safety. Deacons wore the sticharion with a thin stole, the orarion, which symbolized the wings of angels. Thus the celebrant, whether patriarch, bishop, or priest, symbolized Christ standing before the throne of God, while the deacons symbolized the angels who act as messengers between heaven and earth.

By the ninth century, commentators began to interpret the liturgy as an icon in words and action of the mystery of salvation through Christ. St. Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century and St. Germanus built on earlier works by St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315–386) the Pseudo-Dionysius in the fifth or sixth century, and Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–427), to interpret every part of the service as an image of some aspect of the saving activity of Christ. As a result of their veneration of pictorial icons as a manifestation of the presence of Christ or the saint on the icon, the believers saw the liturgy as a means to transcend time and space to enter the kingdom of heaven and the presence of the saving acts of Christ. When they entered the church, they mystically left the sinful world and entered the presence of God in heaven. When they kissed the Gospel Book, it was as if they had kissed Christ himself. When they touched the robes of the clergy during the Great Entrance, it was as if they had touched the seamless robe of the Savior. Thus, although we use the word “symbol” in English, it should be understood that to the clergy and faithful of ancient Constantinople, a symbol was not something unreal, but an image through which ultimate reality could be perceived.

Meanwhile, an emphasis on mystery spread from Syria to Constantinople. Curtains in the ancient Syrian churches hid the high points of the service from the eyes of the people, to show the sacred and mysterious nature of the Eucharist. Although there apparently was no curtain in Constantinople during the ninth century, this stress on mystery led the clergy to say many prayers of the service in a low voice. By the fourteenth century this practice would lead to the expansion of the barrier between the sanctuary and the nave into the modern iconostasis. As a result, the deacon assumed an important role as a bridge between the faithful and the mystery taking place at the altar by standing outside the sanctuary as he called the faithful to pay attention during important parts of the service and led them in a series of hymns and litanies while the celebrant said the prayers inside the sanctuary.

By the ninth century, the Divine Liturgy consisted of several sections. These were
I.     The Rite of Preparation
II.     The Liturgy of the Word or Synaxis
a.     The Antiphons
b.     The Entrance of the clergy
c.     The Readings
d.     The Dismissal of the catechumens
III.     The Liturgy of the Faithful
a.     The Prayers of the faithful
b.     The Great Entrance
c.     The Kiss of Peace and Creed
d.     The Anaphora
e.     The Lord’s Prayer and Communion
f.     The Final Prayers and Dismissal

The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil
The text below is a reconstruction of the Liturgy of St. Basil as celebrated in Constantinople in the ninth century. Since the ancient texts and commentaries are incomplete, some parts of the contemporary Orthodox liturgy are included although they are not found in ninth-century manuscripts. It is highly possible that they were a part of the liturgy by the ninth century, although they may have been added later. The translations used come from texts authorized for use by the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission, with additions from other service books of the Antiochian Archdiocese.

Before the beginning of the Liturgy, the clergy gather in the sacristy to vest and prepare the bread and wine.
After a deacon gives the bread to a priest, he cuts it with the lance and then makes the sign of the cross over it with the lance and says:

He was led as a sheep to the slaughter. And as a spotless lamb is dumb before his shearer …
As he puts the bread on the diskos, the priest says:
… so opened he not his mouth. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away. And for his generation, who shall declare it? For his life is taken away from the earth.
As he pours water and wine in the chalice, the priest says:
One of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side; and immediately there came forth blood and water; and he that saw it bore witness, and his witness is true.
The priest then says: There are three that bear witness, the Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are one. Now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The priest censes the gifts and says: O God our God, who did send forth the heavenly Bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord and God Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us: Bless this Oblation and receive it upon your altar above the heavens. Remember, as you are good and love mankind, those who brought this offering, and those for whom they brought it; and preserve us blameless in the celebration of your holy Mysteries; for sanctified and glorified is your most honorable and majestic name, of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Commentary: Originally a deacon prepared the gifts. However, by the ninth century a priest prepared them. The church considered Isaiah 54:7–8 a prophecy of the crucifixion of Christ. The small lance symbolized the spear that the soldier thrust in the side of Christ. By the ninth century, the water and wine symbolized the water and blood that flowed from the side of Christ as is seen by the quote from St. John 19:34–35. Thus the Rite of Preparation had become a symbol of the sacrificial death of Christ. The Rite of Preparation, or Proskomedia, became more elaborate until it reached its present form by the fourteenth century.

While the faithful wait for the entrance of the celebrant, they sing the antiphons. Before each antiphon one of the priests prays the prayer of the antiphon.
Commentary: At times, the faithful gathered at a church or other suitable site in the city for a short service of prayers and intercession and processed to the church being used for the liturgy. During the procession, chanters sang psalms and the people responded with short, easily remembered refrains. Eventually, they began to chant psalms and refrains, pausing for three prayers as they waited for the arrival of the clergy and the beginning of the liturgy. By the ninth century, the Psalms were considered a commemoration of the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of Christ.

The First Antiphon
Deacon:     Let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Priest:     O Lord our God, Whose power is unimaginable and Whose glory is inconceivable, Whose mercy is immeasurable and Whose love for mankind is beyond all words, in Your compassion, O Lord, look down on us and on this holy house, and grant us and those who are praying with us the riches of Your mercy and compassion. For to You are due all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
People:     Amen.
The people then sing Psalm 91 with the following refrain:
Through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Savior, save us.

The Second Antiphon
Deacon:     Let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Priest:     O Lord our God, save Your people and bless Your inheritance. Guard the fullness of Your Church, sanctify those who love the beauty of Your House, glorify them by Your divine power and do not forsake us who hope in You. For Yours is the dominion and the Kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
People:     Amen.
The People then sing Psalm 92 with the following refrain:
O Son of God, Who rose from the dead, save us who sing to You, Alleluia!

The Third Antiphon
Deacon:     Let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Priest:     O Lord, Who have given us the grace to pray together in peace and harmony, and Who promise to grant the requests of two or three who agree in Your Name, fulfill even now the petitions of Your servants as is best for us, giving us in this age the knowledge of Your truth, and in the age to come, eternal life. For You are good, O our God, and You love mankind, and we send up glory to You, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
The People then sing Psalm 93 with the following refrain: O Only-begotten Son and Word of God, who is immortal, yet did deign for our salvation to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, and without change was made man; and was crucified also, O Christ our God, and by your death did Death subdue; who are one of the Holy Trinity, glorified together with the Father and the Holy Spirit: save us.
Commentary: Although usually attributed to the Emperor Justinian, (483–565) some consider Severus (c. 465–538) the Monophysite Patriarch of Antioch, the author of the hymn “Only-begotten Son of God.” In any case, it entered the service around 536 and is a summary of the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ as perfect God and perfect man.
Originally, the faithful waited outside the church or in the narthex for the arrival of the clergy. When the clergy entered the nave, the faithful followed, symbolizing the entrance into the kingdom of God. By the ninth century, the faithful had already gathered in the nave before the beginning of the service. The clergy, led by a deacon carrying the Gospel Book, began the Liturgy with a solemn entrance through the nave into the sanctuary accompanied by altar servers bearing the cross, candles, and incense during the chanting of the Third Antiphon. By the ninth century, this Entrance, the origin of the contemporary Little Entrance, symbolized the beginning of the public ministry of Christ. The deacon placed the Gospel on the Holy Table, symbolizing the enthronement of Christ. The clergy then assumed their seats on the synthronon, a symbol of the ascension of Christ.

The Entrance. While the people sing the third antiphon, the celebrant and other clergy stand before the doors leading from the narthex into the nave for the prayer of the Entrance:
Celebrant:     (in a low voice) O Sovereign Lord, our God, Who appointed in heaven the orders and armies of angels and archangels for the service of Your glory, grant that the holy angels may enter with us, to serve and glorify Your goodness with us. For to You are due all glory, honor, and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
Then led by a deacon carrying the Gospel Book, the clergy enter in procession through the nave into the sanctuary accompanied by altar servers bearing the cross, candles, and incense as the people complete the hymn, “O Only-begotten Son.… ” The celebrant and other clergy enter the sanctuary and take their seats on the synthronon.

The Liturgy of the Word is also called the Synaxis, which means “gathering” or “assembly.” Orthodox considered the church a eucharistic assembly. By entering the church building to assemble for worship, the faithful symbolically left the sinful world to enter the kingdom of God.

The Great Litany and Trisagion
A deacon stands outside of the sanctuary to lead the people in the Great Litany.
Commentary: Ultimately stemming from the Prayer of Intercession of the Jewish service, the litany form of prayer was fully developed by the time of the Apostolic Constitutions. Originally chanted by the deacon with responses by the faithful, following the readings and sermon, the Great Litany had moved to a position following the Entrance and before the Trisagion sometime during the ninth century. Meanwhile, the clergy prayed the prayer of the Trisagion.

Deacon:     In peace, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For this holy house and for all who enter with faith, reverence and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For our Bishop (N.) for the honorable priests and deacons in Christ, and for all the clergy and the people, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For this country and for every authority and power within it, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For this city, for every city and country and for the faithful living in them, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For seasonable weather, for an abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For those who travel by land, air, and sea, the sick and suffering, those under persecution and for their deliverance, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     For our deliverance from all affliction, anger, danger, and need, let us pray to the Lord.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     Help us, save us, have mercy on us and keep us, O God, by Your grace.
People:     Lord, have mercy.
Deacon:     Remembering our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God, and Ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.
People:     To You, O Lord.
Celebrant:     (in a low voice) O Holy God, Who rest in the saints, Who with the Trisagion Hymn are praised by the Seraphim, glorified by the Cherubim and worshipped by all the heavenly powers, Who out of nothing brought all things into being, Who created man in Your image and likeness and adorned him with every gift of Your grace, Who give wisdom and understanding to anyone asking for them, and Who do not disregard the sinner, but have appointed repentance for salvation, Who have made us Your humble and unworthy servants, even at this hour, to stand before the glory of Your holy altar, and to offer You the worship and praise due to You: accept, O Lord, from the mouths of us sinners the Trisagion Hymn and visit us in Your goodness. Forgive us every transgression, whether voluntary or involuntary. Sanctify our souls and bodies, grant that we may worship You in holiness all the days of our life, through the intercessions of the holy Mother of God and of all the saints who have pleased You from the beginning.
(aloud) For You are holy, O our God, and we send up glory to You, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever …
Deacon:     … and unto ages of ages.

People:     Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.

Commentary: Originally sung during the Entrance, the Thrice-Holy Hymn, or Trisagion, dates at least back to the time of Patriarch Proclus (434–446). According to popular legend, while the patriarch led the people in prayers for deliverance from an earthquake, a young boy was carried up into heaven, where he heard the angels singing this hymn. Thus, the faithful believed that they joined the choirs of heaven when they sang the Trisagion, another indication of the view of the Eucharist as an ascent to heaven and a participation in the worship of the angels.

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