The Changing Face of Our Liturgy

By Deacon Jason Ketz and Andrew Boyd

We proclaim every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy and gather in the Eucharistic assembly that God has revealed this service to us as a means of communion with him and each other, and an access point to the Kingdom of God. This is something held as simple truth in our tradition and attested to in our liturgical texts (“We thank Thee for this liturgy…”). Our liturgical celebrations are a divine gift and revelation. The content of this revelation is not necessarily the liturgical actions themselves, but rather Jesus Christ Himself. The liturgy is not the revelation, but the process of revealing Christ to us in his word, in praise, thanksgiving, and in his mystical presence.

How and Why Can our Liturgy Change?

If the liturgy is the process of Christ’s revelation to his people, then why does it change and develop? What are we to do with the now very concrete historical evidence that our Liturgy has evolved substantially over the past two millennia, through planned, non-spontaneous and repeatable reforms that are unquestionably the creative output of a small group of human beings? The historical reality of the liturgy appears, then, to stand in conflict with the liturgy’s claims of divine origin. How can it be a divine gift and revelation if specific individuals (John Chrysostom, Theodore the Studite, Patriarch Nikon of Russia, Basil the Great, etc.) deliberately change it?

St. Theodore the Studite left a profound impact on our liturgical services

Robert Taft, the eminent liturgical historian answers this question by presenting the Liturgy as an ongoing dialogue between the Lord’s gift of revelation to us, and the human response. It seems, though, that the Divine Liturgy deliberately constructs a tension on a deeper level, which cannot be resolved through Taft’s answer. The tension created in the liturgy is the result of the Liturgy’s primary function. It is an encounter between the temporal and the eternal; the human and the divine. Therefore, as much as the liturgy can be described as the human response to the Lord’s revelation, it should also be seen as the context within which the revelation is given. Thus, the revelation of Jesus Christ does not evolve, but is merely encountered anew at every iteration of the Divine Liturgy. He who “makes all things new” (Revelations 21:5) is encountered in a unique and new way every time we all gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

The content of the revelation, that is Jesus Christ, of course does not change, for Christ is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). Rather, the changing process of revelation is the context in which it is offered. The context involves the response of men and women; the organic Church, which, like all creation, is in a constant state of change. This human engagement with the revelation – our liturgical action – is dependent upon context, upon time and place. We are the slate upon which the revelation is written. But none of us is a tabula rasa. We have our personal and social experiences, and it is only through these earthly experiences that we are able to hear the Gospel and understand. Therefore, The Church cannot be static and lifeless, but always strives to communicate the eternal truth of the Gospel – the revelation of Christ – in the ever-changing context of society. Christ our God is not the clay idol of a lifeless body of static believers, but the God of the living (Mark 12:27), organic Church, and our Liturgy struggles to preserve this relationship, although the tension continues to exist.

The Divine Liturgy is a ritual re-presentation of the revelation of the divine economy realized through our Lord Jesus Christ, which we know also from scripture. Both the scriptural and the liturgical epiphany suffer from the ‘scandal of particularity’ that accompanies the Incarnation. Christ was a Jewish man from Nazareth in the first century, who spoke Greek, was friends with fishermen, etc.  The Epistles and Gospels narrating his life and death are recorded in the Greek language, written in a time and place, by a person, for a specific audience, etc. These facts – these particulars – form the context of the revelation. Again, this social context is absolutely necessary for memory and for text.  The Lord can only make himself known to us through some medium – some context – that we will understand, beginning first with the medium of creation.

Creator and creation

The Liturgy is Flexible, but Still Eternal

So history shows us that the Liturgy is somewhat malleable, and changes on occasion in order to better communicate the Gospels to the present generation. But our experience of a single Divine Liturgy leaves us with no such impression of flexibility, but instead a profound sense of eternity in the ritual. Like the texts of scripture, the Liturgy presents itself as authoritative, autonomous, and independent. It is a closed system with its own encoded method of interpretation. And the Liturgy, being a complete event, needs to retain no memory of past instances of rituals. The revelation is re-presented anew at each altar each week (or day). Both the autonomy and the singularity of the Liturgy are brought to the foreground at the Cherubic Hymn. The liturgy does not expect people to bring ideas to liturgy from the outside, but the faithful must “Lay aside all earthly cares” in order to “receive the King of all…” Shortly thereafter, the priest introduces the anaphora (in Chrysostom’s Litugy) by giving thanks “for this Liturgy, which [the Lord] has deigned to accept at our hands…” Thus, the liturgy is able to present itself as true and eternal because it brokers an encounter with truth and eternity, while it does so through the within time and space, and within the social context of the participants.

…lay aside all earthly cares…

It is also important to note that the Divine Liturgy does not overtly authorize liturgical reform or change. However, the changing social context inevitably works itself into the service as a creative and often theological response to the Liturgy, for various reasons. The reforms can be introduced by edict, as Justinian demonstrated with his introduction of the hymn Only-Begotten Son, or even by a charismatic leader like John Chrysostom who likely introduced his new anaphora to Constantinople after arriving there from Antioch.  And once reform occurs, it is ratified by the priest’s and congregation’s completion and re-enactment of the reformed rite once a change has been introduced.

Why do we Hold Onto Old Stuff?

Our awareness of the creative human influence on the Divine Liturgy leads us next to questions of obsolescence. Why do we still keep obsolete vestiges of a defunct society? The incorporation of the Imperial Court into the Hierarch’s liturgical garb, for instance, has lost a great deal of relevance since 1453, and particularly in democratic political states today. The principles of liturgical conservation serve not to explain, but only to label this conservative phenomenon. The explanation for Orthodox conservation lies in our steadfast affirmation of the apostolicity and catholicity of the Church. In part, elements of the past are retained in our liturgical worship as a symbolic index of our adherence to Tradition. But the anaphoras of Chrysostom and Basil each witness toward the ritual value that our Liturgy accords history. The anamnesis, of the Last Supper is not merely a recitation of a myth, but a commemorative re-presentation of the events being narrated. The boundaries of time are collapsed, and we are no longer temporally separated from the events of the Last Supper, from the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, and ultimately, we are ritual participants in the manifestation of God’s saving plan. It would be premature of us to extract prior additions to the service, because these additions once served to bring a people into communion with our Lord.

Bishop Matthias vested in the Sakkos, once the garment of the Byzantine Emperors

Furthermore, we maintain a belief of God’s constant, guiding, action within the course of history, and affirm this with our prayers thanking him for “this [iteration of the] liturgy.” The liturgy is not valid in theory, any more than one can call a prayer book a liturgy: it is not; the liturgy must be performed. But if the performance is to be ritual and not drama, it is dependent on the belief of the faithful, that through the current Divine Liturgy in which the faithful are participating, our Lord can be encountered. If we accept this basic proposition on faith, then the liturgy is allowed to change over the course of time so that we can experience it, not because the revelation has evolved, but because the context has changed, in which the revelation occurs.

Liturgy, our Vehicle to Christ

The gospel – in writing and in ritual – has left both Palestine and the Greek language, and each hearing of scripture and each celebration of liturgy allows the participants an encounter with Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, in fulfillment of the great commission (Matt 28:19). The gathering of the Eucharistic community in liturgy is the vehicle for the revelation of Christ in our world, through his scripture and through his mystical presence. Even though the vehicle (the liturgy) can adapt, evolve, and develop, the content of that revelation remains always our Lord Jesus Christ, and the great mystery of his incarnation, death, and resurrection.

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