The Orthodox Pages

email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON THE VARIOUS

INTERPRETATIONS OF THE LITURGY

Part 1

7th Oct 2010

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A
fter a very long and very hot summer break I’d like to welcome you all back to our weekly Thursday evening talks. The summer break is four months and after taking it easy for so long it needs a bit of a push to get oneself back into the regular routine. One of the problems faced by priests giving regular talks is finding new subjects to talk about. After almost four years we have covered a wide range of topics and as people come and go many of you were not part of the group when we covered the early subjects so I think it’s time to come full circle and see again some of those earlier subjects. One of the earlier subjects we saw was the interpretation of the Divine Liturgy. These were a series of talks which lasted for six weeks and could have gone for two more if we didn’t have to close for the summer break. I think it is time to look at this again but hopefully not as a carbon copy repeat of what was said then which truthfully cannot be avoided, but hopefully also with some supplementary commentary of which we didn’t take into account of the last time. Today’s talk will be an introduction to what will be said in the following weeks and should help you to understand how the various actions, symbols and interpretations of the Liturgy developed.

The Divine Liturgy has many symbolic meanings and can be interpreted in different ways depending on how the fathers themselves who gave us the interpretations understood these symbols. In general the interpretation of the Liturgy and theology as a whole is based on the school of thought a certain father was most influenced by. Thus to understand theology in the Orthodox Church we need to understand the early schools of thought that were influential in the development of Orthodox theology and subsequently the Liturgical interpretations. In the early Church there were two schools of thought that developed around the same time: the Schools of Alexandria and Antioch. Although both Christian they developed different interpretations of scripture and most of the early heresies derived from taking one or the other of these teachings to extremes. The theology that prevailed and what we call Orthodox was a good balance of both schools. So let’s have a look at these two schools which played such an important role in the Christological controversies of the third, fourth and fifth centuries.
Alexandria is the oldest. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC, Alexandria became the second most important city of the ancient world. It was a point where east and west met and took pride in its famous library and its reputation as the centre for Greek philosophy and learning. It was here that the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (285BC) making them widely accessible to the Greek speaking Jews of the dispersion. The translation is known as the Septuagint version and is the version used by Christ and the Apostles when quoting from the Old Testament and thus has remained in use by the Orthodox Church as the most authoritative and authentic. It was also in Alexandria where the philosopher Philo, a Hellenic Jew (c. 25 BC-AD 40) strove to integrate Greek philosophy with Judaism. Philo was convinced that Moses was the greatest of philosophers and the originator of much of the Greek philosophy. He took the Old Testament and gave it an allegorical interpretation, in other words, for him the written word should not be taken literally but has concealed within it a higher spiritual meaning.

Two centuries after Philo in 185AD the renowned catechetical school in Alexandria under the leadership of the converted Stoic philosopher, Pantaenus, employed the same allegorical interpretational approach to the New Testament as Philo had given to the Old Testament. The philosophical approach, influenced by Platonism and Stoicism, to allegorically interpret the New Testament is seen more clearly in the teachings of Pantaenus’ pupil and successor, Clement of Alexandria (c.155-220). He taught that just as God gave the Law to the Jews, so he gave philosophy to the Greeks - as an instrument to lead them to Christ. God’s eternal Word (Logos) was the source of both. Clement believed the truth was to be found in Scripture, but sometimes it was hidden, and could only be discovered through allegorical interpretation. He was greatly influenced by Philo and quoted him extensively.
Clement was succeeded by his young pupil Origen (185-254), who presided over the Alexandrian school for the next thirty years. He lived an ascetic life and took his asceticism to the extremes by taking the Lord’s counsel in the literal sense and having himself castrated to avoid any possible scandal while giving private instruction to women catechumens. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.” (Matth. 19:12))
Origen’s writings were some of the most influential in the early church. His philosophy was Platonic and Stoic and he developed more fully Philo’s and Clement’s ideas of allegorical interpretation by bringing them into harmony with the Scriptures which he claimed had a threefold meaning or three levels of interpretation - Literal, moral, and spiritual meanings which corresponded to the body, soul, and spirit. The “simple man” he said, may be edified by the “flesh” of Scripture, in other words the literal meaning of the historical events, which for him was the least important for the Christian, just as the body was less important than the soul or spirit. The man who has ascended a certain way may be edified by the “soul” and the perfect man may be edified by “spiritual law”.
One of the primary distinguishing characteristics of Alexandrian thought is the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Origen was not the first to employ this method, but he was the most influential. His teachings were quoted many times in the later Christological controversies and even today he is regarded as one of the most important early church fathers. Despite his brilliant mind he received mixed reviews in Christian history and his controversial views on the pre-existence of souls, the ultimate salvation of all beings and other topics eventually caused him to be labelled a heretic by several regional synods among them Alexandria in 399 and the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553.
The Alexandrian philosophical approach to scripture led to teachings that gave precedence to Christ’s divinity at the expense of his humanity. When taken to extremes it led to heresies that portrayed a Christ whose humanity was for all practical purposes absorbed by His divinity.
Let’s now look at the Antiochian school. After Alexander's death in 323BC, his generals divided up the territory he had conquered. Seleucus I Nicator won the territory of Syria, and he proceeded to found four “sister cities” in north-western Syria, one of which was Antioch, named after his father Antiochus. Because of its position in the Eastern Mediterranean it became an important centre for trade and commerce and for education and culture. In the Acts of the Apostles we are told by Luke, who was himself a son of Antioch, that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26)
The founder of the Antiocian School is said to be Lucian of Antioch (AD240-312). He was a presbyter in Antioch and after the deposition of Antioch’s bishop Paul of Samosata, he fell under suspicion for heresy, and was excommunicated, but was later reconciled to the Church and died a martyr’s death on 7th January 312. In its later stage, the founder of the School was Diodorus (?-394) who at first was a presbyter of Antioch and then bishop of Tarsus. The Antiochian school seemed to have been more influenced by the philosophy of Aristotle. It developed a literal approach in the exegesis of Scripture and theology rather than the allegorical approach of Alexandria and emphasised the human nature of Christ rather than the divine and put great weight on the human experiences of Christ’s temptations and sufferings.
But as Alexandria’s overemphasis of the divine led to heresies which denied Christ a human rational soul, the Antiochians overemphasis of the human led to heresies which denied him his divinity.
The Christological approaches of the two rival theological schools of Alexandria and Antioch in the early centuries of the Church were influential in how writers understood the symbolic and mystical interpretations of the Divine Liturgy. Authors stressed the school of thought of their own time and place and thus we see that writers of the Alexandrian school of thought, which stressed the divinity of Christ to the almost exclusion of his humanity, gave emphasis to the heavenly level and the eschatological aspect of the Liturgy, while writers from the literally minded Antiochian School, which stressed the humanity of Christ, gave emphasis to the historical aspect of the Liturgy; seeing in every action of the Liturgy a dramatic re-enactment of the Passion of Christ.
I think the best way to understand what I am saying is to look at the different interpretations of the Great Entrance. From the Alexandrian school we have a commentary by someone called Pseudo – Dionysius. His commentary on the Liturgy is found in his treatise “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy”, written around the end of the fifth century. Dionysius remains true to the Alexandrian tradition and his heavenly and spiritual interpretation hardly mentions Christ’s earthly ministry or his death and resurrection”. He perceives the entire Liturgy as an ascent from the material to the spiritual; from the lower existence to the unity of the divine. His approach is exclusively eschatological and because he doesn’t give emphasis to the historical events of Christ’s life he doesn’t spend too much time on describing the Great Entrance. The result is an interpretation that doesn’t give attention to the Liturgical text itself, thus giving only a partial view of the Liturgy and this based on philosophical presuppositions.
Next we have Maximus the Confessor (C580 – 662). Maximus wrote his Mystagogia ca. 630 basically for monks who at the time were steeped in Origenistic thought and sought to introduce them to a more historical approach to salvation history in order to correct their strongly Gnostic approach. It was the first of what we call the Byzantine Liturgical commentaries that we know of and therefore a valuable source of information on reconstructing historical Liturgical development. Maximus gives a twofold interpretation to every part of the liturgy calling the one the “general” (γενικῶς) and the other “particular” (ἰδικῶς). His “general” interpretation is typological and concentrates on the mystery of the cosmological salvation in other words man’s salvation. His “particular” explanation of the Liturgy centres around the individual and his interpretational approach for this is anagogical which basically means being raised to a higher heavenly and spiritual level.
Maximus was strongly influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, and constantly refers to the “Ecclesiastical Hierarchy” Like him he does not stress any of the earthly events of the salvation history of Christ as reflected in the Great Entrance. His approach to the Great Entrance, the Anaphora and Communion is on the whole Alexandrian in concept with emphasis on the eschatological – after the Second Coming of Christ in the Kingdom.
I think by these two examples you can understand what the Alexandrian approach was all about. It gave emphasis on the divine and didn’t give much attention to Christ’s earthly and human life. The Liturgy wasn’t a re-enacting of the historical events of his life but the mystical celebration of the Eucharist after the Second Coming of Christ in the Kingdom of heaven.
In contrast to the Alexandrian concept we have the commentaries from the Antiochian school. The first is by Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428). Theodore of Mopsuestia was born in Antioch c. AD 350. He was ordained a priest of the Church of Antioch, and elevated to the position of bishop of Mopsuestia, which he held until his death in 428. In contrast to Pseudo-Dionysius’ Alexandrian approach, Theodore’s commentary on the Liturgy is distinguished by its Antiochian influence with a literal, typological interpretation. The focus now is on Christ’s earthly ministry and all the historical events of his life which are re-enacted and actually taking place during the various rites performed in the Liturgy. Thus he sees the Great Entrance as “Christ now being led away to His passion and again later when he is stretched out on the altar to be sacrificed for us”. The deacons carrying the offering are “representations of the “invisible ministering powers, in other words the angels”. As they place the various articles on the altar, Christ has already been Crucified and taken down from the Cross and is placed on the altar as if in the tomb. The Great Entrance becomes therefore a representation of both the passion and the funeral cortege of Christ. Theodore carries this theme through to the time of Communion when as each of us partakes, Christ announces to us his resurrection. But to be fair to Theodore’s Liturgy he doesn’t only stay within the boundaries of the historical events but gives it a dual symbolism by telling us that we should imagine ourselves in heaven and that the bishop represents Christ the High Priest who now serves the Liturgy before the throne of God.
The next commentary we have by St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople. (6??-733) makes a marriage of the two schools of thought. With the exception of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s Antichian approach, the Byzantine approach to the liturgy before Germanus was basically Alexandrian in thought. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople from 715 to 730 was the author of the Liturgical commentary titled “Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation”. This work was for many centuries regarded as the official commentary for the explanation of the Liturgical rite. Germanus kept much of the earlier Byzantine Liturgical tradition as influenced by the Alexandrian School, but Supplemented and complimented the apparent deficiencies of the Alexandrian eschatological approach with a more balanced historical approach that highlighted the humanity of Jesus and His earthly ministry. Thus the apse of the Prothesis corresponds to the cave of Bethlehem where Christ was born as well as the cave in which he was buried. The altar corresponds to the spot in the tomb where Christ was placed and also the throne of God and the actual table where Christ sat with his disciples at his Mystical Supper.

At the Great Entrance Germanus followed, like Theodore of Mopsuestia, the historical events of Christ’s death and the concept of the funeral cortege, but he went a little further in his symbolism to the Taking down from the Cross and what followed. Thus the Great Entrance is a commemoration of when Joseph of Arimathaea took down the Body from the Cross, wrapped it in clean linen, anointed it with spices and ointment, carried it with Nicodemus and buried it in a new tomb hewn out of a rock. The discus represents the hands of Joseph and Nicodemus who buried Christ, the chalice the vessel which received the mixture of Blood and water which poured from his side, the cover of the discus becomes the “soudarion” the napkin that covered his face and the aer (veil) becomes the stone which Joseph placed against the tomb and which the Roman guards sealed. The remainder of his commentary then shifts from the earthly reality to the heavenly mystery with the priest in the company of the angels now standing at the heavenly altar of the throne of God. Overall Germanus’ commentary preserves a proper balance between the Alexandrian and Antiochian interpretations reminding the participant that the Liturgy is the church’s memorial of Christ’s sacrifice and at the same time her ascension to the celestial Liturgy.
You should now understand the differences between the two schools of thought and mention of later commentaries would be pointless in helping us to understand these differences which is the basis of our talk today. What we can learn from the later commentaries is how the Liturgy developed into the Liturgy we have today. One such commentary is called the Diataxis written by Philotheos, Patriarch of Constantinople (1353-1354 and 1364-1376) Before his election to Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheos Kokkinos was formerly the abbot of the Great Lavra on Mt. Athos. He published an order for the Divine Liturgy known as the Diataxis which was essentially an outline of the Divine Liturgy for the priest and deacon giving detailed directions for the celebration of the liturgy. It established the text of the rites as well as the ceremonial to be observed. Philotheos’ Diataxis represents the tradition of Athonite Diataxis (Ordering) for the Divine Liturgy which was introduced by Philotheos into the Patriarchal cathedral rite of Constantinople, thus assuring the victory of the monastic rite over the cathedral rite. The widespread influence of the Philotheos’ Diataxis helped to establish a basic uniformity in the celebration of the liturgy in all the churches of the Byzantine commonwealth, which up to that time had seen many local variations. This is especially true of the prothesis rite which had the greatest number of variations. Philotheos’ Diataxis influenced Slav as well as the Greek Churches and the Rubrics were incorporated into the first printed service books in the sixteenth century.
From Philotheos’ Diataxis we learn that the Liturgy of the fourteenth century had, except for a few details, already developed into the format that we use today. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom had become the normal Rite, with St. Basil’s being used only ten times a year.
We also learn that in the Great Entrance, priests had already started taking part in the procession. Up until maybe a hundreds years before, the Great Entrance was performed only by the Deacons. The Prothesis was not in the Sanctuary as it is today, but in a room at the back of the Church and all the preparation with the bread and wine was done by the deacons and the procession was done just for the practical reason of bringing the gifts to the Holy Altar for the Eucharistic Liturgy. With the priests now taking part in this procession the deacons were in part, slowly being deprived of their traditional functions which passed from a lower to a higher order in the hierarchy. The splendour and solemnity of the procession of the Great Entrance began to dominate the Liturgy and popular devotion verged on the excessive with people prostrating themselves in reverence in front of the procession asking the prayers of the clergy and seeking to be touched by the sacred vessels. The clergy in fact had to step over them. From before Philotheos’s time it had become customary to silently make commemorations during the Great Entrance. Philotheos prescribes a general commemoration: “May the Lord God remember all of us in his Kingdom” of which we use today. This was at first said silently without interrupting the Cherubic Hymn but by the fifteenth century it was being said out loud.
Apart from the commentaries mentioned there are many more of great importance like the “Commentary on the Divine Liturgy” a 14th century work by Nicholas Cabasilas, the 15th century works “Interpretation of the Church and the Liturgy” and “On the Holy Liturgy” by Symeon of Thessalonica and other contemporary works which have developed the symbolic meanings of the Great Entrance even further. For example, from a Modern Greek commentary we see that during the Great Entrance the Priest representing Christ holds in his hands man and the whole body of the Church. The procession is the journey to heaven, the ascension of the Church to heaven, the return of man to God. Christ himself takes all of us and our whole life back to God. From the same commentary the author expands on the historical event of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and says: “the Minister becomes the ass that no man has sat on and therefore worthy to carry the King of Glory.”
The liturgical commentaries resulting from the two opposing schools of thought – the Alexandrian and the Antiochion - have not been destructive to the development of the Liturgy. They are only negative when the one approach is preferred to the exclusion of the other. A proper understanding of the Liturgy results when the two are used to compliment each other. This is the understanding we receive from the texts of the Liturgy which depict both the historic and eschatological elements. This is evident in the prayer before the Priests says: “Thine own of Thine own” – “Remembering therefore this commandment of salvation, and all those things which came to pass for our sakes: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting on the right hand, the coming again a second time in glory”.
Notice that the prayer makes mention of both the historical elements in Christ’s mission and also the heavenly and eschatological elements which are the proper way of understanding the Liturgy. From next week when we begin looking at the interpretation of the Liturgy properly you should always keep this in mind that the Liturgy is not just a celebration of a historical event that took place in that upper room in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. It is far more than this, it is a commemoration of Christ’s salvation which began with Christ’s earthly mission and will come to a close with the Second Coming. Thus it is the celebration of our return to Paradise and our return to God in the future age after the Second Coming. In short it is the celebration of man’s eternal salvation. Next week we will look at the first part of the Liturgy which is called the Proskomide or as it is better known in English “the office of oblation”. It is the part of the service that you don’t see and hopefully if I have a prosphoron I can show you visually exactly what we do to prepare the holy gifts that are later consecrated and transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Basically it is the preparation of the bread and wine which is made before the onset of the Liturgy and is said silently by the Priest. The people never get to see or hear what is said and done but as it is an important part of the Liturgy and a visual demonstration of what takes place will help you understand the Liturgy as a whole.
I should first explain that although the Preparation rite is usually performed before the start of the Divine Liturgy, it is not an isolated service: it belongs to the Divine Liturgy or more precisely it belongs to the Liturgy of the Faithful. When a Bishop presides over the Liturgy, the Priest prepares and performs the service up to a certain point, but he doesn’t finish the service; this is the duty of the Bishop who is the officiating Minister. The Bishop during the Archieratical (Pontifical) Liturgy does not enter the Sanctuary until the Little Entrance of the Liturgy, in other words, the entrance with the Holy Gospel, so he will perform this duty during a prolonged singing of the Cherubic Hymn which is in fact the rightful place for the Proskomede.
The Proskomede or the preparation rite is performed at the Holy Prothesis. This is a small apse in the wall found to the left of the Holy Altar. I have already mentioned that in older times it was not found in the Sanctuary as it is today, but rather in a room at the back of the Church. In those days it was the duty of the Deacons to do the preparation and the Paten and the Chalice entered the Sanctuary with the procession of the Great Entrance. When, around the fourteenth century, it was deemed unnecessary for every church to have a Deacon and the preparation service became the duty of the Priest, it was more convenient to bring the Prothesis into the Sanctuary and place it to the left of the Holy Altar. We see that from that time symbolic meanings were given to the Prothesis just like everything else in the Church: thus the small apse of the Prothesis was a symbolic representation of the cave in Bethlehem where Christ was born and laid in a manger. St. Symeon of Thessalonica writes that as Bethlehem is not far from Jerusalem where the Lord’s tomb is, here also, the Prothesis is near to the Holy Altar which represents the Lord’s tomb. Throughout our interpretation of the Liturgy we will hear of certain acts and ceremonies corresponding to symbolic representations of events in Christ’s life. What we must be careful of is not to make our faith and worship just an act of symbols that we forget the reality of what is taking place. A symbol can manifest the spiritual reality, but not everything that pertains to the spiritual reality appears embodied in the symbol because the symbol is always partial and therefore imperfect.
For the preparation rite, the Priests needs the two basic vessels the Paten or Discus and the Chalice, also the spear, the asterisk, the two small veils which cover the Paten and the Chalice and the larger veil called the aer which covers both. As we see how these are used I will also give you their symbolic interpretation. Three other elements are needed for the preparation: bread, sweet wine and water. Before he begins the priest will select from the offerings that people have made the best breads and wine which he will use for the preparation. These offerings are in a sense a sacrifice to God. From the beginning of human history we see that man has made sacrifices to God mainly as a atonement for sins. The first sacrifice we know of was from Adam and Eve’s sons – Cain and Abel. Cain was a tiller of the ground and brought to the Lord an offering of the fruits that he grew. Abel was a keeper of sheep and brought to the Lord an offering of the firstlings of his flock. The Law of the Old Testament is full of ordinances of various blood sacrifices which were to be observed by the Jewish people for different occasions.

In Christian times our offerings of bread and wine can be likened to the old Jewish sacrifices except for one great difference: we do not offer them in atonement for our sins. Our atonement has already been made by Christ himself when he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice on the Cross. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It was a sacrifice of love. Christ united in himself the whole world and as the life of all life he offered it to God the Father. In his sacrifice is forgiveness of all sins and the fullness of salvation and sanctification. Any other new sacrifices are therefore unnecessary and in fact impossible. Thus if our offering is not for our sins then it must have some other meaning. Our offering is a thanksgiving to God for having saved us. It is a thanksgiving for sending his only-begotten Son to be sacrificed that we might become co-heirs with him in the kingdom of Heaven. But our offering is even more than thanksgiving because it represents our whole life and thus is it an offering of ourselves, of each other and the whole world to God. This will become clearer if we analyse the elements of our offering.

It was not by chance that Christ used bread for his Body and wine for His Blood. He could have used anything and as himself the sacrificial Lamb of God he could have used a lamb. Can you imagine if he did! The churches would be full of people lining up to have communion of souvla lamb every Sunday. But the lamb would not really be ours because everything on earth belongs to God: He is the creator of all things and we would only be offering God what is already his. The truth of the matter is that the only thing we can offer God that we can truly call ours is our love and our life. This is where the bread and wine come into the picture so to speak. They are offerings that represent our whole life because they are two basic foods that are peculiar only to man. The Jewish offerings were offerings of the earth and of livestock, but they were only offering to God what was already his and apart from this they were not foods that belonged exclusively to man because they were foods eaten also by animals.

Bread and wine are exclusively foods for man. Granted that God gives as the wheat and the water, but we take the wheat, clean it and grind it into flour, then with the water we knead it into dough and then bake it to become bread. The prosphoron we use in the Divine Liturgy is even more peculiar and special because it is prepared separately from common bread. When making a prosphoron, we have in mind that it will to be used for the offering, so we prepare ourselves for this sacred work and make it with prayer and love. The wine again is mans peculiar offering because God gives us the vine and the grapes but it is man who looks after the vineyard making sure to prune it and dust it to protect it from the scorching sun, it is man who will harvest the fruit and crush the grapes to produce the wine. We have put labour, prayer, love and our life into our offering.
Today these offerings are made by a few devout women, but in older times it was offered by all the congregation. Each person who came to the gathering of the Church brought with him everything he could spare for the needs of the Church and these were then separated by the Deacons who selected the best of the breads and wine to be used for the Liturgy and the rest was distributed for the sustenance of the clergy, widows and orphans and in general for helping the poor. In this way the Church was indeed a gathering of love which gave assistance to those in need. Everyone participated in this sacrifice of love and even the orphans who lived at the expense of the Church and had nothing to bring participated by bringing water.
Here then we will stop for today and next week continue with the visual demonstration and interpretation of the Proskomede.