The Byzantine Liturgy as Missionary
This article is based on the President’s Message column featured in the Society of St. John Chrysostom- Western Region (SSJC-WR) Newsletter: The Light of the East, Spring, 2010.
One of the major developments in the modern age is the marginalization and indifference toward Christianity in society. (Jacobse, 2010; Morelli, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010). The disunion among Christian communities has not been a beneficent witness to the unity prayed for by Christ Himself “that they may be one” (Jn 17:11). Secular and politically correct values have shaped doctrinal and moral teaching and practice among some groups calling themselves Christian: abortion, euthanasia, female ordination, same sex marriage, are but a few examples that are obvious departures from the teaching of Christ. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyevi, Chairman of the Department of External Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, has suggested an alliance between Catholics and Orthodox be advanced because these apostolic churches have held fast to the essentials of Christ’s teachings. This suggestion certainly conforms to the goals of the Society of St. John Chrysostom which has as one of its goals: to make known the history, worship, spirituality, discipline and theology of Eastern Christendom.ii
It should be noted that the Byzantine Liturgy is an outstanding missionary out-reach to fulfill Christ’s command to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . . .” (Mt 28: 19) and stands as a witness to the fullness of the truth of Christ’s teaching. The Liturgy could stand as a model for the suggested Catholic-Orthodox alliance. Archbishop Hilarion points out that the Byzantine Liturgy contains “psalms, litanies, hymns, prayers and the celebrating priest’s invocations follow one another in a continuous stream. The entire service is conducted as if in one breath, in one rhythm, like an ever unfolding mystery in which nothing distracts one from prayer. Byzantine liturgical texts [are] filled with profound theological and mystical content….” The Liturgy has doctrinal authority: “as solemn entries and exits, prostrations and censing, are not intended to distract the faithful from prayer but, on the contrary, to put them in a prayerful disposition and draw them into the theourgia in which, according to the teaching of the Fathers, not only the Church on earth, but also the heavenly Church, including the angels and the saints, participates.” iii
Our Church Tradition has linked Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Love, which from a human perspective is descriptive of God, and is all presented before us in the prayers and hymns of the Byzantine Liturgy. The Beauty of the Liturgy may well be the link that unites all these characteristics of God and proclaims them to all who can hear and see.
Psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1999) found that the ability to experience beauty was at the highest level of human development. He termed this developmental level Transcendence because it exists above that of basic human needs: “it has a special flavor of wonder, of awe, of reverence, of humility and surrender. . . .” St. Maximus the Confessor has told us: "the grace of the most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the Saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it."(Philokalia II). Thus, the human response to the inherent beauty of the Divine Liturgy can prepare us to respond to the Grace of God that flows from it. This grace-filled response, however, will not be a human sensual reaction, but a mystical experience centered in the heart. As St. Paul relates: God’s wisdom [is] a mystery, the hidden wisdom . . . but just as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1Cor 2: 7, 9)
Thus, not only can the Byzantine Divine Liturgy be a unique instrument in an alliance of all the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but also can reach out to all Apostolic Churches and even the communities of the reform movement in the West. The Liturgy is an icon of salvation history, God’s everlasting love of mankind, and the response we should have to God’s invitation to us to “become partakers of the Divine Nature.” (2Pt 1:4) The icons found in the Eastern Churches, meant to lead us to spiritual perception of Divine reality, are themselves the Logos, the Word of God, the Gospels and witness of the saints in visual form. Now we have to respond as did the early Christians who left the Liturgy and went into the world and lived Christ. St Luke tells us: “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4: 31).
Jacobse, H.L. (2010). Patriarch Kirill & Pope Benedict: A Tale of Two Leaders for a new Missionary Age http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=35396
Maslow, A. (1999). Toward a psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York: Wiley.
Morelli, G. (2006c, July 02). Assertiveness and Christian Charity. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliAssertiveness.php.
Morelli, G. (2008a, February 12). Smart Parenting X: Combating Secularism's Most Serious Sin: Indifference. www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-PartentingX.php.
Morelli, G. (2009, September 26). Secularism and the Mind of Christ and the Church: Some Psycho-Spiritual Reflections. www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Morelli-Secularism-And-The-Mind of Christ-And-The-Church-Some-Psycho-Spiritual-
Morelli, G. (2010). The Power of the Name. The Word, 54, 2, 6-16, 21-25.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.