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Celebrating Liturgica Music

The Byzantine Synthesis

Beyond the cultural and theological changes of the fourth and fifth centuries, the other major cultural event affecting the development of the Divine Liturgy was the fact that the Christian faith had taken root in the Eastern Roman Empire, which was now becoming the Byzantine Empire. After becoming Emperor, Constantine established a new capital for the Empire in 330 A.D. at Byzantium. This ancient fishing town was on the Bosphorus in present day Turkey, and is now known as Istanbul. This new city became the center of the Byzantine Empire, and developed into one of the centers of world art and culture for the next thousand years.

Constantine conceived of a theocracy where the emperor ruled the empire on behalf of and for God, was the protector of the faith, and ensured the well being of the faithful. His conception was the sunlight and water that allowed the Church to flourish in the soil of the Roman Empire in which She had been planted. It was this vision of a theocracy that provided the conceptual basis for the government of what would become the Byzantine Empire. Because the Byzantine Empire was the crucible in which most of the Eastern Church was formed and flourished, it is important to understand some basic historical influences within it.

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Division of the Roman Empire

The unified empire of Constantine was short-lived. It operated as two halves of an integrated whole, both originally sharing the same world view. Before the end of the fourth century the barbarian invasion of the Western part of the Empire was under way, and the West was conquered in pieces. Most of the barbarians were Christianized over time, but the barbarian conquest slowed and often severely limited liturgical development in the West. The next four hundred years would see this struggle go on until the final rise of the empire of Charlemagne. The Ostrogoth Kingdom was founded in Italy in 493, and most of what is now referred to as Europe was under barbarian dominion. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages in the West. In the East, the empire was not without difficulties and wars, but culturally it remained essentially intact and operated as a united whole.

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The Church and the State

In the West, the Church was often called upon to exert itself as the local civil authority. This historical situation directly involved the Church in politics and worldly matters, and the Western Church, partly out of necessity and partly out of choice, elected to assert itself in this arena. The theocratic concept of Constantine continued to prevail in the East, and reached its pinnacle in Justinian's reign in the seventh century. His politico-religious view was "symphony," a symbiotic relationship in which the Church and state were not connected by law or power, but by the Christian faith. The emperor and the empire were bound by declaration of faith to maintain the faith in its entirety.

"In the Eastern concept, the Church embraced the whole world and was its inner essence, standard and the source of its gifts of the Spirit within it, but it was not the authority in worldly political matters, nor even the source of authority. The latter was granted to emperors and rulers, they should be guided by the truth of the Church, but they did not receive authority from the Church." [1] The result was that the Church was within the state and a part of it, but was essentially subservient to it. In the West, the Church was within the state, often at odds with it and appearing to be outside of it, but also striving to be over it. Even with Justinian's concept of symphony, there was always the question of the arbitrary authority of the state (because the emperor had ultimate power) and the Church's acceptance of it — often at its own expense and at a cost to the truth of the Kingdom of God.

"Both East and West deviated from the original New Testament conception of the role of the Church in relation to the state. However, the unique position of the Church within the Byzantine empire coupled with the historic circumstances of the next one thousand years created an environment which was highly enculturated, had well developed arts and sciences, yet did not fundamentally change." [2]

Fr. Alexander Schmemann contends that the theocracy within Byzantium cannot simply be written off as the subjugation of the Church to the state. And it certainly was not the subjection of the state to the Church, which was frequently the case in the West. The relationship of Church and state was much more complex. Throughout its life, Byzantium experienced struggles from within to which the Church responded: correct moral value, as in the Trullan Councils; rediscovery of the spiritual realities of the faith, as in monasticism; defining the theology of the faith, like the later Ecumenical Councils and the work of many great theologians; experience of the fullness of Christian worship, like the development of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

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The Influence of Byzantium in the West

The development of the Christian rite must be seen in this setting of relative stability and enculturation. The influence of Byzantium spread across the entire Roman Empire, and waxed and waned with political changes. Thus we see domed churches in Italy, the use of Greek in the Roman Mass through the tenth century, and Byzantine monasteries in southern Italy existing even until today.

This culture with its sense of the aesthetic and beautiful allowed expression of the faith and worship to flower. And these religious developments were not limited to forms of worship. Theology in the Eastern Church continued to develop unabated. And most importantly, monasticism and spirituality developed to great heights during this period. Of this Fr. Schmemann notes ";we need only open the monastic literature of these times to find a world of spirituality--such amazing refinement of the human mind, such perception and holiness, such all-embracing, wonderful concept of the final meaning of life." [3]

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The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

The Eastern liturgical form that is now formally referred to as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was a late sixth century finalization that took place in Constantinople. It was in continuity with the liturgical traditions of the early Church. Prior to becoming Bishop of Constantinople, St. John had been Bishop of Antioch, and his liturgical contributions to Orthodox worship included the liturgical traditions, which he brought from Antioch to Constantinople, as well as refinements he may have added as Patriarch of Constantinople. However, the final form of the Liturgy of St. John most likely reached its final compilation in the sixth century, and is attributed to the Patriarch who greatly contributed to its final form and content.

By the seventh century the compilation of the Divine Liturgy was essentially complete. Most of the changes thereafter were not changes in substance, but rather minor changes in form and style. Minor stylistic changes took place through the ninth century, but after that only minor changes in the wording of the prayers of the Liturgy [4]. A beautiful and moving historic verification of this fact can be seen in the Byzantine Collection at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. The collection includes a chalice from Rhia in Byzantium, which dates from 527 to 565 A.D. Inscribed around the rim are the words from the Anaphora, "Thine own of thine own we offer to thee, O Lord." These very words are used by the Eastern Church in the prayer before communion today.

By the seventh century the See of Constantinople had risen to the central position in the entire Orthodox Church, and the liturgical patterns that had been synthesized in the capital began to influence other traditions. This influence took place both because of the highly developed form the rite of Constantinople had reached, and because in many instances it was enforced as the required rite within the empire. Within a hundred years the form used in the capital became the only form used within the whole Eastern Church, other than on special days. Much of the "standardization" of the rite of the Eastern Church on the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was caused by the emperor who wanted to standardize liturgical form as a means to overcome dissension within the empire caused by heresy. This dynamic of external political force "standardizing" liturgical forms appeared in the Western Church as well, under the rule of Charlemagne.

Fr. Schmemann points out that "Byzantium, for its part, was increasingly turning its back on the West and shifting its center of interest eastward." From the fifth century on, "we clearly perceive the progressive orientalization of the empire and its culture, psychology, art and court ritual." [5] Although the East had been organically connected to the West from the beginning as part of the one Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions had plunged the West deeper into the chaos of the Dark Ages, depriving it of Byzantium�s development, which proceeded apart from the West.

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Waning Political Power

By the early eighth century, the Byzantine Empire was no longer a world empire. It had become a "comparatively small state in which all was subordinated to the need of withstanding pressure: that of Islam from the East, the Slavs from the North, and soon to come, the Normans from the West." [6] From the reign of Justinian through this period, the Church had been progressively subsumed by the state. Thus it was shaped and determined by the political and historical realities, which determined the fate of the empire.

Both the Church and the state began to foster an attitude of isolated conservatism. That is not to say that everything religious ceased: rather, from the tenth century onward the focus was on the conservation and transmission of tradition and culture at the expense of creativity. It was understood that the Catholic truth of the Church had been formulated and compiled by the ancient Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils, once and for all. This "backward looking" tendency coupled with the defensive cultural and political world view resulted in the development of a religious mindset that what had been decided and could be referred to the past was the only Orthodoxy.

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Changelessness in Orthodox Worship

While the early Byzantine Empire had provided an environment in which the Church could naturally develop, the later Empire was characterized by conservatism and absence of change. While this is in stark contrast to the cultural changes that began to occur in the West at the same time, it became an element of great importance for the Eastern Orthodox Church. This lack of change for over eight hundred years has great bearing on our understanding of the unchanging nature of the Eastern liturgical rite and the Divine Liturgy. The Church strove to be true to St. Paul's challenge to Timothy to "guard the deposit of the faith" (1 Tim. 6:20). This foundational commitment to the nature of the early Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ formed the basic view upon which future development would occur.

The need to fully present the faith in the early Church resulted in a type of change that was true to the Tradition of the Church, and yet embodied the fullness of the Gospel. This view was further established after the period of the early Fathers, those bishops and theologians who described the doctrines of belief, codified the Scriptures, and defined the Church's worship. After the passing of this period, an understanding developed that the major work had been completed, the shape of the faith and practice had been established — it was a reference against which future developments would be judged.

For the early Church, theology was from experience. The experience of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit required the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. The experience of Jewish worship and of the Eucharist forced the development of new worship forms. By the time of the last Ecumenical council, the majority of this experience had been defined. The Great Age of Christian Theology was over; the work was complete. It was this mindset coupled to the circumstances and world view of Byzantium that resulted in the changlessness of the Church.

In spite of this, there was still "a very high level of ecclesiastical culture, spiritual and intellectual interests, and constant concern for enlightenment, schools and books. Medieval Byzantium was the cultural center of the world." [7] And in spite of this apparent contradiction (perhaps because of it), it was here that the pinnacle of Eastern spirituality occurred in the persons of St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory Palamas. The problem was that the emphasis was upon maintenance and elaboration. And while this may seem troublesome in terms of the lack of development, there is something vitally important about this circumstance for the Divine Liturgy. In contrast to the Medieval and Renaissance changes experienced by the West, Byzantium experienced a steady and constant period of development in its first few hundred years, and then essentially a millennium of no change thereafter. The result has been an almost unchanged reservoir of liturgical worship practice that is true to the origins of the Christian faith.

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The Schism of 1054

Most Christians are aware of the historical event that separated the Eastern and Western Church, the Great Schism of 1054. However, this break in communion between the Churches did not happen spontaneously. It was the result of many centuries of growing apart and of developing different world views. The schism was the result of theological and cultural and political disputes complicated by the extreme differences between the two halves of the Christian world.

The fate of Byzantium, and of the Eastern Church, had little to do with the schism of 1054. The two had begun as two halves of an integrated whole, and Fr. Schmemann eloquently describes the result: '"The fate of Byzantium was finally decided in the east and the emergence of Islam marks the borderline that divided the early (Eastern) empire... from later Byzantium. The unity of the Roman world was not destroyed by an internal division between East and West, but by an external catastrophe..." [8] This external catastrophe was primarily the barbarian invasions and conquests in the West which wrenched it from communion with the East. It was deepened by the historic and cultural process, which resulted in the East being labeled "Greek" and the West "Latin." It was finally capped by the rise of Islam when the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch slipped under the yoke of Islam.

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Orthodox Evangelism to Russia

Religious, cultural and political differences, which finally resulted in schism in 1054, prevented the Eastern Church from looking West. Religious difference and outright hostility prevented it from looking East. Yet it could reach North to the Slavs and to Russia. And this it did with missionary efforts that began in the ninth century. The legacy of this missionary effort was evident in 1988 with the celebration of the millennium of Christianity in Russia, the result of this outreach. By the time of the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, Russia was an Orthodox country. In the view of the Russian Church the holy mission of Byzantium had passed to it.

This missionary effort to the Slavic countries, to Russia, and on into Asia speaks of the spiritual vitality still at work at the turn of the millennium within the Eastern Church in the Byzantine Empire. The result was an Orthodox Church in Russia that undertook another millennium of worship and praise and evangelism. Out of this missionary focus came the evangelism of Northern Asia and North America, and the establishment of Orthodox Christianity in Alaska in 1793.

The West, meanwhile, continued to undergo dramatic change during the Medieval period of Scholasticism, through the Renaissance, and on into the Enlightenment. These changes were not only political and cultural and philosophical, but involved substantial theological movement and innovation as well. Dix concludes the historical portion of his book with this observation: "...The Byzantine Church survived because... Orthodoxy is a far greater and more Christian thing than Byzantium — rich in faith and holiness and above all in martyrs. Until this last twenty years it was still possible (though unfair) to call it a sleeping church ... It will be fascinating to see what it makes of its magnificent patristic heritage in the modern world when it has been everywhere set free from its old entanglements with autocracy. One thing it will assuredly keep is the Byzantine rite by which all Orthodoxy worships, and has saved itself from extinction by worshiping." [9]


Parts of this page were excerpted from Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Temple, the Synagogue and the Early Church, by Williams, B. and Anstall, H., Light and Life Publishing Co., Minneapolis, 1988.

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[1] A. Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, p. 118.

[2] A. Schmemann, ibid, p. 217.

[3] A. Schmemann, ibid, p. 165.

[4] G. Dix, ibid, p 547.

[5] A. Schmemann, ibid, p. 143.

[6] Ibid, p. 200.

[7] A. Schmemann, op cit, p. 226.

[8] Ibid, p. 170.

[9] G. Dix.