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Celebrating Liturgica Music

The Byzantine Typicon

The order of services or prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Churches is set forth in the Typicon, a volume that provides the order of church rites for all services, special prayers, and church celebrations for the whole year. The two main sources of the Typicon are the ancient Ordo of St. Sabas monastery in Palestine (the Jerusalem Ordo), and the later Studite monastery in Constantinople. These monastic centers were places where the existing practices were complied and synthesized and codified into a more standardized form.

The St. Sabas Ordo is associated with many great monastic saints in Palestine, and the churches and monasteries associated with holy places in the area around Jerusalem. The Ordo of St. Sabas developed as the Church grew, as monasticism prospered and became a normal part of Church life, and as monasticism was an important part in the battle against heresies. It became the rule of prayer for the whole Church, and reached its final synthesis in the ninth century.

The Studite Ordo is very similar in structure to the Jerusalem Ordo, and is a later synthesis that took place in the Byzantine capital. It is particularly notable for its hymnography (especially the development of the Lenten Triodion), harmonizing the more ancient Ordos, and some unique structural elements. The development of these two Ordos represents the compilation and synthesis of the liturgical form and practice of the Eastern Church and its development to a peak during the middle Byzantine period. The development of the Ordo in the Eastern Church since this period has been minimal, and possesses no change either in structure or in the expression of the rule of prayer.

What is most important to understand is the premise and motivation behind the whole concept of developing a uniform rule of prayer, and the principles underlying such an undertaking in the Byzantine tradition. Perhaps the best summary is by Fr. Schmemann in a section titled "The Byzantine Typicon" in the concluding chapter of Introduction to Liturgical Theology:

"Side by side with the true development and discovery of the Church's lex orandi [rule of prayer] there has been an obscuring of her tradition. We feel that this fact should be admitted and at least some attempt made to explain it, no matter how much this conclusion may run counter to the extraordinary widespread and blind "absolutization" of the Typicon in all its details, which exists throughout the Orthodox Church. What is truly fixed and eternal in this Ordo which has come down to us through such a complicated process, and which includes so many various layers of material? What is its essential nature as the liturgical tradition of the Church, as the "rule of prayer," which, according to the Church's teaching, contains and reveals her "rule of faith"? If we have termed the culmination of this development and building up of layer upon layer a "synthesis" rather than a hodge-podge, in what way does this synthesis have a creative and determining significance for the future? At a moment when the world in which the Church lives can no longer be called Christian in the sense in which it was Christian from the fourth to the twentieth centuries, this is the only question, which really matters.

"No restoration in history has ever been successful. Only if there is a lack of faith in the Church herself as the source of Life can the traditions of the past be dealt with on the principle "let what has been set before us remain forever!" Tradition for the Church is not the vista of a beautiful past, which can be admired in a mood of aesthetically religious nostalgia, but rather a summons and an inspiration. Only a liturgical theology, that is, a detailed study and elucidation of all the elements which form the liturgical tradition of the Church (her Sacraments, cycles, rituals and ceremonies) can provide a true answer to our question. The present work is only a very general introduction to a proposed complete course in liturgical theology. In concluding this introduction we must point to what we are convinced the Ordo shows to be the guide in the study of Orthodox worship.

"What is absolutely essential for a correct understanding of the general spirit of the Byzantine synthesis is that it was unquestionably formed on the basis of the Church's original rule of prayer, and from this point of view must be accepted as its elaboration and revelation, no matter how well developed are the elements which are alien to this lex orandi and which have obscured it. Thus in spite of the strong influence of the mysteriological psychology on the one hand and the ascetical-individualistic psychology on the other, the Ordo as such has remained organically connected with the theology of time which contained its original organizing principle. This theology of time was obscured and eclipsed by "secondary" layers in the Ordo, but it remained always as the foundation of its inner logic and the principle of its inner unity.

"This connection is evident, first, in the correlation (preserved throughout all the changes) of the Eucharist with the liturgy of time or in other words, in the special place occupied by the Eucharist in the general structure of the Ordo. The Eucharist has its own time, its kairos, and this time is distinct from the units used to measure the liturgy of time. We have spoken of the ascetical and individualistic modification, which occurred in the view of the Eucharist under the influence of monasticism, and or how, in connection with this, the Eucharist was included within the liturgy of time as one of its component offices. But this change was never fully accepted in the Ordo, and in it there is a characteristic ambiguity toward the Eucharist. The lectionary, the setting apart of a relatively small number of non-liturgical days, and a whole series of other rubrics all point to the success of one tendency in this process. Its success can be traced also in the popular acceptance of the so-called "votive masses," of the idea that the Eucharist can be subordinated to individual needs.

"On the other hand if all the rest of the prescriptions of the Ordo are taken together, if one carefully considers their inner logic and also the rite of the Liturgy itself, it can hardly be doubted that the Eucharist has preserved its basic character as the Feast of the Church, as the expression and actualization of her eschatological fullness, as an action which is combined with the liturgy of time and related to it, but precisely by virtue of its ontological difference from it. It is true that the prescriptions concerning the kairos of the Eucharist have become a dead letter in modern times. But what is important is that these prescriptions have in fact been preserved, and this means that for those who have been brought up on the "Byzantine synthesis" they constitute an inviolable part of the liturgical tradition of the Church and are part of her rule of prayer. What else do these prescriptions prove, this whole complicated system of relationships between the Eucharist and time — with its hours, days and cycles — if not that the time of the Eucharist is something special, and that what it expresses in time fulfills time and gives it another standard of measurement.

"The fundamental meaning of these different prescriptions must be seen in the principle of the incompatibility of the Eucharist with fasting. The Eucharist is not celebrated during Lent. On the strict fast days of the eves of Christmas and Epiphany it is celebrated in the evening, just as the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated in the evening. The whole complicated system for the transfer of the Christmas and Epiphany eves of fasting to Friday if they happen to fall on Saturday or Sunday expresses the same idea: Saturdays and Sundays, being Eucharistic days, are incompatible with fasting. Obviously what is preserved here in full force is the liturgical concept of fasting as a condition of expectation in the Church herself, related to the Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Parousia of the Lord. Even where the Eucharist is thought of as a daily service, it is not simply inserted into the system of daily offices, but preserves its special kairos, depending on the length of the fast, the degree of importance of the commemoration, etc.

"The meaning of all these prescriptions is clear: the Eucharist must be preceded by a fast or vigil (which is in fact the liturgical expression of fasting, as a station, or statio, vigilia), since in this fast or vigil, in this time of expectancy and preparation, time itself is transformed into what it has become in the Church: a time of waiting and preparation for the unending Day of the Kingdom. The entire life of the Christian and the entire earthly life of the Church become a fast in the deepest meaning of this word: the eschaton, from the end and fulfillment of time, since everything is connected with this End, everything is judged and illuminated in relation to it. But this "End" can become a force which transforms life and transmutes "fasting" into "joy and triumph" only because it is not something in the future only, the terrifying dissolution of all things, but rather something which has already come, already begun, and is being eternally "actualized" and "fulfilled" in the Sacrament of the Church, in the Eucharist.

"We have been fulfilled by thine everlasting life, we have joyfully tasted thine inexhaustible food, which thou hast deigned to communicate to us all in the age to come..." That same Life will appear at the End which is already in existence, that New Aeon will begin in which we are already participating, that same Lord will appear who is now coming and is with us. This rhythm of fast and Eucharist which is perhaps the forgotten and unfulfilled but still obvious and basic principle of the Ordo shows that at the foundation of the Church's liturgical life there is still that same unchanging and inexhaustible experience of eschatology, the experience of the Church as new life in new time existing within this old world and its time for the express purpose of its salvation and renewal.

Thus too in the daily cycle, which is the basis of the liturgy of time, the Ordo or structure of its services can be understood only in relation to the theology of time, which they contain and express. Outside it they become an inexplicable, arbitrary sequence of diverse elements connected in no way other than by a "formal" law. The Christian theology of time is clearly expressed in Vespers and Matins, in which four themes follow one another in a definite sequence. In Vespers there is the theme of Creation as a beginning (the preparatory psalm "Bless the Lord, 0 my soul"), the theme of sin and fall ("Lord I have cried ..."), the theme of salvation and the coming into the world of the Son of God ("O Gladsome Light"), and the theme of the End ("Lord, now lettest thou thy servant...").

"The same themes form the order for Matins, only in the opposite order. The daily cycle is a kind of constant contemplation of the world and the time within which the Church dwells, and of those ways of evaluating the world and its time, which were manifested by the Parousiaof the Lord. The note of cosmic thanksgiving, the perception of God's glory in creation, its affirmation as something "very good," these insights which come at the beginning of Vespers, followed by the commemoration of the fall of this world, of the indelible mark of separation from God which accompanied it, the relationship of all things to the Light of salvation which has come into and illuminated this world and, finally, the concluding "thy Kingdom come" of the Lord's prayer — here is the liturgical order of the daily cycle. Each day Christians pray that in and through the Church the time of this world may become the new time for the children of light, may be filled with new life for those whom she has brought to life. And so she "refers" this day to that which constitutes her own life, to the reality of the Presence which she alone in this world knows, and which she alone is able to reveal.

"The Church year, which has been torn away from the theology of time more than all the other liturgical cycles, still preserves the sign of its original and inerradicable connection with this theology in Easter and its year long cycle. No matter how many other Feast Days there are and no matter what they celebrate, they all reflect something of the light of Easter, and it is not by chance or for the sake of an artificial emphasis that the late Byzantine liturgiologists constructed the "pre-festivals" of Christmas and Epiphany — two of the most ancient and important feast days of the Christian year — on the pattern of Holy Week. Whatever is being celebrated, the celebration is fulfilled in the Eucharist, in the commemoration of that Paschal night when before His Sacrifice our Lord bequeathed the Supper of the Kingdom to the Church, in the commemoration of that morning when the new life shone in the world, when the Son of Man had completed His passage to the Father, and when in Him the New Passover had become the Life of men. Each Feast Day is related to that New Time which is celebrated by Easter.

Like the Lord's Day in the week, so also Easter each year manifests and "actualizes" that eternal beginning which in the old world appears as an end, but which in the Church signifies an End that has been turned into a Beginning, thereby filling the End with joyous meaning. Easter is an eschatological feast in the most exact and deepest meaning of this word, because in it we "recall" the resurrection of Christ as our own resurrection, eternal life as our own life, the fullness of the Kingdom as already possessed. As the beginning and end of the Church year Easter links this eschatological fullness with real time in its yearly form. Life in the world becomes a "correlative" of the eternal Easter of the New Aeon. Thus Easter reveals the essential nature of every Feast Day, and is in this sense the "Feast of Feasts."

"Having preserved the eschatological theology of time as its foundation and principle of formulation, the Byzantine synthesis has also preserved the ecclesiological significance of the Church's "rule of prayer." No symbolical explanation, no mysteriological piety and no ascetical individualism could obscure completely the unchanging essential nature of worship as the Church's act of self-revelation, self-fulfillment, self-realization. It must be frankly admitted, in our modern "liturgical piety" this essential nature has been very poorly understood. Nowhere is the need to "unfetter" the meaning of the Ordo so apparent, nowhere is the need to rediscover the meaning of the Ordo's now dead language so urgent.

The Ordo was fettered precisely because the ecclesiological key to its understanding and acceptance had been lost and forgotten. It is only necessary to read over the "rubrics" and prescriptions with new eyes, and to meditate on the structure of the Ordo, in order to understand that its major significance lies in its presentation of worship as the service of the new people of God. From the unchanging liturgical "we" of all liturgical texts to the most complicated rite for an All-night Vigil, with its vesting and unvesting of the clergy, its shifting of the center of the service from the altar to the middle of the church, its censings, processions, bows, etc., everything that is important and basic in the Ordo is a Byzantine "transposition" of the original meaning of worship as the corporate act and "fulfillment" of the Church. From the standpoint of "eternal" value and inner consistency certain details of this transposition can be called into question; one can distinguish between what is local (and often accepted as "universal") and what is universal (and often accepted as "local"); but it is impossible to deny that in the overall design of the Ordo, in its essential and eternal logic, it was, is and always will be the Ordo of the Church's worship, a living and vital revelation of her doctrine about herself, of her own self-understanding and self-definition.

"Finally, the ultimate and permanent value of the Ordo, a value which determines the whole complex path of its Byzantine development, is the Church's "rule of faith" which is revealed and imprinted within it. The theology of time and ecclesiology which in some way define the very essence of the Church's cult have been preserved in the Ordo in spite of the various pressures exerted upon it, and the revelation in and through the Ordo of the Church's dogmatic teaching must be regarded as a genuine product of Byzantine Christianity.

"The Byzantine period of history still awaits a proper evaluation in the mind of the Church. It can hardly be doubted that the development of dogmatic thought went hand in hand with a weakening of ecclesiological consciousness. The "Christian world" on the one hand and the "desert" on the other obscured the reality of the Church, which had come to be understood more as the source of a beneficient sanction, as the dispenser of grace, than as the people of God and the new Israel, a chosen people, a royal priesthood. This eclipse of ecclesiological consciousness was reflected in liturgical piety, in the forms and the view of the cult. But what constitutes the permanent value of this period is that in Byzantine worship the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon were not simply "transposed" from the language of philosophy into the language of sacred liturgical poetry; they were revealed, fathomed, understood, manifested in all their significance." [1]


Excerpted with permission of the publisher from Introduction to Liturgical Theology, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Copyright St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

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[1] Schmemann, Alexander, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1986, p. 213-220.