skip to main content

Celebrating Liturgica Music

Early Eastern Orthodox Liturgics

The liturgical rites of all the Eastern Orthodox Churches can be traced back to the original rite in use in Jerusalem prior to the Apostolic missionary activities to the Gentiles, and the subsequent persecutions that moved the Christian Church out of Judea and across the Mediterranean basin and beyond. The Apostles took with them the liturgical rite, developed as it was at the time. This became the basis of the Eucharistic service for the Church. The early Christian Church was not characterized by written rites that were carefully adhered to, but followed a highly regarded oral tradition of Eucharistic prayers.

The Jewish Foundation

Early Christianity began with a basic form that was a modified form of the Jewish Synagogue rite (or synaxis) that was coupled with a Eucharistic service (a modified Temple rite). Together these two services composed the core of the early liturgy. The earliest liturgical rites were very Jewish in form, for the earliest Christians were Jews who believed their Messiah had come in the person of Jesus Christ. Eventually, these two services were fused into a single service. Over time, especially with the influx of non-Jews into the Church, the uniquely Christian liturgical form began to take shape.

- Back to Top -

Early Hymns

Among the earliest pieces of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music, which attest to this transition, is the hymn "O Gladsome Light." This hymn is recited or sung every evening at the setting of the sun during Vespers. The text of this hymn was cited by St. Justin the Martyr in about 150 A.D. in his dialogue with Trypho. Although it pre-dated the Byzantium, it is referred to as "Byzantine." It is clearly Greek in its musical form and composition, while it possesses a text that is clearly Jewish in origin and conforms to the Jewish calendar in which the day ends and begins at sunset.

The very ancient "Hymn to the Holy Trinity" was found in 1918 in Oxyrrynchus, Egypt. It uses an ancient Greek musical notation system that fell into disuse by the last part of the third century. It conveys both an emerging Trinitarian theological awareness and a distinctly Greek musical form. (Sacred Sample)

Over time, however, as liturgical forms developed and became standardized, they were generally associated with the cities that were the Apostolic Sees, such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome. Initially these liturgical rites were very similar from city to city and church to church, but began to diverge over time as influenced by local circumstances and culture.

- Back to Top -

The Greek Influence

After the persecutions and the Gentile missions, the Church became primarily composed of Greek-speaking Gentiles for whom Greek culture and music were the norm. Thus began the introduction of Greek language and musical style onto the foundation of Jewish worship structure. The earliest rites in the Eastern Church include the Jerusalem liturgy of St. James, the Alexandrian liturgy of St. Mark, the East Syrian liturgy, the West Syrian liturgy of Antioch, the Armenian liturgy, and the Coptic liturgy. Most liturgical scholars accept that in the Eastern Orthodox Church, three principal rites emerged over time: the East Syrian, the West Syrian and the Alexandrian. These liturgies were far more similar than different from one another.

For the first three hundred years of its existence, the Christian Church was illegal and frequently persecuted. Therefore, very ancient liturgical documents before the fourth century are quite limited because the early Church was not "producing" liturgies but focusing on celebrating the Eucharist and surviving persecution. It was not until Constantine's edict of toleration in 313 A.D. that Christianity became a legal and public religion. Following this change in public status, the Church was forced to take on a new role in society, and began to modify its liturgical form to meet the requirements of ministering in a public forum. A much broader missionary effort now required proclaiming the Gospel to those uneducated about the faith.

- Back to Top -

Combating Heresies

The appearance of heresies in the fourth century, especially in the East, also necessitated modification of the liturgical rite. As Fr. Bouyer writes in his book, Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer:

"The setting down in written form of the liturgical prayers in both Judaism and Christianity is a relatively late phenomenon. In both cases, it came about only after it was felt that tradition was in danger of being changed as long as it was not cast in forms that were set even to their last details. Because of the reaction the heresies brought about, they were a particularly important factor in this evolution. This is indeed the reason why we see Christian texts of this type becoming common only after the great crisis of Arianism, i.e. after the second half of the fourth century."[1]

Thus in the century following the legalization of the Church, we can begin to identify the different liturgical forms or rites. While building upon a very uniform Eucharistic core, which had been established earlier, effort now went into adding beauty in the way of music, the common use of iconography, the early use of clerical vestments, majesty in ceremony, and instruction in theological content. The liturgical form developed slowly over the course of time, and was shaped by the new dynamics of becoming a part of society and combating heresy.

If there were many different and legitimate liturgical forms in the first few hundred years of Christianity, why in both East and West are there essentially only one or two today? Ultimately, the survival and ascendance of one liturgy over the other had more to do with non-liturgical factors. For instance, in the Eastern Church the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom became the principal liturgical form primarily because it was the liturgical form favored in the cathedrals and churches of the capital city of Constantinople. Similarly, in the West the Roman rite predominated over time because it was the rite of the cathedrals and churches in the capital city of Rome.

- Back to Top -

Early Liturgical Documents

The very earliest significant liturgical document known to exist is in The Apostolic Constitutions (also known as the Clementine Liturgy), a late fourth century handbook of church teaching. It claims to be based on earlier works of similar kind, and to convey the teachings of the Apostles that were transmitted to the Church by St. Clement of Rome. "For the history of Christian worship its character as a specimen rite has great value for unlike those rites which have been used it has not been modified to accord with developing practice. In its general form it can be taken as representative of the rite of Antioch in the late fourth century, from which that of Constantinople ultimately derived." [2] Perhaps its greatest significance is the great similarity it bears to the texts that exist for liturgies of the eighth century, four centuries later.

For instance, the Clementine Liturgy contains scripture readings, sermon, dismissal of catechumens, a comprehensive litany, corporate intercessory prayer, kiss of peace, procession of the gifts to the altar, anaphora and eucharistic prayers, intercessions and the communing of the faithful.

"The Clementine Liturgy enables us to form a reasonably accurate picture of late fourth century eucharistic worship in the province of Antioch. It testifies to the consolidation of the liturgical tradition in the East, parallel to that revealed by Ambrose of Milan in the West. The eucharistic prayer, which at least up to the third century had been extempore, at the discretion of the bishop, now became a fixed text. There was, of course, nothing like the uniformity of text and practice that later came to characterize eucharistic worship throughout the Church. It was still possible for new eucharistic prayers to be composed, of course following traditional lines; and considerable variety existed in the manner of celebrating the service. But the Clementine Liturgy provides us with a reasonable guide to the basic shape of the Liturgy of Constantinople at the end of the fourth century. It offers us an adequate starting point for tracing the specific development of Byzantine eucharistic worship." [3].

The principal differences in the various rites began to develop around the introductory parts of the service, that is, the introduction to what had originally been the Synaxis. The very earliest components were probably "a preliminary censing by the bishop or celebrant, followed by the singing of a group of psalms, prefixed to the lexicons. Geographically it begins in what is for the 'far east' of classical Christendom, though the censing was afterwards adopted by the central group of Greek churches." [4]

Now the clergy could publicly approach and enter the churches, and this provided the opportunity for ceremony. In some rites the old tradition of keeping the Gospel and other sacred books away from the Church for safekeeping during persecution was now incorporated into a formal procession by which they were brought to the church while the faithful sang Psalms. This eventually developed into the early part of the Eastern Rite service, incorporating the entrance of the clergy, the censing of the church, the antiphonal singing of psalms leading up to the Little Entrance, and the procession of the Gospel book to the altar.

- Back to Top -

The Litanies

The Litanies probably developed from the practice of the early church in the singing of Psalms by the faithful as they assembled and waited outside the church. It goes back to the Jewish liturgical use of chanted Psalms, and incorporates an antiphonal chant from Judaism. Now there was the need and opportunity for a "prayer of the people." Most likely the deacon or cantor chanted a Psalm verse and the people responded with the same refrain. The officiant then continued with the second verse to which the people responded, and so on. This is evident in the Antiphons where verses of Psalms are alternated with intercessory prayers.

The first Litany in the Eastern Rite is commonly called the Great or Extended Litany, for it covers every aspect of human need including prayers for the church, the world, and the whole of creation. The celebrating clergyman offers the petition, and the whole congregation prays together when the people respond "Kyrie Eleison" ("Lord, have mercy").

- Back to Top -

The Trisagion Hymn

The addition of the Trisagion Hymn (the Trinitarian hymn "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us") to the Liturgy can be traced to the time of Patriarch Proclus (434-446 A.D.), a period when the heresies were beginning to appear. The period of major heresies for the Christian Church was predominately the fourth and fifth centuries. The most notable heresies (Arianism, Monophytism, etc.) developed in the East. The Trisagion Hymn is accepted to have been divinely revealed at Constantinople as the text sung by the angels (perhaps a Trinitarian expression of Revelation 4:8). The hymn itself follows the prayer of the Trisagion said by the priest, and is one of the most ancient hymns of the Christian Church (see Sacred Samples). It is deeply Trinitarian and thus anti-Arian in character; Holy God is addressed to the Father Almighty, Holy Mighty to the only-begotten Son, and Holy Immortal refers to the Holy Spirit.

A parallel development in Eastern liturgical development can be seen in the incorporation of the hymn Monogenes or "Only-Begotten," a response to the Monophysite heresy. It was composed by the Emperor Justinian, and incorporated into the Byzantine liturgy following the second Antiphon approximately 535-536 A.D. It immediately became part of the entrance at Constantinople and Antioch, and soon was incorporated into the Greek rites of the Eastern Church.

- Back to Top -

The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

The two liturgical rites of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil in the Eastern Church became the norm by the end of the reign of Justinian. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was probably the liturgy used originally by St. John while Bishop of Antioch, and which he carried to Constantinople upon becoming Patriarch. It was, therefore, originally a West Syrian liturgical rite. In Constantinople it was refined and beautified under his guidance. Having become the liturgical form of the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), it became over time the normative liturgical form in the churches within the Byzantine Empire. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom reflects both a highly refined aesthetic of beauty and majesty, tradition and mystery, and a highly developed theology. It reflects the work of the Cappadocian Fathers to both combat heresy and define Trinitarian theology for the Christian Church.

- Back to Top -

The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil

The Liturgy of St. Basil follows the same structural form as that of St. John Chrysostom and the other West Syrian liturgical rites. It differs only in the prayers of the priest, and is characterized by a much more extensive Biblical imagery.

Many of the liturgical modifications of the fourth and fifth centuries were introduced in the East, and then were adopted in the Western Church. The battle against the major heresies was principally fought in the East, so it is not surprising to see the results appear in the Eastern rites. It is curious, however, that many of them (the Monogenes hymn, the Trinitarian structure of the prayers, etc.) were not adopted in the West. Notwithstanding this, a scholar like Fr. Bouyer can say:

"We will not deny that the West Syrian eucharist can be considered ideal, at least in the sense that nowhere else has the whole traditional content of the Christian eucharist been expressed with such fullness and in such a satisfying framework…There is no question of shedding doubt upon the legitimacy or even the excellence of the theology of the Greek Fathers of the fourth Century." [5]

- Back to Top -

The Continuity of the Eucharistic Prayers

Most of the liturgical development in the fourth and fifth century falls into two main categories: those incorporated into the entrance or introduction of the service (the majority of the additions in East and West), and those incorporated into the conclusions of the service. Most of this change came about in response to the changing circumstance and needs of the Church, and led to a new and fuller understanding of worship. However, the Eucharistic core remained unchanged as described by Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

"...It is important to stress that what was changed was not worship itself in its objective content and order, but rather the reception, the experience, the understanding of worship. Thus the historian can easily establish not only continuity in the development of Eucharistic prayers, but also the essential identity of their basic structures. The assembly of the Church, Scripture, Preaching, the Offertory, the Anaphora and finally the Communion — this structure of the Eucharist remains unchanged."[6]


Benjamin D. Williams

- Back to Top -

[1] Bouyer, Louis, Eucharist, Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame, 1968, p. 136.

[2] Wybrew, Hugh, The Orthodox Liturgy, St. Valdimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1990, p. 38.

[3] Ibid, p. 45.

[4] Dix, Gregory, The Shape of the Liturgy, The Seabury Press, New York, 1982, p. 445.

[5] Bouyer, L., ibid, p. 245-46.

[6] Schmemann, Alexander, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, 1986, p. 127.