God Where We Are: Reflections from the Byzantine Liturgical Tradition: Part 1

Fr. James Karepin, O.P.

Chair, Ecumenism Metro Chicago (Chicago, IL)

Administrator, St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church (Mishawaka, IN)

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This talk was given at the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy’s June Conference, Formed for the Liturgy, Reformed by the Liturgy.

It is a great privilege for me to stand here before you, and a daunting challenge. You see, I am not a liturgist by training. My study of French gave me access to the works of my Dominican brother, Yves Congar, whose thought contributed so much to the renewal ushered in by Vatican II. In many ways, the mystery of the Trinity led me to follow in Congar’s footsteps as an ecclesiologist and an ecumenist. Being both a Ukrainian Catholic and a Dominican, I find myself daily called upon to live out the vocation which many have attributed to the Byzantine Catholic Churches – namely, that of a bridge. In short, my presentation comes largely out of my experience: as a Byzantine, I rely upon the liturgy itself to be my teacher; after all, for us Byzantines, the liturgy is not merely an expression of our faith, but rather a source of our faith: we take “lex orandi, lex credendi” seriously. Don’t look for a lot of footnotes: rather than a technical or academic treatment, I hope to share our faith in the Triune God as revealed in the Byzantine liturgical tradition. So I begin my presentation “God where we are: Reflections from the Byzantine Liturgical Tradition”.

Permit me to begin by mentioning a basic difference between Eastern and Western Christians. If asked “What do you believe?”, these two groups will answer in very different ways. Westerners, relying heavily upon cognitive functions and verbal skills, will attempt to convey their belief system in words: they will tell the questioner what they believe. Easterners, on the other hand, rely more heavily upon the senses and the heart, and will show questioners what they believe rather than telling them about it: the importance of the Gospel will be presented in the gilded, jewel-clad book with which we process and which we kiss; the Resurrection is proclaimed in the reuniting of the Body and Blood of Christ – both in the chalice, and upon the spoon with which Ukrainian Catholic clergy distribute the reunited Eucharistic elements to the faithful; the communion of saints, the “cloud of witnesses” surrounding us, becomes real in the icons with which we embellish the spaces we frequent, and which we venerate. Come to my church: I’d be happy to spend more time sharing faith à la byzantine; for now, we must move on.


Permit me to reflect upon yet one more distinctive Byzantine characteristic. As a Dominican, I cannot resist doing so using Thomistic terminology. In the West, conversion is brought about by efficient causality. Now efficient causality is how a nail gets into a wall: we work at it until the job is done. For us Byzantines, a different principle is at work – namely, formal causality, which I also like to refer to as “iconic”. We all know that Christ is the perfect image of God, the true icon revealed to us in salvation history. When we gaze upon an icon, we admire its beauty and are drawn to it; in the case of Christ, we are drawn to the divine perfection which burns in Him as if with the Pentecostal flame of the Spirit. We are in awe at the goodness which Christ manifests, and we desire to become more and more like Him. We are drawn to Christ, to His intimate embrace of love; we spend time with Him, developing a relationship; as we do so, we come more and more to resemble Him – as indeed married couples sometimes grow to resemble one another after years of life together. Eventually, we “catch the fire” and are transformed into living, breathing icons in which others can see the light of Christ, icons through which they can experience the warmth of God’s love. We are transfigured not only for our own salvation, but also that we might be instruments of salvation for all that we meet. In this “spiritual contagion”, we change the world by being changed: after all, nemo dat quod non habet. Our whole life is about conversion, and the liturgy plays an important role in this. Formal causality is foundational: contemplating the presence of the glorious Christ, we and the cosmos and everything in it can aspire to become a credible icon of the divine.


The Byzantine spiritual tradition was shaped by the imperial city of Constantinople in which it grew up; from there, it spread to Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and eventually to the wilds of northern Indiana. It was in the great Church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia, that the envoys of Prince Volodymyr experienced a liturgy which made them wonder whether they had been transported to heaven. When Volodymyr chose this faith for his people and brought it to Kyiv in 988, a worldview came with it.

And over the coming week or so, I’ll share a bit of this worldview with you the reader.



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