Tag Archives: Byzantine liturgy

“Let Our Mouth Be Filled with Your Praise”

Rob De La Noval

2nd Year Doctoral Candidate, History of Christianity

University of Notre Dame

In its whirlwind of genuflections, full-body crossings, language-shifts, censing of icons, and seemingly endless congregational chanting, it’s not difficult to recognize a Byzantine rite liturgy when you stumble upon it. For years this liturgy has been available to believers in the areas surrounding Notre Dame (either at St. Andrews Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend or at Mishawaka’s St. Michael’s Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church), but this past Sunday marked the second celebration of such a liturgy on Notre Dame’s own campus. Students, faculty, friends of the theological community in South Bend crammed into Malloy Hall for a service of what can only be called a “holy disorientation,”—or, perhaps better, a holy orientation, for this celebration of Melkite Greek Catholic worship transformed the normally sparse “Seat of Wisdom” chapel into an icon of the more densely outfitted Eastern churches where the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is typically performed.

static1.squarespaceThe worship space, cramped though it was due to full attendance (standing room only), appeared nonetheless spacious in the way an empty room can suddenly encompass multitudes once it has been thoughtfully furnished. Indeed, the chapel seemed to emanate from the altar outwards in concentric circles: two wooden portable iconostases, bearing images of Christ and of the Theotokos, framed the altar; gorgeously vested altar servers flanked Fr. Khaled Anatolios, newly appointed Professor of History of Christianity at ND and recently ordained Melkite priest, and Fr. Michael Magree, a Latin rite priest who served as deacon in the service; and the wood of the room itself, lining the ceiling and boarding its floors, received the gold of the icons, priests, and servers with a warm familiarity that redounded upon the worshipers embraced by the Seat of Wisdom.

These ‘circles of worship’ also manifested themselves in the circuitous nature of the liturgy itself. If the Roman Rite is known for the straightforward solemnity of its progression to the Eucharistic feast, the Byzantine rite reaches the same climax as its Western counterpart only after various cycles of prayers which cumulatively create sacred meaning for the worshipers and instruct them in the mystery of Christ the Church receives in her liturgy.

Before the Divine Liturgy even properly begins, the congregation has already been led by the cantor through various doxologies and hymns to Christ, culminating in the priest’s opening prayer culled from Psalm 51:

“O Lord, You Shall open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

This prayer receives its conclusive echo at the end of the liturgy, immediately after the faithful have received the holy Body and Blood of the Lord, when the congregation sings,

“Let our mouth be filled with Your praise, O Lord, for You have counted us worthy to share Your holy, immortal and spotless Mysteries.”

The celebrant’s opening prayer is finally answered when the mouths of the celebrant and all the faithful are filled with the flesh and blood of the Son, the eternal Praise of the Father.

So the Byzantine rite, in these reverend reverberations, teaches us as we sing that we must not only verbally praise the Lord, but we must become the Lord if He is to be rightly praised. This is why, when the priest elevates the elements and cries, “Holy things for the Holy!,” the people respond, “One is holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ to the Glory of God the Father.” Lest we approach the sacrament presumptively, we are warned that holy things are only for the holy; lest we not approach due to ungodly fear, we are reminded (in words evoking Jesus’ own in the Gospels) that “only One is holy”, the Lord Christ, and that He intends to make us holy by joining us to Himself in the sacrament.

The litanies recurring throughout the liturgy represent another significant series of cycles peculiar to the Byzantine rite. The congregation’s first act in the liturgy is to pray the “Litany of Peace.” In these prayers we supplicate the Lord for His Church and for His world, using that most ancient Christian prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” Following the homily the people embark on a second litany, the “Ecumenic Litany,” in which we pray once again for the Lord’s mercy on the Church, world, and—after a brief interlude—for the gifts offered for consecration. In the third litany, right before Communion, the people pray again (“Lord, have mercy”), but this time, puzzlingly, for the gifts which have already been sanctified.

In this prayer over the sanctified elements we find that the litanies have assumed a new character, one not focused solely on the needs of sinners. We pray the Lord’s mercy even over the good He has done for us by making the gifts we bring Him into the very Body of the Lord. This subtle transformation of prayer for mercy finds its climax in the post-Communion thanksgiving, in which the priest asks us:

“Now that we have received the divine, holy, spotless, immortal, heavenly, life-giving, awesome mysteries of Christ, let us give worthy thanks to the Lord.”

We respond, once again, with “Lord, have mercy.” In the course of this divine liturgy, prayer and supplication become praise and thanksgiving. This is what is means to thank the Lord: to invoke Him without end. And this should not surprise us: after all, the Lord whom we invoke is the One named again and again throughout the liturgy “the lover of mankind.”

What is more, this dual act of petition and praise becomes the model of our life beyond the liturgy, for immediately after the priest us calls us to “go forth in peace,” he unexpectedly continues the liturgy by calling, “Let us pray to the Lord,” to which we reply, once again, “Lord have mercy.” This twice repeated call for prayer extends the dismissal, inviting us to consider that the liturgy’s effect on us is preparation for a life of ceaseless invocation of the Lord’s mercy—which invocation is, in fact, nothing other than His praise.

jp-2-with-orthodox-clergyStanding at worship last Sunday in the Seat of Wisdom, I regularly took in during our corporate prayer the oceans of Byzantine gold, but at times another vision demanded my attention. I speak of the giant Latin crucifix of Christ jutting out of the chapel’s south wall. The charred, suffering Jesus there looked down at his crucified Byzantine counterpart depicted on the small cross set on the altar. Throughout the liturgy, the celebrant, his back to the people, would face the altar, lift his hands, and turn his eyes upwards to heaven and, inescapably, also to the crucifix hanging there before him.

Two images of Jesus met there: East and West. With the addition of this Eastern Catholic liturgy to Notre Dame’s campus, we can now add to this another union, one beloved of Pope John Paul II: two lungs.

God Where We Are: Traditions from the Byzantine Liturgical Tradition (Part 4)

Fr. James Karepin, O.P.

Chair, Ecumenism Metro Chicago (Chicago, IL)

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

Contact Author

Part I    Part II    Part III

To explore the importance of the life context, let us examine the icon screen which, in a properly appointed Byzantine church, stands between the sanctuary and the nave where the congregation gathers. (c.f. visuals) In this, the icon screen is reminiscent of the veil in the temple of Jerusalem which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. With the defeat of the iconoclasts and the restoration of the icons in the year 843, this relative of the rood screen found itself embellished more and more with icons. At its most ornate, the iconostasis consists of multiple ranks of icons, reaching from floor to ceiling. The second rank consists of the twelve icons depicting the twelve major feasts of the Byzantine calendar. It is to this rank that I would like to turn.

Unlike the Roman liturgical calendar which begins with the first Sunday of Advent, the Byzantine liturgical calendar begins on September first. (c.f., visuals) Since the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God comes on September eighth, this first feast of the year is also the first depicted on the festal rank of the icon screen. From there, we set off on our yearly cavalcade commemorating the great events of our salvation – focused, of course, on the coming of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. At the end of the liturgical year, we return to a feast of the Mother of God – namely, the Dormition on August fifteenth. Notice the layout: the feasts of the Lord are all situated between feasts of the Mother of God; the Christological icons are book ended by Marian icons. This is significant: the life of Christ is situated within the life of a human being – in this case, within the life of His Virgin Mother. As the first and most faithful follower of her divine Son, the Virgin is thus held up as a model for every believer: Christ’s life and presence should be visible in the life of each one of us.  Formal causality is evident.

In a recent article entitled “Religion is not the Problem: Secularism & Democracy”, Charles Taylor offers the following reflection:  The category “secular” developed largely within Latin Christendom, initially as one term of a dyad contrasting profane time with the eternal, or sacred time. Certain places, persons, institutions, and actions were seen as closely related to sacred or higher time, and others as pertaining to profane time alone – thus the similar distinction made in the dichotomy of “spiritual/temporal” (for example, the state as the “temporal arm” of the church) (Commonweal, Feb. 25, 2011, Vol. CXXXVIII, Number 4).  This is not a Byzantine view: instead of compartmentalization, Byzantines tend to see things organically. The dichotomy between sacred and secular is healed in Christ: the realms of time and space are woven together into the grand tapestry of the Kingdom constantly unfurled throughout human history. Recall what was said above concerning realized eschatology and shekinah.

The unified tapestry of life is unfurled in the Byzantine liturgical calendar. As the events of our lives are organically linked, influencing and influenced by one another, so are the feasts and seasons of the liturgical calendar; this should be obvious from our earlier discussion of the festal icons. The feasts and seasons of the Church year are like a pulse: they measure the times of our lives and provide evidence of life. The liturgical calendar also serves as a “matrix of meaning”: it is a template whose contours give the Christian life its distinctiveness.

The liturgical celebrations of the Church take their place within this matrix of life, and are of a piece with it. As such, rather than being discrete events, individual liturgies are part of a broader flow. This flow is exhibited in two ways.

On the one hand, the flow is visible in the way liturgies are tied to one another. This is seen every Sunday, as Byzantine Christians come together for vespers, matins, and the Divine Liturgy: if we were into the idea of Sunday obligation – which, by the way, we are not – we would see that participation at any one of these closely-linked services would satisfy that obligation. (With the renewal of Vatican II, the universal Church has encouraged us to return to our own living tradition, restoring vespers and matins to their proper place instead of adopting a more Western reliance on “Mass” alone. Indeed, in many ways, vespers and matins display a much richer theology and spirituality than the Divine Liturgy, which is much more sober and “matter-of-fact”; restoring matins and vespers to parish life puts our faithful back in touch with the richness which had too long been neglected.)

The flow is also visible in the ways the rest of life flows in and out of the liturgy. The calendar, with its feasts and fasts, is itself a preparation for the liturgical celebration. Take, for example, the Great Fast – commonly referred to as Lent. For Byzantines, the Great Fast is not about the sufferings of Jesus; rather, it is a season consecrated to conversion – and, as such, is a microcosm of the Christian life. The prayer and fasting and almsgiving are aimed at preparing the person and the community for the lessons conveyed and reinforced in the yearly liturgical journey.



Of course, the Lenten fasting is a preparation for the feasting of Easter. Fasting precedes feasting. This is a common pattern, repeated several times during the year: periods of fasting precede the feasts of SS Peter and Paul on June 29th, of the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15th, and of the Nativity of the Lord on December 25th. In this modulation, we see that preparation for liturgy is both private and communal.

In addition to the preparations for liturgy which are tied to life by the cycle of feasts and seasons, there are some specific preparatory activities which are prescribed for our liturgies.  Some of these preparations are long-range; for example, there is a profound spiritual process involved in the writing of icons used to decorate the church in which the liturgy is to take place. A similar spiritual exercise is involved in baking the prosphora – i.e., the leavened bread to be consecrated at the Divine Liturgy. Other preparations are proximate: for example, prayerful preparations are prescribed before Divine Liturgy, including vesting prayers, as well as an elaborate ritual preparing the Eucharistic gifts. During this preparation rite, the priest places a bread particle on the paten to commemorate each intention to be included at the Liturgy – often using bread brought by those requesting the prayers of the community.


The complexity of Byzantine Liturgical practice requires recourse to a multitude of books: celebrating the Divine Liturgy itself requires at least a liturgicon, an evangelary, and an epistolary; vespers and matins and the other “little” hours require a horologion or chasoslov. All of these are governed by the overall liturgical calendar, and the monthly menaion. For other services, we use a book called the trebnyk or “book of needs”; the services in this book are used for those occasions where the life of the individual and the family intersects the life of the Church. It is upon the trebnyk that I will now focus.

First of all, the trebnyk is used for administration of sacraments – or, as we call them, mysteries. Differently from usual Roman practice, many of these stand alone rather than being combined with the Divine Liturgy – namely marriage and initiation – i.e, baptism, chrismation, and Eucharist, for all three should be administered at the same time, even to infants. Funerals, which can be seen to have a quasi-sacramental character, fit this formula as well.


Much of the rest of the trebnyk is devoted to blessings. Blessings play an important role in our liturgical practice, for we recognize the importance of consecrating to God all those things given to us for our use. Blessings are of various kinds. First of all, there are “blessings of objects designated for liturgical use” – vessels, vestments, even incense; in a sense, these blessings fit under what was said earlier about long-range preparation for in-Church liturgical celebrations. A second category of blessings focuses more on the “domestic Church”: at specific times of the year, we bless things for the faithful to use at home. For example, we bless water on January 6th in commemoration of John’s baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan; on Easter, we bless the food with which the faithful will break their Lenten fast; on the feast of the Transfiguration, we bless the first fruits which parishioners have grown in their gardens; and on the feast of the Dormition, we bless flowers which will decorate their homes, thus reflecting the glory bestowed upon our race in the Mother of God. When these blessed objects are taken home, we see a sign that the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular has been healed: the realms of time and space are transfigured by the grace and blessing of the eternal God mediated by the Church. This transfiguration of the entire cosmos is evident in the rest of the blessings contained in the trebnyk: there are blessings for everyone and everything. Nothing is beyond the reach of God’s grace.


As the church building and the public liturgies celebrated therein reflect the beauties of heaven and the eschatological banquet, so does the family home become the domestic Church. As blessings flow down upon the Church from heaven, so likewise they flow outward from the church building to the home and to all centers of human activity, thus sanctifying all of life. We saw this above in what was said of the importance of blessings: the commercium divinum exhibited in the liturgy becomes incarnate in daily life. A visible reminder of this connection between the two centers of Christian life is the icon corner which is traditional in every Byzantine Christian home: reminiscent of the icon screen in the church building, the icon corner makes explicit the implicit presence of Christ in the life of the residents. The chasm between sacred and secular time and space is bridged by the ever-present Christ Who comes to meet us wherever we are.

As I come to the end of my presentation, I fear that my style has been more Western than Eastern: I have done more talking and explaining than showing. I hope that, in spite of this fact, you have been able to sense a bit of what the Byzantine liturgy is about, to understand some of the factors which have shaped it over the centuries. Perhaps you will even be inspired to participate in one of our liturgies in order to experience the fullness. In any event, I hope that our coming together at this time and in this place has helped us to open ourselves to the power of the liturgy, learning to recognize the God Who is where we are, right here, right now.



God Where We Are: Traditions from the Byzantine Liturgical Tradition (Part 3)

Fr. James Karepin, O.P.

Chair, Ecumenism Metro Chicago (Chicago, IL)

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

Contact Author

Part I    Part II  

Amid the sensory experience of Byzantine liturgy is an avalanche of words. For example, after communion, the priest or deacon prays,

Having received the divine, holy, immaculate, immortal, heavenly, and life-giving awesome Mysteries of Christ, let us rightly give thanks to the Lord.


Always sung, the words of the Byzantine Liturgy are not intended to be focused upon and analyzed; rather, they carry us along, allowing us to celebrate the truths which enliven us. Byzantines are therefore less likely than Roman Catholics to be concerned with successive translations and revisions.

This brings us to another element of Byzantine theology – realized eschatology: in short, we take Jesus at His word when he says that “the Kingdom of God is in your midst,” and that the words of scripture are “fulfilled in your hearing.” The fulfillment of the Kingdom of God initiated by Christ can be seen in terms of a continuum between “already” and “not yet”; Byzantines tend to gravitate toward the former, as can be seen in the fact that every eucharistic celebration opens with the public invocation, “Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and ever.” As we have already seen, the church building makes visible the Kingdom of heaven on earth; however, the Platonic worldview indicates that the earthly representation of the divine presence remains veiled in mystery.  Perhaps the word shekinah applies: in the temple of Jerusalem, the God Who is totally present nonetheless remains totally “other” and ineffable; shekinah shows immanence and transcendence to be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. With shekinah, the New Jerusalem plunges its roots deep into the fertile soil of the Old Jerusalem.

Another important concept is epiclesis – i.e., the invocation of the Holy Spirit. Permit me to share an image which has stayed with me for over twenty years – so long, in fact, that I have completely forgotten its source: was it Zernov or Zizioulas, or perhaps someone else? Blessings on whoever it was! Now the image: looking at an ornate, sometimes whimsical Byzantine church building, one gets the impression that the Holy Spirit has been invoked over the earth, bringing forth a sign of reconciliation between heaven and earth. This image shows how the Holy Spirit transforms the “fallen” material world, allowing it to be incorporated into the Kingdom. The things which we encounter in church – stone and wood, plaster and paint, metal and cloth, candles and incense, bread and wine and oil, rhythm and tone – are sensory elements belonging to the realms of time and space, yet they become doorways to the eternal. Such is the miracle of liturgy.

This brings us to a foundational concept: when the Holy Spirit is called down upon the things of earth, the earthly is empowered to make present the divine. This can be seen in an icon which dominates the apse of my church over in Mishawaka. I am speaking of the icon of the sign which you see depicted here. (c.f., visual) This icon writes in pictorial form the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel. “(Is. 7: 14) The icon shows the Divine Christ in the earthly womb of the Virgin Mary. Under the power of the Holy Spirit, the creature is empowered to give birth to the Creator.

The icon of the sign transcends the historical birth of Jesus. Consider that, in Byzantine iconography, the Mother of God is more than just the Virgin Mary who gave birth to the Christ Child; she also represents the Church. The icon can thus be interpreted to mean that, under the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church on earth can make present the King of heaven. This fact is supported by two other images. The first image is that of the tabernacle on the altar, which usually takes the form of a church building; the connection between the Eucharistic presence of Christ within the Church-shaped tabernacle and the presence of Christ within the Church seems obvious. The other image is that of the church building within which the faith community gathers for liturgy: as Jesus promises to be present wherever two or three are gathered in His name (Mt. 18: 20), so does He become visibly present in the faithful assembled under the roof of the Church building.  In essence, the icon of the sign and the tabernacle and the church building are but different versions of the same picture: Emmanuel, God is with us.

Like the icon of the sign, Byzantine liturgy transcends mere historicity, thus opening us up to a richer, deeper truth. Take the example of the bread which we use at the Divine Liturgy. You see, we use leavened bread – which, of course, is unhistorical, for Jesus would have used unleavened bread at the Passover meal which the Last Supper was. Despite that fact, I detect a deep truth. Those of you who have ever made bread know that yeast gives the bread dough a very unpleasant odor while it is being mixed – an odor which, to my mind, is reminiscent of the taint. Some would find it unseemly that tainted bread be offered for consecration; I, however, find it a sign of hope for us, sinners all: if God can transform tainted bread, we trust that He can transform the likes of us as well.


One last thought concerning epiclesis: you are probably aware that the Western Church, relying upon historicity and efficient causality, has generally focused on the efficacy of the words of institution in transubstantiation – i.e., “This is My Body … This is My Blood”; the Eastern Church (probably in reaction) shifts emphasis to the epiclesis. This Byzantine emphasis is evident in the way these two elements are handled in the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Churches. Given what we have already seen regarding the Platonic worldview and the mysterious nature of reality, it should come as no surprise that, the more important a liturgical element is, the more veiled it tends to be. It is thus significant that, according to the Byzantine rite, the words of institution are to be sung at full voice, whereas the epiclesis is to be silent. In the Divine Liturgy attributed to St. John Chrysostom, the main celebrant shows the importance of the epiclesis by whispering:

Further, we offer You this rational and unbloody worship; and we ask, we pray, and we entreat You: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here present, and make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ, and that which is in this chalice the precious Blood of Your Christ, changing them by the power of You Holy Spirit…


What we see is but a difference of emphasis. Taken together, the Eastern and Western traditions are complementary. Emphasizing the efficacy of the words of institution pronounced by Jesus, the West shows its Christological bent, while the East shows a distinct Pneumatological bent by focusing on role of the Spirit. Irenaeus of Lyons reminds us that the Christological and the Pneumatological work together: by showing the Son and the Spirit as the two Hands of the Father, Irenaeus shows that they work together in everything.

So when are the bread and wine transformed? What is the “magic moment” of transubstantiation? My training tells me that there is no such magic moment. Neither the epiclesis nor the words of institution can effectuate the change by themselves – that is, when removed from the context of the Eucharistic prayer, the anaphora; and the anaphora cannot be efficacious if detached from the context of the entire Eucharistic celebration; and the Eucharistic celebration itself loses its vigor when subtracted from the whole of the Christian life within the Church context. The Byzantine in me insists on organic connections rather than compartmentalization, synthesis rather than analysis.



God Where We Are: Reflections from the Byzantine Liturgical Tradition: Part 2

Fr. James Karepin, O.P.

Chair, Ecumenism Metro Chicago (Chicago, IL)

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

Contact Author

Platonic philosophy formed the underpinnings of the Byzantine world. According to this worldview, there is a two-tiered universe: reality exists in an ideal world above, whereas what exists here below is merely an imperfect reflection of what is above. For the Platonists, the ideal world above is spiritual, as opposed to the “fallen” world below which is material. The chasm can be overcome, however:  for Plato, the philosopher can break the hold of ponderous matter by contemplation, thus being transported beyond the veil to the hidden spiritual realms; in the Church, the philosopher becomes a mystic.


This view is congruent with salvation history: the fall of humanity and the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise parallels the Platonic fall from the spiritual ideal to the material shadows; the chasm is bridged by Jesus Christ, Whose descent from heaven and subsequent return models our own trajectory. In the prayer before the ambo of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, the celebrant sings,

“Sanctify those who love the beauty of Your house, and glorify them by Your Divine Power. … For all good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from You, the Father of Lights.”

Is it not the Platonic view of salvation which is being celebrated here?  The Platonic view of salvation undergirds the Byzantine liturgical theology. This is evident in the words of the Cherubic hymn, which is sung at the time of the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy, and which serves as an offertory hymn.

Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity now lay aside all the cares of life … that we may receive the King of all, escorted invisibly by ranks of angels. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.


Beneath the poetry, the Platonic worldview comes out clearly. When we sing that “we mystically represent the cherubim”, we admit that the cherubim are in heaven – i.e,.  in the ideal spiritual world of which our own earthly existence is merely a reflection: as the immortal angels assemble in heaven around the throne of God, so do we mortals gather around the earthly throne which God chooses – namely, the altar. Our liturgical celebration – complete with clinkers and a reliance upon ecclesia supplet – is an imperfect attempt to imitate the heavenly celebration: as the angels in heaven sing God’s praises, so do we on earth. This is our liturgical theology in a nutshell.

While the Cherubic hymn is being sung, the bread and wine are transferred to the altar for consecration. Christ, Who bridges the gulf between the material and spiritual worlds, is made visible in this procession with the gifts. Clearly evident in the Great Entrance is the commercium divinum – the exchange of gifts between heaven and earth. David Power explains this succinctly:

From the earth, the Word takes human nature, but brings it into an exchange with the divine, and so sanctifies it by the gifts of grace. The exchange therefore is not rooted in the bringing of gifts by the community, but in the gift that comes from God in the incarnation and that constitutes an exchange, or a commercium between the divine and the human.  (Cited in Celebrating Divine Mystery: A Primer in Liturgical Theology by Catherine Vincie, RSHM, p.56)

Note that the emphasis is on divine gift rather than human action. This is evident throughout the sacramental life of the Byzantine Churches. For example, the baptismal formula emphasizes God’s action rather than that of the priest by its use of the passive form: instead of saying “I baptize”, the priest says “the servant of God is baptized”. In the case of marriage, it is not the man and woman who bestow marriage upon one another by their vows; rather, they receive the gift of marriage in the crowns bestowed by the Church, thus being held up as living icons of Christ for the community. God works, and we are transformed – if we allow it.


The Church is the New Jerusalem. This fact is represented in the Church building, which houses the assembled Pilgrim People of God; again in Platonic fashion, the church building represents the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in heaven. The beauty of the building, with its architectural and artistic elements – along with the total sensory experience which is the liturgy itself – gives the congregation an experience of heaven. (c.f., visuals) We stand with Volodymyr’s awestruck emissaries and wonder whether we are still on earth; the words “Thy Kingdom come” become a reality. If our jaws drop at the beauty of the church which we behold, then the architects and artisans and artists have done their job.

Just a word about the extravagant sensory experience which the Byzantine liturgy is. The sights and sounds and smells all contribute to an atmosphere aimed at transporting the faithful beyond the earthly to the heavenly realms. Our churches should not have pews – as unfortunately they usually do in this country; rather, the faithful should be free to wander, following the inspiration of the graced moment. Remember what has been said concerning Platonism: the philosopher escapes the fallen material world by contemplation; does the congregation not do the same thing?


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)

Contact Author

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.