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.
The 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.
Standing 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.