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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Byzantine Divine Liturgy - Ruthenian Rite

This morning, accompanied by friends and younger friends (their children) we descended upon St. John the Baptist Ruthenian Byzantine Church, in northeast Minneapolis which, for those who are not aware, is one of the 22 Rites of the Church united with Rome. So, yes, they are a fully Catholic Church!

This visit to the Byzantine Church was the first for all of us, and we knew some very basic differences and that the Divine Liturgy (their term for the Mass) is quite different than what one would find in a Roman Catholic Church, although it is the same thing; the re-presentation of the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary.

For those who may not know, the Eastern Churches make the Sign of the Cross from right to left, as opposed to the Roman version which is left to right.  As today, the 3rd Sunday of the Great Fast, they celebrate the Sunday of the Holy Cross, there is an explanation in their bulletin for the very reason for this tradition:

"Blessing oneself with two fingers brought to the thumb represents the Trinity. The last two fingers held to the palm represent the two natures of Jesus - God and man. For the first 1,200 years of the Church, in making the Sign of the Cross, the hand was typically brought from the right to the left shoulder even in the Western Church. In the East this is still the practice, to signify Christ enthroned at the right hand of the Father. According to tradition and in the words of Pope Innocent II (1198-1216), the Sign of the Cross is made with three fingers because it is impressed upon us in the name of the Holy Trinity. From the forehead we pass to the breast, then from the right to the left."

I admit I did not know this as the reason for the difference and I will have to look into why the tradition changed in the Western Church (that's us, Roman Catholics!). I surmise there must be a theological reason for our tradition of left to right, or we wouldn't be doing it.  Does anyone know?

We arrived early, and upon entering the Church was empty. I took the opportunity to take a couple photos of the very small church, which was built in the Western style, but inside, was clearly Eastern in worship. The Iconostasis was striking, as was the scent of incense that permeated our senses. We knew immediately that we were in for a real treat!  Nothing says "Heaven touches earth" than the smell of incense!

All of us are familiar with both expressions of the Roman Rite: the Ordinary Form (often pejoratively called the "Novus Ordo") and the Extraordinary Form (often pejoratively called the "Pre-Vatican II Mass"). Of course, what this means is that we all immediately were attracted by the holy scent of incense which does amazing things to prepare one, all by itself, for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, or, in Byzantine Terms...the Sacred Mysteries.

When a few people arrived, we went out into the entry area with the children as their footsteps and toddler commentaries echoed throughout the space, and we wanted to be respectful of those who desired to pray and might better do so in silence. After all, as guests in a new place, we wanted to be polite!  Besides, not knowing the character of the Church, it is always best to stand back an observe as opposed to insinuating oneself into a situation!

As it was, we became the impromptu "welcoming committee" for the regular parishioners, most of whom seemed thrilled to run the short gauntlet of young families and children.  Several people commented on the dear children and how welcome was their presence. Even though I am not called to marriage and have no children, I have to admit it warmed my own heart to hear and see such expressions of love and welcoming for them.

Still, though, I have to admit; I now have a new appreciation for Protestants and other non-Catholics who visit a Catholic Mass for the first time, knowing only the most rudimentary things. I think I had the same misgivings and really, wanted to be sure not to offend. I was quite comfortable with the idea that we would stand out as visitors (well, not exactly "comfortable"...more....acquiescent to the terms of being a visitor to something new) and even more so when we saw the small size of the church itself.  While when I first attended my own parish I could "hide", but here,  it was impossible for any of us to simply "blend in."  We all knew it up front and just went with the flow.

A wonderful thing happened, though, as we waited for the Divine Liturgy to begin:  an old friend of mine from college walked up the steps and into the Church. I haven't seen him in years, but he looks just like he did back then. (I swear..some people NEVER age!). On the other hand, I've changed quite a bit (I got fat like the rest of my Irish farmer family), but simply didn't have it in me to pretend I didn't know my old friend.  Initially he didn't recognize me but all was well, he introduced us to his daughter and spent some time talking with us, helped us with some common things, emphasized that at Communion we should not stick our tongues out as Roman Catholics are wont to do, and, we found, he himself had prepared the leavened bread to be consecrated at that Mass!  (Yes, this is proper in the Byzantine Church and it's not something EVERYONE does.)

Initial Observations:

When people entered the church, they did not genuflect as we do in the Roman Church. It appeared that they reverenced (kissed) the icons upon entry, some wrote something in a book (forgot to ask about that), and bowed before entering their pew.  Instead of kneeling to pray in preparation as we do, they stood for a time, then sat.  This is of course quite alien to the Roman but given our surroundings, did not seem "out of place".

The parishioners were very helpful and directed us to the books and guides that would help us follow along, and I found that, in fact, the Liturgy was very easy to follow as it was in English. While (I think) there were a few songs and prayers in Slavic, overall most was in the vernacular with all the traditional chants.

Divine Liturgy

There are no musical instruments in a Byzantine Liturgy. As some explanations for this go, all come as they are, with what they have, and who they are. Instrumentation is not necessary, for God gave us voices to raise to Him in praise and supplication; nothing else glorifies God so much as that which He Himself created.

The melodies were very easy to follow, and believe me, there is a LOT of singing in the Byzantine Rites! But in those places where the choir sang, and although I am familiar with Byzantine Chant, it is an entirely different thing to hear that chant in the proper setting of the Liturgy.

Oh! I know now how angels sound when they sing their eternal praises to God

I'm sorry, but very little of the music I have EVER heard in the Roman Catholic Church can compare to the simple chants of the Byzantine Liturgy.(click the link to go to a Byzantine site where you can hear the chants and order the CD.)  And I put their music far over and above what we hear even in the holy ostentatiousness of the Baroque choirs of Mozart and his ilk at the infamous St. Agnes. (Which I admit, quite un-popularly, to be quite loud and too ostentatious at times. Sorry to those who love it, and yes, I do think it is far better than the Broadway faire of Haugen-Haas)

For those who have never experienced an Eastern Liturgy of any type, it is quite different. There are some similar elements, but it takes a LOOONG time to get to those things we recognize, such as the readings (which differ from ours) and the Consecration, which DOESN'T have bells to call our attention to it.  Incidentally, there ARE bells in the first half of the Divine Liturgy, although I forgot to inquire as to the significance.

In following along, though, what impressed me was the ongoing praise to God alternated with the cries for His mercy, which is what the Liturgy throughout the Church, properly done is all about:  knowledge and praise of God, while coming to know oneself in the face of God.  So much of this is lost in the Roman Liturgy, not because of the liturgy itself, but through the music which, in the Roman Mass, tends to be more of a celebration of ourselves as opposed to great praise and supplication to God.  (This is the point of reform within the Roman Catholic Church, and for good reason!)

There was absolutely no doubt, in this Liturgy, to WHOM it was addressed, and WHY. Yet, for those who want to juxtapose the interior with the exterior practices of our Faith would find them quite united here.  I think that those who love to focus on the physical participation in the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church would find their home here in the Byzantine, for there are few pauses and it is dominated by the active singing and response of the congregation.  In fact, I know someone who has a very difficult time focusing unless she is doing something at Mass, and may really find that the Byzantine Divine Liturgy keeps her attention as it demands a constant response.

I have to wonder if the minds behind Sacrosanctum Concilium were looking at the Eastern Liturgies as they wrote that document, seeking to combine the focus that has always oriented the Liturgy in all Rites to God with both the interior participation as well as the "active" participation of the Faithful.

The Doors and the Icons 

While the Byzantine Church also has an Offertory (for which I was not prepared today, to my shame), it is followed by the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which again, differs greatly but was still helpful in orienting me as to what was going on at the time. The book containing the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was  very helpful, but still, I found that I needed to be focused on what was happening in the sanctuary through the opened Doors, to which our attention is called throughout.

To explain, briefly, the Iconostasis, which operates much like a Communion Rail in a Roman Catholic Church (in those few where it remains), separates the human world from the heavenly world. It contains 3 doors:  in the center are the Holy (or Royal) Doors, which open to the Sanctuary where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and represent the Gates of Heaven.  Only the Priest may pass through these particular doors; any others are automatically excommunicated for the infringement. The Deacon's Door, to the right, is graced by the image of St. Stephen (at least at St. John the Baptist), the protomartyr  behind which we see the Deacon's Altar. The door to the congregation's left is the Server's door, and portrays most often, and clearly in this particular Byzantine Church, the icon of St. Michael the Archangel.

Of note in every Byzantine Church, you will find on one of the doors to your right, the icon of St. Nicholas of Myra, the Patron of the Byzantine Church.

Holy Communion

I admit I was nervous to receive Communion in the Byzantine Church, if only because it is a little different. I am accustomed to receive on the tongue, so opening my mouth to receive Our Lord isn't the problem. Rather, because this is such a Holy Moment, a Holy Action, I wanted to be certain that if I screw up at any point, it wouldn't be THAT point!  I even seriously considered not receiving at all!

Yet I knew I could...I went to Confession yesterday, am sure I had not committed any mortal since since my Confession, and really, the newness shouldn't detain me. Yet..that's just me. I'm a wimp and often want to hang back instead of trying new things, especially when making a mistake with new things can become sacrilege.

I had asked my friend, in the entryway about this, and this is where he emphasized to receive by tilting the head back, mouth open. For all the Roman Catholics out NOT stick out your tongue! He laughed about how they always know a Roman by the instruction, "Tongue in!"  and according to habit, we stick our tongues OUT to receive!

Not in the Eastern Church. I actually LOVED Holy Communion in this form, so I will explain it from a newbie perspective in anticipation of other newbies:

You will queue up like we always do. Like the English, we Roman Catholics in America are very serious about our queues, so you can expect here what you do at Communion time at Mass.

There is a small table (Tetrapod)  near the front containing an icon (Pictured) with two candles on either side. Today, as we venerated the Holy Cross, the Tetrapod contained an icon of the Crucifix.  At Holy Communion, consistent with the spirituality of each person coming to God as they are, each person went forward to the Priest to receive.  We formed two lines, waited at the Tetrapod. and when the person before us had moved aside, went forward.

I noticed that the server beckoned me...I don't know if he does that for each person or just for newbies. It could be that I waited too long to advance.

The servers on either side of the Priest hold up a red cloth (I know there is a name for this, please inform me) beneath the chin of the one receiving.  Many people bent their knees, and although I am short, I did a little, too, to make it easier for the Priest. Make a sign of reverence while standing in line (much like the Roman Rite), then approach, the Priest will offer Christ from a chalice where the leavened bread that has become the Body of Christ is mingled with the Precious Blood in the Chalice that he holds.  If needed, bend your knees, open your mouth (tongue in!), and the Priest will use a spoon to place the Sacrament in your mouth.

I have read this too, and know this is hard to envision. But I can tell you this:  today I KNEW I had received God Himself, the very BLOOD AND FLESH of Christ on my tongue. I can't describe it, but it is completely different from the physical "feeling" of Holy Communion in a Roman Catholic Church. I have received by valid intinction (consecrated hosts on a paten with a small chalice attached, where the Priest intincts the Host) in a Roman Catholic Church, but this was still a bit different.

I have a strong devotion to the Precious Blood of Christ, but don't often receive from the chalice, and found that Holy Communion today has brought me more deeply into that particular devotion in a way I will not soon forget.

After Holy Communion, the Faithful return to their pews and stand, for in the Eastern Church, THAT is the sign of reverence.  I knew this in advance and thought that I would miss kneeling, and indeed, I WANTED to kneel.  This Church had kneelers utilized by some, but I found that I wanted to remain standing given the practice and the ancient sign of respect in this Church.  After all...when in Byzantine, do as the Byzantines do.

Please note that this differs from the odd Roman Catholic Churches that stand at the consecration in disobedience and outside of the tradition of the Roman Rite; I attended some of those prior to my conversion and "knew" that standing was wrong...and had a sense of the kneeling that was missing during the consecration.

I did not have that sense of discomfort today. That speaks volumes.


During Holy Communion there are several Hymns, and following, prayers of Thanksgiving. There are more prayers to be merciful to we, the sinner, supplications to God, and an admonition from the Priest to be attentive to Our Lord and the Holy Spirit, as I recall. (I'm sorry I can't link to this part of the Liturgy)

There was no procession out to which we Romans are accustomed.

The people in front of us took this time to introduce themselves and welcome us to their church, invited us back, exclaimed over the children, and said that they had been raised as Roman Catholics.  Lovely people, and for some reason, reminded me of Texans. I don't know why and can't explain this. (no accent, they just..quirkily, made me think of Texans).

But because they were so homey and personable,and seemed so informal even though something was STILL going on in the Church, I was a  bit discomfited. I was watching the Faithful filing forward, as if for Holy Communion, instead of filing out.Clearly people were receiving a blessing from the Priest, who was holding a glass bowl containing what appeared to be oil.

To either side stood servers, the one to my left holding the Bulletin, the one to the right holding a basket and a bulletin.

The man I asked explained that because it was the Sunday to venerate the Holy Cross, they were going forward for the veneration of the Icon of the Cross, and then to the Priest for a blessing. He explained that the basket contained the bread that was not used in Communion.

 I went forward, kissed the Cross, and found that the person in front of me was engaged in a conversation with the priest. I'd started to move forward but saw that I should wait as their conversation continued...clearly this was more informal.  It reminded me of the Roman Rite of the Liturgy of the Priest Greeting after Mass.

The Priest used what looked like a fine-tipped paint brush to paint a cross on my forehead with the holy oil from the bowl. I had to hold back my bangs for this, as did other women. He spoke in Slavic, so I have no idea what he said.

I did not take any of the bread from the basket, but one of my friends asked the Server if it was the Eucharist. He said that it was.

No, it wasn't.  It was blessed bread, but as I understand, not consecrated, so not Christ Himself. This was a cause for concern for a time, but my friend explained it to us (thankfully!) and I can assure anyone who experiences this that no one is desecrating the Eucharist!

After this, we received a tour of the Church, I took photos of the icons while listening, and find that I will need to attend again both with more knowledge of the Ruthenian Divine Liturgy, and to get better photos of the icons.

I left feeling blessed, knowing that I had received Our Lord, and with a greater appreciation of the Universal Church.

Thank you, Jesus. 

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