Friday, January 9, 2009

Some reflections on Byzantine liturgy

From Amy Welborn...

Saturday evening, we attended the Liturgy at the local Melkite Catholic Church. I’ve shared my observations about Eastern Catholic liturgies before, and have really nothing to add except:

1) Please go. If you’re a Latin Rite Catholic and have never experienced worship in one of these other Catholic churches, go. It will open your eyes to what worship is, and help you grasp what people are saying, even in the Latin context of “singing the Mass” instead of “singing at Mass,” for almost every bit of the liturgy is chanted by presbyter, deacon and people, mostly facing in the same direction. It puts staring at each other and mumbling back and forth in a whole new light.

2) The Divine Liturgy is not directly comparable to the Roman Rite (either old or new) in many respects, but one of the points it might jostle about in the Westerner’s brain is that of the respective roles of clergy and people. One cannot accuse the Divine Liturgy of not being conducive to lay participation. (ritual caveat - yes, I know “participation” does not mean “vocal.”) It demands it, and it is constant. There is, to put it bluntly, never a dull moment. But at the same time, behind the iconostasis, there is a great deal going on. As we are chanting our litanies, the presbyter is praying, and at various points, he emerges with an invitation to us, and we pray something else, and then he returns to his work. I compare this to some of the Masses I attend in which, in the name of participation, I have to sit for at least five minutes after Communion is finished, in silence, watching the priest cleanse the vessels. Because “participation” apparently keepin my eyes glued on every act that the priest performs. Well, yes I’m supposed to be praying, but I’m going to admit to you, it’s difficult, when all is silent and there’s the priest, right up front and center, taking care of things.

3) That said, there is a casualness to the Eastern liturgy that is both refreshing and unnerving. The church is practically empty at the begining, but gradually fills up, until most people have shown up by the Gospel or so. Because there is this (what I call) freight train aspect to the liturgy - you get on and it just goes - it’s hard for a Westerner, accustomed to associating “prayerful” with silence and kneeling, to re-associate it with chanting and standing. But good.

(But I will say, too - that the other interesting thing here is that if you are tired of standing and you want to sit, it’s fine. There were times when about half the people were standing and the other sitting. It reminded me a bit of going to Mass in Italy. There is a sense that we are all here together, celebrating the feast, encountering the Lord, but we are still who we are,and that is fine.)

Read it all.

Liturgy is always interesting and an important topic of both ecumenism as well as culture.

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