I sometimes think we Orthodox have a problem with modernity—by which I don’t mean that we should begin ordaining women to the priesthood or marrying homosexuals (those two thoroughly modern issues) or otherwise throwing the Scriptures into the dustbin. Rather I mean that we seem not to be as good as we might be at coping with the demise of Byzantium. For example, we still continue to use the term “Constantinople” when every map and travel agent in the world has used the term “Istanbul” for some time now. And we glory in titles such as “the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East”, despite the fact that the term “the East” refers not to a direction of the compass, but to one of the original major administrative divisions of the Roman Empire, divisions which have long since lost any real significance. We need to face the fact of Byzantium’s demise along with all its many consequences.
One of those consequences is the sad recognition that the world is no longer Christian as it once was. In the early Church, everyone was all too keenly aware that the world was not Christian and a hard line was drawn between the Church and the World, separating those inside from those outside with a kind of ruthless clarity. Take for example the agape meal celebrated in the third century. The document now known as The Apostolic Tradition gives directions for how that supper meal should be ordered. (The details of authorship need not detain us here; regardless of who wrote it, it clearly reflects the common Christian mind of its time.) At that meal, the faithful received a fragment of the blessed bread from the bishop’s hand before taking their own meal. “But to the catechumens let exorcised bread be given…A catechumen shall not sit at table at the Lord’s supper [i.e. the agape meal].” Note: not only were the catechumens excluded from the Eucharist; they could not even sit at the same table as the faithful at the agape meal and share the non-eucharistic bread. In the Eucharistic service, they were allowed to be present for the reading of the Scriptures and for the instruction (just as any visitor was allowed), but were dismissed with prayer immediately afterward. They were excluded from the corporate intercessions which the faithful offered for the world and its needs, and from the corporate exchange of the Kiss of Peace, because (quoting The Apostolic Tradition again) “their kiss is not yet holy”. The whole world lay under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19) and those in the world were tainted and unclean—a taint and uncleanness that only Christian baptism could wipe away. That is why the catechumens were rigorously excluded from all Christian rites and functions and could only passively hear the Scriptures and receive the prayers of the faithful.
Clearly things have changed, and if a Christian from the early third century could be brought back to life and brought forward in time to our own century, he or she would be shocked at what we do and allow. And the multiple shocks received at our Liturgy would begin early. The ancient Christian might wonder a bit why the service began without the celebrant greeting everyone (as done in his day), but he would be floored when the Great Litany began with outsiders, visitors, and catechumens present. For the prayers and intercessions of the Church could only be offered by the baptized, the royal priesthood, the communicant faithful. In the words of Gregory Dix (old words now, but still true), “The Church is the Body of Christ and prays ‘in the name of Jesus’, i.e. in His Person. The Spirit of adoption whereby the church cries to God in Christ’s Name, ‘Abba, Father’ with the certainty of being heard Himself makes intercession with her in her prayers. Those who have not yet put on Christ by baptism cannot join in offering that prevailing prayer” (from his The Shape of the Liturgy). The ancient Christian would be shocked that the line between the World and the Kingdom had somehow be erased, and that the saving boundaries and walls of the Church had apparently been torn down. What were unbaptized outsiders doing here during the time of the Church’s intercessory prayer? How could they offer that prayer if they were not yet part of Christ’s body?
So what happened and caused the change, allowing the intercessory prayers to be offered at that place in the service? In a word, Byzantium happened. Increasingly from the fourth century onward, the line between the Church and the World came to be blurred, as more and more people in society claimed membership in the Church. By the time the thing was in full swing, it was difficult to find unbaptized people anywhere. There were Jewish enclaves of course, and heretical groups, but pretty everyone else in society was considered at least in theory to be in the Church as well. This resulted in a general lowering of the spiritual temperature, about which clergy were already complaining in Chrysostom’s day. But canonically speaking the old dividing line between the Church and the World was hard to find. This being so, no one batted an eye at praying the Great Litany before the catechumens had been dismissed later on in the service. The whole idea of the catechumenate had become anachronistic anyway. One could pray the intercessions of the faithful before the catechumens were dismissed because the latter no longer existed. (Why one would continue praying for and dismissing non-existent people is another question, and a good one.) The Liturgy which allowed everyone in society to be present throughout was the Liturgy of Byzantium, a Liturgy which assumed that everyone present was a part of the Church.
We need to acknowledge that Byzantium is gone, and that in the words of the old song, “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople”. More importantly, we need to acknowledge that many if not most of the people in the world around us in North America are not Christians. Some might object to regarding nice secular people as tainted or unclean (in the same way as third century Christians regarded the non-Christians surrounding them), but this objection simply reveals how far we are from the mindset of the early Church. The cry of “The Doors! The Doors!” was originally a diaconal call to the doorkeeper to guard the doors against secular intrusion, and served as a kind of verbal dividing line between the Church and the World. In Byzantium it eventually came to have the same anachronistic meaninglessness as the prayer for and dismissal of the by-then non-existent catechumens, since the assembled church no longer needed protection against hostile intrusion. Perhaps the retention today in the Liturgy of that ancient cry may yet prove providential. The line between the Church and the World, blurred in the heyday of Byzantium, has once again come to the fore.
The fine liturgical details resulting from this acknowledgment are less important than the acknowledgment itself. The World is once again a place of sin, rebellion, and spiritual danger in a way that it was not when Christendom and Byzantium were still standing. Becoming Orthodox must be seen as a renunciation of this World with its perverted values and as an entrance into a completely different moral universe. Christians are fundamentally different from the society around them, and this difference must be insisted upon canonically (i.e. by excommunicating blatantly worldly behaviour) and possibly expressed liturgically as well. It is no good pretending that western society around us is Christian and that we may therefore follow its norms. Through God’s grace and baptism, we are different from the society in which we now live. We need to realize that we belong no longer to the World, but to the Kingdom of God, and to close the spiritual doors to worldliness. Byzantium is long gone, and once again we live as exiles and aliens in the world around us. Let us hearken to the ancient diaconal cry, and set our faces away from the World and toward the coming Kingdom. In words of a very old prayer, “Let grace come, and let the world pass away”—even the world which flies the national flags we so often see around us. Our ultimate allegiance lies elsewhere.
Post a Comment
Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.