There’s Something About Eastern Christianity…

Have you ever attended Divine Liturgy, Vigil, Vespers, or Matins at an Eastern Catholic or Orthodox parish?  If so, I am sure that you thought that it was…different.

When Westerners think about Christianity, more often than not, we think about Catholicism and Protestantism.  Sometimes we’ll add in Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints (Mormons).  However the Orthodox are commonly forgotten.  With 250-300 million faithful, the Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian Church, after the Catholic Church.  Also, what do we think of when we ponder the Catholic Church?  9/10 times, we’ll think about the Roman Catholic church, which is only one church (albeit the largest) among 23 that make up the Catholic Church.  The remaining 22 churches fall under the umbrella term “Eastern Catholic churches”, which in most cases, are Orthodox church communities that came back into communion with the Bishop of Rome.  So, while the Roman Catholic church is the most visible church in Catholicism, it is not the only church in Catholicism, and I must emphasize that all of these churches are in communion with the Bishop of Rome.  This is not like Anglicanism, which claims to be Catholic (some may refer to themselves as “Anglo-Catholics”), but they are not in union with Rome.  All Eastern Catholic churches are in union with the Pope, and thus are part of the Catholic Church.

Eastern Christians do not have the Mass of Paul VI or the Tridentine Mass as their normal Eucharistic services.  Instead, the normal and most common liturgical service in Eastern Christianity is the “Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom”.  While the overall structure of all liturgies in Catholicism and Orthodoxy is the same, there are many differences.

Eastern Christian liturgies tend to always use incense.  I LOVE incense.  The Jews used incense in their worship anciently, and we read about incense in the book of Revelation as well.  Incense is highly symbolic, pointing towards the Holy Spirit moving among us, as well as symbolizing our prayers rising up to God in Heaven.  The Mass does use incense in many cases, and it is always used in the Missa Cantata and the Solemn High Mass in the Tridentine form.  Back at Georgetown, I would go to the Noon Mass of Paul VI (“Novus Ordo”, the ordinary form) at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  It was always amazing.  The processional and recessional (as well as the procession with the gifts) was with candles and incense.  Incense was used throughout the liturgy, and the Noon Mass was the choir Mass, so there were Latin hymns as well as modern hymns.  It was always a great and reverent experience of worship of the Trinity.

However there’s something different about the Divine Liturgy, as well as the other liturgical services of Eastern Christianity.  Incense is liberally used.  Everything is chanted, without musical accompaniment (at least, this is the case in the vast majority of parishes.  Some may have a spoken liturgy, and some may use an organ, though this is not normal).  Eastern Christians make the sign of the cross A LOT more frequently than in Roman Catholicism.  As Roman Catholics, during Mass, we make the sign of the cross at the beginning of Mass, sometimes at the end of the Penitential Rite (when the priest says “May almighty God have mercy on us…”), after reception of the Eucharist, and at the end of Mass.  In the Tridentine form, we also bow our heads when “Jesus Christ” is mentioned.  On the other hand, in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox liturgies, the sign of the cross is made whenever the Trinity is invoked, Jesus Christ is mentioned,  Mary or another saint is mentioned, at the beginning and end of prayers, etc.  The sign of the cross therefore occurs  A LOT more frequently in Eastern liturgy.  This all adds to an amazing experience.  And of course, the normal position during Divine Liturgy (and all other liturgical services) is standing, so you’ll be standing for a good 1.5 hours during Divine Liturgy.  There will be chairs for the elderly and those that cannot stand for that long, however who wants to do that when the 75 year old woman next to you is still standing?

I attended Divine Liturgy, as well as Vigil, a few times at Saint Nicholas Cathedral in DC.  It was always a wonderful experience.  It really emphasizes the “Heaven on earth” feeling, where we know that the angels and Heavenly saints are worshipping God with us.  This is why I prefer liturgical worship, whether Roman or Eastern (and I guess you can add in the Anglicans and Lutherans as well, those that are liturgical).  It emphasizes that we are not at church to chat, nor to be entertained.  We are there to worship the Eternal God. We use various physical objects as symbols of the theological realities of our Faith, such as candles, incense, water, bread, wine, etc.  The word “liturgy” means the “common work”, and it truly emphasizes the communal nature of worshipping God.

Listen to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed being sung at Saint John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Mayfield, PA.

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~ by onecatholic on September 10, 2009.

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