The Evolution of the Byzantine Liturgy

Reading the news from the Serbian patriarchate website this morning I came across an excerpt from a new issue of a diocesan periodical. The featured article enticed me with its title: The Litany and Prayers after the reading of the Gospel.  What further intrigued me was the name of the author: Juan Mateos. Never heard of him. A quick online search led me to an article by Mr. Mateos entitled, The Evolution of the Byzantine Liturgy.

I don’t have a habit of making long posts on here so I’ll just post a part of the article. If interested, see here for the rest.

The entrance in the 4th century and in our times

When we examine the ancient documents dealing with the Antiochene and Byzantine Liturgies, the writings of St. John Chrysostom, for instance, we find that the Liturgy began with a greeting of the bishop to the people: “Peace be with you.” Immediately after responding to this greeting, the people sat down and the Holy Scripture was read to them. But in today’s celebration of the Byzantine Liturgy, rather lengthy ceremonies and prayers precede the reading of the Epistle. In very solemn circumstances these ceremonies can fill an entire hour, as in fact they did in the patriarchal Liturgies celebrated on Mount Athos during the commemoration of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the Great Lavra. Thus we see that from the time of St. John Chrysostom, when the Liturgy began with the readings, until the present day, the Byzantine Liturgy has acquired many elements that did not belong to it in its original shape.

The elements that we find today in the introductory part of the Byzantine Liturgy are, briefly: the litany of peace, three antiphons, and two small litanies, plus the three accompanying prayers; the prayer of the Entrance and the Entrance itself, the Troparia and Kontakia, the Trisagion. Where do all these elements come from?

If we go back to the time of St. John Chrysostom, that is to say, to the Liturgy as found in his day, we find the bishop and the priests entering the church and greeting the people with “Peace be with you,” and the people answering, “And with your spirit.” In other words, we have a primitive entrance that had no correspondent chant. The people, priests and bishop simply entered from outside the church without singing. After the greeting, clergy and people sat down and listened to the scripture readings. During the readings the clergy sat on a platform in the middle of the church, the ancient bema. The faithful also sat in the nave, along the sides of this bema, their clergy right in the midst of them.

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4 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Byzantine Liturgy

  1. I keep hearing about this Robert Taft, I think from what I’m reading about Nun Vassa (Larin). For some reason it’s oddly comforting to read about the development of the Liturgy over time, to know that it wasn’t cut from whole cloth but reflects the people of God’s continual experience of the Holy Spirit’s Life in the Church.

  2. Glad to help, Father! 😉 And it’s not surprising that he should remind you of Taft, since Mateos was his mentor, friend, and doctoral supervisor, and he sees himself as continuing the line of research that Mateos pioneered but later abandoned. This is especially the case with Taft’s ongoing “History of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom,” which in a sense is the continuation of Mateos’ La célébration de la parole dans la liturgie byzantine (OCA 191, Rome: 1971) — from which, incidentally, the article in the diocesan periodical you mention is excerpted and translated.

  3. Mateos was a Spanish Jesuit priest of the Byzantine rite who taught at the Pontifical Oriental Institute for some 20 years, and the premier scholar of the the Byzantine liturgy in the generation before the rise of his best doctoral student, Robert Taft. Later, during the post-conciliar aftermath in the Roman church, he grew disillusioned with liturgical studies and immersed himself in biblical studies, eventually producing a ground-breaking treatment of verbal aspect in New Testament Greek and, in collaboration with Old Testament scholar extraordinaire Luis Alonso Schökel, an equally ground-breaking translation of the Bible into Spanish. Unfortunately, he also veered into a radically critical and liberationist line in his own biblical interpretation. He died in 2003.

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