Updated: Jul 9, 2018
Have any of your Roman friends ever told you that they were planning to attend the Divine Liturgy and wondered if you could help them out by telling them what they could expect? It takes us a bit off guard and we scramble to try to think of everything they might want to know, so I thought it might be helpful to compose a list that we could easily refer to, or even refer them to, when the question arises. Let me know if I forgot anything.
1. The Byzantine Divine Liturgy is the direct equivalent of the Roman Mass
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is based on the rites used by the Antiochian Church in Syria where St. John Chrysosotom was a priest. It was later refined and used by him in Constantinople where he was bishop from 398 to 404AD and has been the Byzantine Church’s primary liturgy ever since. Since our Church is in communion with the Latin/Roman Church…and every Catholic Church...it is perfectly acceptable for any Catholic to approach the Eucharist, and yes, it does fulfill the Roman Sunday obligation.
(Side Note: The relationship we have with the Orthodox is complex in that we consider them to be in communion with us, but they do not recognize that relationship. Therefore, although we are able to receive at their Divine Liturgies and they are welcome to do so at ours, they will not approach and will deny us the Eucharist in their Church. Out of respect for their position, and not wishing to cause them difficulty until the Churches reconcile their political differences…priests who knowingly commune us, even if they personally believe we are worthy, are at risk of being excommunicated...we Catholics do not want to put them in such a position, so we simply do not approach their sacraments.)
2. Wear comfortable shoes. We stand for everything!.
We don’t kneel on Sundays, even for the consecration of the Eucharist, except for a brief few minutes on Pentecost Sunday!
Why? The First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD, forbade it. The celebration of the “little resurrection” on every Sunday is way too joyful an occasion to kneel, so we stand to meet the Lord, Who is coming to be with us, as it says in CanonXX of the Council:
"Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord's Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.”
St. Basil the Great explains it this way:
"We stand up when praying on the first of the week, though not all of us know the reason. For it is not only that it serves to remind us that when we have risen from the dead together with Christ we ought to seek the things above, in the day of resurrection of the grace given us, by standing at prayer, but that it also seems to serve in a way as a picture of the expected age…. therefore, the Church teaches her children to fulfill their obligations to pray therein while standing up, in order by constantly reminding them of the deathless life to prevent them from neglecting the provisions for the journey thither.
(Canon XCI of St. Basil the Great)
So, everyone in the entire Church refrained from kneeling on Sundays until the western Church was plagued by the Berengarian heresy (Berengar of Tours was an archdeacon and noted theologian who lived in the 11th century and taught that there was no change in substance at the consecration, only a spiritual change) and the western Church reinstituted the tradition of kneeling at the consecration with the intent to repair for the blasphemies of the heretics. Since the eastern wing of the Church wasn’t effected by that western heresy, we didn’t get that memo, and so we continue to stand.
3. How should we dress?
Most of us still dress in our “Sunday best”, but the attire of the congregation varies as it does in any church, just wear your usual, modest, "basic Christian” attire and you’ll be fine. That said, you’ll notice that the priestly vestments, and those of the altar servers, are a bit different than those of the Roman Church, very ornate and elaborate. Each piece of the priestly and diaconate vestments have very symbolic meanings.
4. To veil, or not to veil…?
As in any Catholic Church, some do and some don’t. Some congregations tend to expect you to cover your head, such as the Orthodox ROCOR Churches, so if you suspect this may be the case, my advice is to bring a covering in your purse just in case. In most Eastern Catholic Churches, you won’t be out of place either way. I do veil, and have a great love for this observance (a post for another day…hahaha!) For now I will say that it is a testament to the dignity of womanhood, specifically motherhood, that is so prominent in the teachings of Christ. Women are revered as co-creators, a living tabernacle of new life, a place where miracles occur! We do not take our place among the men at the altar in a Byzantine Church…no girl altar servers here…but we do assume a dignity that men may never experience and in honor of the fact that I humbly know and recognize this gift, I wear a covering on my head in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
5. The church architecture is a bit different.
The body of the church is divided into three main parts, the Vestibule, the Nave and the Sanctuary.
You will enter the Vestibule where people are expected to gather themselves mentally to enter into the presence of God. You may or may not see holy water fonts there. Traditionally a font is absent, due to the fact that the faithful are expected to have made use of holy water at home as they said their own daily prayers in preparation for Matins and the Divine Liturgy.
The Nave is the interior of the church building where the faithful gather for worship. Traditionally there are no pews in a Byzantine church building, except for a few along the wall for the elderly and infirmed. Pews, like Holy Water fonts, are a Latin adaptation.
There is a little table near the sanctuary called a tetrapod, where the icon of the feast or season being celebrated is placed. It is customary for the faithful to approach this table upon entering the church, where you should bow, cross yourself, (we do it from right to left…why? A post for another day!... you can do it from left to right as your own tradition requires…its all the cross!) and venerate the icon with a kiss. After venerating the icon you should proceed to your seat/place and begin to prepare yourself in prayer for the Liturgy.
The most striking feature of the church architecture is the iconostasis. This is the screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave and is meant to symbolize the division that exists between Heaven and Earth. The icons on the screen are “windows” where we may see Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints all cheering us on to join them in eternity there someday. There are doors in the center of the screen through which only the priest may pass, since he acts as Christ Who is the only one Who exists simultaneously in both realms. Altar servers may not pass through this door, nor can they pass directly in front of the tabernacle, which is always found in the center of the sanctuary, upon the altar. There are doors on either side of the Royal Doors, called Deacon’s Doors, which they may use.
6. It’s Sensory Overload…but in a good way!
We SEE the icons, not only on the iconostasis (the screen which serves to separate the sanctuary from the nave…it reminds us of our earthly separation from God in Heaven. The icons are windows, the royal doors represent the gate through which Christ only may pass, being both God and man…beautiful symbolism) but adorning absolutely everything! Back when people weren’t educated and able to read, these icons served as teaching tools of the catechism, so their composition is strictly governed because any deviation from these symbolic designations is tantamount to heresy.
We HEAR the bells, which symbolize the singing of the angels, and the choir…everything is sung.
We SMELL the burning of incense which symbolically lifts our prayers with its smoke to the heavens.
We TOUCH the icons as we venerate them with a kiss.
We TASTE and see how good the Lord is, as we receive Him in the Eucharist
The Byzantine Church employs each and every one of the five senses, which makes it great for teaching little ones! Don’t be afraid to sit up front and take it all in!
7. Book or no book? Everything is chanted.
I’ve spoken to many of the visitors to our Church for Divine Liturgy who tell me that they are torn between looking at everything that’s going on and following along in the book so they can participate. My advice is to forgo the book for now and just take in the beauty of the Liturgy. There is so much to see that if you bury your head in the text you’ll miss it all. Later on you can begin to introduce the book, but don’t forget to look up often.
Everything but the sermon is chanted, and each one of the Byzantine Churches has its own special style of chant! All are the same, yet so diversely unique based on the culture of the Church. I am Ruthenian, and our chants have a very distinct sound which is really more apparent when you compare it to the Ukrainian chant. Very similar, but each is distinct and equally beautiful. The Melkites are from Syria and have a wonderful middle-eastern sound that is hauntingly gorgeous, in my opinion and I enjoy visiting them just to hear it. As I said, each is unique and beautiful as well.
8. Will it be in English?
Maybe…maybe not…maybe only partially. In my Ruthenian Church the liturgy is mostly in English, with the exception of a few of the hymns which are sung in Old Slavonic, the liturgical language of our Church. It surprises many Roman Catholics that our sacred language is not Latin. This is because of the fact that when the Greek missionaries Sts. Cyril and Methodius began to convert our ancestors in the ninth century, they used the language that they had learned from the Slavic people who lived in their hometown of Thessalonica in Greece…an ancient precursor to all the Slavic languages. A few of the other languages you may hear in a Byzantine Church are Greek, Ukrainian, or Syriac, depending on the cultural background of the congregation.
9. How will I receive the Eucharist?
The Eucharist in the Byzantine Church doesn’t resemble what you may be used to receiving in the western Church. We use leavened bread, cut into particles in an elaborately symbolic rite which takes place immediately before the liturgy, usually privately observed by the priest at the side altar known as the Table of Preparation. These particles, once they are consecrated, are mingled with the Precious Blood in the chalice and distributed to the faithful on a golden spoon. The protocol is as follows:
Two lines form, one on either side of the nave of the church and each communicant in turn approaches the priest. You may notice the priest may pause as he prays, “The servant/handmaid of God…” and here you may give him your first name….then he continues to pray for you as you receive Christ. Altar servers may (or may not) stand on either side to hold a cloth under the chin of the communicant, who will cross his hands upon his chest, tip his head back and open his mouth wide (like a baby bird) without extending the tongue. Father will then place a particle into your mouth (like the mama bird). You must not bite down upon the spoon. Just allow the priest to deposit the Body and Blood of Our Lord into your mouth. You need not say anything. You may cross yourself as you return to your seat.
10. Infant communion
It must be noted that since the Eastern Church grants all three sacraments of initiation to infants, you will see infants and small children receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist. I say this so you won’t be scandalized as many in the west don’t realize that we do this and may come away quite shocked.
11. We have married clergy
This is an ancient tradition in our Church but many in the US aren’t aware of it because of the fact that during the beginning of the twentieth century, when Byzantine Catholics began to emigrate to our country, we had no eparchial presence here. Many of our traditions were compromised so that we would more easily be accepted as part of the Catholic Church in America, which was largely Latin and which had for the most part had not even heard of our existence, let alone understood who we were. The “latinization” of our people which led to the loss of many of our traditions and degradation of our cultural heritage, is a very volatile topic among our people to this day. Pope St. John Paul the Great addressed this in his 1995 encyclical Orientale Lumen, and urged the Eastern Churches to reclaim our cultural practices and reinstate those that were lost due to adaptation. This resulted in the reinstitution of such practices as infant communion, (my son was the first in our deanery to resume the practice), not kneeling on Sundays, and married clergy. These are often seen by others, as well as older Byzantine Catholics, as an innovation. The truth is that these practices were an integral part of our Church culture for centuries and have only now been brought back.
There is a custom we have which is a holdover from the first century "Agape Feasts” which took place after the Divine Liturgy had ended. The bread that is used for the Eucharist is customarily brought to the deacon or priest before the Liturgy by the faithful who bake it especially for such purpose, and in a traditional manner. The center piece is cut out during the proskomedia (that’s the service I wrote about above where the gifts are ceremoniously prepared for the Eucharist) and the rest of the bread is reserved not for the Eucharist, but to be blessed and distributed to every member of the congregation after the Liturgy. Everyone, whether a Catholic or not, whether in the state of grace or not, may approach to receive a blessing from the priest and partake of this blessed bread. It is noted that it is considered to be the "next best thing" to the Eucharist, and many of the faithful will often take some of it home with them to give to the sick and shut-ins and have reported medical healings and other spiritual graces that have been received from having consumed the blessed bread.
In general, it is a wonderful thing when our western friends venture over to the eastern side and join us for Divine Liturgy. Hopefully these 12 tips will help us to make it more comfortable and fulfilling for them when they do!