The Long Shadows of Byzantium

Every time I stand at the altar in our little church of St. Herman’s in Langley, B.C., I stand in the long shadows of Byzantium.  That is, I find myself facing the processional cross which we keep at the back of the altar table.  At the base of that cross, there is, in carved metal, the figure of a double-headed eagle.  This does not represent our liturgical choice; the cross was the kind donation of a parishioner, bought from an Orthodox church supply store.  The double-headed eagle comes standard, it would appear, on all processional crosses.  I have seen that eagle even more prominently displayed in other Orthodox places—in a church located on a campus in Winnipeg for example, it is part of the marble flooring, measuring about six feet across, just before the Royal Doors.  It is as if one had to tread on holy Byzantine ground on the way to the Chalice.

Byzantium casts its long shadow in other ways as well, not the least liturgically.  This is the case especially when the bishop comes to town, sometimes with a deacon in tow.   In that Liturgy when the deacon begins to introduce the singing of the Trisagion Hymn, he cries out, “O Lord, save the God-fearing!”   In invoking God’s saving assistance upon “the God-fearing”, the deacon is not referring to us; he is referring to the Emperor and his family.  And when the deacon then makes his little liturgical twirl, saying, “unto ages of ages!” he is not simply getting exercise.  That twirl is a vestige of the time when he went out to lead the Imperial family to their place over by the side.  There is now no Imperial family to lead, and so this action has been shortened to a picturesque twirl, but originally (like everything else in the Liturgy) it had a practical purpose.  The Emperor, both of Byzantium and of Russia, is long gone, and well past any need of saving, but the actions of praying for him and seating him in church remain.

There are other Byzantine liturgical vestiges as well, such as the Antiphons.  Originally, these hymns were psalms, sung with a refrain interspersed between the verses.  By the end of the eighth century, the usual refrains for the three antiphons were “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Saviour, save us”, “Alleluia”, and the refrain we now know as the hymn “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God”.  When the antiphons first started being used, they were sung as processional hymns as the Christians wended their way through the city on the way to church.  In those days, unlike now, it was not the case that the city was a secular space, dotted with sacred churches.  Rather, the entire Byzantine city was sacred liturgical space, and the churches were simply the loci for the Eucharistic gatherings.  In theory at least, all the citizens were Christian, and all would come to church.  During certain festal days, the Eucharistic gathering at church would be preceded by a procession, a parade through town.

These were very popular, partly because everyone loved a parade, and also because it demonstrated which group was in charge of the city, which group “owned the streets”.  At certain times, it was the Arian group that was in the ascendant and owned the streets; later on, it was the Nicene group (i.e. us), and taking over the streets for a periodic parade helped demonstrate that.  John Chrysostom in Constantinople thought it was a great idea, and commissioned a huge, fancy, and expensive cross to be carried in the procession, adorned with candles.  These processions were so popular that eventually the psalms and refrains for them were sung in church at the beginning of the Liturgy even on days when there was no parade.  The presence of the Antiphons in our contemporary Liturgy represents therefore yet another vestige of Byzantium, hearkening back to the days when the Church “owned the streets”, and all the city celebrated the Christian feasts as a city.

As anyone can tell, the days when the Church owned the streets are long gone.  Any parade through town is now a trek through secular space—sometimes through militantly secular space—and one often needing a permit from the secular authorities.  Such a procession would not be so much a manifestation of the Christian nature of the city, as rather a protest against its secular nature.   The world in which the Church now lives is radically unlike that of Byzantium.  It is much more like the Roman Empire prior to its Byzantine phase—a world pluralistic in form, secular in foundation, and predominately pagan in religious practice.  (The American “Bible Belt” may represent a last gasp of an older way, and a dying “hold out”.  It swims valiantly against the prevailing tide.)

What does this mean for us Orthodox? The main difference between the Church in the pagan Roman Empire and the Church in the Christian Roman Empire (i.e. Byzantium) is that the former knew itself to be a tightly-knit community standing over against a hostile society, an island of faith and love in a sea of unbelief and unrighteousness.  Each member of the local church made deep personal attachments to the other members—as Gregory Dix once commented, people risking at least penal servitude for life for being part of the same group usually take pains to get to know one another.  In the days of the pagan Roman Empire, the Christians were close as family members to others in the church, and each defined himself as belonging to all the others.   Membership in the church was characterized by deep feelings of solidarity.   Their song was “You and Me against the World”.

In Byzantium, that old line between the Church and the World was blurred, as the World declared itself to be Christian.  It was scarcely possible for the Church to form tightly-knit communities of faith like in the old days where each member of the local church knew the other and belonged to the other, because “the local church” now included everyone in the city, at least in principle.  After the world accepted baptism, such closely-knit communities were impossible to form.

Obviously there still existed smaller churches in the Byzantine world—that was the point of building the larger ones like the Hagia Sophia, as a contrast to them.  But the people within even these smaller churches no longer shared the same huddled closeness and family feeling that they did during the days of persecution.  Now that everyone in the city or village was a Christian, there was no “World” to huddle against, and individuals no longer defined themselves as belonging to the Christian family but rather to their own biological families.

Thus even in the smaller churches a sense of eschatological personalism was lost.  (Some ascetics would try to recover it nonetheless; the experiment was called “cenobitic monasticism”.)  In the parish church of St. John Chrysostom there was no “coffee hour” after Liturgy.  Deep personal attachments were made of course, but they were made between members of one’s family and one’s friends—not between all the members of the local church.  Belonging to the church for most people simply meant accepting its over-arching culture and fulfilling certain requirements, though of course some fulfilled them with great piety.  You went to Liturgy, received Holy Communion (or didn’t), and then you came home.  Going to church for most people in that culture was something you did, like paying taxes, or going to the theatre, or spending time with your friends.  Membership in the Church did not necessarily define you; the others at Liturgy were not “your people” except in the sense of being fellow citizens of the same city.

As said above, Byzantium is gone, its long shadows notwithstanding.  The challenge for us now is to recognize this and begin to recover the closeness and solidarity with others in our churches that existed in the early days.  This solidarity and mutual love for fellow church members was not possible in Byzantium; it is possible now.  And as the world becomes an increasingly darker place, recovery of such solidarity becomes not just possible, but essential.  This involves not simply making sure there is a coffee hour following Sunday Liturgy, but radically rethinking what it means to belong to the Church.

We must let belonging to the Church define us, and think of ourselves not primarily as Smiths, Joneses or Farleys, but as members of our local Eucharistic community.  This involves recognizing that the people receiving the Eucharist with us are our true family, and striving to treat them as such—as our close kin, fellow members of the same body.  We must rejoice when one of them is honoured, and suffer with them when they suffer (1 Cor. 12:26), making their trials and triumphs our own.  This is difficult to do, especially in our busy world where we often live far from each other.  But it remains the challenge of our time.  Byzantium is gone, and can only cast shadows.  But Christ remains, and He calls us to follow Him in these exciting new days.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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