“…beauty, which in the East is one of the best loved names expressing the divine harmony and the model of humanity transfigured, appears everywhere: in the shape of the church, in the sounds, in the colors, in the lights, in the scents” (Orientale Lumen 11).
The Byzantine Rite refers to the liturgical rite developed in the city of Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople and now known as Istanbul). The Byzantine Rite has 12 subdivisions, each taking its name from the language by which the people expressed their faith.
The Church is Christ continuing to live in His Mystical Body. The Liturgical Sacrifice and prayer of the Church are the sacrifice and prayer of Christ, the Prototype of the Cosmos. The Eastern theologians are so clearly aware of this doctrine that all their prayers bear its stamp. This universal (or catholic) largeness of their views faithfully rendered in the prayers of the Byzantine Church is a reason why this Church is so timeless in its theology.
Holy Tradition is the permanent and living presence of the Holy Spirit continually inspiring, enlightening, teaching and sustaining the Church in truth. Holy Tradition, therefore, is the truth of God in the life and voice of the Church, part of which is recorded under the inspiration of God and constitutes the “Word of God” in Holy Scripture. The other part of Holy Tradition, not recorded in the Scriptures, has been passed down from generation to generation in an unbroken continuity. There is, then, one source to the living inspiration of God, running in two parallel streams: the Word of God recorded in Holy Scripture, and the conservation and transmission of the truth of God passed on to us by the Teachers of the Church. Together they transmit to us one truth; for, as St. Nicephor of Constantinople says:
“Everything in the Church is Tradition, including the Gospel, for Jesus Christ consigned nothing to writing, but planted his word in our hearts.”
Since it claims its origin from Christ and His Apostles, the Church proves the authenticity of its teaching with the teaching of the living Spirit, the uninterrupted faithfulness to the Word of God, by referring to it as the Apostolic Tradition. All the prayers of the Byzantine Church are taken from this tradition, thus forming mosaics of quotations from the Word of God, the writings of the Apostles, and the teachings of their successors.
The word “liturgy” (from the Greek meaning “work of the people”) is the name given to the act of taking part in the solemn corporate worship of God by the Body of Christ. The Liturgy is a common action of the people of God, with and through their ordained priests – with and through the High Priest, Jesus Christ. St. John Chrysostom describes with joy and enthusiasm the whole Church as one common body in the mysteries of salvation.
Byzantine Rite services are to the worshipers not a duty to be discharged but an experience to be lived, unfolding in action the meaning of the Church as the Body of Christ. In them there is constant motion and personal participation. The celebrants do not stay at the altar; they come out of the sanctuary and walk in the midst of the congregation, first to incense, then to carry the Gospel Book, finally to transfer the oblations in a solemn procession. We are mystically surrounded by the saints and wrapped in icons with a mantle of eternity; candles flicker in a thousand hues of light; incense creates a warm atmosphere of prayer; music swells from every corner of the assembled congregation. Deacons move around and between the people and the priest. In the middle of the sanctuary stands the Bishop, the image of Christ, presiding over the Liturgy. Every act, gesture and movement has its meaning and points to a spiritual reality. The envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople summed up the Liturgy well in their final report:
“We did not know if we were on earth or in heaven; for there is no such splendor to be found anywhere upon earth. Describe it we cannot; we know only that it is there that God dwells among humanity.”
When Byzantine theologians describe the reality of the love of God, they turn to expressions of admiration, amazement, awe and wonder. To define this love is to limit it; it, therefore, must remain unlimited, boundless, indefinable, and unexplainable.
In a sharp departure from the principles of Western spirituality, Byzantine spirituality makes no distinction between private and public prayer. There is continuity between the prayers Christians recite in the assembly of the church and the interior life by which each of them unites in the divine mystery. The Byzantine Liturgy offers to each one the necessary seeds of contemplation. In return the Church expects of each one a close participation in its prayers of praise and thanksgiving.
According to St. Nilos the Sinaite:
“Prayer, or spiritual activity, is the conversation of the intelligence with God, the green branch of sweetness and the liberation from evil, the exteriorization of joy and gratefulness. Prayer is the elevation of the intelligence to God, not in order to learn about God but to discover God; not to know about God but to know God, to experience God in one’s own life.”