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An Introduction to the Byzantine rite

By Carl Bunderson

While the vast majority of Catholics belong to the Latin rite, the universal Church includes a variety of liturgical traditions, or rites, that reflect the cultures in which they arose. There are 23 Eastern Catholic Churches, which belong to five rites: Alexandrian, Armenian, Byzantine, East Syriac, and West Syriac. The Byzantine is easily the largest of the Eastern rites.

Here in Denver there are two Byzantine rite parishes: Holy Protection Byzantine Catholic Church, and Transfiguration Ukrainian Catholic Church.

The Byzantine rite is known for its profound reverence and the extravagant solemnity of its ceremony, as well as its rich symbolism and use of iconography. It is rooted in the liturgical traditions of Constantinople, and of the monasteries of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire.

Liturgies of the Byzantine rite tend to be longer than their typical Latin equivalents, with a slower pace and prayers that are more rhetorical, repetitious, and wordy. Traditionally, the liturgies are always sung (that is, never simply spoken), and have a fullness of material expression, with the use of incense and veneration of icons, and a noticeable participation by the people. The periods of silence that should be found in Roman rite Masses are absent from Byzantine liturgies.

Father Joel Barstad, pastor of Holy Protection parish, told the Denver Catholic that “We have litanies scattered throughout the service … and so there’s a certain degree of repetition. In fact, the response to these litany petitions is always ‘Lord have mercy’, and that’s one of the things that sometimes is irritating to people. And yet other people find it very comforting, that repetition of ‘Lord have mercy’.”

Regarding the rhetorical aspect of the Byzantine rite, Father Joel explained that “There’s a certain point where we say ‘Let us complete our prayer to the Lord’, and then there’s probably ten more minutes of prayers. So there’s a length: our view is, why say something once if you can’t say it three times? And why say it just three times when you can say it twelve?”

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“So there is a repetition and exuberance, and some people find that tedious; other people find it profound. It provides a way of remaining in front of the mystery of Christ. I have had some people who don’t like the Byzantine way of staying in front of the mystery. They prefer silence. They prefer the significant pauses that there are in the Roman Mass, where there’s time for a more personal, and even private, reflection, whereas in the Byzantine liturgy there’s not much time for the private. You’re engaged with the words of the liturgy from beginning to end.”

The Eucharistic sacrifice, known as the Mass in the Latin rite and the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine rite, has many essential aspects in common in the rites, even as their accidental expressions differ. In both forms, bread and wine are offered to God, the Lord’s words of institution are used, and communion is offered. Each eucharistic rite is divided into two parts, with the first half including prayers, chants, and scriptural readings, and the second containing the prayers and actions of the sacrifice.

In addition, the Divine Liturgy includes a third part: the preparation of the gifts, or proskomide. Its equivalent in the Roman rite is brief and takes place immediately before the offertory, but the proskomide is a separate act that precedes the Divine Liturgy proper. The bread which will be offered is cut elaborately, and the pieces are placed in a symbolic way on the diskos (paten).

Byzantine Catholics make the sign of the cross from right to left, and rather than genuflections, they typically make profound bows in their churches. (Though kneeling, or double genuflection, is common during Lent). In the Nicene Creed, the Filioque (“and the Son”), describing the procession of the Holy Spirit, is omitted, in accordance with the text of the creed adopted at the ecumenical councils of 325 and 381.

The bread used for the Eucharist in the Byzantine rite is leavened, and communion is always distributed under both species: the Body is placed in the chalice with the Blood, and they are fed to the faithful on a spoon. Rather than waiting for the age of reason, infants and young children are admitted to communion.

The priest offers the sacrifice facing in the same direction as the people, as priests can, and sometimes do, in the Roman rite. The altar is divided from the nave by an iconostasis, or wall of icons, which includes doors through which the priest, deacon, and servers process during the Divine Liturgy.

The Byzantine rite also emphasizes the role of the canonical hours (equivalent to the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours) to a greater extent than in many Latin rite parishes. Vespers and Matins are the hinges of the hours in the Byzantine rite.

“People would have Vespers on Saturday evening, and then come back and there would be Matins on Sunday morning … and during that time the priest would be hearing confessions,” Father Joel explained. “So it was just part of the weekend rhythm. And then there would be Divine Liturgy after Matins. So on Sundays, it was especially prominent.”

“If you don’t have Vespers and Matins, you won’t have all of the preparation, all the prayers and hymns, which are in preparation for part of the celebration of the feast, which then climax in the celebration of the Eucharist. Some of the very distinctive elements in the feast happen in those other services. So the Liturgy of the Hours, from a festal point of view, are really crucial to the full expression and experience of the feast. On a daily basis, they provide a rhythm of prayer at the key hours of morning and evening.”

While the Latin rite has a single liturgical season, Lent, that is indisputably penitential, the Byzantine rite has four: Lent, the Apostles’ Fast, the Dormition Fast, and the Nativity Fast. The Apostles’ Fast is a preparation for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, and begins the second Monday after Pentecost, while the Dormition Fast prepares for the feast of the Dormition (Assumption), and begins Aug. 1. The Nativity Fast is analogous to Advent, and begins Nov. 15.

Among the penitential features of Lent in the Byzantine rite is abstention from Divine Liturgy during the week: the sacrifice is offered only on Sundays and particular feasts during this season. Rather, on Lenten weekdays, especially Wednesdays and Fridays, there is offered the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. Father Joel explained that “these are highly penitential days when we are fasting, we are weeping for our sins, and it was just judged that the joyous celebration of the Eucharist would not be appropriate on those days, even though we would need nonetheless the spiritual nourishment of His body and blood.”

The Presanctified liturgy is a solemn Vespers service with communion, using the gifts that were consecrated during the previous Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. Father Joel commented, “It’s a very beautiful and reverent service with lots of prostrations and veneration for the gift of the Lord’s body and blood.”

The Code of Canon Law notes that “Christ’s faithful may participate in the eucharistic Sacrifice and receive Holy Communion in any catholic rite”, and that “the obligation of participating in the Mass is satisfied by one who assists at Mass wherever it is celebrated in a Catholic rite, either on the holy day itself, or on the evening of the previous day.”

The Divine Liturgy is offered at 9 a.m. each Sunday at Holy Protection, and at 2 p.m. at its Ft. Collins outreach, located at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish.

At Transfiguration parish, Divine Liturgy is offered on Sundays at 8:30 a.m. in English, and at 10:30 a.m. in Ukrainian.

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