It is easy to forget that the Catholic Church is composed of 24 self-governing Churches with distinct liturgical rites. We lose sight of this because the Latin Church, which worships according to the Roman Rite, comprises the overwhelming majority of Catholics throughout the world. The war in Ukraine has put the spotlight on one of these 24 churches: the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with 5.5 million adherents, led by one of the most outspoken voices against the Russian invasion, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Along with 13 of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches, the Ukrainians worship according to the Byzantine Rite, which celebrates the Divine Liturgy of the lost, great city of Constantinople.
There is a famous account from the Russian Primary Chronicle describing how the Ukrainians first came to embrace the faith and worship of the Byzantine Empire. According to legend, Vladimir the Great sent out emissaries to Latin Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as to Constantinople, to investigate their faith. When the emissaries returned from the latter, they recounted their experience in the great church of Hagia Sophia: “We went to Greece and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor and beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore, we cannot dwell longer here.” After worshipping with the Byzantines, they could do nothing else but return to this transcendent and awesome experience.
As a 15-year-old altar boy, I had a similar experience. I was invited to serve at the vigil of the Theophany (the Epiphany) at a local Ruthenian Catholic parish, which also celebrates the Byzantine Rite. Standing beside the altar, surrounded by candles, clouds of ascending incense, the bells of the censer sounding, unceasing chants echoing, I knew not whether I was in heaven or on earth. I could not return home either, in that I could no longer think of liturgy in the same way. I saw it now for what it is: a mystical encounter with the living God, enacted before us through beautiful and transcendent symbols of sacramental ritual. Liturgy is not about us. Its etymology is not “the work of the people” as many of us have been told. From its ancient meaning, it signifies “the work on behalf of the people,” because it is the work enacted by Christ, acting through the ministry of the priest and drawing worshippers into the wedding feast of the lamb in heaven.
The eastern liturgies stand as ancient witnesses to the Church’s rich heritage, which, in addition to the Byzantine Rite, include the Syriac (in both its distinct eastern and western expressions), Armenian and Alexandrian families, stretching primarily across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India and East Africa. They each instruct us in their various and rich ways of the paths to God. Their unique witness, and the patterns they share, have been identified by Stephanos Alexopoulos and Maxwell Johnson in their illuminating work that opens many otherwise inaccessible details to us: Introduction to Eastern Christian Liturgies (Liturgical Press Academic, 2022). Their book provides a solid introduction to the major family of eastern rites and their historical development, along with an overview of their rituals for each of the seven sacraments.
Alexopoulos and Johnson explain how “‘liturgy is the soul of the Christian East.’ Liturgy is not just texts, rites, and rituals; it is encountering of the mystery of God, the now-and-not-yet of the Christian experience; it is the visible expression of the faith of a community; the incarnation of the Christian message in a particular time, place, culture, and people. The history of liturgy is a story of people at prayer, and the different rites express particular cultural incarnations of people at prayer. For liturgy is at their center as it expresses their faith, their life, their spirituality, their piety, their heritage, and their experience of God” (xxiv). Many of these ancient peoples are losing their homes in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, and the Ukrainians expect increased persecution of Byzantine Catholics. “The Eastern Churches are at the crossroads, and it is their opportunity, through engaging modernity and all that it entails, to contribute to the modern world a worldview and a viewpoint that is rooted in history and tradition but is also fresh, vibrant, and prophetic; one of their major contributions is their liturgical traditions” (xviii).
As our Eastern brothers turn to us for material support (and I recommend helping them through cnewa.org), we need their witness. Just as liturgy is bound up with culture, so our own liturgy has become an expression of a culture that has lost sight of the primacy and mystery of God. Eastern Christians can help us to rediscover our own heritage so that we, too, can see the liturgy for what it is: an experience of heaven on earth.