Friday, June 19, 2015

How to Save the Church Part 2: East (Byzantine)


The Christian East has a full and rich liturgical history. Originally starting with the Liturgies of Saint James, Brother of the Lord, and Saint Mark, both were adapted into the Liturgies of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Basil. The Estern liturgical hours are of similar origin, being combined from the cathedral (emphasizing hymns) and monastic (emphasizing scriptures and psalms) traditions. The Byzantine tradition brings about prayer by repetition of memorized words while appealing to the senses with icons to create an environment conducive to prayer.

Notice something "missing"? There are no pews. Hang onto that, cause we'll get back to it.
Byzantine churches are to be covered in icons. From the walls to the ceiling, the faithful are given a lot to look at. On the ceiling  is Christ Pantocrator (Ruler), with His closed gospel book which means that all is decided, even if you don't know it. This is what must be on the ceiling of all Eastern Churches, if you're going to have an image there (which you should!).




In the sanctuary, beyond the iconostasis, is the Playtera (More Spacious than the Heavens) icon, which hangs right behind and above the tabernacle. It's usually the only icon you can see through the iconostasis, and it's almost always the first thing you see when you enter an Eastern Church. Mary's and Christ's arms are wide to receive you.



The iconostasis is a wooden screen that blocks off the sanctuary from the nave. It has icons on the outside and represents the veil between heaven and earth, showing just enough for us to know that where we're going is good, but not too much so we have something to be surprised at when we get there. There must always be an icon of Christ on the right and an icon of Mary on the left. In the center are what's called the royal doors, which only the priest can enter through (or the deacon if he has the gospel or communion). On those doors is the Annunciation. The two side doors (known as deacon doors) usually have St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, two of the Church's first martyrs, although you can put angels or even St. Dismas and the tools of the crucifixion on there normally. But it's not a totally hard and fast rule. The point is to have something that reminds you of going between earth and heaven. Finally Saint John the Baptist or Saint Nicholas and the patron of the church are on the last two spots that are usually available. This can be adapted as needed.

All the dots in the floor plan are icon stands. These have icons for the people's veneration and are spots for everyone to congregate around but there is no requirement that they do so. Which is why there are no pews. It's assumed by the layout that, as the people sing the hymns that they've memorized, that they are going to the icons (be they on the walls or stands or ceiling) and praying there. The church is open and you are not bound to stay in one place and, in fact, you really can't. The deacon's got bells on his censer, and when he moves through the congregation the people move out of his way. When processions happen everyone moves away so the procession can go through the church. Yes, benches are on the sides of the church, but they're for the infirm, pregnant, and old. And if you're sitting there and not in one of those three categories it's just a sign of laziness.

Now, I know a bunch of Eastern Christians (Catholic and Orthodox alike) will be reading this and going "We don't do that! Our congregation doesn't sing! And we have pews!" I'm well aware, and that's what makes me sad. The Byzantine tradition uses the senses to invite  the christian to pray and if that's limited by putting said christian in a coffin-I mean, pew (eh, coffin really is a better word)- then how on earth can people be invited to pray? If you'r not singing the music then how can you burn it into your soul, melody and all? Don't say "I'll manage", because it's clearly not working for the vast majority of people. Church numbers keep dropping, a sign that something isn't going right and, provided that the people are taught what prayer is and are inspired to do so, the very design of the church will do half the work. Besides, I'm sure a nice Protestant parish will benefit from the nice pews if sold to them and the Eastern church can make a little money from the sale.

You can't have a rite that emphasizes the body's participation, block out movement by throwing people into coffins, and then expect everything to go well. Nor can you make an easily memorizable liturgy and then only have the choir singing and expect people to care. It just won't work.

Now, these aren't the only problems liturgically with the Eastern Rites. Matins is a mess that needs direction. Married priests are necessary. But getting rid of the pews and getting everyone to sing again's a really good start. All while educating the people on the importance of prayer. Because nothing else will save our Church than God's direct intervention.