A Liturgical Tour of the Church’s Eastern Rites in Development and Practice

Did you know that the Ethiopian Rite has an anaphora (i.e., Eucharistic Prayer) directed to the Blessed Virgin Mary? Or that many of the Latin texts of the Roman Rite emerged not from the Eternal City but from North Africa? Or that Christianity appeared in the early centuries as another Eastern religion, one unlikely to take root in the West?

The history of Christian culture—and Christian liturgy—is fascinating and complex. Too often in the past, when we spoke about the liturgical differences within the Church, particularly between East and West, we referred to the Eastern “rites” as if the sole difference between Latins and Easterners was liturgical rubrics. In the 20th century, the liturgical movement has helped us understand liturgy in a much richer way than merely as a different set of rubrics and ceremonies. Since the Second Vatican Council, schools of theology have done a better job at distinguishing doctrine from theological reflection, which has allowed the ecumenical movement to progress by stressing the essential elements of faith, sacramental life, and the ordained ministry between the churches in the East and West. In addition, theologians are also doing a better job of admitting that two churches (Latin and Coptic, for example) might explain a mystery of the faith (doctrine) differently because of their theology. At the same time, the liturgical rituals of the churches often express the essential unity better than formal theology. Theology, in a sense, has to catch up to what is already expressed in the rites themselves.

To help facilitate theology in this effort, it is important to explore the cultural roots of the Eastern Rites. Each ritual tradition, including the Latin Rite of the West, has a story to tell—rather than a theological treatise to expound. Each of these stories is told through the development of its liturgy, a development which took place in part because of geographical, social, and historical “accidents,” where the Gospel was first proclaimed and, in part, because the mission of the Church—to plant the seed of faith in diverse soils—remained integral to the expression of the faith as found in the various rites.

“It would be in Egypt that the great movement of Christian monasticism developed and be- came a permanent element of Christianity, spreading to Palestine and all other regions,” writes Father Thomas Baima. One of the leaders of the Church in Egypt was St. Anthony of the Desert, depicted here in Michelangelo’s first painting (c.1487) being tempted by devils.

Preparation for Voyage

But to embark on a tour of the various rites—and the regions from which they sprang—requires that we have a good working definition of culture so that when we explore how the Gospel is “inculturated” in a particular ritual tradition, we do so in a way consistent with Catholic consciousness and attitudes.

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council describe culture in Gaudium et Spes (GS) this way:

“Man comes to a true and full humanity only through culture…. The word ‘culture’ in its general sense indicates everything whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities; he strives by his knowledge and his labor, to bring the world itself under his control. He renders social life more human both in the family and the civic community, through improvement of customs and institutions. Throughout the course of time he expresses, communicates and conserves in his works, great spiritual experiences and desires, that they might be of advantage to the progress of many, even of the whole human family” (GS, 53).

So, the first building stone to help create our working definition of culture is the role culture plays in expressing, communicating, and conserving things of essential value. Continuing, we can with this building stone understand the further definition of culture offered in the pastoral constitution:

“Thence it follows that human culture has necessarily a historical and social aspect and the word ‘culture’ also often assumes a sociological and ethnological sense. According to this sense we speak of a plurality of cultures. Different styles of life and multiple scales of values arise from the diverse manner of using things, of laboring, of expressing oneself, of practicing religion, of forming customs, of establishing laws and juridic institutions, of cultivating the sciences, the arts and beauty. Thus, the customs handed down to it form the patrimony proper to each human community. It is also in this way that there is formed the definite, historical milieu which enfolds the man of every nation and age and from which he draws the values which permit him to promote civilization” (GS, 53).

Culture, therefore, also has historical and social aspects, and because both history and society admit of degree and variety, it is possible then to speak of a plurality of cultures. Therefore, while there is one Faith, one sacramental economy, one ordered ministry—one Church—the presence of such a plurality means that there can be different Christian cultures. One way that the sole Church of Christ reaches all the nations is by purifying their respective cultures and making them Christian cultures. In addition, this plurality of cultures also means that the particular ritual traditions (rites) can have their own theology, liturgy, canon law, and spirituality without derogating from unity in faith, sacramental life, and ecclesiastical governance.

One final comment on culture before we tour the different ritual traditions. In business administration today, consultants commonly talk about “creating corporate culture.” In this business model, culture is a fairly “thin” reality, created by the alignment of mission and vision in a community of practice. In other words, the reality of corporate culture is superficial and often does not extend beyond the place of business. There is nothing wrong with this worthy goal in a business community—artificial as much of it may be, such a culture effectively enhances a business’s ability to remain solvent. But it is far different from what the Church means by culture in her documents. As Joseph Ratzinger writes in his books on liturgy, since the Church is an “organism,” its culture must develop organically. In a similar way, since every culture is to some extent an organism, each culture that encounters Christ through the culture of the missionaries must also undergo an organic development when it receives and is purified by the gospel. This takes time and results in a “thick” reality that, unlike the reality of corporate culture, organically informs and transforms every dimension and every member of that culture. In the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, culture is not like a coat you can take off in favor of putting on another at the end of the workday. As a more accurate analogy, the Church understands culture to be like a wellness program which uses diet and exercise to change the body from within. Thus, when a culture receives the gospel, that culture should become more integrally human, “whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily and spiritual qualities” (GS, 53).

Like a sublime spiritual wellness program for culture, the inculturated gospel expresses the Word, communicating it in such a way that it transforms the culture from within. The transformed, Christianized culture conserves this change and transmits it to future generations. This is why “ritual traditions” rather than “rites” more aptly expresses how the inculturated gospel is “handed on” by the liturgy, which the late Herbert McCabe, Dominican philosopher at Oxford, once described so well as “the first instance of Tradition.”

Christened Vessels

I mentioned that culture has historical and social aspects. So to understand the many instances of successful inculturation that the Church has accomplished, we need to know a little history. I will do this very briefly. My point here is that, as St. Irenaeus taught, there are seeds of the Word already present in every culture. The Gospel waters these seeds and allows them to grow, thereby purifying the culture from within—or from the ground up, as it were—even as it received the Tradition from without.

The Church emerged in the world, fully formed, in AD 33 on Pentecost. At that moment, she possessed all of the gifts necessary to fulfill the Great Commission she received from her founder and head, Jesus Christ, to make disciples of the nations by baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, by teaching them all he commanded, and by empowering them through his real (sacramental) presence in the world until the Second Coming. The Bible tells us: “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:5-12).

It means that on that day in AD 33, the Church, although composed in that moment completely of Jews, was at the same time already universal. In fact, it was one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. And from Jerusalem, the apostles went out, to the north, the east, the south, and the west—to the four regions of the Earth.

The Pilgrim Church Embarks

The first missionaries went north into Semitic Syria. Here, in the great metropolis of Antioch, the first inculturation occurred around the Apostle Peter. Being another Semitic culture, the gospel took root in the same linguistic (Aramaic) context. Antioch, however, was close to the great trade routes which crossed the Middle East and linked the two great empires of the day, the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. From Antioch, the first great inculturation takes place—the seed of the Word planted in secular soil—and the Antiochene or Syriac Tradition was born.

From Antioch, the missionaries turned east toward Mesopotamia. If you know the geography of Abraham’s journey from Ur of the Chaldeans up to Haran, across the Fertile Crescent and down into Canaan, you have the path followed by the Syrian missionaries. The faith in the God of Abraham, now fulfilled in Jesus, was taken back along the path of Abraham’s original immigration. On the way to Mesopotamia, the missionaries established a stronghold in Edessa, a city destined to become an important theological school, reaching fame under St. Ephrem the Syrian (d.373). Ephrem wrote biblical commentary, poetry, and profound hymnody which embodied the theology of the Church of the East. From Edessa, missionaries went north into Armenia and further east into the Mesopotamian valley. In doing so, they crossed one of the great boundaries of the ancient world, the Euphrates River, which was the political boundary between Rome and Persia. The gospel was received by Jewish communities which first settled in Mesopotamia after the Exile. The missionaries’ efforts represent a textbook example of inculturation: being Semites, speaking Aramaic, and knowing the prophecies of the Old Testament, they were ready converts and the faith took root rapidly. Edessa was where Christian liturgical music originated—chant as we understand it today. Given the Jewish background of the first converts, the Syriac Tradition was also naturally aniconic—without images—maintaining the austerity of Judaism in this regard. Only the Holy Cross and an icon of the Mother of God decorated their churches.

This first Eastern tradition (here meaning east of the Roman Empire) became the greatest missionary enterprise in history, planting the faith south along the west coast of India and east along the Silk Roads as far as China. In the first 300 years, Christianity was growing as an Asian religion. West of the Euphrates River, things were different, as the Roman Empire did not like Christians very much and at various times tried to kill us. Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has observed, in the third century, a prudent person would have expected the future of Christianity to lie in the Far East—or anywhere but the Roman Empire.

Some of the unique elements of the Syriac Tradition have to do with its stress on typological interpretation of the Bible and the development of doctrinal poetry of a very high quality. As liturgical theologian David Fagerberg has noted, “when applied to liturgy [this typological approach] stresses connection of the rites with the historical Jesus” and how events in the earthly ministry are made present through the rites.[1] Antiochene theology was interested in grammatical and linguistic meanings in the text. Philosophically, they were more inclined to the works of Aristotle and his deductive approach from the material world (rather than the works of Plato and his philosophical starting-point with the transcendent; more on this, below). The mystical writings of the Syriac fathers are profound. In particular, their Christology stresses protecting the humanity of Jesus through which he joins us to the Trinity.

Among the Eastern liturgical traditions, the Alexandrian focus is almost exclusively eschatological, as exemplified here in the first known depiction of Christ the Pantocrator, or “All-Powerful.” Because the Alexandrian liturgy scarcely mentions Christ’s earthly ministry, death, and resurrection, the Alexandrian ritual tradition is perceived as an ascent from the material to the spiritual realm.

Further Journeys

Meanwhile, the apostles fanned out in other directions. Some went south through Roman Palestine, others went west, across the Sinai and into Egypt and down in to Abyssinia (Ethiopia). We might call this the second Eastern Tradition. Egypt was historically the other great power in the region. The Coptic language was highly developed, and Greek was in use because of international trade. Already at this time, Egypt was part of the Roman orbit, but had a highly developed culture of its own. It would be in Egypt that the great movement of Christian monasticism developed and became a permanent element of Christianity, spreading to Palestine and all other regions. It would be in the great city of Alexandria, a seat of great learning, that the Coptic (Egyptian) or Alexandrian Tradition would develop.

A distinctive element of Alexandrian theology is its use of allegory in biblical interpretation. Having a great deal of interaction with Greece, the philosophical traditions of that land, especially the Platonic tradition, conditioned the development of a distinct theological school in Alexandria. As a result, this school was interested in the several senses of the scripture beyond the literal and typological meanings. It was more speculative. Fagerberg notes that the “Alexandrian focus is almost exclusively eschatological, scarcely mentioning Christ’s earthly ministry, death, and resurrection, and so the liturgy is perceived as an ascent from the material to the spiritual realm.”[2] Additionally, Alexandrian Christology more strongly stressed the divinity of Christ, and this is seen in the prayers of their liturgy. For example, in the Latin liturgy, prayers are directed to God the Father. Very few address Christ directly, and these are usually quiet prayers of the priest. By contrast both the Coptic and Ethiopic liturgies address Christ directly in the ordinary of the Mass.

A part of the Alexandrian Tradition is the Ethiopian Church. While liturgically close to the Coptic, there are some interesting variants. The official language of this church is Amharic. In the liturgy, however, they use Geez. Both are Semitic languages which connect the Ethiopians to the Jewish origins of Christianity in ways that Greek or Coptic languages do not. In addition, the Ethiopian rite has a more distinctive Marian character than other ritual traditions. Of special interest is one Eucharistic prayer of the Ethiopian Church. Not only has it preserved some ancient traditions about the Blessed Virgin Mary not found in other ritual traditions, as liturgical historian Casimir Kucharek notes, it is the only liturgy which employs an anaphora directed to Mary.

Romeward Bound

To the west of Alexandria, beginning where present day Tunisia protrudes north into the Mediterranean Sea, we find a separate region, the Roman Province of Africa. Distinct from cosmopolitan Alexandria and Egyptian culture, “Africa” was Latin speaking. It would become the land of the great Latin Fathers: Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. It was in Africa that the first Latin-language liturgy was composed (and where theological commentary, beginning with Tertullian, was being written for the first time in Latin). It was then exported to Rome by way of the shipping route from Tunisia, to Malta, to Sicily, to the south of the Italian peninsula and up to the capital city.

The Latin Tradition gradually took hold in Rome. It supplanted the Greek language of the original Roman liturgy, already a vernacular translation from the Aramaic spoken in the Semitic lands. One of the distinctive features of the Latin Tradition, which is an example of inculturation, is the development of its liturgical language, once Latin became the sole language of culture in the Roman Empire. For, while there was great variety in the textual forms of the various Latin rites (Roman/African, Gallican, Milanese, Iberian/Mozarabic, and even Celtic), the language of culture—Latin—also became the sole liturgical language for all these rites.

Ancient Roman culture is characterized by economy and efficiency. Wasting no words, Caesar said, Veni, vidi, vici. (“I came, I saw, I conquered”)—an apt example of Rome’s style. But in addition to this cultural feature, the requirements of Rome’s missionary development, and due to frequent persecution—one way or another the early Latin Church was always “on the run”—it consequently found itself habitually streamlining its hull and trimming its sails. Thus, under constant duress, it required a noble and often simple ritual style. Rather than the developed poetry or hymnody of Syria’s Ephrem, a conservatism reveals itself in its use of biblical texts for its chants and textual source material. The Latin Tradition also adopted the Alexandrian approach to biblical interpretation because the Alexandrian style best suited its own need for mobility and flexibility.

Last But Not Least

The Eastern liturgies treated above derive from one of two parents, Egypt or Syria. The two remaining ritual traditions are derived from the Syriac parent. These are the Byzantine and the Armenian. It was the Apostle Paul who brought the gospel to Asia Minor (present day Turkey and Greece). This was the vital mission to the pagans in the Roman Empire.

The Byzantine Tradition emerges as a latecomer. Byzantium only rose in prominence after Emperor Constantine moved the Roman imperial capital there in 324—about 12 years after his conversion to Christianity. The liturgy there is derived from the rites of the churches of Asia Minor, especially Cappadocia and Pontus, with some influence from Antioch. The high culture of the capital city is evident in the ceremonial practices. This is not liturgy for the frontier (either the Germanic lands in the West or the Persian lands in the East), but a liturgy that expressed a high culture that only comes to great cities able to rest confident in their stability.

Like the Roman liturgy, the Byzantine liturgy is deeply biblical in the Mass Ordinary; but in contrast to its Western cousin, it is far more open to hymnody in its Proper texts (e.g., those used during particular liturgical seasons or the celebration of certain saints). In fact, much of Byzantine dogmatic theology is found more directly in the liturgical hymns than in theological treatises. As a monk of Mount Athos has noted, theology is a hymn to be sung. The Alexandrian tradition of allegory is strong in Byzantine liturgical texts.

Last, but by no means least, is the Armenian Tradition. It is here that we find the most direct example of inculturation. Armenia serves as a crossroads between two continents and several empires. It is distinguished as the first Christian nation, in the sense of Christianity becoming the state religion. This occurred in AD 301, years before Constantine’s conversion. Christianity entered Armenia from Caesarea in Cappadocia. The liturgy of Cappadocia was directly derived from that of Syria. As liturgical historian Josef Jungmann notes, if you lay the post-sanctus prayer of the Syrian Liturgy of St. Basil along side of the Armenian Liturgy, you can follow almost identical texts.

In addition, as Kucharek writes, the liturgy of the Armenian Church was originally celebrated in Greek, as we would expect from its sources in Asia Minor. But through the efforts of translators, like St. Mesrob (d. 440) and others, the scriptures were eventually rendered in the local tongue. This stabilized the Armenian language by giving it both an alphabet and its first literary document, a native translation of the Holy Bible. Gradually, Armenian culture was Christianized and became inseparable from its national church. As noted, this is a grand example of how the gospel purifies a culture and turns it into a vehicle of evangelization for future generations.

The Armenian Tradition, as a crossroads nation, embraced influences from East and West. Later in history, for example, elements of the Latin Tradition would also be organically included in the Armenian liturgy. Unlike other rites of the East which were Latinized by various colonial powers, the Armenians successfully borrowed Latin elements and included them in their rite in a somewhat seamless manner. Such a willing assimilation is another great example of what Joseph Ratzinger said about organic development in the liturgy.

Charted Territories

When the Church began to sail the globe in AD 33, she was captained by Christ, powered by the wind of the Spirit, destined for distant shores. When the apostles disembarked, they took with them the Word from Jerusalem, where it first suffered, died and was buried—and then sprang up from the ground as a fruitful vine full of new life. The apostles each took a cutting from this original vine to plant in similar fashion among the various cultures. Through prayer, toil, and a pastor’s oversight, they watched as the cutting grew, nourished by local customs and cultures, into the various Christian cultures and ritual traditions comprising today’s Mystical Body.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says as much when it teaches that “[f]rom the first community of Jerusalem until the parousia [that is, Christ’s return to earth], it is the same Paschal mystery that the Churches of God, faithful to the apostolic faith, celebrate in every place. The mystery celebrated in the liturgy is one, but the forms of its celebration are diverse. The mystery of Christ is so unfathomably rich that it cannot be exhausted by its expression in any single liturgical tradition. The history of the blossoming and development of these rites witnesses to a remarkable complementarity. When the Churches lived their respective liturgical traditions in the communion of the faith and the sacraments of the faith, they enriched one another and grew in fidelity to Tradition and to the common mission of the whole Church” (1200-1201).

The various ritual traditions of the Christian East are not, then, mere rubrical variants. Rather, they are expressions of how the faith, sacramental life, and ordered ministry have taken root in a specific cultural framework and, at the same time, how variety in theology, liturgy, canon law, and spirituality has particularized the one true faith in a given place or culture.

[1] Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology? (Chicago: Hillenbrand Press, 2004), 163.

[2] Ibid.

Fr. Thomas A. Baima

The Very Rev. Thomas A. Baima, M.B.A., S.T.D. is professor in the Liturgical Institute of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois. A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, he is the author, co-author or editor of seven books, including Forming the Church in the Modern World: The Theological Contribution of Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., What is a Parish? Canonical, Pastoral and Theological Perspectives, and Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper.