Symbols and Symbolism in the Orthodox Liturgy
Alexander Schmemann, Orthodox Theology and Diakonia,
ed . Hellenic College Press, Massachusetts, p. 91-102
Whatever else a reasonable educated Westerner may or may not know about Byzantium, chances are that he has at least heard about the "rich symbolism" of Byzantine worship. Indeed the terms "symbols" and "symbolism" have, for all practical purposes, become almost synonymous with the Byzantine liturgy - a clich é whose self-evidence requires no further explanation. My purpose in this paper is to try to show that, contrary to that clich é, the Byzantine liturgical symbolism confronts us with problems important not only for the understanding of the Byzantine liturgy itself but of the Byzantine religious mind in general. It is an attempt to outline, be it only tentatively, the problem as I see it, and to indicate, of necessity in very general terms, the possible ways toward its solution.
Taken at its face value, the symbolism usually ascribed to the Byzantine liturgy as its essential element seems to present no great problem. There exists a substantial number of Byzantine and post-Byzantine-Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.-commentaries in which all liturgical acts, as well as the liturgy in its totality, are interpreted as being above all symbolic representations, i.e., as acts "representing," "signifying," and thus "symbolizing," something else, be it an event of the past, an idea, or a theological affirmation. This symbolism, common to all Byzantine worship, is especially elaborate in commentaries on the central act of that worship- the celebration of the Eucharist. The divine liturgy is for all commentators virtually a symbolic representation of the life and ministry of Christ from His birth in Bethlehem to His glorious ascension to heaven. The prothesis, i.e., the ritual preparation of the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine, is the symbol of Christ's birth; the so-called "Little Entrance" or the Introit, the symbol of His manifestation to the world; the "Great Entrance," of the Procession with the gifts to the altar, the symbol of Christ's burial and of His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem (1), etc. These symbolic explanations differ from one another only in the degree of their complexity and elaboration, of their attention to details of their extension even to secondary and minor rites. They also may occasionaly contradict one another; the same act, as I have just mentioned for the Great Entrance, can have two or even more rather incompatible symbolic meanings. On the whole, however such symbolism remains simple as to its nature and function. Symbol here is reduced to an illustration whose purpose can be termed pedagogic or educational. Why is it, to paraphrase one of the popular Byzantine commentators, Germanos of Constantinople, that the bishop takes no part in the initial acts of the divine liturgy and lets the priest perform them? Because the priest symbolizes Saint John the Baptist and it is fitting for him to perform those acts which symbolize the time preceding Christ's manifestation. And likewise, the same is true in the entire liturgy. The symbolic meanings, I repeat, may change, overlap one another, be more or less elaborate, but their nature remains the same. On the level of celebration, of "externals," the divine liturgy is above all a sacred play, a representation in the usual meaning of that word. And it is obviously this illustrative symbolism, it is the "dramatic" character of the Byzantine liturgy that is being referred to in the descriptions and definitions of it as "symbolic," as endowed with a particularly "rich" symbolism.
And yet it is here, it is precisely in considering this seemingly traditional illustrative symbolism that we encounter our first difficulty and thus the first dimension of the problem I announced earlier. The difficulty lies in a simple and easily verifiable fact: the absence of virtually any reference to such symbols and symbolic meanings in the liturgy itself, and this means primarily in the prayers in which the different rites and liturgical actions are given their verbal expression and thus their meaning.
Let us take, as examples, the rites I have already mentioned; the so-called "Little Entrance" and the "Great Entrance," both of which have always been privileged focuses of the illustrative symbolism. I have said already that the Little Entrance, which in present usage is a solemn procession of the clergy carrying the Gospel from the sanctuary and back to the sanctuary, is interpreted in all commentaries as representing or symbolizing Christ's coming to the people and the inauguration by Him of His preaching ministry. But if we consult the liturgy itself and, first of all, the prayers accompanying this entrance and thus "expressing" its meaning, nowhere shall we find the slightest indication that it has anything to do with the meaning ascribed to it in liturgical commentaries. In the first place, there exists an obvious contradiction between the rite referred to in all prayers as "entrance" and its interpretation in all commentaries as an "exodus," as Christ's "going out" to preach. Then, the Gospel in this rite is carried not by the priest, who symbolizes Christ, but by the deacon, whose symbolic function, according to the commentaries, is usually that of angel or apostle. As to the prayers accompanying this rite, their consistent term of reference is not the manifestation of Christ but the Church joining the angelic powers and their eternal praise. Thus, the Prayer of Entrance: "...grant that with our entrance there may be the entrance of the holy angels..."; thus, the Prayer of the Trisagion : "O holy God...who art hymned by the Seraphim with the thrice holy cry, and glorified by the Cherubim..."; thus, finally, the Trisagion itself, the hymn of the entrance which is clearly derived from the "Holy, Holy, Holy" of Isaiah's vision. Of this angelic symbolism I shall speak later. At this point it suffices to say that in terms of the liturgical ordo itself, of rites and prayers alike, the meaning of the Little Entrance is that of our, i.e. the Church's, entrance to heaven, into the eternal glorification of God by the angelic hosts.
We find the same discrepancy between the illustrative symbolism on the one hand and the liturgy itself on the other hand when we consider the Great Entrance. The solemn transfer of the Eucharistic gifts from the table of prothesis to the altar at an early date became the object of several symbolic interpretations-the most popular of which saw in it the symbol of Christ's burial. And it must be said that in the present ordo of the Great Entrance there are some references to this symbolism of burial. But they are found only in what Father Taft, in his admirable monograph, calls "secondary formulae"-the reading of the celebrant, after Placing the gifts on the altar, of the hymns of Good Friday-"Noble Joseph..." etc., the image of the Threnos, the burial of Christ, first on the aertheveil covering the gifts-and then on the eiliton, the antiminsion, etc. These are indeed secondary rites and representations and not only because of their late appearance in the liturgy but also because they clearly constitute a kind of alien theme within the essential and organic sequence of rites and prayers forming the Great Entrance. The real meaning of that sequence is expressed in the two Prayers of the Faithful which cede the entrance of the gifts, and in the Prayer of the Proskomide which concludes that entrance and which even in today's euchologia is called "the prayer of the priest after he has placed the hoi gifts on the altar." And in none of these prayers, whether in the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom or in that of Saint Basil, do we find any reference to the burial of Christ, or, for that matter, to any event of His life. In all of them the transfer of gifts and their placing on the altar is expressed in sacrificial terms, but again, as our sacrifice, as a sacrifice of praise, which we ask God to receive "from the hands of us sinners...." If it is a symbol, it certainly does not belong to the category of illustrative symbolism.
Such examples could be multiplied ad infinitum and they all point to the same evidence; that of radical discrepancy between the lex orandi as expressed and embodied in the liturgy itself and its symbolic interpretation, which nevertheless is commonly held to be an organic part of the Orthodox tradition and which permeates the manuals of liturgies as well as the common piety of churchgoers. Even to question it is, in the eyes of an overwhelming majority, tantamount to subversion and heresy. And thus, the inescapable question is, how, why and when did this illustrative symbolism appear and what does it mean in the history of the Byzantine religious mind?
In his very valuable and in many ways truly pioneering book, The Byzantine Commentaries of the Divine Liturgy Between the Seventh and the Fifteenth Centuries, Father Ren é Bornert answers some of these questions (2). His conclusions, based on a very thorough study of available sources, can be summarized as follows: The origin of the symbolic interpretation of the liturgy is to be found in the catechetical instructions given in preparation for baptism to the newly converted. This pre- and post- baptismal initiation, in turn, reflects and is patterned after the scriptural exegesis, the interpretation of the Holy Scripture as it develops in two main traditions-the Alexandrian, with its emphasis on the theoria, the spiritual or anagogical meaning of the Scripture, and the Antiochian, with its affirmation of the historia, the sequence of events revealed as history of salvation. What is important, however, is that in both traditions the liturgy, similar in this to the Scrip ture, is considered as a source of gnosis, the knowledge of God revealing Himself in His saving acts. The Alexandrian catechetical tradition is represented by Origen, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and, later, by the Pseudo- Dionysios; the Antiochian, by the catechetical instructions of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia.
Then, "at the dawn of the Byzantine and medieval era," writes Father Bornert, "we see in the East, as well as in the West, the eclosion of a new literary genre: the mystical commentary.' Its purpose and task are different from those of the catechetical instruction. The latter was aimed at the catechumens, and its purpose was to prepare the future members of the Church for proper participation in the Church's worship. The mystical commentary is addressed to the faithful. Its purpose is to explain the mysterion, the spiritual meaning, the spiritual reality, hidden, yet present behind the visible signs and rites of the liturgy. If the catechetical instructions deal almost exclusively with the rites of initiation, the mystagogical commentary is focused primarily on the divine liturgy. The best, one can say the classical, example of this mystagogical approach to and interpretation of the liturgy is the Mystagogia of the great Byzantine theologian of the seventh century, Saint Maximos the Confessor. Even if many, if not the majority, of his symbolic explanations of the liturgy have their antecedents in earlier documents, it is he who by integrating them into a consistent whole prepares in many ways the ultimate triumph of symbolism as the content of both the form and the spirit of the Byzantine liturgy, and thus as, in fact, the unique key to its understanding.
Thus, by tracing the history of the present illustrative symbolism back to the mystagogical commentary and through it to the catechetical instruction, we have the answer to our first question-that about the causes and the factors which prepared its ultimate identification with the Church's lex orandi. And yet the main question remains unanswered, and Father Bornert not only does not answer it in his, I repeat, excellent book, but, in fact, seems unaware of its very existence. It is the question stemming from what I called the discrepancy between the symbolic interpretation of the liturgy and the liturgy itself; between the meaning imposed, so to speak, on the liturgy by its commentators and the meaning implied in the liturgical texts, and more widely, in the very ordo, the structure of the liturgical celebration.
Now if a scholar like Father Bornert seems simply to ignore this question it is because he, together with many others, bases his whole investigation on the presupposition of an organic continuity between the different stages in the development of the Byzantine liturgical experience; of that which, for lack of a better term I call "liturgical piety." And yet, it is precisely this continuity, the continuity not of the liturgy itself, of its basic structure or ordo but of its comprehension by both theology and piety that, I am' convinced, must be questioned and re-evaluated if we are to progress in our understanding of the Byzantine religious mind and experience.
Simply stated, my thesis is that there is an organic continuity in the liturgy itself, that is, in its meaning as revealed in its fundamental ordo or structure; and there is a discontinuity in the comprehension, i.e., in the understanding and, deeper, in the experience of the liturgy by the ecclesial society at large.
It is obviously impossible within the limits of this paper to go into any detailed elaboration of this thesis, with which in a more detailed manner I dealt in my book, Introduction to Liturgical Theology (3). If I state it here in its most general form, it is because it will help us, I am sure, better to understand the whole problem of Byzantine liturgical symbolism and its development. For, when applied to that development, the notion of discontinuity means first of all the discontinuity among the various understandings of the symbol itself, of its very nature and function in the liturgy. Thus, the word "symbol" and all its semantic derivatives, "represents," "signifies," etc., means one thing in the theological vocabulary of a Saint Maximos the Confessor and a substantially different thing in the explanation of the divine liturgy by Germanos of Constantinople (eighth century), an explanation which Father Bornert rightly defines as the "quasi official or at least the most commonly accepted" interpretation, and which without any doubt served as the main source for the later illustrative symbolism (4)." The discontinuity, the difference here is, above all, of a theological nature. It is a difference between two understandings of the symbol in its relationship to theology.
Without going into the details of Saint Maximos ' theology, one can safely say that for him the symbol (as well as the other more or less equivalent terms, typos and eikon ) are inseparable from, and for all practical purposes, subordinated to the central notion of mystery, mysterion, which, at least in its application the liturgy, refers to the mystery of Christ and to His saving ministry. It is the mystery of Incarnation and of the redemption 0 f man and the world in Christ. The mysterion therefore means both: the very content of faith, the knowledge of the divine mystery revealed in Christ, and the saving power communicated through and in the Church. As to the symbol, it is, within this theology, the mode of the presence and action of the mysterion, and primarily, although not exclusively, of its presence and action in the liturgy, which is the privileged locus of the symbol. The symbol-and this is very important-is thus the very reality of that which it symbolizes. By representing, or signifying, that reality it makes it present, truly represents it. Nowhere is this symbolic realism more evident than in the application by Maximos of the term "symbol" to the Body and Blood of Christ offered in the Eucharist, an application which, in the context of today's opposition between the symbolic and the real, would be plain heresy.
It is only in the light of this theology of the mysterion and of the liturgy as its "mode" of presence and action that one can understand the liturgical symbolism proper to mystagogical commentaries. The liturgy, both in its totality and in each of its rites or actions, is symbol. The symbol, however, not of this or that particular event or person, but precisely of the whole mysterion as its revelation and saving grace. In other terms, this symbolism is not "illustrative" if by this word we mean the later symbolic identification of each liturgical act with one precise event of Christ's earthly life. Yes, the entrance, to use the example mentioned before, is the symbol of Christ's manifestation; but this liturgical manifestation refers to the entire mystery of His Incarnation and not merely to His appearance to the people after His baptism by John. And, in like manner, the entire liturgy is the symbol of the mystery of Christ's ascension and glorification, as well as of the mystery of the Kingdom of God, the "world to come." Through its symbols the liturgy gives us the theoria : the knowledge and the contemplation of these saving mysteries, just as, on another level of the same symbolism, the liturgy re-represents, makes present and active, the ascension of the human soul to God and communion with Him.
"Makes present." But it is precisely this function that the later illustrative symbolism begins to lose, and precisely to the degre e to which it becomes merely illustrative. When the celebrated Byzantine liturgical commentator, Symeon of Thessalonike, writes that the seven items of the bishop's liturgical vestments correspond to the seven actions of the Holy Spirit, that his mantle symbolizes the "providential and almighty and all-preserving grace of God," and then goes on explaining in the same manner the whole liturgy, we know immediately that we are on a level of symbolism radically different from the one preposed by Maximos and the other mystagogical commentators. Different not only in quality, as a masterpiece can differ from a less perfect painting which nevertheless belongs to the same school and the same tradition. Here the difference is precisely a discontinuity. And the principle of that discontinuity is, as I said earlier, a theological one. For Saint Maximos, the liturgical symbol is validated by a consistent theology of the liturgy, which, in turn, applies to liturgy a comprehensive and consistent theological vision. The late Byzantine and post-Byzantine symbolism has ceased to belong to any theological context, to reflect any theology of the liturgy. It has become, and remains even today, a self-centered and self-contained "genre," identified, unfortunately, by many with the very essence of the Byzantine liturgical tradition.
Having said all this, we still have not answered the most important question: is there such an essence, is there a truly adequate explanation of the Byzantine liturgical symbolism, and, if so, where and how can we find it? For it must be clear, I am sure, that for all its self-evident and indisputable superiority over the later illustrative symbolism the mystagogical symbolism of a Saint Maximos cannot be simply equated with the Byzantine lex orandi. Whatever its theological and spiritual consistency in itself, it still is an interpretation superimposed on the liturgy whose roots are in a theological theory rather than in the liturgical evidence itself. It is certainly not an accident that the symbolic interpretations of the liturgy belonging to this tradition-those of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, of the Pseudo- Dionysios, of Saint Maximos -are substantially different from one another, represent different emphases, different varieties, although with the same general, mystical, and mysteriological trend and orientation. The reason for this is that they apply to the liturgy their particular visions rather than seek in the liturgy the vision implied in its own ordo, in its own structures and texts, in short, in its own symbolism.
So the question is, is there such a vision, such a symbolism? To this question my answer is yes. And the first formal and extrinsic proof of that yes is the remarkable resistance which Byzantine worship as a whole, and, more specifically, the Eucharistic divine liturgy opposed, as least in the essential expressions of its form and spirit, to the extremely powerful pressures of the various symbolic interpretations and reductions. There have been, to be sure, here and there something like "surrenders," some local "invasions" of the symbolism. On the whole however, the Byzantine liturgy has surprisingly well preserved its inner unity and the organic continuity of its multisecular development (5).
The term which, I submit, best expresses the initial liturgical experience of the Church, the experience which shaped and also maintained and preserved the fundamental ordo of Byzantine worship, is "eschatological symbolism." The word "eschatological" being used today in so many different meanings and connotations requires that I explain my use of it in the general context of this paper. It refers first of all to the belief, central and overwhelming in the early Christian community, that the coming of Christ, His life, His death and resurrection from the dead, His ascension to heaven and the sending by Him, on the day of Pentecost, of the Holy Spirit, have brought about the Lord's Day; The Yom Yahweh announced by the prophets has inaugurated the new eon of the Kingdom of God. Those who believe in Christ, while they still live in the old eon, in what the New Testament calls "this world," already belong to the new eon; for, united to Christ and anointed with the Holy Spirit, they have in them the new and eternal life and the power to overcome sin and death. The mode of the presence in this world of the "world to come," of the Kingdom of Cod, is the Church-the community of those united to Christ and in Him to one another. And the act by which the Church fulfills that presence, actualizes herself as the new people of God and the Body of Christ, is "the breaking of bread," the Eucharist by which she ascends to Christ's table in His Kingdom. This belief, which, I repeat, constitutes the very heart of the early Christian experience and faith, thus implies a tension, the tension between this world and the world to come; between being in this world, yet also and already not of this world. And it is this tension that constitutes as I have tried to show in my book mentioned earlier, the basis the formative principle of the early Christian worship and more especially of the acts central to it-of baptism and Eucharist. They express and fulfill the Church as above all the passage, the passover from the old into the new; from this world into the "day without evening" of Christ's Kingdom. In this world the Church is in statu viae, in pilgrimage and expectation, and her task is to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom, the "Good News" of salvation accomplished by Christ. But the Church can fulfill this task because she herself already has access to the kingdom of whose joy and fullness she can thus be the witness to the ends of the world.
Only in the light of this eschatology can we understand the initial symbolism of the liturgy, the symbolism which, as I have said already, is both the starting point and also the principle of subsequent liturgical development. The essential character, I could say the particularity of this symbolism, is not only its realism in the sense of the presence in the sign of the reality which it signifies, realism which, we have seen, is affirmed also by Saint Maximos and the other representatives of the symbolism we termed ' mysteriological." Of the eschatological symbolism we can say that in it the very distinction between the sign and the signified is simply ignored. For Saint Maximos and even more for the later illustrative symbolism this distinction is essential, because the liturgical act which we perform reveals, communicates, or then simply represents an act performed in the past, the present, or the future by somebody else-Christ, the apostles, the angels. Thus, in the liturgical rite of entrance, it is we who enter, but this entrance symbolizes the appearance of Christ. The sign is distinct from the reality it reveals or represents. But the whole point of the eschatological symbolism is that in it the sign and that which it signifies are one and the same thing. The liturgy, we may say, happens to us. The liturgical entrance is our, or rather, the Church's entrance to heaven. We do not symbolize the presence of the angels; we do join them in their unceasing glorification of God; our offering to God of the gifts of bread and wine is our sacrifice of ourselves, the entire liturgy is the Church's ascension to Christ's table in His kingdom, just as the Eucharistic gifts sanctified by the Holy Spirit are the Body and the Blood of Christ. And we do all this and we are all this because we are in Christ, because the Church herself is our entrance, our passage into the new eon bestowned upon us by Christ's Incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Lack of time prevents me from showing that it is this eschatological experience of the Church that shaped and determined the entire development of the Christian liturgy, and not only of the sacraments but also of the liturgical cycles of time, i.e., the year, the week, and the day. Even today, after an extremely complex multisecular development, the Byzantine Typikon remains ultimately incomprehensible unless we discern in it, as the key to its complex rules, prescriptions, and rubrics, the eschatological experience of the early Church, the experience, for example, of Sunday as the eighth day, the day beyond the seven days of creation and therefore of the fallen world, the day of the new creation of which we partake in the Eucharistic ascension; the experience of Pascha, later extended to other feasts, as the passage, the pass-over into the joy of the Kingdom of God, the experience, in fact of the whole worship, to use a favorite Byzantine formula, as heaven on earth.
But, and this is the main point of all that I wanted to say, it is this eschatological symbolism that remains, in spite of all theological, mystical, and illustrative interpretations and explanations, the essential symbolism of the Byzantine liturgy. When, having read all the innumerable commentaries, we return from the "rich symbolism" they find in Byzantine worship to the liturgy itself, to the testimony of its prayers and rites, of its ordo and rhythm, we experience a kind of spiritual liberation. For what we discover then is the genuine liturgical theology, and this means the theology for which liturgy is not an "object," but its very source. We discover, in other terms, the forgotten truth of the ancient saying lex orandi lex est credendi.
1. Cf. R. Taft, The Great Entrance, A History of the Transfer of Gifts and Other Pre- Anaphoral Rites of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 200 ( Rome, 1975).
2. R. Bornert, Les Commentaires byzantins de la divine liturgie du VII e au XV e siecle, Archives de l'Orient Chr é tien (Paris, 1966).
3. A. Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology ( London, 1966). Cf. Also my essay: "Sacrament and Symbol" in For the Life of The World (Crestwood, N.Y l973 ), pp. 135-51.'' [i ]
4. Bornert, Les Commentaires, p. 162. Cf. also N. Borgia, ed., Le Commentario liturgico di S. Germano Patriarca Constantinopolitano e la versione latina de Anastasio Biblio tecario, Studi Liturgici 1 ( Grotta Ferrara, 1912).
5. For details, cf. J. Mateos, La celebration de la parole dans la liturgie byzantin Orientalia Christiana Analecta 191 (Rome, 1971). And also J. Mateos, ed., Le typikon de la Grande Eglise, Orientalia Christiana Analecta 165-66 (Rome, 1962-1963).