What I saw at a Byzantine Divine Liturgy

This Sunday, I was visiting some friends near Dallas, and we went to Divine Liturgy at St. Basil, a Ruthenian/Byzantine church in Irving, TX.

I’ve been to Masses in many languages, including Novus Ordo in Latin, and I’ve been to several Tradentine Masses, but this is the first time I’ve ever been to a Byzantine liturgy. I got some general advice from my friend Elisa about what to expect, and then I just resolved to keep my ears open, soak it in, and be cool. (Ruthenians are in communion with Rome, and it’s fine for a Roman Catholic to just hop in and go to Mass there. They have a metropolitan, but they acknowledge Francis as the Pope.) 

We arrived in the middle of a churching, when a mother and her newborn baby are welcomed back forty days after the birth. I didn’t catch much of it, because I was dazzled by the church itself, not to mention by all the other babies who were loudly making themselves welcome.

Here is what I saw:

On the outside, it was a typical, barn-shaped Dallas building, long and rather low, with a long gable roof and a sort of portico attached to the front, with a slavic-looking steeple and cross perched rather oddly on top.

But here is the inside: The ceiling brilliant blue, the walls heavily stencilled and adorned, and the floor wood parquet, with a long carpet runner down the center, leading up to the iconostasis. 

As I understand it [AND HERE I NEED TO STATE VERY STRONGLY THAT I KNOW VERY CLOSE TO ZERO ABOUT BYZANTINE LITURGY. I WELCOME THOSE WHO ARE MORE EDUCATED TO CORRECT ANY MISTAKES I MAKE IN WHAT FOLLOWS!], the iconostasis is a decorated screen or fence, with (as the name suggests) icons on it, separating the sanctuary and altar from the nave, where the congregation collects.

The iconostasis signifies the separation between Heaven and earth, and the Eucharist is consecrated on the Heaven side. But it’s not really a fence, because it has doors in it — two on the sides, which the deacon and the altar boys passed through several times, and a large central one, which the pastor went through. So during the liturgy, there is some passage or meeting or interchange between Heaven and earth. 

This iconostasis has, among other things, the annunciation, the four evangelists, and two peacocks, which symbolize paradise, on the central gate.

On the wall behind the iconostasis is a huge icon of Mary Wider than the Cosmos. The blue ring with the stars and rays on it signifies the whole universe.

Much of Byzantine liturgy (and therefore iconography) is intended to correct the heresy that Jesus is divine but not really human, and so part of what’s being emphasized here is Mary’s real pregnancy with him. He was really God, but he was really a baby that was born from the body of this specific woman, so look at who she must be! [AGAIN, THIS IS ME FREEWHEELING WITH THEOLOGY A BIT! Take it all with a grain of salt.] She contains within her womb the uncontainable hugeness of God, and if you find that hard comprehend, that means you’re on the right track. Anyway, I gather that some of the friction between Byzantine and Roman churches comes from the fact that they were responding to and correcting different regional heresies, so they didn’t always agree on what needed to be emphasized. 

On the ceiling is a huge icon of, if I remember correctly, Christ Pantocrator (“ruler of all,” all-powerful) or Christ the Teacher. 

You can see the four evangelists, four angels, and clouds. The red means divinity and the blue means humanity. You can see that He has taken on the blue cloak of humanity and wrapped it around Himself. The book He is holding is the Gospel, and His hand is in a gesture of blessing that spell the name of Christ and also, with three fingers, signify the Trinity, and also, with the fingers touching each other, recall the joining of the human and divine in the Incarnation! I think maybe the clouds are just clouds, though. 

There were numerous other icons on the walls, and the walls were painted. There was also an ornate chandelier with icons all around the outside and also the inside

There were no pews. There were chairs lined up along the walls on both sides, for old people and mothers with babies. The room was very full of people of all ages, some in jeans and t-shirts, some in long skirts. Some women wore head coverings, some did not. There were a few ultra-modest trad types and a few folks with blue and purple hair in asymmetrical cuts and funky glasses, but the majority were utterly average-looking suburbanites.

The first thing I noticed was that the entire congregation was in motion. At first I thought this was because there were so many babies, and so many parents were rocking and jiggling their little ones; but then I saw that people without babies were also swaying and weaving and shifting a lot, possibly because it was just a long time to be on your feet, but also because there was just a general sense of liveliness. That is the best I can explain it.

The liturgy invited much more participation from the people than the western liturgy I am used to. Just about everything, including the scripture readings and the intercessory prayers, is chanted or sung (I’m not really clear if there’s a difference), and the people chant right back at the priest or deacon all throughout the hour and a half.

Some people were loud and bold; some murmured; some kept their peace; some went in and out; a few sang in harmony; and there was an incredible noise of babies and children throughout the entire thing. It was a sort of two-layer Byzantine cake, the foundation being a vigorous population of happy, confident children and toddler who expected people to walk around them, which they did. You really couldn’t call it disruptive, since it was just part of the liturgy. Everything was loud, the chanting was loud, the babies were loud, even the censor had little bells on it, and they used a ton of incense. It was a lot! It wasn’t cacophony, and all the sounds were good sounds. But it was a lot.

The only time I really felt overwhelmed and wanted everyone to just stop for a second was right after receiving communion. I am very accustomed to being able to return to my seat, kneel down, and pray in quiet for at least a few minutes, and it was jarring and a little upsetting not to have that, but just to witness the continuous weltering stream of chanting and wandering around continue. That would take some getting used to. 

You also cross yourself constantly. Just dozens of times. I never quite figured out which words triggered a sign of the cross, but there seemed to be several! I gave up trying to keep up and just did my best. 

There were at least a few occasions when the priest and altar boys came out from the altar area and processed around the church. The altar boys carried some kind of long poles topped with icons framed in golden sunburst designs, and at various times during the liturgy, they moved these in particular ceremonial ways. This was fascinating and I need to learn more about what it all means. I also noticed people reaching out to touch the vestments of the priest as he went by. I believe this must be an echo of the woman reaching out to touch Jesus’ garment for healing (not that people expect healing, but the vestments are so close to the Eucharist), but I am not exactly sure. 

When it was time to read the Gospel, all the kids streamed up to the front of the church. It wasn’t a big deal, and they didn’t do a special kiddie participation Q-and-A session or anything. Everyone just made room for the kids, and it was excellent. At other times, the kids went where they wanted to, including crawling around on the floor with icon coloring pages and little boxes of crayons. None of the kids were out of control or obnoxious, but they weren’t expected to be deathly silent, so they weren’t. 

When people got tired of standing up, they simply sat down on the floor. When they felt like getting up, they got up. When they needed a break, or wanted to be in a different spot, they simply wandered over somewhere else. This did not create an atmosphere of irreverence, if that’s what you’re imagining. I love the Tridentine Mass, but every TLM I’ve ever been at has been an extremely different vibe from this Byzantine liturgy. Latin chant at its best tends to produce an ecstatic, elevated sensation that sort of puts you on your best spiritual behavior. Not in a bad way, but that’s what it does for me.

I don’t want to read too much into one, uneducated experience and say “this is what Byzantine liturgy is like” after a single visit, but I got the impression they kind of started with the idea that God loves them, and went from there. It’s just kind of inescapable. Everything about the liturgy is saturated with the assurance of the closeness and tenderness of God. It wasn’t necessarily an emotional experience, either. It’s just that everything they said and did proceeded from an assumption that God is close. At least that is how it seemed to me. 

And this is weird, because one thing you’ll notice is that the congregation is constantly begging for mercy. Dozens of times: “Lord have mercy . .  . Lord have mercy!” all throughout the liturgy. It was explained to me that this mercy is less “I’m a disgusting sinner, so please don’t punish me like you probably want to” but more “give us some more of that sweet kindness that you love to give to us.” There was mention of being harshly punished by God, but I think I recall it was in the context of a kind of slavic shrug, as if we all agreed that life is just like this. I guess you can tell that culturally, what I saw and heard made instinctual sense to me, even if I didn’t catch every theological detail. 

The one part I can remember that was spoken, and not chanted, was the prayer before communion, and it really got me. I looked it up: 

O Lord, I believe and profess that you are truly Christ,
The Son of the living God, who came into the world
To save sinners of whom I am the first.

 Accept me today as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God,
For I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies,
Nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas,
But like the thief I profess to you:

Remember me, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom.
Remember me, O Master, when you come in your kingdom.
Remember me, O Holy One, when you come in your kingdom.

May the partaking of your Holy mysteries, O Lord,
Be not for my judgment or condemnation,
But for the healing of my soul and body.

O Lord, I also believe and profess, that this,
Which I am about to receive,
Is truly your most precious Body, and your life-giving Blood,
Which, I pray, make me worthy to receive
For the remission of all my sins and for life everlasting.  Amen

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me for I have sinned without number.

As I understand it, this is the equivalent of the “Great Amen” that we say in the Latin Rite. I may print this out and bring it with me to Mass, because it really resonated. 

The bread they consecrate for the Eucharist is leavened bread. Little cubes of the bread are added to the chalice, and when you approach the priest with your arms folded across your chest, he places a tiny portion into your mouth with a spoon (post-covid, everyone gets their own spoon!). Children and even babies also receive.

And then everybody wanders back to their spot singing, with quite a lot of gusto, as they should:

We have seen the true light
We have received the heavenly Spirit
We have found the true faith
and we worship the undivided Trinity
for the Trinity has saved us.

My friend pointed out that a lot of the liturgy speaks from the point of view of the already-risen Lord, from whose point of view our salvation has already been accomplished. Here we are, stuck in linear time, still trying to work out the details of how we make it through our life; but in truth, the end of the story has already been worked out, and it’s kind of only a matter of whether we want to be there or not. The doors are wide open. 

The dismissal prayer got me, too. The priest says:

“May Christ our true God have mercy on us and save us, for Christ is good and loves us all.”

Can we . . . is there a way we can make that be part of the liturgy in every rite, and maybe part of every sacrament? I know there are people who just straight up don’t know this, and need to hear it. 

So that’s what it was like! Also, someone rode a horse to liturgy, because it’s Texas and why not. 

If you have the chance to go to a Byzantine liturgy, I heartily recommend it! It was fairly easy look around me and get the general idea of what I was supposed to be doing, and I never once felt like people were looking at me and wondering what I was doing there. I think this is typical of a Byzantine parish. They also had a very nice coffee hour afterwards, with babies galore, and lots of people brought extra snacks and homemade coffee cake and all kinds of things. 

If you are Byzantine, I’d love to hear more about some of the things that went over my head! And please never forget how lucky you are! I do love my church, and I’m grateful for our excellent pastor, but I would give an arm to have a Byzantine church in driving distance. 


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23 thoughts on “What I saw at a Byzantine Divine Liturgy”

  1. Hi Simcha! You have described the Byzantine Divine Liturgy exactly how it feels to most people who attend one. It is a rich and wonderful Liturgy, filled with joy and happiness. There is constant acapella chanting throughout the entire Liturgy, except for the Prayer before Communion like you said. One thing that I feel should be mentioned here is the Proskomedia, also called the Rite of Preparation. This is a separate part of the Liturgy before the actual Liturgy starts, and it takes about 10-15 minutes. Behind the iconostasis, on a separate table called the Table of Oblation in the northeast corner of the altar area, the priest and deacon prepare the bread and wine that is to be used in the Liturgy. Altar boys often observe and be in attendance during this special rite.
    There’s one big square piece called the lamb. It’s inscribed with a seal, along with a Cross and the letters below.
    IC XC
    NI KA
    The Cross is inscribed between the four gaps in the letters above. It means Jesus Christ Conquers.
    Once the Lamb is cut out from the leavened loaf of bread, the priest pierces the IC corner with a small liturgical spear. Then he pours out the wine and a small amount of water into the chalice, symbolizing the blood and water that flowed out from Jesus’s side. After that he places small cubes of bread on the diskos ( called the paten in the Latin Rite) and proceeds to commemorate Mary, certain saints, and people such as the Pope, his Metropolitan, the bishop, and friends and family members, living and deceased and anyone else he wants to pray for. It’s a small, but very important and symbolic part of the Liturgy and captures the essence and the mystical beauty of the Byzantine Rite. Most Byzantines are very laid back, non judgemental, and family oriented . If you ever find yourself in Western WA, stop by St John Chrysostom’s on Lander St in Seattle. Check out their website too!

  2. I was raised Roman Catholic. 34 years ago I made the formal rite change to Byzantine Catholic. My 9 brothers and sisters are all Romans to this day. I have been either the main cantor or an associate cantor for over 30 years now. I love the Roman church as I love my family. But I love the Byzantine Church as I love my wife. One I was born into and is beautiful in its own way. The other I chose to spend my life with and create souls for Christ. Both are wonderful, but the beauty of the Byzantine rite stole my heart all those years ago. In about 1 hour I leave for Wednesday night Divine Liturgy as the lead cantor. My heart is full.

  3. I’m so glad you were able to be at St. Basil’s! We’ve been going there since 2018. I had to laugh when you mentioned you wanted everything to “stop for a second” after receiving the Eucharist to really savor that time with our Lord because that was the one thing I had an adjustment to in attending Divine Liturgy vs Mass in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form. Being raised a Roman Catholic with a pretty decent understanding of all that it is to be Catholic, my faith has exploded in new ways by participating in the East and I have come to such a beautiful understanding of what it means to be a Catholic seeing it through both lenses now.

    We bless ourselves at every prayer invoking the Holy Trinity, and some also follow the Deacon’s lead of blessing himself at each invocation that preceeds the “Lord, Have Mercy”

    A wonderful book that explains Divine Liturgy is “Life and Worship: The Mystery of Christ Among Us” by God With Us Publications. It is an easy read and definitely worth it if you wanted to take in a little more the next time you are able to attend one. Our old pastor used to encourage new comers to just take in all the sights, sounds, and smells a few times before trying to keep track of where to flip in the book. We use that same suggestion when we bring friends because it literally fills all your senses and you want to be *in* it as much as you want to participate.

    1. I second your recommendation of “Life and Worship: The Mystery of Christ Among Us”. I’m a lifelong Ukrainian Greek Catholic and that really helped me to appreciate the Liturgy.

  4. I loved your reflections and observations! You are super spot on. I started going to my local Byzantine Church about 8 years ago and made my change of rite 2 years ago to be officially Ruthenian Byzantine. This is not necessary at all or required for people who are parishioners but was the next step for my personal spiritual life.
    There are so many little tidbits to share! For example, on the censer (kadilo), there are 12 bells for the 12 apostles and one is silent for Judas. The bread is leavened because of exactly what you said, we are outside time and space in the Divine Liturgy, and Christ rose! And he touching of the vestments is a way of attaching our prayers to the bread that will become the Eucharist during the Great Entrance. Another detail that went straight to my heart is that when the priest adds water to the chalice, it is hot water so that when we receive communion we are receiving the warm blood of the living Christ. I could go on and on!
    Thank you for this beautiful reflection!

  5. Small correction. Blue(the heavens) represents divinity. Red (blood) represents humanity. Blue over red symbolizes his clothing humanity with his divinity.

    1. Sorry, Lance, but you’re incorrect. Red is the color of divinity; blue is the color of humanity. Christ is iconographic ally depicted in red clothing with a blue overgarment, symbolizing his “putting on” humanity. In the same way, the Theotokos is depicted in blue clothing, with a red overgarment, symbolizing her “overshadowing” by the Holy Spirit.

  6. My favorite article of yours so far! Thank you for that. I fell in love with the Byzantine rite myself some years ago but did not have a Byzantine church within driving distance until recently. I have been attending for a little over a year now and can’t get enough. I wish they had a service every day, but, sadly, it is a mission church and the pastor has a long drive to get there for Sundays alone. One comment on the sign of the cross – the main “trigger,” if you will – is any mention of the trinity by anyone, father, cantor/reader, or congregation. As a grandfather keenly desiring my grandkids to enjoy liturgy, the joy of children scampering about being children is one of the things I love very much. I love the western rite too but, I did not grow up Catholic and I am not surprised so many young people come away feeling a disconnect. I would love to see more of the Byzantine attitude toward worship and confidence in the love of God spill over into the western liturgy.

  7. I thought there was a Melkite church somewhere in or near Manchester, NH, isn’t there? We went to a baptism there once and it was beautiful, they processed around the church several times with the baby and alter servers and incense, and did what felt like more readings and prayers than an Easter vigil, then fully immersed the naked baby three times in a huge baptismal font. It was quite an experience!

    1. I think I was there, Rosemary. Yes. There are lots of readings, singing, procession. It’s a grand day of entry into the church. But besides the baptism, the child was confirmed and then given the Eucharist. You’re always invited to come back. I am one of the priests that serves the congregation. I also help the Latin Mass parish in Nashua with Latin Mass.

  8. This made me so happy to read, and it was very much in the same vein as my first time attending Divine Liturgy with the Maronites. It was overwhelmingly beautiful and I found it easier to enter into the music and the chant and worship than I ever had at any new location for the Novus Ordo.

    I hope you’ll be able to find another local Eastern-rite to attend near your family so they can see what it is like, too.

    One thing I felt during the Liturgy at my first and subsequent trips was that the Litany of Mercy felt very much like the new-to-me-then Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and I thought then “this is breathing with both lungs!” (as Pope St John Paul II so warmly wished for in his papacy).

    I’m glad you got to go and glad you’re back, too, Simcha. Thank you for relating your thoughts and the experience.

  9. That prayer communion is my favorite! I have prayed that at every Mass since I learned it in college when I did a study abroad in Austria with other students from Eastern Europe. There was a small chapel next to the main church that was beautiful and Divine Liturgy was offered there every week, at least. It was amazing. Every part of that prayer is scriptural and it’s so meditative to consider where each part comes from as you pray it. Additionally, considering the heresies that are corrected through the prayer makes me feel that every time I pray it I am praying with all of scripture and history. And because it is prayed by the Eastern Churches, I’m also praying in a spirit of unity. It becomes my personal confession of faith and conversation with Jesus as I look inwardly at his eyes. I highly recommend it! 🙂

  10. I converted to Roman Catholicism over an Eastern Rite probably *because* I’m the descendant of some very repressed Irish people (lol)… and back then, I had a hard time handling the sensory overload of Eastern traditions. I’m also very single. But this makes me wonder whether the Eastern Rite would be the best in-communion-with-Rome place to brings babies on a Sunday…

  11. Well, where to begin? The Good Lord was truly favoring you, Simcha, when He steered you to Saint Basil’s, which is the sister parish to ours, Saint John Chrysostom, in Houston. Saint Basil’s pastor, Father Elias L. Rafaj, was our pastor here until he was promoted to Saint Basil’s, which is the largest of our parishes in Texas. Father Elias is a tremendous pastor and missionary for the Byzantine (Ruthenian) church, and as Protoprebyter of the South, he has shepherded missions in San Antonio, Austin, Waco, New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I can also attest that he is a tremendous spiritual father.

    As one who has journeyed through the Novus Ordo, reverently celebrated by good Dominicans and others, the TLM, celebrated by FSSP, diocesan, and SSPX priests, and the Ordinariate liturgy, I would just note that a major difference is as you observed, that the latin church liturgies tend to have quiet spaces in them, where one makes one’s own prayers of offering, thanksgiving, or what have you, while the Byzantine liturgy just washes over one the whole time, and one unites oneself to the spiritual action by joining the singing (or chanting, as the tunes are mostly, in the Byzantine Catholic Church, Carpathian chant), and, of course, listening to the epistle, the gospel and the homily. I find that what happens over the months is that all of the chants, the variable parts, and the like, sink in without one even sensing it, and then I find myself taking home and meditating there about what was sung.

    I also feel a real enrichment of faith by reading the various prayers, troparions and kontakions, coming from the ancient Church, celebrating the Resurrection, on Sundays, and also the great host of martyrs and ascetics from the early times. I, at least, also appreciate in general the numerous historical references to the early Church, and the Byzantine Empire, in some of the liturgy texts as well as particular celebrations. With all due respect to the TLM, to me, anyway, while assisting at a TLM takes me back to Rome in the 1,500s, the Divine Liturgy takes me back to Constantinople in the 500s.

    Nothing said here is meant to criticize any other rite, but as you can see, the Divine Liturgy and the Eastern church ethos in general, can really take one over. So come on back often, you’ll get something’s new each time.

  12. I’ve only ever attended Eastern rites (Catholic or Orthodox) for weddings, funerals, and Baptisms. I’ve only attended Latin Masses for kids’ religion class assignments. I vastly prefer the Eastern rite Masses to the Latin Masses I’ve been to, but I have never been to a Latin Mass wedding, funeral or Baptism so perhaps I’m not being fair.

    My favorite weddings are Orthodox or Conservative Jewish weddings, followed closely by Eastern rite weddings. And then come the regular Novus Ordo Catholic weddings. And then Reformed Jewish weddings. And then next in line for me is any wedding where the couple chooses traditional vows over ones where the couple writes their own. I don’t even mind the goofy sand mixing so long as they don’t say stupid vows (like, for instance, promising not to talk to each other in the morning before the first cup of coffee, and yes, we’ve heard that one). I prefer any Baptism to a Bris. 😉

  13. The priest at our wedding was a byzantine priest that also did roman catholic services. He used to be an episcopalian priest and converted to catholicism. We were married in the roman catholic rite but I had also attended some byzantine masses and it was pretty cool.

  14. I’ve only ever been to one, and it was said in a Latin rite church by a visiting priest with one lay person coming with him to do all the responses. It was when I was in college, and it was a Catholic cultural thing. One guy wasn’t Catholic and went up with his arms crossed for a blessing and the priest (who knew what he was asking for in Roman rite and translated, I guess) put the whole chalice on top of his head to bless him.

    It sounds very different from what you experienced, and gosh…I’d love to see it in it’s native habitat, if you know what I mean. Sounds beautiful. I wish we confirmed and offered our babies communion too. Get that grace in as early as possible, they need it!!

  15. I have attended numerous Ruthenian Byzantine liturgies, Eastern Orthodox liturgies, Novus Ordo Masses, and Tridentine, and I enjoy them precisely in the order in which I have just listed them. Just reading this gave me happy memories of the Divine Liturgy at the Ruthenian Byzantine church we attended before it pretty much shuttered (we had all of 15 people attending) and got moved to the local Campus Ministry building far away from us. Such a beautiful liturgy, and I vastly prefer it to the Tridentine mainly because of the wording and the fact I can understand the prayers. The prayers are so beautiful, it would be a shame if they weren’t in the language of the people!

    I used to bake the prosfora (bread for communion) at the Orthodox church we attended, and let me tell you, there was FIERCE competition amongst those ladies to have the best prosfora. I used to wish they didn’t publish the name of the baker in the bulletin (from what I can tell they don’t any more) because that just led to pride. I did like baking it, though.

  16. St. Basil is the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen, including in comparison to Hagia Sophia and the Cathedrals of Europe. It’s like stepping into heaven.

    I want to transfer Rites, but my wonderful Roman parish is a quarter mile from my house, and the Eastern Rite parishes are 30 minutes away.

  17. I’m not Byzantine, but Eastern Orthodox. I’ve attended a couple Byzantine services and they seem very similar to me, a layperson. I have told friends that it would be extremely difficult to disrupt an Eastern Orthodox service because, as you experienced, there is already so much going on. Divine liturgy has always felt reverent to me, but it was also overwhelming at first. After attending for years you get into the flow of it. Sometimes I get distracted, but then I come back. There is just so much to direct the senses back towards God, that it’s like you’re being shepherded as one would shepherd a toddler in a certain direction. They go off on their own for bit, but then someone says gently to them, oh look over hear and they come back.

    Was your liturgy in English? I have mainly attended English liturgy, but when I’ve gone to French or Arabic speaking ones I just hear the English words because I know what is going to be said when. I’m not here to pick any fights, but when staunch TLM proponents say that the rites need to be in Latin to be reverent or because Latin is unifying, I want to point to the very reverent vernacular Eastern liturgy and how a vernacular liturgy is inclusive because when you know the words in your own language they are incorporated into your being and you hear the words you know even when they’re being said in a different language.

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