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.