Byzantine Liturgy: Taxis, Historia, Theoria

(This is Neil.)

I had hoped to put up this post a few days ago, so you will have to forgive the unexpected delay. The last lecture collected in the Jesuit liturgist Robert Taft’s Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It is promisingly entitled “The Meaning of It All.” I would like to quickly share his main points. Before we begin, we should note that Fr Taft mentions that he is here using the “literary productions of the religious elite” instead of the popular tales and hagiographical legends that he had earlier relied upon as his windows into the lay experience of worship. Necessity, I think, compels him. But, as we shall see, he is still very much concerned with the laity and its social history.

In describing the “Byzantine World View,” Fr Taft makes good use of three concepts: taxis, historia and theoria. He translates them as order, rite, and contemplation. The Byzantines saw the taxis of their entire society in Neoplatonic terms, so that, as Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos’s 10th century Book of Ceremonies informs us about the imperial ceremonial, “the imperial power, being employed with measure and good order (taxis), might reproduce the harmonious movement that the Creator gives to the entire universe.”

Byzantine theology also underlay the taxis. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ bridged the gulf between divinity and humanity and rendered the divine capable of being encountered through icons and rituals. But icons and rituals have never represented a desperate grasping at what is inevitably past. The Resurrection of Christ means that, through the Holy Spirit, Christ is now present to all times and places. Fr Taft quotes the Episcopalian theologian Thomas J. Talley as saying that, “Christ is now transhistorical.”

Talley writes (the emphasis is Taft’s):

We may never speak of the Risen Christ in the historical past. The event of his passion is historical, but the Christ who is risen does not exist back there, but here, and as we live on this moving division line between memory and hope, between the memory of his passion and the hope of his coming again, we stand always in the presence of Christ, who is always present to everyone. This is where the real substance of our anamnesis lies.

Liturgical anamnesis, then, cannot be merely psychological – it is an actual theophany. Liturgy is an “encounter now with the present saving activity of Christ.” The Byzantine liturgy proclaims, in the present tense, “Christ is born, glorify him! Christ comes from heaven, go forth to meet him! Christ is on earth, exult!”

It is true that Christ is in heaven before the Father on our behalf (Heb 9:24), but this heavenly liturgy (see Rev 4:6-11) is open to our participation through the taxis of our earthly liturgy. This liturgy is meant to be an icon of what the Apostle John, “caught up in the spirit,” witnessed. The visible appearance of the heavenly reality means that Fr Taft wishes to add a line to Sacrosanctum Concilium. In it, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council said that it is through the liturgy that “the work of our redemption is exercised.” Fr Taft would say, “not just exercised but also contemplated.” This, as we will see, is his most important point.

Fr Taft then speaks of historiataxis as ritual. He speaks of a “compression of church life,” as the splendors of the Byzantine urban rites gave way to smaller and monastic churches. In place of the once great public processions, the ministers merely appeared from behind the iconostasis. This resulted in greater symbolization – “showings.” The introit procession was reduced in size and was then said to symbolize Christ’s coming to us as the Word. The “Great Entrance” before the Eucharistic part of the service showed Christ being led to his sacrifice, prefiguring his coming to us as sacrament.

Interestingly, while this “symbolization of the concrete” occurred in ritual, iconography sought to achieve the “concretization of the symbolic.” Fr Taft tells us that Byzantine icons were not meant to be otherworldly or non-realistic. When the Patriarch Photius described a mosaic of the Virgin at Hagia Sophia, he called it a “lifelike imitation.” The Virgin’s lips “have been made flesh by the colors,” and, though still, they were not “incapable of speaking.” The seemingly contrary developments in symbolization and concretization have perhaps the same intention – to open a window onto the sacred.

The church building itself was an all-encompassing icon – the sanctuary and its altar were the Holy of Holies, the cenacle of the Last Supper, Golgotha, and, finally, the tomb of Christ from which the “sacred gifts of the Risen Lord, his Word and his Body and Blood, issue forth to illumine the sin-darkened world (the nave).” To the Byzantines, the church portrayed the union of the earthly and heavenly liturgies, as saints were depicted, not merely to evoke emotional reactions, but holding scrolls as if concelebrating with the priest and with Christ the High Priest, himself shown serving Communion to the Apostles on the sanctuary apse. The Mother of God interceded at the conch of the apse.

This might all seem terribly complicated. But it should be noted that, in this collection of lectures, Fr Taft is as pastoral as he is learned. He begins the book by suggesting that we should “drink more fully from the saving waters [God] offers us in the liturgy via a participation that would be more active, more conscious, more communal, as Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, and the decrees and documents that flowed from it reiterate and paraphrase time and again.” He understands that “people like to come to church when they can do something, or be given something, or be hit by something.” He mentions that repetitions and similarities in the liturgy aren’t bad things but exist “so that people can become accustomed to the prayers and make them their own.” Finally, he asserts that the real purpose of the liturgy is not to preserve culture or something like that, but “the sanctification, the spiritual nourishment of men and women” (and this is why he supports vernacular liturgy).

So Fr Taft is quite clear that the purpose of the Byzantine liturgy was to form a spirituality for the masses, who could contemplate the work of our redemption. This theoria would continue to be a possibility even after Constantinople disastrously fell to the Turks in 1453. He quotes “one of my favorite books on the Greek Church,” Peter Hammond’s The Waters of Marah (1956).

Canon Hammond wrote about the experience of being in a Greek church:

Within, however, one finds oneself in another world. Walls unpierced by windows are covered with paintings which set forth the whole story of creation and redemption. Patriarchs and prophets mingle with the saints of the new dispensation; Elias is caught up to heaven in a chariot of fire and Jonah goes down to the bottoms of the mountains with the weeds wrapped about his head; those whose names are honored throughout the length and breadth of Christendom, Athanasius, Basil and Gregory the Divine, rub shoulders with local saints like St. George of Iannina and the Neo-Martyrs; the Lord Christ is baptized in Jordan, He changes the water into wine and reigns in triumph from the tree of Calvary; the Holy Spirit descends in tongues of fire upon the apostles.

For the Greek Christian … the humblest village church is always heaven upon earth; the place where men and women, according to their capacity and desire, are caught up into the adoring worship of the redeemed cosmos; where dogmas are no barren abstractions but hymns of exulting praise, and the saving acts of the divine compassion – the cross, the tomb, the resurrection of the third day and the ascension into the heavenly places – are made present and actual through the operation of the Holy Spirit who “ever was, and is and shall be; having neither beginning nor ending, but for ever joined to and numbered with the Father and the Son … through whom the Father is known, and the Son is glorified, and by all acknowledged, one power, or worship and one order of the Holy Trinity.

Obviously, the laity in much of the Byzantine Empire was quite different than the laity today. Fr Taft notes that “most people were illiterate, they had a vocabulary of a couple hundred words …” But we can ask if, in our liturgies today, the work of redemption can actually be contemplated.

What does theoria mean to us today?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Byzantine Liturgy: Taxis, Historia, Theoria

  1. Liam says:


    The Western tradition tends to give shorter shrift to theoria (except for auditory beauty – there the Roman tradition has an embarrassment of riches many are too embarrassed to behold nowadays, sadly) and more to other things.

    This may explain why the Theophany and the Transfiguration (and even Pentecost and Easter) are typically not as expansively theologized as in the East.

    I would say the chief enemy – well anticipated by Christ – is the tendency to substitute moralism (the cultivation of the virtues) for theosis. Theosis does not submit to the juridical mindset; moralism is more contained and therefore oddly more comforting to many people, it seems. The best way to understand this is as something that was intended as a merciful concession to human anxiety and weakness, rather than in either the polemic of orthodoxy or materialism.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for writing. If we are speaking in very general terms, I would probably agree with you.

    As you know, I also agree with you about the acidity of moralism. I’m not sure about how to best approach the problem, however. My main suspicion would be that moralism is symptomatic of a weak Christology.

    Incidentally, I failed to respond to your last comment in the earlier “Byzantine Liturgy” post. But my answer would be predictable – Taft does have sources that would hint at frequent communion later in the Byzantine Empire. They are not definitive (how could they be?). But I don’t think that we have contrary sources either – an abbot recommending infrequent communion to a “worthy” layman or a canonist assuming infrequent communion. That should mean something, if not everything.


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