“The Liturgy summons us into a new world”: Eschatology and the Byzantine Liturgy

(This is Neil) Please keep the people of Haiti in your prayers. Also, please be very generous with your donations.

The new Pray Tell blog has made available a very interesting article [PDF] about the Byzantine Liturgy and eschatology by the Very Reverend David M. Petras of the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of SS Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh.  The Archpriest makes five points that I think deserve discussion:

1. The Western reaction to Byzantine Liturgy is commonly either that it is more mysterious, a “total immersion in a timeless world,” or that it is “irrelevant” in its pietism or ritual. The reason for both the positive and negative reactions is that the Byzantine Liturgy is more eschatological.

2. Although the liturgical texts are eschatological – in the Anaphora of St Basil the Great, Eastern Christians will pray, “we also remember … His glorious and fearsome second coming,” the Byzaintine Liturgy is also eschatological in its ritual actions, icons, incense, and chant. One example is that the Liturgy is celebrated facing the East: “As the lightning from the east flashes to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt 24:27). (This is important because Eastern liturgies have not always been celebrated in the vernacular: in the United States, the Byzantine liturgy was only celebrated in English in the late 1940s and early 1950s – and at least one American cardinal then worried about the possibility of “contamination.”)

3.  The “eschatological thrust” of the Byzantine Liturgy is toward the “definitive establishment of the Kingdom of God.”  Thus it is “present-future.” Here, Petras quotes Karl Rahner, “For that future presents itself as salvation now, precisely if it is accepted as God’s action, incalculable in its when and how, because determined by God alone.”

4. While the Byzantine Liturgy is eschatological, it is not “otherworldly” and unconcerned with the reality of suffering. The words of the faithful in the Cherubicon, “Let us … now set aside all earthly cares” refers to the anxieties [merimnan] in the parable of the sower and the seed that “choke” the Word, which is then unable to produce fruit (Luke 8:14). Nevertheless, the “dominion” of the Lord – “Let us receive the King of all, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts” – is different than the rule of earthly princes because it is not coercive.

5. We can see the “eschatological thrust” in a commentator such as Maximus the Confessor, who interprets the Liturgy as “pointing to the future kingdom.” Thus, for example, the kiss of peace “prefigures and portrays the concord, unanimity, and identity of views which we shall all have among ourselves … at the time of the revelation of ineffable blessings to come,” and the Hymn of Victory (Sanctus) “represents the union and the equality of honor to be manifested in the future with the incorporeal and intelligent powers.” The “eschatological dimension,” however, is minimized later in the Byzantine world as the Liturgy becomes more “backward looking,” interpreted mainly as paralleling events in the life of Christ.

A little while back, I described an article by the Jesuit liturgist Michael McGuckian that argued that Western Catholic Liturgy was distinctive in its focus on Eucharistic presence and devotion to the Sacrament. On the other hand, the West, McGuckian claimed, has not cultivated a sense of “heavenly liturgy.” (See also the comments that followed my post.)

Do Roman Catholic liturgies have the same “eschatological dimension” as their Byzantine counterparts? If not, is that a very serious problem?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to “The Liturgy summons us into a new world”: Eschatology and the Byzantine Liturgy

  1. Liam says:


    Excellent post.

    I think that reactions to the postconciliar liturgical reforms in the Roman Catholic Church (at least in the US) have tended to betray a stunted eschatology. That is, among promoters of the reforms, there has been a strong tendency to view the Last Supper as the iconic model of the Eucharistic liturgy as meal; meanwhile, detractors of the reform have had a strong tendency to reiterate the emphasis on the re-presentation of Calvary as the iconic model of the Eucharistic liturgy as sacrifice.

    Yet, the iconic model of the Eucharistic liturgy is not either of those things alone. The liturgy subsumes both of those models, as well as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Pentecost and is also a participation in, and foreshadowing of, the wedding banquet of the Lamb celebrated by all of the glorified angel and saints of God in the fullness of the new creation. The entire arc of this is eschatological in its fullness.

  2. Neil says:

    Thank you for your generous replies.

    Regarding Liam’s comment, I must admit that I was surprised to read, in John Baldovin’s recent book, that the SSPX opposes “the theology of the paschal mystery” because of their belief that the death of Christ is the salvation event. So, I’d tend to cautiously agree with his diagnosis of “stunted eschatology” in both promoters and detractors of the reform.

    I want to thank Jimmy Mac for reminding me of Michael Sean Winters’ piece, with which I am in broad agreement. To be sure, the Pope has written against “autocelebration” and the “Dionysian.” But it has always been unclear to me just how “conservative” he is – his writings on liturgical music are compatible with jazz, and he has also defended folk practices against disapproving experts: “[W]e do not need to look anxiously over our shoulders at our theological theories to see if everything is in order and can be accounted for.” So it’s not unexpected – but it is still fascinating – to real of his approval of African liturgies, drumming and all.


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