By: Protodeacon David Kennedy
I have been asked to address a few questions that at least indirectly are related to the physical movements of deacons, subdeacons and altar-servers as well as that of the celebrant and concelebrants.
(Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers, Shrewsbury, UK - Aidan Hart.)
Question 1: I have a question regarding the veneration of the high place instead of the Holy Table upon crossing the midline of the Church.
Response 1: There is certainly no need to create a false dilemma with an “either or”. No one is being asked to choose the High Place over the Holy Table. Byzantine liturgical space has various foci and numerous liturgical appointments, e.g. iconostasis, ambo, Holy Table, prothesis table, high place, cathedra, bema, solea, naos/nave, narthex, etc. Liturgy is always complex and rich in symbols. Unlike a sign, which generally has but one direct meaning, symbols convey many meanings simultaneously. For example the Holy Table is the tomb and the throne of Christ, it is a table (namely the focus of a meal), and an altar (namely the focus of a sacrifice). It is a tomb for the relics of martyrs. It is washed (baptized) with water, wine, rose water, and consecrated with Holy Chrism. It is clothed in fine linen (burial shroud, swaddling clothes, baptismal garment), bound with a cord (think of Christ and his witnesses the martyrs being led away to death), and finally covered with a cloth usually of rich brocade for upon it the King of Glory is enthroned.
Upon the Holy Table, minimally there rests the Gospel Book and a hand cross. Is there an “either or” between these and the Holy Table? Certainly not. Hopefully, one can see that to participate in liturgy it is fundamental to have a mind that can perceive various meanings at various levels simultaneously: it is to have a mind that can read symbols and not be conflicted.
(The Righteous Judge is Coming, Rev. 19:11-16: - St. Elias the Prophet, Brampton, ON, Bohdan Turetskyy.)
Question 2: Where is that practice prescribed?
Response 2: I will address this question in the context of the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine rite. In 1944 the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Churches published Ordo Celebrationis Vesperarum, Matutini et Divinae Liturgiae Iuxta Recensionem Ruthenorum. This text was to accompany the Liturgicon of 1942 published by the same congregation. It provides further rubrics to the Liturgicon. Under General Rules section 11 we read: It is also proper for the deacon to show reverence by inclining his head and shoulders a little to the celebrating priest before leaving the Altar to sing the ektenias, and when the deacon returns to the Altar. A commentary on this text published by Eastern Christian Publications in 1996 on page 133 reads: In practice, the deacon normally asks the priest’s blessing in the usual way when he leaves the Altar for an ektene. When he returns, the deacon bows to the high place and then to the celebrant.
In order to understand the rubrics and the commentary we must first understand what the high place is and its significance. There are a number of axes in a Byzantine church. There is a vertical axis below the dome of the naos or nave, and another vertical axis below the dome of the bema over the Holy Table. There is a horizontal axis running from the west to the east with its focal point being the high place. Do not mistake the bishop’s cathedra for the high place, although they are related they are distinct.
The current Liturgicon of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church published in 1988 reads on p57 the following:
As the Thrice-holy Hymn is being sung, the priest and the deacon join in the recitation . . . .
The deacon then says to the priest:
They depart for the place on high. As the priest proceeds, he says: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Deacon: Master, bless the chair on high.
Priest: Blessed are You on the throne of glory of Your kingdom, Who sit upon the cherubim, always, now and for ever and ever.
Note that it is not proper for a priest to ascend to the place on high place [sic] or to sit there. He is to sit to the south of the throne on high.
It is apparent that the high place is a symbol of the eschatological dimension of the liturgy, a symbol that most are not conscious of, but is essential to all Christian liturgies. The rubric following the priest’s blessing reveals that its author confuses the bishop’s cathedra with the high place. The high place is the eschatological throne of Christ so how is it possible for a human celebrant to ascend to it physically, even one who is said to be in persona Christi Capitis?
Why is the eschatological so important in the liturgy? Precisely because the Divine Liturgy is an encounter between heaven and earth, it realizes the Kingdom in the here and now. The Kingdom of Heaven is the telos or end of the Christian life; an end that has no end: it is a transfiguration of the human person by grace through theosis. It is simply tragic that so few believers are consciously attentive to the eschatological reality. It would be good to read the New Testament with care and see how saturated it is with an eschatological consciousness. Then, I need to ask myself why am I so inattentive to it? Plainly, it is there in the liturgy for we read in the anaphora of St. John Chrysostom: Remembering, therefore, this salutary commandment, and all that was done for us: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming: We remember what in chronological time is yet to come but in kairos (decisive time; a point where one makes a life changing decision) which is the time of the liturgy, is imminently present. We need to pay attention to the actual reality of the liturgical texts and not our own preconceived notions that lead to a confused hermeneutic.
(Christ on the Cherubim Throne in Glory, early 15th C - St. Andrei Rublev.)
Let us not loose sight of the way in which Eastern Christians pray. It has a direction precisely because of its eschatological dimension. The whole assembly faces the east. Why?
The following is from:
Why We Pray Facing East
Facing east is an ancient tradition, grounded in sure knowledge about the final eschatological coming, first told us by the Lord, and then repeated by an angel after the disciples had just seen the Lord ascend into heaven:
“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt. 24:27)
“…Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
We believe that our Lord ascended on the Mount of Olives, and when He comes back, He will come on a cloud from the east. Therefore, we face east when we pray.
There are other important biblical references to the east. The following is a non-comprehensive list.
The wise men saw signs of the imminent birth of Christ from the east:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Mt. 2:1-2)
Ezekiel saw the “glory of the Lord” when facing east:
“And the glory of the Lord came into the house, by the way of the gate looking eastward:” (Ezek. 43:4)
The Jews faced eastward during their worship [in the Temple in Jerusalem]:
“And if the prince should prepare as a thanksgiving a whole-burnt-peace-offering to the Lord, and should open for himself the gate looking eastward, and offer his whole-burnt-offering, and his peace-offerings, as he does on the sabbath-day; then shall he go out, and shall shut the doors after he has gone out.” (Ezek. 46:12)
There are lots of references in the fathers to prayer facing east (see below an excerpt from St John of Damascus concerning this). It has been a uniform part of our tradition since before Apostolic times.
Here is what Saint John of Damascus says,
It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the east. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the Mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.
Since, therefore, God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness and Dayspring, the east is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rideth upon the Heavens of heavens towards the east. Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed: and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the west.
So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland.
Moreover the tent of Moses had its veil and mercy seat towards the east.
Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the east.
Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon, the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward.
Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him.
And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the east, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning cometh out of the east and shineth even unto the west, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be.
So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship [facing] towards the east. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten.
CONCERNING WORSHIP TOWARDS THE EAST
EXPOSITION OF THE ORTHODOX FAITH
by St. John of Damascus, Book IV, chapter 12
Now back to the rubric in section 11 of Ordo Celebrationis. It is in need of more detail for it does not say where the deacon is to stand to make the reverence. Unclear rubrics can be interpreted in more than one way. However, the commentary helps, especially the directions on how the deacon returns. The leave taking of the deacon should mirror the return of the deacon. Thus, the deacon to leave the bema/sanctuary proceeds on the south side to about the middle of the bema; he crosses himself and bows to the high place (the eastern point above the bishop’s cathedra), he turns to the celebrant and bows, (the celebrant blesses the deacon for the deacon should do nothing without a blessing), and the deacon exits via the north deacon’s door.
It is certainly a function of rubrics to keep liturgical celebrations from falling into disorder. Disorder has a rather wide range of behaviors. What I described above is orderly and dignified. It shows reverence and is consciously eschatological. It is not a veneration of the high place for it is not an object or an actual physical point in the church. The high place is an eschatological reality that is present in this age but is yet to be fulfilled in the parousia, in the age to come.
(The Last Judgement)
Question 3: What would you say to someone who would argue that to venerate the high place is to negate, ignore or diminish acknowledgement of the real presence of the Christ in the Eucharist?
Response 3: I would say that a false dichotomy is being created here. The sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not in competition with the eschatological presence of Christ. Christ is present in the Gospel Book that rests on the Holy Table. When the priest or deacon kisses it, do they show a lack of reverence to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist? This is one-dimensional thinking and it is what needs to change. Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. writes in The Communion, Thanksgiving, and Concluding Rites, 2008 on p415 concerning reservation and veneration of the Eucharist in the Christian East the following:
“In general one can say that in the Christian East today “Eucharistic devotion” means to receive Holy Communion. This was once true also in the pre-Medieval West. The idea that the reserved eucharist was something one “visited” or prayed to outside the context of Holy Communion was unknown throughout Christendom in the first millennium. The Christ to whom one prays is everywhere present; what is reserved in the tabernacle is the sacramental presence of his Body and Blood as spiritual food under the species of consecrated bread and wine, one of the many forms of Jesus’ real presence among us — but by no means the only one. That is why Eastern Christians act in the same way upon entering a church regardless of whether or not the eucharist is reserved. They make their reverence, visit and kiss the icons, say their prayers, because for the Eastern Christian every church is the house of God, a sanctuary made holy by its consecration, by its icons, its relics, by the liturgical celebrations and prayers that sanctify it day after day, and not just by the presence of the reserved eucharist. Present-day Roman Catholic devotional attitudes are quite different. The first thing Western Catholics will ask on entering a church is if the reserved eucharist is present — almost as if they think God is absent if it is not.”
Question 4: Which is the centre of worship in the Church, the Holy Table (called the Throne in Ukrainian) or the high place? Is bowing to the high place confusing this taxis?
Response 4: I think this question has already been addressed above. These questions reveal a legalistic and minimalistic perspective in a context in which they do not belong. This is a dangerous mindset to bring to liturgical services. Because liturgy is immersed in symbol and ritual by its very nature, it is complex. There is no confusion in the sacramental reality but the questions because they are framed in an “either or” wording reveal a mentality and spirituality that is reductionist. The questions reflect a confused view of the liturgical-sacramental reality. Why attempt to put the infinite, incomprehensible, and unfathomable God is a box?
(Apse mosaic - San Vitale - Ravenna -6th C)
Question 5: Is this practice at odds with our current Typikon/Ordo?
Response 5: I trust that the responses above demonstrate that the practice of the deacon crossing himself, bowing to the high place and then to the celebrant is nothing but typical of authentic Byzantine piety. That is not to say it is, as Fr. Taft has so clearly pointed out, Western Catholic piety. But why should it be?