Eastern Christian Liturgy in a Western Homily

Eastern Christian Liturgy in a Western Homily

Sts. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, Christ Pantocrator from Hagia Sophia, Sts. Vladimir the Great, and Cyril of Jerusalem.

St. John Paul II famously proclaimed that “The Church must breathe with two lungs”—speaking of the Western Church and the Eastern Church. Such breathing is meant to permeate all of the Church’s life and not just, say, the lives of historical theologians, ecumenists, and missionaries in Eastern countries. One of the many ways for John Paul’s call to be fulfilled is for homilists to imbue their homilies with the riches of the East. I aim to show, at least in a cursory way, how this may be done.

The designation, “Eastern Church” (or “Churches”) covers a vast range of aspects of a Christian’s life. An Eastern Catholic is not merely a Roman Catholic whose liturgy is in Greek: he has his own canon law, his own famous saints and Fathers, his own popular devotions, his own theological emphases, in addition to his own liturgy. Being a member of an Eastern Church means having a different Christian lifestyle from a Roman Catholic; while much is shared between the East and West—the Scriptures, the Eucharist, apostolic succession, and Marian devotion, among many others—there are still great differences. Thus, for the West to have a complete understanding of the Eastern Churches, one would have to an education in the full life-style of each Eastern Church—an overly tall order for homilists. How, then, should a homilist enrich his sermons with those Eastern jewels? My recommendation is the use of the liturgy.

The liturgies, one could say, are what most obviously distinguishes the various Churches, one from another. Much of the canon law is shared, as well as the basic prayer book of the Scriptures, and many of the Fathers, as is seen by the recent promotion of St. Gregory of Narek, one of the crown jewels of the Armenian Church, to the rank of Doctor of the Universal Church. (Though, of course, the emphasized Fathers will differ: a Byzantine Catholic may recognize St. Augustine while rarely using his theology, and a Roman may do the same with St. Gregory Palamas.) The differences in liturgy, however, are very strong: it is why St. Vladimir’s envoys reported of a German liturgy, “We beheld no glory there,” while of Constantinople’s liturgy they exclaimed, “We knew not where we were—in heaven or on earth.”1 It is of the liturgy, too, that we find some of the strongest accolades of the East in papal documents: “In point of fact, there is more importance than can be believed in preserving the Eastern rites. Their antiquity is august, it is what gives nobility to the different rites, it is a brilliant jewel for the whole Church, it confirms the God-given unity of the Catholic Faith.”2 The liturgy is also key to the life of most Eastern Churches: the liturgy incorporates much of the teaching and words of their Fathers, it is the source and model of most popular devotions, and it presents the mindset of the Church in a striking way. I attest, then, that the use of the Eastern liturgy is a most effective way to easily incorporate the riches of the East into homilies, and bring them to all Christians.

(As a side note, this article is directed primarily to homilists of the Western Church; however, it is also important that Eastern Catholics know, not only the riches of the other Eastern Churches, but that of the West as well. For too long, the Western Church has viewed the Eastern Churches as second-class citizens, but that is no justification for the Eastern Churches now to do the same to the Western Churches.)

Provided that this is accepted, the new issue that arises is this: how can a homilist draw from the riches of a liturgy he knows little about? The difficulties will differ depending on the languages the homilist knows, and the areas where he lives—for instance, a Roman Catholic priest born and raised in India could have much easier access to the riches of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankar churches than a Roman Catholic priest born and raised in Brazil—so I will take as my working example an English-speaking Roman Catholic priest in America. Let us suppose he is not fluent in any languages other than English—he may have a smattering of Latin from seminary, or Spanish from the Hispanic presence at his parish. The language barrier itself is an issue: many riches of the East are trapped in their original language, with no easily-accessible translations available. That means an English-speaking priest will be hard-pressed to draw on the liturgies of, say, the Ethiopian or Syrian churches. Yet, thankfully, the English translations of the works of some churches are beginning to flourish. In particular, translations from the Byzantine tradition are prevalent, and those from the Coptic Church are not impossible to find. A priest may find some of these works at a local university library or, if he has the funds and inclination, could purchase them himself.

Let us suppose he has crossed the hurdle of acquiring translations of Eastern liturgies into English. How can he sort through the thousands of pages of text to find gems to share with his congregation? How can he determine the use of these books with their unfamiliar names—Menaion, Agpeya, Triodion, Difnar, Synaxarium, Qurbono? The easiest way is, of course, to search out Eastern Christians in the area. At least some can direct one in how to use the piles of books one has acquired, yet an understanding of their usage may not necessarily explain how to use them to benefit a homily. Thus, I hope to give some assistance, using the Byzantine tradition as an example.

What resources would be easiest to draw on in order to infuse a homily with the fragrances of the East? A homily has a radical connection to feast days, since it is not to be omitted on Sundays and holydays of obligation, and it should be preached on other feasts and during the particular liturgical seasons (Advent, Lent, Easter), though it can also be preached on all other days, and it should develop either an aspect of the Scripture readings of the liturgy or another text from the liturgy itself.3 The Fathers reveal that the festal orientation of homilies, as many of the homilies preserved from them are for feasts (such as St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Festal Orations) or festal seasons (such as St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catecheses, given during the Easter season). This does not mean that a homily should never be given except on feast days: the series of homilies on various Biblical books by Origen, and St. John Chrysostom, show this from example. Yet, there is a sense in which the key use of the homily is for festal celebrations, and it is with these celebrations that the incorporation of the East is most easily accomplished.

My suggestion is to simply find a feast day, read the Eastern liturgical propers for that day, and incorporate some aspect of these propers into the festal homily. Not all feasts will be the same—for instance, Corpus Christi and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are predominantly Roman feasts—but the great feasts of Our Lord. and many feasts of Our Lady. are shared among the Churches, even if the dating is not identical. To find the liturgical propers for a feast, though, one must know how to use the liturgical books. Thus, I will give a brief overview of the Byzantine liturgical books in order to better direct homilists to locate these propers.

Though they are rich in liturgical wealth, the ordinary liturgical books would not be as readily useable for this purpose. Such books would be the Divine Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil, the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and the Horologion (the Book of the Hours, equivalent in use to the ordinary and four-week Psalter of the Liturgy of the Hours). Besides these ordinaries, there is a book called the Octoechos (Eight Tones) which unceasingly cycles, except during the Paschal season, similar to how the four-week Psalter of the Divine Office operates. The key books for our use, though, are those that contain the festal propers. The Synaxarion includes lives of the saints celebrated each day, and they are worth reading and studying, but it usually comes as a many-volume, high-priced set that would be difficult to acquire. The most useful books would be three: the Triodion and the Pentecostarion include all the seasonal propers from the Pre-Lenten season (three weeks and four Sundays before Lent begins) until the Sunday after Pentecost. The Menaion includes all the propers for other feasts, including the small equivalent to the Advent season, and the Christmas and Epiphany seasons.

Thus, to find gems useful for a homily, one can solely look in the Triodion for Lenten propers (ending either on the day before Palm Sunday, or on Holy Saturday, depending on the tradition), the Pentecostarion for Easter, or Pentecost propers, and the Menaion for all other propers. To simplify matters further, some pew books commonly used in the Byzantine tradition already include selections from these books. It may be a small challenge to match some of the feasts in the Eastern liturgies to the Roman feasts—for instance, in the Byzantine tradition, Lent is called “the Great Fast,” and the Theophany, while on the same day as the Epiphany, actually celebrates the Baptism of the Lord—but it is worth the effort.

Let us use an example. Suppose a homilist wants to incorporate the East into a homily for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, on September 14. If he opened a Byzantine pew book—no need to even find a Menaion—to this feast, he would find the following Kontakion: “Christ our God, who was willingly raised upon the cross, grant your mercies to the new people who bear your name. By your power, grant joy to the Church. Give her victory over evil with your invincible trophy, the weapon of peace, as an ally.”4 The phrase “weapon of peace” might catch his eye. So he considers: how can a weapon be for peace? Is not a weapon geared for destruction? Maybe this reflects the Latin proverb, si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war). Perhaps the Cross is a weapon that destroys in order to leave peace in its wake. Or perhaps, it recalls the spiritual battle St. Paul urges us to take in Ephesians 6: perhaps the Cross, too, can be considered “the sword of the Spirit” which crushes the demons. Perhaps, like the bronze serpent in Numbers 21, what is normally a weapon is transformed into a conveyer of peace and healing. Or, again, perhaps Christ and His Cross are peace, yet to those who reject them, they become a weapon, echoing 2 Corinthians 2. These, and many other trains of thought, could derive from one simple phrase in the Byzantine liturgy, and there is much more waiting in the texts for the diligent homilist to discover.

I hope I have shown that the barrier between the West and the East is not so insurmountable. Even those who have little knowledge of the East, and no knowledge of its languages, can find liturgical treasures without too much work. An easy method for incorporating such treasures into a homily is to draw from the liturgical propers of various feasts, selections of which are found in many pew books. One small example was given above, and many, many more could be given, from numerous traditions. By allowing the mutual enrichment of liturgical traditions through the homily, as was argued for here, homilists can do their part to work for the true communion of the East and the West, so that the Church truly breathes with both of her lungs, and that she fulfills the Second Vatican Council’s recommendation “that Catholics avail themselves more often of the spiritual riches of the Eastern Fathers which lift up the whole man to the contemplation of divine mysteries.”5

  1. Quoted in Gregory DiPippo, “St Vladimir the Great,” The New Liturgical Movement, 7/15/2015, newliturgicalmovement.org/2015/07/st-vladimir-great.html (accessed August 9, 2015).
  2. Pope Leo XIII, Orientalium Dignitas, 11/30/1894, papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13orient.htm (accessed October 12, 2015). The English translation is excerpted from that by Edward Strickland in The Vatican and the Eastern Christian Churches: Papal Encyclicals and Documents Concerning the Eastern Churches (Fairfax, VA: Eastern Christian Publications, 1996), 179-189.
  3. General Instruction of the Roman Missal §§41-42; Lectionary for Mass: Introduction §§24-25; in Catholic Rites Today: Abridged Texts for Students, ed. Allan Bouley (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 204-205, 233-234.
  4. The Divine Liturgies of Our Holy Fathers John Chrysostom and Basil the Great (Pittsburgh, PA: The Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church Sui Juris of Pittsburgh, U.S.A., 2006), 255. This book can be easily acquired from the Byzantine Seminary Press, www.byzantineseminarypress.com, and the entire book, in PDF format, can be found at: mci.archpitt.org/legacy/servicebooks/DivineLiturgies.pdf. Many additional Byzantine liturgical propers can be found in PDF format at the Metropolitan Cantor Institute, mci.archpitt.org/legacy/index.html.
  5. Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio §15, in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II, new rev. ed., vol. 1, The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, Inc., 1998), 465.
Brandon P. Otto About Brandon P. Otto

Brandon P. Otto is a member of the St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Mission in St. Louis, MO. He is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, with particular interest in the Fathers and liturgies of the Eastern Churches.