Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed
Historical Development of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)
The Main Elements of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality (contd.)
5- The Liturgical element (contd.)
The Holy Bible is the main source of Orthodox rituals:
At their roots and in their depths, all Orthodox rituals, however elaborate they may seem, have certain simple elements drawn from the Old and New Testaments, such as baptism by water, anointment with oil, laying-on of the hands, and breaking of the bread.
The Fathers and Liturgies of the Sacraments:
Church saints and doctors who conceived the Christian life as a liturgically centered life were the pioneers of what is now called “Liturgical Theology”.1 Liturgical theology in the Orthodox Church has many famous exponents. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (in the fourth century) left for us 23 sermons2 that he delivered to catechumens to prepare them for baptism. In these sermons he gave a detailed spiritual and theological explanation of Christian life as based on the holy sacraments. Also, St. John Chrysostom – as well as others like St. Ambrose – gave 8 sermons on baptism in which he explained how spiritual life is tied to the sacraments of Baptism, Unction, and Eucharist.
The well-known book, “The Celestial Hierarchy” of (pseudo) Dionysius the Areopagite had great influence on the Orthodox spirituality because of its deep contemplations on the sacraments and the meanings of symbols used in the Church. Of the many church teachers who explained the liturgies of the Orthodox Church in middle centuries, the greatest in the Byzantine Church is undoubtedly Nicholas Cabasilas (in the 14th century, c. 1371). Other than his book “Interpretation of the Divine Liturgy”, his chief work is “The Life in Christ”. This book is an analysis of the sacraments and also the rites of consecration of the altar. Cabasilas has nothing of the exclusive or narrow ritualist about him.3 He is anxious to link liturgical piety with Christology and asceticism. He recommends mediation and mental prayer as the safest way to bind us to Christ. He says in penetrating accents: “The one pattern is Jesus … The Savior is more intimate to us than our soul … We are concorporeal with Him, living His life, and have become His members.” The person of Jesus, according to him, is the heart of the mystical body of Christ.
In the thirteenth century Yohanna, the son of Zachareya the son of Sebaa, wrote (in Arabic) “The precious jewel of the Church sciences” where he explained many of the rituals of baptism and the Divine Liturgy in the Coptic Church and their spiritual meanings. Among his writings in this book, he mentioned that the godparent (eshbeen) who received the child during baptism, implored the devil to leave him, and confessed the faith in Christ on behalf of the child to raise him in this faith, should bring him when he becomes able to comprehend and understand to church, before the altar, and tell him what he did for him during baptism on his behalf. He should tell him, “From here you were delivered to me and from here I deliver you to yourself. God will no longer ask me concerning you. Now you are to live in faith in Christ, and follow the love, humility, and purity without which no one can see God” (chapter 31 of the “Precious Jewel”).
This shows that the Orthodox spirituality in the Coptic Church adhered continuously to the ritual of casting away the devil since the thirteenth century, along with confessing the faith in Christ during the sacrament of baptism, and the transfer of responsibility for the baptized child’s life in Christ to his own self at the proper time.
From the fourteenth century we have a book published by the Monastery of St. Anthony in 1396 AD by the name “Article about the Holy Bread (Korban)” which included, beside the topic of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, another topic about the spiritual benefits of the Mysteries (Sacraments). It also had spiritual directions regarding the appropriate way to be ready for receiving the Holy Mysteries.
In the early centuries and in the middle era, there appeared in the Syrian Orthodox Church writings of many Fathers and Teachers talking about the Liturgy and the Mysteries in Syriac and occasionally, in Arabic languages. In the twentieth century, the Syrian Patriarch Mar Ignatius Ephram II wrote a huge reference book on the Liturgies entitled “The great researches in eastern and western Liturgies”. It was published in 1924 AD in Syria (in Arabic language).
Of the Arabic-speaking Rome Orthodox in the early years of the 20th century, a book called “Lights in the Mysteries” was published by Archimandrite Gracimos Massara who became later the Bishop of Beirut for the Arab Rome Orthodox.
Also, in the first part of the twentieth century, Archideacon Habib Girgis wrote the book entitled “The seven Mysteries of the Church” and it was published several times during the 1940’s and until now. Also Hegomen Yohanna Salama published “The precious jewels in the rituals and beliefs of the Church” in two volumes in which he explained the spiritual meanings of the rituals, Mysteries and worship in the Coptic Church. The simple and useful book called “The explanation of the Holy Sacraments”, written by Father Morcos Daoud in the 1940’s was published by Al Mahabba Book Store, Egypt, and is still reprinted in our present time.
Undoubtedly, the study of Liturgy requires dedicated students specializing fulltime in this field. It has become now a separate discipline for which special departments were established in western universities. At times, even institutes specialized in studying and teaching it, such as the “Liturgical Institute” in France, were established. Thus, a special branch of Theology became known as “Liturgical Theology”.
Veneration of the icons of saints:
One of the facets of liturgical piety is veneration of icons and relics (remains) of saints. This started historically when they celebrated the dates of martyrdom of the early martyrs like the two Apostles Peter and Paul, the martyr St. Mark the Apostle, the martyr St. Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor (106 A.D.), and many others.
But, the veneration of the Virgin St. Mary the mother of God (Theotocos) started in the Church much earlier, and became important after the council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) by the efforts of St. Cyril I (the pillar of faith). This is clear in the Theotokias of the church-book, the “Annual Psalmody”, which contemplate on the mystery of God’s incarnation and the coming of God the Word (Logos) inside the Virgin St. Mary, and the prophecies and symbols pertaining to her in the prophecies and events of the Old Testament.
The Church, also, expresses veneration of St. Mary and the saints by offering incense in front of their icons which express their invisible presence among the believers attending the church.
(To be contd.)
This part concludes Chapter 1 of Orthodox Spirituality. God willing, we’ll continue with Chapter 2 in the next part of this study.
Summary of what has been published
Subtitles of Chapter 1
Historical Development of Orthodox Spirituality
The Main Elements of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality
1- The Scriptural Element: Published in part 2, SMOF Newsletter Package of June 2010, NL #106, and in part 3, October 2010, NL #109. Its main subtitles were: The Orthodox Church is a “Biblical Church, the Gospels, the Psalms, the Epistles of St. Paul, exegetical methods, and examples in the 20th century.
2- The Primitive Christian Element: Published in part 4, SMOF Newsletter Package of Dec. 2010, NL #111, and in part 5, Feb. 2011, NL #113. Its main subtitles were: Martyrdom, asceticism and virginity, and hope for the Lord’s coming.
4- The Early Monastic Element: Published in part 6, SMOF Newsletter Package of June 2011, NL #116, and in part 7, August 2011, NL #118. Its main subtitles were: Fathers of the Desert, “Desert spirituality” and the monastic “Evangelical” tradition of St. Basil, monologistos, contemplative life, joy of the inner life, brotherly love, tradition of spiritual guides, and the ongoing first monastic life.
5-The Liturgical Element: Published in part 7, SMOF Newsletter Package of August 2011, NL #118, and in part 8, December 2011, NL #121 (This current NL package). Its main subtitles were: The Holy Bible is the main source of Orthodox rituals, the Fathers and Liturgies of the Sacraments, and veneration of the icons of saints.