In his book onThe Life in Christ— a commentary on baptism, confirmation, and communion — Nicholas Cabasilas writes, "It is possible for the saints in this present world not only to be disposed and prepared for [eternal] life [in Christ] but also even now to live and act according to it."1 The Kingdom of God, an anticipation of the eschatological fulfilment, is already accessible in the Body of Christ: this possibility of "being in Christ," of "participating" in divine life — the "natural" state of humanity, — is for the Byzantines essentially manifested in the sacraments, ormysteria, of the Church. These sacraments are understood less as isolated acts through which a "particular" grace is bestowed upon individuals by properly appointed ministers acting with the proper intention and more as the aspects of a unique mystery of the Church in which God shares divine life with humanity redeeming man from sin and death and bestowing upon him the glory of immortality.
Number of Sacraments.
Byzantine theology ignores the Western distinction between "sacraments" and "sacramentals" and has never formally committed itself to any strict limitation of the number of sacraments. In the patristic period, there was no technical term to designate "sacraments" as a specific category of church acts: the term mysterion was used primarily in the wider and general sense of "mystery of salvation"2and only in a subsidiary manner to designate the particular actions which bestowed salvation. In this second sense, it was used concurrently with such terms as "rites" or "sanctifications."3 Theodore the Studite in the ninth century gives a list of six sacraments: the holy "illumination" (baptism), the "synaxis" (Eucharist), the holy chrism, ordination, monastic tonsure, and the service of burial.4 The doctrine of the "seven sacraments" appears for the first time — very characteristically — in the Profession of Faith required from Emperor Michael Paleologus by Pope Clement Clement IV in 1267. 5 The Profession had been prepared, of course, by Latin theologians.
The obviously Western origin of this strict numbering of the sacraments did not prevent it from being widely accepted among Eastern Christians after the thirteenth century, even among those who fiercely rejected
union with Rome. It seemed that this acceptance resulted not so much from the influence of Latin theology as from the peculiarly Medieval and Byzantine fascination with symbolic numbers: the number seven, in particular, evoked an association with the seven gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2-4. But among Byzantine authors who accept the "seven sacraments," we find different competing lists. The monk Job (thirteenth century), author of a dissertation on the sacraments, includes monastic tonsure in the list as has done Theodore the Studite but combines as one sacrament penance and the anointing of the sick.6 Symeon of Thessalonica (fifteenth century) also admits the sacramental character of the monastic tonsure but classifies it together with penance 7 considering the anointing as a separate sacrament. Meanwhile, Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus, a contemporary of Symeon’s, declares: "I believe that the sacraments of the Church are not seven but more," and he gives a list of ten which includes the consecration of a church, the funeral service, and the monastic tonsure. 8
Obviously, the Byzantine Church never committed itself formally to any specific list; many authors accept the standard series of seven sacraments — baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, holy orders, matrimony, penance, and the anointing of the sick — while others give a longer list; and still, others emphasize the exclusive and prominent importance of baptism and the Eucharist, the basic Christian initiation into "new life." Thus, Gregory Palamas proclaims that "in these two [sacraments] our whole salvation is rooted since the entire economy of the God-man is recapitulated in them."9 And Nicholas Cabasilas composes his famous book onThe Life in Christ as a commentary on baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist.
Baptism and Chrismation.
In the Eastern Church, baptism and confirmation (the latter being effected through anointment with "holy chrism" blessed by the bishop) are normally celebrated together. Immediately after receiving baptism and confirmation, the child is admitted to Eucharistic communion. There is therefore no practical difference between admitting a child or an adult to membership in the Church; in both cases, a human being who belongs to the "old Adam" through his natural birth is introduced to "new life" by partaking of baptism, chrismation, and holy communion. Christian initiation is one single and indivisible act: "If one does not receive the chrism, one is not perfectly baptized," writes Symeon of Thessalonica. 10
As we have seen, the patristic doctrine of salvation is based not on the idea of guilt inherited from Adam and from which man is relieved in Christ but on a
more existential understanding of both "fallen" and "redeemed" humanity. From the "old Adam" through his natural birth, man inherits a defective form of life — bound by mortality, inevitably sinful, lacking fundamental freedom from the "prince of this world." The alternative to this "fallen" state is "life in Christ," which is true and "natural" human life — the gift of God bestowed in the mystery of the Church. "Baptism," writes Nicholas Cabasilas, "is nothing else but to be born according to Christ and to receive our very being and nature."11
The emphasis in both the rite of baptism and the theological commentaries of the Byzantine period is on the positive meaning of baptism as "new birth." "The salutary day of Baptism," Cabasilas continues, "becomes a name day to Christians because then they are formed and shaped, and our shapeless and undefined life receives shape and definition."12 Again according to Cabasilas, all the scriptural and traditional designations of baptism point to the same positive meaning: "‘Birth’ and ‘new birth,’ ‘refashioning’ and ‘seal’ — as well as ‘baptism,’ ‘clothing,’ and ‘anointing’ — ‘gift,’ ‘enlightening,’ and ‘washing’ — all signify this one thing: that the rite is the beginning of existence for those who are and live in accordance with God." 13
Considering baptism as "new birth" implies also that it is a free gift from God and is in no sense dependent upon human choice, consent, or even consciousness: "Just as in the case of physical birth we do not even contribute willingness to all the blessings derived from baptism."14 In the East, therefore, there was never any serious doubt or controversy about the legitimacy of infant baptism. This legitimacy was based not on the idea of a "sin" which would have made even the infant guilty in the eyes of God and in need of baptism as justification but on the fact that at all stages of life, including infancy, man needs to be "born anew" — i.e. to begin a new and eternal life in Christ. The ultimate eschatological goal of new life cannot be fully comprehended even by the "conscious adult."
Just as it is not possible to understand the power of the eyes or the grace of colour without light, or for those who sleep to learn the affairs of those who stay awake while they are yet asleep, in the same way in this life, it is not possible to understand the new members and their faculties which are directed solely to the life to come... Yet we are members of Christ, and this is the result of baptism. The splendour and beauty of the members consists in the Head, for the members would not appear to be beautiful unless they are attached to the Head. Of these members the Head will be hidden in the present life but will be clearly apparent when they shine forth together with the Head. 15
Since he is a member of the Body of Christ through baptism, man again becomes "theocentric" — that is he recovers his original destiny, which is eschatological and mysterious because it participates in the very mystery of God. As a divine gift whether bestowed upon an adult or an infant, baptism is the beginning of new life. As Theodoret of Cyrus writes,
If the only meaning of baptism were remission of sins, why would we baptize newborn children who have not yet tasted of sin? But the mystery of baptism is not limited to this; it is a promise of greater and more perfect gifts. In it, there are the promises of future delights; it is the type of the future resurrection, a communion with the master’s Passion, a participation in His Resurrection, a mantle of salvation, a tunic of gladness, a garment of light, or rather it is light itself.16
As a "beginning" and a promise of new life, baptism implies free self-determination and growth. It does not suppress human freedom but restores it to its original and "natural" form. In the case of infant baptism, this restoration is, of course, only potential, but the sacrament always implies a call to freedom. In the Byzantine tradition, the formula of baptism is not pronounced as in the West in the name of the minister who performs the sacrament ("I baptize you") but is a solemn declaration on behalf of the baptized: "The servant of God,N, is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." "This," writes Symeon of Thessalonica, "signifies the freedom of the baptized."17 After baptism, the way toward God is a "synergy" of God’s power and free human effort. It is also a liberation from the bonds of Satan — the tyrant and the usurper — signified by the exorcisms which precede the sacrament of baptism itself. 18
The Byzantine tradition has retained the ancient Christian practice of baptism through triple immersion. Actually, immersion was sometimes considered essential to the validity of the sacrament, and some extreme anti-Latin polemicists questioned the effectiveness of Western baptism on the grounds that it was performed by sprinkling. Immersion is indeed the very sign of what baptism means: "The water destroys the one life but shows forth the other; it drowns the old man and raises the new," writes Cabasilas.19 "Drowning" cannot be meaningfully signified other than through immersion.
To the man liberated through baptism from servitude to Satan, the Spirit bestows the faculty of "being active in spiritual energies," according to another expression of Cabasilas’.20 We have already seen that Byzantine patristic theology recognized a connection between the gifts of the Spirit and human freedom; redemption of humanity implies that not only human "nature" but also each man, freely and personally, will find his place in the new creation "recapitulated" in Christ. The gift of the Spirit in chrismation is the main sacramental sign of this particular dimension of salvation, which is, according to the liturgical norm, inseparable from baptism. Thus, the "life in Christ" and "life in the Spirit" are not two separate forms of spirituality; they are complementary aspects of the same road leading toward eschatological "deification."
Normally united with baptism in a single rite of Christian initiation, chrismation is celebrated separately only in cases of reconciliation to the Church
of certain categories of heretics and schismatics enumerated in Canon 95 of the Council in Trullo. Its significance, then, is to validate through "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit" (the formula pronounced by the priest during the anointing), a Christian baptism performed in irregular circumstances — i.e., outside the canonical boundaries of the Church.
Sacramental penance — i.e., reconciliation to the Church after sins committed after baptism — has had a parallel development in East and West. Originally, a public act, required from sinners who either had been officially excommunicated or had performed acts liable to excommunication, penance, gradually and especially after the fourth century, took the form of private confession, followed by a prayer of absolution pronounced by a priest. It then identified itself almost completely with the practice of private spiritual direction, especially widespread in monastic communities.
The development of penitential practice and theology in the Byzantine world was distinct from its Western counterpart in that it never knew the influence of legalistic interpretations of salvation, such as the Anselmian doctrine of "satisfaction," and never faced a crisis comparable to the Western Reformation and Counter-Reformation with the latter’s stress on clerical authority.
Patristic and Byzantine literature on repentance is almost entirely ascetical and moral. Very few authors of ascetical treatises on repentance specifically mention sacramental absolution as a formal requirement. This silence does not imply that sacramental repentance did not exist; except cases of formal excommunication which had to be followed by an equally formal reconciliation, it was only encouraged but not required. In his innumerable calls to repentance, Chrysostom frequently mentions "confession," i.e., an opening of one’s conscience before a witness or "the Church;" but regular sacramental confession does not seem to be meant. In his nine sermons specifically dealing with "repentance" only once, he does refer to the Church as a direct recourse: "Did you commit sin? Enter the Church and repent for your sin... You are an old man, and still you commit sin? Enter [the Church], repent; for here is the physician, not the judge; here one is not investigated, one receives remission of sins."21
A French ecclesiastical historian is probably correct when he writes,
"The Byzantines seldom go to confession, at least in the secular world, for in the monasteries... confession is regularly practiced. But is this confession, or is it a direction of conscience of simple laymen by their spiritual fathers? Both practices exist and in the monasteries are indistinguishable from one another."22
and canonical literature frequently mentions penitential requirements — periods of excommunication, prostrations, and charitable works required as retribution for sins committed and confessed; but except in case of "mortal" sins — murder, apostasy, adultery — followed by formal excommunication, it is nowhere evident that a priest’s absolution is necessary to seal the act of repentance. On the contrary, numerous sources describe absolutions given by non-ordained monks, 23 a practice which has survived in Eastern monasteries until our own day.
The various forms of absolution found in Byzantine — euchologia and the penitentials 24 — all have the form of prayer: "In the East," writes A. Almazov, "it was always understood that absolution is expressed through prayer; and even if a declaratory formula is being used, it implies that remission of sins is attributed to God Himself."25
Declaratory formulas ("I, an unworthy priest..., forgive and absolve...") which crept into some euchologia, Greek and Slavic are all of post-Scholastic Latin origin and have been adopted within the framework of a general Latinization of the Byzantine rite.
Byzantine theologians themselves were hesitant about the exact status of penance among themysteriaof the Church and often listed it with either monastic tonsure or anointing of the sick. By the fifteenth century however private confession to a priest, followed by a prayer of remission, was a generally accepted practice among laymen with confession to lay monks existing as an alternative in monasteries. This lack of clarity in both theology and practice had a positive implication: confession and penance were interpreted primarily as a form of spiritual healing, for sin itself in Eastern Christian anthropology is primarily a disease, "passion." Without denying the Petrine privilege of the keys transmitted to all the bishops or the apostolic power to remit sins of which the Church is bearer, Byzantine theologians have never succumbed to the temptation of reducing sin to the no-don of a legal crime, which is to be sentenced, punished, or forgiven; yet they were aware that the sinner is primarily a prisoner of Satan and as such mortally sick. For this reason, confession and penance — at least ideally — preserved the character of liberation and healing rather than that of judgment; hence, there are the great variety of forms and practices and the impossibility of confining them within static theological categories.
The Byzantine theological,
liturgical, and canonical tradition unanimously stresses the absolute uniqueness of Christian marriage and bases this emphasis upon the teaching of Ephesians 5. As a sacrament, ormysterion, marriage reflects the union between Christ and the Church, between Yahweh and Israel and as such can be only one — an eternal bond which death itself does not destroy. In its sacramental nature, marriage transfigures and transcends both fleshly union and contractual legal association: human love is being projected into the eternal Kingdom of God.
Only this basic understanding of Christian marriage can explain the fact that until the tenth century no second marriage — whether of those widowed or of those divorced — was blessed in church. Referring to the custom of "crowning" the bridal pair, a feature of the Byzantine rite of marriage, a canon attributed to Nicephorus the Confessor (806-815) specifies: "Those who enter a second marriage are not crowned and are not admitted to receive the most pure mysteries for two years; those who enter a third marriage are excommunicated for five years."26 This text, which merely repeats the earlier prescriptions of the canons of Basil,27 presupposes that second and third marriages of those widowed or divorced can be concluded as civil contracts only. Actually, since the marriage blessing was normally given at a Eucharist where the bridal pair received communion, the required temporary excommunication excluded the Church’s participation or blessing in cases when marriage was repeated.
Absolute uniqueness as the norm of Christian marriage is also affirmed in the fact that in Byzantine canon law it is strictly required from clergy; a man who was married twice or married to a widow or a divorcee is not eligible for ordination to the diaconate or to the priesthood.28 But laymen after a period of penitence and abstention from the sacraments are re-admitted to full communion with the Church even after a second or third marriage; understanding and toleration is extended to them when they cannot agree to remaining single or would like to have a second chance to build up a true Christian marriage. Obviously, Byzantine tradition approaches the problem of remarriage — after widowhood or divorce — in terms of penitential discipline. Marriage as a sacrament implies the bestowing of God’s grace; but this grace, to be effective, requires human cooperation ("synergy"). This is true of all the sacraments but particularly of baptism whose fruits can be dispersed through sin and then restored through repentance. In the case of marriage, which presupposes personal understanding and psychological adjustment, Byzantine tradition accepts the possibility of an initial mistake as well as the fact that single life in cases of death or the simple absence of the partner is a greater evil than remarriage
for those who cannot "bear" it.
The possibility of divorce remained an integral part of Byzantine civil legislation at all times. In the framework of the "symphony" between Church and state, it was never challenged a fact which cannot be explained simply by reference to caesaropapism. The Byzantine Church never lacked saints who were ready to castigate imperial despotism, social injustice, and other evils contrary to the Gospel. John Chrysostom (398-404), Theodore the Studite († 820), or Patriarch Polyeuktos (956-970) were able to challenge the power of the state without fear; none of them however protested against the legislation concerning divorce. Obviously, they consider it as an inevitable factor of human life in the fallen world where man can accept grace and refuse it; where sin is inevitable but repentance always accessible; where the Church’s function is never to compromise the norms of the Gospel but to show compassion and mercy to human weakness.
This attitude of the Byzantine Church was clearly maintained as long as the primary function of the Church (to make the Kingdom of God present in man’s life) and that of the state (to manage fallen humanity by choosing the lesser evil and maintaining order through legal means) remained clearly distinct. In the question of marriage, this essential distinction disappeared (at least in practice) when Emperor Leo VI († 912) published his Novella 89 formally giving the Church the legal obligation to validate all marriages.29 Civil marriage disappeared as a legal possibility for free citizens; and soon, quite logically, Alexis I Comnenus would also make church marriage an obligation for slaves. By these imperial acts the Church theoretically gained formal control over the marriage discipline of all citizens. In fact, however, it began to be directly responsible for all the inevitable compromises, which had been solved so far by the possibility of civil marriage and divorce, and lost the possibility of applying its early penitential discipline. If the Church now gave legal authority to marriage, it had also to resolve the legal difficulties involved in this new responsibility. Indeed, it began to "grant divorces" (which were previously granted by secular courts alone) and to allow "remarriage" in church, because without such "remarriages" second and third unions were legally invalid. It succeeded in making a fourth marriage totally illegal (Council of 920) 30 but had to compromise on many other counts.
It maintained however at least in principle an essential distinction between the first and the following marriages: a special service was introduced for the latter, dissociated from the Eucharist and penitential in character. It was understood therefore that second and third marriages were not the norm, and as such were deficient sacramentally. The most striking difference between the Byzantine theology of marriage and its Medieval
Latin counterpart is that the Byzantines strongly emphasized the unicity of Christian marriage and the eternity of the marriage bond; they never considered that Christian marriage was a legal contract, automatically dissolved by the death of one of the partners. Remarriage of the widowed was only tolerated by them, as was the remarriage of the divorced. But this "toleration" did not mean approval. It implied repentance, and remarriage was allowed only to those men or women whose previous marriages could be considered as non-existent in practice (the various imperial codes listed the cases). Meanwhile, the Latin West became legalistically intolerant toward divorce while admitting without limitation any number of remarriages after widowhood. Guided in its practice by the legal notion of contract, marriage indissoluble as long as both parties were alive; the West seemed to ignore the idea that marriage — if it was a sacrament — had to be projected as an eternal bond into the Kingdom of God; that like all sacraments marriage requires a free response and implies the possibility of human rejection and human mistake; and that, after such a sinful rejection or human mistake, repentance always allows a new beginning. This is the theological basis for the toleration of divorce in the early Christian Church as well as in Byzantium.
Healing and Death.
Frequently associated with penance as a single sacrament, the office of "holy unction" did not evolve into "extreme unction" for the dying. The sacrament was always performed for the healing of a sick person. In Byzantium, it involved the concelebration of several priests, usually seven in accordance with James 5:14, a text considered to be the scriptural foundation of the sacrament. It was composed of scriptural readings and prayers of healing, the texts of which definitely exclude the possibility of giving a magic interpretation to the rite; healing is requested only in a framework of repentance and spiritual salvation and not as an end in itself. Whatever the outcome of the disease, the anointing symbolizes divine pardon and liberation from the vicious cycle of sin, suffering, and death in which fallen humanity is held captive. Compassionate to human suffering assembled together to pray for its suffering member, the Church through its presbyters asks for relief, forgiveness, and eternal freedom. This is the meaning of holy unction.
The funeral service has no particular significance. Even in death, the Christian remains a member of the living and resurrected Body of Christ into which he has been incorporated through baptism and the Eucharist. Through the funeral service, the Church gathers to bear witness to this fact visible only to the eyes of faith but already experienced by every Christian who possesses the awesome privilege of living in the future Kingdom by anticipation.
Formal conservatism was one of the predominant features of Byzantine civilization, affecting both the secular and the sacred aspects of life, and the forms of the liturgy in particular. But if the avowed intention was to preserve things as they were, if the basic structures of the Eucharistic liturgy had not been modified since the early centuries of Christianity and even today retain the forms which they acquired in the ninth century, the interpretation of words and gestures was subject to substantial change and evolution. Thus, Byzantine ritual conservatism was instrumental in preserving the original Christian lex orandi often reinterpreted otherwise in the context of a Platonizing or moralizing symbolism though it also allowed in due time — especially with Nicholas Cabasilas and the Hesychast theologians of the fourteenth century — a strong reaffirmation of the original sacramental realism in liturgical theology.
Symbols, Images, and Reality.
Early Christianity and the patristic tradition understood the Eucharist as a mystery of true and real communion with Christ. Speaking of the Eucharist, Chrysostom insists that "Christ even now is present, even now operates;"1 and Gregory of Nyssa, in spite of the Platonizing tendencies of his thought, stands otherwise for the same view of the Eucharist as a mystery of real "participation" in the glorified Body of Christ, the seed of immortality.
By dispensation of His grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose existence comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers to secure that by this union with the Immortal man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. He gives these gifts by virtue of the benediction through which He "trans-elements" [metastoi-cheiōsis] the natural quality of these visible things to that immortalthing.2
Participation in these sources of immortality and unity is a constant concern for every Christian:
It is good and beneficial to communicate every day [Basil writes,] and to partake of the holy body and blood of Christ. For He distinctly says, "He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" [Jn 6:55]. And who doubts that to share frequently in life is the same thing as to have manifold life? I indeed communicate four times a week — on the Lord’s day, on Wednesday, on Friday, and on the Sabbath — and on the other days if there is a commemoration of any saint.3
This realistic and existential theology of the Eucharist was, as we saw,4 challenged by pastoral needs in the post-Constantinian Church: large congregations in large churches caused a lessening of participation by the laity.
It could be argued that the pastoral considerations which prompted this evolution were at least partially justified; the eschatological meaning of the Eucharist implied a withdrawal from the "world," a "closed" community of committed participants. Now that in the empire of Constantine and Justinian, the Church and the world had become indistinguishable as a single society, the Eucharist had to be protected from the "crowd" which had ceased to be the "people of God." More questionable however was the theological rationalization of this new situation, which was endorsed by some commentators on the liturgy who began to explain the Eucharist as a system of symbols to be "contemplated;" sacramental participation was thus gradually replaced with intellectual vision. Needless to say, this new attitude was perfectly suited to the Origenistic and Evagrian understanding of religion as an ascent of the mind to God of which liturgical action was a symbol.
Most influential in promoting this symbolic understanding of the Eucharist were the writings of pseudo-Dionysius. Reducing the Eucharistic synaxis to a moral appeal, the Areopagite calls his readers to a "higher" contemplation:
Let us leave to the imperfect these signs which, as I said, are magnificently painted in the vestibules of the sanctuaries; they will be sufficient to feed their contemplation. As far as we are concerned, let us turn back in considering the holy synaxis from the effects to their causes, and, thanks to the lights which Jesus gives us, we should be able to contemplate harmoniously the intelligible realities in which are clearly reflected the blessed goodness of the models.5
Thus, the Eucharist is only the visible "effect" of an invisible "model;" and the celebrant "by offering Jesus Christ to our eyes shows us in a tangible way and as in an image our intelligible life."6 Thus for Dionysius, "the loftiest sense of the Eucharistic rites and of sacramental communion itself is in symbolizing the union of our minds with God and with Christ... Dionysius never formally presents Eucharistic communion as a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ."7
Dionysius’ symbolism only superficially affected the Eucharistic rites themselves, but it became quite popular among commentators on the liturgy. Thus, the great Maximus the Confessor whose use of the concept of "symbol" is probably more realistic than Dionysius’ nevertheless systematically applies the terms "symbol" or "image" to the Eucharistic liturgy in general and to the elements of bread and wine in particular.8
In the eighth century, this symbolism led to a serious theological debate concerning the Eucharist — the only one Byzantium ever knew. The iconoclastic council of 754 in condemning the use of religious images proclaimed that the only admissible "image" of Christ was the one established by Christ Himself, the Eucharistic Body and Blood.9 This radical and clear contention based upon a long-standing tradition was a real challenge to the Orthodox party; the ambiguity of the Areopagite was evidenced once more, and a clarification of symbolism was made necessary.
Thus, the defenders of the images, especially Theodore the Studite and Patriarch Nicephorus, firmly rejected it. For Theodore, the Eucharist is not "type" but the very "truth;" it is the "mystery which recapitulates the whole of the [divine] dispensation."10 According to Nicephorus, it is the "flesh of God," "one and the same thing" with the Body and Blood of Christ, 11 who came to save the very reality of human flesh by becoming and remaining "flesh," even after His glorification; thus in the Eucharist, "what is the matter of the sacrament if the flesh is not real, so that we see it being perfected by the Spirit?"12
As a result of the iconoclastic controversy, Byzantine "Eucharistic realism" clearly departing from Dionysian terminology was redirected along Christological and soteriological lines; in the Eucharist, man participates in the glorified humanity of Christ, which is not the "essence of God"13but a humanity still consubstantial to man and available to him as food and drink. In his treatise Against Eusebius and Epiphanius, Patriarch Nicephorus is particularly emphatic
in condemning the Origenist idea that in the Eucharist man contemplates or participates in the "essence" of God.14For him as also for later Byzantine theologians, the Eucharist is Christ’s transfigured, life-giving, but still human body en-hypostasized in the Logos and penetrated with divine "energies." Characteristically, one never finds the category of "essence" (ousia) used by Byzantine theologians in a Eucharistic context. They would consider a term like "transubstantiation" (metousiōsis) improper to designate the Eucharistic mystery and generally use the concept of metabole found in the canon of John Chrysostom or such dynamic terms as "trans-elementation" (metastoicheiōsis) or "re-ordination" (metarrhythmisis). Transubstantiation (metousiōsis) appears only in the writings of the Latinophrones of the thirteenth century and is nothing but a straight translation from the Latin. The first Orthodox author to use it is Gennadios Scholarios;15 but in his case as well direct Latin influence is obvious. The Eucharist is neither a symbol to be "contemplated" from outside nor an "essence" distinct from humanity but Jesus Himself, the risen Lord, "made known through the breaking of bread" (Lk 24:35); Byzantine theologians rarely speculated beyond this realistic and soteriological affirmation of the Eucharistic presence as that of the glorified humanity of Christ.
The rejection of the concept of the Eucharist as "image" or "symbol" is, on the other hand, very significant for the understanding of the entire Eucharistic "perception" of the Byzantines; the Eucharist for them always remained fundamentally a mystery to be received as food and drink and not to be "seen" through physical eyes. The elements remained covered, except during the prayers of consecration and during communion and, in contrast with Western Medieval piety, were never "venerated" outside the framework of the Eucharistic liturgy itself. The Eucharist cannot reveal anything to the sense of vision; it is only the bread of heaven. Vision is offered another channel of revelation — the icons: hence, the revelatory program of the Byzantine iconostasis with the figures of Christ and the saints exposed precisely in order to be seen and venerated. "Christ is not shown in the Holy Gifts," writes Leonid Ouspensky, "He is given. He is shown in the icons. The visible side of the reality of the Eucharist is an image which can never
be replaced either by imagination or by looking at the Holy Gifts."16
As a result of the iconoclastic controversy, Byzantine Eucharistic theology retained and re-emphasized the mystery and hiddenness of this central liturgical action of the Church. But it also reaffirmed that the Eucharist was essentially amealwhich could be partaken of only through eating and drinking because God had assumed the fullness of our humanity with all its psychic and physical functions in order to lead it to resurrection.
Byzantine theologians had an opportunity to make the same point in connection with their anti-Latin polemics against the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The discussion on the azymes, which started in the eleventh century, was generally entangled in arguments of purely symbolic nature (the Greeks maintained, for example, that the Eucharistic bread had to be leavened in order to symbolize the animated humanity of Christ while the Latin used of azymes implied Apollinarianism, i.e., the denial that Jesus had a human soul), but the controversy also recognized that the Byzantines understood the Eucharistic bread to be necessarily consubstantial with humanity, while Latin Medieval piety emphasized its "super substantiality," its otherworldliness. The use of ordinary bread identical with the bread used as everyday food was the sign of true Incarnation. "What is the daily bread [of the Lord’s Prayer]," asks Nicetas Stethatos, "If it is not consubstantial with us? And the bread consubstantial with us is none other than the Body of Christ, who became consubstantial with us through the flesh of His humanity."17
The Byzantines did not see the substance of the bread somehow changed in the Eucharistic mystery into another substance — the Body of Christ — but viewed this bread as the "type" of humanity: our humanity changed into the transfigured humanity of Christ.18 For this reason, Eucharistic theology played such a prominent role in the theological debates of the fourteenth century when the basic issue was a confrontation between an autonomous concept of man and the Hesychast defence of "deification." The great Nicholas Cabasilas, though still bound to the old Dionysian symbolism, overcomes the dangers of Nominalism; clearly for him as also for Gregory Palamas, the Eucharist is the mystery which not only "represents" the life of Christ and offers it to our "contemplation;" it is the moment and the place in which Christ’s deified humanity becomes ours.
He not merely clothed Himself in a body. He also took a soul, mind, and will — everything of human, so that He might be able to be united to the whole of us, penetrate through the whole of us, and resolve us into Himself having in every respect joined His own to that which is ours... For since it has not been possible for us to ascend and participate in that which is His, He comes down to us and participates in that which is ours. And so precisely does He conform to the things which He assumes that in giving to us those things which He has received from us He gives Himself to us. Partaking of the body and blood of His humanity, we receive God Himself in our souls — the Body and Blood of God and the soul, mind, and will of God — no less than His humanity.19
The last word on the Eucharist in Byzantine theology is thus an anthropological and soteriological understanding of the mystery. "In approaching the Eucharist, the Byzantines began not with bread qua bread but with bread qua man."20 Bread and wine are offered only because the Logos has assumed humanity, and they are being changed and deified by the operation of the Spirit because Christ’s humanity has been transformed into glory through the cross and Resurrection. This is the thought of Cabasilas, as just quoted, and the meaning of the canon of John Chrysostom: "Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts and make this bread the precious Body of Thy Christ and that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Thy Christ, so that, for those who partake, they may be a purification of soul, a remission of sins, the communion of Thy Holy Spirit, the fullness of the Kingdom of heaven..."
For Cabasilas, the sacrament of new humanitypar excellence, the Eucharist, "alone of the mysteries perfects the other sacraments..., since they cannot fulfil the initiation without it."21 Christians partake of it "continually," for "it is the perfect sacrament for all purposes, and there is nothing of which those who partake thereof stand in need which it does not supply in an eminent way."22 The Eucharist is also "the much praised marriage according to which the most holy Bridegroom espouses the Church as a bride;"23 that means the Eucharist is the very sacrament, which truly transforms a human community into "the Church of God," and therefore, as we will see later, the ultimate criterion and basis of ecclesial structure.
Eucharist and Church
The ecclesiological significance of the Eucharist, though challenged by the Hellenistic world-view which tended to interpret it as a system of "symbols" visually contemplated by the individual, was always maintained by the Byzantinelex orandiand reaffirmed by those who followed the mainstream of traditional theology. In the controversy on the azymes, the implication on the Byzantine side was that the Eucharist is indeed a paschal mystery, in which our fallen humanity is transformed into the glorified humanity of the New Adam, Christ: this glorified humanity is realized in the Body of the Church.
These anthropological presuppositions of Byzantine Eucharistic theology necessarily had to include the concepts of "synergy" and of the unity of mankind.
It is against the background of the Greek patristic doctrine of "synergy" that one can really understand the significance of the Byzantine insistence on the epiclesis in the Eucharistic liturgy, another issue debated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by Greek and Latin theologians. The text of the epiclesis, as it appears in the canon of John Chrysostom and in other Eastern liturgies, implies that the mystery is accomplished through a prayer of the entire Church ("We ask Thee...") — a concept which does not necessarily exclude the idea that the bishop or priest pronouncing the words of institution acts in persona Christi, as Latin theology insists, but which deprives this notion of its exclusivity by interpreting the ministerial sacerdotal "power" to perform the sacraments as a function of the entire worshipping Body of the Church.
In well-known passages of his Commentary on the Liturgy, Cabasilas, defending the epiclesis, rightly recalls that all sacraments are accomplished through prayer. Specifically, he quotes the consecration of the chrism, the prayers of ordination, of absolution, and of the anointing of the sick.24 Thus, he writes, "it is the tradition of the Fathers, who received this teaching from the Apostles and from their successors, that the sacraments are rendered effective through prayer; all the sacraments, as I have said, and particularly the holy Eucharist."25 This "deprecatory" form of sacramental rites does not imply however a doctrine of validityex opere operantis, i.e., dependent upon the worthiness of the celebrant. "He who celebrates the sacrifice daily," Cabasilas continues, "is but the minister of the grace. He brings to it nothing of his own; he would not dare to do or say anything according to his own judgment and reason... Grace works all; the priest is only a minister, and that very ministry comes to him by grace; he does not hold it on his own account."26
The mystery of the Church, fully realized in the Eucharist, overcomes the dilemma of prayer and response, of nature and grace, of the divine as opposed to the human, because the Church, as the Body of Christ, is precisely a communion of God and man, not only where God is present and active, but where humanity becomes fully "acceptable to God," fully adequate to the original divine plan; prayer itself then becomes an act of communion, where there cannot be any question of its not being heard by God. The conflict, the "question," the separateness, and the sinfulness are still present in each individual member of the Church, but only inasmuch as he has not fully appropriated the divine presence and refuses to conform to it; the presence itself however is the "new testament in my Blood" (Lk 22:20), and God will not take it away. Thus, all Christians — including the bishop,
or the priest — are individually nothing more than sinners, whose prayers are not necessarily heard, but when gathered together in the name of Christ, as the "Church of God," they are a part in the New Testament, to which God has eternally committed Himself through His Son and the Spirit.
As a divine-human communion and "synergy," the Eucharist is a prayer addressed "in Christ" to the Father, and accomplished through the descent of the Holy Spirit. The epiclesis, therefore, is the fulfilment of the Eucharistic action, just as Pentecost is the fulfilment of a divine "economy" of salvation; salvation is always a Trinitarian action. The pneumatological dimension of the Eucharist is also presupposed in the very notion of "synergy;" it is the Spirit which makes Christ present in the age between His two comings: when divine action is not imposing itself on humanity, but offering itself for acceptance by human freedom and, by communicating itself to man, making him authentically free.
At all times, Byzantine theologians understood the Eucharist as the centre of a soteriological and triadological mystery, not simply as a change of bread and wine. Those who followed ‘Dionysian symbolism approached the Eucharist in the context of a Hellenistic hierarchical cosmos, and understood it as the centre of salvific action through mystical "contemplation," which still involved the whole destiny of humanity and the world. Those who held a more Biblical view of man and a more Christocentric understanding of history approached the Eucharist as the key to ecclesiology; the Church, for them, was primarily the place where God and man met in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist became the .criterion of ecclesial structure and the inspiration of all Christian action and responsibility in the world. In both cases the Eucharist was understood in a cosmological and ecclesiological dimension affirmed in the formula of the Byzantine oblation: "Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee in behalf of all and for all."
One of the ideas, which constantly appears in Byzantine "symbolic" interpretations of the Eucharist, is that the temple in which the Eucharistic liturgy is celebrated is an image of the "new," transfigured cosmos. The idea is found in several early Christian writers, and reappears in Maximus the Confessor27 and, later, in Symeon of Thessalonica. 28
Undoubtedly, it inspired the Byzantine architects who built Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the model of all temples of the East, with the circle as its central geometrical theme. In the Neo-Platonic tradition, the circle, the symbol of plenitude, is the standard image of God; God is reflected in His creatures, once they are restored to their original design: "He circumscribes their expansion in a circle and sets Himself as the pattern of the beings which He has created," writes Maximus, adding immediately that "The holy Church is an image of God, since it effects the union of the faithful, as God does."29 The Church, as community and as building, is, therefore, a sign of the new age, the eschatological anticipation of the new creation, the created cosmos restored in its original wholeness. Clearly, a theologian like Maximus uses the models and categories of his age to describe the fullness of the world to come. His interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy is "less an initiation into the mystery of the liturgy than an introduction to the mystery with the liturgy as a starting point;"30 but the very idea that the Eucharist is an anticipation of the eschatological fulfilment is affirmed in the canon of the Byzantine liturgy itself, which recalls the second coming of Christ as an event which has already occurred: "Remembering this saving commandment and all the things which have come to pass for us, the cross, the tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, and the second and glorious coming, we offer unto Thee..."
This eschatological character of the Eucharistic mystery, strongly expressed in the liturgy, in the religious art which served as its framework, and in the theological commentaries, whatever their school of thought, explains why the Byzantines always believed that in the Eucharist the Church is fully "the Church," and that the Eucharist is the ultimate criterion and seal of all the other sacraments. Following pseudo-Dionysius, who spoke of the Eucharist as the "sacrament of sacraments,"31 as the "focal point" of each particular sacrament,32 Byzantine theologians affirm the absolute centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church: "It is the final sacrament," writes Cabasilas, "because it is not possible to proceed further and to add anything to it."33 "The Eucharist alone of the mysteries brings perfection to the other sacraments..., since they cannot complete the initiation without it."34 Symeon of Thessalonica applies this idea concretely to individual sacraments. Concerning marriage, for example, he writes that the bridal pair "must be ready to receive communion, so that their crowning be a worthy one and their marriage valid;" and he specifies that communion is not given to those whose marriage is defective from the point of view of Church discipline, and is, therefore, not fully the sacrament, but simply a "good fellowship."35
Any local church where the "divine liturgy" of the Eucharist is celebrated possesses, therefore, the "marks" of the true Church of God: unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.
These marks cannot belong to any human gathering; they are the eschatological signs given to a community through the Spirit of God. Inasmuch as a local church is built upon and around the Eucharist, it is not simply a "part" of the universal people of God; it is the fullness of the Kingdom which is anticipated in the Eucharist, and the Kingdom can never be "partially" one or "partially" catholic. "Partiality" belongs only to the individual appropriation of the given fullness by the members, who are limited by belonging to the "old Adam;" it does not exist in the Body of Christ, indivisible, divine, and glorious.
Liturgical discipline and Byzantine canon law try to protect this unifying and catholic character of the Eucharist. They require that on each altar no more than one Eucharist be celebrated each day; similarly, a priest, or bishop, is not allowed to celebrate twice on the same day. Whatever the practical inconveniences, these rules aim at preserving the Eucharist at least nominally as the gathering "of all together at the same place" (Ac 2:1); all should be together at the same altar, around the same bishop, at the same time, because there is only one Christ, one Church, and one Eucharist. The idea that the Eucharist is the sacrament uniting the whole Church remained alive in the East and prevented the multiplication of Masses of intention and of low Masses. The Eucharistic liturgy always remained a festal event in Byzantium, a celebration involving, at least, in principle, the whole Church.
As a manifestation of the Church’s unity and wholeness, the Eucharist served also as the ultimate theological norm for ecclesiastical structure: the local church where the Eucharist is celebrated was always considered to be not merely a "part" of a universal organization, but the whole Body of Christ manifested sacramentally and including the entire "communion of saints," living or departed. Such a manifestation was seen as a necessary basis for the geographical expansion of Christianity, but it was not identical with it. Theologically, the sacrament is the sign and reality of the eschatological anticipation of the Kingdom of God, and the episcopate — necessary centre of this reality — is envisaged primarily in its sacramental function, with the other aspects of its ministry (pastorate, teaching) based on this "high priestly" function in the local community, rather than on the idea of a co-optation into a universal apostolic college. The bishop was, first of all, the image of Christ in the Eucharistic mystery. "O Lord our God," says the prayer of Episcopal ordination, "who in Thy providence hast instituted for us teachers of like nature with ourselves, to maintain Thine Altar, that they may offer unto Thee sacrifice and oblation for all Thy people; do Thou, the same Lord, make this man also, who has been
proclaimed a steward of the Episcopal grace, to be an imitator of Thee, the true Shepherd..."36
Thus, according to pseudo-Dionysius, the "high priest" (archiereys) possesses the "first" and the "last" order of hierarchy and "fulfils every hierarchic consecration."37 Symeon of Thessalonica also defines the Episcopal dignity in terms of its sacramental functions; the bishop for him is the one who performs all sacraments — baptism, chrismation, Eucharist, ordination; he is the one "through whom all ecclesiastical acts are perfected."38 The Eucharist is, indeed, the ultimate manifestation of God in Christ; and there cannot be, therefore, any ministry higher and more decisive than that which presides over the Eucharist. The centrality of the Eucharist, the awareness that the fullness of Christ’s Body abides in it and that the Episcopal function is the highest in the Church will be the principal foundation of the Byzantine opposition to any theological interpretation of supra-Episcopal primacies: there cannot be, according to them, any authority "by divine right" over the Eucharist and the bishop who heads the Eucharistic assembly.
The practice of the Byzantine Church was not always consistent with the inner logic of this Eucharistic ecclesiology. The historical development of the Episcopal function — which, on the one hand, after the fourth century delegated the celebration of the Eucharist to presbyters on a permanent basis, and, on the other, becamede factoa part of wider administrative structures (provinces, patriarchates) — lost some of its exclusive and direct connections with the sacramental aspect of the life of the Church. But the essential theological and ecclesiological norms were reaffirmed whenever they were directly challenged, and thus remained an essential part of what, for the Byzantines, was the tradition of the Catholic Church .39
The Church in the World
Christians were Christians only because Christianity brought to them liberation from death. If one would penetrate to the heart of Eastern Christianity one must be present on the night when the Easter liturgy is celebrated: of this liturgy all other rites are but reflections or figures. The three words of the Easter troparion — the Easter hymn — repeated a thousand times in tones ever more and more triumphant, repeated to the point of ecstasy and of an overflowing mystic joy — "By His death He has trodden death beneath His feet" — here is the great message of the Byzantine Church: the joy of Easter, the banishing of that ancient terror which beset the life of man, this it is which has won and kept the allegiance of the masses; it is this creed of triumph which has been translated into all the languages of the Orient, and yet has never lost its virtue; this is the faith which found its material expression in the icon, so that even when the originality of the artist fell short, man’s shortcoming could not veil the meaning of that joyous Mystery.1
These words of a secular historian reflect quite adequately what we have tried to suggest about Byzantine Christianity asexperience. Whether he was a theologian, a monk, or an average layman, the Byzantine Christian knew that his Christian faith was not an obedient acceptance of intellectual propositions, issued by an appropriate authority but onevidence, accessible to him personally in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, and also in the life of prayer and contemplation, the one being inseparable from the other. Not physical, or emotional, or intellectual, this experience is described as gnosis, or as "spiritual senses," or as inner "certainty." To affirm that it was impossible for any Christian to achieve this knowledge was considered as the greatest "heresy" by Symeon the New Theologian. Whether one considers with Vladimir Lossky that "in a certain sense all theology is mystical,"2 or whether one looks down sceptically upon Byzantine "obligatory mysticism," it is obvious that the definition of Christianity as "experience" raises the issue of its witness to the world in terms of verbal expressions, or definitions, and in terms of action, of behaviour, and of practical responsibility. In the eyes of Western Christians, the Eastern Church often appears as quite other-worldly, and, indeed, the West has traditionally been much more concerned than the East with organizing human society, with defining the Christian truth in terms which could be readily understood, with giving man concrete normative formulae of behaviour and conduct. To attempt a critical description of this problem in Byzantine theology is to raise one of the basic theological and anthropological issues of Christian life: the relation between the absolute divine truth and the relative faculties of perception and action possessed by created and fallen man.
Church and Society
The great dream of Byzantine civilization was a universal Christian society administered by the emperor and spiritually guided by the Church. This idea obviously combined Roman and Christian universalisms in one single socio-political program. It was also based upon the theological presuppositions concerning man which were developed above:3man, by nature, is God-centred in all aspects of his life, and he is responsible for the fate of the entire creation. As long as Christianity was persecuted, this Biblical assertion could be nothing more than an article of faith, to be realized at the end of history and anticipated in the sacraments. With the "conversion" of Constantine however it suddenly appeared as a concrete and reachable goal. The original enthusiasm with which the Christian Church accepted imperial protection was never corrected by any systematic reflection on the nature and role of the state or of secular societies in the life of fatten humanity. There lies the
tragedy of the Byzantine system: it assumed that the state, as such, could become intrinsically Christian.
The official version of the Byzantine social ideal is expressed in the famous text of Justinian’s Sixth Novella:
There are two greatest gifts which God, in his love for man, has granted from on high: the priesthood and the imperial dignity. The first serves divine things, the second directs and administers human affairs; both however proceed from the same origin and adorn the life of mankind. Hence, nothing should be such a source of care to the emperors as the dignity of the priests, since it is for the [imperial] welfare that they constantly implore God. For if the priesthood is in every way free from blame and possesses access to God, and if the emperors administer equitably and judiciously the state entrusted to their care, general harmony will result, and whatever is beneficial will be bestowed upon the human race.4
In the thought of Justinian, the "symphony" between "divine things" and "human affairs" was based upon the Incarnation, which united the divine and human natures, so that the person of Christ is the unique source of the two — the civil and ecclesiastical hierarchies. The fundamental mistake of this approach was to assume that the ideal humanity which was manifested, through the Incarnation, in the person of Jesus Christ could also find an adequate manifestation in the Roman Empire. Byzantine theocratic thought was, in fact, based upon a form of "realized eschatology," as if the Kingdom of God had already appeared "in power" and as if the empire were the manifestation of this power in the world and in history. Byzantine Christian thought of course recognized the reality of evil, both personal and social, but it presumed, at least in the official philosophy of imperial legislation, that such evil could be adequately controlled by subduing the whole "inhabited earth" to the power of the one emperor and to the spiritual authority of the one Orthodox priesthood.
The providential significance of the one world-empire was exalted, not only in imperial laws, but also in ecclesiastical hymnography. A Christmas hymn, ascribed to the ninth-century nun Kassia, proclaims a direct connection between the world-empire of Rome and the "recapitulation" of humanity in Christ. Pax Romanais thus made to coincide with Pax Christiana:
When Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of man came to end: And when Thou wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; And the nations came to believe in one sovereign Godhead. The peoples were enrolled by the decree of Caesar; And we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, When Thou, our God, wast made man. Great is Thy mercy: glory to Thee.5
As late as 1397, when he had almost reached the nadir of political misery, the Byzantine still understood the universal empire as the necessary support of Christian universalism. Solicited by Prince Basil of Moscow on the issue whether the Russians could omit the liturgical commemoration of the emperor, while continuing to mention the patriarch, Patriarch Anthony iv replied: "It is not possible for Christians to have the Church and not to have the Empire; for Church and Empire form a great unity and community; it is not possible for them to be separated from one another."6
The idea of the Christian and universal empire presupposed that the emperor had obligations, both as guardian of the faith and as witness of God’s mercy for man. According to the ninth-century Epanagogë, "The purpose of the emperor is to do well, and therefore he is called benefactor, and when he fails in this obligation to do good, he forsakes his imperial dignity."7 The system was an authentic attempt to view human life in Christ as a whole: it did not admit any dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular, the individual and the social, or the doctrinal and the ethical, but recognized a certain polarity between "divine things" — essentially the sacramental communion of man with God — and "human affairs." Yet between the two, there had to be a "symphony" in the framework of a single Christian "society" in which both Church and state cooperated in preserving the faith and in building a society based on charity and humaneness. 8
This wholeness of the Byzantine concept of the Christian mission in the world reflects the fundamental Chalcedonian belief in the total assumption of humanity by the Son of God in the Incarnation. The Christian faith, therefore, is understood to lead to the transfiguration and "deification" of the entire man; and, as we have seen, this "deification" is indeed accessible, as a living experience, even now, and not merely in a future kingdom. Byzantine ecclesiology and Byzantine political philosophy both assume that baptism endows man with that experience, which transforms not only the "soul" but the whole man, and makes him, already in this present life, a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
One can actually see that the main characteristic of Eastern Christianity, in its ethical and social attitudes, is to consider man as already redeemed and glorified in Christ; by contrast, Western Christendom has traditionally understood the present state of humanity in both a more realistic and a more pessimistic way: though redeemed and "justified" in the eyes of God by the sacrifice of the cross, man remains a sinner. The primary function of the Church, therefore, is to provide
him with criteria of thought and a discipline of behaviour, which would allow him to overcome his sinful condition and direct him to good works. On this assumption, the Church is understood primarily as an institution established in the world, serving the world and freely using the means available in the world and appropriate for dealing with sinful humanity, particularly the concepts of law, authority, and administrative power. The contrast between the structures built by the Medieval papacy and the eschatological, experiential, and "other-worldly" concepts which prevailed in the ecclesiological thinking of the Byzantine East helps us to understand the historical fate of East and West. In the West, the Church developed as a powerful institution; in the East, it was seen primarily as a sacramental (or "mystical") organism in charge of "divine things" and endowed with only limited institutional structures. The structures (patriarchates, metropolitanates, and other officialdom) themselves were shaped by the empire (except for the fundamental tripartite hierarchy — bishop, priest, deacon — in each local church) and were not considered to be of divine origin.
This partial surrender on the "institutional" side of Christianity to the empire contributed to the preservation of a sacramental and eschatological understanding of the Church, but it was not without serious dangers. In its later history the Eastern Church experienced the fact that the state did not always deserve its confidence, and often assumed a clearly demonic face.
Throughout the Byzantine period proper however the Justianian "symphony" worked better than one could expect. The mystical and otherworldly character of Byzantine Christianity was largely responsible for some major characteristics of the state itself. The emperor’s personal power, for example, was understood as a form of charismatic ministry: the sovereign was chosen by God, not by men; hence the absence, in Byzantium, of any legally defined process of imperial succession. Both strict legitimism and democratic election were felt to be limitations to God’s freedom in selecting His appointee.
This charismatic understanding of the state obviously lacked political realism and efficiency. "Providential usurpations" were quite frequent, and political stability was an exception. In political terms, the Byzantine imperial system was indeed a Utopia. Conceived as a universal counterpart of a universal Church, the empire never achieved universality; understood as a reflection of the heavenly kingdom of God, it has a history of bloody revolutions, of wars, and — like all Medieval states — of social injustice. As always and everywhere, the ideals of Christianity proved inapplicable in legal and institutional terms; they only gave hope to individual heroes of the faith and impulse to those who were striving to draw man closer to the ideal of the "life in Christ"
which had become accessible to man. The Byzantines recognized this fact, at least implicitly, when they paid such great veneration to the saints, in whom they saw the divine light shining in a "world" which was theoretically Christianized, but which in fact had changed little after the establishment of Christianity. The permanent presence, in the midst of Byzantine society, of innumerable monastic communities, which — at least the best among them — were withdrawing from the world in order to manifest that the Kingdom was not yet there, was another reminder that there could not be any real and permanent "symphony" between God and the world, only an unstable and dynamic polarity.
This polarity was, in fact, nothing else than the opposition between the "old" and the "new" Adam in man. In terms of social ethics, it excluded clear-cut formulae and legal absolutes, and prevented the Church from being fully identified with an institution defined in terms of politics, or sociology; but, at times, it was also interpreted as a Platonic or Manichaean dualism, and it then meant total withdrawal from social responsibility. Occasionally this attitude led to a takeover by the state of the Church’s mission, leaving the monks alone in their witness to the inevitable conflict and polarity between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar.
The Mission of the Church.
The Byzantine concept according to which the empire and the Church were allied in the leadership of a single universal Christian oikoumene Church in the World implied their cooperation in the field of mission. The designation of "equal-to-the-Apostles" (isapostolos) was applied to Constantine the Great precisely because of his contribution to the conversion of theoikoumeneto Christ. The emperors of Constantinople, his successors, were normally buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. Their missionary responsibility was stressed in court ceremonial. The emperor was expected to propagate the Christian faith and to maintain Christian ethics and behaviour, and to achieve these goals through both legislation and support given to the Church’s missionary and charitable activities.
Outside the imperial borders, the Church-state alliance frequently led to ade factoidentification, in the eyes of the non-Christians, of the political interests of the empire with the fate of Orthodox Christianity. Non-Christian rulers of Persia and Arab caliphs often persecuted Christians, not only out of religious fanaticism, but also because they suspected them of being the emperor’s allies. The suspicion was actually frequently justified, especially during the lengthy
holy war between Islam and Christianity, which made spiritual contacts, mutual understanding, and meaningful dialogue virtually impossible. For this reason, except in a very few cases, Byzantine Christianity was never able to make any missionary inroads among the Islamic invaders coming from the East. 9
Missionary activity was quite successful however among the barbarians coming from the North — Mongols, Slavs, and Caucasians — who flooded imperial territories and eventually settled as the empire’s northern neighbours. It is this missionary work which actually preserved the universal character of the Orthodox Church after the lapse of the non-Greek communities of the Middle East into Monophysitism and after the great schism with the West. After the ninth century particularly, Byzantine Christianity expanded spectacularly, extending its penetration to the Caspian Sea and the Arctic Ocean. 10
The Byzantine mission to the Slavs is usually associated with what is called "Cyrillo-Methodian ideology" and is characterized by the translation of both Scripture and liturgy into the vernacular language of the newly converted nations by two brothers, Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, in the ninth century. In actual fact however Byzantine churchmen were not always consistent with the principles adopted by the first missionaries; historical evidence shows that enforced Hellenization and cultural integration were also practiced, especially when the empire succeeded in achieving direct political control over Slavic lands. Still the fundamental theological meaning of Christian mission, as expressed by Cyril (or "Constantine the philosopher," Cyril’s secular name), was never challenged in principle:
Since you have learned to hear, Slavic people,
Hear the Word, for it came from God,
The Word nourishing human souls,
The Word strengthening heart and mind. ...
Therefore St. Paul has taught:
"In offering my prayer to God,
I had rather speak five words
That all the brethren will understand
Than ten thousand words which are incomprehensible."11
Clearly, the author sees the proclamation of the Gospel as essential to the very nature of the Christian faith, which is a revelation of the eternal Word or Logos of God. The Word must be heard and understood; hence the necessity of a translation of Scripture and worship into the vernacular. This principle — expressed by the Prologue in terms which Martin Luther would not have disavowed — will remain the distinctive characteristic of Orthodox missions, at a time when the Christian West was opting for a unified but dead language — Latin — as the only channel for communicating the Word. Cyril and Methodius, during their mission to Moravia and their stay in Venice, had several discussions with Prankish missionaries who held the "heresy of the three languages," believing that the Gospel could be communicated only in the three languages used in Pilate’s inscription on Jesus’ cross: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. By contrast, Cyril and Methodius stressed that, in the East, Slavs, as well as Armenians, Persians, Egyptians, Georgians, and Arabs, praised God in their own languages. 12
The deliberate policy of translation implied a mission evolving into the rapid "indigenization" of the Church, which became an integral part of the various national cultures. Eventually, Byzantine Orthodox Christianity became deeply rooted in their lives, and neither foreign domination nor secular ideologies could easily uproot it. But indigenization also implied the existence of "national" churches, especially after the dismemberment of what Obolensky has called the "Byzantine Commonwealth." Modern nationalism further secularized the national self-consciousness of East European nations, damaging the sense of Christian catholicity among them.
Byzantine missionary methods and principles found their continuation in Orthodox Russia. Stephen of Perm (1340-1396), for example, is known as the apostle of the Zyrians, a Finnish tribe in north-eastern Russia. Having learned Greek, Stephen translated the scriptures and the liturgy into the language of the Zyrians and became their bishop.13 His example was followed until the twentieth century in the missionary expansion of the Russian Orthodox Church in Asia and even on the American continent, through Alaska.
Eschatology can never really be considered a separate chapter of Christian theology, for it qualifies the character of theology as a whole. This is especially true of Byzantine Christian thought, as we have tried to show in the preceding chapters. Not only does it consider man’s destiny — and the destiny of all of creation — as oriented toward an end; this orientation is the main characteristic of the sacramental doctrines, of its spirituality, and of its attitude toward the "world." Furthermore, following Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, it considers
the ultimate end itself as a dynamic state of man and of the whole of creation: the goal of created existence is not, as Origen thought, a static contemplation of divine "essence," but a dynamic ascent of love, which never ends, because God’s transcendent being is inexhaustible, and which, thus, always contains new things yet to be discovered (novissima) through the union of love.
The eschatological state however is not only a reality of the future but a present experience, accessible in Christ through the gifts of the Spirit. The Eucharistic canon of the liturgy of John Chrysostom commemorates the second coming of Christ together with events of the past — the cross, the grave, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. In the Eucharistic presence of the Lord, His forthcoming advent is already realized, and "time" is being transcended. Similarly, the entire tradition of Eastern monastic spirituality is based upon the premise that now, in this life, Christians can experience the vision of God and the reality of "deification."
This strong emphasis on an "already realized" eschatology explains why Byzantine Christianity lacks a sense of direct responsibility for history as such. Or if it acknowledges such a responsibility, it tends to rely on such institutions as history itself may produce, particularly the Christian empire. The Christian state and the Church as such, assume a responsibility for society as a whole, receiving guidance and inspiration from the Christian Gospel. But the dynamic "movement," which characterizes the "new humanity in Christ," and for which the Church is responsible, is not the movement of history but a mystical growth in God, known to the saints alone. The movement certainly occurs in the midst of history and may, to a degree, influence the historical process, but it does not belong to history essentially because it anticipates the end of history. It is, indeed, the "movement" of nature, and of the natural man, but natural humanity — humanity as originally conceived and created by God — presupposes communion with God, freedom from the world, lordship over creation and over history. It must, therefore, be independent from what the world understands as history.
Existing in history, the Church expects the second coming of Christ in power as the visible triumph of God in the world and the final transfiguration of the whole of creation. Man, as centre and lord of creation, will then be restored to his original stature, which has been corrupted by sin and death; this restoration will imply the "resurrection of the flesh," because man is not only a "soul," but a psychosomatic whole, necessarily incomplete without his body. Finally, the second coming will also be a judgment, because the criterion of all righteousness — Christ Himself — will be present not "in faith"
only, appealing for man’s free response, but in full evidence and power.
These three essential meanings of the parousia— cosmic transfiguration, resurrection, and judgment — are not subjects of detailed speculation by Byzantine theologians; yet they stand at the very centre of Byzantine liturgical experience.
The feast of the Transfiguration (August 6), one of the highlights of the Byzantine liturgical year, celebrates, in the "Taboric light," the eschatological anticipation of Christ’s coming: "Today on Tabor in the manifestation of Thy Light, Ο Word, Thou unaltered Light from the Light of the unbegotten Father, we have seen the Father as Light and the Spirit as Light, guiding with light the whole of creation."14 On Easter night, the eschatological dimension of the Resurrection is proclaimed repeatedly: “O Christ, the Passover great and most holy! ΟWisdom, Word, and Power of God! Grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the day which knows no night in Thy Kingdom."15 The parousia, as judgment, appears frequently in Byzantine hymnology, particularly in the Lenten cycle. In this cycle, too, active love for one’sneighoris often emphasized by the hymnographers: "Having learned the commandments of the Lord, let us follow this polity: let us feed the hungry, let us give drink to the thirsty, let us clothe the naked, let us welcome strangers, let us visit the sick and the prisoners, so that the One who comes to judge the whole earth may tell us: come, Ο blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom which is prepared for you."16
The only subject on which Byzantine theologians were forced into more systematic and theoretical debates on eschatology was the Medieval controversy on purgatory. The Latin doctrine that divine justice requires retribution for all sins committed, and that, whenever "satisfaction" could not be offered before death, justice would be accomplished through the temporary "fire of purgatory," was included in the Profession of Faith signed by emperor Michael VIII Paleologus and accepted at the Council of Lyons (1274).17 The short-lived union of Lyons did not provoke much debate on the subject in Byzantium, but the question arose again in Florence and was debated for several weeks; the final decree on union, which Mark of Ephesus refused to sign, included a long definition on purgatory. 18
The debate between Greeks and Latins, in which Mark was the main Greek spokesman, showed a radical difference of perspective. While the Latins took for granted their legalistic approach to divine justice — which, according
to them, requires a retribution for every sinful act — the Greeks interpreted sin less in terms of the acts committed than in terms of a moral and spiritual disease which was to be healed by divine forbearance and love. The Latins also emphasized the idea of an individual judgment by God of each soul, a judgment which distributes the souls into three categories: the just, the wicked, and those in a middle category — who need to be "purified" by fire. The Greeks, meanwhile, without denying a particular judgment after death or agreeing on the existence of the three categories, maintained that neither the just nor the wicked will attain their final state of either bliss or condemnation before the last day. Both sides agreed that prayers for the departed are necessary and helpful, but Mark of Ephesus insisted that even the just need them; he referred, in particular, to the Eucharistic canon of Chrysostom’s liturgy, which offers the "bloodless sacrifice" for "patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith," and even for the Virgin Mary herself. Obviously he understood the state of the blessed, not as a legal and static justification, but as a never-ending ascent, into which the entire communion of saints — the Church in heaven and the Church on earth — has been initiated in Christ.19In the communion of the Body of Christ, all members of the Church, living or dead, are interdependent and united by ties of love and mutual concern; thus, the prayers of the Church on earth and the intercession of the saints in heaven can effectively help all sinners, i.e., all men, to get closer to God. This communion of saints however is still in expectation of the ultimate fulfilment of theparousiaand of the general resurrection, when a decisive, though mysterious, landmark will be reached for each individual destiny.
The Florentine debate on purgatory seems to have been largely improvised on the spot, and both sides used arguments from Scripture and tradition which do not always sound convincing. Still, the difference in the fundamental attitude toward salvation in Christ is easily discernible. Legal-ism, which applied to individual human destiny the Anselmian doctrine of "satisfaction," is theratio theologicaof the Latin doctrine on purgatory. For Mark of Ephesus however salvation is communion and "deification." On his way to God, the Christian does not stand alone; he is a member of Christ’s Body. He can achieve this communion even now, before his death as well as afterward, and, in any case, he needs the prayer of the whole Body, at least until the end of time when Christ will be "all in all." Of course, such an understanding of salvation through communion excludes any legalistic view of the Church’s pastoral and sacramental powers over either the living
or the dead (the East will never have a doctrine of "indulgences"), or any precise description of the state of the departed souls before the general resurrection.
Except for the negative act of rejecting the Latin doctrine of purgatory implied in the canonization of Mark of Ephesus and in later doctrinal statements of Orthodox theologians, the Orthodox Church never entered the road of seeking exact doctrinal statements on the "beyond." A variety of popular beliefs, often sanctioned in hagiographic literature, exists in practice, but the Church itself, and especially its liturgy, limits itself to a fundamentally Christocentric eschatology: "You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col 3:3-4). Until that ultimate "appearance," the Body of Christ, held together with the bond of the Spirit, includes both the living and the dead, as symbolized on the paten during the liturgy, where particles of bread, commemorating those who repose in Christ and those who are still parts of the visible Christian community on earth, are all united in a single Eucharistic communion; for, indeed, death, through the Resurrection, has lost its power over those who are "in Him." It cannot separate them either from God or from each other. This communion in Christ, indestructible by death, makes possible and necessary the continuous intercession of all the members of the Body for each other. Prayer for the departed as well as intercession by the departed saints for the living expresses a single and indivisible "communion of saints."
The ultimate fulfilment of humanity’s destiny will consist however in a last judgment. The condemnation of Origenism by the Fifth Council (553) implies the very explicit rejection of the doctrine ofapocatastasis, i.e., the idea that the whole of creation and all of humanity will ultimately be "restored" to their original state of bliss. Obviously, the basic reason why apocatastasis was deemed incompatible with the Christian understanding of man’s ultimate destiny is that it implies a radical curtailment of human freedom. If Maximus the Confessor is right in defining freedom, or self-determination, as the very sign of the image of God in man,20 it is obvious that this freedom is ultimate and that man cannot be forced into a union with God, even in virtue of such philosophical necessity as God’s "goodness." At the ultimate confrontation with the Logos, on the last day, man will still have the option of rejecting Him and thus will go to "hell."
Man’s freedom is not destroyed even by physical death; thus, there is the possibility of continuous change and mutual intercession. But it is precisely this freedom which implies responsibility
and, therefore, the ultimate test of the last judgment, when — alone in the entire cosmic system, which will then experience its final transfiguration — man will still have the privilege of facing the eternal consequence of either his "yes" or his "no" to God.
The conversion of Greek intellectuals to Christianity meant that philosophical concepts and the arguments of logic would be extensively used in expressing and developing Christian truths. Yet the sacramental understanding of the church implied the hierarchical structure, a continuity in the teaching office, and, finally, conciliar authority. Neither concepts nor hierarchy however were conceived as sources of the Christian experience itself, but only as means to safeguard it, to channel it in accordance with the original rule of faith, and to express it in such a way as to give it life and relevance in the changing and developing processes of history.
In order to preserve its identity, Byzantine the theological thought had to experience several major crises: the recurring temptation of adopting the Hellenistic world-view of Origenism; the conflict with the Roman papacy on the nature of Church authority; the doctrinal controversy over the "energies" of God in the fourteenth century, and several others. Inevitably, the controversies led to formal attitudes and definitions, partly determined by polemics. A certain "freezing" of concepts and formulae was the inevitable result. However, even in their formal definitions, Byzantine theologians have generally succeeded in preserving a sense of inadequacy between the formulae and the content of the faith: the most obvious and positive truths of Christian experience were thus expressed in antinomies, i.e., in propositions which, in formal logic, are mutually exclusive without being irrational.
Thus, the Byzantine concerns on the doctrine of God, derived from the polemics of the Cappadocian Fathers against Eunomius and crystallized in fourteenth-century Palamism, affirms in God a real distinction between the Persons and the common "essence," just as it maintains that the same God is both transcendent (in the "essence") and immanent (in the "energies"). Similarly, while essentially unchangeable,
God is affirmed as becoming the creator of the world in time through His "energy;" but since "energy" is uncreated — i.e., is God — changeability is seen as a real attribute of the divine. The philosophical antinomies required in this theology reflect a personalistic and dynamic understanding of God, a positive experience of the God of the Bible, inexpressible in Greek philosophical terms.
On the level of anthropology one finds equally antinomic concepts in Byzantine Christian thought. Man, while certainly a creature and, as such, external to God, is defined, in his very nature, as being fully himself only when he is in communion with God. This communion is not a static contemplation of God’s "essence" (as Origen thought), but an eternal progress into the inexhaustible riches of divine life. This is precisely the reason why the doctrine of theōsis— i.e., the process through which, in Christ, man recovers his original relation to God and grows into God "from glory to glory" — is the central theme of Byzantine theology and of the Eastern Christian experience itself.
If one understands the ultimate destiny of man, and therefore also his "salvation," in terms of theōsis, or "deification," rather than as a justification from sin and guilt, the Church will necessarily be viewed primarily as a communion of free sons of God and only secondarily as an institution endowed with authority to govern and to judge. Again, it is impossible to define Byzantine ecclesiology without at least a partial recourse to antinomy, particularly in describing the relation between the "institution" and the "event," between the "Levite" and the "prophet," between the "hierarch" and the "saint." In the absence of any legal or infallible criterion of authority, with frequently reiterated statements that authority is not a source of truth but is itself dependent upon the faith of those who are called to exercise it, it was inevitable that the monastic community, as well as individual spiritual personalities, would occasionally compete with bishops and councils as spokesmen of the authentic tradition and as witnesses to the truth. In fact, this polarity was an integral part of the Church’s life and did not necessarily lead to conflict: it only reflected the mystery of human freedom which was seen as the very gift of the Holy Spirit, bestowed upon every Christian at his baptism and making him a fully responsible member of Christ’s Body, However, even then, the sacramental understanding of ecclesiology served as a guarantee against individualism and arbitrariness: responsibility could only be understood in this ecclesial and sacramental framework, which, in turn, was impossible
without an identifiable ministry of bishops and priests.
These are the basic intuitions which determined the social and individual ethics of the Byzantine Christians. Actually, one can hardly find, in the entire religious literature of Byzantium, any systematic treatment of Christian ethics, or behaviour, but rather innumerable examples of moral exegesis of Scripture, and ascetical treatises on prayer and spirituality. This implies that Byzantine ethics were eminently "theological ethics." The basic affirmation that every man, whether Christian or not, is created according to the image of God and therefore called to divine communion and "deification," was of course recognized, but no attempt was ever made to build "secular" ethics for man "in general."
The religious inheritance of Christian Byzantium has frequently defined itself in opposition to the West, and indeed its entire concept of God-man relationships is different from one which prevailed in post-Augustinian Latin Christianity. Contemporary man — searching for a God who would be not only transcendent but also existentially experienced and immanently present in man, and the gradual discovery of man as essentially open, developing, and growing — should be more receptive to the basic positions of Byzantine thought, which may then acquire an astonishingly contemporary relevance.