Christian History & Ritual

Ritual of the Eastern Orthodox Church 

In every religion there are some forms or external symbols for expressing man's relations toward God, and no matter how simple and plain or elaborate and triumphal they may be, they con­stitute the sacred acts or rites in worshiping God. They represent the expression of man's soul.

The rites of the Christian Church came into practice with the progress of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ in order to commemorate His life on earth and as the result of man's need to have the way of expressing himself before God in a most becoming and dignified manner. Gradually the rites of the Church were perfected and became universal by the Church's sanction under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Eastern Orthodox Church kept in its practice these original rites of the Early Church which became her own and bear the proof of the Church's dogmatical and historical succession from the apos­tolic times to our days. We find ample testimony in the liturgical writings of the fourth century, that the rites and the order of prayers, practiced at that time, were inherited from the ancient times, were authorized and sanctified by the Church and transmitted to our times.

During the severe persecutions of the Christians from the time of Emperor Nero, when the Apostles Peter and Paul were executed, and until the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, Christianity was practiced secretly and all instructions regarding the same were transmitted by words or traditions.

Though some apologetics of the second and third centuries were safely preserved and reached our days, only in the fourth cen­tury did the Christian Church receive her freedom and right to defend her teaching and commemorate in writing all her spiritual inheritance, which included also the rites. Only the fourth century gives us more accurate records of the Church's dogmas and rites, all of which had passed the censure of the most learned and pious Fathers of those days, and they then were accepted and practiced in the worship of God until the present day.

To substantiate this assertion we will quote the learned Dr. Henry R. Percival, who in his book on the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, says: "While it does not seem possible to prove that before the fourth century the liturgical books were written out in full, owing no doubt to the influence of the disciplina arcani, it seems to be true that much earlier than this there was a definite and fixed order in the celebration of divine worships and administrations of the Sacrament" (Vol. XIV, p. 136) . The most ancient documents, that uphold above said testi­mony and were used by the author in his research work on the worship of the Early Church, are: "The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem" delivered about the year 347, "The Apos­tolic Constitutions" (Bk. II) , and "The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom," where are found all proofs of the rites and customs practiced by the Early Church in her divine service.

St. Basil the Great gives illustrious teaching on the Apostolic Tradition in his book "De Sanctum Spiritum," chapter 27, and at the same time testifies to the rites and customs of the Church as being transmitted and kept through the Tradition from the preced­ing times. The Christian soul should find much comfort in reading this testimony, which assures that the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church were fully established in the time of this holy Father (330­-379 A.D.) and became to our days unchanged in their original holiness and truth.

"Of the doctrines and injunctions," says St. Basil the Great, "kept by the Church, some we have from written instructions, but some we received from Apostolic Tradition, by succession in private. Both the former and the latter have one and the same force for piety and will be contradicted by no one who has ever so little knowledge in the ordinances of the Church. For were we to dare to reject unwritten customs, as if they had no great importance we should insensibly mutilate the Gospel, even in the most essential points, or rather for the teaching of the apostles leave but an empty name. For instance: let us mention before all else the very first and commonest act of Christians, that they who trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, should sign themselves with the sign of the cross; who hath taught this by writing? To turn to the East in prayer: what Scripture have we for this? The words of invocation in the change of the Eucharistic bread and of the Cup of Blessing; by which of the Saints have they been left us in writing? By what Scripture is it in like manner that we bless the water of Baptism, the oil of Unction, and the person himself who is baptized? Is it not by silent and secret tradition? What more? The very practice itself of anointing with oil; what written word have we for it? Whence is the rule of trine immersion, and the rest of the ceremonies at Baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels, from what Scripture are they taken? Are they not all from this unpublished and private teaching which our Fathers kept, having been taught as a first principle to guard by silence the sanctity of the mysteries?" (The Longer Cat. pp. 36-37.)

The names of the apologists of the second century - Dionysius Areopagitis with his "Ecclesiastical Hierarchy" and that of Tertul­lianus with his noble work "De Coronis et de Resurrectionis" strengthen our faith in the purity and antiquity of the Orthodox Church's ritual.

The order of the liturgy of the Early Church, described by Dr. Percival in his excursus on the worship of the Early Church, is of a great interest and importance; it illustrates that the main divine service of the Orthodox Church was celebrated in the early days before the fourth century in a most exact order as it is practiced by the Church at the present time. This description of Dr. Percival is a very valuable one historically as the result of his studies of the works of the Fathers of the Early Church and is very instructive and we wish our readers could have the benefit of reading it in full.

The continuation in the Orthodox Church of that order of wor­ship which existed before the fourth century is a proof of her faithfulness not only to the Holy Tradition, but also to the spirit of the Early Church, to "the faith, which was once delivered unto the saints." (Jude 1, 3.)

Our divine liturgy typifies the whole life of our Lord Jesus Christ from His birth up to His Ascension into the heavens and the estab­lishing of the Church by the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles.

During the celebration of this service, a believer is uplifted to be with Christ, follows Him, listening to His Gospel, witnessing His miracles and service to the world, and is sanctified by the Holy Eucharist. instituted by the Lord at the Last Supper. This service opens the heavens to the Orthodox Christian, commemorating the presence of the Lord by the sacrament during the service. The mean­ing of the liturgy is very significant and instructive. We will present the liturgy of the Early Church as it is described by Dr. Percival, before going into explanation of the rites and ceremonies attached to it.

"The congregation is gathered together, the men on one side, the women on the other, the clergy in the apsidal chancel. The readings immediately begin; they are interrupted by chants. A reader ascends the ambo, which stood in the middle of the Church, between the clergy and the people and reads two lessons; then another goes up in his place to sing a psalm. . . . When the lessons and psalmodies are done, the priests take the word, each in his turn and after them the bishop. The series ended with a lection from th

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