The Byzantine Liturgy and the Grammar of Salvation

by Fr Khaled Anatolios

The association in this commemoration of St. Gregory Palamas between the overcoming of the passions and the indwelling of the divine Trinity brings to light the dogmatic matrix that governs and permeates the Byzantine liturgy’s conception of Christian salvation. The most fundamental content of this dogmatic framework is that human salvation consists in partici­pation in the life of the Holy Trinity, a participation that has been rendered accessible to sinful human beings through the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Son of the Father and his conferring of the Holy Spirit on his disciples. The foundation of this dogmatic matrix is the union of the human and divine natures in the single person of the incarnate Word, a confession that the Byzantine Paschal services joyfully reiterate:

Christ the cornerstone not cut by hand of man was taken from the unhewn mountain, from you, O Virgin; and he has joined in one two different natures. Therefore with great rejoicing, O Theotokos, we magnify you.

But a consideration of the Byzantine liturgical prayers throughout the Paschal season is especially helpful in disposing of the notion that Byzantine theology ascribes the efficacy of Christ’s salvific work merely to the joining of the two natures in the incarnation, rather than to the death of Christ on the cross. Once again, we should note that what is distinctive about the Byzantine approach is precisely its unifying and synthetic perspective, rather than an adherence to a narrow emphasis diametrically opposed to a putatively Western preoccupa­tion with the cross. In the Byzantine liturgy, Christ’s salvific work is attributed integrally to his incarnation, cross, and resurrection:

God is made flesh in a union without confusion, and willingly on our behalf accepts the Cross. Through it He raises Adam and saves our souls from death.

Within this synthetic perspective, the underlying soteriological principle is that of the deifying exchange by which Christ assumes the poverty of the postlapsarian human condition in order to grant us the riches of his divine life. This soteriological principle is applied in distinctive ways at different stages of the liturgical season stretching from Lent to Pentecost. The Byzantine liturgy thus integrates the ontological christological confession of the unity of divine and human natures within the single person of the incarnate Word with a dramatic presentation of how Christ saves humanity through the various stages of his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. The effect of this dynamic presentation is that the worshiper is granted the experience of a progressively intensified participation in the wonderful exchange rendered by Christ’s salvific work. This presentation extends diachronically from Lent to Pentecost.

During the season of Lent, in which the death and resurrection of Christ are constantly anticipated, the worshiper is invited to enter into the deifying exchange that results from Christ’s salvific work by entering into his self-emptying—the dispassion that is the fruit of Christ’s passion—and by receiving the forgiveness of sins gained by Christ through the cross. The theme of Christ’s self-emptying is sounded throughout the Lenten season both with reference to Christ’s work of unifying humanity to himself (“God emptied himself that he might be united to us”) and with respect to its exemplary character, as a pattern for the self-emptying of Lenten discipline and devotion:

Christ became human and shared in my flesh; and willingly he performed all that belongs to my nature, only without sin. He set before you, my soul, an example and image of his condescension.

The goal of the human emulation of and participation in Christ’s self-emptying is a participation in the passion of Christ, which brings about human dispassion. This christological orientation is manifest in the prayers for Matins of the first Wednesday of Lent, in which the worshiper pleads:

Through your Passion, loving Lord, You have given to all people freedom from the passions, putting to death the passions of my flesh by your Cross. Count me worthy, then, to see your divine Passion: that, having been well-pleasing to your glory through the Fast, I may receive your great and abundant mercy.

As we noted earlier, this dispassion is not possible without divine forgiveness, since it is not ultimately a human achievement but a divine gift that repairs the communion between God and humanity that was broken by sin. The primacy of the theme of forgiveness during the Lenten season is unmistakably expressed by the simple fact that Lent begins with Forgive­ness Vespers, in which the members of the congregation invoke divine forgiveness by exchanging mutual forgiveness among themselves. While this dramatic context implicitly recalls Christ’s stipulation that the forgiveness of other human beings is a condition for receiving divine forgiveness (cf. Matt 6:15), there is no sign in the liturgical services, any more than there is in the Scriptures, that mutual human forgiveness in and of itself actually causes divine forgiveness for humanity’s sin. The Byzantine liturgy does, however, assert a direct causal link between divine forgiveness and Christ’s crucifixion:

May the Blood from your side be to me a cleansing fount, and may the Water that flows from it be a drink of forgiveness. May I be purified by both, O Word, anointed and refreshed, having as chrism and drink your words of life. As a chalice, O my Savior, the Church has been granted your life-giving side, from which there flows down to us a twofold stream of forgiveness and knowledge, representing the two Covenants, the Old and the New.

As we advance into Holy Week and the triduum, the christological exchange formula continues to be applied to the distinctive themes of the various liturgical celebrations. On Holy Thursday, the salvific import of the Last Supper is traced back to the divine poverty that led to Christ’s union with humanity, a union into which the worshiper is included through eucharistic communion:

O God the Lord and Creator of all, you became poor, uniting a created nature to yourself, while remaining free from passion. Since you are the Passover, you have offered yourself to those for whose sake you were soon to die; and you have cried: “Eat My Body, and you shall be firmly established in the faith.” Filling your cup of salvation with joy, O loving Lord, you made your disciples drink from it. For you offered yourself in sacrifice, crying: “Drink My Blood, and you shall be firmly established in the faith.”

On Holy Friday, the exchange formula is applied especially to Christ’s taking on our death and granting us immortality and incorruptibility:

By death you transform mortality, and by your burial, corruption. With divine power, you make incorruptible the nature you have taken, rendering it immortal.

In this setting, the doctrine of the distinction of natures and unity of person in Christ grounds the proclamation that Christ really suffered human death but was able to overcome death because of the unity of person through which his human nature was assimilated to the divine nature that he shares with the Father and the Spirit:

You were torn but not separated, O Word, from the flesh that you had taken. For though your temple was destroyed at the time of your Passion, yet the Person of your Godhead and of your flesh is but one; in both you are one Son, the Word of God, both God and man. The fall of Adam brought death to man but not to God. For though the earthly substance of your flesh suffered, yet the Godhead remained impassible (apathēs); that which was corruptible in your human nature, you have transformed to incorruption, and by your Resurrection you have revealed a fountain of immortal life. . . . In hell and in the tomb and in Eden, the Godhead of Christ was indivisibly united with the Father and the Spirit, for our salvation who sing: O God our Deliverer, blessed are you. [Matins, Holy and Great Saturday]

In the celebration of the resurrection, the christological exchange formula is focused again, as it was on Holy Friday, on Christ’s death as the source of new and indestructible life. This proclamation is insistently reiterated in the Resurrection Troparion:

Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and on those in the tomb bestowing life.

One of the significant consequences of the Byzantine liturgy’s tenacious adherence to this soteriology of exchange is that it entirely intertwines the salvific efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection. Christ’s death is a life-giving death, and his resurrection is the manifes­ta­tion of the very life that triumphed over death in the very undergoing of death. The charac­ter­istic note sounded by the Byzantine liturgy is thus not an emphasis on the resurrection at the expense of the cross, as yet another misconception holds, but rather the presentation of the glory of the resurrection as already manifest in the cross and the celebration of the glory of the cross as enduring in the resurrection. Thus, on the third Sunday of Lent, dedicated to “The Adoration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross,” we sing during Matins: “This is the day of the veneration of the Precious Cross. Now it is placed before us and shines with the brightness of Christ’s Resurrection. Let us all draw near and kiss it with great rejoicing in our souls”; and “Rejoice, O Cross. . . . Shining on the four corners of the earth, you prepare us for the dawn of Christ’s Resurrection.” On the other hand, during the resurrection service of Holy Saturday (along with every Sunday Matins), we sing:

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless One. We worship your Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection; for you are our God, we know no other than you and we invoke your name. Come, all you faithful, let us worship Christ’s holy Resurrection; for behold through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Always blessing the Lord, let us praise his Resurrection. For in enduring the Cross for us, He destroyed death by death.

Alongside the dominant theme of the exchange of death and life through the death and resurrection of Christ, another significant aspect of the unified salvific efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection is that they are both identified as the cause of divine forgiveness. Earlier, we noted that, during the first week of Lent, the Byzantine liturgy presents the cross as the source of divine forgiveness. In a similar vein, on the day before Palm Sunday, the Saturday of Lazarus, we sing during Matins,

Christ, the joy of all, the truth, the light, the life, the resurrection of the world, in his love appeared to those on earth; and He became himself the pattern of our resurrection, granting divine forgiveness unto all.

In the celebration of the Vigil of Resurrection, the forgiveness of sins continues to be proclaimed as a consequence of Christ’s suffering on the cross, while the same efficacy is also attributed to the resurrection: “Let no one grieve over sins. Forgiveness has dawned from the tomb.” The resurrection of Christ manifests divine forgiveness and gives us confidence to petition for that forgiveness for ourselves and the capacity to extend it to others:

It is the Day of Resurrection. Let us be radiant for the feast and let us embrace one another. Let us, brothers [and sisters], say even to those who hate us, “Let all be forgiven in the Resurrection, and so let us cry out: Christ is Risen from the dead.”

The attribution of the salvific agency of divine forgiveness to both the cross and the resurrection of Christ is another manifestation of the Byzantine approach of seeing these two christological events as having a unified salvific efficacy. Advancing from the celebration of the resurrection to the Feast of the Ascension, we encounter the increasing preponderance of the theme of glorification, both the glorification of Christ and humanity’s glorification in Christ. Indeed, the liturgical prayers for the Feast of Christ’s Ascension render it the feast of Christ’s glorification par excellence. The consummation of the glorification of Christ is liturgically enacted by the worshiper’s active participation in that glorification. Through his ascension, Christ manifests himself as the radiance of the Father’s glory and draws all creatures into the celebration of his glory:

O Christ, radiance of the Father’s glory, when we behold your ascents on the holy mountains, we sing a hymn of praise to the luminous form of your countenance. We worship your Passion, we honor your Resurrection and we glorify your glorious Ascension. Have mercy on us!

The Byzantine liturgy presents the glorification of Christ through the ascension of his humanity as the consummation of the saving union between his humanity and his divinity, a union that enfolds human suffering and transforms it within the glorification of human nature:

O God, you renewed in yourself the nature of Adam which had fallen to the lowest depths of the earth. Today, you have raised it beyond every power and principality. Since you loved it, you have enthroned it with you; since you had compassion on it, you united it to yourself; since you were united with it, you suffered with it. But, in your impassible suffering, you glorified it with you.

Consequently, our humanity has also ascended with Christ into the fullness of trinitarian communion: “Today, you ascended in glory from the Mount of Olives, and in your com­pas­sion you lifted up our fallen nature and seated it with you at the Father’s side”; “The eternal Word who has no beginning, who has mystically divinized the human nature that he assumed, today raises it up on high.” “The heavenly incorporeal hosts were stupefied in wonder and overcome with amazement as they magnified your love for humanity. Together with them, we also on earth glorify your descent to us and your ascent from us.”

Finally, we come to the Feast of Pentecost. If Christ’s glorification is an object of special emphasis in the liturgical prayers for Ascension, the focus on Pentecost is the extension of Christ’s glory into trinitarian glorification. Christ’s sending of the Spirit and the liturgical representation of this event fulfill the disclosure of the Trinity and fully integrate the worshiper into trinitarian doxology. It is fitting to compose a little catena of the articulation of this theme in order to indicate its prevalence in the liturgical prayers for Pentecost:

Come, all people, let us worship the divinity in three persons, the Son in the Father with the Holy Spirit. For the Father begets the Son timelessly, co-eternal and co-enthroned with him, and the Holy Spirit is in the Father and glorified with the Son, one power, one essence, and one divinity. Let us all say in worship: Holy is God, who created all things through the Son in the cooperation of the Holy Spirit. Holy is the mighty one through whom the Father is known and the Holy Spirit came into the world. Holy the immortal one, the Spirit and Paraclete, who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son. Holy Trinity, glory to you.

The visitation of the power of the Holy Spirit divinely unified into a single harmony the divided tongues that were formerly united in an evil accord, enabling the faithful to arrive at the knowledge of the Trinity, in whom we are established.

When the apostles were proclaiming the wonders of God, the unbelievers thought they were drunk with wine. But it was the operation of the Spirit, though whom the Trinity is known, the one God of our fathers.

The Father is light, the Son is light, and the Holy Spirit is also light, who was sent upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire, and through whom the whole world is enlightened and led to worship the Holy Trinity.

The Holy Spirit always was and is and will be, without beginning or end. He is always ranked and counted with the Father and the Son. He is life and the maker of life; he is light and the giver of light; he is himself the good and the source of goodness. Through him the Father is known and the Son is glorified. Through him is known the one power and one order and single worship of the Holy Trinity.

We can see from these texts that Pentecost is celebrated in the Byzantine liturgy very much in the key of trinitarian doxology. The descent of the Holy Spirit brings about knowledge of the Trinity and enables true and fitting worship of the trinitarian glory. Even at this point, however, we cannot let this paradigmatically Eastern emphasis be isolated from another significant, albeit putatively “Western,” focus, which is that of the Spirit as the one who “takes away sins.” The Byzantine liturgy celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as bringing about a cleansing from sin; the faithful are enjoined “to receive the Spirit as a cleansing deliverance (lytērion katharsin) from offenses.” Once again, we see that the actual texts of the Byzantine liturgy refute any barrier between ontological conceptions of salvation as deification and the “ethical” or putatively “legalistic” category of forgiveness of sins. The first step on the way to deification is to be forgiven by God and cleansed from sin. That is why the “kneeling prayers” of the Pentecost liturgy, which call for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, contain petitions for forgiveness and cleansing from sin: “Grant forgiveness to those who hope in you: pardon their sins and ours. Purify us through the operation of your Holy Spirit.” That is also why the Spirit is proclaimed at once as the one who completes our purification from sin and our deification; the Spirit “purifies from faults; he is God and he divinizes.” If the Holy Spirit brings to fulfillment the revelation of trinitarian glory, that accomplishment is inseparable from his role in bringing about the indwelling in the believer of Christ’s annulling and banishment of sin. Through this indwelling, the faithful are enfolded into trinitarian life:

The almighty God and Word cleansed the hearts of the apostles from sin and prepared them to be an immaculate dwelling for himself. Now, the light of the Spirit, who is equal in strength and the same in essence, dwells in them.

The Feast of Pentecost thus brings to climactic fulfillment the Byzantine liturgy’s dramatic presentation of how the worshiper is integrated into the union of the divine and human natures in Christ. This union transpires through an assimilation to Christ’s self-emptying and his passion, which brings about the healing of sinful passions and the gift of dispassion. The celebration of the new life ushered forth by Christ’s resurrection leads to the vision of the glory of Christ’s ascension and the glorification and ascension of human nature in him, while the descent of the Holy Spirit introduces the fulfillment of humanity’s vision of trinitarian glory.

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Excerpted from Deification through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation by Khaled Anatolios © 2020 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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