by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
Lecture delivered at the Kiev Theological Academy on September 20, 2002
Liturgical texts as a school of theology
May I now turn to the theological and dogmatic significance of liturgical texts. In my view, liturgical texts are for Orthodox Christians an incontestable doctrinal authority, whose theological irreproachability is second only to Scripture. Liturgical texts are not simply the works of outstanding theologians and poets, but also the fruits of the prayerful experience of those who have attained sanctity and theosis. The theological authority of liturgical texts is, in my opinion, even higher than that of the works of the Fathers of the Church, for not everything in the works of the latter is of equal theological value and not everything has been accepted by the fullness of the Church. Liturgical texts, on the other hand, have been accepted by the whole Church as a “rule of faith” (kanon pisteos), for they have been read and sung everywhere in Orthodox churches over many centuries. Throughout this time, any erroneous ideas foreign to Orthodoxy that might have crept in either through misunderstanding or oversight were eliminated by Church Tradition itself, leaving only pure and authoritative doctrine clothed by the poetic forms of the Church’s hymns.
This holds true above all for the daily cycle of services prescribed by the Orthodox Typicon, as well as for the weekly and yearly cycle found in the Octoechos, Lenten Triodion, Pentecostarion and Menaia, whose liturgical texts contain interpretations of and reflections on many episodes from the life of Christ and aspects of His teaching. In this sense one can say that liturgical texts are a “Gospel according to the Church”. During the ecclesiastical year, from the Nativity to the Ascension, the earthly life of Christ passes by the spiritual gaze of the faithful. Liturgical texts bring us close to Christ at His birth in Bethlehem, on Mount Tabor when He was transfigured, in the upper room on Zion during the Last Supper and on Calvary with the Crucifixion.
Liturgical texts are not simply a commentary on the Gospels since, in many cases, they speak of that which the Gospels pass over in silence. I would like to give an example from the Nativity service. The Gospel reading speaks very briefly of Christ’s birth:
“The birth of Christ was thus: after His Mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting everybody to know of this, wanted to let her go secretly” (Mt. 1:18-19).
Much that happened at this event has remained hidden from us. For example, the narrative is silent about Joseph’s personal drama: we can only guess about his feelings and doubts, as well as about the words he uttered to his betrothed when he learned of her pregnancy. Orthodox liturgical texts attempt to recreate in poetic form a dialogue between Joseph and Mary:
Joseph says to the Virgin: Mary, what is this that I see in Thee? I am at a loss, astonished and horrified. Mary, what is this that I see in Thee? Thou hast brought me shame instead of honour, sorrow instead of rejoicing, reproach instead of boasting. No longer shall I endure the reproach of men, for I received thee blameless from the priest of the Lord’s temple, and what is this that I see?
When Joseph, O Virgin, was wounded by sorrow while going to Bethlehem, Thou didst cry unto him: why art Thou languishing in sorrow and confused, not knowing that all that has happened to me is part of the fearful mystery? But now lay aside all fear, knowing of the most glorious events, for in His mercy God hast descended to earth and is now in my womb, taking on flesh. When thou shalt see Him born, as He has willed, thou shalt be filled with joy and worship Him as thy Creator.
One may refer to such texts as “poetic invention” or “church rhetoric”, or one may see in them something more – a perceptive understanding of the feelings and experiences of those whose lives form Sacred History. Byzantine hymnographers made use of an extremely rich array of literary techniques since they spoke about that which
‘the eye has not beheld, the ear has not heard and has not entered the heart of man’ (1 Cor. 2:9),
about mysteries beyond the limits of human reason, but grasped only by faith. There are many mystical truths in Christianity which, being difficult to explain in prose, are better served by poetry to help the faithful to understand.
Another example can be found in the liturgical texts describing Christ’s descent into hell. The Gospels say nothing directly about this event; it is only briefly mentioned in the First Epistle of Peter (1 Pet. 3:18-21; 4:6). In the ancient Church, however, a belief in Christ’s descent into hell was very strong and is reflected, for example, in many apocryphal writings, such as the “Gospel according to Bartholomew” and the “Gospel according to Nicodemus”. From early Christian literary sources references to the Descent later entered the hymns of Saints Ephraim the Syrian and Romanos the Melodist, and from there into the service books of the Orthodox Church. Many texts in the Octoechos, Lenten Triodion and Pentecostation are devoted to this subject.
The liturgical texts for Great Saturday are especially remarkable in this respect for their ability to grasp the theological significance of events. The focal point in matins on Great Saturday is the reading of verses from Psalm 117/118 with the addition of “praises” to each verse (these were written by an anonymous author before the end of the fourteenth century). The “praises” have several main themes, among which is the Son of God’s suffering and death (repeatedly referred to as “voluntary”) in fulfillment of the will of the Father who sent Him for the salvation of the world. They also speak especially of the Theotokos, who stood by the cross of Christ and wept for Him. Some of the “praises” are addressed to the Mother of God and Joseph of Arimathea, while others are written on behalf of the Theotokos and directed to Jesus. In some texts the author addresses Judas and accuses him of treachery, while in others he derides the Jews, who did not accept their Messiah but gave Him over to a shameful death.
The central theme of the “praises”, however, is about the redemption and salvation of humankind by Christ, who descended into Hades. Having searched for fallen Adam on earth but not having found him there, the Incarnate God descended into the depths of hell in order to redeem him. As in many hymns from the Octoechos, here too the universal character of redemption by Christ is stressed. These “praises” sing of Christ’s resurrecting the dead, an event described as a “harrowing” of hell:
My Jesus Christ, King of all, what hast Thou come searching for in hell? Or hast Thou come to renounce mankind?
How doth hell endure, O Saviour, Thy coming, and is not sorrowed and pained, blinded by the dawning of Thy glory?
Thou hast descended to earth to save Adam, and not finding him there, O Master, Thou hast descended into Hades in search of him.
As a grain of wheat entering the depths of the earth, Thou hast brought forth many rich ears of wheat by raising mankind descended from Adam.
Though Thou art buried, Though Thou descendeth into hell, Thou hast emptied the graves and devastated Hades, O Christ.
In obedience, O Word, to Thy Father, Thou hast descended even unto fearful Hades, and hast resurrected mankind.
Hell was horrified, O Saviour, seeing Thee, the Life-giver, laying waste to its riches and raising those dead from the ages.
Another important text from Great Saturday, more ancient than the “praises”, is a canon written by several authors of the 8-10th centuries. Its troparia, addressed to the buried and risen Son of God, refer to the devastation of hell by Christ’s descent and the annihilation of its power over people. These themes are expressed with singular eloquence:
Hades reigns over mankind, but not eternally, for Thou wast placed in the grave voluntarily, and by Thy life-giving Hand Thou hast broken the keys of death and preached to those asleep from the ages, being the unfailing deliverance and first-born of the dead.
Hades was wounded, receiving into its bosom Him who was wounded in the side by a spear, and sighs, being overwhelmed by the divine fire, for our salvation who sing: blessed art Thou, O God our deliverer.
Let creation be glad and let all the earth-born rejoice, for the enemy, hell, has been captured; let the women meet Me with myrrh, for I have delivered Adam and Eve, the ancestors of the human race, and on the third day shall rise from the dead.
The significance of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice is recalled in the Synaxarion, compiled around the fourteenth century and which, as it were, summarizes the theological content of Great Saturday’s liturgical hymns:
On Holy and Great Saturday we commemorate the burial of the divine body and descent into hell of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, through which mankind was raised from corruption and entered eternal life…The Word of God descends into the grave in the flesh, then descends into hell with His incorrupt and divine soul, separated from the body by death and committed to the hands of the Father, to Whom He offered His blood, our redemption, even though He did not ask for it. For the Lord’s soul was not held by Hades, as the souls of other saints…Our enemy the devil was not captured by the blood through which we were redeemed, even though he held us captive. For how could the robber, the devil, hold captive not only Him who was sent by God, but also God Himself? Our Lord Jesus Christ courageously descended into the grave with His body, having thoroughly taken on flesh. He was with the thief in Paradise, and in Hades, as it is said, with His divine soul. He was also with the Father in a supernatural manner, seated together with the Spirit as ineffable God, and was everywhere, not suffering in His divinity either in the grave or on the cross. The Lord’s body endured corruption, the separation of the soul from the body, but in no way did He suffer decay, that is, the decomposition of flesh in its members… Hades was then overcome with awe, sensing His might, and after a short while spat out both Him who was swallowed unjustly – Christ, the mighty cornerstone, – and those who were held in its belly from the ages.
The central theme of this text is the doctrine of redemption, expressed here in terms similar to those found in the theologians of the 3rd and 4th centuries. In the third century, Origen maintained that the Son of God on the cross committed His spirit to the hands of the Father and gave His soul to the devil as a ransom for mankind:
“To whom did the Redeemer give His soul as a ransom for many? Not to God. Why then to the devil? The soul of the Son of God, and not His spirit, was given as a ransom for us, since He had already delivered the latter to His Father with the words:
‘Father, into Thy hands I deliver my spirit’ (Lk. 23:66);
and not His body, since we find no indication of this in the Scriptures”.
However, St Gregory Nazianzen contested such an understanding of the redemption:
“To whom and why was such a price paid? If to the evil one, what an insult! The robber receives a ransom, receives it not only from God, but God Himself!”
It is precisely these words of St Gregory that are quoted by the author of the Synaxarion.
Another thought expounded in the Synaxarion is that Christ’s body, being subject to corruption (phthora), did not undergo decomposition” (diaphthora). This terminological antithesis was introduced by St John of Damascus to counteract the teaching of the aphthartodocetists on the incorruption of Christ’s flesh.
Lastly, the notion of Hades being “deceived” during Christ’s descent is developed in the Synaxarion. This idea, also reflected in St John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily, goes back to St Gregory of Nyssa’s theory of how God deceived the devil, having hidden the “hook” of His divinity under the guise of His human nature. By swallowing the bait, Hades also swallowed the “hook” that destroyed it from within. If this image in Gregory of Nyssa’s exposition seems somewhat artificial or forced, it is expressed quite convincingly in the liturgical texts, since they speak not of how God “deceived” the devil, but rather how the devil “was deceived”, taking Christ for an ordinary person.
We can see, therefore, that the liturgical texts of Great Saturday speak not only of an event that was not mentioned in the Gospels, but also offer a profound theological understanding of it. The terse, laconic verses of the liturgical texts contain a synthesis of ideas that were the subject of whole theological treatises over many centuries.
It would be possible to show many other examples, but I think that the above are enough to demonstrate the exceptional significance of the Church’s liturgical texts for the Orthodox Christian. Through them participation in the services becomes not just a school of prayer, but also a school of theology, a meditation on and a knowledge of God.