Byzantine Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are rich in devotion to Our Lady

Many popular Marian feasts originated in Eastern-rite Catholic liturgies, especially in the Greek Church. Indeed, a close look at prayers used in the Roman rite's occasions for honoring Our Lady reveals that many simply are translated paraphrases of their Eastern originals. The Byzantine liturgy, in particular, is rich with Marian hymns, odes, and prayers. And the same can be said of the Ethiopian and Syrian Churches as well.

Not all Byzantine Catholic Churches and Orthodox Churches, however, share the same Marian feasts. Some are particular to a certain Church or ethnic group. The feasts treated here, then, are the most widely observed. The Melkites, for example, commemorate the feast of Romanus the Melodist, and the Apostle Ananis, on October 1 instead of celebrating the Marian feast of the Protecting Veil of Our Lady. In addition, many Marian feasts in the Eastern Churches tend to be associated with historical events or with Marian apparitions.

Not surprisingly, many beautiful Marian hymns, rich in tradition and devotion, are chanted in Eastern Churches in Mary's honor. The Byzantines, for example, have hundreds of kontaks, or short prayers based on Scripture, and thousands of canons honoring Our Lady. These verses fill more than 20 huge volumes. Still others, now lost or unedited, could fill many more books. Most Byzantine liturgical prayers consist of glory and praise to Our Lady, similar to the Roman rite's Mysteries of the Rosary. Famous Eastern composers of Marian songs include St. Gregory of Cappadocia, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Ephraem, Mary's first poet and hymnodist.

One of the most famous expressions of Marian devotion in the Eastern Church is the Akathistos Hymn. Parts of it are sung in Byzantine-rite churches on the first four Saturdays of Lent, and the entire song is sung on the fifth, or Akathistos Saturday. This long epic masterpiece, in honor of the Annunciation, fills nearly 30 pages of an ordinary pamphlet. When the hymn is sung in its entirety, the faithful may sit only during the song's three intervals, for it is meant to be sung standing as a sign of joy and praise to the Virgin.

The liturgical year of the Eastern Church opens September 1 with the feast of Our Lady of Miasena, instead of on the first Sunday of Advent, as in the Western, or Roman Catholic, Church. This day recalls the miraculous recovery of an icon of Mary from the monastery's lake in Miasena, Armenia, about the year 850. On this feast, the people pray for Mary's special protection and guidance.

One month later, on October 1, some Eastern Christians celebrate the feast of the Protecting Veil of Our Lady, which dates back to the year 910. During a terrible epidemic in Constantinople, a man named Andrew, as he prayed in church, had a vision of the Mother of God, accompanied by St. John the Baptist and St. John Chrysostom.

While hovering over the sanctuary, Mary removed a veil from her head and spread it out as if to protect the city. From that moment, the plague is said to have ceased. This feast, commemorating Our Lady's intercession, led as well to the crafting of a special icon depicting the famous moment.

The trust and faith Eastern Christians have in Mary's power is also quite visible on the Friday after Easter, during the feast of Our Lady of the Life-Giving Fountain. Liturgical prayers still in use tell of a vision of the Blessed Virgin witnessed by Emperor Leo I at a shrine located near the city of Constantinople in 474. Mary, it is said, pointed out a spring, to which the emperor led a blind man. After washing there, the man was cured.

Some time later, Emperor Justin built a church at the same spot. And many centuries later, during the First World War, thousands of the region's pilgrims went to the Life-Giving Fountain to ask for peace. Often referred to as the "Lourdes of the East," the waters still draw the sick and the lame, who frequently come here to bathe and to pray for healing.

Historically, March 11 commemorates the founding of the city of Constantinople by Emperor Constantine in 330. And soon after its foundation, Constantinople's commemorative celebrations began to include Mary, known as the Great Protectress of the city. Not only is the city dedicated to Our Lady, but many churches and beautiful monuments here were also built in her honor with striking names, such as The Immaculate One, Full of Grace, The Benefactress, Good Hope, and Liberator of the Sorrowful.

It is believed that Constantinople enjoyed Mary's special protection against invading Persians in the year 625 because of its people's devotion to Mary's robe, which had hung in the church of Blakhernae since 473. This May 31 remembrance of Mary's special influence also coincides with the Roman rite's observance of Mary's Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth.

In the Eastern tradition, Thanksgiving permeates the liturgical song of that day as shown in the following passage:

"Virgin Mother, Refuge of humankind, you have bestowed the robe and cincture of your holy body as a sheltering mantle upon the city. Through your virginal motherhood they have remained intact, for through you nature and time are renewed. We implore you, therefore, to give safety to your city and to show great mercy to souls."

A belief in the Assumption of Mary has likewise been deeply rooted in the hearts of Eastern Christians. Every August 15, in fact, they celebrate the feast of the Dormition of the Holy Virgin. Though the word dormition literally refers to "the falling asleep of the Virgin," it is clear from the prayers used that petitioners are recalling the Assumption of Mary into heaven because "the tomb and death were not able to hold in sleep the Mother of God."

Oriental monasteries' special Akaftisi, or nightly vigils and songs, precede the ceremonies of the Dormition, which itself is the culmination of an entire month dedicated to the Virgin. And, in almost every village and town, pilgrims flock to Our Lady's churches and shrines at this time seeking her help and protection.

Fittingly, the liturgical year of the Eastern Churches ends as it begins, with a feast in honor of the Virgin Mother. On August 31, the feast of the Cincture of Our Lady commemorates the enshrinement of Mary's cincture in the church of Khalkoprateia in 940. This relic, it is said, was brought from Jerusalem in ancient times as one of the rare remains of Mary's garments.

As seen time and time again in Eastern culture, history, and liturgies, these Eastern Churches have always had a deep and personal love for the Virgin Mary. But, just as God's love is boundless, so too, deep, abiding respect and veneration of Mary is common to many Catholics throughout the world. While Roman Catholics and their Eastern neighbors have not always agreed on all issues, Mary has continued to be a source of unity and hope through the ages.

(article by Anthony Teolis, C.PP.S. from CATHOLIC DIGEST, P.O. Box 51547, Boulder CO 80321-1547 -- May 1995 issue)


Roman Catholics can learn from their Eastern cousins

For Roman Catholics, to step into an Eastern Church is to enter the past. The medieval-looking icons adorning the walls, the celebrants' rich robes, the ornate gold work, and the wafting incense -- all recall a time long ago, a time before Vatican II swept the Western Church clean of such trappings. Yet for Eastern-rite worshipers, neither theirs nor ours is a dead and dusty past. Those following the Byzantine rite, in fact, enjoy a liturgical tradition established by the early Church in Constantinople, and it is this tradition that is followed by the majority of Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholics even today.

In Canada and the United States, for instance, Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Romanians, and Melkites all follow the Byzantine rite.

The Eastern Churches in union with Rome have the same basic beliefs as Roman Catholics. They show it, however, in a fashion shaped by a different culture, language, and history.

According to the Byzantine tradition, God is at the center of all things while human beings are on the periphery. (Roman Catholics, on the other hand, focus more on their personal connection with God.) Added to this emphasis is a strong link with the founders of the Church. Unlike Roman Catholics, the Eastern faithful have retained a more visible evidence of their religious progress through the ages, reminding them that they are only the latest chapter in the story of creation.

Eastern Churches also have retained a more mystical bent than Rome. A stronger tradition of monasticism and contemplative life, for example, has provided the East with a vigorous spirituality. These factors add up to a distinctive expression of faith in God. And this distinctiveness is apparent as soon as one approaches a Byzantine church.

According to a book authored by the Canadian Catholic bishops called The Byzantine Ukrainian Rite, the architecture of the church building tries to recreate, albeit in imperfect human fashion, a bit of heaven on earth. Its opulent, other-worldly style is an attempt to take parishioners away from their earthly cares and give them a sensual experience of being with God.

Usually, Byzantine churches are shaped like a Greek cross, topped with about 5 domes -- but sometimes as many as 13. The largest dome, most often over the middle of the nave of the church, represents Jesus Christ hovering over his people. The four smaller domes represent the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), reflecting the Church's role in bringing the Gospel to the world. Some churches have 12 smaller domes, each symbolizing one of the Apostles.

Inside, the Byzantine churches, like the Roman Catholic ones, are divided into three areas. But there are obvious differences. For Eastern-rite Catholics, the vestibule represents a connection to the outer world. In the early churches, catechumens (those preparing to become Christians) were instructed here.

Next, over the nave, hovers a large, intricate chandelier symbolizing the light of Christ. And while many modern Byzantine churches have pews and kneeling pads in the nave, their tradition is to stand during prayer. (Kneeling was reserved for penitential occasions, mainly during Lent.)

Finally, the sanctuary will bring back memories for those Roman Catholics old enough to recall the Church prior to Vatican II. Here, the priest faces the altar, his back to the congregation.

But the most notable difference between a Roman Catholic sanctuary and an Eastern one is the iconostasis. The royal doors, symbolizing the gates of heaven, serve as a barrier between the nave and the altar and tabernacle. While the iconostasis appears to be a wall between God and the people, it is really both a window and a mirror, according to Father Mark Melone, a Melkite Greek priest. "Those depicted on the iconostasis," says Fr. Melone, "have lived this present life and now reflect to us the life beyond. They are the 'living stones' who, like us, are built into the Church."

The icons arranged upon the iconostasis appear in a hierarchical order, with Christ in the center leading up to God. As a result, they tell much about the relationship of the Trinity to the saints and Church founders. Of all the icons, those of the Mother of God, the Theotokos (God-bearer), are especially revered in the Eastern Churches. Though human, Mary's physical closeness to God lifts her above normal existence. Often, the Theotokos is depicted as the Mother of God of Tenderness, holding the Christ Child cheek-to-cheek.

Though the sacraments are inherently the same in both the West and the East, notable differences in timing and expression are evident. For instance, the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation) are -- in the Eastern-rite Churches -- performed simultaneously.

Then, too, Eastern Churches traditionally have ordained married men, though bishops are chosen from among the celibate priests. And while married men are still ordained in many countries and among many of the Churches, the Ukrainian Catholic Churches in Canada and the U.S. have observed a ban on ordinations of married priests that was decreed by Rome in the 1920s.

The Mass itself, or Divine Liturgy in Eastern parlance, brings together Byzantine beauty, solemnity, and joy in the celebration of the Eucharist. To be sure, Roman Catholics will recognize its resemblance to their own liturgy, though it is longer, more opulent, and tradition-laden. The priest, assisted by a deacon, begins with the preparation of the gifts, which includes an incensing of the altar. This takes place prior to the public part of the Mass, which features what is known as the Little Entrance, a procession around the altar with the Gospel book to start the Liturgy of the Word.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist has its own procession as well, called the Great Entrance, in which the gifts are brought to the altar. Holy Communion is received under both species, with small cubes of consecrated Bread commingled with the consecrated Wine and placed into the mouth of each communicant with a small spoon.

While still other differences between the East and the West exist, there simply are too many to mention. Indeed, some of these differences are slowly disappearing in North America. The Julian calendar, for example, gradually is being replaced in most Eastern-rite Churches by the Gregorian calendar. Nevertheless, the adherents of the Byzantine rite zealously protect their traditions. For Eastern-rite Catholics, such practices are powerfully symbolic, embodying the very relationship such Churches enjoy with God.

(CATHOLIC DIGEST, August 1996, condensed from The Catholic Register, 1155 Yonge St, Suite 401, Toronto, Ont M4T 1W2 Canada, Apr 21/29 1996)

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