Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Friday, 30 October 2015

St Maximus the Confessor - The Divine Liturgy

Saint Maximus the Confessor writes his commentary on the Liturgy in order to stress the importance of it for monastic life, to correct a trend which had little use for Eucharistic piety. His commentary remains an important source for reflection on the Byzantine Divine Liturgy.

Saint Maximus approaches the liturgy on two levels. The ‘γενικώς’ (general) and the ‘ιδικώς’ (particular). The general level refers to the mystery of salvation to the whole cosmos. This method is typological, and refers the Liturgy to each individual analogically. An example of this, is the Holy Church of God, where the Liturgy takes place, being ‘a figure and image of the world, which is composed of visible and invisible things. ‘It’s sanctuary is the world above, allotted to the powers above’ reminding us of of the sky. Saint Maximus makes the Church building symbolic of the individual, on this ‘Journey to the Kingdom’ as Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou writes, where Heaven and Earth meet. Similarly, St Maximus’ interpretation of the first procession, with the Gospel, the Bishop and his clergy, is that the Hierarch’s entrance into the Sanctuary represents the first coming into the world of Christ, the Son of God. Again, we see his two-fold understanding of the central act of worship. The reading of the Gospel, the descent of the bishop from the throne, and the expulsion of the catechumens symbolise the second coming of the Lord. Therefore, on the ‘particular’ level, the Liturgy shuts off the visible world, ‘getting rid of thoughts which will incline towards the earth, turning the mind to a vision of spiritual things.’ The Great Entrance of the Holy (but un-consecrated) Gifts, emphasises that these are indeed a foretaste of the Kingdom. Hence the clergy sing ‘May the Lord God remember all of you in His Kingdom.’

For Saint Maximus the Confessor, the ‘general’ history of salvation becomes, through the Liturgy, a ‘particular,’ or mystical history. ‘Each soul expresses the saving plan of God. Thus the Eucharist represents the mystical ascension of the soul, to contemplation of God, and so to union with Him.’ Maximus (unlike Dionysius) pays particular attention to the economy of salvation, as he sees the Divine Liturgy as representing all salvation history, from the incarnation to the world yet to come. It is certainly a timeless, unifying, mystical communion and connection, between Heaven and Earth, between the living and the dead. If the Church is communion in Christ, then the Liturgy is the central act of the Church. 

‘Man is what he eats’ Fuerbach famously writes. That cannot be more true for Orthodox Christians, celebrating, and partaking in, the Liturgy. Through the Divine Liturgy we become one with Christ, the source of love and life. We can pray to the Lord, read, write and use other forms of worship to connect with the Divine, however the Liturgy is unique in that God is fully , physically present, as we, the Church, partake in Him, in communion with our fellow Christians. As Alexander Schmemann writes, the Eucharist is divine love made food, made life for man.’ O taste and see how gracious the Lord is!’ (Psalm 34:8) Therefore the Λειτουργία unites the Church in love - in communion. 

The Divine Liturgy, described by Saint Maximus, is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the whole Church, into the dimension of the Kingdom. It is a separation from the world. We often think that Christianity should be more appealing and contemporary, and should reflect the cultural and musical tastes of our time, however Maximus would highlight that in accepting this view, we forget that Christ and His Kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18:36). The early Christians realised that in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20) they must ascend to Heaven with Christ; with this ascension being ‘the very condition of their mission in the world, of their ministry to the world.’ The Divine Liturgy is therefore an ascension, and once Christians have participated in it, their aim is to share and reflect this Heavenly and eternal worship, glorifying the Triune God, through joyful, loving and self-sacrificial acts.

Why would Saint Maximus be writing this to monastics in particular? The Mystagogia reveals the eschatological meaning of human existence. As Fr Ciprian Streza writes, ‘The Mystagogia keeps a perfect balance between liturgical life, dogmatic expression and ascetical experience of the Church.’ Maximus succeeds in giving monastic ascesis a liturgical connotation, by recommending the liturgical worship of the Church to the monks as a basis for mystical ascension. Thus, St. Maximus portrays the Eucharistic celebration as the ongoing accomplishment of eschatology, that can be experienced in all its depth only by those who have prepared themselves through ascesis and transformed themselves into the image of Christ through grace. Only by personal, sacramental and ascetic realisation,  and participation in the Liturgy can man open himself through love, the sum of all virtues, towards God and towards his neighbour. The Liturgy, for Maximus, is the fulfilment of the purpose of man’s existence; ‘Offering you your own from your own - in all things and for all things.’ (Prayer of Consecration)

 - St Germanus of Constantinople, On the Divine Liturgy - St Maximus the Confessor (New York:SVS, 1984) 39.
 - R.Bornert, “L’anaphore dans la spiritualite liturgique de Byzance: le temoignage des commentaires mystagogiques du vile au xve siècle” Eucharisties d’Orient et d’Occident (Paris,1970) 245.
 - Alexander Schmemann, The World as Sacrament (London: DLT, 1965) 17.
- Alexander Schmemann, The World as Sacrament (London: DLT, 1965) 32.

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