Frequently Asked Questions
LITURGICAL TRADITIONS OF THE CHRISTIAN EAST
Since liturgical gestures and postures vary so greatly within modern expressions of Christianity, it is important that one be aware of some of the more significant differences one often encounters when attending an Eastern Christian Liturgy for the first time.
Why do you make the Sign of the Cross that Way?
The making of the sign of the cross differs throughout Christian history and tradition. In the Byzantine tradition, the sign of the cross is made by the joining of the right hand’s thumb, index, and middle finger as a representation of the Holy Trinity, while the ring and little finger are closed upon the palm, representing the two natures of Christ on the Earth. The Christian, while making a bow of respect, touches the joined thumb, index, and middle finger to the forehead, abdomen, right shoulder, and left.
This was the common practice of both the Byzantine East and the Latin West up until the middle ages as documented by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) in his declaration intended to correct a number of variations he saw beginning to develop between the Church in Rome and certain places in Western Europe. Among these differences was the variation the pope saw in the making of the sign of the cross, as he said:
The sign of the cross is made with three fingers, because it is done together with the invocation of the Trinity....It is done from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from heaven to the earth, and from the Jews He passed to the Gentiles (De sacro altaris mysterio 2, 45).
Having described the manner in which the sign of the cross was made in Rome, Pope Innocent III then expressed his knowledge that there were others who were doing it differently and for different reasons, saying:
Others, however, make the sign of the cross from the left to the right....[Some priests] do it this way so that they and the people will be signing themselves in the same manner. For example, imagine the priest facing the people for the blessing — when we make the sign of the cross over the people, it is from left to right...(Ibid.)
At the time of his declaration, the pope appears to be aware only of the variation reversing the order of shoulders, whereas the joining of the thumb and fingers seems to have fallen away some time later.
Why do the People Stand During the Whole Divine Liturgy?
Standing is the normal posture of prayer in the Eastern Christian liturgical tradition representing the resurrection of Christ. Living during the period c. AD 160-220, Tertullian refers to this tradition as the norm in the Latin West as well:
We consider it unlawful to fast or to pray kneeling on Sundays and from the day of Pascha to that of Pentecost(De Cor. Mil. s. 3, 4).
This liturgical tradition was later declared at the council of Nicea in AD 325 to be the universal practice for the Church:
Since there are certain persons who are kneeling on Sunday and the period from Pascha until Pentecost, it has seemed good to the holy Council to declare, so that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere, that prayer to the Lord should be made during these times standing (Canon 20).
For this reason, Orthodox Christians stand during liturgical services occurring from Pascha until Pentecost, and every Sunday throughout the year. Standing however, is not expected of anyone who is physically compromised such as the elderly, pregnant, infirmed, or just tired.
Do you ever Kneel in an Eastern Church?
Kneeling is the normal posture of penitence in the Eastern Christian tradition. Eastern Christians often kneel during liturgical services held on days other than Sunday and the period from Pascha until Pentecost. Kneeling however, is not expected of anyone who is physically compromised in any way as noted above concerning standing.
Why do the Babies receive Communion?
In the Eastern Christian tradition, infants are Baptized, Chrismated (Confirmed), and given their first reception of the Holy Mysteries (Eucharist), all on the fortieth day after birth. From that day forward, the parents are encouraged to present the child for the reception of the Holy Mysteries whenever the family attends the Divine Liturgy.
The practice of Infant Communion, including the order of the sacraments, Baptism, Chrismation, and First Holy Communion, was the common practice of the Church universally with minor exceptions up until the publication of the Catechism of the Council of Trent in 1566 which stated that it was not obligatory to confirm a child before the age of reason or seven years old. The obvious exception to this allowance was in the case of a child in danger of death (cf. 1917 Roman Code of Canon Law 788).
After the French Revolution, bishops in France began to hold off Confirmation and First Holy Communion until what they believed to be the ‘age of reason’ which was fourteen years old or more. The Vatican published a criticism of the practice in 1910 (Quam Singulari), arguing that it was wrong to prevent children from receiving Holy Communion beyond age seven. In response the bishops of France moved the reception of First Holy Communion back to age seven, but left Confirmation where they had originally thought best. This practice, of reversing the sacraments, so that First Holy Communion is given around age seven and Confirmation around age fourteen has since spread throughout the Western Church with the exception of some dioceses in Spain and Latin America.
What was that Language?
The dominant language that one will usually hear in a Melkite church in the United States is English, however one may hear Greek and Arabic as well. It really depends on the dominate language of the congregation.
In the early Church the liturgy, being the prayers of the people, was always in the language of the people praying. Thus, where the people spoke Aramaic, the liturgy was in Aramaic. Where the people spoke Greek, the liturgy was in Greek. Where the people spoke Latin, the liturgy was in Latin, etc.
Concerning the Antiochian Patriarchate in particular, the earliest liturgical language was Aramaic. Because of the history of the region, Aramaic was gradually replaced by Greek, which in turn was gradually replaced by Arabic. When the Melkite Church came to the Americas, it immediately began to translate its liturgical services into Spanish and English, but one usually still hears even in these congregations some of the older languages such as Greek or Arabic, especially on major feasts. Monterey, Salinas, Prunedale, Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Milpitas, Fremont, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Campbell, Los Gatos, Saratoga, Santa Cruz, Eastern Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Byzantine Church, Greek Catholic Church, Melkite Church, St. Elias San Jose St. Elias