In the twilight darkened sanctuary we hastily found seats, small rugs in hand, armed with missals and a good deal of curiosity and nervous expectation. Four of my children and I had accepted an invitation from a dear family friend to attend a Byzantine Rite Mass at St. John Chrysostom on Cleveland Avenue. It was the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and Holy Chrismation, a sacred rite reserved for the Wednesday of Holy Week, the week before Easter. As western Catholics, we had no real experience or preconceptions regarding the eastern traditions of the Holy Catholic Church, and though open to the experience, were a bit trepiditious as to what should expect. The eastern and western rites are markedly different, as we were about to discover.
The sanctuary, itself, was a marvel to behold. The interior was much lighter than expected, with nearly every surface embellished with icons, startlingly simplistic paintings, beautifully austere, large-eyed and staring from every corner, dome and panel. The iconostasis, a screen that separates the worshippers from the priests, deacons and servers, stood imposingly, adorned with iconographic images, a seeming gate between heaven and earth. The heady aroma of incense filled the air and soon did voices, alternating voices of men and women, chanting verses of the Psalms, interspersed with many “Lord have mercies” and “Alleluias.” We knelt upon the small rugs placed on the stone floor, watching as the faithful knelt, and then bowed in prostration, foreheads upon the floor in a gesture of humility and repentance. The priests and servers, bowing and genuflecting, draped in rich brocade and moving amidst the swirls of wafting incense, offered prayers for the faithful, all coordinating in a graceful dance whose ebb and flow transcended time and understanding. Young men in long robes carried ornate fans, fans which wafted the incense throughout the sanctuary. Every single word was sung, voices rising and falling in unison, a beautiful and ethereal harmony that touched the soul.
Each parishioner moved forward, following the liturgy, to receive a personal anointing from the priest. Speaking the recipient’s name aloud, the priest proceeded to anoint with the richly scented oil, the feet, hands, ears, eyes and mouth of each person. Returning to the pews, many individuals were in various postures of adoration and worship…some were kneeling, some bowing, some standing, others seated and a few prostrated upon the stone floor. Holy Communion was distributed with a long handled golden spoon which carried the wine-soaked Host, the precious Body and Blood to the waiting recipient. Every movement was imbued with solemnity and deliberation, with reverence and holiness.
Throughout the service, I found myself nearly lost in all the sensory experiences. The entire service was a feast for the eyes, nose, ears, heart and soul. It was rather like a work of art, with each part of the Mass woven into a seamless, flawless “whole” of such beauty, yet still possessing such simplicity and relevance. The children, too, were over-awed by this trip through time, a time and rite established in ancient Greece and created to immerse the soul into the mystery and beauty of the Eternal. It still retains all the beauty, tradition and timeless grace that connects the worshipper to the historical roots of early eastern Catholic Christianity.