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Heaven on Earth: Liturgical Wisdom from Eastern Christianity

The eastern liturgies stand as ancient witnesses to the Church’s rich heritage, instructing us in their various and rich ways of the paths to God.

Bishop Benedict (Venedykt) of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saint Nicholas (Chicago) at a Hierarchal Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom celebrated on July 28, 2019, at Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield, Oregon. (Photo: Felicity Rose Olson)

It is easy to forget that the Catholic Church is composed of 24 self-governing Churches with distinct liturgical rites. We lose sight of this because the Latin Church, which worships according to the Roman Rite, comprises the overwhelming majority of Catholics throughout the world.

The war in Ukraine has put the spotlight on one of these 24 churches: the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with 5.5 million adherents, led by one of the most outspoken voices against the Russian invasion, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Along with 13 of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches, the Ukrainians worship according to the Byzantine Rite, which celebrates the Divine Liturgy of the lost, great city of Constantinople.

There is a famous account from the Russian Primary Chronicle describing how the Ukrainians first came to embrace the faith and worship of the Byzantine Empire. According to legend, Vladimir the Great sent out emissaries to Latin Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as to Constantinople, to investigate their faith. When the emissaries returned from the latter, they recounted their experience in the great church of Hagia Sophia:

We went to Greece and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor and beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore, we cannot dwell longer here.

After worshipping with the Byzantines, they could do nothing else but return to this transcendent and awesome experience.

As a 15-year-old altar boy, I had a similar experience. I was invited to serve at the vigil of the Theophany (the Epiphany) at a local Ruthenian Catholic parish, which also celebrates the Byzantine Rite. Standing beside the altar, surrounded by candles, clouds of ascending incense, the bells of the censer sounding, unceasing chants echoing, I knew not whether I was in heaven or on earth.

I could not return home either, in that I could no longer think of liturgy in the same way. I saw it now for what it is: a mystical encounter with the living God, enacted before us through beautiful and transcendent symbols of sacramental ritual. Liturgy is not about us. Its etymology is not “the work of the people” as many of us have been told. From its ancient meaning, it signifies “the work on behalf of the people,” because it is the work enacted by Christ, acting through the ministry of the priest and drawing worshippers into the wedding feast of the lamb in heaven.

The eastern liturgies stand as ancient witnesses to the Church’s rich heritage, which, in addition to the Byzantine Rite, include the Syriac (in both its distinct eastern and western expressions), Armenian and Alexandrian families, stretching primarily across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India and East Africa. They each instruct us in their various and rich ways of the paths to God.

Their unique witness, and the patterns they share, have been identified by Stephanos Alexopoulos and Maxwell Johnson in their illuminating work that opens many otherwise inaccessible details to us: Introduction to Eastern Christian Liturgies (Liturgical Press Academic, 2022). Their book provides a solid introduction to the major family of eastern rites and their historical development, along with an overview of their rituals for each of the seven sacraments.

Alexopoulos and Johnson explain how “‘liturgy is the soul of the Christian East.’ Liturgy is not just texts, rites, and rituals; it is encountering of the mystery of God, the now-and-not-yet of the Christian experience; it is the visible expression of the faith of a community; the incarnation of the Christian message in a particular time, place, culture, and people. The history of liturgy is a story of people at prayer, and the different rites express particular cultural incarnations of people at prayer. For liturgy is at their center as it expresses their faith, their life, their spirituality, their piety, their heritage, and their experience of God” (xxiv).

Many of these ancient peoples are losing their homes in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, and the Ukrainians expect increased persecution of Byzantine Catholics.

The Eastern Churches are at the crossroads, and it is their opportunity, through engaging modernity and all that it entails, to contribute to the modern world a worldview and a viewpoint that is rooted in history and tradition but is also fresh, vibrant, and prophetic; one of their major contributions is their liturgical traditions. (xviii)

As our Eastern brothers turn to us for material support (and I recommend helping them through, we need their witness. Just as liturgy is bound up with culture, so our own liturgy has become an expression of a culture that has lost sight of the primacy and mystery of God. Eastern Christians can help us to rediscover our own heritage so that we, too, can see the liturgy for what it is: an experience of heaven on earth.

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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 52 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90 and as an instructor for the lay division of St. John Vianney Seminary. He is author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press), as well as editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.


  1. Roman Catholics need not just Eastern liturgical traditions but also Eastern theological traditions and to do true comparative theology, instead of assuming they have the definitive answer in x, y, z.

    • Sacred Tradition is damaged, weakened by Schisms. The return of schismatic bodies to Full Communion will certainly entail – the case of the East – of streams of Tradition that ran dry. However, please do not equate the tributories, however rich in minerals, with the Tiber: even though pollutants are today seemingly hiding her depths and riches.

  2. Would that we Roman Catholics had greater access to Eastern Rite liturgies. It seems to me that the handful of ones I’ve attended invoke the action of the Holy Spirit in the course of the Divine Liturgy in ways that are more apparent. In comparison, in far too many interpretations of the Novus Ordo, the only one invoked is the human spirit without which man cannot be saved.

    • Yup. I was blessed to stumble on a Byzantine Rite church in Florida quite a few years ago. We were visiting Disney & needed somewhere to attend Mass. I think the Byzantine parish was the closest Catholic church to our motel.
      It was absolutely beautiful & what struck me most was the friendliness of the congregation. People actually came up & took the time to talk to you after Mass. Completely different from most American Catholic churches where after Mass everyone races outside to be the first one out of the parking lot. And sometimes that race to the parking lot starts before the Mass is even ended. So sad.

  3. Wisdom and truth is God’s dwelling place.Any time Christ is glorified it is a blessing. Holy Scripture is our guideline and as we bow our knee we find blessings where we might not expect them.

    May we seek unity with the diversity of the church. The Bible is God’s love letter to humanity. Who better to guide us than our creator and saviour?

  4. Good coincidence today – for Holy Father having raised the day as a Feast Day instead of being a Memorial , in honor of St.Mary Magdalene; the Orthodox already having same –

    Luisa of the Divine Will had taken the name of the above Saint , as a Third Order Dominican – the above move of the Holy Father , as a likely indication of The Church being in step with the guidance of the Holy Spirit .

    Good words above – Holy Father on the role of women – ‘ women are what men lack on their own , to be the image and likeness of God .’

    Magdalene, likely in utter neediness for more holiness and for The Spirit, aware of her unworthiness , holding onto The Lord , who tells her she has to wait , for Him to ascend to The Father – before sending forth The Spirit ..

    Our own times too , both East and West well aware of the need for The Spirit , for persons to live in the freedom and dignity of knowing and loving His Holy Will …

    Shocking article such as the above , as to the degradations amidst us , in a culture that deny the roots of the evils including in the promotion of contraception with its user/prostituing aspect against women..

    Holy Father , well aware of these roots and fruits , dealing with it all in the manner God Wills and reveals to him ..
    May his efforts and travels as pleadings for The Spirit bear much good fruit all around , each of us too can join in the pleading ..

    Come , O Holy Spirit , come by means of the power of the Flame of Love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary !

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