HAVE BEEN THINKING a great deal lately about the differences between the Byzantine Divine Liturgy and the Mass of the Roman Rite. For the purposes of this article, I am assuming a Roman liturgy celebrated beautifully and reverently, “with all the stops pulled.” (The barren, perfunctory, verbose, and eclectic manner in which the Roman Mass is usually said nowadays does not allow for a fair comparison of the rites as they exist in their plenitude.)
Many have noted that the traditional Western Mass seems more intent on reminding the worshiper of the death of Christ on the Cross and the believer’s own sinfulness and unworthiness, while the Eastern Divine Liturgy brings to the forefront the eschatological victory of Christ in whose triumph the Christian shares whenever he partakes of the Eucharist, the food of immortality.
It is easy, however, to exaggerate the difference between the “downward” symbolism of the Mass (Christ as suffering redeemer, Christians as miserable sinners) and the “upward” symbolism of the Divine Liturgy (Christ as eternal victor, Christians as already glorified in Him). After all, both liturgies frequently recall the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Our Lord. Even if the traditional Latin Mass emphasizes the advent of Christ as Redeemer and the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary, and in this way places the accent on man’s sinfulness and God’s infinite mercy, leading to purification and the forgiveness of sins, it could hardly be imagined that the Mass lacks an eschatological dimension. Similarly, if the Eastern liturgy tends to place worship in the context of the Eschaton, the kingdom of the Holy Spirit, in which the life of Christ figures as the exemplar of what all Christians are called to become anew—the image of the Logos—it is no less evident that the Eastern liturgy continually refers to the ongoing drama of redemption.
Perhaps the Western soul is more sharply conscious of the incompleteness of our present state, our need to work out salvation “in fear and trembling.” The traditional Mass expresses the feeling of homesickness, the longing sinners have for heaven, and raises up before our eyes the Cross of Christ as our bridge, our path, to heaven. In the liturgy’s solemnity, majesty, beauty, and silence, in its confessions of sin and hieratic distances, we taste the glory of heaven while being reminded of the sins and limitations that keep us away from the fullness of the kingdom. Thus there is both great joy and great sorrow. Are we not victors in Christ? Has He not risen from the dead and ascended to make intercession for us at the right hand of the Father? Is not the kingdom of God here and now, among those who are incorporated into Christ? Yes—and yet, this is not an unambiguous, final yes on earth, but a yes mixed with all the no’s of humanity, of the sin and death which reign in the kingdom of the prince of this world, the no of unconversion, the no of relapsing, the no of impenitence. Our joy is complete in its Source, but we are not completely His. Our Lord is risen; we are striving to rise. Our Lord is ascended into heaven, we are still torn between heaven and earth. Our Lord is in glory, but we are blinded by His glory, our eyes are not fully purged, our hearts not fully aflame with the love of God.
It is for this reason that the Catholic rejoices—and weeps; that the priest glorifies the God who is truly present in our midst—and beats his breast in silence, head bowed; that the Church, sojouring in this vale of tears, waves the flag of victory even as she sounds the trumpets of battle.
In the traditional Roman liturgy, the word “glory,” and the reality it signifies, is everywhere. One grows accustomed to hearing it, like a sweet song from afar: gloria . . . gloria . . . gloria. The whole purpose of the Christian life, and the goal towards which it moves, are expressed, evoked, fulfilled in this most serene of liturgies. The sparseness of the rite, too, in comparison to the East, has its own loveliness: “to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” It is a liturgy at once of glory and of mourning, of exile, of longing.
One cannot help noting, nevertheless, that over the centuries certain liturgical riches have fallen out of use in the West that are reminiscent of the splendor of the Byzantine rite. A solemn High Mass in the usus antiquior, adorned with sacred music, can bring joy, solace, and wonder even to an Eastern Catholic, but alas, how rare is such a Mass today? Even in a major city, there might be only one on a Sunday, or two at best.
Here, in a preface from the Sarum Rite, is a fantastic example of the kind of riches the Western liturgy has historically contained.
Preface for the Mass of Saint Cuthbert
It is truly meet and just, right and availing to our salvation, that we should always and in all places give thanks to Thee, O Holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God, upon this day of the departure to Christ of the most holy priest Cuthbert,
Who first of all became an example to saints in his daily life, a life of most temperate and most chaste conduct, and afterwards followed the contemplative life in the wilderness for many years, nourished only by the love of the God of deathless life, and then was chosen to the rank of the episcopate, being invited not by his own will but by God’s providence, and the counsel of the churches.
For he had ever fought manfully and mightily against flesh and blood, and the rulers of this ærial realm, seizing victory with the helmet of hope for salvation, and the breastplate of righteousness, and with the shield of faith, and the sword of the Word of God, and being protected on the right hand and on the left, the soldier of God overcame the battle-formations of the enemies, and the Lord wrought many miracles by him; and he foretold his death many days before. For he commended the governance of the people to the King and the Bishop, and he set out for the holy desert, and he gave up his spirit to God the Father Almighty, accompanied by a heavenly, holy multitude from the Gospel.
Thee, therefore, O Lord, we entreat, that by the intercession of holy Bishop Cuthbert, we may be counted worthy to reach the harbour of joy, and the heavenly realms of Him before Whom there stand innumerable choirs of Angels and Archangels, and they say: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth …