A mosaic is a pattern or image made of small pieces of colored stone, glass or ceramic, held in place by plaster/mortar, and covering a surface.  Mosaics are often used as floor and wall decoration, and were particularly popular in the Ancient Roman world.
Mosaic today includes not just murals and pavements, but also artwork, hobby crafts, and industrial and construction forms.
Mosaics have a long history, starting in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC. Pebble mosaics were made in Tiryns in Mycenean Greece mosaics with patterns and pictures became widespread in classical times, both in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Early Christian basilicas from the 4th century onwards were decorated with wall and ceiling mosaics. Mosaic art flourished in the Byzantine Empire from the 6th to the 15th centuries that tradition was adopted by the Norman Kingdom of Sicily in the 12th century, by the eastern-influenced Republic of Venice, and among the Rus in Ukraine. Mosaic fell out of fashion in the Renaissance, though artists like Raphael continued to practise the old technique. Roman and Byzantine influence led Jewish artists to decorate 5th and 6th century synagogues in the Middle East with floor mosaics.
Figurative mosaic, but mostly without human figures, was widely used on religious buildings and palaces in early Islamic art, including Islam's first great religious building, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Such mosaics went out of fashion in the Islamic world after the 8th century, except for geometrical patterns in techniques such as zellij, which remain popular in many areas.
Modern mosaics are made by artists and craftspeople around the world. Many materials other than traditional stone, ceramic tesserae, the enameled and stained glass may be employed, including shells, beads, charms, chains, gears, coins, and pieces of costume jewelry.
History of St. Michael’s
Early immigrants from the Carpathian mountain area of Eastern Europe who settled in the Pittston area came here with a love of God and church foremost in their lives. At first, they had to walk many miles to a church where their Rusyn language was spoken and their deeply rooted religious heritage prevailed.
Great faith and strenuous effort on the part of a group of men, yearning for a church of their own to serve the faithful in their Byzantine traditions, resulted in the formation of such a church in Pittston.
Assisted by the Rev. Myron Volkay of Taylor, a meeting was set for the old Bohemian Hall on North Main Street, Pittston, in September 1911. And the idea of St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church of Pittston, became a reality.
Father Volkay served as the first pastor and the Most Rev. Michael Hoban, D.D., bishop of Scranton, was the first trustee. Father Volkay celebrated the first Divine Liturgy for the faithful of the new parish in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, William Street, Pittston.
The lay trustees then were Joseph Lukesh, Andrew Timcho, Michael Czar, Andrew Fedorchak, John Hayko, John Fetchen, Nicholas Vejkay, Vasil Golla, John Hudick and Michael Fenner. A year later in 1912, a decision was made to purchase a parcel of land from the Stroh Estates at 205 N. Main Street at a cost of $5,000. The property became the site of the present church and rectory. Shortly after the land purchase, work began on construction of the church basement, which was completed in 1913 and dedicated in 1915 by the Most Rev. Stephen Soter Ortynsky, D.D., O.S. B.M.
The Divine Liturgy was celebrated there until 1918, when work on the present upper church structure was started. It was completed in 1919 at a total cost of $45, 000.
The first resident pastor of St. Michael’s was the Rev. Victor Suba, who celebrated the first liturgy in the new church on [September] November 2, 1919. The Right Rev. Monsignor Gabriel Martyak, apostolic administrator, dedicated the church in 1920.
Standing majestically above the banks of the Susquehanna River, St. Michael’s serves as a monument to God and the faith, love and sacrifice of the parish’s founders and its parishioners. It serves as a metropolitan parish, embracing parishioners from Pittston and surrounding communities of Dupont, Duryea, Pittston Township, Jenkins Township, the west side communities in Greater Pittston such as West Pittston, Exeter, Wyoming and as far away as Gouldsboro.
The church has undergone several renovation projects during the years. In 1963, in preparation for the 50 th anniversary of St. Michael’s, a new lighting system was installed and the church interior was repainted. Rev. Michael Warady oversaw the renovation project as pastor at this time. The blessing and rededication took place August 1, 1965, with the Most Rev. Stephen J. Kosisko, D.D., eparch of Passaic, N.J. officiating.
From 1967 to 1979 under the pastorate of the Rev. Theodore Rudy, the church basement was remodeled and the church interior was repainted. Beautiful scroll work and borders were painted to highlight the features of the interior and to lay the foundation of future interior design plans. Extensive work was done at the parish cemetery situated on Union Street, Pittston, and a large parcel of land adjacent to the church was purchased for a parking lot. This ensured that St. Michael’s had an ample setback from adjacent properties and provided substantially expanded parking.
The pastors serving St. Michaels from 1979 to 1987 included Rev. George Bujnak, Rev. Edward Higgins, and Rev. Christopher Petruska. Various repairs and other improvement projects were completed during this time, including roof repairs, and a renovation of the front vestibule and the building of an addition to the front of the church to enclose the exterior center stairs. Parish activities continued including implementation of Eastern Christian Formation materials to instruct the children of the parish.
Father Michael Mondik was appointed pastor in January 1987, and it was during his tenure that a major renovation project took place. This included installation of air conditioning in the church and repair and repainting of the church domes.
In preparation for the 75 th anniversary of the parish in 1990, the interior of the church was completely renovated with the installation of a new tabernacle, altar and iconostasis (icon screen). All statues were removed as well as the remaining portion of an altar rail. This was an entirely new direction for St. Michael’s. The new interior was designed to more accurately reflect a traditional Byzantine church. And items not typically a part of Byzantine churches were removed or moved to allow for an authentic restoration.
Rev. Theodore Koufos of Toronto, Canada, oversaw the changes that included the addition of Byzantine icons that were created by Rev. Koufos and his associates. The most notable of the icons is the “ Icon of the Sign ” that depicts the Mother of God or Theotokos with upraised arms and the image of Jesus Christ in a circle of radiant light within her. This icon is placed traditionally in the sanctuary over the altar, as it is in St. Michael’s. Its immense size and beauty is both breathtaking and inspiring. The icon is essentially a rendering of scriptural fulfillment, uniting the prophecies of Isaiah in the Old Testament to the Incarnation of Christ in the New Testament. Additional icons honoring saints, the early church Fathers and Patriarchs, and the four evangelists of the Gospels grace the walls and ceiling of the church interior. And while the icons are beautiful, their presence is an integral part of the spiritual practices of the Byzantine church.
Rev. Robert Kemeter and Rev. Michael Krulak were the next pastors serving St. Michael’s.
During Rev. Krulak’s pastorate, the exterior church domes were repaired and repainted to their present day appearance of small gold stars on a bright blue background. The domes are a very visible landmark in the landscapes of Pittston and West Pittston. Additional renovations were made to further enhance the icons already present. This included painting the walls of the apse behind the altar and tabernacle a deep cobalt blue and the apse ceiling was painted bright turquoise. The effect dramatically accentuated the icons in the sanctuary, making them appear even more beautiful and radiant.
Carpeting was removed from the sanctuary and the ambon area and was replaced with beautiful mosaic tile. These additional renovations made St. Michael’s, without a doubt, into one of the most beautiful and unique Byzantine church interiors in the area.
“The parishioners of St. Michael’s continue to work diligently to preserve their faith and to keep their parish alive and viable now, and hopefully, in the future,” Father Krulak had said during his time in the parish. And the three pastors to follow would certainly agree.
Stepping in to serve next was Rev. G. Scott Boghossian whose time with the parishioners, although brief, was memorable and inspiring for teaching parishioners the joys of their faith through scripture, prayers, and inspired homilies. Following in the line of pastors loving this place of service in their ministry, Rev. Joseph Bertha brought to St. Michael’s his expertise on iconography. It was during Rev. Bertha’s pastoral stay that St. Michael’s received attention when the church was included as a stop in 2013 on the annual Church tour held in the Pittston community. The opportunity to educate others unfamiliar with Byzantine churches, spirituality, and traditions showcased the special treasures of St. Michael’s.
On Sunday December 23, 2012, the Bishop of our mother Eparchy of Mukachevo (Uzhorod, Ukraine), His Grace, Bishop Milan Šašik celebrated Grand Compline (Povecherije) with the faithful and clergy. This was actually Bishop Šašik’s second visit to St. Michaels, the first having been on June 24, 2011. The parishioners felt blessed to have been graced with his presence.
Presently, with the pastoral direction of the Very Rev. Gary Mensinger, St. Michael’s continues to move towards greater community awareness, education, and parishioner involvement. 2015 marked 100 years since St. Michael’s was initially established as a church. The parishioners have diligently contributed their efforts on many projects and activities in celebration of this milestone.
Through its history, St. Michael’s members have gratefully counted the many blessings God has given them, including vocations of eight priests and five sisters. We pray that God will continue to bless St. Michael’s and to protect our church and our parishioners as we move forward to meet needs and challenges in the future.
Pastors of Saint Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church
Byzantine art is the term commonly used to describe the artistic products of the Eastern Roman Empire from about the 5th century until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. (The Roman Empire during this period is conventionally known as the Byzantine Empire.)
The term can also be used for the art of states which were contemporary with the Byzantine Empire and shared a common culture with it, without actually being part of it, such as Bulgaria, Serbia or Russia, and also Venice, which had close ties to the Byzantine Empire despite being in other respects part of western European culture. It can also be used for the art of peoples of the former Byzantine Empire under the rule of the Ottoman Empire after 1453. In some respects the Byzantine artistic tradition has continued in Greece, Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries to the present day.
Miniatures of the 6th-century Rabula Gospel display a mixture of the Hellenistic and Oriental influences, typical for the Byzantine art.
Byzantine art grew from the art of Ancient Greece, and at least before 1453 never lost sight of its classical heritage, but was distinguished from it in a number of ways. The most profound of these was that the humanist ethic of Ancient Greek art was enhanced by the Christian ethic. If the purpose of classical art was the glorification of man, the purpose of Byzantine art was the glorification of God, and particularly of his son, Jesus. But because Jesus was of course human, the Byzantine artistic tradition can be argued to have continued this rich humanist heritage.
In place of the nude, the figures of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints and martyrs of Christian tradition were elevated, and became the dominant - indeed almost exclusive - focus of Byzantine art. One of the most important forms of Byzantine art was, and still is, the icon: an image of Christ, the Virgin (particularly the Virgin and Child), or a saint, used as an object of veneration in Orthodox churches and private homes.
Another consequence of the triumph of Christianity was a decline in the importance of naturalistic representation in art. This is sometimes interpreted as a decline in artistic skills and standards, and it is true that some of the technical expertise of the classical world, particularly in sculpture, was lost in the Byzantine world. Recent scholarly views however have ascertained that the humanist heritage in Byzantine art was never completely lost, and experienced several revivals throughout its history. In fact, Byzantine art can be understood to preserve naturalist tradition at a time when it was completely lost in the West. As the eminent art historian Otto Demus has argued in his book Byzantine Art and the West, it was the safeguarding of the Hellenic heritage by Byzantine art that made possible the Western Renaissance.
Although popular perception may consider that Byzantine art lost interest in the realistic depiction of actual people, closer observation shows this not to be the case. Art historian Hans Belting argued in his book Likeness and Presence that early Byzantine art has long been unfairly judged anachronistically with late modern "aesthetic" lenses, when in fact icons have to be perceived on their own terms - those of "likeness" to the saint using carefully guarded traditions of representation, and the unique "presence" of that saint which is mediated through the icon. This perspective, he says, is made possible through the deeply aesthetic theologies of both John of Damascus and Theodore of Studion, whose perspectives on images anticipated recent developments of contemporary semiotics by over a millennium.
There was a revival in realistic portraiture from the 12th century onwards, a development which some art historians believe influenced the Renaissance in western Europe.
The Byzantines did not see these changes as representing as a decline from the days of Ancient Greece. They saw it as the harnessing of artistic skill to the service of the one true religion, rather than using it for the production of pagan idols or the gratification of personal vanity and sensual pleasure, as the ancients (in their view) had done. While the classical artist strove to depict physical perfection in the human form, the Byzantine artist sought to depict the inner or spiritual nature of his subjects. To this end simplification and stylisation were perfectly acceptable.
In any case, it was only in some areas, principally sculpture, that the Byzantines lost the technical attainments of the ancients. In other areas they developed new techniques and reached new heights. Byzantine gold and silversmithing, enamel-work, jewellery and textiles were the equal of anything done in ancient times. In mosaics and icon-painting they developed major and original art forms of their own. In architecture they achieved masterpieces such as Hagia Sophia, a building of superior scale and magnificence to anything in the ancient world.
Frescoes in Nerezi near Skopje (1164), with their unique blend of high tragedy, gentle humanity, and homespun realism, anticipate the approach of Giotto and other proto-Renaissance Italian artists.
Artistic forms characteristic of Byzantine art began to develop in the Roman Empire as early as the 4th century, as the classical tradition declined in vitality and eastern influences were more widely felt. The founding of Constantinople in 324 created a great new artistic centre for the eastern half of the Empire, and a specifically Christian one. But other artistic traditions flourished in rival cities such as Alexandria and Antioch, as well as Rome. It was not until all of these cities had fallen - the first two to the Arabs and Rome to the Goths - that Constantinople established its supremacy.
The first great age of Byzantine art coincided with the reign of Justinian I (483-565). Justinian was the last Emperor to see himself as the rightful ruler of the whole Greco-Roman world, and devoted much of his reign to reconquering Italy, North Africa and Spain. He also laid the foundations of the imperial absolutism of the Byzantine state, codifying its laws and imposing his religious views on all his subjects by law. Part of his program of imperial glory was a massive building program, including Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople and the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.
The Justinian Age was followed by a decline, since most of Justinian's conquests were lost and the Empire faced acute crisis with the invasions of the Avars, Slavs and Arabs in the 7th century. Constantinople was also racked by religious and political conflict. The rise of Islam had important consequences for Byzantine art, because many Christians came to accept the Islamic view that the depiction of the human form was blasphemous. In 730 Emperor Leo III banned the use of images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. This inaugurated the Iconoclastic period, which lasted, with interruptions, until 843.
The century of iconoclasm, coinciding as it did with the military and political crisis of the Empire, saw a great decline in artistic achievement. Unable to depict human figures, mosaicists borrowed floral and other designs from Arab and Persian traditions, and the minor arts continued to flourish. But with icon-painting banned and the state too preoccupied with warfare to commission major buildings, this was a thin period for Byzantine art.
The lifting of the ban on icons was followed by the Macedonian Renaissance, beginning with the reign of Emperor Basil I the Macedonian in 867. In the 9th and 10th centuries the Empire's military situation improved, and art and architecture revived. New churches were again commissioned, and the Byzantine church mosaic style became standardised. The best preserved examples are at the Hosios Lukas Monastery in Greece and the Nea Moni Katholikon in Chios. There was a revival of interest in classical themes (of which the Paris Psalter is an important testimony) and more sophisticated techniques were used to depict human figures.
Although sculpture is not popularly associated with Byzantine art, the Macedonian period saw the unprecedented flourishing of the art of ivory sculpture. Many ornate ivory triptychs and diptychs survive, with the central panel representing either deesis (as in the refined Harbaville Triptych from the Louvre) or the Theotokos (as in a tryptich at Luton Hoo, dating from the reign of Nicephorus Phocas). On the other hand, ivory caskets (notably the Veroli Casket from Victoria and Albert Museum) often feature secular motifs true to the Hellenistic tradition, thus testifying to an undercurrent of classical taste in Byzantine art.
The Macedonian emperors were followed by the Comnenan dynasty, beginning with the reign of Alexius I Comnenus in 1081. Although Byzantium was no longer a great power - following the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 it lost most of its eastern territories to the Seljuk Turks - the Comnenoi were great patrons of the arts, and with their support Byzantine artists continued to move in the direction of greater humanism and emotion, of which the Theotokos of Vladimir, the cycle of mosaics at Daphni, and the murals at Nerezi yield important examples. Ivory sculpture and other expensive mediums of art gradually gave way to frescoes and icons, which for the first time gained widespread popularity across the Empire. Apart from painted icons, there were other varieties - notably the mosaic and ceramic ones.
Some of the finest Byzantine work of this period may be found outside the Empire: in the mosaics of Gelati, Kiev, Torcello, Venice, Monreale, Cefalu, and Palermo. For instance, Venice's Basilica of St Mark, begun in 1063, was based on the great Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, now destroyed, and is thus an echo of the age of Justinian. The acquisitive habits of the Venetians mean that the basilica is also a great museum of Byzantine artworks of all kinds (e.g., Pala d'Oro).
Eight hundred years of continuous Byzantine culture were brought to an abrupt end in 1204 with the sacking of Constantinople by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, a disaster from which the Empire never recovered. Although the Byzantines regained the city in 1261, the Empire was thereafter a small and weak state confined to the Greek peninsula and the islands of the Aegean.
Nevertheless the Palaeologan Dynasty, beginning with Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1259, was a last golden age of Byzantine art, partly because of the increasing cultural exchange between Byzantine and Italian artists. Byzantine artists developed a new interest in landscapes and pastoral scenes, and the traditional mosaic-work (of which the Chora Church in Constantinople is the finest extant example) gradually gave way to detailed cycles of narrative frescoes (as evidenced in a large group of Mystras churches). The icons, which became a favoured medium for artistic expression, were characterized by a less austere attitude, new appreciation for purely decorative qualities of painting and meticulous attention to details, earning the popular monicker of the Paleologan Mannerism for the period in general.
The Annunciation from Ochrid, one of the most admired icons of the Paleologan Mannerism, bears comparison with the finest contemporary works by Italian artists.
The Byzantine era properly defined came to an end with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but by this time the Byzantine cultural heritage had been widely diffused, carried by the spread of Orthodox Christianity, to Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and, most importantly, to Russia, which became the centre of the Orthodox world following the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. Even under Ottoman rule, Byzantine traditions in icon-painting and other small-scale arts survived.
The influence of Byzantine art in western Europe, particularly Italy, was seen in ecclesiastical architecture, through the development of the Romanesque style in the 10th century and 11th centuries. This influence was transmitted through the Frankish and Salic emperors, primarily Charlemagne, who had close relations with Byzantium.
1,600-Year-Old Geometric Mosaic Discovered in Israel
Mosaic floors are an important feature of ancient art and architecture in the Mediterranean and Near East. In fact, these intricate ruins often appear when least expected&mdashsuch as beneath a vineyard in Italy. On a dig just outside Yavne&mdasha city located 15 miles south of Tel Aviv in Israel&mdasha team of archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) discovered a well-preserved mosaic floor with detailed geometric patterns. This discovery is the first of its kind in the area, which is known for boasting an industrial complex dating to the Byzantine era.
Per a statement from the IAA, the dig was directed by Dr. Eli Haddad, Liat Nadav-Ziv, and Dr. Jon Seligman. Part of a larger project, the excavations have focused on identifying and preserving ruins in preparation for a residential building project on the outskirts of Yavne (ancient Jabneh). Most of the buildings discovered so far have been identified as industrial in purpose. As a result, when the team stumbled upon a white mosaic, they assumed it was another&mdashrelatively banal&mdashroom for production. “At first, we did not realize that the floor is multicolored,” said Dr. Eli Haddad and Dr. Hagit Torgë.
However, the team noticed black patches around the mosaic's edge. By dissolving the white patina with a special acid, the residue of many years was removed to reveal a multi-colored geometric pattern of tesserae (the pieces of a mosaic). The decorations indicate the floor was perhaps part of a wealthy villa where people lived near the industrial center. The floor dates to around 400 CE. At this time, much of present day Israel was under the control of the Byzantine Empire&mdashalso known as the Eastern Roman Empire.
After documenting the mosaic in situ (in its original location, as found), specialists removed the floor for preservation. The goal&mdashas announced by the IAA in partnership with local authorities&mdashis to display the mosaic “in a central location in the city, so that the values embodied in its heritage are preserved and made accessible to the general public.”
Yavne has a rich history stretching back to the ancient Philistines. Since the 8th century BCE, it has been a center of Jewish culture and Torah study. Through the work of the ancient Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the oral Torah was preserved and studied in Yavne after the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusaleum in 70 CE. Any visitors to the area will be able to view the mosaic and learn more about the area's rich history.
Holy Mysteries: The Sacraments in the Tradition of the Byzantine Rite.
THE HOLY MYSTERIES (Sacraments)
In order to carry on His work of redemption “until the end of the world” (Mt. 28:20), our Lord Jesus Christ established the Church, investing it with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33) and all the necessary means of salvation. The most important of those means of salvation are the Sacraments.
Sacrament means something holy, something sacred. In our case it means a sacred rite which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, confers divine grace, i.e. a redeeming power of God on man’s soul. Since the work of the Holy Spirit in man’s soul remains a hidden reality covered with a mystery (Greek: mysterion, secret), we in the Byzantinetradition properly call the Sacraments the Holy Mysteries.
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) explains: “It is called mystery, because whatwe believe is notthe same as what we see one thing we see and another we believe. For such is the nature of mysteries.” (Homily on I Cor. 7 :2).
1. In creating man, God made him to His “image and likeness” (Gen. 1 :26) and endowed him with the gift of divine life. After a trial on earth, man was then destined to eternal life with God in heaven. However, through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, man lost the gift of divine life in his soul and thus heaven became closed to him. Instead, man inherited suffering and sorrow, while sin took domination of his soul, leading him to the “eternal judgement”. (Hebr. 6:2).
In His infinitive love and mercy, God decided to save man. He therefore gave “His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (In. 3:16). By his sufferings and death Jesus has taken away the “sins of the world” (In. 1 :29) and obtained salvation for all. Therefore, having been “justified” by the grace of Christ, once more we become “heirs in hope of eternal life.” (Tit 3:7).
2. Jesus Christ came on earth that we “might have (divine) life and have it more abundantly” (In. 10:10). To initiate and to sustain this divine life in our soul He established the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), which thus become the most important means of our salvation. The seven mysteries satisfy all of the fundamental needs of our spiritual life to which we are born through baptism “of water and the Holy Spirit” (In. 3:5). St. Paul describes the Mystery of Baptism as a “cleansing water of rebirth and renewal (of divine life) by the Holy Spirit” (Tit 3:5).
The simple birth, however, is not enough to stay alive. We must grow and become strong so that we can overcome all of the obstacles to our spiritual advancement. For this reason , through the Mystery of Chrismation (Confirmation), Jesus strengthens us with the “power from on high” (Luke 24:49), i.e., with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Divine life of grace, given to us by baptism. is then sustained and nourished by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, provided for us in the Holy Eucharist. Holy Communion thus becomes a token ofthe “eternallife” for us (In. 6:54).
These three mysteries are usually referred to as the Mysteries of Initiation, since through them divine life is restored to us and we become closely united with Jesus Christ, making us members of His Mystical Body, the Church (Col. 1 :18). Through them we become initiated into the Church. Consequently, from the very beginning of Christianity, these three mysteries were administered to the converts at the same time.
3. During our earthly pilgrimmage we remain exposed to temptations and frequently we become overwhelmed by sin, causing our spiritual sickness. As a remedy against sin and eventual spiritual death (loss ofthe divine life of grace) our Lord provided us with the Mystery of Repentance, by which our sins are forgiven and our spiritual health is restored. In the instances of serious physical sickness, the Church is ready to comfort us with the Mystery of Annointing, by which our sufferings become united with those of Christ “in hope of life eternal” (Tit 1 :2).
The Holy Annointing cleanses our soul from sin and often restores even our bodily health, as explained by St. James: “The prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, they will be forgiven” (James 5:15).
So that the kingdom of God may expand, our Lord elevated the nuptial union of a Christian couple to the dignity of the Holy Mystery of Marriage, thus endowing them with grace to foster their mutual love (£ph. 5:32-33) and to secure a Christian education of their children (1 Cor 7:14).
The Church carries on Christ’s work of salvation through its ministers, invested by the power of the Holy Spirit, given to them by the imposition of the bishops’ hands. Thus, the Mystery of the Holy Orders provides the Church with the authentic “ministers of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1), leading the people of God toward salvation.
These seven Holy Mysteries (Sacraments)’ as instituted by Jesus Christ, were in use since apostolic times. A documentary evidence of their dispensation is given to us by the Holy Scriptures, supported by the writings of the Church Fathers.
4. The early Christians did not speculate about the Holy Mysteries. Instead, they availed themselves of their “marvelous power” (St. John Chrysostom) and tried to live by them as redeemed children of God (Col. 1 :10). They also were not concerned about a precise number of Holy Mysteries.
The primary concern ofthe Fathers was to instruct the candidates and to prepare them to receive the Holy Mysteries with as much spiritual benefit as possible. In an effort to satisfy the actual needs of the converts, they concentrated on the Mysteries of Initiation (Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist) and Holy Orders. The other mysteries were treated by the Fathers only incidentally, without much elaboration.
During the patristic period the dispensation of all seven Holy Mysteries was unanimous, and nobody tried to deny their validity, The Fathers, strictly adhering to the “discipline of secrecy”, limited their treatment to only the devotional and ascetical meaning of the mysteries, without any systematic presentation of sacramental doctrine as a whole. The “discipline of secrecy,” not to divulge the teaching of the Church concerning the Holy Mysteries, was based on the ban of Christ: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine” (Mt. 7:6). Therefore St. Basil (d. 379) explains: “The Apostles and Fathers, who laid down the laws of the Church, from the beginning guarded the awful dignity of the Mysteries in secrecy and silence (cf. On the Holy Spirit, 27).
5. Although the number of Holy Mysteries was fixed at seven since the seventh century, we must nevertheless wait until the time of Scholasticism in the West (the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) to give us a systematic presentation of the doctrine on the Holy Mysteries, known as Sacramental Theology. By the fourteenth century the Scholastic presentation, with some minor adaptations, was also accepted by the Byzantine Church.
It was the authority of Archbishop Simeon of Thessalonica (d. 1429) that finally fixed Byzantine theology on the Holy Mysteries in full harmony with the West (cf. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 155). Consequently, at the Council of Florence (1439) there was a complete agreement between the Byzantine and Roman Churches regarding the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments). There may be some individual exceptions among the theologians, but the official position of the Byzantine Church remains unchanged to the present time.
When Cyril Lukaris, who became Patriarch of Constantinople by his personal intrigue, tried to introduce a Protestant teaching – that of admitting only two sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist) – he was promptly condemned by the Synod of Constantinople in 1638. The Synod of Jassy in 1642 then adopted the Orthodox Confession of Metropolitan Peter Mohy la of Kiev, containing the traditional teaching on the seven Holy Mysteries. The following year Mohyla’s Orthodox Confession was endorsed by the Synod of Constantinople, and eventually was accepted by all of the Eastern Churches. Thus, the traditional teaching ofthe Byzantine Church regarding the Holy Mysteries remains preserved to the present time.
6. The authentic Byzantine tradition, then, teaches that our Lord provided His Church with seven chief means of salvation – the Holy Mysteries. The Mysteries (Sacraments) are not only the channels of divine grace, but they also are perceptible signs (symbols) of the invisible grace of God, which they confer through the performance of the sacred rites.
St. John Chrysostom therefore describes the Holy Mysteries as “the symbols of our salvation perceivable through faith” (cf. 86 Homily on John, 4).
Throughout the centuries there were various attempts to give us a general definition of the Holy Mysteries. St. Augustine’s definition became a classic one since the fifth century : A Sacrament (Holy Mystery) is a visible sign of an invisible grace instituted by Christ. It remained in general use both in the West as well as in the East. The later theologians added only the purpose of the institution, namely: “for sanctification” or “for the salvation of man.”
The redeeming power of God (grace) and the working of the Holy Spirit in our soul are invisible and inperceptible to us. Jesus Christ therefore decided to confer His saving grace in a visible manner, through outward symbols or signs, the holy ritual, by which divine grace is implied and conferred. Thus, enlightened by our faith, we become certain of receiving divine grace through the invisible working of the Holy Spirit in our soul.
Since the redeeming grace was merited and comes to us through our Lord Jesus Christ (In. 1 :17), only Jesus had the power and authority to establish the Holy Mysteries as the primary means of our salvation. In our future leaflets, when discussing the individual mysteries, we will point out how and when our Lord had in fact instituted each mystery. During the centuries which followed the Church formed and elaborated a proper liturgical ritual for the administration of the Holy Mysteries, to make them more solemn and more meaningful to the faithful. However, it was Jesus Christ, and He alone, who instituted the seven Holy Mysteries, just as He instituted the Church to carryon His work of salvation.
On the Cover: Rome – Mosaic in the Basilica of St. John in Lateran.
Mount Nebo Mosaics
The al-Mukhayyat Mosaics also known as the Mosaics of Memorial Church of Moses or Mount Nebo Mosaics are a collection of antique mosaics discovered at Khirbet al-Mukhayyat. Modern exploration of the site began in 1863 with a brief visit by Félicien De Saulcy, who is generally credited with being the first to record the name, Khirbet al-Mukhayyat (De Saulcy 1865, I: 289-296).
The central mosaic of the Diakonikon Baptistery with its hunting and pastoral scenes of colourful almost intact tesserae is one of the most remarkable Byzantine mosaics in Jordan. It was discovered in 1976 by Fr. Michele Piccirillo in the northern hall of the Moses Basilica, below a simple mosaic floor. A cross-shaped baptismal font was also discovered on the eastern end of the hall.
The masterpiece is a hunting and herding scene interspersed with an assortment of African fauna, including a zebu (humped ox), lions, tigers, bears, boars, zebras, an ostrich on a leash and a camel-shaped giraffe. The modern chapel presbytery, builty to protect the site and provide worship space, remnants of of mosaic floors from different periods can be seen.
A large, braided cross, drafted in black on a white background. This mosaic decoration was laid on the floor of a side hall in the first Memorial of Moses. This mosaic panel with a braided cross presently placed on the east end of the south wall, is the oldest of mosaics.
The mosaic in front of the altar of the Theotokos Chapel, dedicated to Mary mother of Jesus, shows a symmetrical composition of a central architectural structure and two bulls (badly damaged), and gazelles, from which the left one is complete, showing a bell around its neck.
In this tent raised in the eastern paved square of the sanctuary near the Interpretation Centre are shown important mosaic floors found on Mount Nebo and recently restored by the Franciscan Archaeological Institute (No. 2): the upper mosaic floor of the Chapel of Priest John (mid-6th century) and the mosaic floor of the Church of Saint George (536 CE).
The Elusive Byzantine Empire
Though the beginnings of the Byzantine Empire are unclear, its demise is not. The history of the Eastern Roman Empire, from its foundation in 324 to its conquest in 1453, is one of war, plague, architectural triumphs and fear of God's wrath.
Detail of a mosaic depicting Justinian I in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna.
T he Byzantine empire means different things to different people. Some associate it with gold: the golden tesserae in the mosaics of Ravenna, the golden background in icons, the much coveted golden coins, the golden-hued threads of Byzantine silks used to shroud Charlemagne. Others think of court intrigues, poisonings and scores of eunuchs. Most will think of Constantinople, which used to be Byzantium and is now Istanbul, and will possibly bring to mind the city’s skyline with the huge dome of the Hagia Sophia. Little else perhaps exists in the collective imagination. All this is indeed evocative of Byzantium, but there is so much more to explore.
To begin at the beginning is tricky. Did the empire begin when the emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople in 324? When the city was consecrated by both pagan and Christian priests in May 330? Or did it begin in 395 when the two halves of the vast Roman empire were officially divided into East and West, or even later in the late 5th century when Rome was sacked, conquered and governed by the Goths, leaving Constantinople and the East as the sole heir of the empire? But, if its beginning is unclear, its demise is not: on 29 May 1453, the armies of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II entered the city and brought the existence of this state to an end after more than a millennium.
When Constantine moved his capital from Rome to the hitherto relatively obscure, though strategically placed, city of Byzantium and gave the city his name, it signalled a shift of interest towards the East, but perhaps little else initially. After the troubled third century a number of cities had functioned as imperial residences without necessarily challenging the idea of Rome as the centre: Trier, Split, Thessalonica, Nicomedia (modern Izmit). But with the advantage of hindsight we can see that this case was different: Constantinople was enlarged, decorated with famous statues and objects from the whole empire (some of which are still in place today), endowed with a Senate and its citizens given the traditional free bread handed out to Romans.
A number of the most important constituting traits of the Byzantine empire date back to this early era. The Byzantine state was, more or less from the beginning, a Christian Roman empire. After the edict of Milan in 313 ended the persecutions and made Christianity a tolerated religion, Constantine showed a marked (though not exclusive) preference for Christianity. He presided over the first ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 which defined the creed and dealt with heresies, thus setting the tone for the intimate relation between Church and state. This bond was made clear by a number of sacred buildings that Constantine erected, in his capital as well as in Palestine (both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity go back to this period), and by a number of relics of Christ and the Virgin that his mother, Helena, purchased in the Holy Land and sent back to Constantinople. Unlike Rome or Antioch, the new capital had not been graced by the presence of any apostle, but certainly entered Christian topography with the bonus of imperial patronage.
In the eleven hundred years that separate the first Constantine from the last emperor, another Constantine (the XI), the empire underwent many and significant changes. First came expansion. From the fourth to the early sixth centuries the East flourished: population boomed, cities proliferated and Constantinople itself grew to be the largest city in Europe with over 400,000 inhabitants. To support this growth its city walls were yet again enlarged in between 404 and 413, a triple system of inner wall, outer wall and moat that did not fail to protect it until the very end (large parts of which are still visible, albeit over-restored, today). The ecclesiastical head of the city, the patriarch of the new Rome, had risen to the second position in the hierarchy of the Church just below the old Rome, the result of political pressure that was to breed discontent between the two sees in the centuries to come. Together with Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem they formed the Pentarchy, the ultimate authority of the Church as decided by councils bringing together the senior clergy of the five sees.
While the city expanded, the empire underwent a transformation. In 395, Theodosius I (r. 347-95) divided the vast empire stretching from Britain to North Africa and from Spain to Mesopotamia and harassed by the Persians in the East and Germanic tribes in the North. A demarcation line running roughly from Belgrade to Libya turned, in the fifth century, into a true frontier. In the West, disaster: Huns and Goths overran the Roman world. In the East, Germanic officials were integrated into the government and occupied important positions in the state machinery up until the reign of the emperor Zeno (r. 474-91), when they were gradually excluded by his own people, the Isaurians from the mountains of Asia Minor. The Eastern Empire was an unbroken continuation of the Roman state, though with Greek as the dominant language. The West was now divided into several Germanic kingdoms who adopted Latin for their administration.
Enter Justinian (r. 527-565). The nephew and heir of a parvenu, an illiterate military man turned emperor (for Byzantium was for centuries a quite open society in which one could get ahead in life based on talent), he put an indelible mark on his era. In his time the empire sought to regain the lost territories in the West in a series of long wars. The Vandal kingdom in Africa was subdued in 533-34, but the reconquest of Italy took nearly twenty years until the final defeat and extinction of the Goths in 554. At the same time there was almost constant warfare with Persia, although imperial victories and territorial gains were not as decisive as in the West. But Justinian’s lasting legacy stems from other contributions.
Roman law, the backbone of the administration of such a vast empire, had already been collected and organized in the mid-fifth century. Justinian undertook a review of this massive material early in his reign between 529 and 534. The result was the huge (and hugely influential) Corpus Iuris Civilis which updated the previous Theodosian collection, weeding out all laws no longer deemed relevant, while adding all those passed since that date. It included legal writings of a more theoretical nature and pronouncements that spanned the period from Hadrian (r. 117-38) to Justinian. Ask any lawyer today and you are likely to hear superlatives about this colossal work that has been termed ‘one of the most significant influences upon human society’. Justinian, naturally, continued to legislate and his new laws (the Novels) were issued for the first time in Greek. This was an acknowledgment of the developments that the empire had undergone since Constantine. It was now a state based on Roman law, Christian faith and Greek culture, one in which literacy was widespread and Homer’s Iliad formed the basis of elementary education along with the equally popular book of Psalms.
Justinian was also a great builder. The single most iconic Byzantine building, the Hagia Sophia, is a product of his drive and vision. Completed in 537 after an earlier Theodosian church of the same name had been burned down during civil unrest in the city, the church dedicated to Holy Wisdom is still breathtaking today. The majestic dome with a diameter of about 32 metres gave the impression to contemporaries of being suspended from heaven. This feat of engineering was only surpassed in the 15th century by the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo) in Florence. The original decoration of Hagia Sophia was not figurative: mosaics with geometrical patterns, deeply cut capitals with the monograms of the emperor and his infamous wife, Theodora, and the interplay of coloured marble on the walls and pavement – all designed to reflect the light as it pierces the space from a multitude of windows. Justinian not only adorned his capital with new buildings he erected or restored a great number of edifices throughout his vast empire. One of the most famous is the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, still functioning today.
Justinian clearly saw himself as God’s representative on earth. He strove for order and tolerated no dissent it appears as if he was determined to align everyone to the divine plan for salvation, whether they wanted it or not. The academy in Athens was closed the Olympic Games and the mysteries in Eleusis had long ceased and it was probably around this time that the Parthenon in Athens was transformed into a Christian church. Justinian’s unified vision of a Christian empire in a way mirrored a Mediterranean world unified by sea and land communications. This unification, however, allowed not only people and commodities to travel, but also germs. Bubonic plague broke out for the first time in pandemic form in 541 and ran its deadly course throughout the Mediterranean. It was to return in some 18 waves until 750, causing a sharp demographic decline that was felt the strongest in coastal cities. Constantinople lost possibly as much as 20 per cent of its population in four months in the spring of 542.
At the end of Justinian’s reign the empire began to collapse as a result of both demographic losses (from plague and long wars) and economic hardships brought about by these two factors and the cost of large-scale building. By the early seventh century much of the regained territory had been lost. The Lombards invaded Italy in 568 and seized the Po valley the Visigoths regained the few Byzantine holdings in Spain in 624, while the eastern front collapsed under renewed Persian attacks. Moreover, a new force emerged in the Balkans: the Turkic Avars and the Slavs. From the 580s onwards the Slavs began their settlement of the Balkans, gradually taking almost the entire peninsula de facto out of Byzantine control for the next two centuries.
When Heraclius (r. 610-641) became emperor he raised great hopes that he could restore order and confidence in an empire that seemed in disarray. The Persians captured Syria, Egypt and Palestine between 613 and 619 and, in what must be seen as a calculated move of political warfare, they removed the True Cross of Christ from Jerusalem to their capital in Ctesiphon. Heraclius’ counter-attack took years to prepare. It was almost brought to a halt before it produced any actual results when in 626, while the emperor was away, the Persians with the aid of Avars and Slavs besieged Constantinople. The city was saved, according to tradition, by a supernatural protector, the Virgin Mary, whose girdle had been in the city since the fourth century and who increasingly came to be regarded as Constantinople’s patron saint. After this episode Heraclius took the war to Persia and ultimately defeated the Sassanian king in 628. In a highly significant gesture, he restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630.
Byzantium might have been victorious, but the wars that had lasted more than 20 years left both empires exhausted. The timing was perfect for the new emerging player in the Mediterranean, the Arabs. Their expansion began in the 630s. By the turn of the century the Byzantine Empire had irrevocably lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Northern Africa, while the Sassanid state had been overthrown. The Arab foray seemed unstoppable. It menaced Constantinople in 678 and again in 717-18, though failing both times to capture the city. The seventh century was a period of massive restructuring and reorganization as the Byzantine empire fought for its survival. The massive loss of territory – especially Egypt, the ‘granary of the empire’ – deprived the state of considerable human resources and commodities.
From then on Byzantium concentrated on Asia Minor as an almost exclusive source for both. A large-scale reorganization of the army took place in that period, first in Asia Minor, spreading then to the entire empire. Territory was organized into administrative and military units, the themata, in which both civil and military powers were concentrated in the hands of one military commander. Soldiers were from then on recruited among the free peasant smallholders, who offered their military service in exchange for land that enjoyed certain privileges.
Disaster as a rule breeds the need for reform and in the Byzantine empire this was not only expressed in terms of administration. The movement of Iconoclasm (literally icon-breaking) has its roots in the traumatic experience of the seventh century. It does not need to concern us here when exactly it began – was the eruption of the volcano at Thera/Santorini in 726 an omen suggesting divine wrath? Surely the Arabic juggernaut must have seemed reason enough for this divine displeasure. And the Arabs did forbid figurative art. A sober look at this development would look like this: from the early-to-mid-eighth century Byzantine emperors had religious images removed and later destroyed. Their main motive must have been to counteract the excessive veneration of images which came close to idolatry – surely this could have been a reason why the infidels were winning and God’s chosen people were being chastised by one defeat after another. Persecution of those opposing these measures, mainly monks, varied, but some of the most fervent supporters of icons were executed.
Iconoclasm was reversed by an empress: the widowed Irene (r. 780-802), acting as a regent for her young son, summoned a council in 787 (the seventh and last ecumenical one) in Nicaea, which condemned it and restored the veneration of images, while in the process destroying pretty much all that their adversaries had ever written and thus making it very difficult for us to view the events in a balanced way.
Iconoclasm coincided with the successes of Constantine V (r. 741-775) in both Asia Minor and the Balkans. However, after Irene, the empire suffered a series of setbacks that led to a second phase of Iconoclasm that began in 815 and ended in 843. Again, an empress acting as regent, Theodora (r. 842-55), restored the images in what is still today celebrated as the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’. At the end of Iconoclasm, Christian art had prevailed and became an essential aspect of worship.
On Christmas Day 800, during the reign of Irene as empress, the coronation of Charlemagne, ruler of a western empire controlling France, the Rhineland and Northern Italy, in Rome gave the world a second Roman emperor. Despite the fact that Charlemagne’s state did not enjoy a long life, the ideological antagonism from the West would become a recurrent phenomenon in the centuries to come.
After 843 the empire began a period of revival that lasted for two centuries and marked a long phase of territorial expansion, political and cultural radiance over its neighbours and a flourishing of education and the arts. Gradually, imperial authority was restored in the Balkans and parts of Syria and Asia Minor were reconquered. In what is perhaps the most enduring consequence of Byzantine policy, a number of Slavic states embraced Christianity coming from Constantinople (not without fierce competition with Rome). Byzantine missionaries developed the first Slavic alphabet and the newly converted were allowed to use it in their services. These were the early steps in creating what was termed a ‘Byzantine Commonwealth’.
With the state expanding and the economy growing, a cultural revival developed as well. It was marked by an effort at collecting and systematizing knowledge by compiling vast encyclopaedias with the most varied contents: ancient epigrams, lives of saints, dictionaries, medical and veterinary texts, practical agricultural wisdom and military treatises, as well as thematically organized volumes on embassies or hunting. The central figure in this revival (perhaps more as a result of imperial propaganda than of actual contribution) was the learned emperor Constantine VII (944-959) under whose auspices a number of works were created dealing with the imperial ceremonies, the administrative division of the empire and a secret manual of governance addressed to his son. This revival of learning was a direct result of the important scholars produced by the fostering of education from the ninth century. Classical Antiquity, no longer carrying the negative connotation of paganism, was studied and copied.
The economic and political stimulus behind the revival, however, fuelled some rather untoward trends as well. The military aristocracy gained more and more power, and, in its quest for more land, started to encroach on the villages and their free peasants, potentially stripping the state of tax revenues and the army of its manpower. The emperors legislated against this and civil wars ensued. It took as resolute an emperor as Basil II (r. 976-1025) to crush those military clans, but his victory was short-lived. Following the general and growing disarray that ensued after his death, the aristocracy made a decisive comeback in the person of Alexius I Comnenus (r. 1081-1118).
When he took over the reins of the empire he faced a very different political situation from that which had existed less than half a century before him. The Seljuk Turks had started conquering Asia Minor, the empire’s heartland. Moreover, the Normans had taken over large parts of Italy and then attacked the empire in the Balkans, while Venice, aided by commercial privileges accorded to it by Byzantium, was branching out in the eastern Mediterranean. Finally, the papacy’s zeal for reform was changing it into a formidable power able to stand above secular rulers. Certainly the schism between Rome and Constantinople that had occurred in 1054 was not a positive development, although it was hardly surprising given the troubled history of antagonism between the two sees.
The crusades should also be seen in this context of Western expansion. Under the first three Comnenian emperors (roughly until 1180) Byzantium managed to escape the onslaught of the crusaders largely unscathed (and even partially to use them to its advantage in Syria and Asia Minor). Towards the close of the twelfth century the relationship with the West deteriorated. The tragic endpoint of this process was the capture and looting of Constantinople by the French and Venetian armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
The fragmentation of the once centralized empire was a blow from which it never fully recovered. Constantinople itself was governed by the Latins for some sixty years, and a number of Latin and Greek states of varying size and importance were established in Greece and Asia Minor. From this period onwards, the interaction with the West became the dominant theme in Byzantine affairs. Both cultures came much closer to each other and a true exchange took place – not always favoured by the Byzantines. After 1204 a great number of artefacts of the highest quality wandered to the West, but not many of them have survived until today (for example, the relics from Constantinople that were housed in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris were destroyed in the 1789 Revolution).
In 1261 Constantinople was recaptured and a new dynasty, the Palaeologoi, gained power and held on to it for the last two centuries of the empire’s existence. But ‘empire’ was now hardly the right designation for this state. From the very beginning it was engaged in a fight for survival against foreign forces and internal frictions. A civil war that began in 1341 functioned as a watershed for the fate of the state. Until that time the empire had weathered its problems with difficulty, but still preserved an international importance. It is unfortunate that the civil war ended only a few months before the outbreak of the Black Death in 1347. There was no time for recovery, with both Ottoman Turks and Serbs expanding at the empire’s expense. The last century saw the empire in constant decline, although some Byzantines profited from the decentralization of power and the massive influx of Italian merchant capital into the Levant.
In the face of danger, opposing factions emerged dynamically. On the one side were people who looked to the West for help there were conversions to Catholicism and for the first time after many centuries the translation and study of works in Latin. Ending the Schism was seen by those pro-Western advocates as the only solution. Many of the emperors pursued this policy right to the very end, when John VIII (r. 1425-1448) took part at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438-39. But the movement of knowledge functioned the other way around as well Greek scholars travelled to Italy taught Greek to enthusiastic audiences and brought with them manuscripts containing texts long forgotten in the West – Plato, above all. There, these texts were translated into Latin and certainly made an important contribution to humanism and gave impetus to the Renaissance.
Yet there was a different Byzantine reaction at the same time, inward-looking amidst the imminent disaster. This was focused on tradition and Orthodoxy it rejected union with the Roman church and feared that the Latins would undermine their Byzantine identity. The gap would not be bridged. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Palaeologan period saw a remarkable flourishing of literature and art, both in response to Western impulses and in keeping with Byzantine traditions. Ancient texts were studied, meticulously edited and commented on by large numbers of intellectuals who enjoyed patronage. Brilliant monuments of the period survive, such as the church of the Chora Monastery and the Virgin Pammakaristos in Constantinople.
As the state became weaker, the church was swiftly becoming the only reliable institution. ‘A church we have, an emperor we don’t,’ claimed Basil I, the prince of Moscow, only to be strongly rebuked by the patriarch: ‘It is impossible for Christians to have a church and no empire.’ Yet this is what happened after 1453 when the young Mehmed II accomplished what a number of his predecessors had failed, the capture of Constantinople, the City (Greek: polis) par excellence and the colloquial phrase eis tin polin (to the city) became the name of Istanbul.
Dionysios Stathakopoulos is Lecturer in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King's College London. This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of History Today.
The Awe-Inspiring Mysteries: The Importance of Mystagogy
Arian Baptistry, Ravenna, with mosaics of the Greek letters for Christ.
(This title is inspired by Edward Yarnold’s The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: Baptismal Homilies of the Fourth Century (Slough, Great Britain: St. Paul Publications, 1971), the title of which is based on the common language of “awe” used by the Fathers in regards to the Sacraments this is particularly evident in the mystagogical works of St. John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia.)
One of the great reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council was the restoration of the catechumenate, that is, the structured period of initiation for adults being baptized and entering the Church. 1 As most will know from its frequent use in parishes, the catechumenate consists of the catechumenate proper (once someone formally expresses his intent to enter the Church), the period of purification and enlightenment during Lent (which prepares the catechumen for initiation), and the period of mystagogy, or post-baptismal catechesis. While many parishes offer mystagogical sessions after initiation (which usually occurs at Easter), many neophytes (the newly-initiated) do not attend. Yet the teaching and catechesis offered during this time is not only important for neophytes: it also has a great wealth to offer even cradle Catholics. I propose that the great treasure of mystagogy not be restricted to merely a few post-baptismal meetings: it should be practiced frequently, in a variety of contexts, in order that the faithful be ever more deeply plunged into the mysteries of the Lord and the Faith through the liturgy and the Sacraments.
According to the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, mystagogy is a time when “neophytes are…introduced into a fuller and more effective understanding of mysteries through the Gospel message they have learned and above all through their experience of the sacraments they have received.” 2 Experience of the Sacraments of Initiation and all the grace that flows from them, as well as the new life in Christ that the neophytes now practice, allows the faithful to delve deeper into what they previously learned through the catechumenate. The mysteries of the Lord and the Faith are not exhausted by any extent of human knowledge and experience, never mind merely a few months of catechesis and preparation. The Sacraments of Initiation are the start of a new life, not the end they are the beginning of the journey to the New Jerusalem.
For my purposes, I want to concentrate on this concept of mystagogy, though. My source for a definition of mystagogy is the great sea of the Fathers’ wisdom. The word itself has its roots in the concept of mystery, meaning either “to lead the initiate (of the mysteries)” or “to initiate into the mysteries.” 3 For the Fathers, the mysteries referred to by this term were primarily the liturgical and sacramental mysteries: after all, this term was first used by the famous Mystery Religions of ancient times to describe the process of their initiation liturgies. Thus the Fathers loved to explain the various aspects of the liturgical rites and to draw out theological, moral, and devotional lessons from them to offer to their listeners. We have a library of examples of sermons or lectures with which they did this: St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catecheses, St. Ambrose’s On the Sacraments and On the Mysteries, and St. John Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instructions, among many others. By studying these, we can come to see how the Fathers distributed the wealth of the Liturgy and how we can do so as well. Here I will highlight some of the major aspects of the Fathers’ mystagogy, but a perusal of any of these works would be a great boon as well. Before proceeding further, though, we need a definition of mystagogy to use for this article. So I will say: Mystagogy is post-sacramental “exegesis” of the sacramental rites through sermons based on salvation history, integration into the Church (community), and the task of the Christian life. 4
We see first that the Fathers practiced mystagogy via sermons, that is, via preaching. Though there can be a form of mystagogy that occurs through treatises, as would emerge later in Church history, early mystagogy was in the form of sermons. This was due not, I think, to an aversion against treatises, but to a recognition that mystagogy was something needed for all the faithful, not just those with the resources to find and read a liturgical treatise. The way to reach all the faithful (at least those who attend liturgy) is via preaching. Not only that, but it was taking advantage of a popular form of public entertainment during that time: the addresses of orators. St. John Chrysostom frequently laments the fact that his listeners judged liturgies based on the quality and entertainment of the preaching (a problem still prevalent now), yet he also grew adept at using this form to teach his flock. By its homiletic character, then, mystagogy is meant to be available to all the faithful, for the riches of the liturgy, just like the aesthetic riches of ecclesial architecture and ornamentation, are meant for all.
We can also notice that, as in the modern-day restored catechumenate, mystagogy was directed to those who were already initiated into the Church. While prior sermons in the catechumenal process may have been attended both by catechumens and by those already initiated, mystagogy was only for those who were already initiated. Part of this was due to what is called the “disciplina arcana,” or “the discipline of the secret.” The early Christians viewed the mysteries of the Church’s Faith, and particularly of the Sacraments, with great reverence, and they did not want to “throw pearls before swine” and reveal these mysteries to the uninitiated or the Church’s enemies. While this sometimes backfired—as when non-Christians thought the Christians were cannibals because they could not hear the true teaching on the Eucharist—it also strove to keep the sacred things of the Church from being ridiculed by those who were adamantly against the Faith. (We could also say that it protected non-Christians from committing sacrilege and blasphemy: it is worse for them to trample a gift they were given than to not receive it at all.) Another reason for having mystagogy after Christian initiation, though, was because the Fathers recognized the role the experience of the Sacraments and the grace received played in understanding them. No matter how much explanation is provided, an experience has the ability to give a greater understanding reflection after an experience, too, can shed deeper light on what took place than the discussions beforehand. In addition, the grace received in the Sacraments allows the faithful to reach a new, deeper level of understanding, on top of that given by the experience alone. Thus the Fathers saw that, to grant the deepest understanding possible of these mysteries, mystagogy was needed after the initiation, in addition to preparatory discussions beforehand.
This mystagogy was also an exegetical work. As in traditional exegesis, the four senses of Scripture (literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical) are found, but this time in the texts and actions of the Liturgy, rather than in Scripture. The Fathers often drew on salvation history in their discussions, connecting the Liturgy to various ways the Lord worked in the world. Thus the Liturgy is one of the ways that the faithful are drawn into the drama of salvation history, from the formless void at creation to the New Heavens and New Earth after the Second Coming. Yet probably the main point of the Fathers’ mystagogy is in what we could call the moral sense of the Liturgy, that is, how the Liturgy assists us in living the Christian life in communion with the Church. The Fathers made sure to show how the Liturgy and the mysteries affect the life of the faithful.
The points mentioned above come from those sermons of the Fathers that we would count as mystagogy proper, that is, sermons given to the baptized that were just recently initiated into the Church, usually during the Paschal season. But mystagogy should not be relegated to merely these strict circumstances: it should be incorporated throughout the work of catechesis and preaching. For one, explanation of the Liturgy can inflame a desire to immerse oneself deeper in the Church’s liturgical life. One frequent explanation given for why so many Catholics today no longer take part in this life is because they find it boring or incomprehensible. Well-done mystagogy can assist on both of these fronts. It can thus be an assistant in the New Evangelization. Of course, the mystagogy discussed above only occurs in preaching, so one would first have to convince people to attend church. It might not help give people the push or draw they need to first begin looking at the Faith, but it could draw them deeper once they have begun. Mystagogy also allows the riches of the Liturgy to be distributed to all the faithful, helping those already living their Faith to grow deeper. Though similar statements can be made for all areas of theology, there is so much spiritual wealth in the Liturgy that scholars or faithful who delve into it may know but which the vast number of the faithful may never hear: mystagogy is a way for them to hear of this wealth. Not only that, but it can assist in teaching the doctrine of the Faith, in accord with the classic dictum lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer, the law of belief).
I have first-hand experienced mystagogy done poorly and done well. One of the priests I hear preach regularly is a liturgical historian, and he knows much about the riches of the Liturgy, yet his homilies on the liturgy tend to be somewhat dry and often too enmeshed in the facts of historical liturgical development. Though he often preaches on having our faith affect our lives, he does not usually draw the connections between the liturgy and our Christian lives, and he does not frequently use the four senses of mystagogy mentioned above. On the other hand, I once heard a young priest preach while he was passing through my parish in Weirton, WV. He focused on a text from our (Byzantine) liturgy, “Holy Gifts to holy people,” which the priest proclaims shortly before Communion. The meaning of “Holy Gifts” (the Eucharist) was obvious, but this priest expounded on the phrase “holy people.” By connecting this phrase with how Paul refers to his readers as “saints,” he drew us into the entire history of the holy people of God: we were “the saints who are in Weirton,” just as Paul wrote to “the saints who are in Ephesus” and how Israel was “a holy [or, saintly] people, a royal nation.” This simple phrase from the liturgy highlighted the holiness of the Church and how even the local Church partakes in that holiness, and it impelled us to live up to the holiness with which we were named.
My proposal is that the type of preaching given by this young priest passing through my parish become more widespread, as mystagogy has the ability to open to the faithful the riches of the Liturgy. While the early Church’s firm decision that mystagogy be given to those already initiated is a wise choice, much of modern preaching and catechesis is directed to those who have already been baptized, whether as “cradle Catholics” or as converts. The experience of receiving the Sacraments truly affects all the faithful, even if it is Baptism received as an infant by mystagogy, Christians can come to know what they have received and to feel that power. (This is one of the ways Baptism in the Holy Spirit is understood: there was only one Baptism, with an indelible mark, but we receive this “second Baptism” when we come to realize the power of that experience, when it truly ignites our being.) Mystagogy can thus be applied to these once-past experiences, as well as to the continuing experiences, such as receiving the Eucharist, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick. Besides the Sacraments, it can be applied even to the entirety of the Church’s Liturgy, all of her public prayers. There is thus an immense treasure-trove of spiritual riches hidden in the liturgy that preachers can draw from, and mystagogy is the process by which to do this.
- This restoration was called for, with little fanfare, by Sacrosanctum Concilium §64, but the result—The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA)—has far outstripped this simple initiation by its effects. ↩
- Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, no. 245, in Catholic Rites Today, 134. The full explanation of mystagogy is found in no. 244-251, in Catholic Rites Today, 134-135. ↩
- David Regan, Experience the Mystery: Pastoral Possibilities for Christian Mystagogy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 11 Enrico Mazza, Mystagogy: A Theology of Liturgy in the Patristic Age, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1989), 1. ↩
- Cf. Robert Taft, “The Liturgy of the Great Church: An Initial Synthesis of Structure and Interpretation on the Eve of Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34-35 (1980-1981), 59, quoted in Stylianos Muksuris, “Liturgical Mystagogy and Its Application in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 49, no. 3-4 (Fall/Winter 2004), 296: “Mystery is to liturgy what exegesis is to Scripture.” ↩
URI art history lecturer, students study Byzantine mosaics on Cyprus
Ann Terry, center, a URI lecturer in art history, studies 1,500-year-old Byzantine mosaics in an artifact storage building in Polis Chrysochous, on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, with Kira Wencek ’19 and Wesley Hale, M.A, ’18 in history. Photo courtesy of Ann Terry
KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 29, 2018 – Really, archeology isn’t a lot like “Indiana Jones.” Just ask Ann Terry.
Terry, a University of Rhode Island lecturer of art history, spent three weeks last spring studying fragments of 1,500-year-old Byzantine mosaics on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. The work – sorting trays of artifacts and cleaning, classifying and documenting thousands of mosaic pieces – could be laborious and boring, she said.
But the project may eventually add to the knowledge of an area that passed through the hands of numerous ancient powers. So, the work could also be thrilling.
“In archeology, it’s the small finds – like bits of ceramic, or coins – that really propel an understanding of a site,” said Terry, of South Kingstown, Rhode Island. “If you find a big statue or a great temple, it makes all the papers, but it’s the little finds that fill in all those blanks about a community and gives you a sense of the ordinary people, instead of just the wealthy elites.”
An expedition from Princeton University excavated the site from 1984 to 2007. Scholars from several disciplines continue studying and publishing the finds. Terry, whose expertise includes Byzantine era mosaics and archeology, was asked to study the mosaics by Amy Papalexandrou, director of the team documenting artifacts from two late 6 th to early 7 th century basilicas excavated at Polis Chrysochous.
About three times the size of Rhode Island, Cyprus is rich in archeological sites. Strategically located in the eastern Mediterranean, the island was a vital crossroads for numerous powerful civilizations – Assyria, Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.
“In school you’re taught that the Roman Empire fell,” said Terry. “The west fell. The Roman Empire moved its capital to Constantinople. The eastern Mediterranean was thriving, particularly in the 4 th to the 7 th century, just at the same time the west was disintegrating.
“So you’ve got a pretty vibrant urban culture because Cyprus is so strategically located, it trades with Asia Minor, Levant, Syria, Palestine, Egypt. There are great natural resources – copper, forests. Of course, that’s a long way from looking at little tesserae.”
Tesserae – the tiny pieces of stone, glass and tile that make up mosaics – were central to Terry’s work on Cyprus.
For three weeks in May and June, Terry, Kira Wencek ’19 and Wesley Hale, who earned his master’s degree in history at URI last spring, set up a work space in the artifact storage building, not far from the dig sites in Polis. The storage building – or apothiki – packed floor to ceiling with wooden trays overflowing with artifacts, resembled something out of a scene from Harry Potter, Terry said.
The artifacts were excavated by Princeton teams at six dig sites in Polis. Polis was the site of two ancient cities: Marion, destroyed in 312 BCE by Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt, a successor to Alexander the Great and Arsinoe, founded around 270 BCE by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Excavations of the basilicas in the early 1980s uncovered fragmentary wall and pavement mosaics, including numerous gold tesserae.
“The excavations turned up an incredible quantity of finds, some of which had not been studied,” said Terry. “The mosaic s fragments we worked on had been recorded in the excavation notebooks and given register numbers, but no one had looked at them since.”
Being the first to closely study the pieces and with time at a premium, Terry’s team chose selective artifacts to document and assess. Some of the pieces were big enough to make out an image, such as an eye, but most were smaller fragments of stone or glass tesserae.
After classifying the mosaic fragments, Terry, Wencek and Hale were able to make some comparisons with mosaics at other locations, including an archeological site in Kourion, on the island’s southwestern coast, and the Archeological Museum in Nicosia, the capital. Stones from the pavement mosaics at Polis were the same color and texture of stones on a nearby beach, Wencek said.
“In general, looking at the basilica mosaics helps give an idea of what or who an ancient community valued, although this is a little tricky with the Polis mosaics because they mostly consist of small fragments and individual tessera, rather than distinguishable images,” said Wencek. “But examples of our observations, such as the pavement mosaic stone being locally sourced, and a lack of red-colored glass tesserae, help to start to paint a picture of workmanship and trade that includes tesserae manufacturing and what kind of materials were available.”
Wencek, a double major in computer science and art, created a Google database to record the physical attributes of each fragment. Those characteristics can help draw direct conclusions or be used in comparisons with other finds. The Wakefield, Rhode Island resident was awarded one of a dozen first-time College of Arts & Science summer fellowships to work on the project, and this fall took first place in the category of the arts, humanities and social sciences for her poster on the project in the University’s Showcase 2018 of undergraduate research, scholarly and creative work.
“Getting to work in Cyprus, at an archeological site, alongside dedicated and passionate professional archeologists and art historians from all over the world was a truly unique and amazing experience,” said Wencek, who is spending her senior year studying at Kochi University in Japan, in an email.
Hale, of Crescent City, California, wanted to take part in the project to expose himself to as many cultures and archeological practices as possible as he prepares for a career in cultural resources management. “I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed learning about mosaics and Cypriot history,” Hale said in an email. “I got some hands-on experience working in foreign museums with ancient artifacts, and I met some very talented and fascinating individuals.”
While the project is just starting, Terry said, “we hope to offer new evidence of Cyprus in late antiquity.”
Terry’s project received funding from the URI Center for Humanities and the URI Hope and Heritage Fund.