- Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium by Derek Krueger
Beginning with Ephraim the Syrian in the fourth century, a rich tradition of liturgical hymnody flourished in Eastern Christianity. In the sixth century Romanos the Melodist composed kontakia—poetic homilies chanted during services. In the seventh Andrew of Crete wrote his Great Canon, a penitential composition used in Lent. Other Lenten hymns were brought together in the ninth century in the Triodion. Some of this material was composed for use in monasteries; but by the eleventh century, the monastic liturgical tradition had largely replaced the “cathedral” tradition in the Byzantine Orthodox Church.
Derek Krueger, the Joe Rosenthal Excellence Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, has studied this material—and the addresses given by Symeon the New Theologian to his monks in the late-tenth and early-eleventh century—to write this fascinating book. He aims to show how the self-understanding of Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine Empire from the sixth to the eleventh century was formed by the psalms, scripture readings, and hymnody [End Page 602] read or chanted in the course of the daily services. Based on a detailed examination of the texts he has chosen, mostly penitential in character, he assesses the impact they must have had on the formation of the Byzantine self. He studies, too, the impact on worshipers of the liturgical year and the Eucharist, which he presents as promoting a sense of sinfulness in Byzantine worshipers. Both rehearse the history of salvation, so reminding the congregation of their need to be saved, although from the early-sixth century the eucharistic prayer was said inaudibly, Justinian’s law of 565 AD notwithstanding.
Krueger concludes that “Byzantine liturgists preferred performances of a disordered self, wracked with remorse, bewailing its past, overwrought with inwardly directed grief” (p. 221). It is of course true that sorrow for sin and repentance is at the heart of Christianity. But the Christian East never adopted St. Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine of original sin and had a less pessimistic view of human nature. It took seriously the good news that God in Christ had overcome sin and freed humankind from its dominance. Byzantine sinners were not only saveable, as Krueger of course affirms: in an important sense, they had been saved. After the Lenten Triodion comes the Pentecostarion; and its Eastertide texts, among them the Easter Canon of St John of Damascus, speak of Christians sharing now in the risen life of Christ—a truth presented visually by the Orthodox icon of the Resurrection, of which every Sunday is a weekly celebration in the Orthodox East. Byzantine Christians, says Krueger, gained access to themselves through penitential rhetoric and gained self-understanding by means of repentant speech. Was their self-understanding then not at all influenced by texts affirming the present reality of salvation? Had such texts no effect on the formation of the Byzantine self?
Possibly not, or at least not as much as might be thought. Krueger raises the question of how far the majority of Byzantines could understand the liturgical texts, and even if they could, how far they listened to them. He believes the texts were comprehensible, but is aware that congregations could be far from attentive in church. He acknowledges, too, that we have no direct evidence of the inner life of Byzantine Christians. Perhaps, then, not all Byzantine selves were fashioned by liturgical worship to the extent the clergy wished, either in sorrow for sin or rejoicing in present salvation.