Saturday, August 13, 2005

Cyril of Jerusalem's Purpose-Driven Eucharist

One of the themes stressed by Dom Gregory Dix (more here and here) was that innovation in the first millennium of the Christian liturgy pretty much always came from Syria (taken in the broadest sense, from Antioch east to the Tigris and south down to Jerusalem). From there it spreads to Egypt and Byzantium, and thence often to first Spain and then France. Last of all, the innovation would reach Rome, the most conservative (not to say stodgy) of the early churches (see e.g. p. 432). And the most striking burst of this liturgical (and theological) originality came from Jerusalem in the second half of the fourth century. The newly legalized church began making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and there the bishop Cyril (d. AD 386) arranged a new form of worship for the church in a city which had a considerable proportion of monks and domestic ascetics from all over the empire as well as throngs of transient pilgrims visiting the holy sites -- a city whose main industry was already religion (p. 328). From there the returning pilgrims carried these innovations back to their home towns, pushing their bishops to get with the times and adopt the modern new forms of worship (p. 441n.).

One of Dix’s many wonderfully illuminating sidelights is his sketch of this Cyril of Jerusalem (pp. 350-353). Dix seems to like him, although with a shade of condescension, that reminds me of how Mark Noll might write about Bill Hybels: “He had just those qualities of earnest sympathy with the religion of unlearned people, combined with a real if not very profound theological understanding of doctrine . . . He was one of those men who, though without the exceptional religious power of an Athanasius, yet succeeded in crystallizing into definite and clear expression the religious ideas and aspirations of the better sort of average christian in their own time. Under the appearance of pioneering, such men are . . . often more closely in contact with the mind of the coming generation than . . . their own. There are half a dozen topics . . . on which Cyril spoke . . . with a plainness and simplicity which are almost unique in the extant christian literature of the next twenty years but which can then be paralleled a dozen times over in the writers of the following generation” (p. 352).

Although Dix goes out of his way not to stress overly Cyril’s innovation, the phrases he uses speak for themselves: “The church of Jerusalem in the fourth century is ‘very advanced’ and S. Cyril is ‘a very extreme man,’ with no overwhelming reverence for old fashioned churchmanship” (p. 200). And he says, “I hope it is not reading too much into the evidence to suggest that the men of Cyril’s own generation, anti-Arian stalwarts who . . . had been brought up in the old ways -- ‘on the prayer book’ so to speak -- were not altogether free from misgivings about his innovations. Perhaps, too, they remembered the old scandal about Cyril’s consecration as the candidate of the Arians . . . It was when men whom he really represented, the men of the next generation, began in their turn to succeed to the episcopal thrones, that his ideas began to be put into practice in other churches” (p. 353).

From a Lutheran point of view, his innovations are occasionally good, sometimes indifferent, but often bad, sometimes terribly so. Some of the more harmless ones concern matters of ceremonial: the introduction or at least elaboration into a formal ritual of the officiant’s hand washing before the Eucharist (p. 124), the introduction of the Lord’s Prayer into the Eucharist (p. 130), the use of vestments to increase the splendor of worship (pp. 350, 399 -- this innovation didn’t last; the current vestments are simply the late Roman version of the business suit preserved almost unchanged), lamps (pp. 350, 417), etc.

More important was his creation of Holy Week. Before him, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, the whole deal, were celebrated together on Easter day. Cyril separated them out and keyed them to services at the various holy sites in Jerusalem. Multiple eucharists on Maundy Thursday, no eucharist on Good Friday and Holy Saturday were his arrangements. As a result, Dix argues, the previous eschatological emphasis -- the Eucharist as the foretaste of the feast to come -- was replaced by a historical emphasis on the life of Christ (pp. 348-349). Easter lost its ante-Nicene wholeness and became a celebration of the resurrection by itself, not of the whole story of liberation from sin and the devil.

But where Cyril’s innovations had the most important (and from the Lutheran point of view, deletrious) effect was on the celebration and theology of the Eucharist. He was the first to bring the language of fear and dread into the sacrament (p. 200). He may have been responsible for the elimination of the laity’s role in presenting the offertory (p. 438 n.), and in his description of the liturgy is the first to treat it as a “a monologue by the celebrant, in which the people have nothing to do but listen” (p. 442). Not surprisingly, then, Jerusalem in his time is where we first find a veil between the officiant and the laity (p. 481), precursor to the iconostasis taken from Byzantine theater. He was the first to introduce a commemoration of the living and dead directly into the Eucharistic Prayer, and thus explicitly treat the Eucharist itself as a sacrifice for the living and dead (pp. 199, 200, 442-43, 499; previously names of the living were listed if at all at the offertory and the dead only at special funerary eucharists). His Eucharistic prayer is the first to explicitly call on the Holy Spirit to change the elements into the Body and Blood and the first to omit entirely His role in preparing the hearts of the communicants to receive the Body and Blood to their benefit (pp. 198-199). As a result he “differs . . . from the whole pre-Nicene church” in changing the previous view in which the eucharist was “emphatically an action of Christ, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. . . He is the active agent in the eucharist who offers the church as found in Him.” In Cyril’s new theology, by contrast, “Christ plays only a passive part in the eucharist. He is simply the divine Victim Whose Body and Blood are ‘made’ by the action of the Holy Ghost, that the earthly church may offer Him to the Father ‘in propitiation for our sins’” (p. 278). It is not surprising that the Catholic Encyclopedia cites a passage of the Eucharist in Cyril’s Catechesis (cited also in Dix, pp. 188-196) and comments (approvingly) that it “reads like a modern prayer-book" (it's a long article, do a search with that phrase to find it)-- the accent is indeed on modern, since nothing like it can be found in any earlier liturgy.

When I look at articles like this, by confident, popular, dynamic "leaders" in the church in tune with the new era, who treat the old liturgy and hymnody as something so dead it no longer even merits much opposition, I am somehow reminded of Cyril of Jerusalem.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

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