St John Chrysostom and worship old & new

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Today is the Feast of St John Chrysostom, so when I prayed Morning Prayer (using the Prayer Book Society of Canada’s Daily Prayer App!), the prayer included at the close, taken from his Divine Liturgy, stood out more than usual. This prayer is where Anglicans will have most likely seen his name, if ever:

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests: Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.

I have not delved into the secondary literature on late antique and Byzantine liturgy too deeply, but I do know that this prayer is also in the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great — so either it is deeply traditional and included by both, or it is newer than both and incorporated later. Both are options; I do not have the facilities or research skills to answer the question.

Nonetheless, it is a great prayer, and it reminds us of how powerful a thing it is when we pray together, be it Morning Prayer or Evensong, a prayer before Bible study, family prayers after a meal, or a husband and wife before bed. When two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, He will grant their requests. The next time your church service has a low turnout (as in, this coming Sunday, what with lockdowns and all), praise God for His mighty power that is present!

This prayer, as I noted above, is from the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Eucharistic liturgy used by the Eastern Orthodox Church as its regular liturgy. It is not quite as long as that of St Basil (but it’s still a time commitment, O Protestants who want things short and snappy), but it is beautiful and theologically powerful AND ancient.

When I say this liturgy is ancient, I’m not just repeating what an Orthodox priest once told me (although, in fact, I am). First, of course, the Words of Institution from 1 Corinthians 11, used in/adapted for traditional liturgies, are an actual apostolic liturgy. This passage is not St Paul’s own words; this passage, like a few others in his epistles, is a liturgical quotation. St Paul heard this at church — probably from St Peter and St James, frankly.

Second — setting aside for a moment the question of wording — the very structure of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, like that of the Roman Mass, the Book of Common Prayer, the Divine Liturgy of St James, the Divine Liturgy of Addai and Mari, etc., matches what we find in first- and second-century descriptions such as the Didache and Justin Martyrs.

Third, various traditional parts of this liturgy pre-date St John Chrysostom: the sursum corda — that part of the liturgy that includes “Lift up your hearts” — and the Sanctus — “Holy, holy, holy Lord” — come immediately to mind.

Fourth, in an illuminating article the reference to which I do not have, Robert Taft demonstrates, using data analysis, that at least the anaphora of this Divine Liturgy, beginning with the sursum corda and continuing to at least the epiclesis is actually by St John Chrysostom, being his own reworking of traditional material from the Church of Antioch. Chrysostom died in 407, so this is also ancient.

Fifth, a variety of the prayers found elsewhere in the Divine Liturgy, while not by Chrysostom, can be traced to other ancient figures or ancient moments in history, such as Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century and John of Damascus in the eighth.

What’s the upshot of all this? Well, if you want to encounter ancient Christian worship, here it is. I mean, not entirely. For example, if you go to an Orthodox church, the icon screen and the serving of the elements with a spoon are mediaeval developments. But the vast majority of what goes on here is, in fact, ancient or has ancient precedent.

We are reminded of the power liturgy can have to help transform us by renewing of our minds. An example of how it shapes our theology is when it echoes Chrysostom’s work On the Incomprehensibility of God:

You, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever, forever the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.

Straight from there, we find some of the main themes of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation being bodied forth:

You brought us out of nothing into being, and when we had fallen away, You raised us up again. You left nothing undone until you had led us up to heaven and granted us Your Kingdom, which is to come.

Throughout, the theology of the Eucharist and of salvation by Christ our God, is pressed home in the Divine Liturgy. At this moment in time, I see nothing in the Anaphora that should trouble me. Indeed, most Protestant liturgies I’ve met pale in comparison! This is a spiritual worship.

Also, and here I get controversial — what worship is shaping our congregations? Are we cutting verses to hymns because they’re too long? Swapping theologically rich worship for emotionally satisfying singing? Putting on a feel-good show but neglecting the spiritual act of worship? I encourage you to read this text and meditate on what you do on a Sunday morning, especially if you are clergy or a worship leader. What might change in light of the theological thunder of Chrysostom’s liturgy?

I circle back to the Prayer Book. The one question that has been lurking all day is — where did Cranmer get it? I mean, he must have had a copy of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Print? Manuscript? Where did it come from? How widespread were Byzantine liturgical books in England at the time? Who knows the answers to these questions?