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Liturgy of Christianity’s Infancy

by Rev. Romanos V. Russo
photos by Gregory Clarkin


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On the holiest vigil of the year: great and Holy Saturday, the clergy make the solemn entrance bearing the gifts to be offered while the choir sings the ancient hymn, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” This soulful melody preserves the last vestige of the Antioch-Jerusalem tradition within the consciousness of the Byzantine East.

Until recently that precious relic from the Antioch-Jerusalem tradition was used only on Holy Saturday by many Byzantine churches. But the Liturgy of St. James, as the Antiochene-Jerusalem liturgy is called, never completely died out among the Byzantines.

On the saint’s feast day (October 23) the ancient liturgy, albeit in heavily “Byzantinized” form, was offered on the Greek island of Zakynthus or in Jerusalem.

In recent years it has returned to more widespread use. Among the Greek and Russian Orthodox as well as in Melkite Greek-Catholic circles this liturgy, redolent of the New Zion, the First-Born of the Churches of God, has been restored to the place of honor it deserves.

The liturgy’s text is traditionally attributed to St. James who is especially associated with the Church of Jerusalem and the Catholic epistle which bears his name. Modern scholarship would say that the liturgy, rather than emanating from his pen, developed from within a milieu where St. James’ memory was highly honored: Jerusalem and then Antioch.

The New Testament recalls three Jameses: James the Greater, brother of St. John the Evangelist; James the son of Alphaeus and James, the “brother of the Lord,” first bishop of Jerusalem.

The Liturgy bears the title Divine and Holy Liturgy of St. James Brother-of-God! Who is this James to whose church we owe the beautiful liturgy that bears his name? Whom must we thank for the mystical strains of the Holy Saturday hymn? Catholic piety would say that he was a cousin of our Lord. The Orthodox, following the tradition enshrined in some of the apocryphal New Testament writings, maintain that he is the son, by a previous marriage, of none other than St. Joseph himself, who would have been a widower when he married the Blessed Virgin Mary! What is stranger still is that a mosaic in the cathedral of Monreale, Sicily seems to confirm this eastern view. The scene is the familiar flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. St. Joseph leads the donkey that bears its precious cargo, the Mother of God and Our Lord Himself. Bringing up the rear is a young man identified explicitly as James the brother-of-God or Adelphotheos!

At any rate, both Catholics and Orthodox do agree that St. James presided over the infant church in Jerusalem. Sacred to his memory is the Divine Liturgy of the Mother of all Churches as it travelled in history from its origins in the Holy City, then as it developed at Antioch and now, restored, once again in all the imperial splendor of Constantinople. As you contemplate these pictures and meditate on these holy texts, return in spirit to the infancy of Christianity and assist at the Liturgy that nourished the faith of martyrs.

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Father Romanos is a pastor of St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church in New York City.



Tags: Catholic Orthodox Church Prayers/Hymns/Saints Melkite Greek Catholic Church Byzantine Catholic Church