Come and See

Some (disorganised) thoughts

– Kristian Akselberg

Questions posed by inquirers into the Orthodox Christian faith are often met with the simple response “Come and see.” What is meant by the use of these words of the Lord to the inquiring disciple[1] is that Christianity is not merely a philosophy to be grasped through the reading of books or intellectual discussion, but a living relationship with Christ, only properly understood through experience. Moreover, nowhere is the faith of the Christian Church quite so clearly and purposefully expressed than in her worship – lex orandi, lex credendi.[2] While certainly an appropriate way to convey this important truth to inquirers, rarely do those among whom the phrase has become something of a cliché, particularly on the infamous Orthodox internet fora, consider exactly what these inquirers are to come and see.

“Of Thy mystical supper, receive me today, O Son of God, as a communicant. For I shall not speak of the Mystery to Thine enemies, nor will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas, but as the thief I confess Thee, remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom.” This prayer of the faithful prior to the reception of the Holy Gifts hearkens back to the early centuries of the Church when the divine Mysteries were treated precisely as that.[3] The rites of baptism, chrismation and the Liturgy of the Faithful were a jealously guarded secret. Not only were the non-baptised prohibited from participating in or seeing these rites – the Orthodox Liturgy to this day includes the expulsion of the catechumens after the reading of the Holy Gospel – but believers were strictly ordered not to divulge any information about what they witnessed in church. To do so, as the hymn above suggests, was considered tantamount to Judas’ betrayal of Christ. In other words, not a trivial offence. Only the φωτιζόμενοι, those catechumens who had been enrolled for baptism the coming Pascha, would be given an explanation of the rites they were to undergo, though in some places even these had to wait, and retrospective explanations were given to the newly baptised. Even detailed explanations of doctrine were withheld from all non-baptised, save the φωτιζόμενοι, and the articles of the Symbol of Faith were only handed down to them orally – lest a written copy should fall into the wrong hands – days before their impending baptism. [Helping the baptismal candidates memorise the Creed was, incidentally, one of the primary roles of the godparent, something to remember next time you see a sponsor at a modern day baptism stutter through a written copy of a wholly unfamiliar text!] St. Cyril of Jerusalem tells them that “This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it, and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper, but engraving it by the memory upon your heart, taking care while you rehearse it that no Catechumen chance to overhear the things which have been delivered to you.[4] To similar effect, prefacing his Catechetical Lectures is the following warning: These Catechetical Lectures for those who are to be enlightened you may lend to candidates for Baptism, and to believers who are already baptized, to read, but not at all to Catechumens, nor to any others who are not Christians, as you shall answer to the Lord. And if you make a copy, write this in the beginning, as in the sight of the Lord. We find similar sentiments expressed by more or less all patristic authors of the same period.

There is debate among scholars as to whether this practice of secrecy, known as the Disciplina Arcani in academic circles, has its origins in the New Testament period or is of later origin. In support of the former we find Christ’s own words regarding parables and secrecy, while those who favour a later date cite open discussion of the Mysteries in the 2nd century (though the question naturally remains whether these were the exception rather than the rule).[5] In any case, we know it to be firmly established by the 3rd century, and see a greatly heightened emphasis on it in the 4th. I mention this because it is important to understand that the concern to keep the Mysteries out of the gaze of non-Christians heightened, not under persecution, but at the time when the Church had just gained her freedom and Christianity had risen to a position of imperial favour. In other words, secrecy, whatever its origin, was a matter of sincere principle rather than fearful pragmatism. The disappearance of the Disciplina in later centuries was not due to a change in the Church’s attitude to the exposure of the Mysteries to the non-baptised, but in a world in which the vast majority of people were baptised Orthodox Christians it was simply no longer a matter of concern. That infant baptism, which in earlier centuries had been a fairly uncommon occurrence, later became the norm probably also accounts in part for its disappearance: the children would have had a harder time than their parents keeping what they saw in church to themselves.

In many ways, we in the West now live in societies much more reminiscent of the earliest centuries of Church history. Practicing Christians are an ever diminishing minority among a secular majority, with only history and cultural identity giving us an ‘upper hand’ over the myriad of other religious groups around us. We are therefore far removed from the overwhelmingly Christian society in which the Discplina Arcani fell into disuse. Yet, a quick Google search will reveal countless images, audio recordings, and videos showing the Mysteries of the Church in every detail. Few will bat an eyelid when they see a camera man irreverently barging into the sanctuary during the anaphora, or pushing the priest aside to get a good shot of the godmother’s dress or mother’s hat during a baptism. One priest I know referred to filming in the altar as “liturgical pornography,” a description I find particularly apt as the Eucharist is the most intimate act of the Church, the Bride of Christ, with her Bridegroom. Many parishes broadcast the Divine Liturgy live on the radio, televison, or through live steaming online. Not only does this needlessly expose the Liturgy to those unfit to see or hear it, but also undermines the simple fact that the Liturgy of the Faithful is meant for participation, it’s not a spectacle. It further undermines the reality of the Liturgy as a synaxis, a gathering, of the people of God, on which Met. John Zizioulas has the following to say:

The Eucharistic gathering, as an image of the last times, certainly should involve only the baptized. In this sense, we are talking about a closed community which comes together ‘the doors being shut’ (Jn. 20:19; cf. the exclamation ‘The doors! The doors!’) The Eucharistic gathering can never be a means and instrument of mission, because in the last times, which it represents, there will be no mission; anyway, mission presupposes dispersal, not a gathering ‘in one place’. Consequently, it is contrary to the nature of the Eucharist as image of the Kingdom to broadcast it over television or radio, whether for pastoral reasons or for the purpose of mission (a way of broadcasting or advertising the ‘richness’ and ‘beauty’ of our worship). In the Eucharist, one participates either ‘gathered in one place’, or not at all. Participation at a distance has no meaning. As for those who are sick or unable to come to the gathering, the Church’s very ancient practice is to bring them the fruit of the gathering (Holy Communion, antidoron, etc.), and not the gathering itself, either aurally or visually.[6]

Certainly a total restoration of the Discplina Arcani in a media driven age such as ours is neither possible nor desirable. The internet is littered with hosts of erroneous, often laughable, descriptions and explanations of Christian doctrine and practice. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Moslem apologists go to great lengths to demonstrate the tri-theism of Christianity, or Protestant sectarians ridiculing the ‘blasphemous cannibalism’ and ‘vampirism’ of the traditional Christian understanding of the Eucharist. It is precisely such blasphemous derision the Fathers cite as the reason knowledge of the Mysteries should be kept from those too spiritually immature and not sufficiently educated to hear them. Now, however, it’s too late, and not making the correct information on those subjects available would probably be a bad idea. Furthermore, the basic doctrines of faith and the sacraments of baptism, chrismation and communion are shared by a number of non-Orthodox Christian groups, and were the Orthodox to attempt to re-institute the Discplina, it would be of little effect in this respect.

What is possible, however, and in my opinion also desirable, is for us Orthodox to cease our shameless and wholly unnecessary parading of the Mysteries before the non-baptised (or trivialising them in the eyes of the baptised, for that matter). The Liturgy of the Faithful is so called for a reason. While I personally think the re-introduction of the dismissal of non-Orthodox from the Liturgy following the Gospel would be a good thing – and it does still happen in a number of places – I understand the obvious pastoral difficulties this involves, and it should only be done in a way that is pastorally sensitive, lest we cause needless offence and drive away potential converts. There are no such pastoral concerns when it comes to uploading pictures, videos, and recordings on the internet, however. Our priests should not feel afraid to deny a camera crew entry to the sanctuary, nor to admonish an altar boy trying to photograph something on his camera phone. Those who have such pictures and videos up on the internet could be encouraged to remove them, and, if they really needed to, replace them with something taken at a Vesper, Matins, or the Liturgy of the Catechumens, which are no less beautiful or awe-inspiring services. If someone wishes to make a video of a “Teaching Liturgy” or some such thing, these can be distributed to parishioners directly through the parish bookshop, or online via private mailing lists (even youtube has a privacy setting allowing you to chose who can see the videos you upload). Those churches which broadcast live on Sunday mornings could limit these broadcasts to the Liturgy of the Catechumens. Perhaps this would in turn encourage priests to deliver the sermon immediately after the Gospel, which is its proper place, rather than moving it to the end of the Liturgy or, more disruptively, to just before the Communion of the Faithful.

While there generally is still a strong sense of reverence around the Eucharist in our churches, the same can sadly not be said for most baptisms, at least of the infant variety. These tend to be a rather disorganised affair, and are seen by most simply as a rite of passage, a celebration of the birth of a new child. Emphasis is not on death and rebirth into Christ, the reception of the Holy Spirit, or the making of a Christian, but on the attire of those present and the cuteness of the baby, assuming s/he is at all visible behind the photographer and camera man. The venerable position of the godparent as a spiritual guide for the new believer has become nothing more than a way to honour a good friend or relative, regardless of their spiritual life. I have had the misfortune of witnessing baptisms at which the godparent was not even an Orthodox Christian! Perhaps if there was a renewed emphasis on baptism as a Mystery rather than a spectacle, open not to the general public but only to the prayers of the faithful, and where photography and such was limited, we might be able to regain at least some sense of reverence for baptism and an appreciation for its tremendous importance.

Thus, by all means, encourage the world to “come and see” what the Church has to offer. “Here is order, here is discipline, here is majesty, here is purity: here even to look upon a woman to lust after her[7] is condemnation. Here is marriage with sanctity, here steadfast continence, here virginity in honour like the Angels: here partaking of food with thanksgiving, here gratitude to the Creator of the world. Here the Father of Christ is worshipped: here are taught fear and trembling before Him who sends the rain: here we ascribe glory to Him who makes the thunder and the lightning.[8] But let Mystery remain mystery.

Τοῦ δείπνου σου τοῦ μυστικοῦ σήμερον, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, κοινωνόν με παράλαβε· οὐ μὴ γὰρ τοῖς ἐχθροῖς σου τὸ μυστήριον εἴπω· οὐ φίλιμά σοι δώσω, καθάπερ ὁ Ἰούδας· ἀλλ’ ὡς ὁ λῃστὴς ὁμολογῶ σοι μνήσθητί μου, Κύριε, ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ σου.

[1] cf. John 1:39 and Philip’s words to Nathanael, v.46.

[2]The law of prayer is the law of belief.

[3] μυστήριον means secret.

[4] Catechetical Lectures 5:12.

[5] See, for example, S.J. Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A. (2nd Edition), Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994. For a more recent overview, two articles by Michael-Yves Perrin: ‘Arcana Mysteria Ou Ce Que Cache La Religion: De Certaines Pratiques De L’Arcane Dans Le Christianisme Antique’ in Riedl, Matthias and Schabert, Tilo (eds.). Religions – The Religious Experience = Religionen – Die Religiöse Erfahrung, Würzburg: Verlag Köningshausen & Neumann GmbH, 2008, and ‘Norunt Fideles: Silence et eucharistie dans l’orbis christianus antique’ in Bériou, Nicole, Caseau, Béatrice and Rigaux, Dominique. Pratiques de l’eucharistie dans les Églises d’Orient et d’Occident (Antiquité et Moyen Âge) vol. 2, Paris, Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 2009, 737-763.

[6] John D. Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World, New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2011, p.48.

[7] cf. Matthew 5:28

[8] St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 6:35