Saturday, October 26, 2013

Eastern Catholic Liturgies by Nicholas Liesel, reviewed by Lance Goldsberry

Eastern Catholic Liturgies by Nicholas Liesel is truly a classic. First published in Germany in 1956, this book was later published in English in 1960. Donald Attwater, the noted scholar on Eastern Christianity writes a foreword for the book.

It is a great coffee table book, which provides a survey on how all the various Eastern Catholic Churches celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice (Mass in the West). This books highlights the Divine Liturgy as it is celebrated in 12 major Catholic Churches: Ruthenian (Ukrainian), Russian, Greek, Syrian, Melkite (Arabic), Maronite (Lebanese), Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian, Armenian, Chaldee (Iraq and Persia), Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara (India) Churches. All of these, except the Maronites, have analogs in sister Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Liesel provides historical sketches of all of the particular Eastern Catholic Churches, which gives one a sense of the Universality of the Church as she grew among various national groups, beginning with the dispersion of the Apostles.

It also underscores the truth of Catholic-Orthodoxy, as we see that the Church offers the single sacrifice of Christ with the same basic understanding of the Holy Eucharist, through out the various lands, nations and cultures that have been reached with the gospel: "For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts."- Malachi 1:11, Douay Bible. Justin Martyr (2nd Century) used this passage to explain the Christian Eucharistic Sacrifice.

The Church reached from the British Isles, across Europe and Northern Africa, and even into Central Asia, and eventually as far as China in the first millennium. Yet, all the Churches maintained a basic Catholic understanding of the Trinity and Person of Christ, Baptism, the Holy Sacrifice, the veneration of the Mother of God, and the Sacraments. This was not a top-down development, but the organic growth of the Church universal among various tribes, nations, and peoples, beginning with the original Apostles of Christ. For example, St. Mark the Gospel writer and interpreter for St. Peter in Rome, founded the Church in Egypt, and was the first Coptic Pope. St. Thomas founded Churches in Iraq and India. These Christian communities have existed in these lands since the first century.

Later expansion of the Church takes place as the Nestorians push into China, and Sts. Cyril and Methodius evangelize the Slavs, and offer the Divine Liturgy in the language of the people. Their work laid the foundations for Churches in Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The narratives for these Churches also underscore periods of suppression and persecution, lending credence to Tertullian's saying that the "Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church."

Liesel, besides providing these fine historical sketches, also gives a detailed description of each of these Liturgies, with their actions and rubrics. Black and white pictures of the Liturgies taken by N. Makula underscore their awe and beauty. All of the pictures were taken in Rome.

Because of the time this book was written, Latinizations that either crept in or were enforced in the Eastern Churches are evident. We see Latin-style garments, and read about spoken Liturgies without sensing in the Ruthenian Church. However, Liesel even at this time notes the urgency for reform to purify these Eastern rites of their Latinizations. The Eastern Catholic Churches have been a stumbling block between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Some may scoff at the quaintness of this book, which features Latinizations and sometimes exhibits a very slight Catholic chauvinism over and against our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. But until someone produces something better, this is a treasure. I hope one day, someone produces a similar book, which will be more up to date, and reflect the period post-Vatican II, featuring the reform of the ancient Eastern Catholic Liturgies and be based on the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches as well.

I am very lucky. I picked up my copy of this book in good condition with a library cover for only $10 in the area known as Dinky Town in Minneapolis, by the University. However, I have often seen this book for up to $100 on line on eBay or Amazon used books, so if you happen across one in a used book store for a good price, snap it up! I am sure it will provide you hours of enjoyment as it has for me. It is one of my most treasured possessions.

I can't close this review without mentioning that we need also to pray for our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters, who are facing fierce persecution at this time in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and other places as well.

- by Lance Goldsberry

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