Friday, December 15, 2006

Rubrics, the Priest and the Byzantine Tradition

The term “rubric” has its origin in the use of red ink to print directions in Christian service books. Over the centuries, rubric has become synonymous with the word rule, and it often carries the connotation of exacting directions for carrying out some particular task. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of “liturgical” churches is the importance of the rubrics within the worship service and the insistence, real or imagined, on following specific and detailed rules to enact the liturgical worship.

To some extent, every worship service is directed, but what distinguishes the Catholic Tradition (including the Orthodox Churches, Churches of the East and several Protestant communions) is the importance of the specific order and purpose of each component in the service. This essential emphasis manifests itself most clearly in the teleturgics (liturgical practice, “following the rubrics”) performed by the clergy.

To celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the priest and deacon are required not only to have prepared the vessels and gifts, etc., but their minds and hearts as well. The preparatory services not only ensure that everything needed for the celebration is in place, but also help establish a spiritual focus on the Great Mystery that will unfold in the Liturgy. For the Byzantine Tradition, the importance of rubrics can not be overstated.

The Catholic Tradition emphasizes that worship is essentially adoration of God. The duty owed to God by man is faithfulness to the revelation of God manifest foremost and primarily in acts of adoration. If God is love, as St John plainly tells us, then our reply to that love is found in gathered celebrations that allow our love to be expressed correctly with the same selflessness our Lord manifest in His Incarnation. To worship God is to love God, to adore Him. Offering God worship in the right manner is essential to Catholic, and particularly Byzantine, worship.

It is not, therefore, without reason that orthodox is the term often used to define Byzantine worship. Orthodox, typically explained as meaning “correct doctrine”, actually means “right praise” or “correct glory” in the sense of the desire to correctly offer adoration and glory to God. For the Byzantine Christian, every liturgical rite and service requires order and demands attention and proper decorum. This is because every act of worship is an act of adoration, an act of love offered to the God who first loved us.

Rubrics are a spiritual discipline for the clergy. Following the rubrics requires concentration and a sense of posture appropriate to standing before God Himself. The priest finds that he must spiritually empty himself in order to celebrate the Mysteries and services. Through this self-emptying he can truly serve in persona Christi and offer up Christ to God the Father in the Holy Anaphora. The focus is always on Christ, and obedience to the rubrics becomes a path that leads the priest to grow in His Image through the very adoration and worship he offers Him.

When the rubrics present a choice, the priest carefully considers which option to choose. He is mindful that to truly preside he must, in a sense, become invisible; his selections must always be made with the purpose of helping other worshippers and must never distract. He never allows himself to become the focus of attention beyond carrying out the role assigned him by the rubrics.

It is sometimes claimed that rubrics can be obtuse and restrictive, but such a view misunderstands the splendor of Grace that flows through following their directions. Far from imprisoning us, the rubrics offer us the assurance of true freedom in our worship. Rubrics ensure that the God we worship is indeed being worshipped in a manner appropriate to Who He is and whom He has called us to be.

This allows us to encounter the text of the prayers with a dynamic intensity and attention appropriate to an act of self-offering. The prayer of the Saints, the prayer of the Church, becomes our prayer. We are united with the Church around the world and throughout the ages, and the prayers and hymns are revealed to be manifestations of our unity in Christ. Thus, following the rubrics becomes a humbling and uplifting reception of a Divine Gift that always prevents the text of the prayer from becoming dry repetitious words.

While the rubrics for the laity are not as many or as specific as are those for the clergy, I heartily encourage everyone to keep them close at heart. When we are attentive to the rubrics our minds and hearts find little that can distract us from offering true love to the Holy Trinity.

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