From East to West: part four

Last year, I posted three examples of overlap between the rites of east and west. You may read them here, here, and here.

Well, I have found yet another. Due to this illuminating post by Joseph, I was moved to compare the candle-blessing ceremonies of east and west for the feast of the Encounter of the Lord on the 2nd of February, and was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered.

Both eastern and western rites have five prayers of blessing of the candles. Here is the second prayer from the Roman Rite:

O Lord, holy Father, almighty everlasting God, Who hast created all things out of nothing, and Who through the labour of bees at thy command hast caused this fluid to come to the perfection of wax, and Who, on this day, didst fulfil the request of the Just Symeon, we humbly beseech Thee, that Thou wouldest vouchsafe to bless and sanctify these candles prepared for the service of man, and for the health of their bodies and souls, whether by land or sea, through the invocation of thy holy Name, and through the intercession of St Mary, Ever-Virgin, whose festival is this day devoutly celebrated, and through the prayers of all thy Saints; and that from thy holy heaven, and from the seat of thy majesty, Thou wouldest hear the voice of this thy people, who desire in thy honour to bear them in their hands, and to praise and exalt Thee; and that Thou wouldest be propitious unto all who call upon Thee, whom Thou has redeemed with the precious blood of thy Son. Who with Thee and the Holy Spirit liveth in glory, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It is a rather beautful prayer, I think. Now compare it to the first prayer of blessing from the Byzantine Rite:
O Holy Master, Father Almighty, O Pre-eternal God, Who, at thy command, madest all things out of nothingness, and Who, only by thinking it broughtest this creation to the perfect Light, and Who hast fulfilled the petition of the Righteous Symeon on this present day: we humbly pray that Thou be pleased to bless and sanctify these candles, which have been prepared beforehand at the request of the people, for the health of soul and body, whether they be on land or on the waters, at the invocaton of thy most holy Name, and by the prayers of the Blessed and Ever-Virgin Mary, whose feast we now reverently celebrate, and by the prayers of all thy Saints. And from thy holy heaven, hearken unto the voices of these, thy people, who reverently desire to carry them, and, singing hymns, to glorify Thee; and from the throne of thy majesty, be merciful unto all crying out unto Thee, whom Thou hast purchased with the precious blood of thy Son, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with thy Most-holy, Good, and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
This is quite obviously the same prayer. I find this to be quite interesting in and of itself, but there's more. Here, for example, is the third prayer of blessing from the Roman Rite:
Almighty everlasting God, Who as on this day wast pleased that thine Only-Begotten One should be presented in thy holy temple, and received in the arms of St Symeon, we humbly beseech thy mercy that Thou wouldest vouchsafe to bless, and sanctify, and kindle with the light of thy heavenly benediction these candles, which we thy servants desire to take up and carry in honour of thy Name, to the end that, by offering them to Thee our Lord God, and being inflamed by the holy fire of thy most sweet brightness, we may be found worthy to be presented in the holy temple of thy glory. Through the same thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.
Compare this to the second prayer of blessing of the Byzatine Rite:
O Almighty, Pre-eternal God, Who on this day didst lay thine Only-Begotten Son in the arms of the Holy Symeon in thy holy temple, we call upon thy deep compassion: do Thou bless and sanctify these candles which we, thy servants, receive and desire to carry for the majesty of thy Name, and be pleased to light them with the light of thy heavenly blessing, that we who are offering them unto Thee, our Lord God, meetly enflamed with thy sweetest love, through a holy fire, may be counted worthy also to stand in the Temple of thy glory. For Thou art our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Sprit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
This raises some interesing questions. How did these same prayers end up in both rites? On the one hand, it should seem fairly unremarkable. After all, eastern and western rites have many traits in common due to their common origins. Many of the readings at the western paschal vigil and the old eastern paschal vigil are the same, as a prime example.

However, something does not seem to quite fit. The two prayers above state an explicit desire to carry the candles. In the Roman Rite, this is a clear reference to what immediately follows the blessing of the candles, where the people carry them, lit, in procession. As Joseph points out, this symbolises or actualises our participation in the event and mystery which the feast calls us to celebrate: the presentation of Christ in the temple. However, no such procession exists in the Byzantine Rite, yet the prayers refer to the people carrying the candles. How do we explain this?

Is the presence of these prayers in both east and west indicative of their antiquity? Or is it more likely that they migrated into the Byzantine Rite due to a later cross-fertilisation of the rites? We have seen this happen in the other direction with the tone 2 Sunday Matins stikheron finding its way into the Sarum ceremonies for Easter Day, so it is possible, and it would certainly explain the references to a non-existent procession. While it is not implausible that the procession did once exist in the Byzantine east and fell into disuse at some point, this line of thought raises another question, which is that of the timing of this ceremony. In the Byzantine Rite, most liturgical actions of this sort are to be inserted near the end of the Divine Liturgy. They customarily take place after the Prayer Below the Ambo and before the threefold "Blessed be the Name of the Lord from this time forth and for evermore". This is true of the blessing of grapes at Transfiguration, herbs at Dormition, and of water at Theophany, among other things. This is even the place for the insertion of processions, such as the moleben procession on the patronal festival of a parish or monastery. Yet the rubrics stipulate that the blessing of candles is to take place, not at this point, but after the Sixth Hour and before the Divine Liturgy, which is precisely the position called for in the Roman Rite. Thus it is quite uncharacteristic of the Byzantine liturgical tradition.

My personal suspicion is that this ceremony is a later interpolation into the Byzantine Rite. It is only in the west that the feast came to be commonly known as Candlemass and the ceremonies surrounding the candles do not quite seem to fit when transferred into eastern practice. I am, of course, willing to be corrected by those who know more about the development of these things but here are my own thoughts, open to scrutiny and comment.

16 responses:

ex_fide said...


I don't know anything about the Byzantine liturgical tradition. Could you tell me whether processions in the East have penitential overtones? It seems in the Roman rite all liturgical processions (that originally left the church building) signify penance or petition, which are closely related in the tradition. The Candlemas procession shows typical characteristics of a penitential procession, particularly the "litania" to Rome's station churches and its condensed form in the Pachal Vigil litany-procession to the font). Thoughts?

Michael said...

Hmmm. Truth be told, I have never give much thought to it, although my initial inclination is to say "yes and no". "Yes", in the sense that all services in the Byzantine Rite display a tension between our share in the Resurrection of Christ on the one hand and our living under the conditions of the fall on the other. Vespers begins with psalm 103, the psalm of the new creation, and the Royal Doors are wide open, showing our full access to the Kingdom, then immediately afterwards, they are closed as we start the great litany, showing that our existence in Eden was short-lived. The litany response itself, repeated throughout all Byzantine services, is "Lord, have mercy", which in the original Greek is more like "Lord, give your blessing/show your favour". That itself carries a dual meaning. It is much more than merely a plea for forgiveness, (despite what one might think from the English rnedering), but it is certainly that too.

So yes, Byzantine Rite processions are penitential insofar as all Byzantine services express both penitence and resurrectional hope but I don't think there's anything specifically penitential about processions. You can see the moleben procession here for an example. It realy is a joyous event. The procession with the plashchanitsa (tomb of the Saviour), practised in the Greek tradition and Great and Holy Friday, may have more of a penitential flavour about it but I imagine that to be in keeping with the spirit of the day rather than the fact that it is a procession.

I could do some more exploration of various processions to find out if you'd like.

Anonymous said...

There was quite a good reading at vigils this morning from St Sophronius (c. AD 500) which referred to the significance of carrying candles on today's feast so I think it must be a fairly early tradition in the liturgy.

Michael said...

Thank you so much for that, Mark. That's a really interesting thing to know, and raises questions of its own.

St Sophronius was Patriarch of Jerusalem. That in itself is significant because, as I understand it, many of the ceremonies surrounding our celebration of events in the life of Christ are only known to us because they were brought back by pilgrims to the Holy Land, where they would have seen them performed in the actual places. Therefore, it is quite possible that, like the palm procession, the procession with blessed candles was a staple of Jerusalem liturgical life very early on, and spread to other places from there. Whether it made its way to Constantinople and thus into the Byzantine Rite, I cannot say.

Another point is that, while the Church of Jerusalem now follows the Byzantine Rite, it was not always so. The Liturgy of St James, for instance, is not Byzantine but rather belongs to an Antiochene family of rites, which is presumably what was generally followed in Jerusalem.

My understanding is that there were two main influences bringing about the byzantinisation of the various local rites and their eventual supersession by the rite of Constantinople. These were the rise of Constantinople to "New Rome" in the 4th century, and more recently the subjugation of a number of the patriarchates to Ottoman Rule from the 13th century onwards, which resulted in a gradual standardisation according to the rite of Constantinople. (Bishop Jerome of Manhattan cites the latter as the main reason for the eventual disuse in the Church of Alexandria of its indigenous Liturgy of St Mark, and why the more recent of the extant manuscripts show heavy byzantinisation.)

The point of all of that is to say that, my knowledge of history being what it is, I don't know when the Jerusalem church changed to the Byzantine Rite. The timing of that will affect how we read St Sophronius. Was he writing from his experience of the imported Byzantine traditions or of the local Jerusalem traditions? If the former, this tells us that the candle procession did once exist in the Byzantine Rite and my obsessive curiosity will not allow me to rest until I find out when it fell into disuse, and why it is absent from our service books today. If the latter, then we know that the candle procession is an early tradition in Jerusalem but it doesn't explain the seeming disjointedness of those blessing prayers in the byzantine service books.

The thick plottens.

Michael said...

As an aside, does your office book cite the source for the reading? I'd quite like to look at that myself when we come round to celebrating the feast. Ta muchly!

Anonymous said...

That is all fascinating. My knowledge of the various families of rites is all but non-existent so I am grateful for this. BDP says that it's from the Sermons on the Presentation by St Sophronius, which I'm not sure helps all that much, but maybe it will point you in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

...and it's Sermon 3, apparently.

Michael said...

Thank you! :-)

A quick google for "St Sophronius, sermon on the Presentation" produces some promising results.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, it is only the Slavic branches of the Byantine church that bless candles on the Feast of the Presentation, and they borrowed the custom from the Latins.

Michael R.

Michael said...

Thank you, Michael R., and welcome. :-)

What you say corroborates what I have been told by Fr Aidan, which is that it was a late Latin importation into the Byzantine Rite, which is today mainly a Ukrainian custom, largely without foundation in most of Russia and the other churches of Slavic tradition.

In any case, my parish shall be performing the rite, in the customary place for blessings, after the prayer below the ambo.

Anonymous said...

Goodness gracious, I never imagined that the "pre-eternal" might have a place in the Liturgical life, or indeed, did it ever cross my mind to even think of such a state. Such fullness. So glad I know, now!

Christ is in our midst!

Michael said...

Welcome, anonymous. :-)

As you drew attention to it, the words "pre-eternal God" came to my mind as music and I knew I recently had cause to put those words to tone 3. I just couldn't think of exactly when. So I went and had a look at some of the recent services I've done and it seems it's the kondak for Christmas Day:

Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is transcendent in essence, and the earth offereth a cave to Him Who is unapproachable; Angels with shepherds give glory; with a star the Magi do journey. For our sake a young Child is born, Who is pre-eternal God.

I know eternity is the "age" beyond ages and the "realm" beyond created space so the concept of "pre-eternal" doesn't make logical sense. I think it's just an hyperbolic way of expressing God as beyond space and time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Michael, indeed. I too thank God that the Virgin gave birth to the pre-eternal God, transcendent in essence and unapproachable in glory!

Reading from Baptism and Chrismation - the Beginning of a New Life by Bishop Alexander Mileant: I never knew that the word "Christian" was actually derived from the word "Chrismation" which in the meaning of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, means becoming "a communicant of Christ".

What words for one preparing to participate in The Church's life of grace?

Geoff said...

Michael, do you happen to know what the colour is for the blessing of Candles in the Usus Providentiae?

Michael said...

Not off the top of my head, Geoff (good to see you here, BTW), but I have checked their customary. It prescribes blue for feasts of the Mother of God, or in its absence, white as on feasts of the Lord.

I hope that helps.

Geoff said...

I have to say that I find the change of colour most edifying. I'm sorry that kindred niceties have largely been sandpapered over outside of Western Rite Orthodoxy and some strains of Anglicanism.

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