Excerpts taken from Byzantine Church and Culture by Archbishop Joseph Raya, Alleluia Press, Allendale, NJ, copyright © 1992, Used by permission of Alleluia Press and Madonna House Publications

The Byzantine Church and Culture

by Archbishop Joseph Raya











Archbishop Raya’s important work deserves greater attention as the Byzantine Christian Churches seek to relate to and to evangelize our contemporary societies around the world at the beginning of the Third Millennium. These excerpts (pages 13-18, 27-29, and 63) reflect some of the key Christian values that are at the heart of Byzantine Spirituality, namely respect for diversity in unity and tolerance, which are born of Christ’s second great commandment of love (John 14:34-35, 15:12, 17), and which are vital values for the success of our evangelization in today’s world. Far to often, Byzantine Christianity is viewed as monocultural or ghettoized, and thus is dismissed by those who do not feel welcomed to enter the Body of Christ through our doors because of our excessively ethnic or nationalist expressions of our faith in Christ. In his work Archbishop Raya examines the very diverse roots of the Byzantine Church and its culture, and demonstrates convincingly that, far from imposing one view or tradition, the Byzantine Church’s worldview both valued and provided the means for synthesis of what was useful and good from diverse cultures and languages in the worship and mission of the Church. Byzantine Christians today, both Orthodox or Catholic, need to cherish, revive, restore and develop further these values in their living of their faith as they spread the Gospel of Christ


Until recently the common expression by which we identified the Orthodox Church and ourselves who belong to it was the word "Greek," or the word "Eastern." We called ourselves, and everyone else called us "Eastern" or "Greek," "Greek Catholics," or "Greek Orthodox," rather than Byzantine.

The word Byzantine was given a pejorative connotation by some Western standards to signify a state of inferiority of both mind and spirit. The first vilification of the name came from the Carolingian officials when their King, Charlemagne, was refused by Constantinople the title of "Emperor of the Romans." Since that time disputes, antagonism, misunderstanding, even hatred and wars grew ever-bitter between Byzantium and the West, until they reached their apex in the Crusades which fought relentlessly both the Orthodox Church of the East and the Byzantine Empire. The fourth Crusade was the death-blow to the Empire, and the final breakdown of relations between East and West.

Furthermore, because the word Byzantine represented the essentially Christian culture of an essentially Christian Empire, the atheists and anti-Christian encyclopedists of the eighteenth century, especially Voltaire, Montesquieu and after them the famous English historian Gibbon, created an aura of disgust and horror around it. Under their influence, the word "Byzantine" came to be, in European languages, synonymous with "barbarous," "futile," and "inane," so everyone shied away from its use. Bertha Diener remarks: "For centuries after the Crusades, it was the fashion in Europe to regard the Empire whose seat was beside the Bosphorus as a grotesque ruin, a crumbling relic, an outworn survival which cumbered the ground only because the servants had been too lazy to sweep it away" (Imperial Byzantium, p.47).

It was not until the late nineteenth century, and especially in the twentieth, that this word and what it represents were vindicated, and rehabilitated to honor and glory. Great scholars and historians, such as A. Rambaud, C. Bayet, G. Schlumberger, and their successors, L. Brehier, G. Millett, C. Diehl, and a great churchman, Cardinal J. B. Pitra, brought out its luster and brilliance.

By contrast, the word "Greek" had always enjoyed popularity and general acceptance. It connoted harmony of thought, artistic taste, poetry, beauty and human dignity. The official language of the Empire was Greek. The word "Greek" represented the most refined paganism with its marvelous culture.

Even that most astonishing discovery in chemistry made by the Syrian Callinicus of Heliopolis (Baalbek today) was called "Greek Fire" (A chemical substance that caught fire on contact with any object, and could not be put out. Water--especially sea water--seemed to increase its burning power. It contributed to several Byzantine naval victories, and its secret was so well guarded that no outsider ever knew its formula).

Melkites and Slavs, Rumanians and Ruthenians and others used the word "Greek" to characterize the Byzantine Church and its Christian culture.

Since the beginning of Christianity, and for a long time later, Greek was the official language of both East and West. The Western or Roman Church used it exclusively until the days of Pope St. Victor in 199. Later, it adopted the language of the people, the vernacular, which was Latin. It was then called the Latin Church. The Eastern Church, presiding over the development of the Byzantine Empire and its culture, kept Greek as its official language until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and became known as the "Greek" Church.


Language is merely the instrument and sign through which a culture is expressed. It is not an essence of being, but only an outward sign of being. After so much historical transformation and national diversification, the Byzantine Church should not be called "Greek" without qualifications.

Are Americans English because they speak the English language? The American culture and civilization are an amalgamation of many cultures, civilizations, peoples and mentalities.

The Byzantine culture contained Greek elements, but it also shows considerable Eastern, Latin or Roman and Nordic influence. Slavs, Ruthenians and others enjoy the Byzantine culture in their own Churches and in their own languages.

The state of mind, the forms of worship, the spirituality and theology of the Orthodox Church are not merely a matter of rite: they imply a specific vision of life and eternity, uniting Easterners and Westerners of many different backgrounds, Melkites and Russians, Ruthenians and Ukrainians and other Slavs in one Church, under one Lord, Jesus Christ.

Finally, this Church and its culture are not truly Eastern, although born and developed in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. The words "East" and "Eastern" are historical and geographical terms designating a rather nebulous reality with uncertain contours. They encompass nations and cultures from the Bosphorus to the Far East, passing through Asia, China and Japan, and from the Ural mountains in Russia to the peninsula of Kamtchatka on the Pacific Ocean.

For Americans, these words are so confusing that when applied to the Byzantine Church, they may submerge its identity in a shadow of unreality, since in our language these terms are generally applied to Far Eastern countries, and not to the Near-East, or Levant to which this Church belongs.

It is the Near-Eastern nations, or Levantines, which Hellenic civilization penetrated, without dispossessing them completely of their original ethnic characteristics. Both Syria and Palestine, which occupied very special places and positions in the formation of the Byzantine Church, used the Syriac language, which was later replaced by Arabic. Georgia and Armenia spoke the Armenian language. Near-Eastern nations, with their particular cultures, were in some way united by a common element, the Greek language, without becoming Greek themselves.

In later history, they all converged on Byzantium to contribute to its formation and development without making it Eastern.

The definitive history of Byzantine science and philosophy, literature and theology has yet to be written, but the main lines stand out in sufficient details to reveal their attractive beauty and diversity in their harmonious unity.


...Charles Diehl summarizes accurately the history of the liturgical contribution of the East to Byzantium:

"Throughout the history of Byzantium, the Eastern current flows through its civilization, its literature and its art. From the East came many of its stories, proverbs and popular beliefs, its liturgical and political movements, its ideas and its art forms. There the Church found the pattern for many of its ceremonies, and there artists learned that art's true function was to glorify God and the Emperor." ("Byzantium, Greatness and Decline")

The East--especially Antioch--made constant pilgrimages to Constantinople in order to establish contact with Greeks, Rus and other Slavic peoples, in order to nourish them with the Gospel of Christ.


The magnificence of Constantinople and the refined civilization of its empire excited the envy of many peoples and nations, as distant as the Kingdom of Ceylon where we find traces of Byzantine artifacts and legends.

Grandeur and dignity, security and ease, progress and glory wafted from every story, from every piece of information coming from the Empire. Huns, Goths, Lombards, Vandals, Hungarians were constantly gravitating around its borders. They flooded the cities and country-sides of its provinces. The history of Byzantium is an uninterrupted tale of invasions by wild tribes and barbarous neighbors. Every foreigner dreamed of finding a place in the Kingdom of God, while the Byzantines were eager to absorb as many people as they could, employ them in the army or in civil government, and integrate them into their Church.

Many of the so-called barbarians, Slavs and Germans, manned the legions of the Byzantine state, many with high rank at court and in public life.

When the eighth-century plagues and epidemics decimated Greece, free access was opened to all. Slavs flooded the provinces. Their best and most educated elements came to stay. Thessalonika received a great share of their influx. Varangians, from the center valley of the Dnieper, around Kiev, had furnished the Empire with its best soldiers--not only mercenaries, but the most valiant and permanent elements of the Empire, the Pretorian guards.

Slavs mixed with the Easterners and Romans and vied with the Greeks in the capital city of the Roman Empire and in its provinces. They lived side by side, grew to know each other, and were fused into one nation under God and under the rule of the Gospel of Christ.

The Slavs who came to Byzantium were formed by it and they, in turn, helped in the formation of its culture. Their courage and endurance, generosity and faithfulness left their mark on every aspect of life.

Were the brothers, Cyril and Methodius, the apostles of the Slavs, true-blooded Byzantine Greeks? Or were they immigrants or descendants of immigrants whose Slavic origin fitted them to be missionaries to the land of their forefathers?

Byzantium was the real teacher of the Slavs. Even after its fall and after it had ceased to exist as an empire, it continued to influence them. According to Charles Diehl, all the peoples of Eastern Europe from the depths of Russia to Turks and Greeks, to Bulgars and Rumanians, have preserved a living memory of its traditions. "They all still live by its inspiration, deeply imprinted in trends of thought and in their politics."


Byzantine culture is therefore a complex culture, mobile and varied with all the variety of the twenty-five turbulent nations the Empire had to civilize, humanize and unite into one Orthodox Church.

Byzantine culture and Orthodoxy are one and the same. All these peoples became in fact Orthodox. The Church provided them with enough sustenance to allow their soul to join the divine feast, and threw enough sparks into their humanity to make them sing and dance, life in Christ being always the guiding star.

Displayed in the ceremonies of Byzantine monasteries or in the humblest church, the elegance of worship becomes dazzling brilliance, splendor and glory for the people of God who share in it. Russians or Melkites, Chinese or French and all who participate find in it enlightenment and delight. It is made to create an atmosphere of light to provide a feeling of nobility and freedom, not because of human voices and intellectual pronouncements, but because God is heard revealing the secrets of his love and the richness of his life, and summoning the human person to self-revelation.

The worship of the Church strengthens and transforms. It does not destroy the humanity of those who enter in. It sifts humanity, then absorbs into prayer all good things it finds in it. This transforming principle is rooted like all our theology in the Hypostatic union of God and man in Jesus Christ.

Once the elements of a culture enter the Byzantine Church, they are iridized; they lose the narrowness of ethnicity; they are no longer Greek or Latin, Levantine or Slavic: they become universal and universalizing; they become rainbows of icons, hymnography, music and architecture. When nations adopt them, they are not admitting a stranger, but receiving back their own soul perfumed and fully alive.

Byzantine church worship feels the breath of the Holy Spirit, awakening us to our real God-worthy self. It is charged with the message of our divinization, radiating an ever-new light and in ever-new brilliance on life. In these sublime characteristics resides its attractiveness and permanent modernity.


It is the glory of Byzantines to have established and elucidated, as much as the human mind can, the characteristic truths of Christianity: The oneness of God in his divine Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Divinization of the human person and of the universe, and the return in Ascension of humanity and the universe to their divine Source and Origin, the Author of Creation.

These basic truths of Byzantine theology are still the mainstream of its thinking. Only with such theology can humanity remain in constant contact with the light, sound, and feel of the sublime; only through this essentially Christian theology can humanity find hope in despair, salvation in sin, and resurrection in death.

Let me apply to this theology what Bertha Diener said about Byzantine culture in general. It is a "finished product great and tender, with the charm of sublimity and the beauty of asceticism, with a seriousness that is never ponderous and a refinement that is never laboured--and all touched for our vision with the beauty of 'blue distance.'"

In the monastery of the Studion in Constantinople, monks never interrupted their prayers. They were the "Akimitoi,"those who never sleep," taking turns day and night in chanting the praises and glory of God in his creation. They maintained the prayer alive to keep the universe in permanent contact with heaven and thus maintain it in the right balance. Only Byzantium could have united two continents sending waves of grace to East and West in rhythmic melody at the passing of hours and days, months and years to make the whole world, the "Oikoumene," the Kingdom of Christ.

design in left border is detail from a fresco of the Haghia Triada Greek Catholic Cathedral, Athens, Greece

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