The Last Orthodox Liturgy in Hagia Sophia

The last truly Orthodox Divine Liturgy in the Great Church, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, took place December 11, 1452. On December 12, the “Patriarch” Cardinal Isidore (ostensible Patriarch of Kiev and all Russia, though deprived of his see by the Grand Prince of Muscovy, Basil) proclaimed the union of the Eastern Church and the Western described in the document Laetentur caeli, the result of the Council of Florence. All celebration of the Divine Liturgy to follow in Hagia Sophia, to the last celebrated on 29 May 1453 which was interrupted by slaughter of all in the church by the Ottoman Turks, were unionist and not properly Orthodox. It was in fact the opposition of many in Constantinople to the Union of the Council of Florence, initially led by St Mark Eugenikos of Ephesus (spokesman of the Eastern delegation and one of only two participants who refused to sign the council’s proclamation of union), that held off implementation of the union for so long after that non-ecumenical council ended on 6 July 1439.

The acceptance of this council by the Romans, that is the leaders of Constantinople, effected a break in relations with Muscovy, depriving them of badly-needed support in their struggle against the Ottoman Turks. Though the die seems already to have been cast by that time, it might have been the case that the Emperor, in rejecting the union, might have received more help from East than ever he did from West in the final struggle to save what was left of the Roman Emprire. The early modern period in the East might have begun very differently indeed had this been the case.

In this case, Esau sold his birthright for an empty bowl.

But this is only so much wondering over long-spilled milk.

A Room with a View

This is a not very good picture of the view from my desk. I was leaning back in my chair, so there was a little shaking going on. Still, it’s the best of the lot.

The city lights out there are San Francisco, the dark swatch through the middle are the waters of the Bay. The nearer lights are those of Berkeley leading down to the water.

I was trying to catch the magnificent sunset. You can see something of the colors involved, and the brilliant planet Venus.

That’s where I get much of my work done. Being able to stare out at a view like that is remarkably conducive to actually getting things done, though that might seem counterintuitive. I’m grateful and thankful for such blessings as simple things like quiet, a view, a working computer, and such.

Glory to God for all things!

Page reformatting complete

Today I finished reformatting and entering all my web pages into the menu system here on biblicalia. All my files and such that were available on bombaxo are now available through the menus above. No more “Coming soon!” when you click on one of those! In the course of the transfer, I did quite a bit of editing, so a number of pages have more or less substantial changes. The last thing to do will be to implement redirection from the old pages to the new ones, so that I won’t have people going to the old ones anymore. I’m not maintaining those. So many of them predate css that it was a major chore to strip out all the formatting that I’d put in there.

In addition to the reformatting of the pages for the blog, I’ve also been working on css styles for mobile readers. It’s actually quite fun. And since the mobile css files are separate from the ones for regular/desktop readers, I can implement whatever is most legible and looks best in each set. Nice! I’ll keep playing with that until I’m happy.

So, that’s fun!

The Patristic Vision

Tradition is neither transmitted nor received mechanically, but requires from us an historical appropriation and hermeneutical Incarnation. The Tradition of the Fathers is a powerful guarantee against individualism in spirituality and unrestrained enthusiasm in theology. It guards against an exclusive focus on the present context and contemporary culture, and restores the emphasis on theology as an activity of the Church in and through all its ages, agents and areas. There is no justification for Patristic fundamentalism. All periods, all people, and all places stand within the Patristic Tradition. We are all its heirs, irrespective of our present condition, confession, or context. Beyond, therefore, the catholic imperative in the study of the Church Fathers, one may also refer to the ecumenical imperative that broaden’s one’s historical and theological outlook. This is not an argument for traditionalism, but an invitation to listen to and learn from the Patristic Tradition.

The catholic and ecumenical dimensions of the Patristic culture are in turn the very reason for its trans-historical and trans-cultural significance. Hermeneutics has done much to convince us that traditional conceptual systems are culturally limited and historically conditioned. Western Christianity has in the past often been more critical towards culture, while the Orthodox Church has regularly been uncritically identified with culture. However, there is a very real sense in which the Patristic methodology lays a claim to our attention because in it we recognize a reality that at the same time treasures and transcends both context and culture. Patristic methodology discloses a reality that is truth, and with this method one discovers the way towards this truth.

Much contemporary scholarship has abandoned the sources so carefully edited, translated and studied in the past―doctrinal treatises, biblical commentaries, lives of saints, homilies and documents―describing the rold and activity of the laity, liturgy, rituals, art and culture. The desire today is to correct the concentraion of earlier scholarship solely on orthodox institutional Christianity and on mainline groups within the church. There is an attempt to balance these with an emphasis on the popular levels and diverse expressions of Christianity.

However, this in no way undercuts the trans-historical or trans-cultural element of the Patristic way. Irrespective of the strata or structures within which one lives, one is always discovering or uncovering the same vision and the same vitality. In studying the various branches of the Byzantine civilization, it is almost impossible to single out a particular aspect that is unrelated to the Patristic vision. In medieval society, as we well know, this religious vision formed a necessary and accepted part of every intellectual, social and political concern. It is this vision that deserves our reverent attention and responsible study.

Fr John Chryssavgis, The Way of the Fathers: Exploring the Patristic Mind. First edition, pp 20-21.

What really felled Byzantium?


I’ve just finished reading Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State. I don’t think you could find a better record of the deleterious effects of unchecked greed from both internal and external sources than the preserved history of what is commonly called the Byzantine Empire, but which was then known as what it was: the Empire of the Romans. Greed destroyed their empire. This is especially clear after having just previously read Kenneth Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Having Luttwak’s book freshly in mind, and then reading the more general overview of Ostrogorsky, the failures of the ruling class were all the more astonishing and gut-wrenching. At some point in the book, I began to think, “Okay, new emperor! What is the worst of his options? Because that’s what he’s going to do!”

Various forms of greed from external sources are partly responsible. Two of these are particularly acute: the desire for the rich agricultural lands and famous cities of the empire, which the Muslims of various sorts benefited from the most, but the Slavs also enjoyed; and control of trade in the empire, which the West (particularly Venice and Genoa) coveted, gained, and tenaciously held even as the empire crumbled around their duty-free shipments. None of this externally-sourced greed should be minimized, particularly the inexcusable Fourth Crusade and the subsequent partitioning of the Empire amongst various inbred and unwashed Frankish barbarians.

But it was the greed of the Romans themselves that was at greatest fault, particularly of the artistocracy. No one needs a reminder of the kinds of wealth that Constantinople formerly commanded, particularly prior to the Muslim irruption. But the complete depletion of that wealth and its consequences are the responsibility of a selfish, greedy, caste-conscious aristocracy that slit the throat of the empire for a short life of ease. The smallholders, many of whom were border soldiers, were deprived of their lands which had been amalgamated into large landowners’ estates, which began as government grants. So, the smallholders (whose holdings provided them earnings directly and indirectly as they permitted or required their enlistment in the army or navy) lost their income, and came utterly under the power of these estates as serfs in all but name. And yet, these estates, through the well-known and unexaggerated corruption of the Byzantine system (de facto, if not de jure) were generally exempt from taxes, which the smallholders had paid. So, the tax revenues were simply gone altogether. Foolishness! With this practice, the empire was deprived of defense: no soldiers, no money to pay mercenaries, no moeny to bribe enemies: their defense wasgone. The greater the landholders’ properties, the smaller the army, and the poorer the state. And this was a state that could not afford to be poor, as its survival required a well-trained standing army and navy, as well as the ability to bribe parties (or, for the squeamish: “make campaign contributions”) toward another course of action than violent invasion. It’s this selfish greed on the part of landowners that is ultimately to blame for the collapse of the empire. By the time that the Emperor had to turn to them for contributions toward outfitting a fleet or paying for some mercenaries, it was much too late. And they all lost in the end. It was all for nothing.

Now, really, how stupid was that?

The Trisagion

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός
Ἅγιος Ἰσχυρός
Ἅγιος Ἀθάνατος
ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς

Holy God
Holy mighty
Holy immortal
Have mercy on us

The above little prayer is one of the great treasures of the ancient Church. It’s called the Trisagion, and appears in the fourth century, after which to the present day it is used in the anaphora of Byzantine Divine Liturgies, and apparently in some Western liturgies as well. The thrice-holy hymn is generally understood to have emerged from the vision granted to the Holy Prophet Isaiah of the heavenly Seraphim, chanting, “Holy, holy, holy” at the throne of God (Isaiah 6), through the mediation of the vision granted to St John the Theologian in the Apocalypse (ch. 4). But real certainty, and much of its history, is not what interests me here. It’s rather an interesting thing that I noticed differs between the way this prayer is understood in the Greek and the English.

I think most people who read the English Trisagion think of this as a prayer addressing God as “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal.” Yet, while this is a possible reading in the English, it is not the case in the Greek. There, instead of a vocative address, we have a series of declarative statements, which are through ellipsis lacking verbs and connective particles: “Holy [is] God, Holy [and] Mighty, Holy [and] Immortal.”

In addition, I think the first phrase bears an implied personalization in the first person plural, following from the final phrase. So, the full prayer should be thus understood:

“Holy is our God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal. Have mercy on us!”

Only in the final phrase are we addressing God with this prayer. Before that, it is a prayer of confession, that our God is holy, mighty, and immortal. Could it be that this prayer emerged out of the martyrdoms? Was it a confession of faith on the part of some being tortured to death for their faith? It’s entirely possible, but we just don’t know. Regardless, it’s beautiful.

(These are some ideas that I had upon waking one day, while clearing my head of the fuzziness of the dream world. Usually my first waking moments are not so productive!)