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Eastern & Western Rites

When one examines the Orthodox Church, he might find some curious designations such as “Eastern Rite” or “Western Rite.” Indeed, the St. Benedict Church phonebook advertisement lists us as being a Western Rite parish, while the other Orthodox church in town, Holy Cross, is an Eastern Rite parish. One might ask, what does this mean, or, what does it matter?

The word “rite” refers to the way a liturgy is celebrated; it derives from the Latin word “ritus” which identifies the ceremonial which accompanies a particular form of worship. Thus the difference between Eastern Rite and Western Rite has to do with the difference in ceremonial which marks Orthodox [and most other Christians’] worship; this difference dates back to the earliest years of Christianity.

The first Christians were Jewish and their main language usage was Aramaic. Perhaps for the first fifteen years of the Christian Church, worship was celebrated in the Aramaic language. As the Church spread to the Gentiles and Hellenized Jews, however, Greek very quickly supplanted Aramaic as the language of Christendom. Hebrew and Aramaic prayers and texts of the Bible were translated into Greek and the Greek Bible [Old Testament] became the basis of Christian instruction. The Church became a Greek-speaking church. Because of this, the ceremonial of early Christian worship, particularly the music, took on a Greek quality. This was to remain the only practice until the early third century.

By that time, it was fast becoming the practice in the western part of the Roman empire for Christians to use Latin in their worship, simply because Latin was the language of the western empire. This usage included a different sounding music, and thus was introduced a variation into the ceremonial of the Church. This did not entail essential changes in practice, but merely the way it sounded. For example, the Church inherited its music from Judaism. The eight tones of Jewish worship were passed on to Christendom and quickly became Hellenized. This was to form the basis of what is called “Byzantine” chant, i.e., the Greek form of Church chant. With the advent of Latin usage, the same chants were maintained, but within a couple of centuries the Latin earmark of ecclesiastical chant was simplicity, as the Latin usage attempted to make the chanting easier. This Latin chant was soon to be called “Gregorian chant” or “Plainsong.” Thus, the difference between Byzantine and Latin chant is that Byzantine [Eastern Rite] chant is more complex, and perhaps sounds more like the original Jewish versions, but Latin [Western Rite] chant is simpler, and  is perhaps easier to sing. Both, however, are derived from the original Jewish usage and still bear a striking musical resemblance to it.

Over the ensuing centuries the ceremonial developed in ornamentation, and the differences in language affected not only the way Christian worship sounded, but also how it looked. In the developing of Christian worship forms, the Eastern Rite forms tended to become more ornate than the Latin, and the Latin usage maintained a simplicity sometimes unknown in the Greek practice. For example, at the Gospel reading in Orthodox Christian services, the Book of Gospels is carried in procession before being read. This resembles the Jewish practice of carrying the Torah in some sort of procession and ceremony, a practice which early Christians may very well have emulated. The Eastern Rite version of this has the book being carried around the Church at what is called the “Little Entrance.” In the Western Rite, the procession is still there, but it is not as complex, i.e., the Gospel book is not carried as far, and the musical accompaniments are not as lengthy.

In the Eastern Rite, the action of offering of the elements of bread and wine at the altar developed amidst great fanfare known as the “Great Entrance.” This involves carrying the bread and wine in the procession around the church and to the altar. In the Western Rite, the elements are simply taken from the credence table or sacristy and carried directly to the altar. In this instance, the Latin or western practice reflects the simplicity of the earlier centuries; yet the Greek practice, though somewhat richer, also reflects the original movement from place of preparation to the altar.

These are just some of the differences between Eastern and Western Rite usages. What many don’t realize, however, is that many modern American music trends derive from this ancient usage. Setting aside the influence of African and Hispanic music [though Hispanic music certainly has ties with the Latin tradition, and some forms of African music have been influenced by Greek culture], we find a basic pattern in western music which can be traced to the musical development of the Latin west. Because of this, the music of the Western Rite will be familiar to the soul of the modern westerner. However, because the Latin or Western usage derives from the Greek, there is a further relationship which is often recognized when one attends an Eastern Rite service.

In addition, the basic structures of modern Christian services [of virtually any expression] can be traced to these ancient Christians practices, be they eastern or western. One might ask, “Who cares?” The fact is, these designations speak of the roots of all Christian worship; we have all been influenced by these ancient forms of Christian worship, and simply cannot escape our roots.

In the Orthodox Church, we cherish these roots of Christian worship, and try to keep  both the terminology and practice alive. Thus the Orthodox Church will continue to sing Gregorian chant [Western Rite] or Byzantine chant [Eastern Rite] and to perform the respective rituals, since these are a vital part of the history and souls of each of us.

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