“The Doors! The Doors!”

I sometimes think we Orthodox have a problem with modernity—by which I don’t mean that we should begin ordaining women to the priesthood or marrying homosexuals (those two thoroughly modern issues) or otherwise throwing the Scriptures into the dustbin. Rather I mean that we seem not to be as good as we might be at coping with the demise of Byzantium. For example, we still continue to use the term “Constantinople” when every map and travel agent in the world has used the term “Istanbul” for some time now. And we glory in titles such as “the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East”, despite the fact that the term “the East” refers not to a direction of the compass, but to one of the original major administrative divisions of the Roman Empire, divisions which have long since lost any real significance. We need to face the fact of Byzantium’s demise along with all its many consequences.

One of those consequences is the sad recognition that the world is no longer Christian as it once was. In the early Church, everyone was all too keenly aware that the world was not Christian and a hard line was drawn between the Church and the World, separating those inside from those outside with a kind of ruthless clarity. Take for example the agape meal celebrated in the third century. The document now known as The Apostolic Tradition gives directions for how that supper meal should be ordered. (The details of authorship need not detain us here; regardless of who wrote it, it clearly reflects the common Christian mind of its time.) At that meal, the faithful received a fragment of the blessed bread from the bishop’s hand before taking their own meal. “But to the catechumens let exorcised bread be given…A catechumen shall not sit at table at the Lord’s supper [i.e. the agape meal].” Note: not only were the catechumens excluded from the Eucharist; they could not even sit at the same table as the faithful at the agape meal and share the non-eucharistic bread. In the Eucharistic service, they were allowed to be present for the reading of the Scriptures and for the instruction (just as any visitor was allowed), but were dismissed with prayer immediately afterward. They were excluded from the corporate intercessions which the faithful offered for the world and its needs, and from the corporate exchange of the Kiss of Peace, because (quoting The Apostolic Tradition again) “their kiss is not yet holy”. The whole world lay under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19) and those in the world were tainted and unclean—a taint and uncleanness that only Christian baptism could wipe away. That is why the catechumens were rigorously excluded from all Christian rites and functions and could only passively hear the Scriptures and receive the prayers of the faithful.

Clearly things have changed, and if a Christian from the early third century could be brought back to life and brought forward in time to our own century, he or she would be shocked at what we do and allow. And the multiple shocks received at our Liturgy would begin early. The ancient Christian might wonder a bit why the service began without the celebrant greeting everyone (as done in his day), but he would be floored when the Great Litany began with outsiders, visitors, and catechumens present. For the prayers and intercessions of the Church could only be offered by the baptized, the royal priesthood, the communicant faithful. In the words of Gregory Dix (old words now, but still true), “The Church is the Body of Christ and prays ‘in the name of Jesus’, i.e. in His Person. The Spirit of adoption whereby the church cries to God in Christ’s Name, ‘Abba, Father’ with the certainty of being heard Himself makes intercession with her in her prayers. Those who have not yet put on Christ by baptism cannot join in offering that prevailing prayer” (from his The Shape of the Liturgy). The ancient Christian would be shocked that the line between the World and the Kingdom had somehow be erased, and that the saving boundaries and walls of the Church had apparently been torn down. What were unbaptized outsiders doing here during the time of the Church’s intercessory prayer? How could they offer that prayer if they were not yet part of Christ’s body?

So what happened and caused the change, allowing the intercessory prayers to be offered at that place in the service? In a word, Byzantium happened. Increasingly from the fourth century onward, the line between the Church and the World came to be blurred, as more and more people in society claimed membership in the Church. By the time the thing was in full swing, it was difficult to find unbaptized people anywhere. There were Jewish enclaves of course, and heretical groups, but pretty everyone else in society was considered at least in theory to be in the Church as well. This resulted in a general lowering of the spiritual temperature, about which clergy were already complaining in Chrysostom’s day. But canonically speaking the old dividing line between the Church and the World was hard to find. This being so, no one batted an eye at praying the Great Litany before the catechumens had been dismissed later on in the service. The whole idea of the catechumenate had become anachronistic anyway. One could pray the intercessions of the faithful before the catechumens were dismissed because the latter no longer existed. (Why one would continue praying for and dismissing non-existent people is another question, and a good one.) The Liturgy which allowed everyone in society to be present throughout was the Liturgy of Byzantium, a Liturgy which assumed that everyone present was a part of the Church.

We need to acknowledge that Byzantium is gone, and that in the words of the old song, “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople”. More importantly, we need to acknowledge that many if not most of the people in the world around us in North America are not Christians. Some might object to regarding nice secular people as tainted or unclean (in the same way as third century Christians regarded the non-Christians surrounding them), but this objection simply reveals how far we are from the mindset of the early Church. The cry of “The Doors! The Doors!” was originally a diaconal call to the doorkeeper to guard the doors against secular intrusion, and served as a kind of verbal dividing line between the Church and the World. In Byzantium it eventually came to have the same anachronistic meaninglessness as the prayer for and dismissal of the by-then non-existent catechumens, since the assembled church no longer needed protection against hostile intrusion. Perhaps the retention today in the Liturgy of that ancient cry may yet prove providential. The line between the Church and the World, blurred in the heyday of Byzantium, has once again come to the fore.

The fine liturgical details resulting from this acknowledgment are less important than the acknowledgment itself. The World is once again a place of sin, rebellion, and spiritual danger in a way that it was not when Christendom and Byzantium were still standing. Becoming Orthodox must be seen as a renunciation of this World with its perverted values and as an entrance into a completely different moral universe. Christians are fundamentally different from the society around them, and this difference must be insisted upon canonically (i.e. by excommunicating blatantly worldly behaviour) and possibly expressed liturgically as well. It is no good pretending that western society around us is Christian and that we may therefore follow its norms. Through God’s grace and baptism, we are different from the society in which we now live. We need to realize that we belong no longer to the World, but to the Kingdom of God, and to close the spiritual doors to worldliness. Byzantium is long gone, and once again we live as exiles and aliens in the world around us. Let us hearken to the ancient diaconal cry, and set our faces away from the World and toward the coming Kingdom. In words of a very old prayer, “Let grace come, and let the world pass away”—even the world which flies the national flags we so often see around us. Our ultimate allegiance lies elsewhere.



  1. Thank you. A lot to think about here. Especially since it seems that people only want to be spiritual tourists (sample everything with no doors closed and no commitment made). Want to be above it all and never really belong anywhere. Maybe why we have so many “crazies.”

  2. Thank you for this straightforward acknowledgment. Yes indeed, since you’re so bold as to point out the obvious, the Emperor certainly wears no clothes … and hasn’t since no later than the year 1453.

    1. Well, I suppose the use of Byzantium was more symbolic in this article. There have been other Orthodox states in history, and the last heir to the Emperor Saint Constantine was martyred in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Russia became the heir to the idea of Byzantium (actually just called Rome by its people) which was the idea of a multinational, universal, Christian (Orthodox) Empire. Despite all the faults of both Empires, as with all institutions human beings are involved in, that was the ideal which was upheld. With that in mind, just take a look at the dramatic change of the world since 1918. It’s barely recognizable in many ways.

  3. Blessings, Father. Interesting post…as a catechumen I couldn’t help but notice the dismissal of catechumens in the liturgy being passed over (in the liturgy book that part is sectioned off, as if in parenthesis). Recently I heard Fr. Hopko speak about how he regretted these things. I mentioned this to my priest and he said he felt the same way. When I asked him why we did this his answer was similar to your statement :”They were excluded from the corporate intercessions…. and from the corporate exchange of the Kiss of Peace, because (quoting The Apostolic Tradition again) “**their kiss is not yet holy**”. Mentioning the fact that there are visitors ( unbaptized?) and “what are we to do with them ?”, he mentioned that if the Church were altogether “holy”, then the dismissal would be done in line with the Church’s holiness (something to that effect…I am paraphrasing). I just nodded my head, not fully understanding. So now, after reading this post, I understand a little better what he meant. The liturgy hasn’t changed, we just changed how we do it. We have allowed the worldly to enter the Church. Like you said, the line of demarcation is blurred.
    Also, thank you for this explanation to the problem of modernity. What I like about it is it does not point fingers at this or that “other group”, but that we allow these things to happen.

    1. Paula,
      Thank you for leading me here. To continue from the base as stated by Fr. Lawrence above: “Through God’s grace and baptism, we are different from the society in which we now live. We need to realize that we belong no longer to the World, but to the Kingdom of God, and to close the spiritual doors to worldliness.” I am turned to the lifestyle emulating this “Kingdom of God” in the Russian version of kenosis–“poustinia.” This is their interpretation of “byzantine” turned small and sparse, furnished as a “place to pray.” I think it was Catherine Doherty that wrote: Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man (1975). The “poustinic” is the life of “listening to God…through the Other.”

      This is a person who commits to a local “politic” and is called to live life simply and quietly “alone” with God: where that “aloneness” is not lonely, but in “serveignty” to Church and others. Essentially, to continually bow one’s head as a continual chatechumen, is to faithfully listen and bring peace (and change) pnuematically through a Eucharistic kenosis: a waiting, a sharing of the distinctive Christ through being present and available without all the words that I am saying now…. The “alone” part I wonder as differentiation from the loneliness of sameness the world offers.

      1. Thank you subdeacon. I would like to exist in the aloneness in service to Church and God that you speak of, the “byzantine” that is but a shadow. I don’t know at what point I’ll be tomorrow, a year, or 10 years from now (if I’m still here), but God willing, I will maintain that direction.
        I will look for C. Doherty’s book, thank you.

  4. Much the same problems in the West where the practices of the Holy Roman Empire remain, especially regarding who may be present during the reciting of the creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the celebration of the Supper.

  5. I’m curious how heterodox Christians, especially Roman Catholics and Trinitarian Protestants, would fit into this. If the dismissal of the catechumens came and went due to the real ties of the world, wouldn’t it now have to be modified to account for the plurality of Christian bodies?

    1. A very good and thoughtful question. In my view these should be regarded as schismatic Christians–i.e. as real Christians, and thus not a part of the World. If we decided to again exclude non-Christians from the Eucharist itself, that would leave these people as non-communicating attendees at the Orthodox Liturgy.

  6. “Becoming Orthodox must be seen as a renunciation of this World with its perverted values and as an entrance into a completely different moral universe. Christians are fundamentally different from the society around them, and this difference must be insisted upon canonically (i.e. by excommunicating blatantly worldly behaviour) and possibly expressed liturgically as well. It is no good pretending that western society around us is Christian and that we may therefore follow its norms.”

    Thank you for this article Father. The lines above in particular are pure gold. I’m saddened to see so many Christians these days developing their beliefs and worldview based on what the secular culture says.

  7. Great point that is wasted on many who think that Our Lord Is their “own personal Jesus.” Sometimes it seems that anything goes, so long as you confess your sins in prayer to God. We don’t hear much about changing our behavior and repenting of our sins (which are one and the same thing to those who understand such things). We consider that The USA began and remains to be a “Christian Nation.” However, this title can be a double edged sword. I believe that we began as and may well still be a “Christian Nation” in the sense that Christianity has historically been the dominating religion in this country; and has therefore had the more cultural influence on our thoughts and behaviors than any other religion within our borders. We are not a “Christian Nation” in the sense that each of us is devoted to Christ. Being a western society we place more importance on the individual than on the group (family, society, nation). That is the reason we seem to have more trouble understanding those passages in the Bible that show God punishing a group of people for the sins of one or two individuals. America is not yet 300 yrs. old. There are buildings in Europe that are older than our country. Yet, we have been blessed by God to become the greatest nation in the world. Greatest in terms of finance, industry, technology, and most importantly in our right to freedom of religion. But, have you noticed lately how we are having these things slowly peeled away from us…layer by layer? Look around and you will see increases in abortion rights, gay rights, suicide rights, and a host of other ungodly rights, finding acceptance within American society; and even within The Church. Yet, should a Priest or Minister refuse to perform a gay wedding, or a baker refuse to create a cake for that same wedding, they are both at risk of losing everything in life for which they have worked. In fact, they may even be facing a jail sentence! I’ve stated only two examples of how this nation is moving away from the ways of God. And just as God had blessed us in those times in which Christianity had influenced our thoughts and behaviors, He will remove His blessings (as we may well see) when sinful thoughts and behaviors become the motivating forces behind the laws that govern our land. I fear that God is showing us His displeasure at present with the decisions we have been choosing in recent years. Should we continue in this downward spiral of moral degradation, we shall surely meet our doom. I pray repentance for our once great nation.
    Djalimo Djalimo

  8. Yet these are one of the beauties of the East! Sure, the Byzantine Empire fell (or came under new management) in 1453; but it is the timelessness of the language that sets the Church apart. It is not of this world, and this kind of language, in this modern age, hearkens to that fact.

    Also, there is the hope that, one day, Constantinople and Antioch and Alexandria and Hippo and the other great centers of of the Church in Occupation may again come within the fold of Christendom.

    As for watching the doors, we are, in the US and around the world, living in an increasingly anti-Christian culture. Maybe we need to mind those doors a little more carefully?

  9. Father, I’m curious what your thoughts are now in the days of covid when every church is broadcasting the entire liturgy to the world for all to see. What would the early church had thought of us? Is it pious to live-stream services? Is it yet further evidence of the seriousness of our faith being lost?

    1. I think now that the early church genii is out of the Byzantine bottle, it is hard to get it back in. Opening up all of the service (either in person or through broadcasting) involves a loss in terms of ecclesiastical integrity, but it cannot be recaptured by expelling catechumens and visitors from the Eucharist or by not broadcasting and thus pretending that the wider world doesn’t know what goes on there. It is more important that we recover a sense of inner separation from the world, and regard ourselves as no longer belonging to this age with its degenerate values, but to the Kingdom of God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *