On 26 March 565 the Emperor Justinian, who fancied himself as a theologian, issued a decree in which he ordered the clergy to say the prayers of the Liturgy aloud, so that the people could hear what was being said.
The Emperor Justinian and his Court
Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, 548 AD
As few people have access to the eight hundred pages of Justinian’s Novellae, or Decrees, here is a translation of the relevant part of Novella 137, ‘Moreover we order the bishops and presbyters not to say the divine Oblation and the prayer in holy Baptism silently, but in a voice that can be heard by the faithful people, so that the souls of those who listen may be roused to greater compunction and to glorify God our Master. For this is what the holy Apostle teaches when he says in the first Epistle to the Corinthians, “Otherwise, if you pronounce a blessing with the spirit, how shall one who holds the place of the uninstructed say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks very well, but the other person is not built up.” [1 Corinthians 14:16-17]. Again, this is what he says in the Epistle to the Romans, “For it is by believing with the heart that one is justified, and by confessing with the mouth that one is saved” [Romans 10:10]. For these reasons, then, it is proper that the prayer of the Offering and the other prayers to our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, with the Father and the Holy Spirit should be said aloud by the most reverend bishops and presbyters. As the very reverend priests know that if they disregard any of this, they will answer for it too at the fearful judgement of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, we too will not acquiesce in this, or leave it unpunished.’
In his preface to this Novella Justinian even goes so far as to say that, quite apart from not living in accordance with the canons, there are clergy, and this seems to include bishops, who do not know the prayer of ‘the holy Oblation and Baptism’. Justinian’s edict never seems to have widely observed in the Orthodox world in general. On the other hand, there can be little doubt that originally all the prayers of the services, including the divine Liturgy, would have been heard by the congregation.
St John Chrysostom seems to assume that the baptised will know the words of the Liturgy, for in his sermons he will say things like, ‘Those of you who have been baptised will know what I am talking about’, when he is preaching about the words of the eucharistic prayer. This suggests that the prayers were still being said aloud in his day. The practice of saying the priest’s prayers silently (notice that Justinian says nothing about deacons) seems to have started in the Syrian churches in the East, following an increasing sense of awe and reverence at the mystery, something that is much emphasised by St John Chrysostom, who himself came from Antioch in Syria. It is also around this time, the late fourth century, that some churches began using curtains to hide the altar at the solemn parts of the service and building up the low barriers in front of it into what has become the modern Templon, or iconostasis. In some churches, particularly in Russia, this sometimes becomes a solid wall separating the main body of the church from the altar.
Church of St Elias, Yaroslavl, 1647-1650
Another factor influencing these developments was the idea that the Christian church building was symbolically like the Temple of the Old Testament, in which the Holy of Holies was shut off from the everyone by a great curtain and into which only the High Priest could enter, and then only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
We still call the bishop ‘High Priest’ (Ἀρχιερεύς), and deacons are sometimes compared to the Levites. It is also worth remembering that in the New Testament, apart from Jewish and pagans priests, the word priest (ἱερεύς) is only used of Jesus himself, not of not of any of his disciples.
Even when the priest’s prayers of the Liturgy were not said audibly, the Christ’s words at the Last Supper were always chanted aloud, as they still are, because these words are not a prayer or a statement, but a command addressed to the whole congregation. At the heart his’ ‘last will and testament’, as we might call it, Our Lord tells to us to do something. We are to ‘Take, eat’, and to ‘Drink from this, all of you’. To each of these commands the people give their assent, ‘Amen’. ‘Amen’ is a Hebrew word which means ‘Surely’, ‘So be it’. In the Greek Old Testament it is frequently translated γένοιτο, which is word used by the Mother of God at the Annunciation. We give our ‘Amen’ to God through Christ, as God gives his ‘Yes’ to us through Christ. As St Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians, ‘For in [Christ] is found the ‘Yes’ to all God’s promises, and therefore it is in him that we answer ‘Amen’ to the glory of God’ [2.Corinthians 1:20]. This meal, this eating and drinking, is to be ‘in memory’ of Christ, as the account of the Last Supper in St Luke’s Gospel and St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians tells, though not that in the Gospels according to St Matthew and St Mark. This difference is reflected in the Liturgies of St Basil and John Chrysostom, St Basil reflecting the former and St John Chrysostom the latter.
‘You proclaim my death’
Nevertheless St John Chrysostom makes it clear that the Eucharist is ‘in memory’ of Our Lord and all that he has done for us, since he follows Christ’s words with, ‘Remembering therefore this our Saviour’s command…’ At this point St Basil quotes the words of St Paul almost word for word, ‘Do this in memory of me; for as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim my death’ [1 Cor. 11:25-26].