The Language of the Liturgy: Speaking God’s Kingdom
The issue of religion and language has been with us since at least the third century BC, when the books of what we now call the Old Testament were first translated from Hebrew into Greek. Three centuries later, by the time the apostles began to move out from Jerusalem and carry the message of Jesus across the known world, each of them will likely have known Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. Subsequently, as the Gospel spread and the liturgies of the Church developed, the languages of the Church multiplied. As we might expect, Latin was almost immediately added, but so was Syriac, and within a few centuries, native languages from Hibernia to the Black Sea, and beyond. This is to say nothing of Coptic, Ge’ez, and the other great languages from South and East of the Mediterranean.
The importance of this picture rests in what it says about the Church’s mission. Before the Church had emerged from the Synagogue, the assumption was that her language would have to be that of the people to whom she would speak; that if she was to be effective in delivering the Good News, she was going to have to take account of the context in which she was speaking.
Not unlike the Church in the time of the apostles, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is now at a pivotal moment in her history. She can be found worldwide, representing the ‘other lung’ of which Pope John Paul spoke: a Church whose vocation it is to work in tandem with the Roman (Latin) Church, yet to represent faithfully the great Byzantine (Greek) Tradition as it was received in Kyiv more than a thousand years ago. As such, however, her members find themselves in countries whose first languages include English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese, among others. Consequently, those members are faced with a choice: do they, like the apostles and the great missionaries of the early Church, look outward, confident in the knowledge that they have something to share with the world, and so communicate in a language that the world understands? Or do they choose to work only among themselves, and risk hiding their light under a bushel?
There can be no doubt that the Ukrainian language is of immeasurable importance. It is the medium through which more than forty million Ukrainian people continue to express their highest aspirations and noblest impulses, and have for hundreds of years. It grew out of the East Slavic language of Rus’, and has survived political suppression and even severe persecution.
Indeed, as its lineage can be traced directly to Saints Wolodymyr and Olha, it is not just appropriate that it should be a language of worship, but should be considered a real gift. Yet, as Byzantine worship in the Kyivan tradition has spread across the globe, its continued use in places where the dominant language is not Ukrainian also means that, if the Ukrainian Church is to serve the people of God as an ‘Eastern lung’, she will need to do so in something other than – or at least in addition to – Ukrainian.
The fact is, people are hungering for the message of the Church, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, as the largest Byzantine Church within the family of Churches in communion with Rome, is supremely poised to offer them the nourishment they seek. I say this both from observation and experience. Where the Church is at her most intellectually engaging; most clearly at one with her own traditions, liturgical and theological; most clearly aesthetically-conscious; most mystical in her teaching, she has also proven most effective at communicating the Truth of the Incarnation. And because all of these traits are borne by the Ukrainian Church, her members have the divine imperative to share them.
Ultimately, if the Church’s purpose is Christ’s purpose – that is, to draw humanity into the life of God – then she has a responsibility to make her purpose known, and to facilitate the people’s participation in her life to the furthest extent that she can. This does not mean ‘dumbing down’ the Liturgy in any way (as that would represent a betrayal of her own treasure, and the very means by which she is able to manifest God to the world), nor does it mean abandoning her specific cultural heritage for the something bland and non-specific. But as Patriarch Svyatoslav is reported to have said, ‘This is not a church of Ukrainians; it’s a church of Christ. We are a global church. We are a church of the Ukrainian tradition.’ In many respects, this frees the Ukrainian Church to undertake its work in the world in a more incarnational way; it suggests that Ukrainian tradition resides in more than just language – as important as language is – and so expands the call on the Church to seize every opportunity to go, and make disciples of all nations.
At last, as one commentator put it on an internet forum for Eastern Christians: ‘…it is important to remember our venerable traditions, but we must not be tied to a language or anything else which gets in the way of our ability to transform into saints.’
Father James Siemens is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest serving in the Eparchy of the Holy Family of London. He studied for his Ph.D. under the direction of Professor Tom O’Loughlin, writing on the Christology of Theodore of Tarsus, and followed that with a post-doctoral Licence in Divinity looking at eschatology in late antique chronicles. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2011, he works as an assistant principal of a Catholic College in Cardiff, Wales and directs the Theotokos Institute for Catholic Studies.