East and West: A Passing Moment

Very Rev. Dr. Ivan Kaszczak


When we hear about Eastern and Western spirituality some think of great differences rooted in history, culture and ceremony. Others may think of a common heritage rooted in its Hebrew genesis and Hellenistic civilization and literature. One may acknowledge there are common roots for both East and West. So, although Latin, Syriac, Coptic and Armenian were used in the Early Christian Church it must be stated that Greek is the language of the early Church and the Fathers of the Church.[1]

This commonality of the Greek language and Hebrew culture is also reflected in the Church’s early bibliography such as the Didache which is: “the oldest Church-Order and the venerable prototype of all the later collections of Constitutions or Apostolic Canons with which ecclesiastical law in the East and the West began.”[2]

Reflecting on the viewpoint of commonality where we share so much in common one can rightly ask: What makes East and West different? The response can be a many faceted answer. It is the changing culture, politics, worldview, philosophy and especially the emergence of monasticism which influenced so many leaders of the early church such as John Chrysostom: “But the outstanding religious development of the fourth century, very important in its influence on the early life of Chrysostom, was monasticism, which was Eastern, and specifically Egyptian, in its origin.”[3]

This paper will not be an exhaustive study, by any means, of the difference between Eastern and Western spirituality. Instead, I have chosen to look at the Paschal mystery and highlight some specific items that speak to the differences between the two spiritualties. Perhaps this type of passing glance will give a small insight into two traditions that are still evolving. Let us begin with Jesus, in the Lucan account of the Gospel.

When Jesus needed a place for himself in the inn (κατάλυμα), he was turned away.  He came to his own but his own did not receive him (Jn. 1). This constant effort on the part of God in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament writings to be a part of the human pilgrimage depicts God as a guest (Gn. 18:19). From the beginning, it is God who takes the initiative in the God-Human relationship.  Jesus is always a guest in the homes of his followers and those who are simply curious.  Even in his final resting place (μvημειov – Matt. 27:60), it is as if he were a guest. This is spelled out in Dei Verbum 2 (see also Ephesians 1:9; 2:18 & 2 Peter 1:4) “It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will. His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the Divine nature” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 51).

However, hospitality also involves responsibilities on the part of guests.  Rabbinic literature outlines many of these duties, including showing gratitude and not giving food to others without the host’s consent.  Just as the host is gracious, the guest is also obliged to be gracious.  Whether an invitation to break bread is accepted or rejected is fraught with social implications.  Accepting an invitation to eat with someone speaks of trust – that you won’t be poisoned, for example.  It also has to do with social status.  A person of higher rank can gift the host with his or her presence by agreeing to break bread together.  The action implies recognition that, at least in basic needs, both parties are equally human and must eat to survive.  Furthermore, when it comes to basic humanity, no food is unworthy and all offers to share are equal.  Rejecting an invitation to eat may imply an unwillingness to acknowledge the host as basically equal or valued as a human being.

In Middle East cultures, once a person crosses a threshold, he is considered a guest.  All honor and deference is paid to the guest.  However, one has to be invited in.  At the beginning of Jesus’ life he is rejected at that initial point.  At the end of his life, Joseph of Arimatheia accepts him in, but the temple of the Lord is not made of stone.  He seeks followers who will worship in spirit and in truth and he will come with the spirit and make his dwelling place in their hearts. The guest-room Jesus seeks is the individual, where the kingdom can come to fruition.  It is to this place that Jesus requires an invitation. Here he stands and knocks.  He who has ears let him hear.

Jesus seeks and looks and asks to be part of the human pilgrimage.  Some respond and offer him hospitality and are transformed.  A tomb becomes a place of regeneration and a prison becomes the place of freedom.  The life-giver gives life to those who ask and enters where he is invited.  His entrance becomes a time of salvation, which the invitation has purchased.

The Lucan narrative (diegesis-may also be seen as proclamation) account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a masterful work of Christian prose.  Luke was a gifted writer who portrayed in beautiful words the wondrous events related to the coming of the kingdom: “In Luke we have a prime example of the masterful use of language.  Luke’s Greek is polished and exquisitely structured.”[4]  His parables speak of people in whom we can see ourselves and of parallelism, which allows us to interpret and compare for ourselves diverse events and personae.  Luke knew the Old Testament and invites us to compare and draw our own picture of Jesus: “…, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:4).

In this section of the paper, I will speak of a few events in the life of Jesus, which may be seen as speaking of Jesus’ burial. As Luke was to Gentile Christians as Matthew was to Jewish Christians.  The Message of these Gospels was given in terms of a culture.  Culture was the language of expressing one’s faith. With the use of the Greek tongue, Luke and the Greek speakers at Pentecost introduced Hellenistic concepts into Christianty.  Just as an American and an Italian conversing in a common tongue, say Ukrainian, will bring their cultural insight into the words that they choose to use.

This paper is given in the liturgical season in which we have just walked through the Passion and been present at the Resurrection.  The Byzantine church has always stated that its faith is expressed liturgically.  Our walking with Jesus these past few days is reminiscent of the Jews celebration of Passover.  A person asks, “How is this night different from every other night?”  They are then told the Passover account.  By sharing in the story, a person becomes a Jew.  By walking with Jesus and this is why there is so much walking in the Byzantine Church we are being incorporated into the event.  The same walk can be found prior to the celebration of Good Friday in the West in the celebration of the stations of the Cross.  Then like Byzantines who kiss the wounds of Christ on the plaschnytsia (icon of the burial), Latins kiss the feet of Christ on Good Friday.  This common kissing in East and West is what makes this celebration different from any other night and makes us Christians.

Since this is a reflection paper and not a strictly exegetical exercise, I will speak to the abovementioned goal not simply from scholarly biblical sources but also from liturgical/inspirational texts, which interpreted the events in the life of Jesus for the edification of the faithful. One of the scriptural legacies found within the liturgical patrimony is the comprehensive view of scripture. For example, Luke was oftentimes interpreted not as a separate literary piece, but rather, as one piece of a puzzle.  The lacuna of any given story was fleshed out by superimposing another account of the Gospel of Jesus. This provided the ancient liturgical composer with a mosaic or spiritual icon of the Jesus event in history and its implications for the spiritual life. This method of scriptural interpretation needs to be kept in mind as we quote liturgical sources. They see Scripture as one complimentary unit and they see Christian Liturgy as Christ praying.[5] Finally, I will conclude with a personal reflection upon the burial of Jesus as related in the Lucan narrative.

In popular literature and liturgical verse the life, death, burial and resurrection of the Savior looms as one seamless cloth in the tapestry of redemption.  From the times of the Fathers of the Church to the present, authors and poets have looked for shadows of the future in the labyrinth of the past.[6]  They saw in the pagan past the seed of God’s saving grace (logos spermatikos) and they saw in Scripture and Tradition the footsteps of the Master. For this reason, without embarrassment, both East and West have incorporated remnants of paganism into their liturgical life.  From the Germanic pagans the Latins have incorporated the Christmas tree and from the Slavic pagans we have the psyanky.  These are, in a sense, both Christian, because Christ is the one through whom all things were made and because of His role in creation we have the logos spermatikos.  As Christ the Word is revealed in creation, creation can be used by all persons to express Christ:

…in particular there were baptism and the Eucharist, both of which united the believer with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.  The representation in terms of word was, of course, the teaching about the events in question, not only about Christ but about the whole Old Testament as well, which foreshadowed Christ.[7]

The infancy narrative (Luke 1:5 – 2:52) may serve us as the alpha or seminal point in the discussion of the Lucan reflection on the burial of Jesus since within it: “…Luke presents the whole gospel, including the mission and ministry of Jesus, as well as his passion, resurrection and ascension.  As Luke’s gospel in miniature, the prologue presents in symbol the main themes of the gospel.”[8] Some writers look at the swaddling clothes and see only the comparison of Jesus with the Kings of Old and of humanity in general:[9] “I was nurtured in swaddling clothes with every care.  No king has known any other beginning of existence; for there is only one way into life, and one way out of it” (Wisdom 7:4-6).  They also find some parallel with the Greek word katalyma (Luke 2:7) and the same word used in Luke 22:11 where Jesus hosts the Passover meal for his disciples: “Although born in lowly circumstances and without hospitality, Jesus is the one who will be host to starving humanity.  Fully grown and about to lay down his life as servant, Jesus hosts in an inn (22:11) a meal that his disciples will continue in his memory.”[10] The angels, as they are interpreted by some liturgical writers, are present at the birth and in the tomb[11] they announce the rebirth of humanity and that the Lord is risen: “Why look among the dead for someone who is alive?  He is not here; he is risen” (Luke 24:5-6). The icon of the Nativity used in the East shows a cave, where the West has been influenced artistically by Francis of Assisi in the nativity crèche.  These portrayals show a different point of emphasis.  Iconography always looks beyond the scene and looks at the event from a heavenly perspective.  Western representation is like a photograph of the event.  Western perspective is human and Eastern is divine.  Together in the one body of the Universal Church, then, we have the divine and human presentation of the Incarnation. This is repeated in a marital analogy in the Byzantine Liturgy at Matins on the Sunday of Myrrh-Bearing Women:

Joseph asked for the body of Jesus.  He placed it in his own new tomb.  It was fitting for the Lord to come forth from the tomb as from a bridal chamber.  You destroyed the dominion of Death.  You opened the gates of Paradise to the human race.  Glory to you, O Lord![12]

The Lord is wrapped in swaddling clothes as King Solomon (Wisdom 7:4) and is laid in a tomb with linen cloth; however, he rises like the bridegroom at midnight (Matthew 25:6) or some other hour (Luke 12:38) and perhaps means to say, let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9:60). The disciples must keep the lamps burning with the oil of faith (Luke 12:35). Death and birth are two events so tied together.  When we are born we begin to die and when we die we are born to a new life.  In the West, the celebration of the liturgy is on a rectangular altar representing a tomb.  The incorporation prior to Vatican II of a relic in the stone of the altar made the sacrifice of the Mass a celebration upon the tomb of a saint.  The altar in the East is a square as was the altar in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem.  This focuses on the divine presence. The Byzantine church has added the usage of the antimension, the relic of the saint sewn in.  This emphasizes the celebrations communion with the hierarch and the unity of the Church before God in his holy of holies.  The relic in both cases shows a common tradition of sacrifice.

Both at the birth and at the end of Jesus’ life, death follows the presentation of oil/myrrh (μύρον / σμύρνα).  In this last case Matthew speaks of the death of the innocents as Jesus flees to Egypt where the first Passover took place (Matthew 2:13-18).  The difference between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is that Jesus flees from death in Bethlehem but storms the gates of death in Jerusalem: “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!  There is a baptism I must still receive, and what constraint I am under until it is completed” (Luke 12: 49-50)!  He persistently journeys with great resolve toward Jerusalem in contrast to how he fled Bethlehem, never to return again.

One may even find in the second chapter of Luke a comparison between how Jesus was brought up to Jerusalem (2:22) in order to be presented to the Lord[13] and the consequent sacrifice (2:24) taken together with the offering that He makes of himself as the living sacrifice (23:46).  This same sacrifice is the one which is laid in a tomb in swaddling clothes (23:53). Then they rest according to the commandment (entolyn) just as the Lord rested after creation (23:56).  So it is that the new creation is formed in the womb of the tomb as humanity rests from the weariness of sin.

Foreshadowing is a theme repeated within the narrative of the Gospels. Modern homilists such as Fulton J. Sheen, in his Life of Christ, speaks of how Jesus is prepared for burial from the moment of his birth:

The manger and the Cross thus stand at the two extremities of the Savior’s life!… He was laid in a stranger’s stable at the beginning, and a stranger’s grave at the end… He was wrapped in  swaddling bands in His birthplace, He was again laid in swaddling clothes in His tomb – clothes symbolic of the limitations imposed on His Divinity when he took human form. (kenosis)…He was already bearing His Cross – the only cross a Babe could bear, a cross of poverty, exile and limitation.  His sacrificial intent already shone forth in the message the angels sang in the hills of Bethlehem: ‘Today in the city of David a deliverer has been born to you – the Messiah, the Lord.’ (Luke 2:11)[14]

The Lord was the recipient of many acts of kindness from the hands of strangers in his life. It is no small wonder that strangers play such an important part in scriptures such as Abraham’s hosting the three strangers (Genesis 18 & Hebrews 13:2) and Lot taking care of the strangers in Sodom (Genesis 19 & Luke 17:32-33). In the Latin celebration of the Mass there is the sign of peace.  Strangers are sitting next to each other offering each other the peace of Christ.  In the Byzantine Church the sign was discontinued because of its disruption of the order of the service, but remains among the clergy.  Where the Roman clergy do not share the sign of peace with the faithful, neither do the Byzantines.  The Byzantine greeting of Christ is with us! Relates to the ‘Peace be with you.’ In essence, they are post resurrection events.  The Church proclaimed that Christ was present to the myrrh-bearing women and to the apostles, for when Jesus met with them, he greeted them with ‘Peace.’

The Lord also speaks of us as being strangers in this land (Hebrews 11:13 & Luke 9:1-6); of giving our possessions to strangers (Luke 18:22-23); of strangers appreciating God’s gifts (Luke 17:18) and of seeing the Lord in the strangers we meet.The final judgment will be against the inability or unwillingness to see Jesus in the stranger: “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Those who ignore the stranger in their midst will be severely punished for their blindness (Luke 16:25). The Lucan account of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet emphasizes the generosity of the sinner in stark contrast to the stinginess of Jesus’ host.[15]  Some writers even say that in Mark (13:8) the strange woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil is said to cover up the fact of the disciples’ embarrassment:

A secondary interpretation placed on the woman’s action relates it directly to his death and burial: the Messiah is anointed for burial at the very beginning of the passion story.  The verse is sometimes explained as an addition to the story that aimed at covering the disciples’ embarrassment over not having anointed Jesus’ body before burial.[16]

The Byzantine Churches remember the woman who anointed Jesus with oil (μύρον – see Luke 23:56) during Great and Holy Wednesday of Passion Week and sing the following verse during Matins:

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into a multitude of sins, recognized your divinity and joined the ranks of the myrrh-bearers; before your burial, she offers You myrrh with her tears: Alas, she says, the stinging night of pleasure seizes me; the dark and moonless love of sin grasps me; accept the stream of my tears and my copious weeping, for You make the waters fall from the clouds into the sea.  Incline your ear to the cry of my heart, for You incline the heavens in your ineffable condescension.  Allow me to kiss your most pure feet, drying them with the locks of my hair; for these are the feet that Eve heard in Paradise, and trembling at their approach, she hid herself.  O Lord, who can search out the number of my sins?  Who shall search the depth of your judgments, O God our Redeemer and the Savior of our souls?  In your infinite love, do not despise your servant.[17]

This verse refers not only to the story in Luke 7:36-50, but also is connected to similar stories in Mk 14:3-9, Mt 26:6-13 and Jn 12:1-8.[18]  The difference in the Lucan depiction of the anointing with oil is that “Luke retained this traditional note as an expression of the woman’s great respect for Jesus the prophet, but dropped its connection with Jesus’ death and burial.”[19] Perhaps we may be able to indirectly link her anointing with the Messiah’s passion and death.[20]

Although in Luke, she may not directly be preparing him for burial, her acknowledgment of Jesus as prophet (cf. also Luke 7:16) may be seen to imply his prophetic end. Many of the prophets were persecuted and died in Jerusalem. Since the Lord is a prophet, the anointing may be a preparation for burial even in Luke.  This is obviously not an explicit statement but simply an inference. The Lord may bespeak the suffering servant of Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19) where he speaks of his prophetic mission and he will later speak of his death:[21]

I.  First Passion Prediction

II.  Second Passion      Prediction

III.  Third Passion Prediction

Luke 9:22 Luke 9:44 Luke 18:31b-33
He said, “The Son of man is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day.” “The Son of man is going to be delivered into the power of men.” “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of man is to come true…when they have scourged him they will put him to death; on the third day he will rise again.”


What is certain is that the liturgical composers in the early Churches of the East saw the anointing of Jesus as a preparation for his burial.  This is made evident through the few texts quoted above.  The lessons that may be gleaned from this may be placed into two categories: the effects upon Jesus and the effects upon humanity.  These two tangents of the burial event are constantly repeated in the liturgical office of the Byzantine Church and have some foundation in the way Luke wants to give purpose to his writing, although scholars tend to disagree with its meaning.[22]

What then can be drawn from the shadow of the burial/cross that is perceived in the beginning and throughout Luke’s gospel?  The lessons drawn by the liturgical writers of the Byzantine liturgy give us insight into the fact that Jesus’ story is our story.  His burial is our burial.  During the Easter Liturgy the replacement for the Trisagion Hymn is: “…since every one of you that has been baptized has been clothed in Christ” (Galatians 3:27). This is also the “song” of every Latin baptism.  The Lord is the first fruits that has come forth from the grave and a living testimony that God is a God of the living not of the dead.

So, although some may say that we are reading too much into the Lucan narrative; nevertheless, others say that Jesus’ story is a reflection of how our life will be.  We must be buried with him if we are to rise with him.  In both churches symbolically we die with Christ in Baptism through immersion or pouring of water three times.  This is not just for the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity but also for the three days in the tomb. We must anoint ourselves with faith, prayer and good works in preparation for our own burial.  We must be dead to sin but alive in Christ Jesus. In essence, the preparation for burial begins with each Christian’s birth, although Jesus’ situation is a very unique one.  He prepared the way for all creation and we are certain to encounter the terminal event for which, as Christians, we should always be prepared.

On Easter morning, the Byzantine Slavic Churches celebrate a liturgy titled “Resurrection Matins.”  During this joyful service the liturgical author finds meaning for the Christian of today in the tomb of the Lord.  The following two verses explain prophetically a reason for Christian praxis that springs from the tomb:

I was buried yesterday with you O Christ; but today I rise, resurrected with You.  Yesterday I crucified myself with you, O Savior.  Now glorify me with You in Your kingdom.

Come, let us partake of a new drink, not miraculously produced from barren rock, but from the Fountain of Immortality, springing up from the tomb of Christ.  In Him is our firm strength.[23]

One can generally say that in the East the Paschal mystery is present and transformative. It is not simply an historical reenactment. Even though there are more reenactment events such as the breaking open of the tomb symbolically with the knocking on the door with the hand cross and the Romans have no such liturgical practices both churches celebrate the Resurrection as it touches us today. We become part of a story that reaches down to our day. The liturgical celebrations attempt to speak not only to the seen historical event but to the unseen mystical event that is real today—active and transformative.

This same outlook can be applied to all the Gospel proclamations. It is Spirit speaking to us today. The goal of the biblical word is not simply to re-tell but to move the heart. The soul must be stirred, as was the Word when it took flesh and lived among us. The East never reads the Gospel narrative alone. It reads the narrative with the Spirit whispering that the word makes us children of light as long as we believe in his name. This is seen in the layout of the Byzantine church based upon the words of Basil – to the Father, through the Son (on the royal doors) and in the Holy Spirit – in the faithful gathered together.  Western Churches have a different perspective.  The priest has gone to face the people losing the symbolism of priest and people praying together in the same direction to the Father.  Pope Benedict and others place a crucifix on the altar as a reminder that it is Christ through whom we go to the Father.  The Roman Eucharistic prayers are directed to the Father.

The Eastern transfiguration of humanity is ongoing in each individual life. To see the Resurrection in the face of defeat and to believe in life in the face of death reminds us that we are children of light and the Father of lights is the source of every perfect gift which comes from above (James 1:17).

[1] J. Quasten, Patrology, vol. I, (Christian Classics: Notre Dame, IN, 2005), 20.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] D. Attwater, St. John Chrysostom, (Collins Clear-Type Press: London, 1960), 14.

[4] E. LaVerdiere, S.S.S., Luke’s Gospel: Like Entering a Painting, Scripture From Scratch, (Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1995)  2.

[5] R. Taft, S.J., The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1986), 341: “Our prayers are worthless, but in the liturgy Christ himself prays in us.  For the liturgy is the efficacious sign of Christ’s saving presence in his Church.”

 [6] F. J. Sheen, Life of Christ (New York: Doubleday Publishers, 1977), 30: “It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life, and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was there from the beginning and it cast its shadow backward to His birth.”

[7] B. Ramsey, O.P., Beginning to Read the Fathers (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1985), 15.

 [8] E. LaVerdiere, “The Original Prologue of the Gospel of Luke: Luke 3:1 – 4:13,” Chicago Studies 38/3 (Fall/Winter 1999): 251.

[9] R. E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., Editors, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1990) 683.

[10] Brown, 683.

[11] The Liturgical Commission of The Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great, Pentecostarion, (Uniontown, Pennsylvania: Sisters of St. Basil the Great, 1986),  84.

[12]Pentecostarion, 85.

[13] This is lived out today in Byzantine baptisms when a child is presented either at the altar or in front of an icon.

[14] Sheen, 29.

[15] Brown, 697.

[16] Brown, 625.

[17]The Liturgical Commission of The Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great, The Lenten Triodion, (Uniontown, Pennsylvania: 1995),  557.

[18] E. LaVerdiere, S.S.S., Luke, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 108.

[19] E. LaVerdiere, S.S.S., Dining in The Kingdom of God (Chicago, Ill.: Liturgical Training Publications, 1994), 52.

[20] D. J. Harrington, S.J., Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 3 The Gospel of Luke, by Luke Timothy Johnson (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991), Luke Timothy Johnson also sees no connection between the Lucan account and Mark and Matthew’s account: “Although myrrh was used for the burial of Jesus (Luke 23:56), there is no emphasis on this anointing having any such proleptic significance (against Mark 14:8; Matt 26:12), or on the oil being expensive (as in Mark 14:3-5; Matt 26:7; John 12:3),” 127.

[21] This table is an adaptation of the table found in R. E. Brown, S.S. The Death of the Messiah, vo. 2 (New York: Doubleday Publishers, 1993), 1474-1475.

[22] Harrington, 29.

[23] Pentecostarion , 4.


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