Liturgical Memory of the Saints

  August 04, 2021   Read time 2 min
Liturgical Memory of the Saints
By the end of the fourth century, and certainly well into the fifth, the saints were recalled by name and/or class in the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharistic liturgy.

This recollection occurred not only for the keeping of saints’ days but also found expression in the formal ordinary liturgical texts used in worship. In the Byzantine world, the Sunday liturgy was normally celebrated according to a rite ascribed to Saint John Chrysostom (347–407), which to this day is used on all but ten Sundays of the year in both the Greek and Russian Churches. After the consecration of the bread and the wine, the celebrant “offers this reasonable service for those who rest in faith, the fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics and all the righteous perfected in faith”; then, in a louder voice, the priest continues: “especially our all-holy, immaculate, highly glorious, blessed lady, Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary; Saint John the forerunner and Baptist, and the holy and honored apostles; and this saint whose memorial we are keeping [i.e. the saint commemorated on that day]; at those entreaties, look upon us, O Lord.”

In the Roman rite for the mass, whose origins also go back to the fifth century, the celebrant asks God to remember those who stand in the church who are “In fellowship with and venerating the memory” of “the glorious and ever Virgin Mary, Mother of Our God and Lord Jesus Christ, and also your blessed apostles and martyrs [here the apostles and Roman martyrs are called by name] and all your saints, by whose merits and prayers grant us to be defended in all things by the help of your protection . . .” After the consecration of the bread and wine, the celebrant then prays that those who celebrate the liturgy will be granted “some part and fellowship with your holy apostles and martyrs, with John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and with all your saints . . .” Those commemorations are still used in the first of the four Eucharistic prayers found in the reformed liturgy of the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church.

The liturgical insistence that the community at worship is in the company of all the saints, from the Old Testament figures onwards, finds its most visual representation in the art of the church. To go into a Byzantine church is to be confronted by the iconostasis with its complex series of icons; typically, the walls of the church are also decorated. Using a different style of decoration, churches in the West have stained-glass windows, pictures, and statues in the apse, and ancillary altars, also depicting the range of the saints. One of the most striking churches exemplifying this notion of the entire church at worship is the fifthcentury basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. On both walls of the nave, below the clerestory, are continuous mosaics of sainted martyrs, men on one side and women on the other, in procession towards the main altar. When a person entered the church for worship it was, as it were, as if the communicant were joining some vast procession of saints who were moving in the same direction as the worshiper looking towards the altar.