New book's timely appreciation of Eastern Christianity
The Byzantine Tradition
by Laurence Cross
(Freedom Publishing, 2014, 140pp, $19.95, ISBN: 978-0-97756-998-4)
Dr Laurence Cross, born in Sydney in 1943, studied at Sydney University and read history at St John's College, Oxford, before completing a Doctorate of Theology at the Melbourne College of Divinity. His great area of interest is the Eastern Christian tradition, and he is pastor of the Russian Byzantine Catholics in Australia.
Dr Cross contributes to numerous theological journals, and has played a leading role in efforts to achieve a reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. This work aims to introduce Western Christians to the Byzantine tradition, of which most of us are only dimly aware.
While we are conscious of the unity of belief between Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, except on the question of the papacy, few of us know much about the intellectual tradition of Eastern Christianity, its history, liturgy, sacraments, prayers, or its church architecture.
In this relatively short book, Dr Cross explores all these issues, accompanying the text with carefully selected illustrations.
Coming from a Roman Catholic background, his presentation starts from the Western perspective, and from that, he explores the Eastern tradition.
He explains succinctly not only the differences in the theological tradition between East and West, but more importantly, why these differences emerged.
Dr Cross shows that they emerged in the different issues faced by the societies at the time. In the West in the early centuries, preoccupied with the barbarian invasions and the need to convert these people, the faith took a form which was "more legalistic and practical, giving much of its attention to the state of man before God."
In the East, Christianity was "more mystical and idealist, emphasising the mystery of God."
These different perspectives had a deep influence not only on theology, but on the prayer life, the role of tradition, the sacramental life, the Eucharist, the Sacred Liturgy (Mass), and even the interior design and decoration of churches.
Dr Cross explores each of these aspects, and shows how the Eastern tradition enriches our understanding of the Christian faith.
He quotes approvingly the wonderful words of the emissaries sent by Vladimir, the prince of Kyiv, who visited centres of Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic faith in the 10th century, before embracing Orthodoxy.
After attending the sacred liturgy in the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople, they wrote: "We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you, only this we know, that there God dwells amongst men and their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty."
Those who attend an Eastern liturgy today are struck by its intensity, its mysticism, and its unchanging antiquity.
Dr Cross has an illuminating account of the role of tradition in Eastern Christianity, and shows how we in the West can learn from our brothers in the East. The book concludes with a short discussion of the Eastern Churches today, and prospects for reunion.
One point which gives this book great contemporary relevance is the astonishing resurgence of Christianity in central and Eastern Europe since the fall of communism, which is utterly different from the Western experience of increasing secularisation.
In countries as diverse as Russia, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine, there has been a religious revival which is still reshaping those countries in the most inspiring ways.
This book gives us an insight into this largely unknown world.