5. Pre-Christian mysteries and the Eastern Church
The growth of the Christian cult came about differently in various countries. Ceremonies found their way into Christian sacramentalism which had their origin in the pre-Christian mysteries. In principle there is nothing wrong with this influx of pre-Christian values, as it is in a way the fulfilment of the appearance of the mysterious Magi from the East, offering their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Jesus child. Christ is the fulfilment not only of the Old Testament but also of the old mystery religions. Concerning the values of the old pre-Christian mysteries, the word of St Paul holds good: ‘all is yours’ (lCor.3:22) as long as the following phrase is felt with sufficient strength; ‘but you are Christ’s.’ Thus gold, frankincense and myrrh were legitimately adopted by the growing Christian cult.
We could compare this process of unfolding and enriching of Christian liturgy to the growth of a plant. The growing of a plant is directed from an invisible centre of forces, by a spiritual archetype. The latter is hovering above the visible plant. It causes the incoming nourishing substances to ‘fill out’ the dynamic lines of the inborn structure of the plant organism. Thus the plant thrives and grows. It does not become something different from the archetype. Although the plant passes through a series of metamorphoses it is not alienated from itself and does not lose its identity. Also above the historic development of the Eucharist such a living divine archetypal entity is hovering. Through the centuries the liturgical organism has received the radiations of the divine ideal so it has in the main unfolded along the lines of the spiritual archetypal structure. There is of course one great difference between the growth of a plant and something that has to do with man. Wherever man comes into the picture, there is also the shadow of his ‘fall,’ which means a certain alienation from his divine origin. Thus the growth of Christian sacramental ism is not only similar to the unfolding of the plant, but we may observe in it the shadow of man’s imperfections. Foreign elements have crept in and have overgrown the original pattern here and there. Elements were adopted which were not sufficiently digested and assimilated. They were not sufficiently permeated by the spirit of genuine Christianity as we will see later.
The Mass developed differently in East and West. The Greek Orthodox Mass preserves many features of the ancient mysteries. The altar is invisible behind a screen -the iconostasis, the ‘wall of pictures.’ The priest performs his liturgy mainly in seclusion. Only at special moments do the doors of the iconostasis ‘open. This happens when the Gospel is carried out in solemn procession, and later in the Offertory when still more solemnly the bread and wine are carried forth and then returned for the Transubstantiation. Only now and then a glimpse is possible through the central door. This corresponds to the era of the pre-Christian mysteries when the priest was the initiate and the people stood outside. The iconostasis represents the world of spirit-pictures, visionary pictures seen by the inner eye, as well as hiding those spiritual realities which are behind the visions. The mystic core of the Eucharist is celebrated behind the screen and is reserved for the priest. The gap between the ‘mystagogue’ behind the screen and the layman standing outside is stressed too much. A pre-Christian element has not been sufficiently assimilated by this form of Christianity.
The Greek Mass also preserves reminders of the original division between the public and the esoteric parts, even if only in a formal way. Before the Offertory those not baptized are solemnly dismissed. Before entering the Transubstantiation the priest calls out: ‘The doors! The doors!’ reminding us of the first Christian times when the doors were really locked against those who did not belong.