Review: The Typikon Decoded

Note: One of the “additions” I plan on making to Opus Publicum in the new year are brief book reviews. Hopefully they will prove to be of some value.

Archimandrite [Archbishop] Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2012), 313pgs.

There are few things more “Byzantine” than Eastern liturgy, but that doesn’t mean it is impenetrable. In plain, typically jargon-free, English, Archbishop Job Getcha takes readers through the liturgical patrimony of the Byzantine Rite, explaining both the structure of its services and their history. Though not a critical exegesis of Eastern liturgy, Getcha, to his credit, does not backdown from calling attention to the sometimes problematic manner in which parts of the Byzantine liturgy developed; he does so not to advance an armchair call for reform, but to unload some of the “mystery” from the ordo in order to make clear the meaning of certain liturgical actions and texts. For those accustomed to rubrics gazing, Getcha’s explanations are likely to come across as unwarranted glances behind the magic curtain; for everyone else with a genuine interest in the Byzantine Rite in all of its complex beauty and beautiful complexity, The Typikon Decoded will be a long overdue breath of fresh air.

Not that there aren’t other English-language books on Byzantine liturgy. Aside from numerous academic monographs, popular works like A Practical Handbook for Divine Services or St. John of Kronstadt Press’s detailed Order of Divine Services are available to assist clergy and choir throughout the liturgical year. Additional online resources, such as Philip Sokoloff’s weekly “Choir Cues,” are, for many, a godsend. The virtue of Getcha’s volume is that it combines thorough explanations of how each service — depending on festal rank and position in the yearly liturgical cycle — is to be celebrated along with important historical, developmental, and theological details.

For those unfamiliar with the Byzantine Rite, particularly its “maximal” celebration in the Russian Orthodox tradition, many of the details are likely to appear overwhelming. It is almost needless to say that the traditional Roman liturgy as found in the older editions of the Breviarium Monasticum and Breviarium Romanum will appear austere, perhaps even emaciated, next to the many moving, and often dense, parts of daily Byzantine cycle of services. Even the simplest Byzantine liturgical day, without celebration of the Divine Liturgy (the Byzantine form of Mass), requires no less than three (Horologion, Psalter, and Oktoechos) liturgical books, and oftentimes requires a fourth (Menaion). When placed in the proper context, with a talented and reverent choir, these books radiate the glory of the Byzantine Rite while bridging the faithful between this world and the Kingdom which is to come.

If there are any quibbles to be had with Getcha’s work, they are minor. Eastern Christians, particularly those used to the Greek Orthodox tradition, may find some of Getcha’s explanations of their particular uses a bit lacking. Others, as noted, may not appreciate Getcha’s “unveiling” some of the accidents of history which led to this-or-that “part” of the liturgy being where it was probably never intended to be, but so be it. Honest familiarity with the ways and means of liturgical development is not the same as demanding reform. If the Roman Rite has anything to teach the Byzantine, it’s that liturgical things are often better left “broken” than “fixed.”