The Sakkos, Art, and Youth Ministry

What does it look like to help young people bear witness to God in a U.S. culture where political engagement is so fraught and Christian ministry is rarely thriving?

In Cecily J. Hillsdale’s Byzantine Art and Diplomacy in an Age of Decline (2014), Hillsdale studies the curious paradox that during an era of increasing political fragility and economic instability, art thrived. In a time of diplomatic weakness, there was cultural strength. Not only that, but imperial art operated in an economy of gift-giving that negotiated political allegiances, social power, and union. Cultures coped with fading empire by producing works of beauty. And a significant proportion of that material culture appeared in the form of liturgical expression. Take for example Hillsdale’s examination of the Byzantine Eucharistic vestment or communion tunic known as the sakkos.

The sakkos was only worn three times a year: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Around the 12th century, only the highest church official wore the sakkos. It took 200 years before select episcopal authorities also received permission to wear the sakkos for the three great feast days. Hillsdale describes how the sakkos had a “dizzying” appearance (302). It displayed over 100 embroidered individual scenes including the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt, Baptism, the Raising of Lazarus, Christ’s entombment, full-figured portraits of patriarchs like Gregory of Nazianzus, Ignatius of Antioch, Peter of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, the Metropolitan or chief bishop of a city (Metropolitan Photios of Moscow in her book), and even diplomatic marriage in order to signal a Byzantine vision for a unified Russia ecclesially and dynastically linked to Constantinople—center of the Orthodox Church. Put another way, the sakkos was worn as a sign of liturgical and political privilege and distinction that entangled sacred mysteries with diplomatic and imperial matters.

The sakkos represented sacro-imperial propaganda. It also expressed aspirations of a fading empire. Its extravagance did not match actual opulence on the ground. The sakkos was a gift made with opulence in a time of imperial poverty. It was given to the highest church leader, the Metropolitan, so that the garment could communicate a message of religious and social significance to its wearer and the faithful looking to their patriarch for guidance. The ecclesial uniform conveyed the “ecumenical authority of the church and the imperial authority of the emperor” (Hillsdale, 327). It was a gifted image of religious and social hope.

Hillsdale’s historical analysis of the sakkos provides one departure point for sparking liturgical artistry in youth ministry as politics and churches continue to fail to live up to what we hoped for. Nearly a thousand years ago, liturgical art made dynastic dreams real. In reality, an empire faced dissolution. Those dreams were interwoven with displays of ecclesial power even though church rule was tenuous too.

The Byzantine era is over. Nevertheless, as youth ministers negotiate sharing the gifts of God—love, forgiveness, exponential family, and more—within what appears to be the deterioration of U.S. politics and church life as we formerly knew it, how will it become possible to set conditions for young people to demonstrate liturgical beauty as a cultural strength no matter what is going on? We do not share the dubious imperial and ecclesiastical agendas associated with the sakkos. But we do live in a nation with comparable quandaries. We may not have expertise in crafting vestments of splendor. But we do have other abilities and tools far more advanced than the vision, needle, and thread used to weave ceremonial fabric from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

What are those theological, social, and material resources available to us in youth ministry? What are our limitations and transgressions, self-understood and socially-imposed? After inventorying what we have to work with, what kind of makerspaces can we set up for young people to produce and declare liturgical gifts, not for the leaders of the church and the land, but for all kinds of people without sanctuary so that they can experience the luxurious grace of God for years to come?

Contributor: Gerald Liu
Presented by: The Institute for Youth Ministry


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Gerald C. Liu is the Assistant Professor of Worship and Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained United Methodist Elder of the Mississippi Annual Conference, he also serves as a Minister in Residence at the Church of the Village, a United Methodist Congregation in Manhattan. He is the son of culturally Buddhist immigrants from Taiwan, and is currently working on a book project that theorizes about sounds as gifts from God.