The New World Of The Sacraments – Fr. Alexander Schmemann

December 13, 2011

The sacraments were instituted by Christ and were part of the Liturgical Tradition of the early Christian Church. The Church celebrates in her liturgy the Paschal mystery of Christ, his Sacrifice on the Cross, Death and Resurrection. The Greek word μυστήριον or mystery in the Greek New Testament is translated into sacramentum in the Latin Vulgate Bible, from which we derive our English word sacrament (examples: Ephesians 1:9, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:27). The saving effects of Christ's Redemption on the Cross are communicated through the sacraments, especially in the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist. The sacraments to this day are called mysteries in the Eastern Churches.

“…as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint one for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.
Luke 22:29-30

Fr. Alexander Schmemann (13 September 1921 – 13 December 1983) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian priest, teacher, and writer. He is especially valued for his meditations on the Eucharist.


If assembling as the church is, in the most profound sense of the term, the beginning of the Eucharistic celebration, its first and fundamental condition, then its end and completion is the Church’s entrance into heaven, her fulfillment at the table of Christ, in his kingdom. It is imperative to indicate and to confess this as the sacrament’s end, purpose and fulfillment immediately after confessing the “assembly as the Church” as its beginning because this “end” also reveals the unity of the Eucharist, its order and essence as movement and ascent — as, above all and before all, the sacrament of the kingdom of God. And it is no accident, of course, that in its present form the liturgy begins with the solemn blessing of the kingdom.

Today we particularly need to remind ourselves of this “end” because our school teaching on the sacraments — which took hold in the Orthodox East in the “dark ages” of the Church’s western “captivity” — makes no mention either of the “assembly as the Church” as the beginning and condition of the sacrament or of her ascent to the heavenly sanctuary, to the “table of Christ.”

The sacrament was reduced to two “acts,” two “moments”: the change of the Eucharistic gifts into the body and blood of Christ and the communion itself. Its definitions consisted in answering the questions of how, i.e., on account of what “causality,” and when, i.e., at what moment, did the change occur. In other words, our school theology determined for each sacrament a consecratory formula, inherent to the given sacrament and at the same time both necessary and sufficient for its accomplishment.

Thus, as an example, in the authoritative Longer Catechism of Metropolitan Filaret (Drozdov) of Moscow, which was accepted by the entire Orthodox East, this “formula” is defined as “the pronouncing of the words that Christ spoke at the institution of the sacrament: take, eat, this is my body… drink of it all of you, this is my blood. . . and then the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of the gifts, the bread and wine that had been offered. … When this takes place, the bread and wine are changed into the very body and very blood of Christ.”

The influence of the scholastic theology of the sacraments that underlies the “consecratory formula” is unfortunately evident in our own liturgical practice. It is expressed in the patent desire to single out that part of the Eucharistic prayer that can be identified with the “consecratory formula,” to make it, so to speak, independent and self-contained.

With this end in view, the reading of the Eucharistic prayer is as it were “interrupted” by the threefold reading of the Troparion of the Third Hour: “O Lord, who didst send down Thy Most Holy Spirit upon Thine apostles at the third hour: Take Him not from us, O Good One, but renew Him in us who pray to Thee” — a supplication related neither grammatically nor semantically to the anaphora. [Vocab: Anaphora: “a carrying on high”. Every liturgical celebration is an anaphora because it shares in the present movement of the Lord’s Ascension. More precisely, the anaphora is the central movement of the Eucharist (the “Eucharistic prayer” of the Latin liturgy) and consists of the thanksgiving, the anamnesis, the epiclesis, and the intercessions.]

With this same intention we ritually and verbally single out from the Eucharistic prayer a dialogue between the deacon and the priest whose essence lies in separate consecrations first of the bread and then of the cup, and finally of the gifts together. Further testimony to the fact that we are dealing with a “consecratory formula” is the completely illiterate transferral of the last words of the benediction, “Making the change by Thy Holy Spirit,” from the anaphora of St John Chrysostom to that of St Basil the Great.

As far as the other rites of the liturgy are concerned, they are either generally ignored — since they are unnecessary for the accomplishment of the sacrament and are thus not a subject for theological comprehension — or, as in the above-cited catechism, they are construed as symbolic “illustrations” of one or another event in Christ’s ministry, whose recollection is “edifying” for the faithful in attendance.

We will have to return later to this doctrine of a “consecratory formula.” For now, in this initial stage of our work, the important thing to note is that it isolates the Eucharist from the liturgy, and thus separates the Eucharist from the Church, from its ecclesiological essence and meaning.

This separation is, of course, external, for the spirit of tradition is too strong in the Orthodox Church to allow a change in or betrayal of the ancient forms of worship. Nevertheless, the separation is a real one, for, in this approach, the Church ceases to perceive herself not only as the “dispenser” of the sacraments but as their very object: they represent her fulfillment of herself in “this world” as the sacrament of the kingdom of God, which “has come in power.” The very fact that the Eucharist’s beginning, the “assembly as the Church,” and its end and fulfillment, its realization as “that which it is,” the manifestation and presence of the kingdom of God, simply dropped out of the experience as well as the explanations and definitions of the Eucharist amply demonstrates the truly tragic damage of this approach and of the reduction it contains.


What is the cause of this reduction, and how did it penetrate church consciousness? This question is of immeasurable importance not only for an interpretation of the sacraments and the Eucharist but above all for an understanding of the Church herself, her place and ministry in “this world.”

We can best begin our analysis of this reduction with a concept that, although occupying an enormous position in all “discussions” of church worship, remains vague and obscure. This is the idea of the symbol. It has long been normal to speak of the “symbolism” of Orthodox worship. Indeed, even apart from these “discussions,” one can hardly doubt that it is in fact symbolic. But what is understood by this term, what is its concrete content?

The most prevalent, “current” answer to this question consists in an identification of the symbol with a representation or illustration. When someone says that the “Little Entrance” “symbolizes” the Savior’s coming out to preach the gospel, he understands by this that the rite of entrance represents a certain event of the past. And this “illustrative symbolism” has come to be applied to worship in general, whether taken as a whole or in each of its separate rites. And since this interpretation of “symbolism” (the flowering of which had begun already during the Byzantine period) is undoubtedly rooted in the most pious of feelings, it would occur to very few that not only does it not correspond to the basic and original Christian conception of worship, but actually distorts it and provides one of the reasons for its present decline.

The reasons for this lie in the fact that “symbol” here designates something not only distinct from reality but in essence even contrary to it. Further on we shall see that the specifically western, Roman Catholic emphasis on the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharistic gifts grew primarily out of a fear that this presence would be degraded into the category of the “symbolic.” But this could only happen when the word “symbol” ceased to designate something real and became in fact the antithesis of reality.

In other words, where one is concerned with “reality” there is no need for a symbol, and, conversely, where there is a symbol there is no reality. This led to the understanding of the liturgical symbol as an “illustration,” necessary only to the extent that what is represented is not “real.” Thus, two thousand years ago the Savior came forth to preach the gospel in reality, and now we illustrate this act symbolically in order to recall for ourselves the meaning of the event, its significance for us, etc.

I repeat, these are pious and legitimate intentions in and of themselves. However, this type of symbolism is not only quite frequently utilized arbitrarily and artificially (thus, the entrance at the liturgy is turned into a symbol of Christ going out), but in fact reduces ninety percent of our rites to the level of didactic dramatization — not unlike acting out a “procession on a donkey” on Palm Sunday or the mystery play of the “youths in the furnace of Babylon.” Such reduction deprives the rites of their inner necessity, their relation to the reality of worship. They become “symbolical” settings, mere decorations for the two or three acts or “moments” that alone provide, so to speak, “reality” to the liturgy — and which alone are necessary and therefore “sufficient.”

This is demonstrated by our school theology, which long ago in fact dismissed the entire ordo of the Eucharist from its field of interest and attention and concentrated entirely upon a single moment: the isolated consecratory formula. On the other hand, it is also demonstrated — however strange it may seem — in our very piety.

It is no accident, of course, that an increasing number of people in the Church find this piling up of symbolical representations and explanations disturbing to their prayer and to their genuine participation in the liturgy, distracting them from that spiritual reality the direct contact with which is the very essence of prayer. The same “illustrative” symbolism that is unnecessary for the theologian is also unnecessary for the serious believer.


This separation, this contraposition of symbol and reality is the foundation of that perception and subsequent definition of the sacraments — and above all of the Eucharist — whose focus is the consecratory formula. This approach came to us from the West, where, in contrast to the East, the sacraments quite early became a subject of special teaching and definition.

Particular attention should be given to the scholastic treatise De sacramentis, in its progressive development, for the peculiar estrangement of the sacraments from the Church. This estrangement, of course, is not to be understood in the sense that the sacraments were established and function outside or independently of the Church. Rather, they are given to the Church, they are performed within her and only through the power given her to perform them and, finally, they are performed on her behalf.

Yet while being accomplished in and through the Church, they constitute — even in the Church herself — a special reality, distinct unto itself. They are special in their being established directly by Christ himself, special in their essence as the “visible signs of invisible grace,” special in their “efficacy” and, finally, special as the “causes of grace” (causae gratiae) .

One result of the setting apart of the sacraments as a new, sui generis reality was the scholastic definition of the sacraments as being established only in view of man’s fall and his salvation by Christ. In the state of “original innocence” man had no need of them; they are necessary only because man sinned and requires medicine for the wounds of sin. The sacraments are precisely this medicine: quaedam spirituales medicamenta quae adhibentur contra vulnera peccati. Finally, the sole source of these medicines is the passio Christi, the suffering and sacrifice of the cross, through which Christ redeemed and saved mankind. The sacraments are accomplished by the power of the passion of Christ (in virtute passionis Christi) which they apply to mankind (passio Christi quaedam applicata hominibus).

Summing up the results of the development of western sacramental theology, the Catholic theologian Dom Vonier, in his well-known book The Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, writes: “The world of the sacraments is a new world, created by God entirely apart from the natural and even from the spiritual world…

Neither in heaven nor on earth is there anything like the sacraments…. They have their own form of existence, their own psychology, their own grace…. We must understand that the idea of the sacraments is something entirely sui generis.”

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