Archive for the ‘Fr. Alexander Schmemann’ Category


The Bright Sadness Of Lent

February 24, 2012

The theme chosen for Lent was "Where is Christ in the Desert of Your Life?" The stark setting included rocks of the desert painted cream to match the walls, a barren bush, water jug, and black fabric, draped from cream cloth on the altar of sacrifice down onto the marble tile. The setting remained throughout the 40 days of Lent.

You will find in this meditation by Fr. Schmemann a wonderful reflection on sloth. I have another five essays on Understanding Acedia/Sloth  as it is something I truly struggle with in my religious life – it makes a shambles of everything I struggle to do or be. I can’t even seem to get others to understand it, either. A therapist I was working with recently couldn’t see past my struggles for the sin itself and found in it a reason to break off our sessions. I had exceeded my number of visits and she was looking for a way out but I can’t tell you how her distorted view of me added to my utter despair.


For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent — something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning. This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

This Lenten “atmosphere,” this unique “state of mind,” is brought about mainly by means of worship, by the various changes introduced during that season into the liturgical life.’ Considered separately, these changes may appear as incomprehensible “rubrics,” as formal prescriptions to be formally adhered to; but understood as a whole, they reveal and communicate the spirit of Lent, they make us see, feel, and experience that bright sadness which is the true message and gift of Lent.

One can say without exaggeration that the spiritual fathers and the sacred writers who composed the hymns of the Lenten Tradion, who little by little organized the general structures of the Lenten services, who adorned the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts with that special beauty which is proper to it, had a unique understanding of the human soul. They truly knew the art of repentance, and every year during Lent they make this art accessible to everyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see.

The general impression, I said, is that of “bright sadness.” Even a man having only a limited knowledge of worship who enters a church during a Lenten service would understand almost immediately, I am sure, what is meant by this somewhat contradictory expression. On the one hand, a certain quiet sadness permeates the service: vestments are dark, the services are longer than usual and more monotonous, there is almost no movement. Readings and chants alternate yet nothing seems to “happen.” At regular intervals the priest comes out of the sanctuary and reads always the same short prayer, and the whole congregation punctuates every petition of that prayer with prostrations. Thus, for a long time we stand in this monotony — in this quiet sadness.

But then we begin to realize that this very length and monotony are needed if we are to experience the secret and at first unnoticeable “action” of the service in us. Little by little we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed “bright,” that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us. It is as if we were reaching a place to which the noises and the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access — a place where they have no power.

All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy. It is not the noisy and superficial happiness which comes and goes twenty times a day and is so fragile and fugitive; it is a deep happiness which comes not from a single and particular reason but from our soul having, in the words of Dostoevsky, touched “another world.” And that which it has touched is made up of light and peace and joy, of an inexpressible trust. We understand then why the services had to be long and seemingly monotonous. We understand that it is simply impossible to pass from our normal state of mind made up almost entirely of fuss, rush, and care, into this new one without first “quieting down,” without restoring in ourselves a measure of inner stability.

This is why those who think of church services only in terms of “obligations,” who always inquire about the required minimum (“How often must we go to church?” “How often must we pray?”) can never understand the true nature of worship which is to take us into a different world — that of God’s Presence! — but to take us there slowly because our fallen nature has lost the ability to accede there naturally.

Thus, as we experience this mysterious liberation, as we become “light and peaceful,” the monotony and the sadness of the service acquire a new significance, they are transfigured. An inner beauty illumines them like an early ray of the sun which, while it is still dark in the valley, begins to lighten up the top of the mountain. This light and secret joy come from the long alleluias, from the entire “tonality” of Lenten worship. What at first appeared as monotony now is revealed as peace; what sounded like sadness is now experienced as the very first movements of the soul recovering its lost depth. This is what the first verse of the Lenten alleluia proclaims every morning: “My soul has desired Thee in the night, O God, before dawn, for Thy judgments are a light upon the earth!”

“Sad brightness”: the sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home. Such is the climate of Lenten worship; such is its first and general impact on my soul.

The Lenten Prayer Of St. Ephrem The Syrian
Of all lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer can be termed the lenten prayer. Tradition ascribes it to one of the great teachers of spiritual life — St. Ephrem the Syrian. Here is its text:

O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth,
     faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
     humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors
     and not to judge my brother;

For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages.

This prayer is read twice at the end of each Lenten service Monday through Friday (not on Saturdays and Sundays for, as we shall see later, the services of these days do not follow the Lenten pattern). At the first reading, a prostration follows each petition. Then we all bow twelve times saying: “O God, cleanse me a sinner.” The entire prayer is repeated with one final prostration at the end.

Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire Lenten worship? Because it enumerates in a unique way all the negative and positive elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a “check list” for our individual Lenten effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.

The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down’ rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.

The result of sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the state of despondency which all spiritual Fathers considered the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the world; he fills life with darkness and negation. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it he is absolutely unable to see the light and to desire it.

Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in a radically wrong attitude toward other persons. If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and self-centered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction.

If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master — the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments.

The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate “others.” It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration, and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.

Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very “seal” of the Divine Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John 1:1) . But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger. Being the very expression of man, the means of his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie. Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle. It “enforces” sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.

These four are thus the negative “objects” of repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten prayer — this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to the positive aims of repentance which also are four.

  1. Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust — the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.
  2. The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God’s majesty and goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud.
  3. Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The “natural” or “fallen” man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue.God is patient not because He is “indulgent,” but because He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is the proper quality of God.
  4. Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love — that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone — the gift which is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.

All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the Lenten prayer in which we ask “to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.” For ultimately there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can be turned into pride. Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we “see our own errors” and “do not judge our brothers,” when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy — pride will be destroyed in us.

After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. Prostrations are not limited to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the entire Lenten worship. Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all. In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body.

The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the flesh — the animal, the irrational, the lust in us — over the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious, the body is holy, so holy that God Himself “became flesh.” Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body.

For this reason, the whole man — soul and body — repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations, the “psycho-somatic” sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the Lenten rite par excellence.


Two Conversations on Death – Alexander Schmemann

February 10, 2012

From 1946-51, Fr Schmemann taught church history at St. Sergius in Paris. He was invited to join the faculty of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, then in New York City, where he taught from 1951 onwards. When the seminary moved to its present campus in Crestwood, New York in 1962, Fr Schmemann assumed the post of dean, which he would hold until his death. He also served as adjunct professor at Columbia University, New York University, Union Theological Seminary and General Theological Seminary in New York. Much of his focus at St Vladimir’s was on liturgical theology, which emphasizes the liturgical tradition of the Church as a major sign and expression of the Christian faith. Fr Schmemann was accorded the title of protopresbyter, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a married Orthodox priest. He held honorary degrees from Butler University, General Theological Seminary, Lafayette College, Iona College, and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He was an Orthodox observer for the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church from 1962 to 1965. He was active in the establishment of the Orthodox Church in America and in its being granted autocephaly by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970. His sermons were broadcast in Russian on Radio Liberty for 30 years. He gained a broad following of listeners across the Soviet Union, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who became his friend after emigrating to the West.

The Last Enemy
The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26)
— these are the words of the apostle Paul, writing at the dawn of Christianity following the relentless persecution and death of Christ, in a time of a general, passionate hatred of Christians.

Previously I said that the question about death and, more precisely, the confusion about death, lies at the very heart of human understanding, and in the final analysis, the relation of man to life, that which we call his worldview, is ultimately determined by his relationship to death. I also said that there are essentially two positions, both clearly unsatisfying, neither of which gives us a real answer.

On the one hand we have a form of a rejection of life in the name of death: I quoted the words of the Greek philosopher Plato. “The life of a righteous man,” said he, “is an eternal dying.” Here, as in many religions, one finds the irrevocable victory of death, which violates the purpose of life. For if it is inevitable that we must die, then it is best to transfer all our hopes and aspirations to that other, mystical world.

But I call this answer unsatisfactory because it is precisely about this other world that man has no knowledge. And how can we have as the object of our love that about which we know nothing? This is the source of man’s reaction against various “funereal,” “death-centered” religions, the rejection of pathetic and sorrow-filled world-views.

But while rejecting them in the name of this life, in the name of this world, man still is not liberated from the oppressive sense of the awareness of death. On the contrary, having lost the perspective of eternity, he becomes even more fragile, even more ephemeral on this earth. As Pasternak wrote:

We shall stroll through the dwellings
With flashlights in hand,
We also shall search,
And we also shall die.

All of civilization seems to be permeated with a passionate obsession to stifle this fear of death and the sense of the meaninglessness of life that oozes out of it like a slow-dripping poison. What is this intense conflict with religion, if nothing other than a mindless attempt to root out of human consciousness the memory and concern with death and consequently the question: why do I live in this brief and fragile life?

And so we have two answers, neither of which in the final analysis gives us anything. And it is this dilemma that leads us to ask: but what does Christianity say to us about death? Even if we know nothing about Christianity, we cannot help but recall that its attitude toward death is radically different — it can’t be reduced to one of the two approaches cited above.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” So, it is as if we suddenly find ourselves in a different dimension: death is an enemy that must be destroyed. We find ourselves so removed from Plato and his efforts to force us not only to become used to the idea of death but actually to love this thought and to transform our whole life into an “exercise about death”

Christ weeps at the grave of his dead friend Lazarus — what a powerful witness! He does not say, “Well, now he is in heaven, everything is well; he is separated from this difficult and tormented life.” Christ does not say all those things we do in our pathetic and uncomforting attempts to console. In fact he says nothing — he weeps. And then, according to the Gospels, he raises his friend, that is, he restores him into that life from which we are supposedly to find liberation toward a higher good.

Furthermore, is it not a fact that Easter stands at the center of Christianity, with its joyful proclamation that death has been overthrown? “Trampling down death by death!” Did not Christianity enter into and rule the world during many centuries with this unheard-of proclamation: “death is conquered in victory”? Is not Christianity first of all faith in the resurrection of Christ from the dead, in the assertion that the dead shall arise and those in the graves shall rejoice”?  

Yes, indeed this is all true, yet within Christianity itself and among individual Christians we now find the weakening of this victorious, new, and, from the viewpoint of this world, foolish faith. And Christians have themselves begun to slowly return to Plato, not with his opposition of life and death as two enemies, but in the opposition of two worlds: “this world” and the other world, in which supposedly rejoice all the immortal souls of people who have died.  

But Christ never spoke about the immortality of souls — he spoke about the resurrection of the dead! And how can we fail to see that between these two approaches there is an immense abyss? For, surely, if the question is strictly about the immortality of souls, then we need not concern ourselves with death as such, and what need have we of all these words about victory over death, about its destruction, and about resurrection?  

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And so, let us ask ourselves: in what sense is death the last enemy? Whose enemy is death? And how did this enemy become the ruler of the world and the master of life? We may recall the lines from Vladimir Soloviev’s poem: “Death and Time have dominion on earth / you must refrain from calling them lords …” But how can we not recognize the lordship of all that has become nor mal, the rule of life, with which man has long ago come to terms, against which he has ceased to protest and about which he has ceased even to be concerned in his philosophy, the enemy with which he seeks to find a compromise both in his religion and his culture?  

Indeed, the Christian teaching about death is no longer heard, and Christians themselves can no longer deal with it, for in essence Christianity is not concerned about coming to terms with death, but rather with the victory over it. And when this subject is discussed with the attitude of the foolish Russian philosopher Fedorov, then immediately it is blindly accepted as the voice of wisdom, the voice of compromise, the voice of inevitability. But if such is the case, then I repeat, the whole Christian faith is meaningless, for the apostle Paul said: “If Christ has not been raised then … your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). So it is to this theme — the Christian understanding of death — that we will return in our next conversation.

The Origin of Death
In my last conversation I referred to the Gospel account in which Christ weeps at the grave of his friend Lazarus. We need to pause and consider the meaning of these tears, for in this very moment there occurs a unique transformation within religion in relation to the long-standing religious approach to death.

I already spoke about the meaning of this transformation. Up to this moment the purpose of religion, as well as the purpose of philosophy, consisted in enabling man to come to terms with death, and if possible even to make death desirable: death as the liberation from the oppressiveness of the body; death as the liberation from suffering; death as freedom from this changing, busy, evil world; death as the beginning of eternity. Here, in fact, is the sum total of religious and philosophical teaching before Christ and outside of Christianity — in primitive religions, in Greek philosophy, in Buddhism, and so forth.

But Christ weeps at the grave of his friend, and in so doing he reveals his own struggle with death, his refusal to acknowledge it and to come to terms with it. Suddenly, death ceases to be a normal and natural fact, it appears as something foreign, as unnatural, as fearsome and perverted, and it is acknowledged as an enemy: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

In order to feel the whole depth and revolutionary force of this change we must begin at the beginning, at the source of this new and unprecedented approach to death. We find it as a brief statement in Holy Scripture: “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13). This means that in the world, in creation, there is a power that does not have its origin in God, which he did not desire, which he did not create, which opposes him and is independent of him.

God created life. Always and everywhere God is himself called the Life and the giver of life. In that eternally new and eternally childlike story in the Bible, God delights in his world, in its resplendent light and in its joy of life.

To be more precise, and to bring this story revealed in the Bible to its conclusion, one can put it this way: death is the denial of God, and if death is natural, if it is the ultimate truth about life and about the world, if it is the highest and immutable law about all of creation, then there is no God, then this whole story about creation, about joy, and about the light of life is a total lie.

Therefore, the most important and most profound question of the Christian faith must be, How and from where did death arise, and why has it become stronger than life? Why has it become so powerful that the world itself has become a kind of cosmic cemetery, a place where a collection of people condemned to death live either in fear or terror, or in their efforts to forget about death find themselves rushing around one great big burial plot?

To this question Christianity answers with equal force, brevity, and conviction. Here is the text: “and through sin death has come into the world” (Romans 5:12). In other words, for Christianity, death first of all is revealed as part of the moral order, as a spiritual catastrophe. In some final and indescribable sense man desired death, or perhaps one might say, he did not desire that life that was given to him by God freely, with love and joy.

Surely it is an indisputable fact that life consists in total interdependence. In the words of Holy Scripture man does not have life in himself. He always receives it from outside, from others, and always depends on the other — for air, for food, for light, for warmth, for water. It is precisely this dependency that materialism emphasizes with such force. And it is justified in doing so, for indeed man is inextricably, naturally, biologically, physiologically dependent on the world.

But whereas materialism sees in this fact the final truth about the world and about humanity (for it regards this determinism as a self-evident rule of nature), Christianity sees here the Fall and the perversion of the world and of humanity. This is what it calls the original sin.

The world is a perpetual revelation of God about himself to humanity; it is only a means of communion, of this constant, free, and joyful encounter with the only content of life — with the Life of life itself — with God.

“You have created us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts cannot rest, until they find their rest in You!”

But the tragedy — and herein lies the heart of the Christian teaching about sin — is that man did not desire this life with God and for God. He desired life for himself, and in himself he found the purpose, the goal, and the content of life. And in this free choice of himself, and not of God, in his preference for himself over God, without realizing it, man became inextricably a slave of the world, a slave of his own dependence on the world. He eats in order to live, but with his food he communes with what is mortal, for food does not have life in itself.

Feuerbach said, “Man is what he eats.” Yes indeed, but what he eats has just died; he eats in order to live, but instead he began living in order to eat, and in this senseless and vicious circle lies the horrible determinism of human life.

Thus, death is the fruit of a life that is poisoned and perpetually disintegrating, a disintegration to which man has freely subjected himself. Not having life in himself, he has subjected himself to the world of death.

“God did not create death.” It is man who introduced death into the world, freely desiring life only for himself and in himself, cutting himself off from the source, the goal, and content of life — from God. And this is why death — as disintegration, as separation, as temporality, transitoriness — has become the supreme law of life, revealing the illusory nature of everything on earth.

In order to console himself, man created a dream of another world where there is no death, and for that dream he forfeited this world, gave it up decidedly to death. Only if we fully return to the Christian understanding about death, as the root of man’s own perversion of the understanding of the very content of life, can we hear once more, as new, the Christian proclamation about the destruction of death in the resurrection.


What Does The Eucharist Symbolize?– Fr. Alexander Schmemann

December 15, 2011


The Fountain of Life From the Godescalc Evangelistary, folio 3v 781-3, Paris, Bibliothéque Nationale From the "Godescalc Evangelistary", commissioned by the Carolingian king Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard and produced in his court scriptorium at Aachen.

Now we can raise the basic question: What does the Eucharist symbolize? What symbolism unites into a single whole the entire ordo and all of its rites? Or, to put it differently, what spiritual reality is manifested and given to us in this “sacrament of all sacraments”? And this leads us back to what we began this chapter with — the identification and confession of the Eucharist as the sacrament of the kingdom.


The divine liturgy begins with the solemn doxology: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” The Savior likewise began his ministry with the proclamation of the kingdom, the ringing announcement that it has come: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1: 14-15). And it is with desire for the kingdom that the first and foremost of all Christian prayers begins: “Thy kingdom come…”

Thus, the kingdom of God is the content of the Christian faith — the goal, the meaning and the content of the Christian life. According to the unanimous witness of all scripture and tradition, it is the knowledge of God, love for him, unity with him and life in him. The kingdom of God is unity with God, the source of all life, indeed life itself. It is life eternal: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee” (John 17:3). It is for this true and eternal life in the fullness of love, unity and knowledge that man was created. But man lost this in the fall, and by man’s sin, evil, suffering and death triumphed in the world. The “prince of this world” began his reign; the world rejected its God and King. Yet God did not reject the world: as we pray in the anaphora of St John Chrysostom, and when we had fallen away [Thou] didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us up to heaven, and hadst endowed us with Thy kingdom which is to come.”

The prophets of the Old Testament hungered for this kingdom, prayed for it, foretold it. It was the very goal and fulfillment of the entire sacred history of the Old Testament, a history holy not with human sanctity (for it was utterly filled with falls, betrayals and sins) but with the holiness of its being God’s preparation for the coming of his kingdom.

And now, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). The only-begotten Son of God became the Son of man, in order to proclaim and to give to man forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God and new life. By his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead he has come into his kingdom: God “made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, ,mod above every name that is named. . . and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things” (Ephesians 1:20-22). Christ reigns, and everyone who believes in him and is horn again of water and the Spirit belongs to his kingdom and has him within himself. “Christ is the Lord” — this is the most ancient Christian confession of faith, and for three centuries the world, in the form of the Roman empire, persecuted those who spoke these words for their refusal to recognize anyone on earth as lord except time one Lord and one King.

The kingdom of Christ is accepted by faith and is hidden “within us.” The King himself came in the form of a servant and reigned only through the cross. There are no external signs of this kingdom on earth. It is the kingdom of “the world to come,” and thus only in the glory of his second coming will all people recognize the true king of the world. But for those who have believed in it and accepted it, the kingdom is already here and now, more obvious than any of the “realities” surrounding us. “The Lord has come, the Lord is coming, the Lord will come again.” This triune meaning of the Aramaic expression maranatha! contains the whole of Christianity’s victorious faith, against which all persecutions have proven impotent.

At first glance all of this might sound like some sort of pious platitudes. But reread what has just been said and compare it with the faith and “experience” of the vast majority of contemporary Christians, and you cannot but be convinced that there is a deep abyss between what we have said and the modern “experience.” One can say without any exaggeration that the kingdom of God — the central concept in evangelical preaching — has ceased to be the central content and inner motivation of the Christian faith. Unlike the early Christians, those of later ages came, little by little, to lose the perception of the kingdom of God as being “at hand.” They came to understand it only as the kingdom to come — at the end and after the end, referring only to the “personal” death of individual believers. This world” and “the kingdom,” which in the gospels are set side by side and in tension and struggle with one another, have come to be thought of in terms of a chronological sequence: now — only the world; then — only the kingdom.

For the first Christians the all-encompassing joy, the truly startling novelty of their faith lay in the fact that the kingdom was at hand. It had appeared, and although it remained hidden and unseen for “this world,” it was already present, its light had already shone, it was already at work in the world. Then, as the kingdom was “removed” to the end of the world, to the mysterious and unfathomable reaches of time, Christians gradually lost their awareness of it as something hoped for, as the desired and joyous fulfillment of all hopes, of all desires, of life itself, of all that the early Church implied in the words “Thy kingdom come.”

It is characteristic that our scholarly tomes of dogmatic theology (which cannot, of course, pass over the early doctrine in silence) speak of the kingdom in quite sparing, dull and even boring terms. Here, eschatology — the doctrine of the “final destiny of the world and man” — is virtually reduced to the doctrine of “God as the Judge and Avenger.” As to piety, i.e., the personal experience of individual believers, the interest is narrowed to the question of one’s personal fate “after death.” At the same time, ‘this world,” about which St Paul wrote that its form is “passing away,” and which for the early Christians was transparent to the kingdom, reacquired its own value and existence independent of the kingdom of God.


This gradual narrowing, if not radical metamorphosis of Christian eschatology, its peculiar break with the theme and experience of the kingdom, has had tremendous significance in the development of liturgical consciousness in the Church. Re-liming to what we said above about the symbolism of Christian worship, we can now affirm that the Church’s worship was born and, in its external structure, “took shape” primarily as a symbol of the kingdom, of the Church’s ascent to it and, in this ascent, of her fulfillment as the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

The whole newness, the uniqueness of the Christian leitourgia was to its eschatological nature as the presence here and now of the future parousia, as the epiphany of that which is to come, as communion with the “world to come.” As I wrote in my Introduction to Liturgical Theology, it is precisely out of this eschatological experience that the “Lord’s day” was born as a symbol, i.e., the manifestation, now, of the kingdom. It is this experience that determined the Christian “reception” of the Jewish feasts of Passover and Pentecost, as feasts precisely of a “pass-over” from the present “aeon” to the one which is to come, and thus — symbols of the kingdom of God.

But, of course, the symbol of the kingdom par excellence, the one that fulfills all other symbols — the Lord’s day, baptism, Pascha, etc. — as well as all of Christian life “hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), is the Eucharist, the sacrament of the coming of the risen Lord, of our meeting and communion with him “at his table in his kingdom.” Secretly, unseen by the world, “the doors being shut,” the Church — that “little flock” to whom it was the Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom (Luke 12:32) — fulfills in the Eucharist her ascension and entrance into the light and joy and triumph of the kingdom. And we can say without any exaggeration that it was from this totally unique and incomparable experience, from this fully realized symbol, that the whole of the Christian lex orandi was born and developed.

It should now be clear why it was that with the weakening and the eclipse of the original eschatology the liturgical symbolism of the kingdom became overgrown little by little with the wild grass of secondary explanations and allegorical commentaries, i.e., with the “illustrative symbolism” that — as I have tried to show above — in fact means the collapse of the symbol. The more time went on, the more the symbolism of the kingdom, so fundamental for the Church, was forgotten. Inasmuch, however, as the liturgy, the lex orandi of the Church, with all its forms and its entire ordo, already existed and was perceived as an untouchable part of tradition, it naturally came to demand a new explanation — in the same “key” in which Christian consciousness was beginning to apprehend the place and ministry of the Church in “this world.”

This was the beginning of an ever-deeper infiltration of “illustrative symbolism” into the explanation of worship. And, paradoxical as it may seem, in this process the otherworldly, heavenly reality of the Eucharist came to be “included” in “this world,” in its causality, its time, the categories of its thought and experience, while the symbolism of the kingdom of God, so inherent to and inseparable from creation — the true key for the Church and her life — was reduced to the category of this unnecessary illustrative symbolism.


This process, to be sure, was long and complicated and not some kind of instant “metamorphosis.” And we must decidedly affirm that, whatever its external triumph, “illustrative” symbolism has never completely succeeded in supplanting the original, eschatological symbolism of the liturgy, which is rooted in the faith itself. No matter how much development took place, for instance, in Byzantine worship in the direction of what, in my Introduction to Liturgical Theology, I termed “external solemnity,” no matter how overgrown it became with decorative and allegorical details, with the pomp borrowed from the imperial cult and with terminology adopted from mysteriological “sacredness,” worship as a whole, as well as its deep intuition in the minds of the faithful, continued to be determined by the symbolism of the kingdom of God.

And there is no better witness to this than the fundamental Orthodox experience of the temple and of iconography, an experience that crystallized precisely during the Byzantine period and in which the “holy of holies” of Orthodoxy is expressed better than in the redundant rhetoric of the “symbolic” liturgical interpretations.

“Standing in the temple we stand in heaven.” I have spoken of the origins of the Christian temple in the experience of the “assembly as the Church.” We can now add that insofar as this assembly is undoubtedly conceived of as heavenly, the temple is that “heaven on earth” that realizes the “assembly as the Church.” It is the symbol that unites these two realities, these two dimensions of the Church — “heaven” and “earth,” one manifested in the other, one made a reality in the other.

And this experience of the temple, I repeat, has survived almost unchanged and unweakened throughout the entire history of the Church, despite the numerous declines and breakdowns in the authentic traditions of church architecture and iconography. This experience constitutes that “whole” that unites and coordinates all the elements of the temple: space, form, shape, icons, all that can be termed the rhythm and order of the temple.

As to the icon, it is in its very essence a symbol of the kingdom, the “epiphany” of the new and transfigured creation, of heaven and earth full of God’s glory, and it is for this reason that the canons forbid the introduction into iconography of any allegorical or illustrative “symbolism.”

For the icon dues not “illustrate” — it manifests, and does so only to the degree that it is itself a participant in what it manifests, inasmuch as it is both presence and communion. It is enough to have stood, be it only once, in the “temple of all temples,” Hagia Sophia in Constantinople — even in its present devastated and kenotic state — to know with one’s whole being that the temple and the icon were born and nurtured in the living experience of heaven, in communion with the “peace and joy of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

This experience was frequently darkened. Historians of Christian art often speak of the decline of church architecture and the icon. And it is important to note that this decline usually came about it by the whole — of the temple, of the icon — being weakened and lost beneath the thickening growth of details. Thus, the temple almost disappears under a thick layer of self-contained decorations, and in the icon, Byzantine as well as Russian, the original wholeness is replaced by an ever-growing attention to cleverly drawn details. Is this not the same movement — from the “whole” to the “particular,” from the experience of the whole to a discursive “explanation,” and, in short, from symbol to “symbolism”? And yet, as long as the “Christian world,” be it imperfectly and sometimes nominally, “refers” itself to the kingdom of God, the “homeland of the heart’s desire,” this centrifugal movement cannot fully overpower the centripetal force.

One might say that, at first and for a long period of time, the “illustrative” symbolism — be it in worship, in the icon or in the temple — developed inside the initial and ontological symbolism of the kingdom. The deeper and truly tragic rupture between the two of them, the initial replacement of the one by the other, began with the break from the patristic tradition and the coming of the long (and in many ways continuing) “western captivity” of the Orthodox mind. It is not accidental that the luxuriant and unchecked flowering of “illustrative” symbolism corresponded in time with the triumph of western juridicism and rationalism in Orthodox theology, of pietism and sentimentality in iconography, of embellished “pretty” baroque in church architecture, of “lyricism” and emotionalism in church music. All of these manifest one and the same “pseudomorphosis” of the Orthodox consciousness.

Yet even this deep and truly tragic decline cannot be considered final. In its depths, the Church’s consciousness ultimately remains untouched by all this. Thus, everyday experience shows us that “illustrative symbolism” is foreign to the living, authentic faith and life of the Church, just as “scholastic” theology remains foreign, in the last analysis, to such faith. “Illustrative symbolism” is at home in that superficial, “showy” and routine religiosity in which a widespread but shallow curiosity toward anything “holy” is lightly taken as religious feeling and “interest in the Church.” But where there is a living, authentic and, in the best sense of the word, simple faith, it becomes unnecessary, for genuine faith lives not by curiosity but by thirst.

Just as he did a thousand years ago, so today the “simple” believer goes to Church in order primarily to “touch other worlds” (Dostoevsky). “And almost free, the soul breathes heaven unhindered” (Vladislav Khodasevich). In a sense, he is not “interested” in worship, in the way in which “experts” and connoisseurs of all liturgical details are interested in it. And he is not interested because “standing in the temple” he receives all that for which he thirsts and seeks: the light, the joy, and the comfort of the kingdom of God, the radiance that, in the words of the agnostic Chekhov, beams from the faces of the “old people who have just returned from the church.”

What use could such a believer have for complex and refined explanations of what this or that rite “represents,” of what the opening and closing of the royal doors is supposed to mean? He cannot keep up with all these “symbol-isms,” and they are unnecessary for his faith. All he knows is that he has left his everyday life and has come to a place where everything is different and yet so essential, so desirable, so vital that it illumines and gives meaning to his entire life.

Likewise he knows, even if he cannot express it in words, that this other reality makes life itself worth living, for everything proceeds to it, everything is referred to it, everything is to be judged by it — by the kingdom of God it manifests. And, finally, he knows that even if individual words or rites are unclear to him, the Kingdom Of God has been given to him in the Church: in that common action, common standing before God, in the “assembly,” in the “ascent,” in unity and love.


Thus we return to where we began, indeed to where The Eucharist itself begins: to the blessing of the Kingdom Of God. What does it mean to bless the Kingdom? It means that we acknowledge and confess it to be our highest and ultimate value, the object of our desire, our love and our hope. It means that we proclaim it to be the goal of the sacrament — of pilgrimage, ascension, entrance — that now begins. It means that we must focus our attention, our mind, heart and soul, i.e., our whole life, upon that which is truly the “one thing needful.” Finally, it means that now, already in “this world,” we confirm the possibility of communion with the kingdom, of entrance into its radiance, truth and joy.

Each time that Christians “assemble as the Church” they witness before the whole world that Christ is King and Lord, that his kingdom has already been revealed and given to man and that a new and immortal life has begun. This is why the liturgy begins with this solemn confession and doxology of the King who comes now but abides forever and shall reign unto ages of ages.

“It is time to begin the service to the Lord,” the deacon announces to the celebrant. This is not simply a reminder that it is now “opportune” or “convenient” for the performance of the sacrament. It is an affirmation and confession that the new time, the time of the kingdom of God and its fulfillment in the Church, now enters into the fallen time of “this world” in order that we, the Church, might be lifted up to heaven, and the Church transfigured into “that which she is” — the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” Amen, answer the people. This word is usually translated as “so be it,” but its meaning is really stronger than this. It signifies not only agreement, but also active acceptance. “Yes, this is so, and let it be so.” With this word the ecclesial assembly concludes and, as it were, seals each prayer uttered by the celebrant, thereby expressing its own organic, responsible and conscious participation in each and every sacred action of the Church. “To that which you are — say Amen,” writes St Augustine, “and thus seal it with your answer. For you hear ‘the body of Christ’ and answer ‘Amen.’ Be a member of the body of Christ, which is realized by your Amen… Fulfill that which you are.


This Sacramental Understanding Of The World – Alexander Schmemann

December 14, 2011


The River Of Life Watering The Tree Of Life, from the Beatus of Saint-Sever: The Apocalypse of John of France, illuminated in the middle of the 11th century by Stephanus Garsia for Gregorio Montaner, the then abbot of the monastery of Saint-Sever, Gascogny, France.


There is no need for us to enter into a detailed examination of this system, well constructed and internally consistent though it may be. Enough has been said, I believe, to realize how alien this doctrine is to the Orthodox experience of the sacraments, how incompatible it is with the age-old liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. But I say alien to experience, not to doctrine, because the teaching on the sacraments, and above all on the Eucharist, that we find in our dogmatics textbooks, patterned as they are on western models and constructed in western categories, not only does not correspond to this experience but openly contradicts it.

But when we speak of experience, what has been preserved from the beginning by the Church in her lex orandi, then the most profound alienation of western sacramental scholasticism from this experience cannot but become obvious. The chief source of this estrangement is the Latin doctrine’s denial and rejection of symbolism, which is inherent to the Christian perception of the world, man and all creation, and which forms the ontological basis of the sacraments.

In this perspective, the Latin doctrine is the beginning of the disintegration and decomposition of the symbol. On the one hand, being “reduced” to “illustrative symbolism,” the symbol loses touch with reality; and, on the other, it ceases to be understood as a fundamental revelation about the world and creation. When Dom Vonier writes that “Neither in heaven nor on earth is there anything like the sacraments,” does he not indicate above all that, although the sacraments in any event depend on creation and its nature for their accomplishment, of this nature they do not reveal, witness or manifest anything?

This doctrine of the sacraments is alien to the Orthodox because in the Orthodox ecclesial experience and tradition a sacrament is understood primarily as a revelation of the genuine nature of creation, of the world, which, however much it has fallen as “this world,” will remain God’s world, awaiting salvation, redemption, healing and transfiguration in a new earth and a new heaven. In other words, in the Orthodox experience a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself, for the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life.

If in baptism water can become a “laver of regeneration,” if our earthly food — bread and wine — can be transformed into partaking of the body and blood of Christ, if with oil we are granted the anointment of the Holy Spirit, if, to put it briefly, everything in the world can be identified, manifested and understood as a gift of God and participation in the new life, it is because all of creation was originally summoned and destined for the fulfillment of the divine economy — “then God will be all in all.”

Precisely in this sacramental understanding of the world is the essence and gift of that light of the world that permeates the entire life of the Church, the entire liturgical and spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy. Sin is itself perceived here as a falling away of man, and in him of all creation, from this sacramentality, from the “paradise of delight,” and into “this world,” which lives no longer according to God, but according to itself and in itself and is therefore corrupt and mortal.

And if this is so, then Christ accomplishes the salvation of the world by renewing the world and life itself as sacrament.


A sacrament is both cosmic and eschatological. It refers at the same time to God’s world as He first created it and to its fulfillment in the kingdom of God. It is cosmic in that it embraces all of creation, it returns it to God as God’s own — “Thine own of Thine own… on behalf of all and for all” — and in and by itself it manifests the victory of Christ.

But it is to the same degree eschatological, oriented toward the kingdom which is to come. For, having rejected and killed Christ — its Creator, Savior and Lord — “this world” sentenced itself to death, as it does not have “life in itself” and rejected him of whom it was said, “In him was life and this life was the light of men” (John 1:4). As “this world” it comes to an end — ”heaven and earth will pass away” — and thus those who believe in Christ and accept him as the “Way, the Truth and the Life” live in hope of the age to come. They no longer have here a “lasting city, but… seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). But this is precisely the joy of Christianity, the paschal essence of its faith: this “age which is to come,” though future in relation to “this world,” is already “in our midst.” And our faith itself is already “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11: 1). It is, it manifests and it grants that to which it is directed: the presence among us of the approaching kingdom of God and its unfading light.

This in turn means that in the Orthodox experience and tradition the Church is herself a sacrament. Historians of theology have many times noted that in the early patristic tradition we find no definition of the Church. The reason for this, however, lies not in the “lack of development” of the theology of that time — as several learned theologians suppose — but in the fact that in her early tradition the Church was not an object of “definition” but the living experience of the new life. This experience — in which we find also the institutional structure of the Church, her hiearchy, canons, liturgy, etc. — was sacramental, symbolical by its very nature, for the Church exists in order to be always changing into that same reality that she manifests, the fulfillment of the invisible in the visible, the heavenly in the earthly, the spiritual in the material.

Hence, the Church is a sacrament in both of the higher dimensions we have indicated, the cosmic and the eschatological. She is a sacrament in the cosmic sense because she manifests in “this world” the genuine world of God, as he first created it, as the beginning, and only in the light of and in reference to this beginning can we know the full heights of our lofty calling — and also the depths of our falling away from God. She is a sacrament in the eschatological dimension because the original world of God’s creation, revealed by the Church, has already been saved by Christ. And in liturgical experience and the life of prayer it is never severed from that end for the sake of which it was created and saved, that “God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).


Being a sacrament in the most profound and comprehensive sense of the term, the Church creates, manifests and fulfils herself in and through the sacraments, and above all through the “sacrament of sacraments,” the most Holy Eucharist. For if, as we have just said, the Eucharist is the sacrament of the beginning and the end, of the world and its fulfillment as the kingdom of God, then it is completed by the Church’s ascent to heaven, to the “homeland of the heart’s desire,” the status patriae — the messianic banquet of Christ, in his kingdom.

This means that all this — the “assembly as the Church,” the ascent to the throne of God and the partaking of the banquet of the kingdom — is accomplished in and through the Holy Spirit. “Where the Church is, there is the Holy Spirit and the fullness of grace.”`’ In these words of St Irenaeus of Lyons is engraved the experience of the Church as the sacrament of the Holy Spirit. For if where the Church is the Holy Spirit is also, then where the Holy Spirit is there is the renewal of creation, there we find the “beginning of another life, new and eternal,” the dawn of the mysterious, unfading day of the kingdom of God.

For the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of truth, the gift of sonship, the pledge of future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessing, the life-creating power, the fountain of sanctification, through whom every creature of reason and understanding worships Thee and always sings to Thee a hymn of glory” (from the anaphora of the Liturgy of St Basil the Great). In other words, where the Holy Spirit is, there is the kingdom of God. Through his coming on the “last and great day of Pentecost” the Holy Spirit transforms this last day into the first day of the new creation and manifests the Church as the gift and presence of this first and “eighth” day.

Thus, everything in the Church is by the Holy Spirit, everything is in the Holy Spirit and everything is partaking of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Holy Spirit because with the descent of the Spirit the Church is revealed as the transformation of the end into the beginning, of the old life into the new. “The Holy Spirit grants all things; he is the source of prophecy, he fulfills the priesthood, he gathers the entire church assembly” (Hymn of Pentecost). Everything in the Church is in the Holy Spirit, who raises us up to the heavenly sanctuary, to the throne of God. “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit” (another hymn of Pentecost).

Finally, the Church is entirely oriented toward the Holy Spirit, “the treasury of blessings and giver of life.” The entire life of the Church is a thirst for acquisition of the Holy Spirit and for participation in him, and in him of the fulness of grace. Just as the life and spiritual struggle of each believer consists, in the words of St Serafim of Sarov, in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, so also the life of the Church is that same acquisition, that same eternally satisfied but never completely quenched thirst of the Holy Spirit. “Come to us, O Holy Spirit, and make us partakers of your holiness, and of the light that knows no evening, and of the divine life, and of the most fragrant dispensation…” (Compline Canon Of The Feast Of The Holy Spirit).

Having said all this, we can now return to what we began this chapter with: the definition of the Eucharist as the sacrament of the kingdom, the Church’s ascent to the “table of the Lord, in his kingdom.”

We know now that this definition “slipped out” of our scholarly, theological explanations of the liturgy, which were adopted by Orthodox theology from the West. The main reason for this was the disintegration, in Christian consciousness, of the key concept of the symbol, its contraposition to the concept of reality and thus its reduction to the category of “illustrative symbolism.” Inasmuch as the Christian faith from the very beginning confessed precisely the reality of the change of the gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ — “this is indeed the very body and this is indeed the very blood of Christ” — any “confusion” of this reality with “symbolism” came to be seen as a threat to Eucharistic “realism” and hence also to the real presence of the body.and blood of Christ on the altar.

This led to the reduction of the sacrament to the “consecratory formula” — which by its very narrowness “guarantees” in time and space the reality of the change — and this “fear” also led to the more and more detailed definition of the “modus” and “moment” of the change, as well as its “efficacy.” Hence the persistent reminders that before the consecration of the gifts the paten holds only bread and the chalice contains only wine; but after the consecration we find only body and blood. Hence the attempts to explain the “reality” of the change by using Aristotelian categories of “essence” and “accidents” and to describe the change as “transubstantiation.” Finally, we find here the source of the denial of the real relation of the liturgy — both in its many details as well as taken as a whole — to the change of the holy gifts and the practical exclusion of the liturgy from explanations of the sacrament.

Here and now, we must ask whether this understanding of the symbol and symbolism, their contraposition to “reality,” corresponds to the original meaning of the idea of the “symbol,” and whether it applies to the Christian lex orandi, the liturgical tradition of the Church. To this fundamental question I answer in the negative. And this is precisely the heart of the matter: the primary meaning of “symbol” is in no way equivalent to “illustration.” In fact, it is possible for the symbol not to illustrate, i.e., it can be devoid of any external similarity with that which it symbolizes.

The history of religions shows us that the more ancient, the deeper, the more “organic” a symbol, the less it will be composed of such “illustrative” qualities. This is because the purpose and function of the symbol is not to illustrate (this would presume the absence of what is illustrated) but rather to manifest and to communicate what is manifested.

We might say that the symbol does not so much “resemble” the reality that it symbolizes as it participates in it, and therefore it is capable of communicating it in reality. In other words, the difference (and it is a radical one) between our contemporary understanding of the symbol and the original one consists in the fact that while today we understand the symbol as the representation or sign of an absent reality, something that is not really in the sign itself (just as there is no real, actual water in the chemical symbol H2O, in the original understanding it is the manifestation and presence of the other reality — but precisely as other, which, under given circumstances, cannot be manifested and made present in any other way than as a symbol.

This means that in the final analysis the true and original symbol is inseparable from faith, for faith is “the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1), the knowledge that there is another reality different from the “empirical” one, and that this reality can be entered, can be communicated, can in truth become “the most real of realities.”

Therefore, if the symbol presupposes faith, faith of necessity requires the symbol. For, unlike “convictions,” philosophical “points of view,” etc., faith certainly is contact and a thirst for contact, embodiment and a thirst for embodiment: it is the manifestation, the presence, the operation of one reality within the other. All of this is the symbol (from the Greek for “unite,” “hold together”). In it — unlike in a simple “illustration,” simple sign, and even in the sacrament in its scholastic-rationalistic “reduction” — the empirical (or “visible”) and the spiritual (or “invisible”) are united not logically (this “stands for” t hat), nor analogically (this “illustrates” that), nor yet by cause and effect (this is the “means” or “generator” of that), but epiphanically. One reality manifests and communicates the other, but — and this is immensely important — only to the degree to which the symbol itself is a participant in the spiritual reality and is able or called upon to embody it.

In other words, in the symbol everything manifests the spiritual reality, but not everything pertaining to the spiritual reality appears embodied in the symbol. The symbol is always partial, always imperfect: “for our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

By its very nature the symbol unites disparate realities, the relation of the one to the other always remaining “absolutely other.” However real a symbol may be, however successfully it may communicate to us that other reality, its function is not to quench our thirst but to intensify it: “Grant us that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the never ending day of Thy Kingdom.” It is not that this or that part of “this world” — space, time, or matter — be made sacred, but rather that everything in it be seen and comprehended as expectation and thirst for its complete spiritualization: “that God may be all in all.”

Must we then demonstrate that only this ontological and “epiphanic” meaning of the word “symbol” is applicable to Christian worship? And not only is it applicable — it is inseparable. For the essence of the symbol lies in the fact that in it the dichotomy between reality and symbolism (as unreality) is overcome: reality is experienced above all as the fulfillment of the symbol, and the symbol is comprehended as the fulfillment of reality. Christian worship is symbolic not because it contains various “symbolical” depictions. It may indeed include them, but chiefly in the imagination of various “commentators” and not in its own ordo and rites.

Christian worship is symbolic because, first of all, the world itself, God’s own creation, is symbolic, is sacramental; and second of all, because it is the Church’s nature, her task in “this world,” to fulfill this symbol, to realize it as the “most real of realities.” We can therefore say that the symbol reveals the world, mankind and all creation as the “matter” of a single, all-embracing sacrament.


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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