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.“