Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom

The first book I'm summarizing is The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, by Alexander Schmemann. If you're unfamiliar with Schmemann, he was an former dean and professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. He died in 1983 before he was really finish polishing this work, but the Russian version was published the following year and this English version in 1987.

Schmemann takes the Byzantine Liturgy and uses it as his basis for the outline of his book. He speaks against the "illustrative symbolism" readings of the various acts of the liturgy, instead focusing on the sacramentality of creation itself, and, therefore, noting that each section of the liturgy is essential for its work and understanding. He calls focus to Western scholasticism for much of the blame for the fragmentation of the rite into its separate parts, and calls on Orthodox theologians to resist the westernization that has become the normal mode of interpretation. He especially is troubled by the Western focus on the consecratory formula, noting that undue focus on just this part of the Liturgy leads to the understanding that it is the only meaningful point, rather than understanding the entire Liturgy as indivisible and important.

He shows the interrelationship between lex credendi (the rule of faith) and lex orandi (the rule of prayer or worship) throughout, noting in the first chapter that they should be inseparable as the early church understood them. It is an excellent volume to help in understanding Orthodox theology, since much of their ecclesiology is based on the Eucharist, and much of their theological stances are revealed by the Divine Liturgy (christology, atonement, missiology, eschatology, etc.).

However, The Eucharist is not applicable only to Orthodox readers—the meditations on each section of the liturgy draw on universal themes that Christians of all traditions would do well to consider. They are labeled "Sacrament of..." the Assembly, the Kingdom, Entrance, the Word, the Faithful, Offering, Unity, Anaphora, Thanksgiving, Remembrance, the Holy Spirit, and Communion. Without taking a detailed look at each chapter, broad themes prevail in this work.

The first would be that the Divine Liturgy should be taken as a whole, rather than divided into its parts. Although he analyzes and meditates on it by its divisions, he clearly relates each section to both previous and following sections in both ideas and actions.

The second would be that there is a strong relationship between the assembly (which begins both the liturgy and the book), the eucharist and the Church (meaning the whole Church, past, present and future). S. notes this on the first page of chapter 1, and this theme is carried throughout the book. A further relationship which comes through as the book progresses, is that these three also are relating to creation at large, as well—both the physical world and those who are not part of the Church. By viewing the entire world as sacramental (by which S. means that "the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life", p.34), he sees the Church, which itself is a sacrament, as seeking the renewal of all things, since sacraments, in his understanding, are both "cosmic and eschatological"—referring at the same time to the world as first created and to the fulfilled Kingdom of God.

Third, S. calls into question the symbolic interpretations of liturgical actions which had become prevalent in Orthodox churches. He does not deny that Orthodox worship is symbolic—instead, he denies what the word "symbol" is taken to mean. Rather than understanding "symbol" as the antithesis of reality, S. calls for the comprehension of "symbol" as reality. In lieu of than seeing these symbols as illustrations, which deprive them of their "inner necessity," he sees them as manifesting and communicating what is manifested. He notes 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" (38, his emphasis). He goes on to say that while we understand symbols today as the "representation or sign of an absent reality," its more ancient understanding would be that "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" (38). It is this symbolic awareness that allows S. to call into question the separated, illustrative interpretations of each moment of the Liturgy, and instead call for the Liturgy's unity into a participation in the Kingdom of God.

These three themes seem to be the most important to S., as they reoccur throughout this work. I highly recommend reading it, if you haven't; and, if you have, feel free to add to what I've noted here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

heart warming