Coming home on the train yesterday I started reading Father Alexander Schmemann’s The Eucharist. Sacrament of the Kingdom (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) which I’d just borrowed from friends, and got so engrossed in it that I almost missed the station. I’d been wanting to read it for a while and am now realizing that it indeed connects with themes that I’ve been concerned with and which I’d been aware of in Father Schmemann’s work but sometimes in a rather vague way. I hadn’t intended writing summaries (and I hope that they don’t get too detailed!) but realized suddenly that that probably would be a good idea, so here goes…
In the first Chapter of The Eucharist, Father Schmemann begins by arguing that Saint Paul’s words, “When you assemble as a Church” imply a triunity of the assembly, the eucharist and the Church to which the early tradition of the Church unanimously testifies. This means that “The fundamental task of liturgical theology consists therefore in uncovering the meaning and essence of this unity.” (11-12) However this consciousness has been damaged by “school” theology in which the eucharist has come to be seen as one of the sacraments rather than as the “sacrament of the assembly” as it was defined by Saint Dionysius. Moreover, the individualization of eucharistic piety has reduced the meaning of the eucharist. Both of these reductions “openly contradict the very ordo of the eucharist,” that is, its fundamental structure and shape. Such reductions are in keeping with the nature of school theology which proceeds from a priori and abstract categories, in contrast to the patristic insistence on the inseparability of the rule of faith and the rule of prayer expressed by Saint Irenaeus as “our teaching is in harmony with the eucharist and the eucharist confirms our teaching.” Thus in liturgical theology one should proceed not from abstract concepts, but from the Ordo itself.
This eucharistic ordo is based on a correlation and mutual dependence between the celebrant and the people although this has been undermined in school theology in which the participation of the laity becomes entirely passive. Thus liturgical textbooks could list everything down to the quality of the wine as necessary for the eucharist without mentioning the “assembly as the Church” as a condition of the liturgy. However, all early evidence points to the gathering or assembly as the “first and basic act of the eucharist” (15) and the presider was precisely the “president of the brethren.” This is also seen in the ancient practice in which the gathering of the people preceded the entry of the celebrant. While in present practice the entire beginning of the eucharist has become limited to the clergy and isolated into a separate “office,” we find remnants of the ancient practice has been preserved in the pontifical celebration of the eucharist. Far from being something invented to make the pontifical eucharist more “solemn,” it reflects a time when the bishop was the “ordinary” celebrant of the eucharist.
This correlation finds further expression in the eucharistic prayers which are structured on a dialogue and prayers are spoken on behalf of us. All of the constituent parts of the ceremony begin with the dialogical exchange of peace. All of the prayers are concerned with our, prayer, thanksgiving, communion and so on. Likewise, all of the individual rites, such as the reading of the word of God and the offering of the gifts in the assembly are based on the “synergy” between people and celebrant. While Byzantine liturgy suffered from an ever greater separation between clergy and laity, this influence proved to be too feeble at its root to alter the original order of the eucharist.” (17-18) But the meaning of these words and acts has failed to penetrate the consciousness so that there is a peculiar dichotomy between the “data” of theology and its interpretation.
This same principle of assembly and correlation is expressed in the church building. While scholastically orientated textbooks give detailed descriptions of the symbolism of the church building, they omit the link between the Christian temple and the assembly and the sobornal character of the eucharist. As domus ecclesiae, the original Christian temple was the site for the gathering of the Church.
Just as in the earliest Christian era, so also today, in its best Byzantine or Russian incarnation, the temple is experienced and perceived as sobor, as the gathering together of heaven and earth and all creation in Christ – which constitutes the essence and purpose of the Church. (19)
As “the organization of space” the temple expresses the same correlation and “dialogic structure” that we saw above in which altar and nave exist in relation to one another. While there is a tendency to see this as a distinction between sacred and profane, this is a recent development that nourishes a clericalism that is alien to Orthodoxy. Such a view is allied to a view of the iconostasis that sees it as a wall that separates the altar from the laity. Yet,
the iconostasis originated from a completely opposite purpose: not to separate but to unite. The icon is a witness, or, better still, a consequence of the unification of the divine and the human, of heaven and earth, that has been accomplished in Jesus Christ … it is an incarnation of the vision of the Church as sobor, as the union of the visible and invisible worlds, as the manifestation and presence of the new and transfigured creation. (20)
This new attitude towards the sanctuary also contradicts the Church’s liturgical tradition which knows only the consecration of the temple and of the altar table, but not of a sanctuary separate from the nave. It is the whole church which is sealed as a holy place. Moreover, it is at the doors to the temple itself that the symbolic entrance takes place which is in keeping with a rite which developed in a period when the “royal doors” referred not to the doors of the sanctuary but to the doors of the church itself.
Going to church is thus not an individual act, but a gathering together as the Church. It is moreover a manifestation of the kingdom of God which has come in power in the Church. The Church does not exist outside us or above us, but we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Christianity is not about individual perfection, but about constituting “a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a chosen race” (1 Pt 2, 9). This is not our holiness but Christ’s holiness and assembling as the Church is our chief task.
The eucharist, we repeat, is not “one of the sacraments” or one of the services, but the very manifestation and fulfillment of the Church in all her power, sanctity and fullness. Only by taking part in it can we increase in holiness and fulfil all that we have been commanded to be and do. (24)
If the assembly is the image of the body of Christ, then the priest is the image of the head of that body, for by standing at their head he makes a group of Christians the gathering of the Church. Standing within the Church, at the head of the body, he manifests in himself the unity of the Church. This relationship between the head and the body can be seen in the vesting of the priest which is an icon of the unity of Christ and the Church, and “of the indissoluble union of the many who constitute the one.” (25) In this the white alb represents the baptismal robe of all the baptized, whereas the stole and cuffs represent Christ’s presence and action and, the chasuble represents finally, the glory of the Church as the new creation.
We go to the temple, we “assemble as the Church,” we are clothed in the garments of the new creation – these are the first rites of the “sacrament of sacraments,” the most holy eucharist. (26)