In the second chapter of The Eucharist. Sacrament of the Kingdom, Father Schmemann argues that while the eucharist begins with the assembling of the Church, its end goal is the kingdom of God and that this end reveals the unity of the eucharist and its essential movement and ascent. By focusing on the two moments of the consecration and communion, scholastic theology sought to make these moments independent and self-contained, thus isolating the eucharist from the liturgy and separating it from the Church, “from its ecclesiological essence and meaning.” (29) While tradition is too strong to allow the Orthodox Church to change her ancient patterns of worship, there has been a loss of consciousness of the Church as not only the “dispenser” of the sacraments, but also as their very object in which “they represent the fulfillment of herself in ‘this world’ as the sacrament of the Kingdom of God, which has ‘come in power.’” (29)
To understand how this reduction occurred we need to understand the changed understanding of symbolism. While a symbol was originally something that made another reality present, a shift occurred whereby symbols came to be seen as distinct from reality and even as contrary to it. Thus symbolism becomes representation or illustration whereby the details of the liturgy come to represent particular events, while key moments such as the consecration become identified as “reality.” However,
this could only happen when the word “symbol” ceased to designate something real and became in fact the antithesis of reality. (30)
This isolating of the consecratory formula progressively led to an estranging of the sacraments from the Church and also from the world. They come to be seen as special because they were instituted by Christ Himself. In this scholastic context the view developed that the sacraments were only necessary because of the fall, and thus they came to be separated both from the natural and from the spiritual world.
Such a scholastic understanding is alien to the Orthodox experience of the sacraments, although it has found its way into the Church’s dogmatic textbooks insofar as they were influenced by western models.
But when we speak of experience, what has been preserved from the beginning of 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. (33)
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. (33-34)
Sacraments are both cosmic and eschatological in that they refer at the same time to the original creation and to its fulfilment in the kingdom of God. They embrace creation and return it to God manifesting the victory of Christ, but they are also orientated to the kingdom that is to come, for “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.’” (35) In this understanding the Church is herself a sacrament manifesting both the original creation and also the Kingdom of God.
In such an understanding it is the Church herself which is manifested and fulfilled in the sacraments and especially in the eucharist. This occurs through her ascent to the kingdom of God which is accomplished in and through the Holy Spirit, whose presence brings about the renewal of creation. Where the Holy Spirit is, there is the kingdom of God.
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 for the Holy Spirit. (37)
The eclipse in scholastic theology of this understanding of the eucharist as the sacrament of the Church’s ascent to the “table of the Lord, in his kingdom” occurred as a result of the disintegration of the key concept of the symbol which was reduced to mere illustration.
The history 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 is capable of communicating it in reality. (38)
While the symbol presupposes faith, faith 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. … 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” that), nor analogically (this “illustrates” that), nor yet by cause and effect (this is the “means” or “generator” of that), but epiphanically. (39)
However, while uniting disparate realities, they nevertheless remain “absolutely other” so that the function of the symbol is “not to quench our thirst but to intensify it.” (39)
The kingdom of God is the content of Christian faith: “it is knowledge of God, love for him, unity with him and life in him.” (40) Despite the fall, it remains the goal of history. This kingdom is accepted by faith and is hidden “within us,” for it is the kingdom of “the world to come.”
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.” (41-42)
However, this expectation of the kingdom of God “has ceased to be the central content and inner motivation of the Christian faith” as the Church gradually lost the consciousness of the immediacy of the kingdom. Instead of being something that coexists with the world in a state of tension, it came to be seen in chronological terms referring only to what happens after the personal death of individual believers or to the unfathomable reaches of the end of time. The kingdom was no longer “at hand” and so eschatology lost its joy and became the grim judgement of the last things. And “this world,” which had been transparent to the kingdom, reacquired an existence independent of it.
This shift in eschatological meaning has had important liturgical consequences. The newness of the Christian leitourgia had been “in 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.’” (43) And the symbol par excellence of this kingdom is the eucharist, for
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. (43-44)
With the weakening of the original eschatology the liturgical symbolism has become obscured by secondary explanations, and the Church’s liturgical ordo required new explanations.
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 unnecessary illustrative symbolism. (44)
However, this did not succeed in supplanting the original, eschatological symbolism of the liturgy and we see this particularly in the Orthodox experience of the temple and of iconography. While the temple originated in the assembling of the Church, it also realizes that assembly by uniting heaven and earth and it is this experience that has survived almost unchanged.
This 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.” (45)
While this experience has been frequently darkened when the experience of the whole has become obscured under the particular details of decoration and “illustrative symbolism,” largely as a result of western influence, this decline cannot be considered final, for “genuine faith lives not by curiosity but by thirst.” (46)
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. (47-48)