Father Alexander Schmemann begins this sixth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom,by noting the fundamentally human character of sacrifice which I quoted him discussing previously. But this is followed by a discussion of the inadequacy of human sacrifice, in which we discover that we are powerless to reach God, for it is only God who can save us and He does this in His Son.
In this sacrifice everything is fulfilled and accomplished. In it, above all, sacrifice itself is cleansed, restored and manifested in all its essence and fullness, in its preeternal meaning as perfect love and thus perfect life, consisting of perfect self-sacrifice: in Christ “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” and in Christ man so loved God that he gave himself totally, and in this twofold giving nothing remains not given, and love reigns in all… in it man’s eternal thirst for God was fulfilled and slaked the divine life became our food, our life. (104)
The sacrifice that the Church makes is not a new sacrifice but rather an entrance into the sacrifice of Christ in which “our life has become offering and sacrifice.” (105)
The eucharistic offering begins with what is usually called the Great Entrance, whose meaning has undergone a symbolic complication as a result of its detachment from the original acts of bringing the Gifts to the altar. The development of the proskomidē as a separate rite celebrated by the clergy alone raises questions about the meaning of its symbolism and of its connection to the eucharistic offering. In order to understand this we need some understanding of the history behind the contemporary proskomidē.
For the early Church, the Eucharist was an offering “by all” and this involved each one bringing whatever he or she could spare for the sacrifice of love. The deacons were the ministers of charity who were responsible for sorting out the various gifts that were brought by the faithful and preparing
that portion of them that, as an expression of this offering, of his sacrifice of love, was to constitute the “matter” of the eucharistic mystery. The performance of the proskomidē by the deacons – and not, like today, by the priests – was preserved in the Church right up to the fourteenth century, as was the bringing of the holy gifts precisely by them to the preside at the beginning of the eucharistic oblation, the eucharist proper. And while we shall still speak further about the change that occurred at that time, we can already note that if in our day the presence of a deacon in every church community has ceased to be perceived as necessary and self-evident, as one of the conditions of the fullness of church life, and the “diaconate” has been converted into a certain “a” appendage (particularly in the hierarchical service) and likewise a “step” on the way to the priesthood, then is that not because the experience of the Church herself as the love of Christ and the liturgy as the expression and fulfilment of that love has been weakened in us, if not entirely dissipated? (108)
However, while changed circumstances, such as the expansion of charitable works managed by the Church after it became established, meant that the Eucharist was no longer the practical focus of the giving of the faithful, the liturgical rites continued to express the inner connection, for
Here, however, we approach the most important element for an understanding of the proskomidē. For so obvious was the inner link between the eucharist and the “sacrifice of love,” the inner dependency of one on the other in the consciousness of the Church, that the preparation of the gifts, on ceasing to be an expression of practical needs, remained a rite, expressing this inner dependency, realizing this inner link. (109)
We find that the theological meaning of the proskomidē consists in its being offered before the liturgy and therefore anticipating it. We can only serve the liturgy because Christ’s sacrifice has already been offered according to the preeternal design of God. As symbol it is already filled with the reality of the new creation.
When, preparing for the eucharistic mystery, we take the bread into our hands and place it on the diskos, we already know that this bread, like everything in the world, like the world itself, has been sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God, by his becoming man, and that this sanctification consists in Christ’s restoration of the possibility for the world to become a sacrifice to God and for man to offer this sacrifice. What is destroyed and overcome is its “self-sufficiency,” which constitutes the essence of sin and which made bread only bread – the mortal food of mortal man, a partaking of sin and death. In Christ our earthly food, which is converted into our flesh and blood, into our very selves and our lives, becomes that for which it was created – participation in the divine life, through which the mortal is clothed in immortality and death is swallowed up in victory. …
the essence of this preparation lies in referring the bread and wine, i.e., our very selves and our whole life, to the sacrifice of Christ, their conversion precisely into gift and offering. Here is precisely the reality of the proskomidē – the identification of the bread and wine as the sacrifice of Christ, which encompasses all our sacrifices, our offering of our very selves to God. Hence the sacrificial character of the proskomidē, the preparation of the bread as if it were the immolation of the Lamb, the wine as the effusion of blood; hence, the assembling on the diskos each time of everything around the Lamb, the inclusion of everything in his sacrifice. Only when this preparation is completed, when all is referred to the sacrifice of Christ and included in it, and our lives, “hid with Christ in God,” are placed on the diskos in a way visible to the eyes of faith, can we begin the liturgy – the eternal offering of him who offered himself and in himself all that exists to God, the ascent of our life to that place, the altar of the kingdom, where the Son of God, who has become the Son of man, has lifted it. (110-111)