The Eucharist. Sacrament of the Kingdom

Father Alexander Schmemann continues this seventh chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdomby noting, in the words I quoted previously, that the loftier the word, the more ambiguous it is and the more discernment is needed. Words are in need not simply of definition, but of salvation, and this salvation can only come from God. Theology involves referring words to the reality of God, so that they become manifestation and gift.

The flaw of contemporary theology (including, alas, Orthodox theology) and its obvious impotence lies in the fact that it so often ceases to refer words to reality. It becomes “words about words,” definitions of a definition. Either it endeavours, as in the contemporary West, to translate Christianity into the “language of today,” in which case – because this is not only a “fallen” language but truly a language of renunciation of Christianity – theology is left with nothing to say and itself becomes apostasy; or, as we often see among the Orthodox, it attempts to thrust on “contemporary man” its own abstract and in many respects “archaic” language, which, to the degree that it refers neither to any reality nor to any experience for this “contemporary” man, remains alien and incomprehensible, and on which learned theologians, with the aid of all these definitions and interpretations, conduct experiments in artificial resuscitation.

But in Christianity, faith, as experience of an encounter and a gift received in this encounter, precedes words, for only from this experience do they find not simply their meaning but their power. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34). And thus words that are not referred to this experience or that are turned away from it inevitably become only words – ambiguous, easily changed and evil. (149)


Father Alexander Schmemann continues the seventh chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom,by focusing on the shifts that occurred in the shift in understand of the concept of unity. While the creed was introduced into the eucharistic liturgy at a relatively late stage (the beginning of the sixth century), its purpose was to set the limits of the eucharistic community in order to guard the faith from heresy.

…the inclusion of the symbol of faith in the order of the liturgy, which became universal relatively quickly, was nothing more than the confirmation of the originally obvious, organic and inalienable link between the unity of faith and the Church and her self-fulfilment in the eucharist. And this link constituted the heartbeat of the experience and life of the early Church. (141)

Father Schmemann argues that this link between the unity of faith and the Church, which is what precludes communion with those outside the Church, while still assented to, has become more a formality than something that lives in the consciousness of believers, for scholastic theology has separated this discipline from its living roots which is the primordial experience of the Eucharist as the sacrament of unity. In contemporary understanding the Eucharist has become an individualised “means of personal sanctification” to meet the “spiritual needs” of the believer, and this is sanctioned by and reflects the theological fragmentation that – influenced by the West – has isolated


In this seventh chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom, Father Alexander Schmemann focuses on the exclamation “Let us love one another!” that precedes the symbol of faith. This was originally the kiss of peace that was an action of the whole assembly. From being a call to an action, it has become a call to a condition. At first glance, this may seem insignificant, for everyone knows that love is the highest Christian commandment. However, Father Schmemann argues that we need to consider the liturgical meaning of “Christian love.”

In fact, we have become so accustomed to this expression, we have heard preaching about love and the summons to it so many times that it is difficult for us to be struck by the eternal newness of these words. And yet Christ himself pointed out this newness: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another” (Jn 13:34) (134-135)

The world knew about love before Christ and the Old Testament clearly teaches love for God and for one’s neighbour. The newness of Christian love consists in extending it even to one’s enemies.


The discernment of spirits, to which the apostle John the Theologian calls us, is above all a differentiation of words, for not only did the word, with the world and all creation, fall, but the fall of the world began precisely with the perversion of the word. Through the word entered that lie whose father is the devil. The poison of this lie consists in the fact that the word itself remained the same, so that when man speaks of “God,” “unity,” “faith,” “piety,” “love,” he is convinced that he knows of what he is speaking, whereas the fall of the word lies precisely in that it inwardly became “other,” became a lie about its own proper meaning and content. The whole falsehood and the whole power of this falsehood lie in the fact that he made the same words into words about something else, he usurped them and converted them into an instrument of evil and that, consequently, he and his servants in “this world” always speak in a language literally stolen from God.

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 148.

I will hopefully get to summarising this chapter soon, although I really don’t know how I’ll manage to doing that reasonably concisely, for it is just so dense, deep, penetrating, challenging and, well, really just amazing. There are no doubt people who will write me off as heretical for being a Schmemann fan, and there are other people who I wish would read him and probably never will. And I realise that had I read this book five years ago, it would have made things if not easier, then at least have a lot clearer.

Father Alexander Schmemann concludes this sixth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdomby focusing on the meaning of commemoration. What does it mean for the priest to ask God to remember us in his kingdom during the Great Entrance? What does it mean to refer everything to the memory of God? While memory is fundamental to the life of the Church, school theology cannot adequately account for it, for it is not sufficiently “objective” or based on “texts” and so memory remains outside of the theological field of vision.

And, strangely enough, this theological obliviousness leads in fact precisely to the “psychologization of worship, which, like a splendid flower, blossoms in its reduction to outward “illustrative” symbolism and so greatly interferes with a genuine understanding of and genuine participation in worship. If, on the hand, the liturgical “remembrance,” the “celebration of the memory” of this or that event, is perceived today entirely as a psychological, intellectual focus on the “meaning” of that event (which inevitably abets its “symbolization”), and if, on the other, commemoration in prayer is simply identified with a prayer on behalf of another human being, then it is of course because we forget the genuine meaning of memory and commemoration, which is manifested in the Church. (124)

Memory is our human capacity to resurrect the past, but this very capacity is ambiguous for what it resurrects is no longer for it is past.

For, in the end, memory in man is nothing other than the knowledge, peculiar only to man, of death, of the fact that “death and time rule on the earth.” (125)

It is only in relation to this “natural” memory that we can appreciate the newness of that memory given to us in Christ. In the biblical understanding memory refers to the attentiveness of God to His creation. Thus

memory, like everything else in God, is real, it is that life that he grants, that God “remembers”; it is the eternal overcoming of the “nothing” out of which God called us into “his wonderful light.” (125)


Father Alexander Schmemann continues this sixth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom, by locating the meaning of the censing of the gifts during their offering in the foreknowledge of what they and we are destined to become, for

it is not “simply” bread that lies on the diskos. On it all of God’s creation is presented, manifested in Christ as the new creation, the fulfilment of the glory of God. And it is not “simply” people who are gathered in this assembly, but the new humanity, recreated in the image of the “ineffable glory” of its Creator. To it, to this humanity, which is eternally called to ascend to the kingdom of God, to participation in the paschal table of the Lamb and to the honor of the highest calling, we also show reverence with the censing, signifying by this ancient rite of preparation, sanctification and purification that it is “a living sacrifice, well pleasing to God.” (118)

A similar foreknowledge is at work in the “hymn of offering” which has a particularly “royal” tonality. While this royal key and symbolism has specific historical roots, we should especially note that

the theological meaning of this royal “key” is rooted above all in the Church’s original cosmic understanding of Christ’s sacrifice. By his offering of himself as a sacrifice, Christ established his reign, he restored the mastery over “heaven and earth” that was “usurped” by the prince of this world. The faith of the Church knows Christ as the conqueror of death and Hades, as the King, who has already been manifested, of the kingdom of God, which has already “come in power.” … From here stems the breakthrough of the Church into the glory of the age to come, her entering into the eternal doxology of the cherubim and seraphim before the “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (119-120)


Father Alexander Schmemann continues this sixth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdomby arguing that it is not the order of the proskomidē that stands in need of cleansing, but rather our understanding of it, and in particular, our understanding of commemoration. Far from being something individual or utilitarian, its meaning is to be found

in referring all of us together and each of us individually to the sacrifice of Christ, in the gathering and formation of the new creation around the Lamb of God. In this is the power and joy of this commemoration, that in it is overcome the partition between the living and the dead, between the earthly and the heavenly Church … in taking out particles and pronouncing names, we are caring not simply for the “health” of ourselves or certain of our neighbours, nor for the fate of the dead “beyond the grave”; we offer and return them to God as a “living and well-pleasing” sacrifice in order to make them participants in the “inexhaustible life” of the kingdom of God. (112)

This offering is real because Christ has already made it his own and it therefore ends with a joyful confession and affirmation.


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)