Alexander Schmemann

I recently read Father Alexander Schmemann’s little book, The Virgin Mary, in the Celebration of Faith series. I’m not going to discuss the whole book, which is a combination of helpful reflections on the feasts of the Mother of God and various papers that he had presented on “Mariology,” usually in an ecumenical context. But what struck me, and got me thinking, was his discussion on the virgin birth near the beginning of the book.

Father Schmemann notes that, while miracles are an indisputable part of the New Testament witness and of the faith of the Church, we would nevertheless do well to ask about their meaning. Jesus Christ did not “use” miracles in order to prove anything, much less to force our belief, for that would be to override our human freedom.

Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to “prove” His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: “He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…” (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: “…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). (17)

Instead of trying to “prove” anything, the miracles presented in the gospels are motivated by Christ’s compassion and rooted in His love, for “He cannot endure the suffering of a human being hopelessly imprisoned by evil.” (18)

However, this does not appear to explain the miracle of Christ’s birth and the need for the virgin birth. Father Schmemann argues that this unique miracle that is also rooted in God’s love that, out of love for us, “took upon Himself our humanity in order to save it.” (19)

But to save it from what? From its total and inescapable slavery precisely to nature and those merciless laws which reduce us to just another human species, just matter, just “flesh and blood.” Man, however, is not merely of nature. Above all, he is of God, of God’s freely given love, of the Spirit. And therefore what our faith affirms is this: Christ is from God and of God, that His Father is God Himself. In Christ, in His birth, in His coming into the world a new humanity is born that comes not from the flesh nor from our self-imposed slavery to passions, but from God. God Himself is betrothed to humanity in the person of the most sublime fruit of His Creation: the all-pure Virgin Mary. The New Adam enters the world to be united with us and to lift up the first Adam who was created not “by nature” but by God. (19)

Leaving aside a terminological quibble about the word “nature,” which I think Father Schmemann is using to mean “fallen nature,” his words reminded me of Metropolitan John (Zizioiulas) of Pergamon’s discussion on the biological and ecclesial hypostasis in Being and Communion. For Metropolitan John, it is precisely the necessity of the biological that is overcome in the person of Christ, who thereby also opens up the way for us to become truly free persons. In such a perspective, it is necessity that keeps us enslaved and a radical freedom that is the mark of human persons who reflect God’s Image. In this context, the virginity of the Mother of God, in overcoming biological necessity, becomes the herald of a new way of being, a truly ecclesial hypostasis.

Of course, this may all be totally obvious – and from an Orthodox perspective it should be obvious – and I may just be slow in coming to grasp it. But I also think that it touches on themes that are not easily understood in our contemporary western context. I sometimes have the impression that some of those who defend the virgin birth do so more out of commitment to God being able to work whatever miracles He likes than any particular meaning that it conveys. And then it becomes no big deal for more liberal Christians to sit rather lightly to the dogma, especially given the way it is often presented as tied up with negative views about sexuality – and the layers of misconception in those assumptions still need to be seriously unmasked. But the reality is that the virginity of the Mother of God is a fundamentally eschatological reality, for in her we recognise the “Bright Dawn of the Mystical Day.”

In a recent post Joe Koczera discussed some of the issues involved in wearing clerical dress. That – and the related subject of religious or monastic dress – is a subject that I don’t intend getting into now, except to say that it is a complex issue and that I found Joe’s treatment of it provided a balanced and nuanced approach that is often lacking from online discussions. I may as well admit that if there is one thing that irritates me about some online discussions between Orthodox and Catholics, it is when both unite in demonising Catholic religious who do not wear habits!

But this post is not about whether clergy or religious should wear a distinctive dress. Rather, what struck me was my own response to the photo on his post of a priest (okay, I suppose that it could have been a brother or Jesuit scholastic) in black with a clerical collar. And I must confess that that image triggered all sort of negative anti-clerical associations in me. I know that that is what Jesuits wear if they’re going to wear something distinctive, but my own reactions clearly came from somewhere less than entirely rational. It’s rather strange: I suspect that I would react negatively to images of Benedictines who were not in habit, whereas I tend to react negatively to an image of Jesuits in clerics. That no doubt has something to do both with my experience of Catholic monasticism and dress, but also with my (positive) experience of Jesuits whom I very rarely saw in clerics, and with the assoication of the collar not with religious life but rather with priesthood. When it comes to Orthodox priests, I would probably not respond strongly one way or another, although I suspect that I’d prefer a cassock to a Roman collar and think that I’d be rather shocked to find Orthodox monastics who are not in monastic dress. But this is all rather subjective and fed by multiple factors.

Underlying this, of course, and here I am getting to the point of this post, is a sort of residual anti-clericalism in which clerical dress carries certain connotations, at least for me but I suspect also for some others, of a clerical caste that is set apart and viewed as ontologically distinct (in current Catholic teaching) from the rest of the Church. And I suspect that many of us in the West react to this, but in so reacting we tend to get things rather confused.


There were a few comments a while ago that raised the topic of Thomas Merton’s relationship with Orthodoxy, and TheraP mentioned a review that he had written on Father Alexander Schmemann’s work. I had read the review in Monastic Studies (no. 4, Advent 1966: 105-115) earlier this year, and since reading Father Schmemann’s The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom, had been wanting to return to it. TheraP drew my attention to the fact that it had also been included in the volume Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart & the Eastern Church (The Fons Vitae Thomas Merton series), and this weekend I have been visiting friends who have this book. The whole book looks fascinating and there are several other essays that I have dipped into and would like to read properly, both by Merton and by people like Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Canon A.M. Allchin, Rowan Williams and Jim Forest. But I re-read his review of Father Schmemann’s Sacraments and Orthodoxy and of Ultimate Questions. Here are a few extracts:

Sacraments and Orthodoxy, a powerful, articulate and indeed creative essay in sacramental theology which rival Schillebeeckx and in some ways excels him. Less concerned than Schillebeeckx with some of the technical limitations of Catholic sacramental thought, Schmemann can allow himself to go the very root of the subject without having to apologize for his forthrightness or for his lack of interest in trivialities.

Let the reader be warned. If he is now predisposed to take a comfortable, perhaps exciting mysterious, excursion into the realm of a very “mystical” and highly “spiritual” religion, the gold-encrusted cult thick with the smoke of incense and populated with a legion of gleaming icons in the sacred gloom, a “liturgy which to be properly performed requires not less than twenty-seven heavy liturgical books,” he may find himself disturbed by Fr. Schmemann’s presentation. Certainly, Sacraments and Orthodoxy will repudiate nothing of the deep theological and contemplative sense of Orthodox faith and worship. But the author is intent on dispelling any illusions about the place of “religion” in the world of today. In fact, one would not suspect from the title of this book, it is one of the strongest and clearest statements of position upon this topic of the Church and the world. (474) ….


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.


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