Having considered the relationship between word and sacrament, Father Schmemann continues this fourth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom by returning to the Little Entrance which in contemporary practice has become identified with the entrance with the gospels.

While the altar has become the central focus for both the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the faithful, this was not the case in ancient times. Rather access to the altar was restricted to the strictly eucharistic part of the liturgy, and before that the clergy would take their places on the bema, among the people, which was the place for listening to the Word of God – and we see a remnant of this practice in the place of the bishop’s throne. Even today, the most important parts of the non-eucharistic services, such as the polyeleion, are performed in the middle of the church and not in the altar. This historical detail is important because it shows that the liturgy involved an ascent to the altar, which is also the ascent to the kingdom. The Little Entrance marks a stage in this ascent in which the clergy and people, having entered the temple, take their places for listening to the Word of God.

This entrance with the gospels also forms a parallel to the entrance with the Gifts,

in which the consecration of the gifts is preceded by the offering. It is appropriate here to recall that the gospels are part of the Orthodox liturgical tradition not only in their reading, but precisely as a book. This book is rendered the same reference as an icon or the altar. … for the Church, the gospel book is a verbal icon of Christ’s manifestation to and presence among us. Above all, it is an icon of his resurrection. The entrance with the gospels is therefore not a “representation,” a sacred dramatization of events of the past – e.g., Christ’s going out to preach (in which case it would be not the deacon, but the celebrant, as the image of Christ in the ecclesial assembly, who should carry the gospel book). It is the image of the appearance of the risen Lord in fulfilment of his promise: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). (71)

We are reminded of this reality of Christ’s presence in the midst of the assembly when the celebrant proclaims: “Peace be unto all!” for peace is the name of Christ himself. To understand the prokeimenon we should realise that these verses of psalmody that it now comprises used to be an entire psalm that preceded the reading of scripture and, for the early Church, the psalms were the prayer of Christ Himself which become also the prayer of His Body the Church.

The prokeimenon – “the psalm that precedes” – introduces us to the sacrament of the word. For the word of God is addressed not to the reason alone, but to the whole man – to his depths or, in the language of the holy fathers, to his heart, which is an organ of religious knowledge, in contrast to the imperfect, discursive and rational knowledge of “this world.” The “opening of the mind” precedes the hearing and understanding of the word… (73)

The prokeimenon is followed by the reading of the epistle, although there is reason to believe that the ancient Church included passages from the Old Testament and the evolution and possible reform of the lectionary is a topic that requires serious attention if the scriptures are to be perceived “as the chief, incomparable and truly saving source of faith and life.” (74)

After the epistle comes the gospel which is preceded by the singing of the alleluia
and the censing. The alleluia verses held an important place in early Christian worship belong to the type of singing called melismatic which means that the melody takes preference over the word, unlike in psalmodic singing. This

expressed the experience of worship as a real contact with the transcendent, an entry into the supernatural reality of the kingdom. … The alleluia is a greeting in the most profound sense of the term. … It presupposes a manifestation and is a reaction to this manifestation. (75)

The alleluia is accompanied by the sensing of the gospel book and of the assembly and is followed by the prayer before the gospel.

This prayer, which is now read silently, occupies the same place in the sacrament of the word that the epiklesis, the supplication for the Father to send down his Holy Spirit, occupies in the eucharistic prayer. Like the consecration of the gifts, understanding and acceptance of the word depend not on us, not only on our desire, but above all on the sacramental transformation of the “eyes of our mind,” on the coming to us of the Holy Spirit. (76)

The homily which follows the reading of the gospel is a witness to the hearing of the word of God and its reception and is organically connected to it. The contemporary crisis of preaching in the Church is not simply due to a lack of technical skill on the part of the preacher, for

The homily can be, and often is even today, intelligent, interesting, instructive and comforting, but these are not the criteria by which we can distinguish a “good” homily from a “bad” one – these are not its real essence. Its essence lies in its living link to the gospel that was read in the church assembly. (77)

All theology and all tradition grows out of the “assembly as the Church” which is the sacrament of the proclamation of the good news and this is what it means to say that only the Church is given custody of the scriptures and their interpretation.

The Church alone knows and keeps the meaning of scripture, because in the sacrament of the word, accomplished in the church assembly, the Holy Spirit eternally gives life to the “flesh” of scripture, transforming it into “spirit and life.” Any genuine theology is rooted in this sacrament of the word, in the church assembly, in which the Spirit of God exhorts the Church herself – and not simply her individual members – into all truth.

Alexander Schmemann was right on target in his vision of what liturgy is in the life of the Church, a vision we need today in my view more than ever. For it is ironic that, as we celebrate today the achievements in liturgical theology of Alexander Schmemann, one must note a recent and to me unwelcome shift in American liturgical writings from a prescriptive to a descriptive view of what Christian liturgy is. As if liturgy is not what Christians ought to be doing at their worship but whatever they in fact happen to be doing. I hold, on the contrary, that Christian history has left us an objective and, yes, prescriptive, liturgical tradition, one that views Christian worship not as whatever Christians do in church but as what they ought to be doing, one that draws them to participate in a common heritage far nobler and richer than any individual’s choice or creation. Those who seem to foster this descriptive view cite the rhetorical question of the late James F. White, one of the major voices of the Protestant liturgical establishment of my generation. He writes: “Do we want to say that a preaching service each week and a thirteenth Sabbath Lord’s Supper as among the Seventh Day Adventists is not authentic Christian worship? Do we want to disqualify those for whom the major events in the liturgical year are children’s Sunday, homecoming, revival and rally day? Any scheme that totally ignores the worship life of about sixty percent of American Christianity is highly questionable.” As with most rhetorical questions the anticipated politically correct reply is: “Of course not.” Alas, I must confess to the diametrically opposite view. Reversing the rhetoric, I would ask, rather: “How can one consider authentic the Christian worship of those for whom the major events in the liturgical year are not Lent and Easter, Christmas and Theophany, and on Sundays the Holy Eucharist. So in my view, far from it being time to move beyond the Schmemann … line of liturgical theology, we need it more than ever.

Robert Taft, SJ, in the podcast I mentioned a couple of posts back: “The Liturgical Enterprise 25 Years After Alexander Schmemann – The Man and His Heritage.”

I was struck by this quote, for this is far from being simply an American or a Protestant problem. I have noticed a similar underlying dynamic in certain European Catholic liturgical studies, notably in the emphasis on ritual studies and rehabilitating popular religion. While anthropological insights into human beings as ritual creatures can indeed be helpful, when they become cut off from a broader understanding of liturgy as bearer of tradition, then they end up becoming a sort of phenomenological study of religion rather than a vital aspect of Christian theology.

This reminded me of something I wrote on the relationship between ritual studies, liturgy and theology a few years ago – and which I never got down to publishing in English; a Dutch version was published in Monastieke Informatie, 225, September 2006 – and I thought I’d publish an extract from it here…


…ritual language is really a form of text. While we are used to thinking of texts as written objects, Paul Ricoeur in his important essay “The model of the text: meaningful action considered as text” has shown that actions too constitute “texts” for they involve the fixation of meaning in actions which have become disassociated from the mental intentions of their “authors”. They are a form in which meaning is passed on to a broad public.[1] Thus texts are not only verbal or written but can also be visual, spatial, ritual and so on. They comprise all of our means of communication.

The Christian Tradition – with a capital ‘T’ – is never accessible in itself, but is always mediated through different forms of texts that serve to pass on the faith of the Church. One of these important mediators is the liturgy, whose importance in theology can be seen in the widely quoted maxim lex orandi est lex credendi, or, the law of praying is the law of believing.[2] Liturgy is not simply the application of theological truth to our ritual acts, but is rather the matrix that gives birth to theology. It is the ongoing proclamation, that which is handed down to us and which forms subsequent generations of Christians.

It is here that we discover that liturgy, as poetry and ritual, has a particular role as bearer of revelation for it is able to provide access to that which is beyond words. Through the fully incarnational use of symbol, music, silence, space, movement and colour, it allows a glimpse of that which is beyond cerebral expression. As Yves Congar tells us: “The celebration of the Eucharist communicates the whole reality: the merest sign of the cross is an entire profession of faith in the Redemption.”[3]

Thus we see that, while Christian liturgy is indeed rooted in the human need for ritual, liturgy is much more than simply ritual studies, for liturgy is a witness to a much larger and all-embracing Tradition. Liturgy is an aspect of the language which the Church uses to express the revelation of God in Christ and is formative for our Christian faith. While clearly a human activity it is also much more than a human activity, for it is one of the privileged places for encountering revelation. In the oft-quoted words of Dom Prosper Guéranger: “It is in the liturgy that the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures speaks again; the liturgy is Tradition itself at its highest degree of power and solemnity.”[4]

[1] Paul Ricoeur. 1981. “The model of the text: meaningful action considered as text” in J. Thompson (ed). Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 210.

[2] Aidan Nichols. 1991. The Shape of Catholic Theology. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press. 181.

[3] Yves Congar. 1964. Tradition in the Life of the Church. London: Burns and Oates. 127.

[4] Ibid. 125.

Jonathan of Thicket & Thorp has a must-read post entitled Scattered Thoughts on Liturgy, Saints and Postmodern Discourse in which he discusses the “otherness” of liturgical discourse and concludes

Yes, our language is a mode of power, of coercion and falsification: but it is possible to break through that, into the true Word “spoken in silence” Who breaks up and re-assembles our discourse in the light of His Gospel and saints and in prayer and so on. Where deconstructionism proper can lead to nihilism or irrationalism, the “deconstructing” of Christ leads into the Resurrected Life, from the “death” of language (and author and subject!) into the true life of the Word.

But do go and read the whole post!

Steve Hayes has also added some comments of his own here, which include a reflection on Mennonites and Zionists (Zionists of the South African sort, that is).

It’s just as well I don’t have time to think what this means for the present state of western liturgy, although if I remember correctly Catherine Pickstock had something to say about that.

In this chapter, Father Louth highlights the importance of liturgy in giving us access to that which the tradition conveys, which is much more than something simply conceptual. Indeed liturgy leads us to the inarticulateness that is at the heart of tradition. Thus liturgy is “not something we ‘make up’, nor is it something that can be simply ‘understood’: it is something we participate in, not just as minds, but with all that we are – body and soul.” (89) Liturgy conveys “the unfathomableness of the Christian mystery.” (89) Louth points to the dangers of much liturgical reform: 

The danger of attempting to reduce the liturgy to what can be understood in simple conceptual terms is one that has beset the West since at least the time of the Reformation, and it is a marked feature of much modern liturgical reform. It is a danger it has been one of the purposes of this chapter to warn against. What can be articulated, what can be understood, is only a part, if an important part. The life in which we share as we commit ourselves to the tradition of the Church goes much deeper. (90)

I highlight Father Louth’s comments, first published in 1983, because they seem to be directly relevant to the liturgical situation of much of the Western Church today. Indeed, the former Cardinal Ratzinger has argued that “the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today depends in great part on the collapse of the liturgy.” It seems to me that gaining a good understanding of the factors at work in our current liturgical crisis is, at least for Western Christians, of profound importance.

While the liturgical movement of the twentieth century produced work of extraordinary depth which was integrally related to a broader theological renewal, its concrete results have been disappointing. This is partly because the reforms following the Council occurred within the context of the assumptions of modernity. This was a context which privileged cerebral understanding, distrusted that which was not available for empirical observation, and tended towards pragmatism, having lost an appreciation of the symbolic and bodily nature of language.

However, liturgical questions can all-too-easily become a matter of simplistic polemics, and I am by no means suggesting that the answer to our current woes is simply to return to a Tridentine liturgy, even if we should be open to learning why it is that some people desire this. Archimandrite Robert Taft recently argued (in an article highlighted by Joseph of Byzantine Texas – here) that the principles of the liturgical reform were rooted in the liturgical theology of the Eastern Church. While not disagreeing with what Taft says – and while certainly agreeing with the fundamental principles of the reform, although in some aspects I wonder if they went far enough – I found his article rather disappointing because it did not sufficiently address the liturgy’s role of guarding and bringing us into contact with the inarticulateness that is at the heart of the liturgy. It is this inarticulateness that I would have hoped that we could learn something about from the East, an inarticulateness that Catherine Pickstock also highlights in her work on the medieval Western liturgy and which she refers to as a “liturgical stammer”.

Such issues could do with much more in-depth reflection and it would be good to see Father Louth’s analysis being taken up by those involved with liturgy today!

« Previous Page