Alexander Schmemann on sacramental language

“The Eucharist is a sacrament. But he who says sacrament also gets involved in a controversy. If you speak of sacrament, where is the Word? Are you not leading us into the dangers of “sacramentalism” and “magic,” into a betrayal of the spiritual character of Christianity? To these questions, I must frankly admit, no answer can be given at this point. For the whole purpose of this essay is to show that the context within which such questions are being asked is not the only possible one. At this stage I will say only this: the Eucharist is the entrance of the Church into the joy of its Lord. And to enter into that joy, so as to be a witness to it in the world, is indeed the very calling of the Church, its essential leitourgia, the sacrament by which is “becomes what it is.””

—-Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, National Student Christian Federation, 1963, pg. 13.

I must admit, Alexander Schmemann is opening new vistas for me! By returning sacramental language to its original meanings within the mission of the Church, I can in good conscience relate it to my own Church. Here are some examples:

Eucharist: literally Thanksgiving. In Schmemann’s tradition the Eucharist is the grand procession into the Joy of the Lord. It belongs to God’s original intention for man, namely to bless God’s creation by naming it:

To name a thing, in other terms, is to Bless God for it and in it. And in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or “cultic” act, but the very way of life. (pg. 4)

Mystery of the “sacramental” life solved. (For me anyway)

Liturgy: from the Greek word leitourgia.

“It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals–a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It meant also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of an in the interest of the whole community. Thus the letourgia of ancient Israel was the corporate work of a chosen few to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. And in this very act of preparation they became what they were called to be, the Israel of God, the chosen instrument of His purpose. Thus the Church itself is a leitourgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His Kingdom. The eucharistic liturgy, therefore, must not be approached and understood in “liturgical” or “cultic” terms alone. Just as Christianity can–and must–be considered as the end of religion, so the Christian liturgy in general, and the Eucharist in particular are indeed the end of cult, of the “sacred” religious action isolated from, and opposed to, the “profane” life of the community. The first condition for the understanding of liturgy is to forget about any specific “liturgical piety.” (pg. 13)

By delineating between the original meaning of the words and their context, Schmemann, for me anyway, restores meaning to the language.

Another thing Schmemann does in this book is point out how destructive all the speculation over where and when and how the body and blood of Christ are present in the Eucharist. To the Orthodox, the holy mystery is meant to be a mystery. By trying to study it, we aren’t adoring God, rather we are just analyzing and arguing about it. Here I find some basis for ecumenism. We must return to worshiping God in spirit and truth.

I recently read a sermon from one of the original pastors of the Evangelical Covenant church (in the book The Word is Near You : Sermons, Lectures, and Bible Discussions By Representative Early Leaders in The Evangelical Covenant Church). He calls the Lord’s supper both a mystery and a sacrament. So anyway, I guess I’m saying my little moratorium on sacramental language is now over. I can use it freely again.


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Filed under ecclesiology, ecumenism, quote, sacrament, theology

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