Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Fr. Alexander Schmemann: Eucharistic Ecclesiology

The Church is a given reality, an organism whose life is conveyed and communicated to its members through the sacraments, the latter, and especially the Eucharist, being the means of this communication and participation. It is very doubtful, however, whether to begin the definition of the Church in terms of "organism" is a good ecclesiological beginning at all. The absence of such a definition in the Fathers may not have been accidental, but rather a revealing experience of the Church, which we have not yet fully grasped. In the patristic perspective, the Church is primarily the gift of new life, but this life is not that of the Church, but the life of Christ in us, our life in Him. For the Church is not a "being" in the sense in which God or man may be called "beings" ("hypostatized natures" to use the ancient terminology), she is not a new "nature" added to the existing natures of God and man, she is not a "substance." The term new applied to her — new life, new creation — does not mean an ontological newness, the appearance of a "being" which did not exist before, it means the redeemed, renewed and transfigured relationship between the only "substantial" beings: God and His creation. And just as the Church has no "hypostasis" or "personality" of her own, other than the hypostasis of Christ and those of the men who constitute her, she has no "nature" of her own, for she is the new life of the "old" nature, redeemed and transfigured by Christ. In Him man, and through man the whole of "nature," find their true life and become a new creation, a new being, the Body of Christ.

Thus, on the one hand, there exists in the iconographical tradition of Orthodoxy no icon of the Church, because an icon implies necessarily a "hypostatized nature," the reality of a substantial and personal "being" and in this sense the Church is not a "being." Yet, on the other hand, each icon — that of Christ, of the Theotokos, of any Saint — is always and essentially an icon of the Church, because it manifests and reveals the new life of a being, the reality of its transfiguration, of its passage into the "new eon" of the Holy Spirit, this being precisely the manifestation of the Church. Therefore, the concepts of "organism" or "body" can be utterly misleading if, in a definition of the Church, they precede and give foundation to, that of "life." It is not because she is an "organism" that the Church gives us the "new life," but the new life given in her, or rather, the Church as new life, makes us an organism, transforms us into the Body of Christ, reveals us as "new being." We see now that the ecclesiological equation "institution — society —organism — Body of Christ" needs to be qualified. It would be a great error to directly apply the scriptural and traditional term "Body of Christ" to the Church as institution or society.

In itself, "institution," "society" — i.e., the visible, militant, hierarchical Church — is not the new life, the new being and the new age. It belongs to the structure and reality of the history of salvation and, therefore, to "this world." But just as the Church of the Old Covenant, the old Israel, existed as a passage to the New Covenant, was instituted in order to prepare the ways of the Lord, the Church as institution exists in order to reveal — in "this world" — the "world to come," the Kingdom of God, fulfilled and manifested in Christ. She is the passage of the "old" into the "new" — yet what is being redeemed, renewed and transfigured through her is not the "Church," but the old life itself, the old Adam and the whole of creation. And she is this "passage" precisely because as institution she is "bone of the bones and flesh of the flesh" of this world, because she stands for the whole creation, truly represents it, assumes all of its life and offers it — in Christ — to God. She is indeed instituted for the world and not as a separate "religious" institution existing for the specifically religious needs of men. She represents — "makes present" — the whole of mankind, because mankind and creation were called from the very beginning to be the Temple of the Holy Spirit and the receptacle of Divine life.

The Church is thus the restoration by God and the acceptance by man of the original and eternal destiny of creation itself. She is the presence of the Divine Act, which restores and the obedience of men who accept this act. Yet it is only when she performs and fulfills this "passage," when, in other terms, she transcends herself as "institution" and "society" and becomes indeed the new life of the new creation, that she is the Body of Christ. As institution the Church is in this world the sacrament of the Body of Christ, of the Kingdom of God and the world to come.
We recover thus the eschatological dimension of the Church. The body of Christ is not and can never be of this world. "This world" condemned Christ, the bearer of new life, to death and by doing this it has condemned itself to death. The new life, which shone forth from the grave, is the life of the "new eon," of the age, which in terms of this world is still "to come." The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, by inaugurating a new eon, announced the end of this world, for as no one can partake of the "new life" without dying in the baptismal death, no one can have Christ as his life unless he has died and is constantly dying to this world: "for ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). But then nothing which is of this world — no institution, no society, no church — can be identified with the new eon, the new being. The most perfect Christian community — be it completely separated from the evils of the world — as a community is still of this world, living its life, depending on it. It is only by passing into the new eon, by an anticipation — in faith, hope and love — ofthe world to come, that a community can partake of the Body of Christ, and indeed manifest itself as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ can never be "part" of this world, for Christ has ascended into heaven and his Kingdom is Heaven...

...Having forgotten the ecclesiological and the eschatological significance of the Eucharist, having reduced it to one "means of grace" among many, our official theology was bound to limit the theological study of the Eucharist to only two problems: that of the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and that of communion. As applied to the Eucharist, the term "sacrament" usually means either one of these acts or both, although it is explicitly admitted that they can be treated separately. Within this theological framework the Church remains mainly as a "power" — to perform the transformation, to give communion. The priest is the minister (the "performer") of the sacrament, the elements of bread and wine — its "matter," the communicant — its recipient. But communion having long ago ceased to be a self-evident fulfillment of the sacrament — 90% of our eucharistic celebrations are without communicants — there developed an additional and virtually independent theology of the Eucharist as sacrifice, essential per se, regardless of the people’s presence or participation. And finally, since theology by focusing its attention on these two moments of the Eucharist imperceptibly relegated all other elements of the eucharistic celebration into the category of "non-essential" rituals, the door was open to their interpretation in terms of liturgical symbolism. As understood and explained since Cabasilas, the Eucharist is a symbolical representation of the life of Christ, serving as a framework for the double sacrament of consecration and communion, yet not essential for its "validity" and "efficacy." But from the standpoint of Tradition the sacramental character of the Eucharist cannot be artificially narrowed to one act, to one moment of the whole rite. We have an "ordo" in which all parts and all elements are essential, are organically linked together in one sacramental structure. In other words, the Eucharist is a sacrament from the beginning to the end and its fulfillment or consummation is "made possible" by the entire liturgy. Liturgy here is not opposed to sacrament, as "symbolism to realism," but indeed is sacrament: one, organic, consistent passage, in which each step prepares and "makes possible" the following one.
For the Eucharist, we have said, is a passage, a procession leading the Church into "heaven," into her fulfillment as the Kingdom of God. And it is precisely the reality of this passage into the Eschaton that conditions the transformation of our offering — bread and wine — into the new food of the new creation, of our meal into the Messianic Banquet and the Koinonia of the Holy Spirit. Thus, for example, the coming together of Christians on the Lord’s Day, their visible unity "sealed" by the priest ("ecclesia in episcopo and episcopus in ecclesia") is indeed the beginning of the sacrament, the "gathering into the Church." And the entrance is not a symbolical representation of Christ going to preach but the real entrance — the beginning of the Church’s ascension to the Throne of God, made possible, inaugurated by the ascension of Christ’s Humanity. The offertory — the solemn transfer of bread and wine to the altar is again not the symbol of Christ’s burial (or of His entrance into Jerusalem) but a real sacrifice — the transfer of our lives and bodies and of the whole "matter" of the whole creation into heaven, their integration in the unique and all-embracing sacrifice of all sacrifices, that of Christ. The prosphora (offering) makes possible the anaphora — the lifting up of the Church, her eschatological fulfillment by the Eucharist. For Eucharist — "thanksgiving" — is indeed the very content of the redeemed life, the very reality of the Kingdom as "joy and peace in the Holy Spirit," the end and the fulfillment of our ascension into heaven.

Therefore, the Eucharist is consecration and the Fathers called both the prayer of consecration and the consecrated gifts "Eucharist." The insistence by the Orthodox on the epiclesis is nothing else, in its ultimate meaning, but the affirmation that the consecration, i.e., the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, takes place in the "new eon" of the Holy Spirit. Our earthly food becomes the Body and Blood of Christ because it has been assumed, accepted, lifted up into the "age to come," where Christ is indeed the very life, the very food of all life and the Church is His Body, "the fullness of Him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:23). It is there, finally, that we partake of the food of immortality, are made participants of the Messianic Banquet, of the New Pascha, it is from there, "having seen the true light, having received the heavenly Spirit," that we return into "this world" ("let us depart in peace") as witnesses of the Kingdom which is "to come." Such is the sacrament of the Church, the "leitourgia" which eternally transforms the Church into what she is, makes her the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. ...

...In the past years we have been often told that Orthodox theology, if it wants to overcome its inner weakness and deficiencies, must return to the Fathers. "Patristic revival," "neo-patristic synthesis" — these and similar expressions are frequent in current Orthodox writings and they point, no doubt, to a very genuine and urgent need. The interruption of the living patristic tradition was indeed the origin of the great theological tragedy of Orthodoxy. But what exactly is meant by this "return" and how are we to perform it? To these questions no satisfactory answer has been given. Does it mean a mere repetition of what the Fathers said, on the assumption that they have said everything that is essential and nothing is needed but a recapitulation of their consensus? Such an assumption, even if it were a valid one, would certainly not solve the problem, as we stated it before, — that of the present theological alienation. No collection of highly technical patrological monographs, no edition of patristic texts for the common use, would constitute in themselves the living and creative answer to the real questions of our time, or the real needs of the Church. There would still be the necessity of interpreting the patristic message, of its "resurrection" in the mind of the Church, or, in other words, the problem of the theological "breaking through." But we must remember that the Church has never taught that the Fathers answered all questions, that their theology is the whole theology and that the theologian today is merely a commentator of patristic texts. To transform the Fathers into a purely formal and infallible authority, and theology — into a patristic scholasticism — is, in fact, a betrayal of the very spirit of patristic theology, which remains forever a wonderful example of spiritual freedom and creativity. The "return to the Fathers" means, above all, the recovery of their spirit, of the secret inspiration, which made them true witnesses of the Church.
We return indeed to the Fathers, and not only to their "texts," when we recover and make ours the experience of the Church not as mere "institution, doctrine, or system" to quote A. S. Khomiakov, but the all-embracing, all-assuming and all-transforming life, the passage into the reality of redemption and transfiguration. This experience, as we tried to show, is centered in the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Church, the very manifestation and self-revelation of the Church. Eucharist, whether it is expressly referred to or not, is the organic source and the necessary "term of reference" of theology, for if theology is bearing witness to the faith and the life of the Church, to the Church as salvation and the new life in Christ, it bears witness primarily to the experience of the Church manifested, communicated and actualized in the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that the Church ceases to be "institution, doctrine, system" and becomes Life, Vision, Salvation, it is in the Eucharist that the Word of God is fulfilled and the human mind made capable of expressing the mind of Christ. Here then is the source of theology, of words about God, the "event" which transforms our human speculation into a message of Divine Truth. ...

...I will conclude with two remarks, one dealing with the more immediate theological "agenda" of our time, and the other with the general spirit of Orthodox theology.

1) First of all, there should be no misunderstanding. The "eucharistic conversion" of theology does not mean an imposition on the theologian of a definite program, of a prescribed set of themes and questions. On the contrary, properly understood, it liberates him from the dead authority of pseudo-traditional systems, puts him into direct contact with the whole of reality: God, man and the world. "The spirit bloweth where it listeth . . ." There exists however, a preliminary problem, which must be dealt with, for it constitutes precisely the condition of the "eucharistic conversion" of theology. It is, to put it bluntly, the theological rediscovery of the Eucharist itself. It is here, wehave seen, that the official, post-patristic theology has suffered its most obvious, most harmful metamorphosis, has deviated from the living Tradition, has "alienated" itself from the experience of the Church. It is here, therefore, that its deficiencies and limitations must be judged and overcome.

To "rediscover" the Eucharist means, as we have tried to show, to recover its ecclesiological and eschatological "fullness" to know it again as the Sacrament of the Church. This, in turn, means that the reduction of the Eucharist to a multiplicity of artificially isolated "questions": sacrament, sacrifice, communion, etc., must be transcended in a reintegrated vision and experience. Such reintegration is possible only when one ceases to abstract the Eucharist as "sacrament," "sacrifice or communion" from the Eucharistic leitourgia, from the action in which all these aspects can be understood in their proper perspective and in their organic relation with one another. The lex orandi must be recovered as the lex credendi. The rediscovery of the Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Church is, in other words, the rediscovery of the Church in actu, the Church as the Sacrament of Christ, of His "Parousia" — the coming and presence of the Kingdom, which is to come.

Let us not be mistaken: the task presents enormous difficulties. So much has been forgotten or neglected. The true meaning of the leitourgia of the Church has to be found again. The whole development of the liturgical piety must be reevaluated. The formidable inertia and opposition of dead conservatism and pseudo-traditionalism has to be met and overcome. Theological "regeneration" however, demands this price and nothing short of a crisis — constructive criticism, critical reconstruction can restore theology to its real function within the Church.
2) The term "eucharistic ecclesiology" has been recently introduced into our theological vocabulary. One can speak of even greater reasons for eucharistic theology, and this entire essay is nothing but an attempt to prove that truly Orthodox theology is by its very nature "eucharistic." This does not mean that the Eucharist as such is the only object of theological contemplation and analysis. It was precisely such a transformation of the Eucharist into an "object" that obscured its function as the source of theology. It means that in the life of the Church the Eucharist is the moment of truth which makes it possible to see the real "objects" of theology: God, man and the world, in the true light, which, in other words, reveals both the objects of theology as they really are and gives the necessary light for their understanding. "We have seen the true light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit . . ."

Theology, like any other Christian service or "leitourgia," is a charisma, a gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift is given in the Church, i.e., in the act in which the Church fulfills herself as the communion of the Holy Spirit, in which she offers in Christ and offers Him, and is accepted by Christ and receives from Him; in the act which is, therefore, the source of all charisms and ministries of the Church. It is the moment of truth, indeed, for there we stand before God, in Christ who is the End, the Eschaton, the Fullness of all our humanity, and in Him offer to God the only "reasonable service" (logike latreia) of the redeemed world — the Eucharist, and in the light of it see and understand and recapitulate in Christ the truth about God, man and the world, about the creation and fall, sin and redemption, about the whole universe and its final transfiguration in the Kingdom of God, and we receive this truth in participation of the Body and Blood of Christ, in the unending Pentecost that "guides us into all truth and shows us things to come" (John 16:13). The task of theology is to bear witness to this truth, and there is no end to this task. Each theologian will see it only partially and partially reflect it, and each one will remain free, indeed, to reflect it according to his own particular charisma and vocation, but just as all charismata have one and the same source, all vocations ultimately contribute to the edification of one catholic theology of the Church. Return to the Bible, return to the Fathers . . .

This means, above all, the return to the Church through the Eucharist and to the Eucharist through the Church: here the "texts" of the Scripture are given to us again and again as the living and life-creating Word of God, here we meet our Fathers not in "books" but in reality, the Reality to which they bore witness in their time and in their language, to which we are called to bear witness in our time and in our own language. "For the languages in the world are different," says St. Irenaeus, "but the power of tradition is one and the same" (Adv. Haer. 1, 10, 2). "Our teaching," he adds, "is confirmed to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our teaching."

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter 1961, pp. 10-23

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