"The Church as a Mission - Part 4: The Sacrament of Offering"

The Church as a Mission

Part 4 - The Sacrament of Offering

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Liturgical Theology Revisited

Dr. Athanasios N. Papathanasiou

Dr Theology, Lecturer at the Hellenic Open University (Athens)


Here we come to the perspective that is to my mind the most radical: the discovery that not simply the liturgy after the Liturgy but, more than that, the very celebration of the Eucharist itself (i.e. not simply what flows from it after it is celebrated (involves opening up to the world.


We have to take seriously the fact that Fr. Alexander objects vehemently to the distinction between “important” and “unimportant” moments in the Divine Liturgy. In other words, he refuses to recognize the consecration of the Gifts as the “most important moment”. He insist that the Liturgy is an integral whole, an action with an inner coherence which of course develops and reaches a climax, but every part of which is organically connected with the other parts and cannot be removed.


In the very first paragraph of his books The Eucharist, he says: “To ‘assemble as a church’ meant, in the minds of the early Christians, to constitute a gathering whose purpose is to reveal, to realize, the Church”. The sacrament of the assembly is “the primary form of the Eucharist,… the first and basic of the Eucharist…, its foundation and beginning”. The entrance of the assembly into the Church “actually comprises the beginning of the eucharist ceremony, but also the entering, dynamic character of this ceremony, the Eucharist as movement”.


Based on this perspective we can make the following observations. The Eucharist has to do not only with a vertical action of the Spirit alone. IT has also to do with human’s historical action. The very making of the Eucharist is based on a missionary relationship (God the missionary calls – the human being response) and involves a fundamentally missionary movement: and opening up for the faithful to the “fields” of the world so that the world itself can be “harvested” and “make its entrance” – so that it can be offered to God under the forms of break and wine. The Eucharist could dispense with this missionary backbone only if it were composed of extraterrestrial material which was not gathered and offered by humans!


“If assembling as the Church’ presupposes separation from the world…, this exodus from the world is accomplished in the name of the world, for the sake of its salvation. For we are flesh of the flesh and blood of the blood of this world. We are a part of it, and only by us and through us does it ascend to its Creator, Savior and Lord, to its goal and fulfilment. We separate ourselves from the world in order to bring it, in order to lift it up to the kingdom, to make it once again the way to God and participation in his eternal kingdom. In this is the tasks fo the Church for this she was left in the world, as part of it, as a symbol of its salvation. And this symbol we fulfill, we ‘make rea’ in the Eucharist.” “Christ sacrificed himself ‘on behalf of all and for all’, and he sent his disciples, and therefore the Church, ‘into all the world [to] preach the gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk 16:15).”


The importance of this movement is expressed in the Great Entrance. “It is not a symbolic, but a real entrance”, Schmemann insists. It is the process of leading creation into the Church and offering to God the everyday life of human beings. The offering itself constitutes a sacrament.


You will permit me here to say something further in support of this view. The distinguished liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix endeavored to identify the fundamental and constant elements in the Eucharist act, amidst the wide variety of Eucharistic rites used by local Churches from the Euphrates to Galria. He set out four actions that would qualify: i) the act of taking the break and wine and placing them on the table; ii) the Eucharistic prayer; iii) the breaking of the bread; and iv) the distribution of the bread and wine. What we especially overlook today is the first of these elements: the act of taking the Eucharistic elements, which means gathering them, and their entrance into the Church. In actual fact, it means whatever has to do with the Church’s opening up to the world in mission. This opening is a constituent element of the Eucharist just as the Incarnation of Christ (which is the opening u f the Son to created being) constitutes Christ’s self, rather than something else, subsequent or adjacent to Christ’s self.


In numerous places Schmemann stresses that the Eucharist is the realization of the eschaton in the world. I think however, that it is not accurate to describe the Eucharist solely as the arrival of the congregation at the Kingdom. Of course it is! But at the same time the Eucharistic celebration is the affirmation that the Kingdom is still to come. The Eucharistic celebration means concern that what is to come involves not only the present congregation, but even that which is not at present within the Eucharistic assembly. Seen in this light, it involves a missionary dimension! Remember St. Paul’s words: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1Cor 11:26). Obviously it is not by chance that Paul uses the verb “to proclaim” (kataggellein) in his epistles when he refers to the proclamation of the Christian message. The striking thing here is that this Pauline text has been integrated in the Divine Liturgy. And – behold! – it is not found in the first part of the Liturgy (the so-called liturgy of the word, which ends after the Gospel reading as we approach the celebration of the Eucharist). It is included in Eucharistic Anaphora, in most of which there has been added the statement that the celebration of the Eucharist is a proclamation also of Christ’s Resurrection (which is the first fruits of the future general resurrection). Some Anaphoras, indeed, also add the proclamation to His Ascension (which, as we often forget, signifies not simply Christ’s departure but also His future return).