"The Church as a Mission - Part 5: The Eucharist as Derivative"

The Church as a Mission

Part 5 - The Eucharist as Derivative

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Liturgical Theology Revisited

Dr. Athanasios N. Papathanasiou

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


2.4. The Eucharist as derivative


We know that over the course of Christian history, the relationship between Church and Eucharist has principally been understood from two points of view. According to the first, the Church exists as an institution that has various activities, among which is the celebration of the sacraments and, among them, the celebration of the Eucharist. According to the second view, the Eucharist is the event that makes the Church. A number of important theologians of the twentieth century, Fr Alexander Schmemann among them, were ardent supporters of the second view. The Eucharist is


“The Sacrament of the Church,… the act which ever makes the Church to be what she is – the People of God, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ, the gift and manifestation of the new life of the new age…In the official, post-patristic and ‘westernized’ theology, the Eucharist is treated merely as one of the sacraments…It is the power, the grace given to the Church that makes the Eucharist possible, valid, efficient, but this power of grace ‘precedes’ the Eucharist and is virtually independent from it. Thus the Church is understood and described here as an instituation endowed with divine power: power to teach, to guide, to sanctify as a structure for the communication of grace; a “power”, however, which is not derived from the Eucharist. The latter is a fruit, a result of the Church, not her source.”


It is precisely in the context of this theology that we see the adoption of the famous phrase lex orandi lex (est) credendi, which became established in the Orthodox world largely through the word of Fr. Alexander. The important formulations (“The Eucharist makes the Church” and “lex orandi, lex credendi”) are now used widely to show the Eucharist as the matrix of the ecclesial event and the fount of theology.


Often, however, these important formulations are reiterated in such absolute terms and with so little scrutiny that, in my humble option, problems arise. That is to say, the Eucharist is sometimes talked about as something that “happens”, not something that “is made”. But if it is not “made”, then it is something like the Islamic Ka’ba: something that falls to earth from the beyond, made of some extraterrestrial material. Obviously, no Christian is going to subscribe explicitly to anything of the sort. In reality, however, the one-sided-ness of certain positions sidelines other important elements (such as the sacrament of the offering, which we saw earlier) and produces, unconsciously, a Ka’ba mentality. Other possible factors contributing to this mentality (I repeat: obviously at the unconscious level) are (undoubtedly important) affirmations such as “the whole life of the Church is…the fruitarian of this Eucharistic fullness”. If everything is the “fruitarian” of the Eucharist, might one not draw the conclusion that the Eucharist itself is not the “fruition” of anything – love and faith included? In that case, what distinguishes the Eucharist from magic and ritualism, meaning a conviction that the unconditioned performance of rites and cults automatically produces salvific results? What is needed, in my view, is for us not to forget that the Eucharist is truly a symbol of the eschaton, but a symbol that is made (not simply “made manifest”) within history, and indeed made by God and man, with the world itself as its material.


Here I ask the reader to pay particular attention. What I am underlining – the idea that the Eucharist is source but, at the same time, derivative – does not signal an institutional understanding of the Church. I am proposing a different model, based on the notion of Covenant as a fundamental element. The Eucharist does not spring up on its own, but is made by those who have been empowered for that purpose; by those who respond to God’s calling (to God’s mission), and offer human life up to him so that they may be transformed into a sign of the Kingdom. The Eucharist does not indeed raise them up to become what they are (and that is why this understanding is not institutional); but its backbone is the Covenant. The Covenant (let say the agreement between God and man) is a foundational element, but not in the sense of a precondition that disappears once the main event has come about. It is an element that has to exist ceaselessly, to be renewed and endorsed at every moment. That is why participation in the Eucharist is accompanied (not followed) by faith, confession and reconciliation.


Fr. Alexander does not develop what I am calling a “theology of Covenant”. But it is extraordinarily interesting to pick out points in his work that support such a viewpoint. Thus if we take a comprehensive view, we find that on the one hand, there are countless occasions where he subscribes to “lex orandi” as the source of making theology, as we have already mentioned; but on the other, there are places where he presents the Eucharist as derivative – a “fruition”, we might say – of faith and love! If these passages were taken in isolation, they would smack of support of an institutional understanding of the Church, but we now that Fr Alexander would reject with abhorrence any such understanding! I therefore thin that the passages in question (which, as I repeat, present the Eucharist as derivative) are in reality valuable wellsprings of the approach that I am proposing.


“The ‘essence’ of the liturgy or lex orandi is ultimately nothing else than the Church’s faith itself, or, better to say, the manifestation, communication and fulfilment of that faith.”


“[The formula ‘lex orandi lex credendi’] does not imply a reduction of the faith to liturgy or cult, as it was the case in the mystery cults in which faith was aimed at cult itself, had its saving power as its object. Nor does it mean a confusion between faith and liturgy as in the case of the liturgical piety in which the ‘liturgical experience’, the experience of the ‘sacred’, simply replaces faith and makes one indifferent to its ‘doctrinal’ content. Nor finally does it indicate a separation of faith and liturgy into two distinct ‘essences’ whose content and meaning are to be grasped by two different and independent means of investigation, as in modern theology in which the study of liturgy continues a special area or discipline: ‘liturgiology’. What it means is that the Church’s leiturgia, a term incidentally much more comprehensive and adequate than ‘worship’ or ‘cult’, is the full and adequate ‘epiphany’ – expression, manifestation, fulfillment of that in which the Church believes, or what constitutes her faith. It implies and organic and essential interdependence in which one element, the faith, although source and cause of the order, the liturgy, essentially needs the other as its own self-understanding and self-fulfillment. It is, to be sure, faith that gives birth to, and ‘shapes’, liturgy, but it is liturgy, that by fulfilling and expressing faith, ‘bears testimony’ to faith and becomes thus its true and adequate expression and norm: ‘lex orandi est lex credendi’.”


To affirm that the liturgy is the source par excellence of theology does not mean, as some seem to think, a reduction of theology to liturgy.


“At the center of the Christian kerygma there is a proclamation of the fact of the coming of the Messiah and a call to believe in this fact as having saving significance. A New Aeon is entering the world as a result of this fact, is being revealed in the world; faith is what brings man into this New Aeon. The cult is only the realization, the actualization of what the believer has already attained by faith, and its whole significance is in the fact that it leads into he Church, the new people of God, created and brought into being by faith.”


“The Eucharist is impossible without the Church, that is, without a community that knows its unique character and vocation – to be love, truth, faith and mission – all of these fulfilled in the Eucharist; even simpler, to be the Body of Christ. The Eucharist reveals the Church as a community –love for Christ, love in Christ – as a mission to turn each and all to Christ. The Church has no other purpose, no ‘religious life’ separate from the world. Otherwise the Church would become an idol.”


Besides, we have to take into account the possibility that a “theology of Covenant” may gain support from Schmemann’s baptismal theology: “When I say that I am going to church, it means I am going into the assembly of the faithful in order, together with them, to constitute the Church, in order to be what I became on the day of my baptism.”


I think that if we understand the Covenant as the true source of ecclesiastical existence, then we will readily understand why love not only stems from the Eucharist, but also conditions the very making of the Eucharist! If the Eucharist is celebrated without being founded on concern for reconciliation, it degenerates into a ritualistic or magical act.


We know Schmemann’s grave reservations towards social activism (a reservation which sounds contradictory to the Christian spirit of solidarity, as we will see later on, in section 3.3). However, some of the finest passages in his work are, in my view, those where he stresses the primacy of love:


            “Only love gives every ‘sign’ of the Church – unity, holiness, apostolicity and catholicity – its significance and actuality… The essence of the Church lies in the manifestation and presence in the world of love as life and life as love.”