Quotes and reflections on the book, For the Life of the World by Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann.
Chapter 1 - For the Life of the World
Food, Sacraments, and Creation
"Man is what he eats." With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all "idealistic" speculations about human nature. In fact, however, he was expressing without knowing it, the most religious idea of man.
In the creation story, man is presented with the entire garden as a banquet, and the theme of a banquet runs throughout the stories in scripture. From creation (Gen 2:16) to fulfillment (Luke 22:30) the banquet is a central image of life. So, then, it's a fruitless (pun intended) effort to separate food from the integrated life of man. Further, it's a wasted effort to attempt and separate natural from spiritual.
Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite-the last "natural sacrament" of family and friendship, of life that is more than "eating" and "drinking." To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what "something more" is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.
The creation story, the story of the fall, and the story of the fulfillment of God's kingdom are therefore all centered around food. Mankind is the priest, presenting what is God's back to him in an act of blessing. This work moves us from using the creation to, as the man and woman were called to in the garden, mending - or serving - the creation. It represents a Eucharistic theme and rhythm to life. Broken, poured out, blessed, received.
The End of Religion
Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well Jesus made this clear...She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter.
This isn't a new perspective on the story about the woman at the well, but is one that can't be overstated. Jesus' reply takes on the importance of worship in the temple (both the mountain and in Jerusalem) and in its place says that true worshipers do so in spirit and in truth, leaving out the where of worship.
Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and Man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. It was this freedom of the early church from "religion" in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans to accuse Christians of atheism.
The Church itself was the new and heavenly Jerusalem: the Church in Jerusalem was by contrast unimportant. The fact that Christ comes and is present was far more significant than the places where He had been.
Chapter 2 - The Eucharist
...from its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of Joy, of the only possible joy on earth...and with this joy it transformed the End into a Beginning. Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible.
Schmemann goes on to say that when the Church loses its joy, it also loses its witness in the world.
Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.
Luke's Gospel begins and ends with great joy. We must recover the meaning of this great joy.
- Luke 2:10 - ...good news that will cause great joy...
- Luke 24:52 - Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
One enters into joy, through the Eucharist.
Joy, however, is not something one can define or analyze. One enters into joy. "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord" (Mt. 25:21).
The liturgy is not just about the style of worship, but the very act of the church itself. Therefore, we aren't either liturgical or non-liturgical (ie high church, low church) because the very being of the church is their liturgy.
...the Greek word leitourgia..meant an action by which a group of people became something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals - a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It also meant a function or "ministry" of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community.
If we are called to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, our liturgy is our purpose and also the means through which we achieve our purpose. Schmemann says it another way: "...the very calling of the church, its essential leitourgia, the sacrament by which it "becomes what it is."
A concept in the book that stood out to me is that the liturgy, from the time we leave our homes until they time we are dismissed to go out into the world, is about realizing we aren't called to simply layer on a "spiritual" element to our lives, but rather to bring our lives, our world, together, and in so doing, create a new community and realize a new reality. Not escapism, but a different vantage point, as Schmemann puts it, where we can "see more deeply into the reality of the world."
If Christ has ended all religion, and has removed the separation between God and man, it's important to have an understanding, then, that when we approach the altar, we are approaching Christ. "For the only altar is Christ himself..."
We know the real life is "eucharist," a movement of love and adoration toward God, the movement in which alone the meaning and the value of all that exists can be revealed and fulfilled.
The Eucharist is the sacrament of cosmic remembrance: it is indeed a restoration of love as the very life of the world.
No one is "worthy" to receive communion, no one has been prepared for it. At this point all merits, all righteousness, all devotions, disappear and dissolve. Life comes again to us as Gift, a free and divine gift.
Everything is free, nothing is due, and yet all is given. And, therefore, the greatest humility and obedience is to accept the gift, to say yes - in joy and gratitude.
Chapter 3 - The Time of Mission
Exiting a liturgy, we enter into time.
...time, therefore, is the first "object" of our Christian faith and action.
In Greek, there were two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos meant sequential time, whereas kairos meant the time to take action (feasts, seasons, cycles of prayer). The liturgy deals with kairos.
And yet its (the Lord's day) significance came precisely from its relation to the Sabbath, that is, to the whole biblical understanding of time. In the Jewish religious experience Sabbath, the seventh day, has a tremendous importance: it is the participation by man in, and his affirmation of, the goodness of God's creation.
In the late Jewish apocalyptic writings there emerges the idea of a new day which is both the eighth - because it is beyond the frustrations and limitations of "seven," the time of this world -and the first, because with it begins the new time, that of the Kingdom. It is from this idea that grew the Christian Sunday.
References to first day and eighth day: John 20:19, 20:26
Feasts were born from the rhythms of life, and provided meaning to life. Not a break from work, but a "justification of that work"
But on Easter night the meaning is given. And it is not given by means of "explanation" or even "commemoration," but as a gift of joy itself, the joy of participation in the new time of the Kingdom.
Vespers: Evening; Beginning, Fall, Redemption
Chapter 4 - Of Water and the Spirit
In this chapter, Schmemann reminds readers that baptism is done in the Easter vigil "and in fact, the Easter liturgy grew out of the "Paschal Mystery" of baptism.
...baptism was understood as having a direct meaning for "new time" of which Easter is the celebration and manifestation. And finally, baptism and chrismation were always fulfilled in the Eucharist - which is the sacrament of the Church's ascension to the Kingdom, the sacrament of the "world to come."
The elements (water, oil) of baptism are to represent the world and cosmos, because baptism is about our relationship to the cosmic perspective.
- Representation of the whole world. A basic element, representing the cosmos
- Symbol of life
- Symbol of death and destruction
- Symbol of purification
Genesis creation story was the transformation of water from chaos to life
Jesus, in Jesus' baptism, sanctified the water, "made it the water of purification and reconciliation with God."
Just as each Eucharist is not "repetition" of Christ's Supper but our ascension, our acceptance into the same and eternal banquet, so also the sacrament of penance is not a repetition of baptism, but our return to the "newness of life" which God gave us once and for all.
Chapter 5 - The Mystery of Love
Chapter 6 - Trampling Down Death by Death
Chapter 7 - And Ye are Witnesses of These Things