Liturgy in the West-part 1

Alexander, Schmemann, “The Liturgical Problem,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1964, Vol. 8, #4,  pp. 164-185.

Schmemann concludes his article on the different challenges to the Church’s liturgical life in the West with a bold and frank statement not about liturgy but about the evangelical witness of the Church.

It is in and through liturgy that the Kingdom of God “comes with power” (Mark 9:1)—power to judge and to transform. It is liturgy which, by revealing to men the Kingdom, makes life and history, nature and matter a pilgrimage, an ascension towards the Kingdom. It is liturgy, in short, that is the power, given to the Church, to overcome and destroy all “idols”—and secularism is one of them. But liturgy is all this only if we ourselves accept and use it as power.

Earlier in this same essay, he argues that secularism is not, as we might suppose, the absence of religion or even hostility to religion. Rather it is about a certain, unwholesome “autonomy” from the Gospel.

When we have a secular worldview, we may very well believe that the Gospel “can supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort.” What secularism excludes, however, is the very possibility of “transform[ing] life into … [the] very content is God and His Kingdom.” And so, the typical Orthodox Christian (priest as well as layperson) believes “in God and in the immortality of the soul, he can pray and find great help in prayer, but once he has entered his office and begun working, this work itself is not even supposed to be ‘referred to’ the fundamental religious realities of Creation, Fall and Redemption, but is indeed ‘self-sufficient’ or autonomous.”

The practical effect of this is that the vast majority of Orthodox Christians go through their days without any awareness of the presence of God in their lives. And without such an awareness, they are incapable of gratitude to God. As a result, they never come to see their lives—with all the accompanying successes and failures, its joys and sorrows, its hopes and frustrations—as they really are: A gift from God given to them not only for their salvation but the salvation of the world.

This is why Schmemann says people come to Liturgy on Sunday (if they come at all since less 30% of us will be there on Sunday) merely to take a break from the daily grind of work and family life. Or maybe, they see Liturgy as the Christian equivalent of a secular “safe place,” a brief retreat from a hostile culture.

In either case, they have no sense that Liturgy (to say nothing of the other services and sacraments of the Church) is the means by which they don’t just offer their lives to God but receive their lives back from Him but not only renewed and transformed. As I mentioned in the January lecture, at the Divine Liturgy, we don’t simply offer our lives to God (“Lift up your hearts to the Lord”!) but at Holy Communion receive that life back transformed by Christ into a share of His life.

I am skeptical of Schmemann’s rosy view of the liturgical of the Church in the patristic era or in traditional Orthodox countries. I’m unconvinced not because I reject his analysis of secularism but because I agree with it.

Schmemann’s analysis of secularism is, I think, the fundamental problem we face as sinners in every age and in every culture. We are always tempted to put God in a box, to limit God’s role in our lives. Think here of the hymn from Matins on Forgiveness Sunday:

Woe to thee, O my wretched soul! Thou hast received authority from God to take thy pleasure in the joys of Eden, but He commanded thee to not eat the fruit of knowledge. Why then hast thou transgressed the law of God? (Ode I)

We fell precisely because we refused to accept with thanksgiving creation and our whole of our life as God’s gift to us.

Instead, and like Adam, we try to re-arrange things according to our own will and for our own purposes. And we do this whether we are Americans or Ukrainians, whether we live in the USA or Europe or any traditional Orthodox country.

Taken together, what does Schmemann’s analysis tell us about the liturgical life of the Church?

Important as it is to celebrate the service well (“Say the black, do the red”!), this isn’t enough. Again, liturgy isn’t magic. To celebrate the services well means to celebrate them with not only with faith and understanding but also with the expectation that through our worship of God we will not only be saved but transformed. This happens because in the Church’s worship we personally encounter Jesus Christ and receive His forgiveness.

And this isn’t simply something that happens to us. Through the liturgy God the transforms and saves the world. In liturgy the creation itself is brought into an ever-greater conformity.

This means not only the material world. The social world—the world of work and family life especially—are transformed in and through the Church’s worship. If all of human life and creation are not renewed, then none of it is renewed and we are not saved.

We are not saved without the renewal of all of creation because human beings are both a microcosm and a macrocosm. To be human means that we are both an image of all creation and that all creation is fulfilled in us.

So, again, what does this mean for the liturgical life of the Church?

We must invest the time and energy need to understand the Church’s worship and what it means to worship God as Orthodox Christians. This means not only that we need to study but pray. Too often priests limit our prayer lives to our celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the other sacraments and services of the Church.

But if I only “pray” in Church, I can be sure of one thing. I don’t really pray at all. As a priest, I must daily, hourly, offer my life to God as a “sacrifice of praise.” Without this, I won’t have the grace needed to help my parishioners be themselves transformed by the Church’s worship.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory