Friday, August 14, 2015

The All-Embracing Eucharist

After hearing some more recommendations of it, I recently (finally) started reading Alexander Schmemann's book, For the Life of the World. I'm deliberately going through it slowly to absorb as much of its depth as I can in my spiritual immaturity, but already in this first chapter these paragraphs jumped out at me. The context is Schemann's rejection of the "sacred-secular" divide that has become so ingrained in the modern world and his invitation to abide by the sacramental worldview held by the Orthodox Church.
To name a to bless God for it and in it. And in the Bible to bless God is not a "religious" or a "cultic" act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this mans that he filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this "very good." So the only natural (and not "supernatural") reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and—in this act of gratitude and adoration—to know, name, and possess the world. All rational, spiritual, and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. ... The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with his eucharist, he transforms his life, the one he receives from the world, into life with God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the "matter," the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.
Men understand all this instinctively if not rationally. 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 that "something more" is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.
Man was created from the start to serve as priest, as mediator between God and creation, experiencing all as sacrament, taking the things of this world and lifting them up to God in a perpetual eucharist. This does not preclude the existence of an ordained priesthood, but they serve as examples and symbols for us, not simply as surrogates; what they do in the liturgy, man was made to do in all of life in this world. This is just one of the ways in which the church, and the liturgy that takes place within it, is meant to be a microcosm of all creation, or at least of the way it was made to be, the way it will be.

Obviously this invites parallels with the Reformation doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers", which, as this interesting paper argues, was not originally about giving all Christians the right to do anything a priest could do, but about pulling down the rigid wall of class-like separation between the two stands (standings or walks of life) within the church, namely clergy and laity. Luther rightly attacked the Catholic distinction which arguably did compromise the unity of the church, but by confining his point to matters of church governance and focusing on the role and meaning of the priesthood within the church, he played right into the the divide between "sacred" and "secular", church and world, which Schmemann opposes.

I think Schmemann would say that the basic duty of a priest, then, is not to lead or to hold authority, but to give thanks, to celebrate the eucharist by taking all that we have been given by God and raising it up to him in blessing and thanksgiving, as the host is during each liturgy. It is to this task that we are being built up a holy priesthood (1 Pet 2:5). It is not much of a stretch to say that we are saved in order to serve as priests. I look forward to absorbing more of Schmemann's wisdom.

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