Schmemann and the “Evangelical” Eucharist

There are two attitudes one should avoid when looking at the Holy Mysteries. First, there’s the “magical”, or “spooky” attitude. This sees the Mysteries as something that are made like a mystical recipe: say some words, dance around in a dress, and call upon a higher power for a neato trick to happen. Very few ever reach this extreme, but it doesn’t take much to see this mindset in the denominations that take the Mysteries seriously; it’s the “holiness factory” mentality.

“Hocus Pocus” came from the first Latin words of Institution by the way.

Then there’s the un-mysterious way of looking at them. They become an audio-visual aid, a mnemonic device, an interactive illustration of… something about Jesus, usually the Passion. This mentality is “sensible”, but sadly un-Biblical. Put another way, we tend to view the Mysteries either as merely a means of preaching the Word, or as something apart from the Word. The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann puts it well:

This “rupture” between word and sacrament has pernicious consequences also for the doctrine of the sacraments. In it, the sacrament ceases to be biblical and, in the deepest sense of the word, evangelical. It was no accident, of course, that the chief focus of interest in the sacraments for western theology was not their essence and content but rather the conditions and “modi” of their accomplishment and “efficacy”. Thus, the interpretation of the Eucharist revolves around the question of the method and moment of the transfiguration of the gifts, their conversion into the body and blood of Christ, but with almost no mention of the meaning of this transformation for the Church, for the world, and for each of us. As much as it may seem paradoxical, “interest” in the real presence of the body and blood of Christ replaces “interest” in Christ. Partaking of the gifts is perceived as one of the means for “receiving grace”, as an act of personal sanctification, but it ceases to be perceived as out participation in Christ’s cup: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:38). Alienated from the word, which is always the word of Christ (“You searched the scriptures… and it is they that bear witness to me – Jn 5:39), the sacrament is in a certain sense torn away from Christ. – from “The Eucharist” p. 67-68


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