Thursday, March 15, 2012

Alexander Schmemann and the reduction of the Sacrament of Word.

Alexander Schmemann may have been the last "great" theologian of our era. Eastern Orthodox in his confession and universal in his knowledge, Schmemann, in many respects, represents the last major theologian from an era that featured the major figures of recent history. Some of these figures produced very debatable work, others, like Schmemann, produced work the wielded almost monolithic consensus among theologians. Schmemann's work, whatever one's denominational confession, should be well heeded.

For Schmemann, Patristic evidence points towards an understanding of the Word (Scripture) as inseparable from the Eucharist. This connection, in both the East and West to varying degrees, was lost with the rise of Scholastic theology. Scholasticism facilitated the separation of Word from Sacrament and, we can infer from Schmemann's thought, this theological separation provided grist to the mill of various strands of Protestant theology which were, in their confession, sacramentally reductionist. Eventually, this same Scholastic theology leads to a scientific approach to Scripture, divorcing the text from any community. Although, for Schmemann, the great theological tragedy is the loss of the Word in connection with the experience of the Eucharist. In the west, this separation has typically manifested itself in the Protestant sacremental reductionism mentioned a few sentences back, or, and most surprisingly to some, in Catholic sacramental reductionism. Roman Catholics would be shocked if one argued that there was any strain of sacramental reductionism among them, however, Schmemann contends it is precisely the form of sacramental praxis with regard to the Eucharist wherein this reductionism becomes apparent. The emphasis in the Eucharist is upon the transformed bread and wine and the reception of them, the efficacy of "the work worked." This leads to a privatized sacrament of the altar, where one's attention, in traditional Catholic piety, is focused upon the grace one has personally received from partaking in the sacred species. The damage to the sacrament of the body and blood is the loss of its evangelical origin, it's power to connect the believer into the very action of Jesus, when God Incarnate walked upon the earth.

If this is the problem, what is the solution? Vatican II and the subsequent liturgical reforms attempted to address this separation. The thought was to distinguish the liturgy of the Word from the liturgy of the Eucharist. Schmemann, I believe, would have remarked that such as separation was self defeating. The concept of a liturgy of the Word distinct from a liturgy of the Eucharist underlines the separation of Word from Eucharist presumed by the Roman liturgy. A better distinction would have been, perhaps, the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the body and blood. However, one wonders if the rubrics of the missal continue to facilitate the separation of Word and Eucharist. The transition between the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist is anything but smooth. The liturgical rupture that occurs in the transition between the two emphasizes that indeed what is happening now is something distinct from what had previously occurred in the liturgy. 

For the moment, the tridentine liturgy does not offer us any solution to the problem. Historically, the gradual separation of the language of the Roman liturgy from the language readily comprehended by the people contributed to the emphasis on the reception of the transformed elements as much as any theological proposition in vogue among Scholastic theologians. The contemporary practice of re-reading the Scriptures in the vernacular after having read them in Latin (a phenomenon paralleled in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Eastern churches) does not help matters much - in the old Roman liturgy, the Word comes off as an after thought when read in this fashion.

For the west, the best available option for cultivating and experiencing the Word as sacrament is in the celebration of the exposure and memorization of the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours. Indeed, when one combines the hours of the office with the Mass, one does get some wonderful results. Could it be done  better? Absolutely; one could, for instance, make a conscious effort to avoid liturgical "down time" after the conclusion of the hour of prayer and the Mass itself - in the manner often observed in Orthodox churches. One could also better integrate the office into the Mass. This would be a more experimental approach. I would use the psalmody of the office after the consecration, the sacrament of the body and blood is thereby "surrounded" by the Word and, Lord willing, the people would be reciting the psalms.

Schmemann identified a very real problem in the Church, one especially prevalent in the Roman church. Though, in my estimation, there means to re-unite the Word with the Eucharist. Maybe not definitively, but at least we have a means with which to begin.