What’s Left to Do When All the Work is Done

This continues my reflections on Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the Word: Sacrament and Orthodoxy. The first reflection can be found here.

Schmemann’s chapter “The Eucharist” has 16 sections; I could probably reflect on each in turn, there’s that much to chew on, but I want to draw on his broad message about the Eucharist itself.

For the Orthodox, the Eucharist is a dramatization of the Church’s ascent to heaven. God’s people separate themselves from the world; in Christ, they are carried into the presence of God; in Christ, they worship God for the fulfillment and satisfaction of all things; and then they come down from the mountain and return to the world, charged like Moses’ face with the glory of God.

I love Schmemann’s emphasis on the finality of Christ’s work celebrated in the Eucharist; I don’t know if this is standard Orthodox theology, but this seems to be vastly different from the Catholic Eucharist. The Catholic Church emphasizes that each Eucharist is Jesus dying again for us; each time we receive it, we as it were receive his quickening grace again in our lives. But in this Orthodox vision of the Eucharist, “we do it in Christ because He has already offered all that is to be offered to God. He has performed once and for all this Eucharist and nothing has been left unoffered. … It is His Eucharist, and He is the Eucharist.” Rather than a new and better Day of Atonement, the Eucharist directs the worshipper to the finality of heaven.

And thanksgiving (which is the meaning of eucharist) is the beating heart of Schmemann’s liturgical theology. “When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.” (37) In Christ, the man who alone has the real right to stand before the Father, we have been given the right to stand in his finished work and celebrate with his eternal joy. Chesterton called thanks the highest form of thought; here, Schmemann reminds us that the proper response of a human being to God is wonder and worship unto the ages of ages. In Christ, we are welcomed to a taste of heaven’s never-ending bash.

And in our giddiness, in that moment of ecstatic worship, Schmemann reminds the Christian that “we inescapably discover that the content of all this thanksgiving and remembrance is Christ. All remembrance is ultimately the remembrance of Christ, all thanksgiving is finally thanksgiving for Christ.” (40) We remember – or should remember – that in his death Jesus has redeemed all that truly endures from destruction. If we are to have any life at all beyond judgment, it is in Jesus’ bringing us into that life. Every joy we have comes ultimately from the gift of his life. In gratitude we eat and drink, we feast before we return into the world.

This is the beauty of dramatized worship to me. I see all formalism – all forced conformity to one pattern of worship – as chucked out by the New Testament. This is no more innately holy than a tent meeting with four songs and a sermon. But dramatic worship enacts very real truths in a very tangible way. In Christ, we do indeed ascend to heaven – not on Sundays, but every day. In Christ, we can celebrate the fully completed sacrifice for sin, the accomplished work of redemption. It is done. Finito. And we have the right – the obligation, even! – to be downright giddy over God’s great work. All in Christ; all because of Christ.

Our new church regularly leads us in “Again I Say Rejoice” on Sunday mornings; it comes at the emotion from a different angle than an ornate Orthodox liturgy, but I think they’re headed in the same direction 🙂

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