Thursday, July 20, 2006

Schmemann Review

Alexander Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theology (3rd edition, St. Vladimir’s Press, 1986) is much more than a basic introductory textbook on liturgical theology. In dealing with his perceived problems in the Ordo of the church (specifically referring to his own church, Eastern Orthodox), Schmemann gives a fascinating treatise on the origins of the Ordo and its relationship to time and eschatology.

For Schmemann, the fundamental question of liturgical theology is the “Problem of the Ordo,” defined as the “elucidation of the content of the Ordo and its place in the liturgical tradition of the Church” (33). He begins the book by defining liturgical theology and its task and method: “From the establishment and interpretation of the basic structures of worship to an explanation of every possible element, and then to an orderly theological synthesis of all this data” (23). In doing this work, Schmemann has come across what he calls the Problem of the Ordo – not only that he wants to discover the historical and contemporary content of the Ordo, but also explore how it has changed throughout the ages, and where we are distorting or misunderstanding the original intention of the Church to the detriment of our worship and theology.

The primary distortion in Schmemann’s view is that liturgical scholars (and most theologians, following their lead) have determined that the early Church’s eschatological viewpoint put its Eucharistic worship at odds with a “liturgy of time” (that is, a liturgical calendar or daily prayer cycle). Schmemann explains that the earliest Christians, as good Jews, would have recognized the fulfillment of their eschatological hopes in Jesus the Messiah, and therefore their eschatology would not have been future-oriented because they would have understood the central act of history to have been accomplished. Christ’s entering time made it “truly real” and ushered in the redemptive “time of the Church: the time in which the salvation given by the Messiah is now accomplished” (72). Because it understood Jesus as the fulfillment of the work of God in history, the early Christian Church would not have rejected time bur rather seen it as redeemed and sanctified, and they celebrated yearly festivals, weekly fasts, public hours of prayer, and a fixed day for Eucharistic worship in confirmation of this understanding.

Schmemann’s book is extremely interesting for students of worship, ecclesiology, and eschatology. The first section on this oft-misunderstood discipline is instructive and understandable, persuading the reader that in fact we all do liturgical theology when planning worship and perhaps should be more intentional in doing so. The second section on the Problem of the Ordo is directed primarily at liturgical and Orthodox theologians who have either neglected the Ordo or so over-emphasized it that worship has become mechanical. However, I found many comparisons in this section to similar problems in non-Orthodox churches and for any worship planner to consider (explored in detail below). Finally, section three is a fascinating historical account of the understanding of time in the ancient world. Any student of the early Church or even history in general would be intrigued by Schmemann’s research and conclusions. He reaches provocative conclusions about the “now and later more” (rather than “already but not yet”) of the redemption of the world that would give many Evangelicals pause, but I found it to be absolutely mind-blowing – a completely new way to think about the meaning of the incarnation and its effect on time itself.

As a budding liturgical theologian, I strongly agree with Schmemann’s methodology in exploring the liturgy for clues to understanding the beliefs of the Church (then and now). He calls worship “the life of the Church, the public act which eternally actualizes the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ” (14) and later talks about Eucharist as the “manifestation in this aeon of another Aeon,” (75) and of the assembly of believers as the actualization of the messianic Kingdom (72). Clearly, what we do in worship – how we do worship – holds eternal significance for the life of the world. That is why studying the Ordo, both now and especially through the ages, is so important to our self-understanding and to properly present the Kingdom to the world. What we do in worship manifests God’s New Age – may we engage this task with utmost care!

Schmemann also points out how a full engagement with the liturgy can teach a great deal about the Church. He talks about the Church calendar as merely a rubric until one begins to understand the reasons behind the seasons. He strongly recommends (and I concur) that a division between corporate and private worship must cease to exist. Privatized, “Jesus-and-me” worship only is detrimental to believers’ self-understanding as One, Holy, Catholic body. Schmemann gives a wonderful description of these classic “marks” of the Church explicated through worship: “The purpose of worship is to constitute the Church, precisely to bring what is ‘private’ into the new life, to transform it [Holy]…to express the Church as the unity of that Body whose Head is Christ [One]…that we should always ‘with one mouth and one heart’ serve God [Catholic]” (24, emphasis added). The student of ecclesiology surely will find much to commend in Schmemann’s liturgical approach to the subject.

There are many areas in which an Evangelical or otherwise Protestant believer can use Schmemann’s arguments for her own edification. Schmemann laments his own church’s lack of interest in the meaning of worship, stating that worship “is accepted and experienced in mystical and aesthetic but never ‘logical’ categories” (31). Here he hits upon the “experience trap” that many smells-and-bells churches – as well as those with pulse-pounding-followed-by-heart-tugging music sets – fall into (I find this a particular danger for emerging churches). If the believer comes to worship simply to feel good, be moved emotionally, or have a spiritual “experience,” he is missing the point of worship and is dangerously close to bowing before a false god (frequently his own emotion). Liturgical theology is one answer to a deeper relationship with God, to more fully understanding the purpose of our gathering as Church. Schmemann’s Problem includes churches that refuse to abandon liturgical books in spite of changing language and culture (here I am reminded of those who fight against gender-inclusive language or updating prayer books), as well as churches which have put the Ordo in the background in favor of more “popular” moments of worship (I think of churches that do a 30-minute praise set and a 30-minute sermon). Schmemann’s assertion that “the meaning of the Church’s liturgical life must be contained with the Ordo” (39) – and here he is speaking of a four-fold Eucharistic worship pattern – may not sit well with many Evangelicals, but I truly believe they are missing out on a huge part of the Christian walk by not enriching their worship with the classic Ordo of the Church.

Briefly touching on the section regarding the Ordo in the first centuries of Christianity: we find here the most radical idea of Schmemann’s, which is a complete rethinking of the meaning of the word “eschatology” and time in general. Schmemann’s arguments for Jewish understanding of time and its fulfillment are compelling and it makes good sense that the early Church would adopt them. This leads to a challenge for us to wrap our minds around the Ages as “now and later more” rather than “already but not yet” (my semantic trick to emphasize the importance of the “now”). In other words, everything that needed to be accomplished for the redemption of the world and the fulfillment of history was done in Christ. The Church therefore, when assembled, is the Body of Christ and the manifestation of his Messianic Kingdom – the New Age – in the world. The partaking of Eucharist is our way of entering Christ’s heavenly glory, the parousia, and ushering the New Aeon here into the Old. The world does not see or understand, but one day will recognize all of this.

This section (pp. 68-80) is extremely dense and takes a few readings to fully grasp (especially because the ideas are so foreign to those of us raised as good Dispensationalists!). But once understood, they are most exciting and life-giving. They point to a purpose behind our worship which is truly world-changing and cosmically significant. I found this new way of thinking about the redemption of the world and the sanctification of time to be utterly challenging and at the same time absolutely affirming. I don’t believe I can ever again take Eucharist or pray Morning Prayer without considering the awesome significance of the actions of our worship.

Although the Evangelical reader may find this book foreign and confusing at first, I believe with perseverance she or he will discover much to commend and ponder in it. She will learn about the meaning and significance of worship; he will be challenged to rethink eschatology and time. They will re-engage the ancient Ordo of the Church in a new commitment to fulfilling their roles as “Kingdom-actualizers” and “New-Age-Manifesters.” And that would certainly change the world.

No comments: