Fr. Alexander Schmemann on the Eucharistic Decay and Renewal

The Mystical Supper

The Mystical Supper

It is impossible, and even unnecessary that we present in this short report the question of lay communion in all its dogmatical and historical aspects. What is essential can be summarized as follows.

It is a well-known and undisputed fact that in the early Church the communion of all the faithful, of the entire ecclesia at each Liturgy was a self-evident norm. What must be stressed, however, is that this corporate communion was understood not only as an act of personal piety and personal sanctification but, first of all, as an act stemming precisely from one’s very membership in the Church, as the fulfillment and actualization of that membership. The Eucharist was both defined and experienced as the “sacrament of the Church,” the “sacrament of the assembly,” the “sacrament of unity.” “He mixed Himself with us,” writes St. John Chrysostom, “and dissolved His body in us so that we may constitute a wholeness, be a body united to the Head.” The early Church simply knew no other sign or criterion of membership but the participation in the sacrament. The excommunication from the Church was the excommunication from the eucharistic assembly in which the Church fulfilled and manifested herself as the Body of Christ. Communion to the Body and Blood of Christ was a direct consequence of Baptism: the sacrament of entrance into the Church, and there existed no other “condition” for that communion. The member of the Church is the one who is in communion with the Church in and through sacramental communion, and thus one early liturgical formula dismissed from the gathering, together with the catechumens and the penitents, all those who are not to receive communion. This understanding of communion, as fulfilling membership in the Church, can be termed ecclesiological. However obscured or complicated it became later, it has never been discarded; it remains forever the essential norm of Tradition.

One must ask therefore not about this norm, but what happened to it. Why did we leave it so far behind us that a mere mention of it appears to some, and especially clergy, an unheard-of novelty and shaking of the foundations? Why is it that for centuries nine out of ten Liturgies are being celebrated without communicants? — and this provokes no amazement, no trembling, whereas the desire to communicate more frequently, on the contrary, raises a real fear? How could the doctrine of a once-a-year communion develop within the Church, the Body of Christ, as an accepted norm, a departure from which can be but an exception? How, in other words, did the understanding of communion become so deeply individualistic, so detached from the Church, so alien to the eucharistic prayer itself: “and all of us partaking of the same Bread and Chalice unite one to another for the communion of the one Spirit….”?

The reason for all this, however complex historically, is spiritually a simple one: it is the fear of profaning the Mystery, the fear of unworthy communion, of the desacralisation of holy things. It is a fear which is, of course, spiritually justified, for “the one who eats and drinks unworthily drinks and eats his condemnation.” This fear appeared early, soon after the victory of the Church over the pagan Empire, a victory which transformed Christianity, in a relatively short time, into a mass religion, a state Church and a popular cult. If during the era of persecution the very belonging to the Church compelled each of her members to follow a “narrow path” and set between him and “this world” a self-evident dividing line, now, with the entrance of the entire “world” into the Church, that line was abolished and there appeared a very real danger of a nominal, superficial, lukewarm and minimalistic understanding of Christian life. If before, the very entrance into the Church was difficult, now, with obligatory inclusion of virtually everyone into the Church, it became necessary to establish internal checks and controls; it was around the sacrament that such controls developed.

One must stress, however, that neither the Fathers nor the liturgical texts can supply us with any encouragement for non-partaking of the Mysteries, nor do they even hint at such a practice. Emphasizing the holiness of communion and its “awful” nature, calling to a worthy preparation for it, the Fathers never endorsed nor approved the wide-spread idea of today that since the Mystery is holy and awful, one must not approach it too often. In the Fathers, the view of the Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Church, of her unity, fulfillment and growth, was still self-evident.

“We must not,” writes St. John Cassian, “avoid communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the purification of the spirit, but with such humility and faith that considering ourselves unworthy . . . we would desire even more the medicine for our wounds. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do . . . considering the sanctification of heavenly Mysteries as available only to saints. It is better to think that by giving us grace, the sacrament makes us pure and holy. Such people manifest more pride than humility . . . for when they receive, they think of themselves as worthy. It is much better if, in humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the Holy Mysteries we would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than, blinded by pride, think that after one year we become worthy of receiving them.”

With regard to an equally wide-spread theory, according to which there is a difference between the clergy and laity in approaching communion, so that the former are to receive it at each Liturgy, whereas the latter are discouraged from doing so, it is fitting to quote St. John Chrysostom, who more than anyone else, insisted on worthy preparation for communion: “There are cases,” writes the great pastor, “when a priest does not differ from a layman, notably when one approaches the Holy Mysteries. We are all equally given them, not as in the Old Testament, when one food was for the priests and another for the people and when it was not permitted to the people to partake of that which was for the priest. Now it is not so: but to all is offered the same Body and the same Chalice . . .”

Let me repeat once more that it is simply impossible to find in Tradition a basis and justification of our present practice of an extremely infrequent, if not yearly, communion of laity; all those who seriously and responsibly have studied our Tradition, all the best Russian liturgiologists and theologians have seen in this practice a decay in Church life, a deviation from Tradition and the genuine foundations of the Church. And the most dreadful aspect of this decay is that it is justified and explained in terms of respect for the holiness of the sacrament and those of piety and reverence. For if it were so, the non-communicants would experience at least some sadness during the Liturgy, a frustration, a feeling of lacking fullness. In reality, however, this is simply not true. Generation after generation of Orthodox “attend” the Liturgy totally convinced that nothing more is required from them, that communion is simply not for them. And then, once a year, they fulfill their “obligation” and receive communion after a two-minute confession to a tired and exhausted priest. To see in all this a triumph of reverence, a protection of holiness, more than that, a norm, and not a downfall and a tragedy, is indeed incredible.

In some of our parishes those who expressed the desire to receive communion more frequently were subjected to a real persecution, were asked not to do it “for the sake of peace,” were accused of deviation from Orthodoxy! I could quote parish bulletins explaining that since communion is for penitents, one ought not to receive it at Easter, thus obscuring its joy. And the most tragic thing is that all this provokes no mystical horror, that apparently the Church herself becomes an obstacle on man’s path to Christ! Truly — “when you shall see the abomination of desolation stand in the holy place . . .” (Matthew 24:15)

Finally, it would not be difficult to show that whenever and wherever a genuine renewal of the life of the Church has taken place it has always originated with what has been termed “eucharistic hunger.” In the twentieth century there began a great crisis of Orthodoxy. There began an unheard of, unprecedented persecution of the Church and apostasy of millions of people. And whenever this crisis was understood and perceived, there was a return to communion as the “focus of Christian life.” This happened in communist Russia, as is attested by hundreds of witnesses; this happened in other centers of Orthodoxy and the diaspora. The movements of Orthodox youth in Greece, Lebanon, France have all grown out of a renewal of liturgical life. All that is genuine, living, churchly has been born from a humble and joyful response to the words of the Lord: “he that eats my flesh and drinks my blood, dwells in Me and I in him.” (John 6:56)

Now, by a great mercy of God, this eucharistic revival, this thirst for a more frequent, more regular, communion, and thus, the return to a more genuine life within the Church, has made its appearance in America. I am convinced that nothing would give a greater joy to the pastors and especially Bishops than this renewal, pulling us away from the spiritually dead controversies about “properties” and “rights,” from the idea of the Church as a social-ethnic club with picnics and entertainment, from youth organizations in which religious life and interests are kept at a bare minimum. For, as I already said, no other foundation exists for the regeneration of the Church as a whole, and none can exist. The ethnic, national foundation is fading away. All that which is only custom, only form, an addition to life but not life itself is disappearing. People are seeking the genuine, the true and the living. Therefore, if we are to live and grow, it is obviously only on the basis of the very essence of the Church . . . and this essence is the Body of Christ, that mystical unity into which we are integrated through partaking “of the one Bread and Chalice in the communion of the same Spirit . . .”

I am confident, therefore, that our Bishops, to whom God has entrusted above all care for the spiritual essence of the Church, will find the words proper to bless and to encourage this spiritual and sacramental renewal, proper to remind the Church of the immeasurably rich and immeasurably joyful content of her teaching about the Divine Mysteries.

All this, however, raises — with a new acuteness and depth — the question of the preparation for holy communion, and, first of all, of the place in that preparation of the Sacrament of Penance.

* Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

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  1. Pingback: The Decay and Renewal of the Eucharist « Milk & Honey