Thursday, December 8, 2016

Capable of Thanksgiving


Dear Parish Faithful,


"And we thank Thee for this Liturgy which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands..."  — Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom



 
I have been able to read a good deal of Orthodox theology over the years - and the years are adding up - but to this day, I have never encountered a writer who has expressed with such eloquence and power the insight that we are created to be eucharistic beings, such as Fr. Alexander Schmemann has done.  
 
Throughout his long priestly ministry, and through his many wonderful books, this was a theme that he continually returned to: the human person as oriented toward God as a being who is eucharistic at the deepest level of existence.  We are our most human when we consciously and with profound gratitude offer thanksgiving (Gk. eucharistia) to the living God who has created us.
 
This was Fr. Alexander's compelling reading of the Genesis creation accounts and what it means for human beings to be made "according to the image and likeness of God."  Dying of cancer, Fr. Alexander served his last Divine Liturgy on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. He was able to deliver a short homily that is now known throughout the OCA as, simply, "The Thanksgiving Homily," in which he uttered a beautiful opening thought that memorably captured the "catholicity" of his vision and understanding of life: 

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

This particular sentence and the whole of this final homily served as a kind of summation of his deeply-conceived and felt intuition of life and the Christian Gospel. For Fr. Alexander, the human person is, of course, "homo sapiens" and "homo faber," but at the most basic level of existence the human person is "homo adorans" - a being instinctively inclined toward worship. We find an expression of this insight in Fr. Alexander's classic book For the Life of the World:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion. (p. 5)

This entire book - an absolute "must read" for contemporary Orthodox Christians - was a new, refreshing and transformative way of understanding and experiencing the Sacraments of the Church, freeing these Sacraments from a stultifying scholastic theology that threatened to reduce them to "religious actions" that would isolate them from the experience of life.  Since I am trying to focus on Fr. Alexander's eucharistic intuition of life, I would like to include a justifiably famous passage from this same book:

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. 
Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man.  Eucharist is the life of paradise.  Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven. 
But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.  He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be, (p. 23)

At the time when that was written (around 1960 in the original Russian, I believe - English translation 1963) to the present day, that passage is something like a "breath of fresh air" that brings to life in a very vivid manner what it means to participate in the Divine Liturgy/Eucharist.
 
How utterly bland, then, is our conventional term "attending church!"  The Eucharist is our recovery - again and again - of who we now are in Christ.  That "recovery" is a life-long process that makes each and every Liturgy a new and fresh experience, or at least so potentially.  We may grow old, but the Liturgy never grows old.  And it can never grow boring no matter how many liturgies one may "attend!"  As Fr. Alexander further wrote:

Eucharist was the end of the journey, the end of time. And now it is again the beginning, and things that were impossible are again revealed to us as possible. (p. 30)

These short reflections were prompted by the Gospel account of the healing of the ten lepers (LK. 17:11-19), read at the Thanksgiving Day Liturgy and just this last Sunday.  This passage is as much about thanksgiving as it is about the actual healing of the lepers. I therefore hope to write a few words about this passage later this week.


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