Alexander Schmemann. 1973. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy.Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
What makes the majesty of God real to you?
In a mechanistic, materialist culture, such as ours, how do you look past the physical world on Sundays to worship an immanent and transcendent God? Presumably, the causality works in reverse, but our true feelings are frequently revealed by our tepid response to calls for money, time, and effort. For postmodern people, the majesty of God is often illusive.
In his book,For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann writes:
“…the very purpose of this essay is to answer, if possible, the question: of what life do we speak, what life do we preach, proclaim, and announce when, as Christians, we confess that Christ died for the life of the world? What life is both motivation, and the beginning and the goal of Christian mission?”(11-12)
Schmemann sees Christians falling into two camps, those that focus on the spiritual life and theose that try to make life better through social justice (12-13). This is, however, is a false dichotomy. Schmenmann remarks—“Man is a hungry being. But he is also hungry for God.” (14)—and he sees his mission as:
“…to remind its readers that in Christ life—life in all its totality—was returned to man, given again as sacrament and communion, made Eucharist.” (20)
In the sacraments, both aspects of our hunger come together and become inseparable.
Schmemann writes in seven chapters preceded by a preface and followed by two more chapters occupying an appendix. The chapters are:
- “The Life of the World
- The Eucharist
- The Time of Mission
- Of Water and the Spirit
- The Mystery of Love
- Trampling Down Death by Death
- And Ye are Witnesses of these Things
- Worship in a Secular Age
- Sacrament and Symbol”(v)
Schmemann was a former dean and professor of liturgical theology at St. Vladmir’s Orthodox University in Crestwood, New York.
Secularism as Tepid Faith
An important motif in his writing is the influence of secularism, which he views as a Christian heresy that has forgotten its roots and refuses to worship God. (7, 118) His emphasis on worship in defining secularism is interesting because the problem is not unbelief, but failing or refusing to recognize God’s majesty, a kind of tepid faith.
Schmemann’s attitude about faith is strikingly similar to that of James, who writes: “Even the demons believe– and shudder!” (Jas 2:19 ESV) Or maybe the Apostle John when he writes about the Church at Laudicea: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!”(Rev. 3:15) Schmemann’s definition of secularism comes close to the definition of a nominal or cultural Christian. Still, Schmemann sees secularism as a religion having its own faith, eschatology, and ethics—the erosion of a sense of transcendence among Christians suggests that secularism also practices evangelism (99).
Schmemann sees the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, as a communal journey to join with Christ in heaven (28). He writes:
“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)
Sign and sacrament are inseparable in this journey because he defines a sacrament as a “visible means of the invisible grace.”(135) Schmemann’s discussion of the Eucharist is his longest chapter and it spills over into his appendix.
Schmemann reminds us that baptism in the early church followed preparation that could continue for as long as three years, similar to today’s seminary studies. In the Orthodox tradition, the baptism service had three parts: “the exorcisms, the renunciation of Satan, and the confession of faith.”(69) While exorcism is no longer a part of most baptisms, renunciation of evil as an abstract concept and confession of faith is still part of most adult baptism services. (Theology and Worship Ministry Unit 1993, 406-409)
“The exorcisms mean this: to face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it.”(70-71)
While many postmodern American flitch at the idea of evil as something other than the absence of good, Schmemann was born in 1921 and experienced the horrors of World War II first hand in his native Estonia.
I first read Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World as I took a worship class during seminary and gladly re-read it to prepare this review, in part, because I enjoyed his treatment of liturgy. This is a book written for seminarians, worship leaders, and pastors who may find it challenging to read. Nevertheless, it is worth the time and effort.
Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. 1993. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Schmemann: Life is Sacramental
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