Here's another both/and explication from Alexander Schmemann's The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom
. In analyzing the liturgy and the Eucharist, he notes two malign tendencies in Orthodox theology (ones he attributes to Latin influence): 1) the focus on "illustrative symbolism" in the explication of the liturgy; and 2) the reduction of the Eucharist to the question of the precise moment, and liturgical action, that makes the bread and wine into Body and Blood. In his view the two are connected: illustrative symbolism (this or that action in the liturgy symbolizes this or that in the life of Christ, etc.) assumes an understanding of symbolism that isn't real
. Thus the reality of the Eucharist as Christ's body is in question, which makes the precise moment and magical formula (yes, he uses that phrase as a critique of what this frame of mind can lead to) for transformation of the Eucharist central.
And this is precisely the heart of the matter: the primary meaning of "symbol" is in no way equivalent to "illustration." In fact, it is possible for the symbol
not to illustrate, i.e. can be devoid of any external similarity with that which it symbolizes.The history of religions shows us that the more ancient, the deeper, the more "organic" a symbol, the less it will be composed of such "illustrative" qualities. This is because the purpose and function of the symbol is
not to illustrate (this would presume the
absence of what is illustrated) but rather to
manifest and to
communicate what is manifested. We might say that the symbol does not so much "resemble" the reality that it symbolizes as it
participates in it, and therefore it is capable of communicating it in reality. In other words, the difference (and it is a radical one) between our contemporary [and I think you could say he means, such as, the last 1,000 years] understanding of the symbol and the original one consists in the fact tht while today we understand the symbol as the representation or sign of an
absent reality, something that is not really in the sign itself (just as there is no real, actual water in the chemical symbol H2O), in the original understanding it is the manifestation and presence of the
other reality -- but precisely as other, which, under given circumstances, cannot be manifested and made present in any other way than as a symbol.This means that in the final analysis the true and original symbol is inseparable from faith, for faith is "the evidence of things unseen" (Heb 11:1), the knowledge that there is another reality different from the "empirical" one, and that this reality can be entered, can be communicated, can in truth become "the most real of realities." Therefore, if the symbol presupposes faith, faith of necessity requires the symbol. For unlike "convictions," philosophical "points of view," etc., faith certainly is contact and a thirst for contact, embodiment and a thirst for embodiment: it is the manifestation, the presence, the operation of one reality within the other. All of this
is the symbol (from
symbállō, "unite," "hold together"). In it -- unlike in a simple "illustration," simple sign, and even in the sacrament in its scholastic-rationalistic "reduction" -- the empirical (or "visible") and the spiritual (or "invisible") are united not
logically (this "stands for" that), not
analogically (this "illustrates" that), nor yet by
cause and effect (this is the "means" or "generator" of that), but
epiphanically. One reality manifests
communicates the other, but -- and this is immensely important -- only to the degree to which the symbol itself is a participant in the spiritual reality and is able or called upon to embody it. In other words, in the symbol
everything manifests the spiritual reality, but
not everything pertaining to the spiritual reality appears embodied in the symbol. The symbol is always partial, always imperfect: "for our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect" (1 Co 13:9). By its very nature the symbol unites disparate realities, the relation of the one to the other always remaining "absolutely other." However
real a symbol may be, however successfully it may communicate to us that other reality, its function is not to quench our thirst but to intensify it: "Grant us that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the never ending day of Thy Kingdom." It is not that this or that part of "this world" -- space, time, or matter -- be made
sacred, but rather that everything in it be seen and comprehended as expectation and thirst for its complete spiritualization: "that God may be all in all." Must we then demonstrate that only this ontological and "epiphanic" meaning of the word "symbol" is applicable to Christian worship? And not only is it applicable -- it is inseparable. For the essence of the symbol lies in the fact that in it the dichotomy between reality and symbolism (as
unreality) is overcome: reality is experienced above all as the
fulfillment of the symbol, and the symbol is comprehended as the fulfillment of the reality. Christian worship is symbolic not because it contains various "symbolical" depictions. It may indeed include them, but chiefly in the imagination of various "commentators" and not in its own ordo and rites. Christian worship is symbolic because, first of all, the world itself, God's own creation, is symbolic, is
sacramental; and second of all because it is the Church's nature, her task in "this world," to fulfill this symbol, to realize it as the "most real of realities." We can therefore say that the symbol reveals the world, mankind, and all creation as the "matter" of a single, all-embracing sacrament
Here I have two comments to make:
1) Did you notice that striking aphorism?Therefore, if the symbol presupposes faith, faith of necessity requires the symbol. For unlike "convictions," philosophical "points of view," etc., faith certainly is contact and a thirst for contact, embodiment and a thirst for embodiment: it is the manifestation, the presence, the operation of one reality within the other.
What would Luther say? He would affirm the negative: faith can have nothing to do with "convictions" or "points of view" as Schmemann says. But Luther would say -- did say -- that faith of necessity requires the promise
. Thus where Schmemann sees the liturgy, and Holy Communion at its heart, as the symbol set forth for faith, Luther sees it as the promise set forth for faith. But here is another both/and. In Luther's own work, the idea of the Eucharist as a visible sign of the promise always seemed to me to be somewhat inadequate. Why is it so important, if it is only a sign of the promise? (That it is
so important is of course not in doubt.) So let us combine them and say faith demands a symbol, yes, but one that is benevolent toward us. The bread and wine are the symbol of Jesus; but does He love us? That is the promise -- that He is friendly to us and heartily wishes to forgive us. This possibility, that Communion may be a symbol of wrath and anger is not considered by Schmemann, but absent the promise delivered to faith it is a possibility. But all
the symbols of the Church are accompanied by such a promise and hence are such objects of faith in God's mercy.
2) And I am pretty sure that in his mind Schmemann was going further and saying that just as the Eucharist is the symbol (=enduring corporeal epiphany) of Jesus, in the same way Jesus is the symbol (=enduring corporeal epiphany) of God. Indeed this is a good test of whether you understand symbol in Schmemann's sense. OK, you say the Eucharist is the symbol of Christ, well and good. But do you also agree that Jesus is, in the same way, the symbol of God the Father? If suddenly that sounds heretical, then you are not using symbol in the sense that Schmemann did.* Read that last sentence again: We can therefore say that the symbol reveals the world, mankind, and all creation as the "matter" of a single, all-embracing sacrament
. Isn't this exactly what Colossians 1 is saying Christ reveals? By its very nature the symbol unites disparate realities, the relation of the one to the other always remaining "absolutely other."
Isn't this a restatement in "symbolic" language of the two natures in Christ? But then he adds something: that even the experience of Jesus as the epiphany, the symbol, the reality of God, is not meant to satisfy us, but to go beyond, to create a thirst for the Kingdom. It is not that this or that part of "this world" -- space, time, or matter -- be made
sacred, but rather that everything in it be seen and comprehended as expectation and thirst for its complete spiritualization: "that God may be all in all."
*Of course, a real heretic may affirm both, seeing in Jesus only an illustration of the absent God, and the Eucharist an illustration of the absent Jesus. But to diagnose this problem one need only ask of this two-stage epiphany as of the epiphanies of the Old Testament: is this a symbol such that refusal to believe in it when it is physically before you, to experience it without faith in the promise, is fatal? To say no, that it is only offered for us to take it or leave it, without harm either way, is to be back in the realm of illustrative symbolism.
Labels: Holy Communion, incarnation, liturgy, sacraments, Schmemann