Fr Alexander Schmemann: Are You a Receptacle of the Word?

Feast of St Cleopas, Apostle of the 70

Schmemann_Square_2.jpegNOW FOR the first time since the eucharistic journey began, the celebrant turns back and faces the people. Up to this moment he was the one who led the Church in its ascension, but now the movement has reached its goal. And the priest whose liturgy, whose unique function and obedience in the Church is to re-present, to make present the priesthood of Christ Himself, says to the people: “Peace be with you.” In Christ man returns to God and in Christ God comes to man. As the new Adam, as the perfect man He leads us to God; as God incarnate He reveals the Father to us and reconciles us with God. He is our peace—the reconciliation with God, divine forgiveness, communion. And the peace that the priest announces and bestows upon us is the peace Christ has established between God and His world and into which we, the Church have entered.

It is within this peace—“which passeth all understanding” —that now begins the liturgy of the Word. Western Christians are so accustomed to distinguish the Word from the sacrament that it may be difficult for them to understand that in the Orthodox perspective the liturgy of the Word is as sacramental as the sacrament is “evangelical.” The sacrament is a manifestation of the Word. And unless the false dichotomy between Word and sacrament is overcome, the true meaning of both Word and sacrament, and especially the true meaning of Christian “sacramentalism” cannot be grasped in all their wonderful implications. The proclamation of the Word is a sacramental act par excellence because it is a transforming act. It transforms the human words of the Gospel into the Word of God and the manifestation of the Kingdom. And it transforms the man who hears the Word into a receptacle of the Word and a temple of the Spirit. . . . Each Saturday night, at the solemn resurrection vigil, the book of the Gospel is brought in a solemn procession to the midst of the congregation, and in this act the Lord’s Day is announced and manifested. For the Gospel is not only a “record” of Christ’s resurrection; the Word of God is the eternal coming to us of the Risen Lord, the very power and joy of the resurrection.

In the liturgy the proclamation of the Gospel is preceded by “Alleluia,” the singing of this mysterious “theoforous” (God-bearing) word which is the joyful greeting of those who see the coming Lord, who know His presence, and who express their joy at this glorious “parousia.” “Here He is!” might be an almost adequate translation of this untranslatable word.

This is why the reading and the preaching of the Gospel in the Orthodox Church is a liturgical act, an integral and essential part of the sacrament. It is heard as the Word of God, and it is received in the Spirit—that is, in the Church, which is the life of the Word and its “growth” in the world.

—Fr Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World

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