The Necessity of the Incoherent in Liturgy

There are other manifestations of this tendency of the feeling of the ‘mysterious’ to be attracted to objects and aspects of experience analogous to it in being ‘uncomprehended.’ It finds its most unqualified expression in the spell exercised by the only half intelligible or wholly unintelligible language of devotion, and in the unquestionably real enhancement of the awe of the worshipper which this produces. Instances of this are — the ancient traditional expressions, still retained despite their obscurity, in our Bible and hymnals; the special emotional virtue attaching to words like ‘Hallelujah’, Kyrie eleison, ‘Selah’, just because they are ‘wholly other’ and convey no clear meaning; the Latin in the service of the Mass, felt by the Catholic to be, not a necessary evil, but something especially holy; the Sanskrit in the Buddhist Mass of China and Japan;; the ‘language of the gods’ in the ritual of sacrifice in Homer; and many similar cases. Especially noticeable in this connexion are the half-revealed, half-concealed elements in the service of the Mass, in the Greek Church liturgy, and so many others; we can see here one factor that justifies and warrants them. And the same is true of the remaining portions of the old Mass which recur in the Lutheran ritual. Just because their design shows but little of regularity or conceptual arrangement, they preserve in themselves far more of the spirit of worship than the recent practical reformers. In these we find carefully arranged schemes worked out with the balance and coherence of an essay, but nothing unaccountable, and for that very reason suggestive; nothing accidental, and for that very reason pregnant in meaning; nothing that rises from the deeps below consciousness to break the rounded unity of the wonted disposition, and thereby pointed to a unity of a higher order — in a word, little that is really spiritual.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pp. 64-65

Book Review: The Eucharist by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

The culminating work of Fr. Schmemann’s career is this work on the center of the Christian faith, the Eucharist. Schmemann takes here a wide view of the Eucharist, exploring the whole of the liturgy in all of its aspects. In a breath of fresh air, Schmemann casts aside the worn out and rather misdirected attempts to explain every action and element of the liturgy as a massive play in symbolism. He instead returns to an earlier conception of the coexistence of the symbolic and the real, insisting upon a properly sacramental interpretation.

With this sacramental view in mind, Schmemann explores each aspect of the liturgy as a sacrament, as a conduit of the grace of God and the fellowship of Christians. His approach demonstrates the cohesiveness of the liturgy and the importance of each part of it for the whole Christian experience. The culmination, of course, is in the final and ultimate experience of communion.

While the insights to be gleaned from this work are innumerable, it is not without its fault. The greatest problem with the book is Schmemann’s constant fall back to the myth of a “Latin captivity” of the Church and his use of the Scholastic theology of the Catholics as his whipping boy. Every time Schmemann encounters a historical error, he traces it, often rather tenuously, to Western theology. This approach is unfortunate as it limits his perspective. A study like this one which includes the witness of the Western Church would be of great value.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the Christian life, particularly as it pertains to the liturgy and the sacraments.

Review: St. Germanus of Constantinople on the Divine Liturgy

This book serves as an interesting introduction to the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Church (most typically, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) as well as a sound introduction to liturgical commentaries more generally. The introduction provides an excellent overview of commentaries on the Eastern liturgy both before and after St. Germanus. Through this overview, Meyendorff is able to demonstrate the important place which the commentary of St. Germanus takes among such liturgical commentaries.

The commentary itself is interesting, even when not especially insightful. St. Germanus treats each of the externals of the liturgy as a symbol for some other truth of Christianity, pointing especially to the life of Christ. While most of these references and correspondences seem rather forced, they do nonetheless provide an interesting example for the common Medieval Christian practice of deriving meaning from even the most seemingly insignificant elements of Church practice.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the historical developments and theological content of the liturgies of the Eastern Churches.

Review: For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann delves deeply into the sacramental nature of reality in this book. Arguing against the modern distinction between “sacred” things on the one hand and “secular” on the other, Schmemann returns to an earlier Christian conception of the world as sacrament, as the presence of God waiting to be revealed and communed with.

His constant emphasis is on the priesthood of each human being. It is the work of each to take up the things of this world and offer them to God to be redeemed, sanctified, and deified. In this, the book serves as an extended meditation on a restoration of the proper Christian worldview.

Where Fr. Schmemann fails, I think, is in his attempts to discern the roots of the distinction between sacred and secular, between sacrament and reality. He attempts to pinpoint the starting point of this distinction in an 11th century synod held at St. John Lateran, yet the text of the actual oath signed there does not bear out this thesis as it affirms, along with him, the simultaneous symbolic and real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Discerning the real roots of this dichotomy is a task that is necessary but still awaiting completion.

In the mean time, however, Schememann offers some sound advice on how to heal the wounds in our worldview caused by this dichotomy. I recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding and/or cultivating a traditional and authentically Christian worldview — namely a sacramental worldview.

Review: Introduction to Christian Worship by James F. White

James F. White draws upon the full range of liturgical and ritual practices of Christians for this combined academic introduction and pastoral and theological reflection upon Christian worship. Unlike many books on this topic, White does not dwell on or pay special attention only to his own tradition (in this case the Protestant tradition, and Methodism specifically) but instead draws on as wide of a swathe of Christian liturgical practice as possible. The result is a very full and quite insightful treatment of the worship practices of the entirety of Christendom.

In each chapter, White examines a different Christian worship practice or some related element. His chapters treat such topics as church architecture, church music, the regular Sunday service in both of its part (the Service of the Word and the Eucharistic Rite), the daily prayers of Christians, and each of the major sacraments of the Church. In his treatment of each, White provides an introductory history that draws on the history of both the Eastern and Western branches of the Church and which draws on both of the major branches of Western Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. He then proceeds to describe current practice and concludes by offering some theological and pastoral insights, drawing on both earlier writers and authorities as well as his own experience as a Methodist minister.

For an objective and fair treatment of the history and practice of Christians at worship, this is certainly the place to begin. Even where I disagree with his assessments in his reflections at the end of each chapter, I find great value in his well-reasoned arguments and the sharing of his personal experience and wisdom. I recommend this book for anyone interested in Christian worship, whether in its history, its theology, or its practice.