One of my favorite books on the Holy Eucharist is Fr Alexander Schmemann’s The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom. I read it shortly after it was published in the late ’80s and have re-read it a couple of times since. Always I learn something new; always he takes me deeper into the experience and understanding of Eucharist.
Schmemann advances a vigorous critique of Western theology, speaking of the estrangement of Latin scholasticism from the experience of the liturgy. He references in particular the book A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Dom Anscar Vonier:
The chief source of this estrangement is the Latin doctrine’s denial and rejection of symbolism, which is inherent to the Christian perception of the world, man and all creation, and which forms the ontological basis of the sacraments. In this perspective, the Latin doctrine is the beginning of the disintegration and decomposition of the symbol. On the one hand, being “reduced” to “illustrative symbolism,” the symbol loses touch with reality; and, on the other, it ceases to be understood as a fundamental revelation about the world and creation. When Dom Vonier writes that “Neither in heaven nor on earth is there anything like the sacraments,” does he not indicate above all that, although the sacraments in any event depend on creation and its nature for their accomplishment, of this nature they do not reveal, witness or manifest anything?
This doctrine of the sacraments is alien to the Orthodox because in the Orthodox ecclesial experience and tradition a sacrament is understood primarily as a revelation of the genuine nature of creation, of the world, which, however much it has fallen as “this world,” will remain God’s world, awaiting salvation, redemption, healing and transfiguration in a new earth and a new heaven. In other words, in the Orthodox experience a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself, for the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life. If in baptism water can become a “laver of regeneration,” if our earthly food—bread and wine—can be transformed into partaking of the body and blood of Christ, if, to put it briefly, everything in the world can be identified, manifested and understood as a gift of God and participation in the new life, it is because all of creation was originally summoned and destined for the fulfilment of the divine economy—“then God will be all in all.” (pp. 33-34)
I remember my initial perplexity. Are we really confronted here with a fundamental, unbridgeable difference between East and West? It is true that, unlike Schmemann, Abbott Vonier does not speak of sacraments as revelations of creation. He does not address the iconicity of the world. His focus is different. For Vonier, as for Thomas Aquinas and most theologians in the Latin Catholic tradition, sacraments are first and foremost symbolic enactments of redemption. They are rooted in the sacred history of God’s work of salvation, beginning with Israel and culminating in the consummation of the kingdom. Just as the nation of Israel celebrated its faith in ritual and sacrament, so the people of the New Israel celebrate their faith in ritual and sacrament—but with a critical difference: the sacraments of the Old Law prefigured the coming of Christ and attested to the faith of Israel, but were not in themselves causes of grace; the sacraments of the New Law not only attest to the faith of the Church, but they make present the passion of Christ and effectively apply to believers its benefits. Every sacrament is a symbolic re-presentation of the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Herbert McCabe elaborates:
The sacraments … are revelations of God, but not everything which shows us God can be called sacramental in the sense in which I am using the term. Of course “sacrament” is one of those key terms of religion which can be interpreted at several different levels, but in its deepest sense it means not just any symbol of God but a symbol which reveals the achievement of God’s plan for human destiny. Many people have seen the world of nature as revealing the sacred—“the heavens show forth the glory of Yahweh”—and sometimes this is called having a sacramental view of the world. But the sacraments in our deeper sense are signs of the revelation which God has made of himself, signs of the Word of God in history. They are concerned not just with God’s creation but with his special plan for humanity. This they have in common with the Scriptures, and just as the Scriptures had to be written by God, so the sacraments had to be instituted by God. We can speak, and the Fathers of the Church constantly did speak, of the sacraments of the old law: that is, the signs, especially the cultic signs, which symbolized the workings of God’s plan in the Old Testament. The difference between these signs and the sacraments of the new law is just that God’s plan has now been realized in Christ. The sacraments of the new law are not simply looking forward to something which is not yet, they symbolize something actually present. (The People of God, pp. 31-32)
Abbot Vonier seeks to expound what we might describe as the sacramentality of sacrament. Sacraments do not work by an impersonal or natural causality, nor are they unmediated acts of divine omnipotence. Sacraments work by ritual signification, and what they signify is Jesus Christ. Hence every sacrament symbolizes and represents the past, the present, and the future. Aquinas explains:
A sacrament, properly so-called, is a thing ordained to signify our sanctification; in which three phases may be taken into consideration, namely: the cause of our sanctification, which is the passion of Christ; the essence of our sanctification, which consists in grace and virtue; and then the ultimate goal of our sanctification, which is eternal life. Now all these are signified by the sacraments. Therefore a sacrament is a commemorative sign of what has gone before, in this case the passion of Christ, a demonstrative sign of what is being effected in us through the passion of Christ, that is grace, and a prognostic sign, foretelling our future glory. (ST 3a.60.3)
The symbolism of the sacrament is complex and multi-faceted. Every sacrament is a word-object event that recollects God’s saving acts in history, declares his sanctifying work in the present, and anticipates the consummation of his kingdom. A sacrament is able to do this, to comprehend and realize the mystery of time, precisely because it is a sign ordained by the incarnate Son and filled with divine power and spiritual reality:
Every sacrament, then, has something to declare: it recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future. If the sacrament did not fulfill its function of sign proclaiming something which is not seen, it would not be a sacrament at all. It can embrace heaven and earth, time and eternity, because it is a sign; were it only a grace it would be no more than the gift of the present hour; but being a sign the whole history of the spiritual world is reflected in it: “For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He comes.” What Saint Paul says of the Eucharist about its showing forth a past event is true in other ways of every other sacrament. … If my heart be touched by God’s grace, such a divine action, excellent and wonderful though it be, is not a sign of anything else; it is essentially a spiritual fact of the present moment, and ends, as it were, in itself. It has no relationship of signification to anything else, whether past, present or future. Such is not the case with the sacraments; through them it becomes possible to focus the distant past and future in the actual present; through them historic events of centuries ago are renewed, and we anticipate the future in a very real way. All this is possible only in virtue of the sacramental sign, which not only records the distant event, but, somewhat like the modern film, projects it upon the screen of the present. (Vonier, p. 14)
I suspect that Schmemann would object to this last sentence. Perhaps he was thinking of this sentence when he referred to the Western reduction of symbol to “illustrious symbolism.” But one should not make too much of the simile. Vonier is simply emphasizing the power and reality of sacrament according to Catholic understanding. Sacraments do not “image” or “picture” past events, as if one could watch the eucharistic liturgy and see the passion and death of Jesus; but they do nonetheless contain and make present the historic and spiritual realities they signify, and by faith believers participate in these realities.
Does this read like a “denial and rejection of symbolism”? Hardly. Vonier may hold a different understanding of symbol than Schmemann, but it is an understanding that is powerful, vital, and firmly rooted in the narrative of Holy Scripture. Schmemann sees the sacramental mysteries as manifestations of the true nature of the world as renewed in Jesus Christ, grounded in the symbolic nature of creation. Vonier, on the other hand, sees the sacramental mysteries as revelations of the mystery of God’s historic redemption in Jesus Christ. For Vonier and the Western tradition, the symbolic representation of sacred history in the sacraments of the Church is absolutely essential. God has accomplished the salvation of humanity in history, not in history in general but in the history of a specific people—and consummately in the history of a specific man, Jesus of Nazareth. The sacraments of the Church are the successors of the sacraments of Israel. Wielded by the risen Christ, they effectually make present the whole history of redemption and attach us to this history. Perhaps this is why Vonier does not seek to ground the sacraments in a general theory of the sacramentality of the cosmos. The act of washing with water may vaguely point, as it were, to spiritual cleaning; but only by divine institution and apostolic interpretation does it symbolize death and burial with Jesus. The sharing of loaf and cup may naturally point to communal fellowship and unity; but only by divine institution and apostolic interpretation does it symbolize the sacrificial oblation of the Nazarene. The natural symbolism of element and action is not denied; it is, rather, gathered into the new significance of the sacramental mystery.
Precisely because Vonier wishes to protect both the sacramentality and efficacy of the sacraments of Christ, he finds that he must speak of their newness and singular causality. I will give Vonier the final word:
“The sacramental world is a new world created by God, entirely different from the world of nature and even from the world of spirits. It would be poor theology to say that in the sacraments we have here on earth modes of spiritual realities which resemble the ways of the angels. We have nothing of the kind. Were we to speak with the tongues of angels it would not help us in the least to express the sacramental realities. Sacraments are a unique creation with entirely new laws. They belong to ‘the mystery which has been hidden from eternity in God who created all things: that the manifold wisdom of God may be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places through the church.’ The creative power of symbols, the productive efficacy of signs, the incredible potentialities of simple things in the hand of God to produce spiritual realities, nay even to reproduce them in their historic setting: all this belongs to the sacramental world and makes it profoundly unlike anything else in heaven or on the earth” (p. 23).
(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 6 April 2008)
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This is provides an understanding of sacraments.