Schmemann and the liturgy of time

On the left-hand side of the saint benedict’s liturgy cards (our menus) there are different pages that one might pick up during any given service that explain in general what the liturgy is. Each of these has a quote by a different theologian: Rowan Williams, Robert Capon, Alexander Schmemann, etc. Of these theologians I would expect most people would recognize at least Rowan Williams as the soon to be retired Archbishop of Canterbury and Robert Capon as that Episcopal priest that Jamie loves to quote, but one of the other ones, Alexander Schmemann, I think would be a bit more mysterious to most people in attendance.

Schmemann was an important theologian of the Eastern Orthodox tradition who died in 1983. He was the dean at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, where he taught and wrote about the liturgy. His work on the liturgy ranged from the popular level to the more specialized and covered all aspects of the liturgy. As one who spends a lot of time thinking through what we do on Sunday evening, I have found his works to be invaluable and often compare what we do at saint benedict’s to what he viewed as important in the liturgy.

Recently in my reading of him I came across the following:

Both in the theological theories which have been evolved and in the life of the Church herself there is an increasing tendency to reduce the whole of her liturgical life to the Eucharist alone, to regard it not as the summit, or center, or source of this life, but in fact as its sole content (Introduction to Liturgical Theology).

Schmemann here is warning against churches whose liturgical focus is only about the Eucharist. They focus their whole service around it and make it their liturgical identity. This caused me to pause and reflect on our practice at saint benedict’s, because on a quick reading of our service one might think we are guilty of this. It is true that we celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday, and it is what our whole evening leads towards, but on further through I think it is clear that it is not the whole of our liturgical experience.

There are really two liturgies that the historic churches have had: the Eucharist liturgy and the liturgy of time. The Eucharist liturgy is the one that is easy to see as a liturgy because, as Schmemann implies, it is the summit of what the church does. It happens right in front of us every Sunday evening. The liturgy of time is a bit more difficult to see; it is the routine of saying prayers throughout the day, leading to a day set apart each week, and this in turn being surrounded by different seasons corresponding to the life of Christ that are celebrated throughout the year. The liturgy of time is important because it gives shape to the life of the church and recognizes that our time on earth is important and needs to be redeemed. What Schmemann is really warning us against are churches that focus only on the Eucharist and not the liturgy of time.

When phrased this way—do not focus on the Eucharist so much that you forget about church time—it is clear saint benedict’s has not done this. Our services follow the rhythm of the church year, we have produced a book of hours that follows both the daily and yearly cycles, and our newest project was a book of daily readings for advent. These would all be signs in Schmemann’s eyes that our liturgical life is healthy. However, liturgical health can easily fall away when things become only a routine. It is important for a church like ours, which has people coming all the time to it from non-liturgical backgrounds, to explain why we do what we do and be willing to look at the health of our practices every now and again.

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