The Shaping of Liturgy

The Shaping of Liturgy

In his book For the Life of the World, liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann begins his small treatise on the sacramental life of the church with an opening chapter that is boldly asking where it is that the sacramental life of the church actually begins. Is it through Christ that we receive the sacraments? (To which, of course, we can only respond with a resounding yes.) Or is it that God gifted to humanity the sacramental life from the very beginning? To which Schmemann argues in the affirmative. Whilst it is certainly true that Christ helps us to enter into the sacramental life, it is in the act of creation that God gifted to God’s people the sacramental life. God does this in God’s first incarnation which we happen to call creation. It is in creation that humanity is gifted the very things that humanity needs for sustenance – the fruit of the earth (plants, animals, sea creatures, grains, etc) for sustaining the body and the fruit of communion with God for sustaining our souls and our hearts. In this respect, God gifted to us a hunger to become that which we eat. The gifts humanity needs in order to live life abundantly are not, as they seem, separated one from the other. Instead, they are offered as a single gift, and the gift that is offered is community with the Divine.1 

In our practice of Holy Eucharist, which is our shorthand for The Divine Liturgy or The Divine Service, we gather to seek the very communion that God gifts to us in the act of creation and in the sending of his only Son, Christ Jesus. The communion that we hunger for is available to us; we simply have to recognize that the hunger deep within us is not simply a hunger for the fruit of the earth but also for that bread which comes down from heaven: the body and blood of Christ.2 And of course, if the liturgy is not something that simply has meaning but simply is, it is through the liturgy that the very nourishment that we hunger and thirst for is made manifest to us as the gathered body. It is in the liturgy that the real presence of Christ is shared with us, and it is in the liturgy that we enter ever deeper into the mysteries of God that are shared with us in the sacramental life of the Church. It is the action of the liturgy to share with the world those “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”3

And yet, the action of the liturgy is not as simple as helping us to see and receive the sacraments through the means of bread, wine, water, oil, union, affirmation, and hands. Instead, the liturgy goes beyond that inviting us to become the very things that are helping us to receive that inward and spiritual grace. It seems that the action of the liturgy is transformative. It transforms us into people that live according to the ways that we pray. We are not simply invited to receive the sacraments; we are also invited to become sacramental in our lives.

The Divine Service invites us to live a life that is for the world – not separated from it because we understand the world to be “profane.” Instead, the shape of the Holy Eucharist begins to influence us to offer ourselves to become the very elements that are taken, that are offered as thanksgiving, that are broken, and that are given to the world. We are called to become the invitation to the world to come find the one thing that can satisfy that deep hunger within humanity: communion with the Divine.

  1. Shmeman, A. (1973). For the life of the world. 2nd ed. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, pp.11-22.
  2. John 6:32-33 NRSV
  3. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 857