Continuing the Work of Eucharistic Renewal

Recently, I was reading a proposal from a grassroots collection of Orthodox people seeking to implement reforms in the Church. The proposal includes an appeal for Eucharistic renewal, since Communion remains infrequent and the laity seem to be disengaged at the Liturgy. One of the theologians belonging to the cohort wrote me privately and said, “we desperately need the kind of Eucharistic reforms implemented by the Orthodox Churches in North America.”

There is a plethora of literature covering the accomplishments of the liturgical movement in the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Churches of the twentieth century. Catholics and Protestants implemented three-year lectionaries, restored the Old Testament reading to the Eucharistic Liturgy, composed new Eucharistic prayers representing the broader tradition of the Christian world, encouraged frequent communion, and essentially demanded the active participation of the laity. The Catholic Church authorized vernacular translations of the Mass. Attempts were made to revive the largely dormant office of the deacon. Seminaries and theology schools emphasized the art of preaching, and liturgical inculturation was widely embraced.

The Orthodox Church also witnessed to a veritable liturgical renewal in many places, with appeals for reading the prayers aloud, publishing modern translations of the Liturgy, promoting assembly singing, emphasizing participation in the Liturgy of the Hours and Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, and encouraging the frequent reception of Holy Communion. In general, it is customary to attribute these achievements to Alexander Schmemann, but he was not alone in inspiring a liturgical renaissance, as Alkiviadis Calivas, Paul Meyendorff, and the Monks of New Skete offered their own contributions in America, while the Church of Greece inaugurated a series of serious synodal studies of liturgical renewal. Liturgical renewal appeared in diverse places such as Russia, Serbia, Romania, and Finland, and liturgy plays a crucial role in missionary efforts led by the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Africa.

In reading the literature presenting the account of the liturgical renewal of the twentieth century, it would seem that all of the Churches are self-congratulatory. Here, we have lay persons distributing communion, there we have an entire generation of faithful who receive communion every Sunday. In our epoch of quantitative assessment, we can point to be the number of new prayers composed and communicants to claim that the liturgical movement accomplished its objective of providing yeast for the body of Christ to arise from a state of inertia, for the Church as mother to give birth to disciples who will be witnesses to the kingdom of God in this world.

A quantitative assessment will not tell us the whole story, however. Serious pastors, theologians, and laity are called to be self-critical and test their fidelity to the covenant with Christ required by the discipleship given in Baptism and anointing.

Momentarily putting aside the resurgence of a vertical ecclesiology that distances clergy from the laity, there is plenty of qualitative evidence exposing the challenges confronting the Churches. Small, traditional seminaries and schools of theology that produced pastors to serve in regions are closing and trying to survive serious financial strains. Demographic changes and attrition result in parish closures and the merging of congregations. Many communities cannot support full-time pastors. Churches are rocked by large-scale institutional scandals, as the recent sex abuse reports not only threatened the reputation of Pope Francis himself, but reintroduced the spirit of mistrust and disillusionment into the Catholic Church. Careful reading on mainline Protestant Churches disclose their own troubles in the midst of the ranks, while the Orthodox Churches are continually caught in the crossfire of medieval Byzantine polemics.

At the national and international levels, people are fully engaged in the age of anger. Frightening acts of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and human trafficking result in a common ritual of shaking heads, shedding tears, and perpetuating the blame game. There is no lack of people of good will in the depths of the sea of bad news. The retired generation recognizes the return of the hatred, violence, and ugly politics of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Participants in the liturgical and ecumenical movements remind us that Church reform was never about visible and audible aesthetical changes we could celebrate as our accomplishment, but reforming the Church in such a way so that we would allow God to change us.

If we explore beneath the surface of the liturgical movement and lay aside our worship wars (at least temporarily), we can see that the aspirations of the pioneers of this movement were quite bold. In his pithy review of the stages of the liturgical movement, Mark Searle recalled that the pioneers of the first stage “focused on liturgical formation and social transformation, bringing people to the liturgy so that they might be empowered to go out and change the social order” (Called to Participate, Order of St. benedict, 2006, 12). In his mystagogical treatise of the Divine Liturgy, Alexander Schmemann reflected on the exchange of the kiss of peace, writing that it has the capacity to liberate us from our “secluded corners” and “self-absorption,” leading us to the love of Christ that “transforms the stranger into a brother” (The Eucharist, SVS Press, 1984, 138-9).  David Fagerberg receives Aidan Kavanagh’s Mrs. Murphy and reminds us that the ordinary lay person is the real theologian, whose liturgical participation enable them to “understand the world and shape their own lives,” and ultimately to “read the world” and “tell the world the truth about itself” (Theologia Prima, LTP, 2004, 141, 151-2).      

Liturgical participation allows one to become an authentic human person, one who is becoming like God through a liturgical process of theosis, as argued by Schmemann in his treatise on Baptism and Chrismation (Of Water and the Spirit, SVS Press, 1974, 79-82). The spirit of baptismal ecclesiology is God’s vision of the human person, described by Schmemann as anthropological maximalism. Liturgical participation initiates us into an encounter with the Triune God who remakes us in the divine image. Through participation, we become priests, prophets, and kings, saints, christs, and Christ-bearers who are called to witness to the kingdom in everyday life and to act consistently for the life of the world.

This brief summary is only a scratch beneath the surface of a chorus of voices who claim that we can change, and that our transformation can change the world. This world can become one of equality, human dignity, responsible stewardship for the earth, radical charity (especially for aliens, orphans, and widows), and the daily practice of forgiving seventy times seven. Liturgical theologians admonish us to remember that Liturgy is primarily an act of God, and we are only done unto in this act. There is no question that God is acting: the question is, why is change so often only visible and audible in the aesthetical dimensions of liturgical performance?

Aware of the limitations of liturgical causality, there are a number of reasons that we are not witnessing to more tangible, large-scale human flourishing as the result of Church reform. The Church’s missionary and pastoral vision is too often confined to carefully delineated communal spaces that separate the local Church form the world. Furthermore, the process of liturgical theosis is enormously complex as God’s remaking us is an act that is never completed in this lifetime, so transformation requires constant vigilance and effort. These two aspects of liturgical theology deserve much more expansion.

For the Churches that value liturgical renewal, especially in the Eucharist, perhaps we can conclude with one final reflection. The initial stage of the liturgical movement remains a work in progress, because in the popular piety of the people, we continue to define the Eucharist as a gift one can earn. In other words, each Christian is unworthy, and some combination of practices leads one to gradually ascend to a state of worthiness that merits receiving the body and blood of Christ in communion.

When failure occurs, it might not only lead to a break in communion, but also result in a sense of despondency that one can never really escape their own depravity and tendency to sin. Pastoral instruction that metes out punishment on account of sin can deepen a sense of futility, fear of approaching the sacrament, and alienation from the Eucharistic assembly. The sinner whose shame shuts them out of the Church is compatible with the general sense of alienation that breeds anger, hatred violence, and the perpetuation of the blame game. This is especially true when the Eucharist becomes a polemical weapon to demonstrate ecclesial legitimacy or spiritual superiority over more sinful cohorts of people. And excommunication, both official and self-imposed, remains a staple feature of Church life.

Is it not possible to accentuate the Eucharist as the healing of the human person, body, soul, mind, and spirit, that all require to end brokenness and become whole? The Christian tradition presents numerous images of a God with inexhaustible forgiveness who implores the disciple to approach, over and over again. The one who admits their brokenness and needs healing desperately needs to approach and receiving the divine medicine that heals. This will be possible only if everyone acknowledges their brokenness and adopts the identity of the first among sinners, including the popes, patriarchs, and most respected and beloved Christian pastors in the Church. The tradition of excommunication was designed in part to alert the sinner to their destructive acts and begin the process of confessing sin. Everyone is a sinner, and the act of confessing is eased when it becomes a journey undertaken together, spiritual counselors and confessors standing side-by-side with the most egregious sinners, confessing their sin, and becoming human again by the Lord’s act of forgiving seventy times seven, giving us his body and blood. The process of healing broken society begins when our engagement of the blame game results in an honest admission that we are contributing to the problem. Society cannot be healed if we refuse the Lord’s healing or deny it to those who might otherwise approach. Offering the Eucharist as healing for the life of the world is one small step the Churches can take in furthering the enterprise of Eucharistic renewal.

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