fr alexander schmemann


Easter in the Liturgical Year

by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

In the center of our liturgical life, in the very center of that time which we measure as year, we find the feast of Christ’s Resurrection. What is Resurrection? Resurrection is the appearance in this world, completely dominated by time and therefore by death, of a life that will have no end. The one who rose again from the dead does not die anymore. In this world of ours, not somewhere else, not in a world that we do not know at all, but in our world, there appeared one morning Someone who is beyond death and yet in our time. This meaning of Christ’s Resurrection, this great joy, is the central theme of Christianity and it has been preserved in its purity by the Orthodox Church. There is much truth expressed by those who say that the real central theme of Orthodoxy, the center of all its experience, the frame of reference of everything else, is the Resurrection of Christ.

The center, the day, that gives meaning to all days and therefore to all time, is that yearly commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection at Easter. This is always the end and the beginning. We are always living after Easter, and we are always going toward Easter.

The Orthodox Celebration of Great and Holy Saturday

by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Great and Holy Saturday is the day on which Christ reposed in the tomb. The Church calls this day the Blessed Sabbath. The great Moses mystically foreshadowed this day when he said: God blessed the seventh day. This is the blessed Sabbath. This is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works. . . . (Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday)

By using this title the Church links Holy Saturday with the creative act of God. In the initial account of creation as found in the Book of Genesis, God made man in His own image and likeness. To be truly himself, man was to live in constant communion with the source and dynamic power of that image: God. Man fell from God. Now Christ, the Son of God through whom all things were created, has come to restore man to communion with God. He thereby completes creation. All things are again as they should be. His mission is consummated. On the Blessed Sabbath He rests from all His works.

THE TRANSITION

Holy Saturday is a neglected day in parish life. Few people attend the Services. Popular piety usually reduces Holy Week to one day - Holy Friday. This day is quickly replaced by another - Easter Sunday. Christ is dead and then suddenly alive. Great sorrow is suddenly replaced by great joy. In such a scheme Holy Saturday is lost.

In the understanding of the Church, sorrow is not replaced by joy; it is transformed into joy. This distinction indicates that it is precisely within death the Christ continues to effect triumph.

TRAMPLING DOWN DEATH BY DEATH

Lent: Journey to Pascha

The following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From The Introduction

When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going. Thus with Lent. Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, "the Feast of Feasts." It is the preparation for the "fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation." We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.

Is it necessary to explain that Easter is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is "brighter than the day," who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it. [...] On Easter we celebrate Christ's Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received the gift of that new life and the power to accept it and live by it. It is a gift which radically alters our attitude toward everything in this world, including death. It makes it possible for us to joyfully affirm: "Death is no more!" Oh, death is still there, to be sure, and we still face it and someday it will come and take us. But it is our whole faith that by His own death Christ changed the very nature of death, made it a passage — a "passover," a "Pascha" — into the Kingdom of God, transforming the tragedy of tragedies into the ultimate victory. [...]

Taking It Seriously

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 5, Section 1: Taking It Seriously

What could be not only a normal but a real impact of Lent on our existence? This existence (do we need to recall it) is very different from the one people led when all these services, hymns, canons, and prescriptions were composed and established. One lived then in a relatively small, mainly rural community within one organically Orthodox world; the very rhythm of one’s life was shaped by the Church. Now, however, we live in an enormous urban, technological society which is pluralistic in its religious beliefs, secularistic in its worldview, and in which we Orthodox constitute an insignificant minority. Lent is no longer “visible” as it was, let us say, in Russia or in Greece. Our question thus is a very real one; how can we –besides introducing one or two “symbolical” changes into our daily life—keep Lent?

The Great Canon

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 4: The Lenten Journey

[The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete] can best be described as a penitential lamentation conveying to us the scope and depth of sin, shaking the soul with despair, repentance, and hope. With a unique art, St. Andrew interwove the great biblical themes-- Adam and Eve, Paradise and Fall, the Patriarchs Noah and the Flood, David, the Promised Land, and ultimately Christ and the Church-- with confession of sin and repentance. The events of sacred history are revealed as events of my life, God's acts in the past as acts aimed at me and my salvation, the tragedy of sin and betrayal as my personal tragedy. My life is shown to me as part of the great and all-embracing fight between God and the powers of darkness which rebel against Him.

The Canon begins on this deeply personal note:

Where shall I begin to weep over the cursed deeds of my life?
What foundation shall I lay, Christ, for this lamentation?

On after another, my sins are revealed in their deep connection with the continuous drama of man's relation to God; the story of man's fall is my story:

I have made mine the crime of Adam; I know myself deprived of God, of the eternal Kingdom and of bliss because of my sins....

I have lost all divine gifts:

I have defiled the vestment of my body, obscured the image and likeness of God....
I have darkened the beauty of my soul, I have torn my first vestment woven for me by the Creator and I am naked....

Mid-Lent: The Holy Cross

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 4: The Lenten Journey

The third Sunday of Lent is called "The Veneration of the Cross." At the Vigil of that day, after the Great Doxology, the Cross is brought in a solemn procession to the center of the church and remains there for the entire week-- with a special rite of veneration following each service. It is noteworthy that the theme of the Cross which dominates the hymnology of that Sunday is developed in terms not of suffering but of victory and joy. More than that, the theme-songs (hirmoi) of the Sunday Canon are taken from the Paschal Service-- "The Day of the Resurrection"-- and the Canon is a paraphrase of the Easter Canon.

The meaning of all this is clear. We are in Mid-Lent. One the one hand, the physical and spiritual effort, if it is serious and consistent, begins to be felt, its burden becomes more burdensome, our fatigue more evident. We need help and encouragement. On the other hand, having endured this fatigue, having climbed the mountain up to this point, we begin to see the end of our pilgrimage, and the rays of Easter grow in their intensity. Lent is our self-crucifixion, our experience, limited as it is, of Christ's commandment heard in the Gospel lesson of that Sunday: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). But we cannot take up our cross and follow Christ unless we have His Cross which He took up in order to save us. It is His Cross, not ours, that saves us. It is His Cross that gives not only meaning but also power to others. This is explained to us in the synaxarion of the Sunday of the Cross:

Sundays of Lent

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 4: The Lenten Journey

Each Sunday in Lent has two themes, two meanings. On the one hand, each belongs to a sequencein which the rhythm and spiritual "dialectics" of Lent are revealed. On the other hand, in the course of the Church's historical development almost each lenten Sunday has acquired a second theme. Thus on the first Sunday the Church celebrates the "Triumph of Orthodoxy"-- commemorating the victory over Iconoclasm and the restoration of the veneration of icons in Constantinople in 843. The connection of this celebration with Lent is purely historical: the first "triumph of Orthodoxy" took place on this particular Sunday. The same is true of the commemoration on the second Sunday of Lent of St. Gregory Palamas. The condemnation of his enemies and the vindication of his teachings by the Church in the 14th Century was acclaimed as a second triumph of Orthodoxy and for this reason its annual celebration was prescribed for the second Sunday of Lent. Meaningful and important as they are in themselves, these commemorations are independent from Lent as such and we can leave them outside the scope of this essay....

Forgiveness (Cheese-Fare Sunday)

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 2: Preparation for Lent

....

Finally comes the last day [of preparation for Lent], usually called "Forgiveness Sunday," but whose other liturgical name must also be remembered: the "Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss." This name summarizes indeed the entire preparation for Lent. By now we know that man was created for paradise, for knowledge of God and communion with Him. Man's sin has deprived him of that blessed life and his existence on earth is exile. Christ, the Savior of the world, opens the door of paradise to everyone who follows Him, and the Church, by revealing to us the beauty of the Kingdom, makes our life a pilgrimage toward our heavenly fatherland. Thus, at the beginning of Lent, we are like Adam:

Adam was expelled form paradise through food;
Sitting, therefore, in front of it he cried:
"Woe to me....
One commandment of God have I transgressed,
depriving myself of all that is good;
Paradise holy! Planted for me,
And now because of Eve closed to me;
Pray to thy Creator and mine that I may be filled again by thy blossom."
Then answered the Savior to him:
"I wish not my creation to perish;
I desire it to be saved and to know the truth;
For I will not turn away him who comes to Me....

The Last Judgement (Meat-Fare Sunday)

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 2: Preparation for Lent

....

It is love again that constitutes the theme of "Meat-Fare Sunday." The Gospel lesson for the day is Christ's parable of the Last Judgement (Matt. 25:31-46). When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of His judgement? The parable answers: love-- not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous "poor," but concrete and personal love for the human person, any human person, that God makes me encounter in my life....

Christian love is the "possible impossibility" to see Christ in another man, whoever he is, and whom God, in His eternal and mysterious plan, has decided to introduce into my life, be it only for a few moments, not as an occasion for a "good deed" or an exercise in philanthropy, but as the beginning of an eternal companionship in God Himself. For, indeed, what is love if not that mysterious power which transcends the accidental and the external in the "other"-- his physical appearance, social rank, ethnic origin, intellectual capacity-- and reaches the soul, the unique and uniquely personal "root" of a human being, truly the part of God in him? If God loves every man it is because He alone knows the priceless and absolutely unique treasure, the "soul" or "person" He gave every man. Christian love then is the participation in that divine knowledge and the gift of that divine love. There is no "impersonal" love because love is the wonderful discovery of the "person" in "man," of the personal and unique in the common and general. It is the discovery in each man of that which is "lovable" in him, of that which is from God.

Return from Exile (The Sunday of the Prodigal Son)

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 2: Preparation for Lent

Sunday of the Prodigal SonOn the third Sunday of preparation for Lent, we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son (LK. 15:11-32). Together with the hymns on this day, the parable reveals to us the time of repentance as man's return from exile. The prodigal son, we are told, went to a far country and there spent all that he had. A far country! It is this unique definition of our human condition that we must assume and make ours as we begin our approach to God. A man who has never had that experience, be it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly "at home" in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.

Humility (Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)

The Following is an excerpt from Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann
From Chapter 2: Preparation for Lent

The next Sunday [after Zaccheus Sunday] is called the "Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee." On the eve of this day, on Saturday at Vespers, the liturgical book of the Lenten season-- the Triodion-- makes its first appearance and texts from it are added to the usual hymns and prayers of the weekly resurrection service. The develop the next major aspect of repentance: humility.

The Gospel lesson (Lk. 18:10-4) pictures a man who is always pleased with himself and who thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. He is self-assured and proud of himself. In reality, however, he has falsified the meaning of religion. He has reduced it to external observations and he measures his piety by the amount of money he contributes to the temple. As for the Publican, he humbles himself and his humility justifies him before God. If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the one who all the time "gives credit" for man's achievements and good deeds. Humility-- be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national-- is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. Even our churches-- are they not imbued with that same spirit as the Pharisee? Do we not want our every contribution, every "good deed," all that we do "for the Church" to be acknowledged, praised, publicized?