If theology, then, needs the Church as its natural \”term of reference,\” as both the source and the aim of its very existence, and if the Church needs theology as her conscience, how can they be reunited again, overcome their mutual alienation and recover the organic correlation of which the Patristic age remains forever the ideal pattern? This is the question Orthodox theology must answer if it is to overcome its inner chaos and weakness, its parasitic existence in the Church which pays no attention to it.
How and where? My answer is — by and in the Eucharist, understood and lived as the Sacrament of the Church, as the act, which ever makes the Church to be what she is — the People of God, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ, the gift and manifestation of the new life of the new age. It is here and only here, in the unique center of all Christian life and experience that theology can find again its fountain of youth, be regenerated as a living testimony to the living Church, her faith, love and hope. This affirmation, I understand it only too well, can be easily misunderstood. It will appear to some as an unjustified reduction of theology to \”liturgics,\” as an unnecessary narrowing of the proper field of theology, where the Eucharist is listed as just one of the sacraments, as an \”object\” among many. To others it will sound like a pious invitation to theologians to become more liturgical, more \”eucharistic\” . . . In the present state of theology, such misinterpretations would be almost natural. What is meant here, however, is not a reduction of theology to piety, be it theological piety or a piety of theologians, and although it will take more than a short article to elaborate the answer given above in all its implications, the following remarks may possibly prepare the ground for a more constructive discussion.
This type of theology, although it subordinates the Eucharist and the sacraments to the Church and makes the latter an institution distinct and independent from the sacraments, easily coexists with, if indeed it is not responsible for, a piety in which the Church is virtually identified with cult or worship. In the popular approach — and \”popular\” by no means excludes the great majority of the clergy — the Church is, above all, a \”cultic\” or liturgical institution, and all her activities are, implicitly or explicitly, directed at her liturgical needs: erection of temples, material support of clergy and choirs, acquisition of various liturgical supplies, etc. Even the teaching given to the faithful, if one abstracts from it a very vague and general ethical code, identical with the humanistic ethics of the secular society at large, consists mainly in liturgical prescriptions and obligations of all kinds. The institutional priority of the Church over her sacraments is not questioned here, but the Church is essentially an institution existing for the fulfillment of the \”religious needs\” of her members, and since worship in all its forms constitutes the most obvious and immediate of such needs, the understanding and experience of the Church as existing primarily for liturgy seems quite natural.
While \”institution\” for theology and \”worship\” for piety, the Church is nowhere a \”society.\” And indeed, although the classical catechetical definition of the Church as society has never been openly revised or rejected, the Church-society simply does not manifest herself outside the common attendance of worship. Yet the experience of worship has long ago ceased to be that of a corporate liturgical act. It is an aggregation of individuals coming to church, attending worship in order to satisfy individually their individual religious needs, not in order to constitute and to fulfill the Church. The best proof of this is the complete disintegration of communion as a corporate act. Where the early Church saw her real fulfillment as a communion into one body (\”…and unite all of us who partake of the one Bread and the one Cup, one to another…\” Liturgy of St. Basil), we today consider Communion as the most individual and private of all religious acts, depending entirely on one’s personal desire, piety and preparation. Likewise the sermon, although addressed to the congregation, is, in fact, a personal teaching, aimed not at the \”edification\” of the Church, but at individuals at their private needs and duties. Its theme is the individual Christian, not the Church.
The reaction is, no doubt, a good and promising one. Yet, one extreme can easily lead to another and this is the danger we face today. Paradoxically enough the danger arises from the very source of our ecclesiological revival — the rediscovery of the \”social\” and the \”organic\” as essential dimensions of the Church. If, in the past, the Church was identified too exclusively with hierarchy and institution, there is a tendency now to just as exclusively identify her with an \”organism.\” The Fathers, we are told, have not left with us any precise definition of the Church’s nature or essence. Consequently, theologians reconstruct what seems to them to be the patristic ecclesiology, not discerning too often that, in fact, this overwhelmingly \”organic\” ecclesiology reflects some contemporary philosophical and sociological doctrines more than the experience of the early Church. The Church is a society, this society is an organism, this organism is the Body of Christ. Such a sequence of direct identifications, typical of the present ecclesiological trend, gives the idea of \”organism\” an almost biological connotation. It makes the Church a substantial Being, whose \”organic unity\” and \”organic life\” overshadow the personal, spiritual and dynamic aspects of unity and life. Unity is no longer understood as, first of all, the union of many, fulfilling itself in unity, becoming unity; it is a reality in which one \”participates\” and the category of participation leaves almost no room for that of becoming and fulfillment. The Church is a given reality, an organism whose life is conveyed and communicated to its members through the sacraments, the latter, and especially the Eucharist, being the means of this communication and participation.
It is very doubtful, however, whether to begin the definition of the Church in terms of \”organism\” is a good ecclesiological beginning at all. The absence of such a definition in the Fathers may not have been accidental, but rather a revealing experience of the Church, which we have not yet fully grasped. In the patristic perspective, the Church is primarily the gift of new life, but this life is not that of the Church, but the life of Christ in us, our life in Him. For the Church is not a \”being\” in the sense in which God or man may be called \”beings\” (\”hypostatized natures\” to use the ancient terminology), she is not a new \”nature\” added to the existing natures of God and man, she is not a \”substance.\” The term new applied to her — new life, new creation — does not mean an ontological newness, the appearance of a \”being\” which did not exist before, it means the redeemed, renewed and transfigured relationship between the only \”substantial\” beings: God and His creation. And just as the Church has no \”hypostasis\” or \”personality\” of her own, other than the hypostasis of Christ and those of the men who constitute her, she has no \”nature\” of her own, for she is the new life of the \”old\” nature, redeemed and transfigured by Christ. In Him man, and through man the whole of \”nature,\” find their true life and become a new creation, a new being, the Body of Christ. Thus, on the one hand, there exists in the iconographical tradition of Orthodoxy no icon of the Church, because an icon implies necessarily a \”hypostatized nature,\” the reality of a substantial and personal \”being\” and in this sense the Church is not a \”being.\” Yet, on the other hand, each icon — that of Christ, of the Theotokos, of any Saint — is always and essentially an icon of the Church, because it manifests and reveals the new life of a being, the reality of its transfiguration, of its passage into the \”new eon\” of the Holy Spirit, this being precisely the manifestation of the Church. Therefore, the concepts of \”organism\” or \”body\” can be utterly misleading if, in a definition of the Church, they precede and give foundation to, that of \”life.\” It is not because she is an \”organism\” that the Church gives us the \”new life,\” but the new life given in her, or rather, the Church as new life, makes us an organism, transforms us into the Body of Christ, reveals us as \”new being.\”
We see now that the ecclesiological equation \”institution — society —organism — Body of Christ\” needs to be qualified. It would be a great error to directly apply the scriptural and traditional term \”Body of Christ\” to the Church as institution or society. In itself, \”institution,\” \”society\” — i.e., the visible, militant, hierarchical Church — is not the new life, the new being and the new age. It belongs to the structure and reality of the history of salvation and, therefore, to \”this world.\” But just as the Church of the Old Covenant, the old Israel, existed as a passage to the New Covenant, was instituted in order to prepare the ways of the Lord, the Church as institution exists in order to reveal — in \”this world\” — the \”world to come,\” the Kingdom of God, fulfilled and manifested in Christ. She is the passage of the \”old\” into the \”new\” — yet what is being redeemed, renewed and transfigured through her is not the \”Church,\” but the old life itself, the old Adam and the whole of creation. And she is this \”passage\” precisely because as institution she is \”bone of the bones and flesh of the flesh\” of this world, because she stands for the whole creation, truly represents it, assumes all of its life and offers it — in Christ — to God. She is indeed instituted for the world and not as a separate \”religious\” institution existing for the specifically religious needs of men. She represents — \”makes present\” — the whole of mankind, because mankind and creation were called from the very beginning to be the Temple of the Holy Spirit and the receptacle of Divine life. The Church is thus the restoration by God and the acceptance by man of the original and eternal destiny of creation itself. She is the presence of the Divine Act, which restores and the obedience of men who accept this act. Yet it is only when she performs and fulfills this \”passage,\” when, in other terms, she transcends herself as \”institution\” and \”society\” and becomes indeed the new life of the new creation, that she is the Body of Christ. As institution the Church is in this world the sacrament of the Body of Christ, of the Kingdom of God and the world to come.
We recover thus the eschatological dimension of the Church. The body of Christ is not and can never be of this world. \”This world\” condemned Christ, the bearer of new life, to death and by doing this it has condemned itself to death. The new life, which shone forth from the grave, is the life of the \”new eon,\” of the age, which in terms of this world is still \”to come.\” The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, by inaugurating a new eon, announced the end of this world, for as no one can partake of the \”new life\” without dying in the baptismal death, no one can have Christ as his life unless he has died and is constantly dying to this world: \”for ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God\” (Col. 3:3). But then nothing which is of this world — no institution, no society, no church — can be identified with the new eon, the new being. The most perfect Christian community — be it completely separated from the evils of the world — as a community is still of this world, living its life, depending on it. It is only by passing into the new eon, by an anticipation — in faith, hope and love — ofthe world to come, that a community can partake of the Body of Christ, and indeed manifest itself as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ can never be \”part\” of this world, for Christ has ascended into heaven and his Kingdom is Heaven…
We have said that if, on the one hand, our \”westernizing\” theology subordinates the Eucharist (as \”effect\”) to the Church (as \”cause\”), the common Orthodox piety, on the other hand, experiences the Church as a \”liturgical institution,\” as cult. But if there is any truth in the preceding discussion of ecclesiology, the relationship Church-Liturgy, or more exactly, Church-Eucharist, must be reversed. It is not the Church that exists for, or \”generates,\” the liturgy, it is the Eucharist which, in a very real sense, \”generates\” the Church, makes her to be what she is. We know that originally the Greek word \”leitourgia\” had no cultic connotations. It meant a public office, a service performed on behalf of a community and for its benefit. In the Septuagint, the word acquired naturally a religious meaning, yet still not necessarily a \”liturgical\” one. It implied the same idea of service, applied now to the chosen people of God whose specific \”leitourgia\” is to fulfill God’s design in history, to prepare the \”way of the Lord.\” The early Christian use reflected the same meaning of \”leitourgia.\” The fact that the Church adopted it finally for her cult, and especially for the Eucharist, indicates her special understanding of worship, which is indeed a revolutionary one. If Christian worship is \”leitourgia\” it cannot be simply reduced to, or expressed in, terms of \”cult.\” The ancient world knew a plethora of cultic religions or \”cults\” — in which worship or cultic acts were the only real content of religion, an \”end in itself.\” But the Christian cult is \”leitourgia\” and this means that it is functional in its essence, has a goal to achieve which transcends the categories of cult as such. This goal is precisely the Church as the manifestation and presence of the \”new eon,\” of the Kingdom of God. In a sense the Church is indeed a liturgical institution, i.e. an institution whose \”leitourgia\” is to fulfill itself as the Body of Christ and a new creation. Christian cult is, therefore, a radically new cult, unprecedented in both the Old Testament and paganism, and the deficiency of a certain theology, as well as of a certain liturgical piety, is that they not only overlook the radical newness of Christian \”leitourgia\” but rather define and experience it again in the old cultic categories.
The theology of manuals stresses the sacramental power of the Church or, in other words, the Church as the \”distributor of grace.\” But it overlooks almost completely the Church as the end and fulfillment of the sacraments. For grace is another name for the Church in the state of fulfillment as the manifestation of the age of the Holy Spirit. There has occurred a very significant shift in the understanding of the sacraments. They have become private services for individual Christians, aimed at their personal sanctification, not at the edification of the Church. The sacrament of penance, for example, which was originally an act of reconciliation with the Church is understood today as a mere \”power of absolution.\” Matrimony, which at first had even no special \”liturgy\” of its own and was performed through the participation of a newly-wed couple in the Eucharist, is no longer considered as the passage — and, therefore, transformation — of a \”natural\” marriage into the dimensions of the Church (\”. . . for this is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church,\” Eph. 5:32), but is defined as a \”blessing\” bestowed upon husband and wife, as a simple Christian sanction of marriage. The Eucharistic cup is replaced in it by a cup \”symbolizing\” common life. Examples like these can be multiplied. But no theological deformation and no piety, based on this deformation, can ultimately obscure and alter the fundamental and organic connection of all sacraments with the Eucharist, as the sacraments of sacraments, and, therefore, truly the Sacrament of the Church.
But from the standpoint of Tradition the sacramental character of the Eucharist cannot be artificially narrowed to one act, to one moment of the whole rite. We have an \”ordo\” in which all parts and all elements are essential, are organically linked together in one sacramental structure. In other words, the Eucharist is a sacrament from the beginning to the end and its fulfillment or consummation is \”made possible\” by the entire liturgy. Liturgy here is not opposed to sacrament, as \”symbolism to realism,\” but indeed is sacrament: one, organic, consistent passage, in which each step prepares and \”makes possible\” the following one.
For the Eucharist, we have said, is a passage, a procession leading the Church into \”heaven,\” into her fulfillment as the Kingdom of God. And it is precisely the reality of this passage into the Eschaton that conditions the transformation of our offering — bread and wine — into the new food of the new creation, of our meal into the Messianic Banquet and the Koinonia of the Holy Spirit. Thus, for example, the coming together of Christians on the Lord’s Day, their visible unity \”sealed\” by the priest (\”ecclesia in episcopo and episcopus in ecclesia\”) is indeed the beginning of the sacrament, the \”gathering into the Church.\” And the entrance is not a symbolical representation of Christ going to preach but the real entrance — the beginning of the Church’s ascension to the Throne of God, made possible, inaugurated by the ascension of Christ’s Humanity. The offertory — the solemn transfer of bread and wine to the altar is again not the symbol of Christ’s burial (or of His entrance into Jerusalem) but a real sacrifice — the transfer of our lives and bodies and of the whole \”matter\” of the whole creation into heaven, their integration in the unique and all-embracing sacrifice of all sacrifices, that of Christ. The prosphora (offering) makes possible the anaphora — the lifting up of the Church, her eschatological fulfillment by the Eucharist. For Eucharist — \”thanksgiving\” — is indeed the very content of the redeemed life, the very reality of the Kingdom as \”joy and peace in the Holy Spirit,\” the end and the fulfillment of our ascension into heaven. Therefore, the Eucharist is consecration and the Fathers called both the prayer of consecration and the consecrated gifts \”Eucharist.\” The insistence by the Orthodox on the epiclesis is nothing else, in its ultimate meaning, but the affirmation that the consecration, i.e., the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, takes place in the \”new eon\” of the Holy Spirit. Our earthly food becomes the Body and Blood of Christ because it has been assumed, accepted, lifted up into the \”age to come,\” where Christ is indeed the very life, the very food of all life and the Church is His Body, \”the fullness of Him that filleth all in all\” (Eph. 1:23). It is there, finally, that we partake of the food of immortality, are made participants of the Messianic Banquet, of the New Pascha, it is from there, \”having seen the true light, having received the heavenly Spirit,\” that we return into \”this world\” (\”let us depart in peace\”) as witnesses of the Kingdom which is \”to come.\” Such is the sacrament of the Church, the \”leitourgia\” which eternally transforms the Church into what she is, makes her the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
In the past years we have been often told that Orthodox theology, if it wants to overcome its inner weakness and deficiencies, must return to the Fathers. \”Patristic revival,\” \”neo-patristic synthesis\” — these and similar expressions are frequent in current Orthodox writings and they point, no doubt, to a very genuine and urgent need. The interruption of the living patristic tradition was indeed the origin of the great theological tragedy of Orthodoxy. But what exactly is meant by this \”return\” and how are we to perform it? To these questions no satisfactory answer has been given. Does it mean a mere repetition of what the Fathers said, on the assumption that they have said everything that is essential and nothing is needed but a recapitulation of their consensus? Such an assumption, even if it were a valid one, would certainly not solve the problem, as we stated it before, — that of the present theological alienation. No collection of highly technical patrological monographs, no edition of patristic texts for the common use, would constitute in themselves the living and creative answer to the real questions of our time, or the real needs of the Church. There would still be the necessity of interpreting the patristic message, of its \”resurrection\” in the mind of the Church, or, in other words, the problem of the theological \”breaking through.\” But we must remember that the Church has never taught that the Fathers answered all questions, that their theology is the whole theology and that the theologian today is merely a commentator of patristic texts. To transform the Fathers into a purely formal and infallible authority, and theology — into a patristic scholasticism — is, in fact, a betrayal of the very spirit of patristic theology, which remains forever a wonderful example of spiritual freedom and creativity. The \”return to the Fathers\” means, above all, the recovery of their spirit, of the secret inspiration, which made them true witnesses of the Church.
We return indeed to the Fathers, and not only to their \”texts,\” when we recover and make ours the experience of the Church not as mere \”institution, doctrine, or system\” to quote A. S. Khomiakov, but the all-embracing, all-assuming and all-transforming life, the passage into the reality of redemption and transfiguration. This experience, as we tried to show, is centered in the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Church, the very manifestation and self-revelation of the Church. Eucharist, whether it is expressly referred to or not, is the organic source and the necessary \”term of reference\” of theology, for if theology is bearing witness to the faith and the life of the Church, to the Church as salvation and the new life in Christ, it bears witness primarily to the experience of the Church manifested, communicated and actualized in the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that the Church ceases to be \”institution, doctrine, system\” and becomes Life, Vision, Salvation, it is in the Eucharist that the Word of God is fulfilled and the human mind made capable of expressing the mind of Christ. Here then is the source of theology, of words about God, the \”event\” which transforms our human speculation into a message of Divine Truth.
1) First of all, there should be no misunderstanding. The \”eucharistic conversion\” of theology does not mean an imposition on the theologian of a definite program, of a prescribed set of themes and questions. On the contrary, properly understood, it liberates him from the dead authority of pseudo-traditional systems, puts him into direct contact with the whole of reality: God, man and the world. \”The spirit bloweth where it listeth . . .\” There exists however, a preliminary problem, which must be dealt with, for it constitutes precisely the condition of the \”eucharistic conversion\” of theology. It is, to put it bluntly, the theological rediscovery of the Eucharist itself. It is here, wehave seen, that the official, post-patristic theology has suffered its most obvious, most harmful metamorphosis, has deviated from the living Tradition, has \”alienated\” itself from the experience of the Church. It is here, therefore, that its deficiencies and limitations must be judged and overcome. To \”rediscover\” the Eucharist means, as we have tried to show, to recover its ecclesiological and eschatological \”fullness\” to know it again as the Sacrament of the Church. This, in turn, means that the reduction of the Eucharist to a multiplicity of artificially isolated \”questions\”: sacrament, sacrifice, communion, etc., must be transcended in a reintegrated vision and experience. Such reintegration is possible only when one ceases to abstract the Eucharist as \”sacrament,\” \”sacrifice or communion\” from the Eucharistic leitourgia, from the action in which all these aspects can be understood in their proper perspective and in their organic relation with one another. The lex orandi must be recovered as the lex credendi. The rediscovery of the Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Church is, in other words, the rediscovery of the Church in actu, the Church as the Sacrament of Christ, of His \”Parousia\” — the coming and presence of the Kingdom, which is to come.
Let us not be mistaken: the task presents enormous difficulties. So much has been forgotten or neglected. The true meaning of the leitourgia of the Church has to be found again. The whole development of the liturgical piety must be reevaluated. The formidable inertia and opposition of dead conservatism and pseudo-traditionalism has to be met and overcome. Theological \”regeneration\” however, demands this price and nothing short of a crisis — constructive criticism, critical reconstruction can restore theology to its real function within the Church.
2) The term \”eucharistic ecclesiology\” has been recently introduced into our theological vocabulary. One can speak of even greater reasons for eucharistic theology, and this entire essay is nothing but an attempt to prove that truly Orthodox theology is by its very nature \”eucharistic.\” This does not mean that the Eucharist as such is the only object of theological contemplation and analysis. It was precisely such a transformation of the Eucharist into an \”object\” that obscured its function as the source of theology. It means that in the life of the Church the Eucharist is the moment of truth which makes it possible to see the real \”objects\” of theology: God, man and the world, in the true light, which, in other words, reveals both the objects of theology as they really are and gives the necessary light for their understanding. \”We have seen the true light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit . . .\” Theology, like any other Christian service or \”leitourgia,\” is a charisma, a gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift is given in the Church, i.e., in the act in which the Church fulfills herself as the communion of the Holy Spirit, in which she offers in Christ and offers Him, and is accepted by Christ and receives from Him; in the act which is, therefore, the source of all charisms and ministries of the Church. It is the moment of truth, indeed, for there we stand before God, in Christ who is the End, the Eschaton, the Fullness of all our humanity, and in Him offer to God the only \”reasonable service\” (logike latreia) of the redeemed world — the Eucharist, and in the light of it see and understand and recapitulate in Christ the truth about God, man and the world, about the creation and fall, sin and redemption, about the whole universe and its final transfiguration in the Kingdom of God, and we receive this truth in participation of the Body and Blood of Christ, in the unending Pentecost that \”guides us into all truth and shows us things to come\” (John 16:13). The task of theology is to bear witness to this truth, and there is no end to this task. Each theologian will see it only partially and partially reflect it, and each one will remain free, indeed, to reflect it according to his own particular charisma and vocation, but just as all charismata have one and the same source, all vocations ultimately contribute to the edification of one catholic theology of the Church.
Return to the Bible, return to the Fathers . . . This means, above all, the return to the Church through the Eucharist and to the Eucharist through the Church: here the \”texts\” of the Scripture are given to us again and again as the living and life-creating Word of God, here we meet our Fathers not in \”books\” but in reality, the Reality to which they bore witness in their time and in their language, to which we are called to bear witness in our time and in our own language. \”For the languages in the world are different,\” says St. Irenaeus, \”but the power of tradition is one and the same\” (Adv. Haer. 1, 10, 2). \”Our teaching,\” he adds, \”is confirmed to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our teaching.\”