The term “sacramental” means here that the basic and primordial intuition which not only expresses itself in worship, but of which the entire worship is indeed the “phenomenon” – both effect and experience – is that the world, be it in its totality as cosmos, or in its life and becoming as time and history, is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence, and power. In other words, it not only “posits” the idea of God as a rationally acceptable cause of its existence, but truly “speaks” of Him and is in itself an essential means both of knowledge of God and communion with Him, and to be so is its true nature and its ultimate destiny. But then worship is truly an essential act, and man an essentially worshipping being, for it is only in worship that man has the source and the possibility of that knowledge which is communion, and of that communion which fulfills itself as true knowledge: knowledge of God and therefore knowledge of the world – communion with God and therefore communion with all that exists. Thus the very notion of worship is based on an intuition and experience of the world as an “epiphany” of God, thus the world – in worship – is revealed in its true nature and vocation as “sacrament.”
Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World
Fr. Alexander’s argument may be somewhat difficult for my readers to follow – but his point is perhaps among the most central in our day and time. The quote comes from a lecture on “Worship in a Secular Age,” given in 1971, and published as part of his marvelous volume, For the Life of the World. The heart of his argument is the utter denial of secularism as a proper perception of the world. It is Schmemann who offers the insight that secularism is not the denial of God’s existence, but merely the separation of God’s existence from the world as we know and experience it. It is the division of the world into “real” and “spiritual.”
I have used the imagery of a one-storey versus a two-storey universe as a means of getting at the same point. When creation is removed from God and understood to exist and to have meaning as a thing in itself – then the world begins to lose meaning and to collapse upon itself as the product of chance and accident. Humanity collapses into the same randomness and absurdity.
Fr. Schmemann spoke about human beings as primarily understood and constituted as worshipping beings. In this, we are the priests of creation: we offer to God what has been given to us and within the life of worship know God and the truth of His creation as communion.
The “crisis of religion” in our modern period has been the utterly dominant success of the secular model. A wide variety of ideas and events contributed to this rise of secularism – but the divorce of God from our daily lives is the result. In our modern world, God is not seen in His Epiphany within and through creation – but primarily in and through the ideas and beliefs of those who accept His existence.
Thus believer and non-believer experience the world in much the same manner. It is the common arena of humanity whose differentiation is defined by choices and allegiances. A quiet peace can be created in such an arrangement. So long as there is freedom of “thought,” then the faith of the believer is considered safe. However, if thought and belief alone establish the religious character of things – then nothing is holy. At best, something can be “considered” holy by some. Whether such considerations are respected is solely part of our social compact.
The great scandal of Christianity is the Incarnation of Christ: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Those who rationalize Christ’s incarnation are those who interpret its significance along primarily ideological lines. His incarnation (including His death and resurrection) are seen has having brought about certain theological realities (our sins are forgiven, etc.) but the event of His incarnation is not seen as revealing anything in particular about creation itself. That the Uncreated has become the created is, in such rational schemes, unremarkable.
This is not the faith of the fathers, nor the faith which has given us Scripture, Creeds and Councils, nor the life of the Church. That God became man not only says volumes about the love of God, but also says something about the nature of humanity. We were created in the image of God – though that image is not realized until the coming of Christ. Christ’s incarnation is an epiphany – a revelation of the truth of humanity, as well as the truth of the love of God.
Christ’s relationship with the created order, throughout His ministry, is revelatory of the nature of creation and the truth of its being. That “winds and seas obey Him,” raised questions for the disciples about who Christ was, but for us it must also raise questions about what the winds and seas are.
The offering of bread and wine in which we receive in return the Body and Blood of Christ is not a moment which exists parenthetically within creation: it is also revelatory about the very character of our relationship with creation itself. What we do with bread and wine is also what we must do with everything around us: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!”
Secularism is the great religious crisis of our time (perhaps the definitive crisis of human sin). It’s critical temptation is the lure of religion – to carve out some small piece of our lives and our world in which we speak or think about God – leaving the rest of creation inert and unsanctified, bereft of the glory of God.
Within the Church this can occur by limiting the grace of God to certain defined moments or actions (sacraments) with those moments and actions serving not as revelations of the whole truth of our existence but serving only as a “sacralization” of unique moments. If the Eucharist is not a transformation of the world, then Christ’s death and resurrection are stripped of their power and significance.
We swim in the water of secularism – the modern world is utterly shaped and dominated by its perceptions. That Christians must become aware of this deception and proclaim the fullness of the gospel of Christ is essential in our modern struggle. Creation groans and travails for the reality made known to us in the fullness of Jesus Christ.