In a recent article at First Things, Peter Leithart laments the “high-churchism” of non-Protestant celebrations of the Eucharist.
For Leithart, the essential difference between “high” and “low” liturgies is that of the preparatory rites—not necessarily the external ornaments of incense, bells, and vestments. Beyond mere simplicity, the Protestant or “Puritan” sacramentalism was one that eschewed excessive and unnecessary foreplay:
The low-church Reformers … stripped away preparatory rites because they believed that the power of sacraments rests on God’s word, and that alone. If a minister is ordained to a ministry of word and sacrament, why does he need to go through what looks like re-ordination every time he leads the Eucharist? … If Jesus promises to wash us at the font, we don’t need to bless the water. We only have to believe him. Jesus promises to give himself to us at his table. We should trust him, take, and eat. To the Reformers, the Latin Mass didn’t take God at his word. Surrounding the sacraments with elaborate preparatory rites manifested distrust in God’s promise, which means distrust in the potency of sacraments.
In other words, a Puritan sacramentalism—by Leithart’s definition—is not one that mistrusts the potency of the sacramental rites, but is rather one in which the efficacy depends solely on God’s promise, rather than the efforts of a priest.
Taking matters further, Leithart asserts that high-churchism “raises doubts about the sacramentality of creation.” Of note:
Sacraments are sacraments because God designates them to be such, but he doesn’t override the features of things when he designates them to be used as rites in the church. Water is a suitable vehicle for baptism because of the way God made water. As creatures, bread and wine are designed for a Eucharistic feast. The rites of preparation in high liturgies suggest that the materials of the liturgy aren’t sacramental enough just by being the materials they are. They have to be elevated from nature to super-nature before they become liturgically useful. For low-church Protestantism, the world is sufficiently charged with the grandeur of God to begin with. They were chosen for holy use because of their common use.
And then, in conclusion:
Low liturgy can manifest a “higher” view of sacraments than high liturgy. Protestant Puritanism doesn’t undermine sacraments. Perhaps only Puritans can give sacraments their due.
In his thought experiment, Leithart demonstrates a crippling unfamiliarity with the deeper purpose behind the so-called “high-churchism” of the Orthodox Liturgy (whether East or West).
The Rites of Preparation
Let us consider first the purpose of these preparatory rites. Writing as an Orthodox Christian, I will reference the words and actions of a deacon or priest of the Eastern Orthodox Church (and rites), though most of what I write will no doubt apply to traditional Western norms.
In Orthodoxy, this service is known as προσκομιδή—“offering.” It is also referred to as πρόϑεσις or “setting forth.” A later addition to the Liturgy—and especially enabled by architectural changes to the apse at the behest of Justin II (ca. A.D. 565–578), nephew of the Emperor St. Justinian I—these rites are positioned largely (and rather intentionally, I would argue) as a parallel to the “bread of the presence” in the old covenant tabernacle (cf. Lev 24:5–9). Notably, Moses claims the bread and frankincense on this table of offering served as “a present reminder”—ἀνάμνησιν in the Greek—to the Lord. The same words we use, at the command of Jesus Christ, for the Eucharistic meal.
And while Leithart complains these rites suggest a distrust in God’s promises or a sort of “re-ordination” for the presiding minister, nothing could be further from the truth.
To put it simply, the overarching theme of the Proskomede is humility. Humility on the part of the priest and deacon who are about to ascend with the people to the eternal throne room of God’s glory in heaven. Rather than showing a lack of trust in the promises of God, the service demonstrates a reverence for God’s utter holiness, our sinfulness even as ordained servants of Christ, and the central purpose of the Eucharist itself: to be transformed, by the Holy Spirit, into the very Body of Christ. Ordination is not a nullification of one’s personal sins, and so each week the celebrant seeks forgiveness before the throne of Christ.
For example, the priest bows towards the East, asking:
O Lord, stretch forth Thy hand from Thy holy place on high, and strengthen me for this, Thine appointed service; that standing uncondemned before Thy dread altar, I may celebrate the bloodless ministry.
And again, later:
O God, cleanse me a sinner and have mercy on me.
This reverence for the heavenly altar (and its service) comes not from a place of doubt, but rather from an appropriate humility—the same shown by Moses on the mountain, the high priests of the earthly tabernacle, and the apostle Paul as he was called on a dusty road to Damascus. Only a naive conception of perfectionism could deny the necessity for continual repentance and confession of sins:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. —1 John 1:8–10
And before one serves at the heavenly altar, a reconciliation with both God and man is a necessity:
[I]f you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. —Matt. 5:23–24
Reconciled before God, the priest then vests and acknowledges being clothed with Christ (a recollection, of course, of baptism; cf. Gal. 3:27). This is not an act of re-ordination but rather a humble acknowledgement of the priest’s dependency on God—for as the concluding words of the Proskomede make plain, the Liturgy is the work of the Lord: “It is time for the Lord to act.” Just as the Church (as Christ’s Bride) is collectively clothed with the righteous deeds of the Saints at the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7–8), the priest is clothed with the Righteous One before the Eucharistic feast.
In all of this, there is no “distrust in the potency of the sacraments.” Instead, what we find is an intimate respect and awe for the reality and immanence of God in this Divine Liturgy. Much like the shadowed bread of the presence, the Proskomede shows forth the life-changing presence of God in the holy Eucharist, as the people of God gather around the eternal altar for their ultimate transformation into true images of Christ.
Super-essential Bread and Wine
Regarding the second quote above, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are not in need of some sort of “magical” transformation (as Leithart seems to imply), but are rather revealed by the Holy Spirit to be as they are in eternity.
In the anaphora and epiclesis of the Divine Liturgy, the people of Christ gathered around his holy table are granted a vision of heaven. Or as Pope emeritus Benedict XVI once wrote:
In the liturgy the curtain between heaven and earth is torn open, and we are taken up into a liturgy that spans the whole cosmos.[1. The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 125]
The tabernacle of the Lord has now in the new covenant expanded to encompass not only the whole world but also piercing the depths of eternity (cf. Isa. 54:2–3). Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church eloquently remarks:
In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle.[2. CCC 1090]
In the Eastern tradition, the iconostasis serves not as a barrier between the priest and people, but rather as a window or gateway into eternity. Through the face of both God and his Saints, we see into the heavenly realm itself. To see the iconostasis as a “wall” is to not see with eyes to see; to hear the words of the Liturgy as “magic” is to not hear with ears to hear.
The elements of the Eucharist are not, as Leithart claims, “common.” Bread and wine are both the result of a painstaking process of transformation or metamorphosis. Bread does not grow on trees, and there are no lakes of wine. Rather, these elements of the Eucharist are cultivated, worked, and produced by the toil and sweat of human beings. They achieve their telos through effort.
Similarly, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are shown to be as they truly are in eternity through the Divine Liturgy. They are presented to us in their fulness or teleological form. This comes across most explicitly through St. Basil’s wording, where the bread and wine are “shown” to be the Body and Blood of Christ. Their transformation is just as much a transformation of those witnessing and partaking as the elements themselves. Chrysostom, too, would have the presiding minister call down the Holy Spirit “on us” in the epiclesis, not neglecting the people’s need of transformation along with the bread and wine.
No doubt invoking a bit of Schmemann in his “Puritan” critique, Leithart arms himself with a zeal lacking knowledge. Divorced from the appropriate context, Leithart cannot see the forest on account of the trees. And while Schmemann calls the Orthodox faithful to an appreciation of the Christian mystery apart from the trappings of the external rites, he nonetheless does so from within a context that continually administers and appropriates said rites. Without explicating the entirety of Schmemann’s vast (and complex) written corpus, one can safely presuppose that he and Leithart are worlds apart.
Surrounded by Thousands of Archangels
Returning again to a theme of humility, what we find in the Divine Liturgy is not a series of magic spells or the unnecessary fumbling of a priest already sanctified. Rather, we find the humble submission of a sinner—chosen, nonetheless, among God’s people—before a God who is “the Offerer and the Offered, the One who receives and is distributed.”
In the Divine Liturgy, then, we acknowledge that it is Christ who is the High Priest—a High Priest offering himself as the ultimate sacrifice and atonement for the sins of the world. The celebrants from start to finish confess not only their own sinfulness (influenced, no doubt, by the Donatist controversy), but also their humility before the Christ who is officiating the Liturgy of eternity at his heavenly altar.
As already noted, the deacon begins our service with such acknowledgement: “It is time for the Lord to act.” And in a similar manner, the priest—in Chrysostom’s anaphora—humbly stands in awe that the God of all eternity would even listen to our feeble prayers, joining in with the great eschatological feast:
We also thank You for this liturgy which You are pleased to accept from our hands, even though You are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of Angels, by the Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings, singing the victory hymn, proclaiming, crying out, and saying: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna to God in the highest.
It is truly an amazing and awesome thing that the God who is surrounded by thousands of Archangels would accept our liturgies, prayers, and psalms. And he accepts them not because we treat this mystery as “common,” but rather because we symbolically remove our sandals—as did Moses on the mountain—and approach the God who is a consuming fire with both reverence and awe (Heb. 12:28–29).
Becoming What We Are
In his survey of the Divine Liturgy, Fr. Lawrence Farley writes:
The Eucharist reconstitutes us, week by week, as the Church of God, and nourishes us with His divine life. By receiving the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ. As St. Paul said, “We, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). That is, through our partaking of the one bread of the Eucharist, God makes us again into the one Body of the Church. The Eucharist is therefore the sacrament of the Kingdom, the eschatological presence of Christ in this age. Through our participation in the Eucharist we belong to Christ, and, through Him, to the age to come. As the eschatological sacrament, the Eucharist takes us from this age and plants us, week by blessed week, in Christ, who has taken His throne beyond this age, at the right hand of God in the age to come (Col. 3:1) … Through our eucharistic inclusion and participation in Christ, we belong to this age no longer. Now we belong to Christ and to His Kingdom, to the age to come. The Eucharist makes us eschatological beings, men and women who have transcended this age, who have overcome the world (see John 16:33).[3. Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, pp. 7–8]
Ultimately, the purpose of the Eucharist is not the transformation of bread and wine but rather the transformation of God’s people into the Body and Bride of Christ. It is a movement from this present, evil age to the age that is yet to come.
But in that space between, we are ever needful of God’s sanctifying Grace, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the renewal of regeneration that only begins at baptism (Titus 3:5). None are perfect this side of eternity, and so becoming truly human is an effort that is never quite complete on this side of the parousia.
As Schmemann himself notes, the opening exclamation of the priest in the Divine Liturgy is an indication of where we are headed—the kingdom of God. And that kingdom is one of repentance and metamorphosis. It is a kingdom shown to be “at hand” in both the Transfiguration and in John’s baptism of repentance. It is a kingdom of hard work, and of anything but that which is “common.”
While we must certainly make an effort to ensure we never lose sight of Christ as Orthodox Christians, dispensing with rites of humility and repentance—rites that indicate our eternal dependence on God as “the Offerer and the Offered, the One who receives and is distributed”—is the last thing we should consider. Much of what Leithart proposes reduces quickly to absurdity. From a refusal to prepare for the Eucharist to a refusal to worship itself, this sort of rigid anti-ritualism doesn’t hold water.
Rather than seeking a “Puritan sacramentalism” that seemingly replaces repentance and humility with a presumptuous, over-realized eschatology, we should listen all the more carefully to the words of our Divine services. We should pray all the more fervently for the unworthy sinners chosen in our midst to lead us towards the Eden of the Orient. We should prepare all the more faithfully for our entrance into the mystical and eternal kingdom of God with each Divine Liturgy, knowing full well that our God is a consuming fire.