Father Schmemann on the Holy Eucharist
from the essay "Theology and Eucharist"
Having forgotten the ecclesiological and the eschatological significance of the Eucharist, having reduced it to one "means of grace" among many, our official theology was bound to limit the theological study of the Eucharist to only two problems: that of the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and that of communion. As applied to the Eucharist, the term "sacrament" usually means either one of these acts or both, although it is explicitly admitted that they can be treated separately. Within this theological framework the Church remains mainly as a "power" — to perform the transformation, to give communion. The priest is the minister (the "performer") of the sacrament, the elements of bread and wine — its "matter," the communicant — its recipient. But communion having long ago ceased to be a self-evident fulfillment of the sacrament — 90% of our eucharistic celebrations are without communicants — there developed an additional and virtually independent theology of the Eucharist as sacrifice, essential per se, regardless of the people’s presence or participation. And finally, since theology by focusing its attention on these two moments of the Eucharist imperceptibly relegated all other elements of the eucharistic celebration into the category of "non-essential" rituals, the door was open to their interpretation in terms of liturgical symbolism. As understood and explained since Cabasilas, the Eucharist is a symbolical representation of the life of Christ, serving as a framework for the double sacrament of consecration and communion, yet not essential for its "validity" and "efficacy."
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.