by Fr. Alexander Schmemann
We go to church for love, for the new love of Christ himself, which is granted to us in our unity. We go to church so that this divine love will again and again be “poured into our hearts,” so that again and again we may “put on love,” so that constituting the body of Christ, we can abide in Christ’s love and manifest it to the world. But that is why our contemporary, utterly individualized piety, in which we egotistically separate ourselves from the gathering, is so grievous, so contradictory to the age-old experience of the Church. While standing in the church, we continue to sense some people as “neighbors,” the others as “strangers”…
And thus the kiss of peace is disclosed to us in its full significance… I really don’t know the man who is standing across from me in church; I can neither love him nor not love him, for he is a “stranger” to me and thus no one. And we are so afraid of this hollow form, so utterly “sincere” in our individualism and egocentrism, that we forget the chief thing. We forget that, in the call to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” we are talking not of our personal, natural, human love, through which we cannot in fact love someone who is a “stranger,” who has not yet become “something” or “somebody” for us, but of the love of Christ, the eternal wonder of which consists precisely in the fact that it transforms the stranger (and each stranger, in his depths, is an enemy) into a brother, irrespective of whether he has or does not have relevance for me and for my life. That it is the very purpose of the Church to overcome the horrible alienation that was introduced into the world by the devil and proved to be its undoing. And we forget that we have come to the Church for this love, which is always granted to us in the gathering of the brethren….
We know we cannot of ourselves attain this love, just as we cannot acquire the peace of Christ which “surpasses all understanding” forgiveness of sins, eternal life and union with God. All this is given, granted to us in the sacred mystery of the Church; and the entire Church is one great sacrament, the sacred rite of Christ….
We must ask ourselves: do we go to the liturgy for this love of Christ, do we go as people who hunger and thirst not only for help and consolation, but for the fire that burns away all our weaknesses, all our limitations, and illumines us through the new love of Christ? Or are we afraid that this love will weaken our hatred for our enemies, all our “principled” condemnations, our discrepancies and divisions? Do we not more often desire from the Church peace only with those with whom we already have it, love for those whom we already love, self-affirmation and self-justification? But if so, we are not acquiring that gift that allows us to actually renew and eternally renew our lives, we do not venture beyond the limits of our personal “alienation,” and we are not really taking part in the Church.
An abridged extract from Fr. Schmemann’s book, The Eucharist, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. See pages 138-140.
Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53