Orthodox America


Liturgical Renewal


The discussion below took place in June 1990, between Archimandrite Victor (Mamontov), rector of St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk Church in Karsava, Latvia, and Hieromonk Zinon, a talented young iconographer of the Pskov-Caves Monastery. It is translated from an unpublished manuscript.

Fr. Victor: Fr. Zinon, many understand the renaissance of the Orthodox Church in an external sense; I should like to discuss its true, inner renaissance, the deepening of our ecclesiastical awareness. In speaking about the life of the Church, about life in the Church, let's begin with what is most important-the Mystery of Baptism.

Fr. Zinon: In recent years there have been many new discoveries in the field of liturgics. Ancient manuscripts have been found of church rites, and other liturgical texts. They shed light on the life of the early Church, on those aspects which later were subject to change-whether for historical reasons, by chance, or simply by human volition. And if we are to speak about liturgical renewal, then we must speak first of all about those distortions which we have introduced into our church life and which we alone can and should rectify.

You mentioned Baptism. The problems concerning the reception of new members into the Church are many. Their solution demands great effort, patience and time. But there are problems which are fairly easy to solve. However, whether out of negligence or for some other reason, they persist, and this raises a disquieting thought, that if the simpler problems cannot be resolved, what can be said about more major problems? I have in mind here the manner in which baptisms are performed.

Here [in Russia] the practice of sprinkling instead of immersion is almost universal. And to think that this was the source of so many disputes with the Roman Catholics. In Slavonic the very word "baptism" means immersion. Our forefathers used to say: krestisa korabl (lit: the ship was baptized), i.e., it sank, it was submerged. In the Gospel Christ reproaches the pharisees for observing ordinances concerning the washing [in Slavonic the word is kreshcheniye, "baptizing"] of cups and pots (Mark 7:8), while neglecting the cleansing of the heart.

"As many as have been baptized into Christ, have been baptized into His death" (cf. Rom. 6:3). Baptism is an image of burial, and immersion obviously corresponds more closely to the essence of this great Mystery. Fr. Victor: A young fellow came to me recently asking to be rebaptized. "I was baptized very quickly, clothed, and I felt nothing," he said. Baptism must be preceded by spiritual enlightenment and repentance. In the early Christian Church, the community took upon itself the care of catechumens and carefully, like a loving mother, prepared them for the Mystery: they instructed them in the faith, chose their sponsors. In the Ss. Peter and Paul Brotherhood in Riga, which was recently revived with the blessing of Metropolitan Leonid, this tradition is being restored-with fruitful results. But such examples in today's church life are few.

Fr. Zinon: I fear that if each rector of a parish, or someone else, would do this on his own, this would be an individual action and it would be doomed to failure.

For example: a man comes to me desiring to be baptized. I tell him, "You can't be baptized right away; you must first learn about the faith. Go to church, learn the basics of faith, get acquainted with the services, test yourself-the firmness of your intention: can you change your life, can you become a totally different person from what you were before..." He seems to agree, but then takes his request-whether consciously or by chance-to another priest, and the latter tells him: "What is all this, by all means you must be baptized right away. Don't listen to that other priest; he's full of inventions." If the man goes to another, and to a third priest and they all tell him the same thing, he'll have to submit and accept the conditions. If, however, he approaches the Mystery more seriously, with more preparation, it will be for him an important event in his life. Only in emergency cases, when a person was near death, was he baptized immediately. But these were unique cases.

The general practice was this: a prayer was read over the person desiring to enter the Church and he was joined to the catechumenate. His name was entered on a special list. The catechumenate lasted from one to three years, depending on local practice, and only then was he found worthy of Holy Baptism. And this day was a feast for the entire local Church. It is absolutely essential that the above be revived in our time; when people are so inconstant, so light-minded, it's better to test the sincerity of their intention with time.

Regarding infants-Fr. Alexander Schmemann discusses this at length in his book, Of Water and the Spirit. The practice of baptizing children became firmly rooted only in the age of Constantine, when marriages became fully churchly and there was greater assurance that the baptized children would be raised in faith and piety. For in the time of the early Church it often happened that the husband was a pagan and the wife a Christian, and it was unclear how the child would grow up-as a Christian or as a pagan. Children of unbelieving parents shouldn't be baptized at all, certainly not secretly from the parents. Today it often happens that the godparents themselves are not baptized, and the parents are not even believers. Here I should like to cite a passage from the "Homily on Holy Baptism" of St. Gregory the Theologian:

"...what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too? Certainly, if any danger presses....But in respect of others I give my advice to wait till the end of the third year, or a little more or less, when they may be able to listen and to answer something about the Sacrament; that, even though they do not perfectly understand it, yet at any rate they may know the outlines; and then to sanctity them in soul and body with the great sacrament of our consecration." (XXVIII)

Today the opinion is widespread that an infant who dies unbaptized is doomed to eternal torment. In the Synaxarion for Saturday of Meatfare Week, when the Church commemorates the dead of all ages, there is a passage which speaks of infants dying without Holy Baptism; they do not experience blessedness but neither do they enter torment but are kept by God in a special place. The same hierarch speaks of those who "fail to receive the Gift [of Baptism]...not so much through wickedness as through ignorance or tyranny" [i.e. involuntary] ...these "will be neither glorified nor punished by the righteous Judge..." (XXIII)

Nowadays the person being baptized is told that the Mystery of Baptism cleanses from original sin, that he receives grace, without which it is impossible to be saved. However, he misses the full grandeur of the Mystery because it has long ago been divorced from the Liturgy (with which it should be joined, just as the Mysteries of Ordination and Matrimony), and has become a separate rite. The newly-illumined one is fortunate if he vaguely understands that he has become a member of God's people, a member of the Body of Christ and a new creature. Since Baptism has been severed from the Liturgy, the entire community, the whole local Church does not participate in it, and for this reason there is no sense of being ushered into the Church as an assembly of brethren. And after Holy Baptism a person generally lives on his own, as circumstances dictate. It is a great misfortune that a person coming to church does not feel that he has entered some kind of community, a family, where people remember him, care for him, pay attention to him. If he doesn't take the intiative to become acquainted with anyone, no one will ask him anything; people may offend him or simply disregard him. If he comes-fine, if he doesn't-that's also fine. No one will look for him or offer their help.

All this is evidence that we have no real communities among us; our church life has become individualized, it has become a personal matter. Each person lives and struggles on his own, and for this reason he often can't accept another's spiritual experience, which differs slightly from his own. The sad fruits of this situation are mutual estrangement, withdrawal, a hardness. I often hear from people zealous for salvation strange words: "How good it was to pray in church today; it was almost empty and no one bothered you; you could hide and concentrate." This is private prayer. That is what Christ referred to when He said, When you pray, shut your door and pray to your Father Who is in Heaven. But church prayer carries a entirely different set of requirements. Here everyone "with one mouth and one heart" glorifies the One Heavenly Father.

Fr. Victor: In apostolic times, in the early Church Christians lived according to the commandment: "always everyone and always together". Today's Christians have forgotten this commandment and, in the words of Archpriest Nicholas Afanasiev, they desire somehow "to withdraw from everyone and stand alone before God, in order to receive something personal." If we can understand that the foundation of Church life lies in sobornost, i.e., in being always together, then we shall discover the true nature of the Eucharist-the center of life in Christ. But while we continue to violate the Church's unity, withdrawing outside its borders, our frequent individual reception of the Holy Mysteries says nothing about liturgical renewal.

Fr. Zinon: The main condition for performing the Eucharist is the gathering of the community with its leader. All the members of the Church are brought together by love for Christ and for one another. A great deal was written about the Church and sobornost-and with great feeling-by the Slavophiles, especially A. Khomiakov. He defines the Church not as a community (all our catechisms use this word) but as a single grace of the Holy Spirit, living in many individuals. This is very true. The principle of sobornost is a distinctive feature of the Church, and we must all work towards its restoration, even though this requires great effort, time, and-what is most important-great self-sacrifice.

Frequent communion, if this is individual, that is, if each decides for himself when he will or will not partake of the Divine Mysteries, will not solve anything. Liturgy is a common affair. The prayers of the Liturgy are not addressed to two different categories of congregants: those who communicate and those who simply attend. The Eucharist is a Supper; one can only partake of it. To merely look on while others eat is rather strange. Why does the Church not let catechumens remain to watch the faithful communicate and instead, with repeated exclamations, orders them to leave the temple? Because all the members of the assembly serve, they give thanks, and this presupposes that they have all partaken of the Eucharist. Catechumens, not illuminated with Holy Baptism, cannot partake of the celebration nor consume the Eucharist. Therefore, one cannot speak of attending Liturgy; one can only speak of participating in it. On hearing these words, many will be surprised and taken aback. This only proves how far we've come from the original understanding of the Eucharist. Valsamon notes that in his time far from all Christians received Holy Communion at each Liturgy, but they left the church together with the catechumens and penitents. Even the Patriarch, he says, when he did not serve or receive the Holy Mysteries, left the church after the reading of the Gospel.

Nor can one speak of partaking "spiritually"; the Church acknowledges only actual partaking.

It is very important that communion become a common affair of the entire community, which gathers precisely for this purpose. In the early Church everyone participated in the Divine Liturgy. The bread and wine were brought by the faithful (the word "prosphora" signifies "offering", and in one of the proskomedia prayers are the words, "Remember those who offer and those for whom these gifts are offered"), the deacons chose the best for celebrating the Mystery, and what remained was left for the agape. Even orphan children, who were in the care of the Church and had nothing of their own, brought water; that was their offering.

The day of the Eucharist proper was the day of the Lord, that is, Sunday and great feasts. Christians would take the Holy Gifts home with them and partake of them daily. The daily celebration of the Liturgy is a monastic practice, which later spread to parishes, prompted by a desire for daily communion. For this reason, Liturgies without communicants or commissioned Liturgies are absolutely unthinkable. Just imagine: an individual puts in a request for a common celebration (which is the actual meaning of the word "liturgy"), and no one even attends!

The holy hierarch St. Basil the Great advises Christians to gather four times a week for the celebration of the Eucharist: on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. As an ideal, however, he recommends daily participation.

There exists a rule from one of the Ecumenical Councils, which, incidentally, was never changed: if a Christian, without good reason, does not participate in two or three Eucharistic gatherings (i.e., does not partake of the Holy Mysteries), he is separated from the Church, or rather, he separates himself from Christ.

Granted, not everyone can suddenly attain to this. But to speak about this is essential; everyone should strive towards this.

Fr. Victor: When St. Seraphim was asked how often one should partake of the Holy Mysteries he said, the more often the better.

Fr. Zinon: In the Greater Catechism it is said that those zealous for salvation should commuicate four times a year, or at least once a year. Today this sounds strange. No one follows this instruction; life itself has changed this. Already St. John of Kronstadt taught quite otherwise. Fr. Victor: In many parishes today there is a custom of receiving the Holy Mysteries only once a year, on Pascha. I ask my parishioners: "If I were to feed you only once a year, would you survive until the next Pascha?" Fr. Zinon: Just as earthly food is necessary for the life of the body, so it is that heavenly food is necessary for the soul. When we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," we ask for that Bread which comes from heaven, because even those who do not ask receive ordinary bread, i.e., even unbelievers, even enemies of God. In the Greek text the word "daily" is epiousion, the prefix "epi" means "over", "above", "supra"; i.e., in the literal translation it means "supra-essential", not ordinary but rather the Body of Christ. This is why we say the Lord's Prayer during Liturgy before Holy Communion.

Fr. Victor: Even if only two or three people are present, this is already an assembly and one can sense the fullness of the Church and its essence. Fr. Zinon: Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) recalls: when he lived in the desert a monk used to come to him in order to sing during the Liturgy. There were only the two of them, but he notes that he never felt any deficiency. There was the same fullness as in a church filled with people. Fr Victor: Our dear batiushka, Fr. Seraphim from Rakitino, told us how as a boy he once went into a church where an old priest was serving together with an old deacon, and what great joy he experienced in prayer, from simply being with them.

Fr. Zinon: I also recall that in Fr. Alexander Shmemann's book, The Eucharist, he says that Russian emigres, finding themselves in straightened circumstances, when cellars and garages served as churches, came to see the impossibility of celebrating the Liturgy in the Byzantine style with all its external splendor, with its many entrances and exits. On the other hand, they had such a genuine sense of Christ's presence in these wretched churches! And this experience was for them very beneficial and instructive. For many people today, especially young people who come to church for the first time, who have not yet entered the flow of church life and learned to think in its terms-there is much that is altogether foreign.

We must remember that we received the ritual of services from Byzantium together with the Faith. Our Liturgical rite contains many elements which came from the Byzantine court tradition, since the Patriarch and Emperor were always present at the services. For modern man the very idea of monarchy is almost incomprehensible, and all the rites connected with this idea seem anachronistic; they don't seem to amount to anything.

Fr. Victor: One could do away with some of these elements without any detriment to the Liturgy.

Fr. Zinon: I've been told that Archbishop Chrysostom of Vilnius almost always serves according to the priestly rank. I think this is good, since it eliminates many bows, "Eis pola, eti despota...", etc. which distract from what is most important.

Fr. Victor: But such an understanding of the Liturgy first requires that people be enlightened.

Fr. Zinon: Absolutely. If one were today to substitute all the singing in the church with reading (which would in no way impair the Liturgy), many would understand that they come to church for the wrong reason. The Great Eucharist consists not in great external majesty but in the fact that it is an unheard of gift of God to man; it is that good which eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man...

(Continued in Issue 112)

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