Sacraments of Time and Community
Sacraments of Time and Community How can you learn to pray? You have to understand the sacramentality of time and community. The Church is God’s presence on earth, transforming all humanity and all earthliness. Everything that we are is caught up and made new, like Christ on Ascension, including time and community. When we pray, we step out of ordinary time and into God’s eternal time. When we follow the Church calendar, we step out of chronological time, and participate directly in the holy, eternal events celebrated. Human relationship is also sanctified. Isolation, division, and broken relationships are abolished. We become one, as a family, in Jesus Christ. This experience of time and community is an essential part of growing closer to God. What is the Sacramental Life? “A sacrament is understood primarily as a revelation of the genuine nature of creation, of the world, which, however much it has fallen as “this world,” will remain God’s world, awaiting salvation, redemption, healing and transfiguration in a new earth and a new heaven. In other words, in the Orthodox experience a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself, for the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life.” ~ Fr. Alexander Schmemann In order to understand time and community in our prayer life, we have to first understand the sacraments. What are sacraments? Sacraments are God with us. A sacrament is the presence of God in creation, God poured out in our lives, in order that we might become one with God. God takes the bread and wine we offer, saturates it with Himself, and invites us to “eat” and “drink.” As we partake of the Eucharist, we commune with God, experiencing the highest form of intimacy. Likewise, in water, oil, the laying on of hands, and all the sacramental rites, God receives and pierces into our humanity, transforms it, and bridges the gap between creation and creator. How many sacraments are there? The Orthodox Church recognizes seven primary sacraments. These specific sacraments are granted special importance because they were officiated by Christ himself. Nonetheless, limiting the sacraments to seven is a relatively recent tradition, stemming from the late Renaissance. It is a tradition that would have been foreign to Orthodox and Roman Catholics in the first millenium. The Orthodox borrow the tradition for pedagogical purposes, while always recognizing its limitations. The same can be said about the practice of distinguishing sacraments from sacramentals. The Orthodox use these terms interchangeably, recognizing the mystery in God’s power in the Church. Ultimately, the entire life of the Church is a sacrament. When anything human or material becomes transformed by God – elevated to its higher calling – it is sacramental. In this way, holy water is a sacrament. We take ordinary water, invite the Holy Spirit into it, and it becomes caught up and changed by Christ’s incarnation. It then serves as a means for sanctifying us. Every object that touches the altar becomes sacramental, whether flowers, bread, or oil. When we make the sign of the cross over a bowl of soup, that soup partakes of the sacramental reality that is the Kingdom. The same can be said about all we do in the Church. Everything, when brought into the Church, becomes a sacrament, including time and community. The Sacrament of Time We declare, “Christ is born” on Christmas Day. We do not declare, “Christ was born.” As we worship together at the sacred Christ Mass, we believe that we are outside of time, plunged into the eternal, glorious moment of Christ’s birth. The gates of heaven are opened wide on Great and Holy Pascha. Why? Christ is resurrected on Easter Day. It is not yesterday. It is today. How do we understand this? Modern physics is right. Time is a physical entity. It is physical the way bread and wine are physical. In Jesus Christ, all is transformed. I mean all — including time. After all, Jesus Christ is outside of time. If we are indeed communing with Jesus Christ, it would follow that we are sharing his experience of time. If we are one, we are one in all ways. The Church calls this Kairos time — the time of the Lord. Fr. Alexander Schmemann called the challice the “Chalice of Eternity.” As we drink of our Lord, we enter eternity. It is hard for us to grasp this today. We are secular. Western society has long looked at the world as unenchanted and mechanical. This ancient way of thinking is hard for us modernists to grasp, as hard as it is to grasp that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. He is present. Time is transformed. This is the radical teaching of Christianity. It is our profound experience if we choose to embrace it. Why does this matter? The Church calendar is everything. As the old latin saying goes: “Annus est Christus” — The Sacred Year IS Christ. Time is sacramental and we encounter God by embracing this sacrament. How? By living out the Church calendar as fervently as we can. A lutheran philosopher said this of sacred time: “The liturgical calendar makes religious remembrance habitual and familiar. The repetition of saints’ days and festivals of the Lord is a kind of spiritual metronome helping communal life to move in concord with the mysteries of the faith” (R. L. Wilken). The Church calendar makes our faith palpable. It boils down our lofty beliefs into our ordinary lifestyle. The calendar is more than that, however. An anonymous Orthodox monk explains: “The educational, pedagogical, function [of the Church calendar] does not exhaust the significance of the liturgical year…Each liturgical feast renews and in some sense actualizes the event of which it is the symbol; it takes this event out of the past and makes it immediate." The Church calendar is an indispensable part of our relationship with God, and his means for sanctifying the heart. This is why the Divine Office is so beautiful. Maple syrup is the delicious result of boiling down gallons of sap. In the end, you are left with the essence of maple and a savoury sweetness. Matins, Vespers, and all the daily services of the Church contain the essence of the sacred calendar, in the way that maple is the essence of sap. Every day of the year has its own, separate prayers saturated in the events of the Church. However we can, a Christian should aspire to dive into this rich sacrament, Time. The richness of the liturgical year is available to all of us. We only need to reach out and embrace it. The Sacrament of Community I'll never forget one morning at the monastery in Greece. I ran into Brother Costas on our way to Mass. He greeted me joyfully, "Petros, today we will commune with one another.” “Yes,” I responded, “we will commune with Jesus." He returned, “Yes, and we will also commune with one another, you and me." The Eucharist is the sacrament of the community (not individuals) coming together in Jesus Christ. Our relationship with God is not private. It is social. The phrase, “Sacrament of Community,” is most often used in the Coptic Orthodox Communities. However, it has often been used by Eastern Orthodox theologians, including Ecumenical Patrich Bartholomew. It is the the central theme in the teachings of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Metropolitan Zizioulas. The subject is especially important to us Christians in 21st century America. Few societies have been so isolated or radically individualistic. These worldly attitudes have crept into churches, and pose as one of the greatest heresies of our time. To live an authentic Christian life one must jettison our individualistic tendencies and embrace the truly communal nature of Christ’s Body. If we see Church as a place for ME to get something, we are totally missing the point. Isolation and individualism (in an extreme sense of the term) have no place in Christianity. For this reason, the scripture commands, and warns, “Do not forsake the assembling” (Hb. 10:25). We are always saved in community. Our relationship with God is communal. The Church and our salvation is always fundamentally social. This is best seen in monastic communities. Far from being antisocial, monks live the most social lives of anyone. Their entire relationship with God and the church is lived out through close relationships with one another, and any deviation from that is considered anomalous and dangerous. The hermit is the most social of them all. Only a few monks are permitted to live this hermetic life. These are the ones so spiritual that they are in daily, literal relationship with the saints, and are connected to the brethren by their ceaseless prayers. No one can work out his or her salvation alone. In America, we tend to look at Church through the eyes of American individualism. We want to get our “fix” and “pop the holy pill,” and then go home. So many of us receive the Eucharist on Sunday morning and never stop to greet, listen to, or support our fellow parishioners, let alone share a life together. This is an egregious problem. It is not the Church described in the New Testament. It is certainly not the Church shared by Orthodox Christians all over the world. As a rule, Orthodox always celebrate together after prayer, whether during Coffee Hour on Sundays or in banquets on the Holy Feasts. To break bread with the Lord and refrain from breaking bread with one another is alien to our faith. We come to Church to encounter God in our worship, and to love one another in our fellowship. In our Lord’s words: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Love for Christ and love for one another are mutually inclusive. You cannot have one without the other. We encounter Christ in one another. The recent theologian, Christos Yannaras, explained: “Historically, Christianity was not a new religion but the proclamation of a new mode of existence. It was a way of transforming human existence from a physical, mortal individuality to personal relation, a way for people to exist in a relation of love and communion with life as the members of a body which is the Church. Church, prayer, the Eucharist, and all the aspects of Christianity are always communal, always social, and any position to the contrary is a travesty. Fr. George Florovsky explains: “Christianity from the very beginning existed as a corporate reality, as a community. To be Christian meant just to belong to the community. Nobody could be Christian by himself, as an isolated individual, but only together with 'the brethren,' in a 'togetherness' with them ... Christianity means a 'common life,' a life in common.” We cannot emphasize this enough in our day-to-day walks. It is everything in Orthodox Christianity. It is Christ. What does this have to do with prayer? We do not pray alone. We pray as community. Our principle prayer is the Liturgy, the “work of the people.” That communal nature of the Liturgy flows into everything else. Our private prayer is not private. It is shared with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints. It is shared with one another in our intercessions and petitions. It is shared with the universal church as we offer up the same liturgical words of our prayer books. It is shared in celebrating the sacred calendar together. When we pray the prayers of the Church we are mystically connected with one another, caught up to “mount Zion, to the city of the living God…to the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hb. 12:22-23). We encounter God by drinking from one Common Cup. May that forever be a testimony to us of how we ought to live and pray, one family for one another. Truly Living the Sacramental Life Jesus Christ is Life. He died and resurrected that we might participate in that life, that all of us, our humanity, our time, our relationships, be merged into His eternal glory. “Taste and see that the lord is good" (Psalm 34:8). Dive into these most holy sacraments and know the Lord God in the Flesh.