Search Icon, Magnifying Glass

Graduation Cap Heart Question Mark Magnifying Glass

Schmemann and Christian Memory

This week’s reading focused first on the liturgical theology of Alexander Schmemann – chapter three of Anamnesis – moving on in chapter four to an engagement of Metz, Schmemann, and other theologians in a conversation about memory within the rituals of the Christian tradition. In chapter five’s conclusion, Professor Morrill ties the work of the many theologians engaged in the reading together and gives some practical suggestions on how to better reform liturgy to move worshipers to remembrance and action. I will summarize this week’s reading following the order of Anamnesis and then share two questions that came to my mind for our discussion.

Liturgical Theology of Alexander Schmemann

Alexander Schmemann is a Russian Orthodox liturgical theologian. In his view, the liturgy as devised by the early Church encapsulates theologically an epiphany or manifestation of the relationship the between the Church – as the realizing Kingdom of God – and the world. Further, Schmemann believes that the world-transformative properties of the early Christian liturgy are still present and best preserved in the liturgy of the Orthodox traditions. In Anamnesis Schmemann’s theology of the liturgy as it relates to inspiring Christian praxis is engaged.

To Schmemann the crisis of the modern era is not primarily a loss of the liturgy – at least within the Orthodox communion – but a loss of the theological understanding of the liturgy and the actions that flow from it. The liturgy, theology, and Christian piety all need to be held in union within the church’s praxis. Schmemann is concerned with the modern phenomenon of faithful Orthodox – and presumably other Christians – who attend worship, but actually have no understanding of the faith. Christian faith, to Schmemann, is more than a “religious feeling,” it is something lived out in a kenotic life of service to others. For him, the theology held in the liturgy is the best hope for the Church to recover this Christian lifestyle and to fully manifest this worldview and mission to humankind.

The core of Schmemann’s theology is that Christian faith and doctrine are made real in the liturgy. Liturgy in Schmemann’s view is more than ritual, it is participation in the new creation of the Kingdom of God. Just as God became incarnate that we might participate fully in his divine love, the liturgy is a brief moment where the new creation is shown in our midst. From this incarnational moment we are called out of our secular state of mind and system of priorities to do our part to bring the Kingdom of God into the present. Worship, to Schmemann, is humanity’s primary work.

Early Christian practice kept both the Jewish Sabbath and the following “Lord’s Day” where the resurrection was celebrated in the Eucharist. In that early flow of weekly worship there wasn’t a clear division between sacred and profane time in the life of the Church. The Eucharist was celebrated outside the sabbath because the early Church didn’t see categories of profane and sacred, but rather redeemed and fallen, old and new. In the modern context, Sunday activities are viewed as being of the sacred and workweek activities are of the profane. This, to Schmemann, builds an artificial barrier that holds Christians back from taking the liturgy and the theology therein into the world.

In the celebration of the Eucharist Schmemann sees most clearly the eschatological doctrine that can drive to Church to renewed Christian praxis. Worship for Schmemann is not about sanctifying the present moment, but about looking forward and moving into the new creation that God is bringing about through Jesus Christ at the eschaton. Schmemann points to the weekly celebration of the Eucharist as a break from the normal fallen time when Christians get a taste of the things that are to come in the new creation. To him, the Eucharist is an actual experience of the parousia, the manifestation of the Church as the harbinger of the new age, the real presence of the resurrected Jesus. If the congregation can leave modern attitudes behind and allow the experience of the Eucharist to become a “participation in the Kingdom as the parousia” they can be lead to Christian action in the world.1

Christian Memory

To the theologians engaged thus far in Anamnesis, the liturgy of the Church is a place of remembering for God’s people. In liturgical worship, people remember what God has done and what God has said he will do in the future. In this way, the Christian’s memory of the narrative of God in Christ will drive him or her to imitate Jesus contrary to the contemporary culture. In chapter four the contributions of Brevard Childs, Nils Dahl, and David Gregg (among others) are added to the conversation on how memory works on people in the liturgy.

Dahl notes that the New Testament use of the verb “to remember” can be used not only as a recalling of something from the past, but also in the sense of “thinking of” someone or something. Remembering in the New Testament directly impacts that person’s future actions and decisions because it isn’t just a replay of a past event, but a recollection of how something or someone was. This recollection of how someone was – like God or Jesus – can be directly applied and mimicked in new situations. This – remembering what God did for their weak ancestors –, in Childs contribution, is what drove the Israelite’s theology to focus on helping the weak. In this, Childs shows a clear link between ritual remembrance and ethics.

The celebration of the Eucharist is, according to Dahl, the most important ritual of remembrance in the early Church. Gregg shows that the centrality of the Eucharistic ritual in the church’s remembering is not an accident. The Sacrament established by Jesus in the Upper Room is linked to an already weekly Jewish ritual of the sabbath where a “Cup of Blessing” was communally shared. In building his ritual of remembrance on top of an existing rite, Jesus – so Gregg – was ensuring that the narrative of his life and its final, great, kenotic outpouring of love on the cross would be repeated and remembered each week by his followers. In this act of ritual remembering, his disciples not just in first century Judea but many centuries after his death could be participants in an actualized narrative of Jesus as if they were there and present at the moment of salvation.

Discussion Lead-offs

Ritual and ethics are profoundly connected in the Christian liturgy. In the liturgy, worshipers are taken outside of their daily existence and called to remembrance of the narrative of God within the suffering of the world. When this ritual of remembrance is thoughtfully and theologically exercised, Christians are called to move beyond intellectual assent to doctrine and into a life of practical Christian praxis in the imitation of God.

  1. Given the Roman and Orthodox communions to which Professor Morrill and our primary theologians belong, the focus of Anamnesis has been on the historic liturgical traditions of the East and West. How can this work be applied to the worship of traditions that do not use the historic liturgy of the church? How, for example, could we thoughtfully lead a Pentecostal worship service to remembrance that leads to praxis?

  2. In the conclusion of Anamnesis Professor Morrill suggests several thoughtful additions to the Eastern and Western liturgies that could lead congregations to remembrance and action.2 Dahl notes that in the early Church Christians were not just remembering the loving acts of God for and in humanity, but also the knowledge given to them before their baptism in catechesis.3 When we speak of liturgical reform that drives remembrancing, should we also not speak of a reform in how we educate people in the faith? If we do not educate outside of the liturgy, do we not fall to the same risk Schmemann found in the Orthodox church where liturgy was given meaning outside of itself?4

Works Cited & Referenced

Morrill, Bruce T. Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2000.

Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

Schmemann, Alexander, and Thomas Fisch. Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990.


# Morrill, 104.


# Morrill, 202-212.


# Morrill, 157.


# Liturgy & Tradition, 116-128.