The Sanctification of Time and of Life

Fr. Alexander Schmemann (1963)

As I was preparing for this lecture I was thinking of my impressions of the last two weeks which I spent in Montreal where I attended a meeting of theologians from almost every country of the world. I was amazed at the great interest shown by non-Orthodox towards our liturgical tradition. Sacraments, liturgy, liturgical year, the feasts – all this is being rediscovered by those who for centuries have led and extremely limited liturgical life. This is an event of tremendous importance. Yet, I always have the impression that, as they are recovering this, we are losing our liturgical tradition. They are coming back to understanding the importance of the liturgical life of the church, not only the Sunday morning liturgy, but the liturgical life in general, that life which is the real application of grace to our lives. They are hungry and thirsty for this liturgical fullness. And that gives my subject a tremendous importance. How can we be witnesses of Orthodoxy in the Western world in which God has decided we should be a testimony to Him if we ourselves have no experience in the liturgical tradition?

My first lecture deals with the sanctification of time through the liturgical cycle of the year. I must stress immediately that we speak of the sanctification of time and not simply of the various feasts and holy days. It would be very easy to give you a full list of the feasts of the church with their dates and some indication of how to celebrate these feasts and then to say, “Now go ahead and keep all this.” But it is one thing to memorize all those dates, to have lists and enumerations, and quite a different thing to understand them. Christ did not become man – He did not die on the cross that we should simply keep dates as dates of obligation and that we should be able to say, “We are Ortodox because on March 25 we celebrate the Annunciation and on December 25 we celebrate Christmas”. Something happens through all these celebrations. Something happens not only in the Church but also in my life, in our lives as individuals, as members of families, as members of human society. We describe this “something” as sanctification of time and life. The proper approach to the liturgical life of the Church includes not only a descriptive approach which is so frequently used in teaching liturgics: “...and then the priest takes the censor ...and then he goes out ... and then he does this and that”, it includes the question, Why is he doing all this? Teaching is explanation. Learning is understanding, not simple description. “Why?” is our real question. Of course, I cannot open up for you all this tremendous treasure in one short lecture. I hope that I can give you a taste for further studies. I can hint at something so beautiful, so heavenly, so crucial for real Orthodoxy that when we lose it – even if we can still build beautiful churches with domes and three-barred crosses and still know certain Orthodox melodies – we cease to be Orthodox.

(for the complete lecture, see under PUBLICATIONS “Schmemann: The Liturgical Life of the Church”)