“The Problem of the Ordo”

“The Problem of the Ordo” September 27, 2015


This post is part of an ongoing series entitled, “Sunday with Schmemann.” If you have not yet read some of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s works you can begin with my inaugural post here. Over the last few weeks I have been re-working my way through Schmemann’s classic, Introduction to Liturgical Theology.

The content of today’s post is based on Chapter 1, “The Problem of the Ordo.” The main argument of the chapter is that the Ordo is far more than a set of rules to either be followed blindly or to be disregarded completely as irrelevant or as mere suggestions. These two extremes represent the problem of the ordo as faced by the Orthodox Church and liturgical churches everywhere. Schmemann writes:

“Little by little the belief has been created within the Church that the Ordo does not even require understanding. It has come to be a dead letter which either must be followed blindly, or may be ignored just because of its lifelessness, with the selection from it of that which pleases or can make an impression on the congregation.” p. 38

This is as much the result of post-Enlightenment individualism as it is an endemic of detachment from historical worship within liturgical churches. Once removed from history, and once the self becomes the governor and judge of all that is right, the Ordo is simply a set of lifeless rules. It becomes far easier to “break the rules,” as it were, when we have collectively forgotten or intentionally ignored their origin, interpretation, and significance.

However, Schmemann points us to a better way. He suggest that we:

“Find the Ordo behind the ‘rubrics,’ regulations and rules—to find the unchanging principle, the living norm of ‘logos’ of worship as a while, within what is accidental and temporary…” p. 39

Studying the rubrics exclusively or legalistically enacting them blindly will lead to rubricism. Becoming bound to the rules for the sake of the rules is not within the scope of liturgical theology. In order to find that “logos” of worship one must understand that there is an “inner logic” to the ordo and it is based on two main elements: the Eucharist and the liturgy of time, or the officium divinum (hours, weeks, years). The prayers and praise of the Church as expressed through daily prayer, weekly worship, and adhering to the Christian calendar, are always understood in relationship to the Eucharist. One informs the other, and vice versa; to emphasize one over the other is to miss the point entirely.

“The worship of the Church has at its real centre the constant renewal and repetition in time of the one unchanging Sacrament; unchanging, that is, in its meaning, content and purpose. But the whole significance of this repetition is in the fact that something unrepeatable is being recalled and actualized.” p. 43

A “fuller Eucharistic life” is not based on the Eucharist alone. There is a common misconception, particularly in the wake of the liturgical renewal and Eucharistic revival movements, to make the Eucharist synonymous with the life of the Church. In actuality, the Eucharist gives shape to the life of the Church rather than encompassing the whole of her life as the lone expression. Such an urge and tendency in modern worship and liturgical-sacramental thought must be fought, taught, and formed against. Fr. Schmemann said it this way:

“But, as with every revival, there is a danger of falling into extremes. Both in the theological theories which have been evolved and in the life of the Church herself there is an increasing tendency to reduce the whole of her liturgical life to the Eucharist alone, to regard it not as the summit, or centre, or source of this life, but in fact as its sole content.” p. 45

The Eucharist is the summit and center of the Church’s life, informing everything that she does, but it is not the only thing with which she is concerned. Once the Eucharist becomes the sole content of the Church then all else is profaned and rendered meaningless. The worshipping parish becomes a holy huddle without any concern for neighbors and strangers alike who do not yet know the deep love of Christ. May we be formed and transformed through the Eucharist and may we fight the urge to believe that this summit is all the Lord has in store for us.

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