Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Sacramental South

Father Alexander Schmemann once wrote of man,

 . . . The first, and basic definition of man is that he is the priest.  He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with him.  The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

Men understand all this instinctively if not rationally.  Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian.  Food is still treated with reverence.  A meal is still a rite—the last “natural sacrament” of family and friendship, of life that is more than “eating” and “drinking.”  To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions.  People may not understand what that “something more” is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it.  They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life (For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, 2nd ed., Crestwood, Ny.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973, pgs. 15-6).

Andrew Lytle, one of the Nashville Agrarians, writing in I’ll Take My Stand, shows how this ‘instinct’ for sacramental and liturgical life, for ritual, is alive and well in Southern foodways (though deformities in recent years have set in as modernity has spread its loathsome influence here):

The midday meal, like all the meals in the country, has a great deal of form. It is, in the first place, unhurried. Diners accustomed to the mad, bolting pace of cafeterias will grow nervous at the slow performance of a country table. To be late is a very grave matter, since it is not served until everybody is present. But only some accident, or unusual occurrence, will detain any member of the family, for dinner is a social event of the first importance. The family are together with their experiences of the morning to relate; and merriment rises up from the hot, steaming vegetables, all set about the table, small hills around the mountains of meat at the ends, a heaping plate of fried chicken, a turkey, a plate of guineas, or a one-year ham spiced, and if company is there, baked in wine. A plate of bread is at each end of the table; a bowl of chitterlings has been set at the father’s elbow; and pigs’ feet for those that like them (‘The Hind Tit’, http://writing2.richmond.edu/jessid/eng423/restricted/lytle.pdf, pgs. 225-6).

Furthermore, noticing the importance of bread in this picture painted by Mr Lytle (‘A plate of bread is at each end of the table’) and in some other recollections of his; keeping in mind its centrality in Southern meals for generations in various unique forms (biscuits, dumplings, rolls, cornbread, and such like); remembering too some lines from Donald Davidson’s poem ‘Gradual of the Northern Summer’,

Let eyes now say what ears have seen:
The mistress of our high demesne
Who daily, though our sins be black,
Brings God’s grace in a grocery sack.
(Poems 1922-1961, Minneapolis, Minn.: U. of Minn. Press, 1966, p. 10)

and the South begins to draw nigh to the Orthodox understanding of bread as communion:

“And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”
John 6:35

In our daily life, bread satisfies hunger, strengthens us for our daily tasks, and reminds us of its spiritual potential, for during the Divine Liturgy, bread becomes the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life, both in symbol and in actuality, supporting us in the activities of our spiritual life.

The Holy Scriptures abound in references to bread, ranging from its nourishing the physical bodies of the faithful five thousand who had come to hear Christ’s preaching (Mark 6:41-42), illuminating the essential role of Grace in miraculous healings (Mark 7:27), to its culminating and preeminent role in granting salvation to the world (John 6:33; I Corinthians 11:24). Bread was Christ’s means to rebuke Satan when He reminded the devil while being tempted in the wilderness that “one does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4), but Christ also taught His disciples to ask of their Heavenly Father their daily bread (Matthew 6:11).   

Christ, being full present in the Bread of Holy Communion, through His Holy Body (Bread) unites all Orthodox Christians in one unity, when they approach the Holy Chalice “with fear of God, faith, and love.” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

 . . .

According to St. Nicetas, a contemporary of St. Symeon the New Theologian and one of the authors of the Philokalia, “partaking in the nature common to us [the physical], we are also able to partake of the Divine nature contained in the Eucharist.” To put it another way, “…as we lack a Divine nature in ourselves, we are unable to become partakers of it, unless we partake of it through Christ, who united it [the Divine] to that of which we are able to partake – namely human nature…” (Break the Holy Bread, Master, by Priest Sergei Sveshnikov).

To emphasize this understanding, St. Irenaeus of Lyon writes (ca. 180 AD) “For the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist – consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly. So also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.”

 . . .

Source:  Priest Alexander Resnikoff, ‘The Sacramental Meaning of Bread’, http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/81873.htm, accessed 13 Sept. 2015

May God grant that one day soon all Souðerners will satisfy their longing for bread by partaking of the One Loaf found in the Orthodox Church that there may be true freedom in unity amongst us all.

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