In his semi-recent blog post "The American Apocalypse," Fr. Stephen Freeman references the eminent Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in pointing to a basic difference in perspective between the Orthodox and Latin approaches to the sacraments. The sacraments, Fr. Schmemann said, do not make things to be what they are not; rather, the sacraments reveal things to be what they truly are.
This character of the sacraments is true of the Christian faith in general - that it reveals the truth of things - and is rooted in the fundamentally apocalyptic character of the Christian faith. Apocalypsis, or the revelation of a reality that once was hidden and now is know, is the core of the Christian faith; it is a necessary condition of theosis, since by the Incarnation Christ revealed the hidden Father, thereby making Him known to us and making us sons of God. The "apocalypse" is the uncreated energy of God resulting from the Incarnation. Just as the revelation of the Father through Christ is "energetic", so the descent of the Holy Spirit into the Eucharist is "energetic". What apocalypse is not, despite the common American Protestant view, is a sensationalistic warning of future things to come into being. It is rather a revealing, manifesting, and unfolding of the truth that is given to us now. As Fr. Stephen writes, "the apocalypse is now."
The purpose of this essay is to explore how the theologian should respond when this apocalyptic view of the faith as applied to the sacraments meets the Latin theological structure of hylomorphic sacramentology, declared dogmatic in the Western Church as a way to combat the Protestant errors regarding the sacraments. In hylomorphic theology, the sacraments are not revelations of a reality already present, but a real and substantial change in the matter under question. The soul really is given an "indelible mark" that was not present before; the bread and wine really stop being bread and wine and become something they had not been, the Body and Blood of Christ.
The two points of view really do need to be harmonized. There is little danger in the Orthodox world of falling into a Protestant view of the sacraments, but when Orthodoxy is preached in the Western world to an audience imbued with Western categories of thought, the clarity of simplicity of Latin hylomorphism is useful for telling us, plain and simply, that God is present and should be worshiped, that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ, that baptism really does sanctify a soul and is not simply a social rite of passage. On the other hand, a return to the Orthodox vision of the cosmos as sacramental, liturgical, apocalyptic, theophanic or hierophanic, and iconographical in nature is absolutely necessary to save the West from the mechanistic and quasi-magical view of the sacraments that comes from the "two-story universe", which comes from a degraded late scholasticism that replaces authentically sacramental Christianity with a particular strain of "moral therapeutic deism" (or "theistic personalism"), and which is unable to hold water in the face of the atheistic critique.
Furthermore, for the Byzantine Church to be affirmed as equally Orthodox and equally Catholic as the Latin, the Byzantine theology must be accepted. The Church's liturgy follows its theology. Fr. Stephen quotes the Byzantine Liturgy of St. Basil with words similar to the Eucharistic formula of Cranmer - regarded at the time as suspect by Rome - "We implore You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts now offered, to bless, to hallow, and to show… this bread + to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ…"
The truth of the matter is that the sacramental action happens in eternity, and is made manifest in time. The sacrament - whether it be the sacrament of the Divine Liturgy, or any other sacrament - is not a "repeat" of the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, but is a mystical participation and making present of it. The bread and wine do not become something they are not on Sunday morning at 10 p.m. The bread and wine were divinized with the whole cosmos, made into the Body and Blood of Christ through His becoming flesh, at the Incarnation. Christ did not assume the nature of one man. He assumed human nature - that human nature in which all men partake - and which includes the nature of the less specific genera in which it partakes. By God becoming flesh, all flesh partakes in divinity, and that divinization of the cosmos through man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is revealed to us, made manifest to us, in the apocalyptic action of the Eucharist.
If the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ from all eternity, then what was it before the Eucharistic anaphora? Clearly the prosphora/host is not treated as being God before it is consecrated - it is not worshiped or consumed - and yet the East does recognize its holiness and sanctity before consecration; the saintly Melkite archbishop of Galilee, Sayyedna Joseph Raya, was known to prostrate himself on the floor during the Great Entrance and insist that the unconsecrated prosphora be carried over his prostrate body. The Eucharist may be the Body and Blood from all eternity, but we have not partaken in that mystery yet; it is hidden and has not yet been revealed to us until we enter into the eternal action of the Liturgy.
If the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ from all eternity, then how can the Latins say that the "substance" of bread becomes the "substance" of Christ? The solution to this problem is quite easy, once we adopt the philosophical insights of German idealism. Idealism and transcendental phenomenology were well known to have influenced 19th-century Roman Catholic and, even more prominently, Russian Orthodox theology, but curiously there are few overt traces of it in Schmemann. The "substance" of the bread depends on what has been made manifest to us. In other words, Aristotelian categories must be thought of as phenomenological categories, not metaphysical constituents of reality. The cosmos really has been assumed into the light of Glory at the Incarnation; at the Liturgy we enter into that Mystery, the being and ultimate end of the Eucharistic elements are revealed to be nothing other than God Himself, transfinalized, transsignified, and transusbtantiated into God for our theosis. This change in "substance" cannot be separated from our sanctification, since the nature of the bread and wine as it exists apart from our salvation - its "accidents", its chemical and physical properties - remain unchanged. What remains changed is the final end it has for us (its transfinalization, in Rahner's term) and what it truly signifies for us (its transsignification, in Schillebeeckx's term - recalling that a sacrament makes really and substantially present that which it signifies). Only God can bridge the infinite gap between creature and Creator, so to really understand what it means to efficaciously and substantially intend and signify God as the final end is to understand that the substance of the bread - that which enacts and signifies its end - is truly shown to be God. Before the Liturgy, when the Mystery was still hidden, its final end for us was still that of bread and wine, God had not yet energetically shone through the elements of bread and wine to become really present for us, and consequently, it is correctly said that the "substance" of the Eucharistic elements were not God, but rather bread and wine.
In this way, by recognizing the phenomenological nature of Aristotelian categories, the transcendental Aristotelianism of Rahner and Schillebeeckx can be used to reconcile Latin hylomorphism to the Orthodox theology of the Eucharistic presence.