Word Magazine April 1959 Page 7-10/27


By The Very Rev. Alexander Schmemann

In the early days of the Church, when “Christians were made and not born” (Tertullian), a postulant before joining the Church had to go through a fairly long period of catechesis, i.e., preparation for the sacrament of baptism.

At the beginning of the second century in Rome, for instance, catechetical instruction lasted for two years. It seemed obvious that a person could become a member of the Church only after learning its teachings and assimilating them, truly understanding its laws of life. During the period of the missionary expansion of Christianity adult baptism remained the prevailing custom, but when this period came to an end, catechesis became a normal form of post-baptismal instruction of Church members. In Western Churches catechesis remains an indispensable prerequisite of “confirmation”, i.e., of the sacrament of chrismation administered at the end of childhood. The Eastern Churches have maintained the traditional link between baptism and chrismation as a di-une sacrament through which a faithful becomes a member of the Church. Though the Orthodox Churches have not elaborated a generally mandatory form of post-baptismal catechesis, it is generally and unanimously accepted that children must receive a Christian instruction and education. This general conviction shows that the principles of transmitting the rule of faith and the rule of life to the members of the Church is an organic and essential part of Church tradition.

But though the need of a Christian education is generally accepted in principle and the laymen today are getting more and more interested in the problem, the same cannot be said as far as the forms and methods of Christian education are concerned. We must frankly state that confusion reigns in this field and the situation is all the more confused because the difficulty is not recognized as such and therefore no effort is made to overcome it. This applies not only to various details, but is true of the very basic and general problems. A good example is the general acceptance of the “Sunday School” in the practice of the Orthodox Churches. Sunday Schools are a Protestant philosophy of education. Introducing them into the practice of the Orthodox Church should have been preceded by their critical evaluation in the light of an Orthodox conception of the purpose and principles of Christian education. Sunday Schools should have been adapted to serve these. No such question, however, was ever raised and “Sunday School” (frequently taught during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy) became an accepted pattern of our Church education without having ever been discussed. Many other similar examples could be pointed out.

I believe that the preliminary basic question that we must ask ourselves should be formulated as follows: does our own Orthodox tradition show us definite ways and methods of teaching used in a different historic epoch, but the spiritual labor of “reading church tradition”, discovering its spirit, its eternal meaning. The Orthodox way of life consists in this creative “actualization” of Church tradition; refusing to follow it, we consciously or unconsciously abandon Orthodoxy.


At the beginning of this paper, I mentioned baptismal catechesis, because it represents the earliest record in church tradition of the manner in which the Church taught its members Christine doctrine and the law of life. It is certainly of importance to us to note that this catechesis was liturgical in its character. The explanation of Scriptures, the unfolding of the meaning of the Creed (i.e. of Church doctrine), the teaching of Christian morality, in other words, the entire content of Christian education was transmitted in direct connection with liturgical services, partly even during such services. We find traces of this liturgical catechesis in our church services today. The first part of the Liturgy is called “Liturgy of the Catechumens” not merely because catechumens were allowed to assist at it, but primarily because it is a teaching church service, because it is didactic in its character. Another example is the structure and contents of our Lenten Church services. These services cannot be truly understood, unless we know that their purpose is mainly catechetical. In the early Christian Church the baptism of catechumens took place during the Vigil service on the night preceding Easter. Lent, therefore, was a time of intensive, purposeful preparation for the Sacrament of Enlightenment to use liturgical terminology. We can see it best in the Lenten schedule of Bible readings. The entire books of Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs are read through during these weeks. Why? Because they contain the real clue to an understanding of the Scriptures as a whole, because they outline the true “dimensions” of the Revelation fulfilled in Jesus Christ, in Genesis — the themes of creation, fall and covenant; in Isaiah — the theme of the Messianic promise and the image of the Messiah, who takes upon Himself our sins and our ills; Proverbs — the crowning of human wisdom, experience and knowledge with the revelation of Divine Wisdom, — the Incarnated Logos. In Holy Week the reading of Exodus replaces that of Genesis, the Book of Job takes the place of Proverbs. Exodus, the book describing the journeying of the chosen people to the Promised Land, the beginning of that Exodus and that Passover which shall be fulfilled when Christ the Messiah will perform His Exodus to the Father (John 13:1) will become our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7) will bring the human race saved by Him, the New Israel, into the promised Kingdom. The Book of Job is the summit of Old Testament revelation of the suffering Righteous One, who conquers evil by his complete humility, love and obedience to God. Thus all the basic themes of Christian faith and of the contents of Church doctrine are unfolded in their inner coherence, deepen, widen, gain strength and until the Old Testament becomes in full spiritual reality, not merely as an abstract truth, but that which it always was for the Church — the basis of the New Testament, a path leading to Christ, a promise and prophecy fulfilled in Him. Yet, and this is of great importance, these truths are unfolded not only through reading and commenting texts. This catechesis is liturgical because the readings are set into the framework of church services which are their true explanation.

The deep sigh of penitence, sounding continuously throughout the Lenten services, the call to repentance, to the recognition of one’s utter weakness and sinfulness establishes in us that disposition which enables us truly to hear the Scriptures, to understand their real meaning. On the other hand, the structure of the service, the harmony of the readings, ritual, prayers, the entire “movement” of the services gives life to the texts, gives them that “pitch” which makes them ring true. The reading of the Gospel and its explanation in the sermon are not merely an insert in the liturgy of the catechumens. We are led up to them and prepared by the Christians “coming together in the church” (1 Cor. 11:18) under the guidance of the priest, by the solemn blessing of the Kingdom, with which the Eucharistic service begins, by the Psalms, the entry into the Sanctuary, the singing of the “Thrice Holy”, and the ascension to the High Place. These actions are not mere “symbols”, they are Sacred acts through which the Church prepares to the sacrament of listening to the word of God. During the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified gifts, the priest, after reading from the Book of Genesis, takes a taper from the altar and, letting it shine on all the assembled faithful, says: “The light of Christ illumineth all men.” This action means the granting of the gift of understanding that which the faithful will hear and at the same time it points to ultimate meaning of all the Scriptures — Jesus Christ. And then, finally, the culminating point of liturgical Church life, the service of Holy Saturday, with its Burial of Christ, the fifteen prophecies and the white vestments replacing the dark ones at the announcement of the Resurrection. This service, if it is really understood, is a complete catechesis of Easter.

We would multiply without end the number of examples. But the above suffices to make us see that “liturgical catechesis” is not merely an interesting custom of the ancient Church, but a traditional method of religious education, an organic part of the very nature of the Church, and of its conception of spiritual “enlightenment.”


Liturgical catechesis shows us first of all the main purpose, the aim of religious education as it is understood by the Church. This aim is bringing the individual into the life of the Church. I emphasize — not communicating “religious knowledge”, not training a human being to become a “good person”, but creating a member of the Body of Christ, a member of that new “chosen and holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) whose mysterious life in this world began on the day of Pentecost. “And make him (or her) a reason endowed sheep in the holy flock of thy Christ, an honorable member of thy Church” as says the baptismal prayer. Religious education is nothing else but the disclosing of that which happened to man when he was born again through water and spirit and was made a member of the Church. The conception of Church as God’s people and as Body of Christ has become an abstract for a modern Christian. Church is identified with “parish”, a kind of incorporated organization with business meetings, elections, votes, property and financial policies. On the other hand, we know the church building, where we come to pray, to “fulfill our religious duty”, enjoy good singing, and receive comfort and consolation. The purpose of a parish is understood as a means of securing the material security of the church building and its contents; the purpose of the church as a building is the spiritual satisfaction that the parishioners gain from the beautiful church services and from the sense of having fulfilled their religious duty. But the modern Christian has forgotten, or perhaps has never known, that these aims are secondary as compared to the one main object: building the Church of Christ, the growth of all in the new unity in Christ which they received in Baptism and eternally receive in the Holy Eucharist. “And unite all of us who partake of the one Bread and the one Cup one to another in the communion of the Holy Spirit” (Liturgy of St. Basil the Great). ‘For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13). “Where is the Church, there is the Holy Spirit; where is the Holy Spirit, there is the Church and the fullness of Grace.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Adv. haer, III, 24, 1). Christianity is neither a philosophy, nor morality, nor ritual, but the gift of a new life in Christ and this new life is the Church. In it, we “who now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet. 2:10) are a new nation under God, which brings unto God spiritual thanks offering, carries on His work in the world, is a witness of Salvation, grows in the knowledge of truth and grace. Such a conception of the Church is the reason for the special place held by liturgical services in its life. Liturgical services are not one of the “aspects” of the Church, but express its very essence, are its breath, its heartbeat, its eternal self-revelation. Through the sacraments and especially through the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist the Church, as one theologian worded it, eternally “becomes that which it is”, i.e. the Body of Christ and a new unity. Church services are first of all a gathering of the faithful, and the word Church means gathering — “where two or three are gathered. . . ” In this gathering and through it we, “being many, are one body (1 Cor. 12:12). In church services we enter in communion with the word of God, learn to know His will, remember the death and resurrection of Christ and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, indispensable for our Christian service in this world. It can be said that through its liturgical services the Church becomes a “union of faith and love”, as it was defined by St. Ignatius of Antioch. The sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation bring us into the life of the Church. Baptism is our birth unto a new life, the Holy Chrism consecrates us unto the service of God in community with all the other members of the Church. In the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist we renew the gift of unity, through the offering of one sacrifice and the communion of one Bread and one Cup. In the daily, weekly, and yearly liturgical cycles the church fills time with the memory of Christ. His presence and the grace of the Holy Spirit permeate all the aspects of our life. To sum up, through liturgical services a human society (“the parish”) realizes itself as a Church, i.e., as the new unity, as a knowledge of and communion with God, which originate from the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

What then should Christian education be, unless it is an introduction into this life of the Church, an unfolding of its meaning, its contents and its purpose? And how can it introduce to this life, unless it is both through participation in liturgical services and their explanation? “O taste and see how good the Lord is.” The method of liturgical catechesis is the Orthodox method of religious education because it proceeds from the Church and because the Church is its goal. In olden times the catechumens were brought into the Church gathering, during the liturgy of the catechumens and only then was it explained to them the meaning, the joy, and the purpose of this gathering. And what would we unfold in our Christian education today, unless this process of unfolding were preceded by an experience of the Church, by all that which we unconsciously inhale and assimilate, before we begin to understand?


Everything I have said above may seem utopian in the setting of our present education. How can these theories be applied in practice, how can they become practically effective? There is no easy and simple answer to this question. Whether we want it or not we are faced today more than at any other time in the past, by the tremendously difficult problem of thinking through Church tradition as a whole, of incarnating it in the present set-up of our existence, so completely different from the life of the Church in the past. It would take generations to solve this problem, but at least in facing this problem we must recognize the goal at which we aim. Various compromises, temporary and transitory solutions, adjustment, all this is admissible only if we firmly refuse once and for all to consciously falsify Church tradition, to lower its standards to make them fit our needs. The truth of the Church is the yardstick we must apply to our life — to measure it and to judge it, and it must not be subordinated to our practical needs or to a “successful program.” First of all, we must recognize that we cannot artificially separate the problem of the religious education of our children from the religious enlightenment and rebirth of the entire church society. We cannot teach that which we have not learned ourselves. Our church will have the schools which it deserves. It is obvious that the rebirth of “liturgical catechesis” requires first of all a rebirth of the liturgical life of the church, a better understanding of it by the faithful, a more responsible attitude to it, a more active participation in it. As long as we have private liturgies ordered on the days of Holy Week, and our churches will remain empty on the day of the most beautiful, and spiritually and theologically deepest service on Holy Saturday, while our priests are busy blessing Easter food in private homes, as long as Baptism remains a private family celebration, and weddings are a social ceremony at which the photographer is more prominent than the priest, as long as the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ remains a “duty” to be fulfilled once a year, as long as all this remains true, it is difficult to teach our children to see in the liturgical services the very essence of the Church, of its teachings and its life. We need a liturgical catechesis of the adults, and of the clergy itself. We need a rebirth of the very conception Church, a spiritualizing of the parish, a renovation of our prayer life, etc. All this is the primordial and basic condition of a true Christian education of our children and unless we face this, all our discussions of “methods” and “principles” of church school work will be useless.

In speaking of the place to be held by liturgical services in our religious educational system today I shall, therefore, limit myself to a few general considerations. As I have said before, I do not think that the time is ripe for detailed, practical prescriptions. We must also face a long-range and difficult task of harmonizing traditional principles of church education with the valuable and useful modern educational methods. Loyalty to tradition in no way means turning down and condemning everything that is “new” and “modern” for no other reason than because it is new and modern. It merely requires an effort on our part to “try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). It recognizes the possibility to use for the glory of God all the achievements of human reason, human creativity and knowledge.

1. As a general rule, children like attending church and this instinctive attraction to and interest in church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that the children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for their own selves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the “atmosphere” of our church services. The experience of the “Holy” sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, the “mysterium tremendum” which is at the root of all religion and in the services, is more accessible to children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood on they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience. Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “Suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend church. It is in church that the children must hear the word “God” for the first time. In a classroom it is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is “in its own element.” In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in church, to participate in church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.”

2. Church attendance should be complemented from the earliest days of childhood by the home atmosphere which precedes and prolongs the mood of the church. Let us take Sunday morning. How can a child sense the holiness of that morning and of that which he will see in church, if the home is full of the blare of radio and TV, the parents are smoking and reading the papers, and there reigns a generally profane atmosphere? Church attendance should be preceded by a sense of being “gathered in”, a quiet, a certain solemnity. The lighting of vigil lights before the ikons, the reading of the Scripture lessons, clean and fresh clothes, the festively tidied up rooms — so frequently parents do not realize how all these things “shape” the religious consciousness of the child, make an imprint which no later tribulations will ever efface. On the eve and on the day of Church feasts, during Lent, on the days when we prepare ourselves for confession and communion, the home must reflect the church, must be illuminated by the light which we bring back from worship.

3. And now to speak of the school. It seems self-evident to me that to organize a so-called “Sunday School” during Divine Liturgy is in deep contradiction with the spirit of Orthodoxy. The Sunday Liturgy is a joyful gathering of the Church community and the child must know and experience this long before it is able to understand the deep meaning of this gathering. It seems to me that the choice of Sunday for church school is not a very good one. Sunday is primarily a liturgical day; it should be church-centered and liturgy-centered. It would be far better to have church school on Saturdays before the Vesper service. The argument that parents cannot and will not bring their children to church twice a week is merely admitting indolence and sinful negligence. Saturday evening is the beginning of Sunday and should be liturgically sanctified just as much as Sunday morning. All Orthodox churches the world over celebrate it in the service of Vespers or All Night Vigil. There is no reason why at that one point the Orthodox of America would break with an ancient church tradition. The church school should be for the children a natural beginning of the Dominican cycle — school — vespers — Liturgy. The school would then be their introduction to the Lord’s Day, would prepare them for a more conscious participation in it.

4. Finally, let us consider liturgical catechesis as such. Without going into the question of grading the material according to this or that age group we can point out the following, very general, principles:

(a) Connection between Bible study and liturgical services. Usually the Old and New Testament is taught without any reference to the life of the Church, as a series of interesting stories (the Flood, Noah’s Ark, the Flight from Egypt, etc.) which impress the children’s imagination as do fairy stories, but which often remain nothing but stories. As the faithful grow into adulthood, they do not know what to do with this material. Yet the Bible, as we have said above, is the book of the Church, not only in the sense that the Church “guarantees” that it is God-inspired, but because the very life of the Church, and first of all its liturgical services, consist in the unfolding of the Scriptures in action. The language of the Church, the language of the liturgical services is the language of the Bible not only literally (more than half of all liturgi­texts are Biblical), but also in the sense that the entire structure of the services, of their ritual, symbolism and images, and the whole spirit of worship is intimately bound up with the Scriptures and deeply rooted in them. We cannot understand liturgical services without knowing the Scriptures — but the same is true vice versa — the meaning of the Scriptures is disclosed in liturgical services. They give us a clue to the interpretation of the Scriptures. For instance, the meaning of water in Baptism, of oil in Unction, or the meaning of the Connection between the Descent of the Holy Spirit and Pentecost cannot be understood unless we have followed the theme of water, oil, and the Holy Spirit in the Old and the New Testament. Yet, inversely, the waters of the flood, the Passover of Exodus are completely meaningful only when they find their echo and answer in the waters of baptism, becoming for us both “grave and birthgiver” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem) and in the contemplation of the liturgical mystery of Holy Week. The same can be said of all religious actions and states — blessing, thanksgiving, repentance, petition, sacrifice, entrance, etc. Their meaning, their original “dimensions” are given us in the Scriptures, but it is only through liturgical services that they become alive for us in a new, unique and actual sense, become actions and states of existence of the Church. All this means that the teaching of the Bible must be closely linked to liturgics, so that the Bible and the liturgical services would mutually explain, complete and disclose each other. The material to be covered in this field is so vast that tremendous efforts will have to be made before this method, which was a normal one in the life of the ancient church and the Fathers, will again become ours and will give back to us the true meaning of the Scriptures and of liturgics.

(b) The life and teaching of Our Lord must also be constantly “referred” to liturgical services. A good example is the study of church holidays and of the church calendar. Our liturgical year is built around the remembrance of Christ. The church calendar fills time with the memory of Christ and makes of it an image of salvation and new life. For someone to whom liturgical services are a living experience the frequently used word “Today” (as for instance “Today He is lying in His tomb” on Holy Saturday) is not merely a quaint expression. In liturgical consciousness, everything that Christ accomplished once eternally returns to life becomes a kind of mystic present time, accomplished for the sake of us and our salvation. A church holiday is communion with the active, eternally life-giving meaning of the event, through which we enter the Kingdom of God. Yet we have to recognize that this wonderful church calendar, with its harmonious crescendo of festivals, their gradual unfolding, their inner bond, in other words, all the true joyfulness of church life, scarcely affects our church school curriculum. It is not enough to let the children memorize the dates of the holidays and Lenten seasons. We have to let them penetrate into the spirit and atmosphere of the feast, so that the biblical texts, the liturgical materials, the details of ritual would become a living whole in the religious experience of the child.

Here is one example out of a thousand:

There is not much to be found in the New Testament concerning the Ascension of Our Lord. Yet the eternal meaning of these few words, the inexpressible wonder and joy of the ascension to heaven of the Son of Man are made clear in the liturgical service of Ascension Day. How few people know these texts, how few are looking forward to them and, therefore, how few are gaining the spiritual fruits of that feast. We must not say children can’t understand this. Children understand without understanding, they feel without analyzing. Did not the services of Holy Week, the joy of Easter night, the serenity of the Virgin holidays “introduce” us to Orthodoxy long before we learned to understand their meaning? But the church school itself must be deeply rooted in the rhythm of church life, those who teach must be conscious of its times and seasons.

(c) Special attention should be paid to the Sacraments, and first of all to the Divine Liturgy. Usually children are taught in school the definition of Sacraments, whereas we need to lead the children to grasp their meaning through the understanding of their liturgical structure and their text. The study of the liturgy of Baptism, for instance, would give a wealth of material for the study of Scriptures, of Christian ethics, and doctrine. A course could be built around the following plan:

I. Baptism begins with exorcisms. The Christian conception of evil and the Evil One, Christ’s victory over the devil (Christ’s casting out of devils, the Church militant empowered by Christ to fight the “prince of this world”, etc.) This aspect of Christian faith is usually simply ignored in modern church society.

II. Then comes the renouncing of the devil and uniting oneself to Christ — the basic attitudes of a Christian and the source of all Christian ethics (without me ye can do nothing).

III. The Creed: inclusion of oneself in the faith of the Church and its responsible acceptance.

IV. The blessing of the water — preparation of new “matter” for a new life. The baptism of our Lord in Jordan. The place of “matter” in life. The cosmic “dimensions” of the Church.

V. Anointment — The image of oil in the Scriptures, healings (the merciful Samaritan), symbol of peace (olive branch after the flood), power, joy.

VI. Immersion — judgment, death, cleansing, rebirth, resurrection, etc. And finally the putting on of a white garment, etc.

This outline is a mere ‘hint”, but it makes us see the wealth of opportunities for catechesis in connection with the study of liturgics.

As to the Eucharist it must be the center of our entire system of religious education, because the Holy Eucharist is the center of the life of the Church. Usually the study of the Eucharist is limited to a so-called explanation of symbols. “The taper represents this”, “the censor represents that”, etc. Such explanations are insufficient. Divine Liturgy is not a symbol but an act of the Church, through which the Church establishes its reality. It is the all-embracing Sacrament of Salvation, a sacrament of unity, love, sanctification, sacrifice, deification. All that makes us live as Christians, all the threads of religious education must be centered in the Holy Eucharist and must stretch towards it.

Lack of space prevents me from going any further into the principles and methods of “liturgical catechesis.’’ My task is merely to remind us that in the experience of the Orthodox Church, liturgical services always were an expression of faith, life and teachings of the Church, and a path of learning these. “Lex orandi lex est credendi.” The law of prayer is the law of faith. And only insofar as we turn back to this law, shall we find the true foundations of Orthodox Christian education.