“And He [the Father] put in subjection all things under His [the Son] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all things in all” (Eph. 1: 22-23).
It seems fitting at the moment to put forth a very brief reflection on the Mysterion of the Church, the Body of Christ our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Christian theology, the Church in Her essence is indisputably the very body of Christ, the very Icon of the Hevenlies.
Bl. Theophylact comments on the above-quoted Scripture, “He is as closely related to, and united with the Church, as the body is to the head.”
Thus, is the Church simply an organization of the seclorum? Or, according to theology, is She that very living entity by which the fallen seclorum is transcended and overcome? When entering into the Church do we enter simply another mundane building subject to the mundane laws of this current corrupt order?
In Hebrews we are told, “But you have come to Mount Sion and the City of the living God, a heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, a festal assembly of the Church of the firstborn ones who have been registered in the heavens, and to God the Judge of all, and the spirits of the righteous who have been perfected, and to Jesus, the Mediator of a new covenant, and the blood of the sprinkling, which speaks better than Abel” (12:22-24).
The concrete reality is: as we rightly enter into even the building of the Church we are entering into Sion, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and encountering the realities of the eternal and everlasting age made manifest through material means in our passing age.
Everything that is done in the Church must be held to this standard, the standard of Christ and Eternity.
When considering the implementation of anything in church, we must ask a simple question – is it reflecting the reality of Eternity or the passing corruption of this fleeting seclorum?
So let us with the help of a few saints remind ourselves of the Eternal Icon, reality, of the Church.
St. Justin (Popovich) calls the Church nothing less than the Theanthropic Body. (Quotes are taken from his book “The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism.”)
He reminds us that, “The Church constitutes the greatest and holiest mystery of God in all worlds.” How vital it is to rightly protect this mystery!
The saint elaborates, “This fullness of the theanthropic perfection of Christ is, in fact, the inheritance of the saints and the hope of all who are called to be Christians (Eph. 1:18) … Christ the Theanthropos is all and all, in all worlds, and the Church in Him … The purpose of His theanthropic dispensation of salvation is to cleanse everything from sin, to bring everything into the Logos, to sanctify everything, to make everything a part of the theanthropic Body of the Church and thus return everything to fullness of unity and purpose in the Logos.”
The Church in St. Justin’s teaching, which is not his but rather he is speaking from the pleroma of the Faith, is founded first and foremost in and on the Divine Person of the Logos, as such everything that is truly from the Church must reflect and preach the Truth of the Logos.
St. Justin continues, “By the Church and in the Church as a theanthropic Body, man grows to heights above the angels and the cherubim … As for the mystery, the fullness of the mystery of man within the fullness of the mystery of the God-Man, who is the Church, its Body and Head, is here.”
When we enter into even the very building itself we are entering as if into the Divine Logos, and all of His power, grace, and energy are perfectly active at all times to save and protect. Not only in a spiritual manner but in a very material manner too, for matter in the Church is sanctified and offered to God. Through this offering it becomes holy and a conduit of the Holy. What then shall we fear?
The saint sums this up by saying clearly, “The fullness of the Theanthropos is the Church.” And he makes clear that every work of the Church in Her essential realty is the energy of Christ the Lord, “All the holy mysteries and virtues in the Church, by which we are purified, regenerated, transfigured, sanctified, and made like Christ the God-Man, like God, like the Holy Trinity, and by which we are saved, come from the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, by the grace of the unity of God the Logos with our human nature in the Person of the God-Man, the Lord Jesus.”
By this evaluation, it would be impossible, therefore, for any kind of earthly corruption to be spread by the divine work – energy – of the Church. The mysteries only work for our purification and salvation. The work of the Church is not of this world, although She works in this world. Her essential starting and ending point is in the Person of the Divine Logos, for the Church is the continuation of the incarnation of the Logos in this fallen world. Through this unbreakable union, the Church always gives that which is necessary for true Life. Again we are speaking of the Theology, the essential reality, of the Church. Sadly, the historical and human interface falls, at times, very short of the reality.
St. Nicholas Cabasilas in his book “The Life in Christ,” written in the 1300s, gives to us the same lofty icon as St. Justin.
He calls to us, “In this way (the mysteries) we live in God. We remove our life from this visible world to that world which is not seen by exchanging, not the place, but the very life itself and its mode … He did not remove us from here, but He made us heavenly while yet remaining on earth and imparted to us the heavenly life without leading us up to heaven, but by bending heaven to us and bringing it down. As the prophet says, ‘He bowed the heavens also, and came down’ (Ps. 18:10).”
In and through the Church Heaven itself is “bowed” down and comes to meet earth, even while the earth is still in a state of corruption. Therefore all that is done in the Church should image forth not the turmoil of this feeble age but the victory of Heaven.
He continues, “When in this life the brightness of the life to come enters through the Mysteries and dwells in our souls it overcomes the life which is in the flesh … this is the life which is in the Spirit.”
When we enter into the Theanthropic Body of the Church the brightness of that true life overcomes the life which is subject to the flesh.
Since this is the reality, “God’s work always consists in imparting goodness, it is for this end that He does all things … For this reason, the most sacred Mysteries may fittingly be called ‘gates of righteousness,’ for it is God’s supreme loving-kindness and goodness towards mankind, which is the divine virtue of righteousness, which has provided us these entrances into heaven.”
So, it is profitable to ask: could anything in the Church, according to the above teaching, convey corruption, fallenness, and illness to us? For if we in action or word indicate that anything of the holy things “could,” then we are taking from it the reality of being as “entrance into heaven.” Heaven cannot impart corruption.
St. Nicholas confirms this, “He (Christ) stifles sin in us and infuses into us His own life and merit and makes us share in His victory.” This is the energy given to us in the Church, through the Holy Mysteries, which broadly includes icons and the many other holy things. Let us remember that in the Church all the effects of sin are stifled and in their place, we are given the very life of Christ. And Christ cannot impart the effects of sin and corruption.
Speaking specifically of the Mystery of Holy Communion, He instructs, “So perfect is this Mystery, so far does it excel every other sacred rite that it leads to the very summit of good things. Here is the final goal of every human endeavor. For in it we obtain God Himself, and God is united with us in the most perfect union, for what attachment can be more complete than to become one spirit with God?”
SO PERFECT! That is, how could it be found deficient in any way? (Clearly, a person could approach in a personal state of unworthiness but that is a different subject.)
Ultimately all the Mysteries are imparting to us the very grace and energy of God Himself! Could they be carriers of corruption? Could they spread sickness? Never.
We may safely conclude that the material means – by which God continiously imparts and gives His Divine Energy to us – in the Theanthropic Body of the Church cannot convey to us anything that is of this corrupt age of sin, sickness, and death. The holy things only impart He Who is Holy.
For, “Christ infuses Himself into us and mingles Himself with us,” and thus we become “more akin to Christ than birth makes us akin to our parents.”
The saint poses this vital question that is most pertinent to us even today, “How shall they taste death when they are always dependent on the living Heart?”
That is how could any aspect of death be imparted through the divine mysteries and service of the Body of Christ? The clearly implied answer is, they cannot.
He does inform us that, “To those, then, to whom externals only are apparent, it is merely the clay that is visible.” That is those who have eyes blinded by the false shadows of this passing world will see in the Church only “clay,” they have not “eyes to see” the truly divine reality. Secular powers only see in the Church an institution of clay, something only of this world and thus they treat it as a mundane place in the midst of other mundane places.
One of the three great Theologians of the Church, Simeon the New Theologian, writing around the 1000s, speaks, regarding the Church, in unison of voice with the saints we have surveyed above. (Quotes from, On the Mystical Life, Vol. I.)
He asks, “So what do you think the temple is? Do you think that the dwelling and the temple are anything other than the King Himself? Of course not! Just as Christ is the Head of the Church, and God, so He becomes Himself her temple too (cf. Rev. 21:21), and in turn the Church is established as Herself His temple and His fully ripened world.”
The Church is Christ Himself, and the source of the Church is Christ Himself, and the Church thus reflects, in Her ultimate calling and reality, everything that is of Christ and of the coming age. She does not take as Her guide the fallen reason of worldly existence. She rather, in Her essential reality, calls all of humanity to its lofty vocation as sons and daughter of God, citizens of the New Jerusalem on High where there is no sin, sickness, and death.
Speaking on the mystery of the continued theanthropic revelation, St. Simeon proclaims, “Do you see the depth of this mystery? Do you understand the infinite transcendence of super-abounding glory? Do you grasp that the mode of this union transcends our intelligence and our every concept?
May we let those questions settle deeply into our hearts. Do we understand? Are we in our actions living in accordance with the Mystery?
The saint lifts our eyes from the corrupt and worldly to that which is everlasting and heavenly, “The union which He has by nature with the Father He promises that we may have with Him by grace, if we desire it, and that we may be in the same relation with respect to Him, if we keep His commandments” – “IF, ”there are contingencies! – “O, fearful promise! That the glory which the Father gave the Son, the Son gives, in turn, to even us by divine grace. And yet more: that as He is in the Father, and the Father in Him, so, if we so will, the Son of God will be in us and we in Him by grace … and this follows naturally, for now, He has become our kinsman in the flesh, and has rendered us co-participators in His divinity, and so made us all His kinsmen. Above all, the divinity imparted to us through this communion cannot be broken down into parts, is indivisible, and thus all of us who partake of it in truth must necessarily and inseparably be one body with Christ in the one Spirit.”
And so it is manifestly clear from this but small reflection that the essential reality of the Church is found in Christ Himself, and everything that is done in Her must be held to that standard. Is what is done a true imaging of the God-Man, Jesus Christ? Does it reflect the hope of eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven? Are we following the Spirit of Christ or the spirit of this fallen age?
If we are not imaging Christ in His Church then we may be in danger of becoming iconoclasts.
I hope that this reflection aides us in contemplation of the current situations which surround us. May we ever uphold inviolate the Truth of the Body of Christ, the Theanthropic temple of our Lord; not only with words of nice “theology” but also through the concrete reality of our actions in this world.
“… And unto us He has granted eternal life, let us worship His resurrection on the third day!”
For further contemplation, here is an article that addresses further the action of divine energy in the Church.
Here is a reflection I wrote on the Divine Liturgy.