The Church is Catholic

Meditations on the Images and Marks of the Church – Part 3

This is the third of five web meditations launched by Fathers Geoffrey Neal and Edward Bryant on the Church, the images and marks that have underpinned an orthodox vision. An overview of the meditations is available on this site here and on the European website here.

INTRODUCTION

Some years ago at an International conference in London, I was with a group of black suited priests going up the escalator, when a group of Americans going the opposite way said to us, “Hey are you all Catholics?” Here was our problem. Some were Anglo Catholics, some were Nordic Catholic and one was a Roman Catholic. We all said “Yes Sir!” – but we all knew it was not the real answer to the greeting rather it was part of our shared dilemma. This word Catholic, the third mark of the Church in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed has deep roots in the life and the self understanding of the early Church. But it has become our stumbling block. The churches of the Union of Scranton have been meeting over a period of years with other catholic churches, attempting to build a renewed vision of our essential Catholicity, and to do this we have been going back to the sources in an effort to face the challenge brought about by the present crisis of faith.

THE SEED

Beginning with the New Testament it is possible to discern the foundations of Christian self understanding. Just as the first converts were called “followers of the Way” before they were called Christians in Antioch, so too Catholicity took time to emerge fully. For example, the Gospels have images given in Our Lord’s teaching for the people of the kingdom such as the vine and branches, the vineyard, the body and bride and the temple, but it is in the letters of the Apostles dealing with practical and pastoral matters that the seeds of Catholicity are revealed especially as they deal with the need for unity of faith and practice from one local church to another.

The first followers of Christ were simply a faith community of pilgrims living as foreigners in a strange land, but rooted in a belief that they were established by the Lord Jesus himself, led by the Holy Spirit, and guided by faithful human shepherds who were to hand on the one faith. With these leaders they came together and shared in the breaking of bread, looking for the Kingdom that the Lord had promised would come. They were taught by St. Paul that they were a new people of God yet although in many different cities they were one and the same “ekklesia” universally. St. Paul has this in mind telling the Corinthians; “I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” [1 Corinthians 4,17] He also refers to the Church or Church of God as having her identity in the Eucharist where the many become one: “For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it… Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” [1 Corinthians 11,18 ff] The identity of each local church united with all the others into the one was reinforced by St. Paul whenever he sent greetings from one city to another as in Romans 16,23: “Gaius, my host and the host of the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the treasurer of the city, greets you.”

THE PLANT

By the end of New Testament times the seed of Catholicity had taken root and the next leaders of the Ekklesia of God summed up their self understanding by using the word “Cat-holicos”. This was because very soon living in a real world of human frailty of hostility and persecution; they soon required some explicit dogmatic expression. The simple creeds and basic formulae with the marks of the church then began to emerge. One of the earliest uses of the word Catholic in Christian history was by St. Ignatius second bishop of Antioch in Syria (AD 69) who knew the apostles John, Paul and Barnabas. As a very old man he was arrested and taken on the long and dangerous journey to Rome where he was martyred in the year AD 107. During the journey he writes as the bishop to five of his churches in Asia Minor. He wishes to keep his flocks protected and united with one another and also with the Churches in other regions and holding the same faith they had all received. He wrote to them all, but particularly to the Church in Smyrna, “wherever the bishop is, there is the congregation. When Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church”. Four decades later in a long letter from Smyrna he tells movingly of the martyrdom of Bishop Polycarp with these words: “of the elect he was indeed one, this most wonderful Polycarp a man who in our times showed himself an apostolic and prophetic teacher and bishop of the catholic church in Smyrna… [Ch 11,16]

Sinai, Christ Pantocrator [Carulmare / CC BY Wikimedia Commons]

THE FRUIT

The increasing use of the adjective Catholic was understood in the sense that it is used by Ignatius and others like Tertullian when he taught about the rule of faith in the Catholic Church or St Cyril when warning against heretics and advising Christians to stay with the catholic church who teach the complete faith universally. [Catechetical lectures 18; ch.23] Finally it bears fruit in the Nicene/Constantinople Creed, which was confirmed by the first four Ecumenical Councils of the whole and undivided Church. The creed expresses faith in a church that is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. All four marks being adjectives are working together, and the whole concept of being Church is to be understood in the mind and practiced in the heart. One mark without the others leaves the whole incomplete. It is inconceivable that members of the Church can be one if they insist on holding their own private opinions. The members of a Church may be fundamentally Catholic by their baptism but to be of the Church they must also be orthodox in doctrine holding the same fundamental beliefs and never losing sight of the call to be lifted into the life and divinity of the Blessed Trinity so that Catholic cannot exist without Holiness or Unity. The four marks “mutually interpenetrate each other in indissoluble unity… the pillar and ground of truth”. [Road to Unity, III,1]

So it was in the third and fourth centuries, struggling to deal with the rise of heretical groups that the word Catholic begins to be applied to those who uphold orthodox doctrine rather than sectarian and non orthodox or what was then called heterodox innovations, which were then everywhere as they are today. Catholic began to mean not only the same faith in every part of the world and hence “universal” but additionally to be “complete” and “whole faith” that needed no additions. This is the meaning of the Greek, “Cat-holicos”. Because the fourth century was the age of endless heresies, the leaders of the church were forced to create the agreed creeds as safe doctrinal pasturage for their people. The creeds were never a substitute or addition to Holy Scripture but created to encapsulate the very core of Apostolic teaching that God had entered human history as a remedy for the destructive flaw that haunts us all. Creeds were not intended to be a straight jacket but rather a fence or safety net. The early Church in the context of the pagan world took very seriously their teaching work, the creed became an important part of three years of catechesis serving as a decompression chamber for converts entering a new journey.

This was the situation Clement of Alexandria [AD 150-215] faced as he compared heretical sects with the true and ancient Catholic Church, and Cyril of Jerusalem [315-387] encouraged his people to do what many have to do today, and avoid churches that could not conform to the Catholic faith, and to a large extent this clarity kept the Church united for the first 1000 years. But it did not last!

THE PLANT NEEDS ATTENTION

Having managed to maintain a degree of working unity, we have to face the fact that all is not well because a grievous and major fracture took place within the Church by the second millennium. The Latin Church of the West made a change in the definition of catholicity by including communion with, and obedience to, the office and supremacy of the Roman pontiff as a requirement for membership of the Church Catholic. This changed everything! Although the creedal marks had themselves not changed, a fatal flaw was opening up in that important concept of unity and wholeness as it had been understood for the earliest centuries. A Papal Catholicity had been created which is an addition or at least an innovation. This alteration also restricted the meaning of catholicos from “whole and complete” just to the idea of universal. This discipline was not accepted by the four other patriarchs of the East. Although it cannot be judged an act of heresy but of innovation and addition in dogma, it has continued to create difficulties for the mark of unity until today. So there are since the second millennium two understandings, first the ancient descriptive definition and then the later Western addition. There have been attempts to resolve these difficulties but so far without success, and still contributing to the root cause of such weakness throughout Christendom which enfeebles us all, especially now. Having witnessed the progressive hardening of the dogmas surrounding Papal Catholicism during the twentieth century, the Old Catholic Church stands with the East in believing that more and more elements have been added to the concept of Catholicity as it was first developed by the Apostles and their successors, and this is a matter that has to be resolved so that we can work and witness together.

CONCLUSION

Regrettably this most important word Catholic is probably the most problematic of all the marks because it is still applied exclusively to the Western Roman Catholic Church, becoming the focus of misunderstanding not just on London escalators, but over many centuries. So this important descriptive word “Catholic” rather than assisting the focus of unity brings about the exact opposite just as the worldwide Church faces a very difficult future.

The only possibility for progress was foreseen by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict, when he believed that we would all need to return to the beginning to become a simpler Church. This conviction runs through the whole of St. John Paul II’s “Ut unum sint” [1995] which not only recognises the seriousness of Christian division and the impediment to the work of Christ [section 98] but the two lungs of the Catholic Churches of the East and West can only come together based on the model of the first millennium [section 55]. Twenty five years have passed with very little sense of urgency. If the vision could be revived, then perhaps the canon of St. Vincent of Lérins could be preserved and used again by all Catholics having a valued place again as a focus of unity,”that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

You are Peter, the Rock

Matthew 16,13-20

There have been many strains during the covid19 lockdown but some people have enjoyed the peace and quiet, the blue skies, songbirds and nature. Like the moon astronauts some see the earth in a new way. We need these precious times of retreat to see life from another and perhaps sharper angle, and have a chance with eyes and ears open to see our world and ourselves in a new light.

In the Gospel for this week, Jesus and his disciples are in Banias, in the far north of the Holy Land. In the days of Jesus this mountain city was called Caesarea Philippi; it was a place of retreat with sparkling springs and waterfalls, lush vegetation and exotic views especially of the snow clad Mount Hermon further north. In every way it was starkly different from the descent the disciples were about to make to the Jordan valley and the noise, heat and politics of Jerusalem and the city where Jesus would soon take his followers to face his persecutors and the final days of his trial.

Caesarea Philippi must have been a specially selected setting in which the eyes of his disciples were opening to see the true nature of their Rabbi and companion as “Christos, son of the living God”. If this retreat had not happened, they would have struggled to deal with the future battles. So it was the spokesman, Simon Bar Jonah whose confession was to become the turning point. “Who do people say I am?” was the question the Lord asks. “You are the Christos, son of the living God” was Simon Peter’s reply. This is truly the decisive moment, because Simon goes beyond the Jewish religious or political concept of Messiah in which he had been raised into the unique filial communion at the heart of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, and at the heart of their own relationship with Jesus the Christ.

El Greco – Public Domain

The words of Simon are for the evangelist Matthew, the foundation upon which the Church will be built, and Jesus recognises this, renaming Simon as PETROS (the rock). Simon Peter has put into words the rock (PETRA) upon which the Catholic Faith of the future Church will be anchored and in so doing he has opened the way to the Kingdom of Christ. This confession is the key and Simon Peter is the first to hold the key to being the new people of God.

Today, only those of us who can truly make the same confession that Jesus is the Christ and son of the living God are thus the “successors of Simon Peter” as some of the early Fathers of the Church wrote. The Church is forever called to be like a solid rock built upon these words and no others.

From this moment before leaving Caesarea Philippi, Jesus is preparing his followers for the difficult and narrow way of self sacrifice, persecution and suffering. As today’s followers of Christ this is the journey we too will be required to embrace more and more.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Teenage Troubles

Matthew 15,21-28

When Matthew and Mark describe Jesus’ healing of the Canaanite’s daughter, they don’t say what form her ‘devil-possession’ took. I’ve never had the experience of bringing-up a teenage daughter, but I have seen how my sons, and their wives, have coped with their five daughters – and it’s easy to suppose that their experience was sometimes little different from that of the Canaanite woman. But there’s enough in this episode to suggest one or two ideas which influenced what Jesus did. It’s important to know that the ‘region of Tyre and Sidon’ wasn’t part of neighbouring Jewry, but was where many Canaanites had fled as the Jewish Empire, under Joshua, grew larger. There they intermingled, as best they could, with the Native Phœnecians, who had built the prosperous cities of Tyre and Sidon. So the Canaanites were like today’s ‘refugees’. Although they weren’t persecuted by the locals, they were seen as being ‘different from us’, and ‘second-class citizens’.

For teenagers, growing up that way is never easy: lacking a sense of ‘Personal Identity’, being ‘neither one thing nor the other’, leads young people to lose self-respect, and to behave anti-socially. Jesus understood this. So He ‘went out of His way’, to cross the Border into a No Man’s Land – and an anti-Semitic one. But this was how Jesus laid the foundation of the Kingdom which His Father meant His Church-on-Earth to be.

Condé Museum (Wikipedia Commons)

This Canaanite woman recognized Jesus as a Person who could ‘make sense’ of her predicament. Unlike the Jews (and many Gentiles) she was inspired to believe that He was indeed the promised Messiah that Jews were always talking about. So she decided to put her belief to the test. She greeted Him as ‘Son of David’, a Messianic Title – and fell at His feet begging Him to make her daughter whole again. Well, there followed a battle of wits between the two of them. Instead of granting her request immediately, he challenged her by quoting the Jewish twin beliefs that salvation was limited to the Jewish people, and that non-Jews were mere ‘puppies’. But the woman came straight back at Him. She pointed out that mere puppies have a place under their master’s table, eating the crumbs which drop on the floor, and were also deliberately offered more tasty scraps by some of the guests. Well, her faith, like that of the Roman Centurion (whose batman Jesus had healed); or the other centurion who came to faith in Jesus as the Son of God at Calvary: these were precisely what Jesus was looking out for in His fellow Jews – but so often failed to find; whereas the Samaritans, at Sychar Well, believed on Him. Jesus revealed both to Jews and Gentiles that, although Salvation was, indeed, ‘of the Jews’, it wasn’t exclusively for them. His vocation, on the contrary, was to inspire and lead all mankind to Faith in Himself, His Heavenly Father, and in the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Francis Gardom

Jesus Walks on Water

Matthew 14,22-33

Peter’s boat on the rough sea is an icon of the Church, symbolising the Christian community’s mission is to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom and a new way of living as God’s people. Despite the many obstacles and struggles, the Lord’s help and protection will never be lacking, and Christ’s Church will never be overcome. We learn to face together the difficulties, united and strengthened by faith in Jesus who sends us into the world.

Walking on the water, Jesus gets close to the disciples; however they did not recognise him. They cried out in fear, thinking that he was a ghost. Jesus calms them down saying: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” [Mt 14,27]. The words “it is I” reminds us of God overcoming the fear of Moses, who was sent to liberate the people from Egyptian oppression. [Ex 3,14]

For the communities of today as well as for those of yesterday, it was and it is very important to be always open to God’s Word: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” Then Peter addressed Jesus as “Lord [Mt 14,28] this indicates the deep trust and respect, disciples have for Christ’s divinity. “Throughout his public life, Jesus demonstrated his sovereignty by works of power over nature, illnesses, demons, death and sin”. From the beginning of the Christian faith [Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 447-450], the assertion of Christ’s lordship over the world and over history has implicitly recognised that man should not submit his personal freedom in an absolute manner to any earthly power, but only to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Caesar is not The Lord. No one can say “Jesus is Lord”, except by the Holy Spirit. [1 Cor 12.3] Jesus is the Logos, the Word made flesh, the beginning and the end. Indeed, “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow”.

Lluís Borrassà / Public domain

Discovering that it is Jesus, Peter asks if he also can walk on the water. He wants to experience the power which dominates the fury of the sea. This is a power which in the Bible belongs only to God. Jesus allows him to participate in this power. But Peter is afraid. He thinks that he will sink and he cries out: “Lord, save me!” Jesus assures him and takes hold of him and reproaches him: “You have so little faith!” In our own weakness and doubt we can be confident that he who overcame death for our sake will empower us for service. By his example, Christ taught his followers the value of personal prayer. He is the model of Christian prayer, because he prays in us and with us, and for us – in our place and on our behalf. All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross, and in his resurrection, heard by the Father.

Finally Peter was overcome by the waves because of his lack of faith. After Jesus saved him, both of them go into the boat and the wind calms down. The other Disciples, who are in the boat, are astonished and bowed before Jesus, recognizing that he is the Son of God: “Truly, you are the Son of God”. This is the first instance in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus was addressed as the Son of God by his disciples. The title “Son of God” signifies the unique and eternal relationship of Jesus Christ to God his Father; he is the only Son of the Father. In this way Matthew suggests that it is not only Peter who sustains the faith of the Disciples, but also that the faith of the disciples sustains Peter’s faith. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter will go further and professes Jesus as: “the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Let us then who believe in Jesus the Son of God and worship him, encourage each other in this faith as we face the challenges of life, and faithfully bear witness to the Gospel.

Fr. Nathan Williams

A Tale of Two Parties

In a way, this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 14,13-21), together with the preceding verses, could be thus described. The first party is the one that King Herod throws to celebrate his birthday; the second is the impromptu picnic party Jesus throws in the wilderness for a hungry crowd of thousands.

At the first, a young woman dances for the king; captivated, he promises her anything she asks for. So she settles an old score by asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. John had committed the fatal error of condemning Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. Criticise the powerful at your peril! 

The second party is very different. Jesus takes a boat to escape from the crowds, but so charismatic is he that they follow him on foot in droves. He cures the sick among them, one by one. Jesus doesn’t turn them away – he puts their needs in front of his own.

Giovanni Lanfranco / Public domain

But all this takes time. The sun begins to set, and the disciples worry. They tell the Lord to send the crowds away to find something to eat for themselves, but Jesus challenges them. “You don’t need to send them packing – you can feed them!” You can almost hear the sharp intake of breath. They are totally out of their depth. But Jesus saves the situation. He takes five loaves and two fish, blesses the loaves, breaks them and gives them to the crowds and there is more than enough for all. And note in passing that there are clear Eucharistic undertones to this, for to take, bless, break and give is precisely what the priest does at every Eucharist.

In these two contrasting parties, we learn more about the pathetic King Herod than we could possibly want to know, but what do we learn about Jesus from his impromptu party in the wilderness? He heals the sick, he feels compassion for hungry crowds. He discerns what can be done for them, and reveals the care and generosity of our loving God. The crowds are given sound reason to believe that God is still at work for good in the world.

Herod’s party becomes a celebration of death, not simply the man dead and decapitated in his prison cell, but the spiritual death of all those complicit in this orgy of self indulgence where life becomes just a commodity to be used or abused or done away with.

But these are not simply past events, they remain options, between which we choose repeatedly. One is the way to death. The other is the way to life. We are welcome at each of them, and the invitations are always there, waiting for an answer. Herod’s party is easy to find; it is the way of the world. The picnic Jesus puts on can be harder to locate; it occurs in an out-of-the-way place, but accept it, find it, and you will not regret the decision.

For all his finery, for all his opulence, Herod shows himself to be a slave to the world. Jesus wears no crown, yet he reigns as king. 

You can tell a lot about people by the kind of parties they throw; you can tell a lot about people by the kind of parties they go to.

Fr. Edward Bryant

Meditations on the Images and Marks of the Church – Parts 1-5

Fathers Geoffrey Neal and Edward Bryant have launched a series of web meditations on the images and marks of the Church that have underpinned an orthodox vision, with the following main themes:

  1. The Church, the Creation and Gift of Christ
  2. The Church as Bride and Mother Church
  3. The Church Catholic
  4. The Church is One and Holy
  5. The Church Evangelical and Apostolic

The first four meditations have been published and can be accessed via the links below; the last will follow next month and announced by updates to this document.

Overview with links to published meditations

1) The Church, the Creation and Gift of Christ

This introductory meditation which is focusing on the present challenge in our Western culture is available here: The Church, the Creation and Gift of Christ.

 
 

2) The Church as Bride and Mother

This second meditation reflecting upon a number of vital images to help our understanding of the Church as the Bride of Christ and Mother Church is available via this link: The Church as Bride and Mother.

 

3) The Church is Catholic

This third meditation reflecting upon the meaning and historical development of the attribute “Catholic” in order to help our understanding of the fundamental catholicity of the Church is just published and available here: The Church is Catholic.
 

4) The Church is One and Holy

This meditation reflecting upon the meaning of the Creed’s word of the Church as “one” and “holy” has just been published and is available here: The Church is One and Holy.

The Church as Bride and Mother

Meditations on the Images and Marks of the Church – Part 2

This is the second in line of the series of six web meditations launched by Fathers Geoffrey Neal and Edward Bryant on the Church, the images and marks that have underpinned an orthodox vision. An overview of the meditations is available here.

On Being Church

One of the casualties for our faith has come from the gender wars which have weakened images we have traditionally relied upon to communicate the deepest meaning of being Church. In the church year after Pentecost, we reflect upon a number of vital images to help our understanding of the Church as the Bride of Christ and Mother Church. When understood these images can reveal the meaning of our communion with Christ and also the great gift and vision of love between man and woman. Words like “Bride” and “Mother” are both imbedded in the language of Scripture and Tradition but today they have virtually been abandoned and replaced by a model of the church as simply a bureaucratic organisation. This new thinking has resulted in the Church of Christ descending into triviality and irrelevance while at the same time losing the gift of feminine dignity and beauty. To recover the deep meaning of the church let us look afresh at the two images of bride and mother as used over the past and apply them to the present.

The Church as Bride

The two sources we turn to are Holy Scripture and the Fathers where the Bride image begins to emerge.

The image of Israel as bride was already used frequently by the prophets of the Old Testament, and Jesus too applied this image to himself as the bridegroom of his Church, the new Israel [Mark 2:19: “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?”]. The first three synoptic Gospels seem to suggest that being with Jesus was like being with the groom before the wedding. [Matt 9:15] St. Paul speaking directly to the Church in Ephesus uses the marriage image in his memorable passage “be imitators of God…husbands ought to love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her”. [Eph 5:25]

The Marriage at Cana, Decani – Unknown author, Public domain

But this spousal image in the New Testament is taken to a mystical level in chapter two of the 4th Gospel, where St. John records the first sign of the Lord’s ministry in Cana. The episode seems to be deliberately pointing to all the events that would follow. It takes place significantly on the third day, the day of resurrection, and then in the next chapter [John 3:27-29], the meeting with the Baptist who greets Jesus with these words: “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. …I said, ‘I am not the Christ’, but, ‘I have been sent before Him’. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled”. Although at Cana, apparently on the surface, it is a social gathering where the Lord is quietly prevailed upon to replenish the wine by transforming the contents of six stone water pots. The earliest commentators interpret Cana as an anticipation and sign of the transforming of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The Cana wedding therefore points beyond itself to the meaning of the Christ as the groom and the messianic age with the wedding banquet of the kingdom.

It is a sign that marriage on earth can become a prototype in the Church of all the sacraments that unite Christ the bridegroom to his people in an indissoluble union of love. This connection between marriage and the Eucharist was made by many of the Church Fathers, but nowhere better than the later mystic Nicholas Cabasilas in the 14th century who said the Eucharist was “the most praised wedding to which the groom leads the Church as a bride and we become flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone”. Here was the most excellent image from creation to signify the mystical union between Christ and the Church as his bride. The image increasingly grows in importance as the sacramental life within the church becomes more and more central to the self understanding of being church in communion with the Lord. Because it points to the deepest possible spousal communion with Christ and reveals the reason for his coming into the world as a man, the Cana sign has long been associated with the season of Epiphany.

Tragically this important spousal image has become lost or damaged in the world and even in the Church because of the constant attack on male and female, wife and husband and the sanctity of marriage and gender over many decades. Pope John Paul II was so concerned about these threats to human relationships that he wrote a public letter to families in 1994, showing that in the spousal communion with Christ the Church offers the deepest meaning of being Church and for human relationships in married life.

Increasingly today there are now secular writers and scholars such as Joanna Williams, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, coming forward to say that notwithstanding some very important achievements for women, the subsequent developments and the enforced agenda of feminism, have gone too far, and have become harmful to both men and women and to the stability of social life in the community.

The positive mystery of the true feminine as well as the true masculine that dwells in the heart and mind of the Church was clearly seen by Ireneus of Lyons [130-200] as a gift to the world when he says: “she feeds the flock with the milk of the scriptures of the Lord…for the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise”. The more we are aware that this nuptial image is hard-wired into the relationship between Christ and his people, the more other images such as “I am the vine and you are the branches” which appears in the 4th Gospel at a point when Jesus is himself teaching about this grafting bond or important communion with him. Of this Origen of Alexandria [185-254] was to comment: “In truth before Jesus the scriptures were as water but after it has become wine for us”.

The words of Origen have always helped me, for he said when meditating on this image in very difficult times, “from the wound of Christ’s side comes forth the Church and he has made her his bride”. We are right to treasure the beauty of the nuptial relationship with Christ because it is the most powerful and natural way to convey the essence of communion. The same image is present in the final words of the New Testament as the Spirit and the Bride together both waiting for the return of Christ in glory and harmony say: “’Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come”. [Rev 22:17] All of this we will treasure especially as we seek to become the true body of Christ, who exist not for ourselves but for the world. In doing this we may be putting ourselves on a collision course with the modernists, but if this nuptial image is true and of God, then we have no other alternative than to uphold what must be part of the good news and truth of the unique faith and life of the Church.

The Church as Mother

If the bridal image is what we are in our relation to Christ, then the Mother image is what the Church is for us, the people of God in the world. It would be all too easy to dismiss this mother image as sentimental and out of date. It is far from that!

The realisation that the Church as mother is a strong image dawned upon me listening to the composer John Tavener at a talk he gave before the performance of his choral work “The Protecting Veil” [1987]. He said, for him the Mother of God was like a battleship leading the people through the roughest storms. The power of this protecting image, strong and yet tender, is present in Scripture and tradition and beautifully rendered in Tavener’s composition.

Anyone who deals with animals will know just how innate the mothering instinct to protect and feed her young really is. Both Jesus and St. Paul use the mother image in this way. The Apostle explains his apostolic ministry as one who brings children into the protection of the family. [1 Thess 2:7–13 and Gal 4:19] Our Lord, uses the same example of a mother hen gathering her chicks as an image for his own ministry, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! [Matt 23:37]

Virgin of Guadalupe (16th c.) – Wikipedia, Public Domain

The most startling passage is however from the Apocalypse chapter 12 which portrays the Church as “the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet”. This is the vision of a woman who in protecting her child from Satan, is hated by the devil, just as Christ and his people are also hated. Unable to defeat the woman the devil then turns to the fledgling gentile church which we know was struggling at that time to survive the raw evil and persecution by the Roman state. This passage is clearly a warning to the gentile churches and especially put alongside the letters of John the Elder to the same churches of Asia Minor who find themselves in the dangerous world of predators. From his exile in Patmos John tries to warn the little flock saying “I the elder to the chosen lady and her children” – a clear reference to the Church as mother.

The Church Fathers are for the most part in the early days dealing with errors and heresies regarding the nature of God the Holy Trinity, rather than the Church itself. There is little formal teaching on the Church because at that time it was self evident everywhere. However as the threat of persecution increases, the need to defend the people of God become crucial. Then a strong protective image of the Church as Mother becomes more important. In difficult times the Church is required to be defender of the faith.

It was the Council of Ephesus 431 that declared the Virgin Mary to be “Theotokos” (bearer of God) and the person who embodies the properties of “being the Church”. Mary as mother of Jesus Christ contains and personifies concepts which were gradually to help grasp the importance of Mother Church. A decade before the council, St. Augustine who had depended so much upon his own mother Monica’s protection had also been pondering on the role of the Virgin Mary in the conflict between the faith and the powers of evil, and step by step realising that the Church must have both an outward structure and an interior mystical core to cope with life in the world. He saw that the love of the virgin towards her beloved son was needed at the heart and soul of the Church if it was to be a living organism. Using this image we may today be able to face and correct the descent into the worst aspects of institutional Christianity that appears to be one of our greatest problems. This must have been true for St. Methodios, one of the patron saints of Europe, who was able to say, “the church stands upon our faith and adoption…she labours to bring forth ordinary man as spiritual men and for this reason she is our mother”.

Our Lady of Vladimir (12th century) – Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons

Thus through meditation the important concept of the Church as mother began to evolve in association with the piety surrounding the Blessed Virgin Mary who became the image for all who were called to be bearers of Christ.

John Tavener’s composition “The Protecting Veil”, which influenced my own thoughts, is based upon the siege of Constantinople in the tenth century when the Greek Christians experienced a mirror of the vision of St. John, and how they were delivered from the Saracen siege by the protecting prayers of the Mother of God. The protecting veil of Mother Church is still crucial today. This maternal perspective is clearly conveyed by the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir pointing to her son the Christos. For this reason Holy Mary as Mother, increasingly stands at the centre of our ecclesiology as the sign of the human “yes” to God the Father. “If Christ is the icon of the Father, Mary is the icon of the new creation as the new Eve fulfilling the mystery of love”, were the wise words of Alexander Schmemann.

The feminine element in both bride and mother are essential images within the liturgical life of the Church so there is no way of avoiding of the present confrontation. The Christian tradition upholds a deep insight, that our Mother the Church is there to provide everything needed for those who are growing in the faith. Today it is protection, leadership and courage, but always regular true and nutritious feeding that is needed in the storms of life. It is within this mindset of that the mystery of the true feminine dwells, rather than in the contemporary gender models. The Apostle warns us: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” [Romans 12:2] The above mentioned insight of St. Ireneus of the Church Mother sums it up: “she feeds the flock with the milk of the scriptures of the Lord…for the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise”. Whatever else the Church is, she must never cease to manifest Christ to the world as the way of goodness, truth, beauty and life.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

The Church, the Creation and Gift of Christ

Fathers Geoffrey Neal and Edward Bryant have launched a series of six meditations on the Church, the images and marks that have underpinned an orthodox vision. An overview of the meditations – with the present first in line – is available here.

The present challenge

The whole season of Pentecost is a time to reflect on what it means to be the Church rather than the place to attend. It seems that most people both Christians and non Christians do not see a need to have an adequate understanding of what it really means to be the Church. In 2014 Andrew Walker and Robin Parry in the book “Deep Church Rising” highlighted this crisis for all denominations. A lack of teaching, knowledge and confidence in the Sacred Tradition about what the Church is, has brought about confusion and weakness. There has been an unwillingness to accept the drift into error and diversity and the fact that the established institutional churches have in Lesslie Newbegin’s words “thrown in the towel and surrendered to secularism”. Confusion like this brought about the Nordic Catholic Church (NCC) over twenty years ago.

Descent of the Holy Ghost, S.S. Peter and Paul’s Church (Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

The meaning and purpose of the Church is the question that should be in our thoughts and prayers over the coming season. It was the mind and purpose of our Lord as he prepared to leave the Apostles to continue his work and that is what by the power and strength of the Holy Spirit came into existence on the first day of Pentecost.

There are some for whom Church still means the old familiar frequently closed building in our towns and villages, while others think it is the meeting place for those who have their own mixtures of private religious views, with little need to adhere to any agreed belief apart from love and kindness, and who meet without awareness of the problems caused by this great diversity of meaning and purpose.

The more we probe the question, the more confusion emerges, with the result that the faith becomes vulnerable and out of touch with its history and unity of belief. There are warnings ever present in the Old Testament which records an endless series of consequences for the Hebrew people of God who are forgetful of their calling and turn to other Gods. In the New Testament, the Jerusalem disciples and their companions who first experienced the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit believed they were to become the new “chosen people of God, a new creation” who would take forward the crucial ministry of Jesus the Son and Word of God. This was the vision of the New Testament, a united “body of Christ infused with the Holy Spirit with many images and marks to help keep the new Church on course.

Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917) / Public domain

In 1830’s, the Russian saint and mystic Seraphim of Sarov in a conversation with Nicholas Motovilov taught that the whole purpose of a Christian life within the ark of the Church was “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit”, an idea that has helped many to keep alive the Apostolic vision and must help us again.

The gift and creation of Christ has grown dim. So now is the time to underscore this vision of the Church as the body of Christ in history infused and united in the Holy Spirit. This is the task our NCC has as a goal. Seeing the established churches becoming comfortable and ready to accommodate to the secular world, and no longer able to offer the vision of a body of people “souls hard wired” by the Holy Spirit, we are prepared to do what it takes to get back to an Apostolic mind.

Far too long Christians have accepted individual concoctions of faith frequently out of step with the apostolic vision and mind of Our Lord, the head of His Church. If this continues we shall not survive. We should be like instruments in an orchestra continually being re-tuned to the perfect “A”. No orchestra can function if every instrument does its own thing, so too the Church of Christ, needs continually to return to the unity of perfect pitch of the Apostolic vision and gift of Christ Jesus to the world.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Ascensiontide Reflections

On the outskirts of Bexhill in East Sussex, near a former parish of mine, stands a grand mansion, now divided into flats, but once the home of an Indian prince. The prince’s wife died and he erected a shrine to her memory in the grounds; it is so positioned that, at certain seasons, the moon shines right in to it, to light up a diamond that marks the spot where the lady’s ashes are buried. And there is the most haunting inscription – the hours part us, but they bring us together again. So much of the mysteries of life and death, of love and loss seem to be encapsulated in that memorial. The hours part us, but they bring us together again. Anyone who has lost a loved one will understand the truth of that message – the inner longing to turn the clock back to times when you were together, the knowledge that such times can never be again, but the understanding also that when time has run its course, lovers will be reunited, for ever.

That pain of bereavement is something we all experience – losing a parent, a spouse, a child, and it is an ache which lasts as long as love endures. Indeed, lovers die a little death every time they are parted from each other – to give one small example, but one which has stayed with me – I remember from childhood days a friend going off to do his compulsory Military Service, and his fiancée weeping on the station platform. If we can recall from our own personal experience how it felt, then we can begin to understand some of the pain of the apostles when the Lord was taken from their sight. Note the phrase in Acts of the Apostles “they still had their eyes fixed on the sky as he went away” – it recalls for me so many funerals where the curtains have finally closed at the crematorium, or where the mourners simply do not want to leave the grave after the interment – it is as though they hope that a miracle is going to happen, the departed loved one will return, and it has all just been a bad dream.

Icon of the Ascension (unknown painter of Candia / Public domain)

In that account in Acts, we see and in some measure identify with the pain of separation from Jesus, someone deeply loved, and someone who has, time after time, demonstrated his love for his friends. Even when we know that something like this is going to happen, we still do not know how we will feel when it is actually upon us. We lose a loved one and we wonder how on earth we are going to cope, and you can feel that, in the scene described in Chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles. The hours part us, but they bring us together again.

Yes, in many ways what we are witnessing here is a bereavement experience. Yet it is not really of the same order as that of the Indian prince. I know nothing of how he spent the rest of his life, whether in constant mourning, as though the clock had stopped when the beloved died, or whether he rebuilt his life, who knows, maybe with a new love. The temptation for the apostles too must have been to stop the clock, to live in the past. But the Lord, before he left them, had given them his instructions – to stay in Jerusalem, to wait for the gift of the Spirit, and then to be his witnesses throughout the world. All the rest, as they say, is history, for they had learned through the events of Good Friday and Easter to be obedient and to trust, and though, of course, they remained rooted to the spot, as the Lord left them (and we can understand all the conflicting feelings they must have been experiencing), this was the not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

Now the Lord was placing his full trust in his friends, now his work was to be fully shared with them. But the Lord’s command was not just to the apostles, it is to us too. We too have watched him die, we too have seen him rise from the dead, we too have heard his words of peace and reassurance, and now we too are told to carry forward his work in the world. It can actually be a lot more comfortable to spend our time with our eyes fixed on the sky than to become embroiled in the sin, the disorder, the brokenness of the world, but that is the true vocation of the Christian. It was G K Chesterton who said that the trouble with Christianity is not that is has been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried. The gift of the Holy Spirit, promised by the Lord before his Ascension, is for us too, and in the power of the Spirit and through lives of personal holiness, lives dedicated to Jesus’ way, lives consecrated to the causes of healing, forgiveness and justice, we are to bring Christ to this generation, as the apostles did to theirs.

It is a particular feature of the Western World today that men and women will seek any number of cures for their brokenness, from drugs, pornography, violence, through exotic eastern religions to ouija boards, astrologers and clairvoyants. But such things are not authentic ways of living: Jesus in his Ascension shows us the way not simply to new and truly authentic life, but to glory too: our task, in the power of the Spirit, is to make these known to the world. Unlike the Indian prince and his wife, we are not separated from Jesus – he is with us to the end of the world, for that is his promise: it falls to us to make his abiding presence known to others also.

Fr. Edward Bryant

Jesus Christ the Real Presence

The heart of the Christian faith is the Easter gospel. This is not just remembering an event that happened in a bygone age, because the consequences of the Resurrection are always in the present tense.

The New Testament shows that the full impact of the resurrection dawned very slowly upon the first followers and friends of Jesus. When they encountered him again after Good Friday, they experienced joy yet without understanding. It was the coming of the Holy Spirit that finally opened their eyes, so they began to see the deeper meaning of everything that had taken place. Even those who had not been eyewitnesses began to experience the real presence and transforming life that the Lord continued to bring to them.

“St. Paul on the road to Damascus” (Ted via Flickr – CC-BY SA 2.0)

The most dramatic example of the real presence of the risen Christ was revealed to Saul of Tarsus, the arch persecutor of the believers. He was in pursuit of the “followers of the Way” as they were known before being called Christians. He had warrants to arrest those he believed to be troublemakers. Then he was himself struck down and became blind on the road to Damascus. He always spoke of this as an encounter with the real presence of the risen Christ. His blindness was restored but more than this he also saw at the very deepest level of his mind and soul that Jesus Christ is even more real and alive, and able to “open up “a new and living way” (Hebrews 10). It was this same St. Paul who made the most amazing statement of his fundamental and personal conviction that Jesus had not just succumbed twenty years before to a death on the cross, but had overthrown death and trampled it under his feet. ”I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Faith in the resurrection of Jesus remains as St. Paul said, “foolishness to the world,” so it is not a surprise that today, churches seeking to appeal to the world around them, try to explain it away, reducing it all to the pre-Christian ideas of survival of the self or immortality of the soul. Such attempts belong to the fallen world because as St. Paul says, “immortality is found in God alone” (1 Timothy 6:16) The triumph of Christ is a very powerful message and we must avoid letting it become a sentimental belief in personal survival which departs from the mind of the early Church. The purpose of the gospel of the resurrection is not about dealing with the hard issue of death, but with revealing a truth. The truth is that possessing Christ, is to have his life, peace and joy now, just as those disciples on the road to Emmaus who met him again.

Christ’s victory is not about a miracle in history or of survival but the overcoming of the enemy of all life by the transforming of lives to a compatibility with the Divine nature of God the creator of all life. Above all it is about life raised to the God whose Hebrew title is “I am” the eternal present. So too it is about Christ the Son who is also eternally present, continually bringing his victory of life in its wholeness over all that belongs to death and hell and ungodliness, a life that we now are called to participate in.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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