An Ecclesiological Note

Perhaps the fundamental flaw of our ecclesiology is that we think the Church was founded. By that I mean, that Christ came, set up the Church, sent the Holy Spirit, and it’s all been moving onward, outward, and upward ever since. One points to the words of Our Savior – “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” – and leaves the question at that. (Matt. 16:18). A somewhat more sophisticated version of this argument extends the Church’s life – her gestation, if you will – into the covenants of the Old Testament.

This kind of ecclesiology weds the Church to the vicissitudes of history, and the necessary fruit of this unhappy union is a Tradition that oscillates between mythopoetic antiquarianism and charismatic presentism. Tradition is either an ark to carry us across the sea of changes, or the constantly renewed speech-act of the Pope, or people, or Council, or some ill-defined combination of the three. And whether one reads this historical narrative in a traditionalist or a progressive key, one always ends up interpreting the story of the Church in the light of the past’s dying embers.

Icon of the Synaxis of All Saints. (Source)

But that is not the model of the Church we find in Scripture. The Church which is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Redeemed Heaven and Earth, all this is the self-same Church that sojourns in history (Rev. 21:1-2). But in the Apocalypse we observe her at her true birth beyond time. It is in the culminating moment of all creaturely existence, in her final and lasting Union with God in His essence eternal, that the Church takes her true being. It is the bright light of that ageless day which illuminates history, and not the ever-dimming torches of chronological time. Indeed, history furnishes no light of its own, only dim reflections of God’s glory that we misunderstand in uncountable ways. In the words of the Apostle, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor. 13:12).

In the same letter, he writes, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). Here we have an image of the eschaton – that redeemed dimension in which everything that is, is Christ, by the grace of participation in Him. The eschaton is thus non-different from both Christ and the Church. All souls participating in the eschaton likewise share in Christ’s singular mediation before the Father, albeit in ways proper to their scope. Humans are His Body, the Angels are His High Priestly garments, and the new heavens and the new earth are the temple. For the eschaton – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb – mediates God’s salvific action with creaturely, chronological reality (Rev. 19:9). It is like the upmost layer or outer shell of time, giving all creation its true shape. It is the blissful union by which God weds the cosmos.

A genuinely eschatological ecclesiology, an ecclesiology that takes apocalypse seriously, must demote any definition of Catholicity that relies too heavily upon the unstable facts of history. If the Church is, as the Apostle writes, “the pillar and ground of the truth,” then it must be rooted in a life that exists beyond the vicissitudes and fallibility of the creaturely world. (1 Tim. 3:15). However, this raises a question of knowledge with soteriological ramifications.

Too often we hear from Catholics (or Orthodox) in an apologetic mood that “We know we are in the True Church because we have Apostolic Succession.” No, you are in the Church because you are saved by the grace of Christ; your Judgment has already taken place beyond time, your eternal place in glory allotted, your soul blissfully united to the Lord – but you haven’t consciously arrived there yet. This is the mystery of Predestination, but not, as commonly misconceived, in a linear, chronologically anterior direction. Election does not happen before time, but above it – or rather, both before and after history. When St. Paul writes, “And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified,” he is fundamentally describing a single divine work in the eschaton. (Rom. 8:30). To be in the Church is to be a child of God. However, the grace of divine adoption is eschatological in both its root and in its orientation. Scripture says, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.” (Rev. 21:7). And elsewhere, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3). This image, which comes from one of the final visions of St. John, depicts the Church’s eschatological life, and not her earthly existence. Thus, only the Saints in Heaven are the Church, properly speaking; the damned have no part in Christ’s Body. Ultimately, there is no third category.

The True Church is thus, like God Himself, hidden. She abides in and beneath the purple trappings of worldly glory, but takes no part in it. The tendrils of grace that reach down from the supernal world move invisibly and invincibly to the hearts that are hers; they are as so many crooked and narrow paths up to the temple, lit by the lamp of Revelation. As the Psalmist sings, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 118/119: 105).

This is not to say that apostolic succession is unimportant. It has its uses, insofar as it preserves and passes on the saving truth of the Scriptures and Creeds, the threefold order of ministry, and the seven sacraments by which we receive certain graces. In this sense, it is a gift of God’s condescension to us mortals. But apostolic succession is not constitutive of the Church’s essence. Only final participation in the eternal life of Christ can do that.

Christ the Judge, mural in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN. Mural by John DeRosen. (Source)

Which brings me to a question I have been wrestling with lately: what is Catholicity? When we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Church is “Catholic,” what does that really mean? The common answers one usually hears on this point are either “communion with the Pope” or “possesses apostolic succession.” The first of these is an irrelevant, Ultramontane fable. The second simply confounds the question of Catholicity with the question of Apostolicity.

My own attempt at an answer would divide the question thus: we may speak of what Catholicity looks like, and we may speak of what Catholicity is. Catholicity looks like those things I have already mentioned: teaching the faith of the Scriptures and Creeds, prayerfully distributing the seven sacraments, and preserving the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons in apostolic succession. In what it seems to be, Catholicity means wholeness. But Catholicity is participation in the eschatological Church which is already united to Christ, that is, the whole body of the saved, whosoever and wheresoever they might be. In this sense of its utmost reality, Catholicity means universality. Thus, Catholicity means different things when applied to the Church visible and the Church invisible, with the latter taking priority.

The temporary Church visible and the everlasting Church invisible are never completely commensurate. But one can nevertheless “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” more confidently in a church with these elements, and where one can be reasonably sure that the priest is offering a true oblation to the Father. (Phil. 2:12). One can never truly be sure that one is a member of the Universal Church simply by virtue of the necessary historical features I have outlined. A Christian can still be damned, even if he is a churchgoer; surely, no Catholic who is paying attention could say otherwise. As we move through time, who can know whether any of us will prove to be Saints in that last and most surprising Day? “Watch and pray.” (Matt. 26:41). As M. Quesnel said of the two thieves at the Crucifixion, “Un se convertit à la mort, espérez; un seul, craignez.”

I said earlier that this issue is a question of knowledge with implications for our salvation. But that’s not quite true. One’s adherence to the True Church is not a question of knowledge, even with all the best historical or empirical evidence we can gather. It is, rather, a question of faith. Too many Catholics are uncomfortable with real faith. The over-exalted epistemic claims of our church means that far too often we treat our doctrines and even our own salvation as matters of knowable fact, and end up forgetting that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Let us pray to receive the grace of rediscovering epistemic humility, for with it, faith will follow.

A Defense of the Pre-Pian Easter

A photo from the Easter Vigil at Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini, 2018, according to the Missale Romanum of 1953. I was present at this liturgy last year. (Source)

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski has an excellent Facebook post (which I very much hope he will turn into an article) demonstrating why the pre-1955 Easter Vigil is superior to alternatives within the Roman Rite. An excerpt:

One could go on and on… The bottom line is that the whole liturgy, one vast hymn of praise to the might of God revealed in the creation of the world, the creation of the old Israel, and the creation of the new Israel, possessed a cosmic sweep, an historical rootedness, and an immersion into mystery that I have never seen before, in a seamless interconnection with none of those embarrassing modular joints or ceremonial caesuras typical of the work of Vatican committees from 1948 onwards.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

This is spot on. I would add that this year, I was struck by the particularly insistent if understated theme of divine paternity, generation, and filiation found throughout the twelve readings. They build perfectly to the blessing of the font. This ritual, so clearly a stylised evocation of the procreative act, is elaborated through repeated prayers of fecundation. The font is renewed as a vessel of new life, the place where souls are adopted by God. The divine paternity in Christ, through the Spirit in the sacraments of the Church, is one of the Vigil’s great themes. I hadn’t noticed it before. But it makes sense. After all, our adoption as “filii et filiae” (in the words of the Vigil’s vesperal hymn) is entirely constituted by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, the whole of the Paschal Mystery.

I was likewise struck by the apostrophising of the fire, candle, and water…I hadn’t noticed it before. It reminded me of the Old Believer icons that show the elemental spirits and the angels of the weather.

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The Theotokos of the Unburnt Bush. Note the angels of the weather. (Source)

This Rite is clearly the product of a similar worldview. One gets the distinct sense that these are not mere poetic effluvia, but, as Dr. Kwasniewski notes, a real address to the material world, as if summoning it to sacramentality.

The liturgy had a majesty to it, a mounting series of joined but unconfused symbols, which the orations and lessons and ceremonies brought forth at a stately, leisurely pace: fire, candle, water, all *directly* addressed in words of power. It is the Church taking command of the rudiments of creation and literally ordering them to serve Christ and the salvation of souls.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

Man imprints a touch of humanity upon those animals and things he takes up into his own life. Dogs, for instance, are not mere beasts; they occupy a quasi-human realm by virtue of their adoption into our own homes and rhythms of life. That is – our culture.

God does much the same with His creation. A self-diffusing goodness, He creates and redeems us as integral persons after His own image and likeness. The old Paschal Vigil suggests that He also imprints both sacrality and a kind of elemental personality upon the non-hypostatic creation, too. The Trinity has, if you like, its own culture. God wishes us to join in that culture, that pattern of common life shared by the three Divine persons. God assimilates us to that culture by cultus.

Namely, the sacraments. In these rites, the Church teaches us how God animates the sacramental potential inherent in all nature.

There is much to meditate here upon the underlying spirituality of the natural and material world we inhabit. At any rate, all Catholics would do well to attend a pre-55 Easter next year if they can. They will experience the Church’s liturgical pedagogy at its deepest and most mystically resonant.

“And the Light Shineth in Darkness; and the Darkness Comprehended It Not.”

Cybele.jpg

Cybele, the Magna Mater, on her triumphal car pulled by two lions. Has there ever been a more perfect likeness to the Whore of Babylon? (Source)

March 24th is the traditional Dies Sanguinis of the ancient Roman calendar, when the painted eunuch-priests of Cybele and the votaries of Attis in their Phrygian caps would join with the servants of warlike Bellona in the most vile public atrocities. On that day, hideous pipes stirred the wicked throng into a fever of unutterable terror, and as the revelers danced in an ever more demoniac fashion, they mutilated their flesh and let out copious torrents of blood upon the stones of forum and temple. Then they drank from their own spilled blood, descending even lower than the beasts in their frenzy and taking on instead the aspect of lustful aegypans. The summit of these evil ecstasies came when, before the altar of the Magna Mater, devotees castrated themselves. Only thus could they enter the service of that infernal priesthood.

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The Triumphal Entrance of Christ, mosaic, Palermo. (Source)

This was the culture that Christianity conquered. And it is with these satanic rites in mind that we look forward to a double feast of rather a different sort tomorrow. For tomorrow, on the 25th of March, we celebrate Palm Sunday and the Annunciation, falling providentially on the same day.

“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

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The Cestello Annunciation, Botticelli, 1489-90. My favorite of all Annunciations. (Source).