Word Magazine March 1978 Page 5-7
THE IMAGE OF THE CHURCH
She presides both from gleaming apsides and from “beautiful corners” in humblest homes — this icon of divine maternity in cobalt, vermilion, and gold. How many have sought solace in those brooding, knowing yet loving eyes? Innumerable tapers of supplication, of love, and of thanksgiving offered before her comprise a constellation of devotion. Who will yet kneel in her presence and — heeding her admonition, “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it” — find the water of his life turned to wine? Who, forgotten upon earth, finds refuge beneath the mantle of her protection — and when shall we come before the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the World, whose unborn presence creates an aereola of her womb? Called MORE SPACIOUS THAN THE HEAVENS, she re-calls us to the confession of One whom the Heavens cannot contain —and yet deigned to dwell within the frail body of a virgin. As THE ICON OF THE SIGN, she confirms the prophecy of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (i.e.: “God with Us”) — 7.14. But as an inquirer, my meditation has been most enriched and my hope refined through contemplation of her by a third title: IMAGE OF THE CHURCH. That so many for so long have found it helpful, suggests meaningful parallels between the Theotokos and the Church.
One such similarity is a shared function: each presents Christ. Almighty God dwells in light inapproachable, worshipped by effulgent hosts — yet He gave His Son to save us who are slaves of ignorance and sin. In a sense He is outside of this world of His own devising — above and beyond it. The JudaeoChristian religion is the fruit of God’s search for man rather than men’s search for God. The Theotokos and the Church are singular means by which the Omnipresent yet utterly Transcendent “I AM” (or more strikingly, “HE (WHO) IS WHAT HE WILL (CHOOSE TO) BE”) elects to become “God with Us”. As the Mother of God provided the flesh and blood vesture of Our Lord Jesus Christ; so the Church as pre-eminent Mystery and Mother of Mysteries alone can confront us with Jesus Christ, confer the very life of God upon us, and enable us to live as sons of God. Because the Church is God’s gift rather than man’s invention, she speaks not as men speak but as One having authority. Because we are sinew as surely as we are soul (and because the whole man is the object of God’s redeeming love), she is both sacramental in her action and hierarchical in her structure. Because her charismata, her ascetic injunctions, and her Gospel correspond to real needs; submission to her rule becomes freedom. Because she is indwelt by God Himself, she is Heaven upon earth. Because man is made for God as well as by Him, she is our only true home. And because God wishes our love — which can never be taken, but only freely given and received — she can be ignored and rejected. In Jesus Christ as Head of the Church (totus Christus, caput et corpus —Augustine) we are presented the option of life. To prefer some “alternative” is to prefer what does not exist: it is to answer “no” not to God alone, but to ourselves.
AN INBORN HUNGER FOR GOD
During the nine months following the Annunciation, the life of God the Son (per the conditions of the Incarnation) depended upon the life of a young Jewish maiden. Surely the limitless humility, the abject vulnerability so painfully evident in the passion narratives, is found in the fact of God’s birth! His was a kenosis (cf. Phil. 2:5-8) that would suffer neither a bruised reed to be broken nor a smoldering wick to be quenched. It brought Him as a sheep to slaughter and as a lamb dumb before its shearers.
This “meekness” accords with a God who seeks our love rather than mere obedience, but has it an ecclesiological significance? The presentation of the Divine self-disclosure and option presupposes the infallibility of the Church, yet that inerrancy needs be expressed in a way that does not contradict the message it is meant to maintain. Perhaps it is legitimate to ask if the “meekness” of Christ is compatible with the abrogation of free will — and helpful to ask if such abrogation is involved in alternate views of infallibility, i.e.: in the positing of an oracle infallible ex sese, non autem ex consensu ecclesiae. It may be that the inability to recognize the Church as teaching (apart from the simple provision of “answers” and promulgation of dogma de novo) is symptomatic of an impoverished spirituality. If we are to have the mind of Christ, and if doctrines are to be more than mere shibboleths, we may well conclude that the Church teaches most valuably and directly by helping us formulate appropriate questions. This view may have seemingly little appeal in an automated, superficial, fallen world; yet we have an inborn hunger for God, and an experience of Him is self authenticating. The difference between such spirituality and that too characteristic of the West is glimpsed in the difference between a hand thrown pot and ceramics from a mold. Only those who have never truly seen the work of a master potter can think a mold results in articles of comparable utility and beauty. The hand made article bespeaks the artist’s gentleness, his strength, his respect for the character and possibilities of a clay, his patience, his skill, his conscious direction. So it is with God and the Saints. Each bears the unmistakable hallmark of His painstaking care, and yet is unique. We with whom God works to transform into Saints can be mistaken, and must continually strive to chart our course by the twin stars of the Church’s Faith and practice — but Churchly authority is a symphony of experiences, not something that undermines their significance. Our recourse is not to the mold of authority as such, but to that self-abandon and trust which is the epitome of sanctity and the meaning of the Virgin’s words: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” There is nothing easy, fast, or convenient here — but a Heaven peopled by Saints of remarkable variety and unimaginable perfection attest its realism. Of such is the Kingdom of God, the Communion of Saints, and the real repository of wisdom.
THE SPIRIT MAKES HOLY
In the sublime mystery of God coming to man, whether through the Theotokos or the Church, the role of God the Holy Spirit (“Treasury of good gifts and Giver of Life”) is crucial. This seems a second parallel. What is the “Communion of Saints” but the “Fellowship of the Holy Spirit”? The Symbol of Faith that teaches us to confess Christ: “. . . incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” soon moves briskly from a consideration of His Person and procession to an owning of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This is no accidental juxtaposition. The Church is the sphere of His activity as promised and sealed. The divine maternity and the Church are two principle insights into the operation of God the Holy Spirit. In both, sanctification and the setting apart and empowering of that which then becomes a font of sanctity is evident. The Spirit not only is Holy but makes holy (whole), and transforms that which is thus made holy into a means of healing and salvation for many. Thus, when He overshadowed the Blessed Virgin Mary, she not only became the Immaculata, the Panagia, and the Theotokos — but from that moment (as was intimated in the first parallel) the mediatress of our salvation, as well. At Pentecost, the company which was to become the Church awaited power from on high. Again it was the descent of the Paraclete which transformed that which was human and mortal into that which was to become a mediator of salvation which is destined to remain forever. It is the Holy Spirit abiding within the Church that endows her words and acts with salvific efficacy. Apart from this participation in the Spirit, all such words and acts (even if transplanted directly from the Church) become dubious if not patently effete. The bald assertion that a “sacrament”, is valid (by which Western theologians mean “efficacious”), provided it has the proper “minister, matter, form and intention” at least comes close to reducing the sacramental to the level of the magical. This same cloven-hoofed fault plays an essential role in justifying heretical ecclesiologies. Such “justification” consists in the claim that where the “gospel” and selected historical / liturgical “essentials” are maintained, the Church of necessity is found. It is my growing conviction that since the Church is greater than the sum of her characteristics, this approach is pathetic and utterly inadequate. It is advanced by those who seem not to know catholicity (sobornost) from a chocolate éclair! That confections may be conjured up by following a recipe doesn’t mean that the Church can be. That the Church makes bishops does not imply that “bishops” make a church; and appeal to the (mis-understood and mis-applied) Vincentian Canon, to Scripture, to the Creeds, etc. does not make the non sequitur any more palatable.
So the Theotokos as “Image of the Church” defies us to “miss the mark” by conceiving of the Church as amorphous, “invisible,” divisible, or reconstitutable. That the Church is as real, as tangible, as clearly defined as the assumed body of the all glorious Mother of God — and like her has but a single heart and mouth and mind — is sometimes dismissed as too exclusive. But it cannot be “Christian” to deny God His right to specificity, even when we do so by appeal to an ill conceived humanitarianism! To subscribe to such a usurping priority is to refuse God as the Way, the Truth and the Life — and so represents man’s inveterate attempt to create “god” in his own mortal image. Amid the smorgasbord of sects the news that there is a Church, is good news indeed. That it can be published in an uncharitable way is due to our lack of love, not God’s! Christ Himself warns against eschewing the vine (John 15:5-11), and the Apostle Paul was anything but uncharitable when he warned the Galatians of the dangers of a “different Gospel” (1:6-10). That God the Son was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and a specific woman, at a particular time, and in a place (and that He has brought into being and indwells one Church — the “narrow way”) is not inconsistent with His beneficence, but is a corollary of theophany. As “Image of the Church” Mary teaches that we are called to seek divine truth and life — not where we fancy, but where God commands and provides. Within a specific fellowship we are accorded access to the deifying Holy Things which Love provides.
Even as the Theotokos knew Him who dwelt beneath her heart to be the Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the longed for Messiah, and the Saviour of the world — so too the Church knows Him whom she worships and presents by the Holy Spirit. This is the third and final parallel to be presented here. As the Church does not substitute trust in an office for trust in God’s promise as she infallibly presents Christ — as she does not assume that the fire of Pentecost, like that stolen by Prometheus, can be pilfered through appropriation of ecclesiological “essentials” — so she has neither the desire nor the need to seek “relevance” amid contemporary secular values. She is blessedly ignorant of the imperative to “Ordain” priestesses or offer courses in the intricacies of “liturgical dance”. She has no need to dress psychotherapy in the habiliments of religion to “minister” to the unwary: and knows she does not need to reform her rites and can not re-form the Faith. Though she earnestly desires a loving response from us, her existence does not depend upon it — or upon anything else (other than the sovereign will and initiative of Almighty God). As the extension of the Incarnation and the means by which we are incorporated (in-bodied) into Christ, she is the social implication of Christianity. Her teaching and her acts exist prior to, as well as independent of, any act of man (God saved us while we were yet in our sins). Mindful of her nature and vocation she is self assured because, like the Holy Mother, she knows the Lord to be with her. In real humility the Theotokos could prophesy: “henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.” In similar humility, assurance, and dependence the Church knows herself to be PART AND PARCEL of the Good News, not merely its exponent. Among the glorious titles accorded the Theotokos in the “Akathist of our Most Holy Lady Mother of God” a number can be applied directly to the Church. The Church is “access of mortals to God,” it is she “through whom paradise is opened,” she is the “ship of those who wish to be saved,” and it is she “who dost wed the faithful to the Lord.” The union between Christ and His Church is as vital as that between a head and a body, as life-giving as that between a vine and its branch, and so intimate that the union of two made one flesh is but its semblance. So unequivocal is this union, this practical identity, that our loyalty to Our Lord Jesus Christ; our loyalty to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; and our loyalty to the Orthodox Faith are less three loyalties than one. It was an already risen and ascended Christ, far above the malice of mere men, who asked: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou ME?”
In summary, the Holy Mother of God is an image of the Holy Church of God. They share a similar vocation (they present Christ), they do so by virtue of divine fiat (the power of the Holy Spirit is the soul of the mystical body of Christ), and they are immaculate and impervious to defilement (each perfectly expresses its reason for being — and that reason is found solely in God). The Annunciation and Pentecost give meaning each to the other. They are two facets of the same fact and two aspects of the same action. By drawing out the ecclesiological implications of the Theotokos as Image of the Church, that image is itself transfigured. The Icon of Divine Maternity becomes the wakeful cherubim posted east of Eden whose flaming sword turns in every direction to guard the Tree of Life. False concepts of the Mystery which is the Church are cleaved asunder, error is exposed, and base loyalties become unconscionable. She who gave birth to God becomes a champion of Holy Orthodoxy and so offers men a blessed freedom from illusion. She is sent by the Bright Morning Star as a beacon upon a high place. The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. (Revelation 22:17)
Mr. George Benjamin Gapen is a recent convert to Holy Orthodoxy. This meditation was written exclusively for THE WORD. He lives in Garards Fort, Pennsylvania.