The Church is resurrection life
Baptism restores to us Eden’s lost paradise. In the Bread of Life, the food of resurrection, God comes to us. It is the presence in the world of ‘saving life’. Everything has to be built around it, churches, societies, nations, culture – all are to be baptized into the paradisal life and conformed to the eucharistic self-giving of God, today. This ‘saving life’ is a seed of fire that is to transform the world’s life. In an early prayer of consecration for a church we read, ‘When three are gathered together in thy name they already form a church. Watch over the thousands here assembled. Their hearts had prepared a sanctuary before our hands built it to the glory of thy name. May the temple of stone be as beautiful as the temple of our hearts. Deign to bless both alike with thy Spirit. Our hearts, like these stones, are marked with thy name’.
The purpose of ecclesial living is to restore to the world its spiritual dimension, to open it up this mystery of paradisal life. So Maximus the Confessor can say, ‘The church is the perfect image of the sensible world. For sky it has the divine sanctuary, and for earth the nave in all its beauty. And vice versa the world is a church. For sanctuary it has sky and for nave the grandeur of the earth (Mystagogia 3, PG91 669).
For Christians it means that we become a ‘church’, a eucharistic presence in the world, a God-bearer, a Christ-bearer. In the nave of our body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the ascesis of disciplined living is transforming our vital energy into love. In the sanctuary of the soul we offer the spiritual sacrifices where the altar of our minds is united to the Godhead in communion with the life of divinity. This is the sacramental character of the Church in which we live, the centre of which is the Eucharist, the vehicle of resurrection life.
The human side
The other side is the human side, where response to this resurrection life is often slothful, misbehaviour and rebellion. The Spirit is excluded as Christians disfigure or reject the mystery instead of allowing it to shine through. The glory and scandal about the ecclesia is the history of human fidelity and infidelity. Despite this, the ecclesia never ceases to witness to the absolute fidelity of God in the ‘golden chain’ of holiness often hidden but never broken. Origen described the Church as the harlot whom Christ unendingly washes with his blood to make her his spotless bride. He said, ‘There are not only wars outside the Church. There are also “seditions” within the Church. As there are as many sinners among the pagans, so there are also many such amongst us members of the Church … If Jesus had good reason to weep over Jerusalem, he will have much better reason to weep over the Church … its shameful greed and the hateful stupidity of some people – if only prelates were not among them! – have made it a “den of thieves”…’ Commentary on Matthew, 35 (GCS 11.68) Homily on Jeremiah, XIV. 3 (PG 13,432) .
St Ambrose prayed, ‘I believed I was not worthy of the episcopate … but by thy grace I am what I am, the least, and indeed the last, of bishops … Grant me to be able to have compassion on sinners from the depth of my heart: for that is the supreme virtue…’
Our eucharistic communities should be places where people today can recover their energy and vision of things eternal in the paradise of the Eighth Day, restorative cells to neutralize the cancers gnawing away at our societies.
Christian life is a misunderstood life and the Christian is a misunderstood person in a world that has marginalized Christians and made them seem irrelevant. Christians live on the margin of society, the desert place of meeting with God to deepen fundamental human experience in the Kingdom which is not of this world, but in whose new life, values and divine perspective lies the world’s salvation. We are irrelevant people, made so by the fact of death, which for many makes life apparently absurd. Yet hidden with Christ in God, we live between the two poles of Christian existence, Incarnation and Transfiguration, where we confront the reality of death and resurrection, a particular death and resurrection situated in space and time but, unlike our own lives, is not limited by these things. The action of God in incarnation, death, resurrection, and transfiguration brings divinity into humanity and takes humanity into divinity.
By his participation in humanity, God has made it possible for man to participate in divinity, the mutual sharing and indwelling of God with humankind. Here the Christian struggles with the fact of death in himself in order to find something deeper than death. The marginal Christian, the person of the Eucharist, the person of prayer, is to go beyond death even in this life, to go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and in so doing to be a witness to life, resurrection life.
Arthur Middleton is tutor at St Chad’s, Durham, a writer and a retreat conductor