An aspect of the contemporary religious scene could be called “comparative Christianity”: whose version of Christianity is better? In a consumer culture such comparisons are inevitable. Sometimes they are rooted in historical arguments (Protestant vs. Catholic, the details of the Great Schism, etc.). Often they are simply rooted in consumer perceptions (better program, better music, better coffee, etc.). Underneath such comparisons, however, is the greater question of the nature of the Church itself.
Is there are correct way to think about the Church?
The comparative discussions tend to focus on ideas (doctrines), organization (ecclesiology), or practices (sacraments and liturgy). Of course arguments always focus on the weaknesses of one’s opponents. This has skewed perceptions of the Church over the centuries. Protestant accounts of Roman Catholicism focus on the veneration of Mary, the Papacy, prayers for the dead, etc., overlooking most of the experience of Roman Catholicism. The same analysis could be applied to all the various perceptions/misperceptions.
Advocates of the Orthodox Church easily enter into such conversations armed with words like “true,” “only,” and similar words. And while the words used might be correct, the conversation can be deeply misleading.
I offer a different conversation: the Church is the Cross through history. I will explain this in some detail as we go along, but I offer it here as a heading and summary.
We tend to discuss the Church as something created by Christ, tasked with carrying the mission of the gospel into the world. We therefore find it easy to judge the Church according to how well or poorly it fulfills that task.
But what if the Church is considered under a different lens? I am suggesting that the proper lens for viewing the Church is the Cross. The Church is the Cross through history. The Cross is Christ’s self-emptying, reconciling, all-encompassing embrace of the world.
When I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto myself (Jn 12:32).
The Cross is the revelation of God’s perfection, Christ crucified: the Wisdom, Word and Power of God. The separation of the Church from the Cross, relegating the Cross to a theological cypher or single, historical event and interpreting the Church as the promoter and teacher of the cyphers and the event, creates a rupture within the unity of Christ’s work and cripples our understanding of His true work in the world. The Cross is eternal (“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth”) and represents the point both in time and timelessly at which God gathers together all things in Christ. It is the point of reconciliation and recreation. It is there that we hear Christ’s last words of the Creation: “It is finished.”
The death of Christ, His act of self-emptying should not be limited to a description of a single, atoning event. We are baptized into Christ’s death. We show forth His death in every celebration of the Eucharist. The death and self-sacrifice of Christ is invoked at every marriage. The Cross fills the whole work of the Church with its presence.
St. Paul says of his own work: “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1Co 2:2 NKJ)
The Cross also describes our ongoing daily life:
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (Rom 6:5-6 NKJ)
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:20 NKJ)
So how do we think of the Church as the Cross through history?
The Cross is not only the place where Christ is revealed in the perfection of His love, it is also the place where the depth of human sin is gathered and made manifest. The Cross is the point of reconciliation:
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:18-21 NKJ)
And the Church is the Cross through history.
If we bear this in mind, then certain statements can be seen more properly:
The Church is called “the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1Ti 3:15 NKJ) This language is often used with a very static meaning as though the Church’s magisterium, it’s body of teaching, were the subject of the description. This objectification of something that is rather a dynamic working of reconciliation becomes misleading.
A similar mistake is made in thinking of the language that describes the Church as Christ’s Body. We become static in our thinking and reduce such language to a metaphor of “membership.” We too quickly forget that the “body of Christ,” is everywhere else synonymous with Christ’s crucified body. “Body” is Christ’s word for the bread of the Eucharist, “broken for you.”
The same should be said about the use of the word “Blood.” It seems to me that in common usage, Christians often abstract Christ’s blood from the crucifixion and make it a substance that stands along, as though it were some metaphysical reality in its own right. The blood of Christ is not seen apart from His crucifixion. Where the blood of Christ is, there is His Cross.
In previous articles, I described the work of the Cross through history as “the long defeat.” It is a phrase used by J.R.R. Tolkien as a description of the path of Christianity through history. As I noted, such an analysis agrees with the mind of the fathers and the words of Christ in Scripture. The End of all things is preceded by a time of great conflict and suffering on the part of the Church.
My use of the phrase was an effort to describe the cruciform presence of the Church across history. The Church should not be described as an institution whose primary life is seen in its buildings, political prominence, place within the culture, etc. It is the mystical Cross that is everywhere and always the reconciling work of the crucified Christ, His crucified Body into whose bleeding reality we are Baptized and by which we die to sin and rise to newness of life.
As historical reality, that same Cross is also and always the culmination of ironic defeat. It is ironic because the defeat is also its victory. But the Cross is not the historical inauguration of a worldly success (as it is sometimes treated). The Cross is always characterized with the same self-emptying, ironic defeat of the Crucified Christ.
That defeat is self-emptying love. It is for that reason that St. Paul enjoins the Philippians:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phi 2:5-8 NKJ)
Perhaps equally important is the inexorable quality of the Cross in History and its presence as the Church. The Church is not a human creation, nor is it maintained as a human institution. It may be perceived “descriptively” (because it simply is). It is that place, time, and community where the sin of the world meets the love of God and the tragedy of our existence is reborn in the image and likeness of God.
It is inexorable because no tragedy, no sin can possibly undo its work. No amount of sin could make Christ to be other than who and what He is – for He became sin, that we might become the righteousness of Christ. The Church as the Cross through history is thus the supreme irony. On the day of Christ’s crucifixion, the disciples were at as low a point as at any time – and yet God was glorified in them. The work was being done. They were being reconciled with God and made joint-heirs with Christ.
To think more clearly about what this means consider the thought that the Cross through History is the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” The Cross through History is the Crucified Body of Christ. And though ecclesiological struggles remain with boundaries at the Cup, and arguments and comparisons abound, the Cross through History is not confounded by the sin and dysfunction of our lives. It is the only place where they are truly gathered and there they are being reconciled to God as the Cross through History inexorably gathers together in One all things in Christ Jesus.
I agree 110% what you wrote about father. I am sort of a history and religious buff in studying these things. As the state of the world is in now with so much conflict in the ME, Ukraine, etc.., political agendas with their pr on all sides have not created the perfect society that religious movements throughout history have tried to do in their way in the past centuries. It is all man centered.
What you wrote about and seeing it all through Christ can history make sense because it brings man down to his knees in repentance and faith in Him. With this kind of peace which is His peace, mankind can have a taste of a future in the present in a chaotic world full of strife. Blessings.
taking n.t. wright’s exposition of 2Cor. ?? if so, then your statement works even better…don’t you think?
Our humble kenosis (unto the very death of our selves) is our only chance of being recreated in the likeness of God. It’s both our one privilege and our calling.
The timing of this post Father is uncanny for me because I am currently in the midst of a heavy discussion with a friend of mine about the Reformation and specifically Sola Scriptura. Thank you so much for this.
lets not forget that loving God with all our minds includes critique of traditions……….This means that the church must take up this action as well. Love is obviously a bigger reality from which both ‘faith’ and ‘knowing’ come from but faith and knowing are needed in order to flourish as Image Bearing Humans.
And where do we stand when we critique? What criteria do we use? I think we can only stand within the Tradition – rightly perceived – the Tradition critiques all things.
Dear Father Stephen;
I enjoy reading your blog and many of the comments therein. Just needed to ask what prompted you to put Van Gogh’s Starry Night in this article ? Do you see that particular work exemplifying the themes of the Church as the Cross throughout history and Tolkien’s notion of history as the long defeat? I would greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts about this. Thanks.
1st century tradition only….which is derived from earlier traditions. But later (eastern orthodox included) traditions is not a place to stand and pretend as if you have all the answers. The answers are found when you respect the otherness of the text. The otherness of the first century texts go against quite a bit of later tradition. We have to be willing to consider ourselves (traditions included) to miss the mark. If we do not do this…then we lapse into lusts..which is, essentially, reducing the texts in terms of us and our traditions (later traditions). I recently saw a post by a priest within this tradition going against some very scriptural things just because his tradition (not the first century texts) told him otherwise….i have to say….that isn’t love and that isn’t the ground we should stand on.
Excellent post. Hieromonk Damascene (now Abbot Damascene) has an amazing reflection / poem I find quite relevant in his book ‘Christ The Eternal Tao’:
When you have descended into the Valley with Him,
And with Him have been raised upon the Tree;
When the tears of joyful, liberating pain flood your eyes,
And you taste the sweetness and perfect freedom of dying to this life,
Then you no longer feel anger or rage,
And you know what it means to forgive everyone and everything.
Then you see how He, when nailed to the Tree,
Could have forgiven everyone who has ever lived and ever will live.
Still you see the people around you,
And still you see their weaknesses and failings,
But now you feel such compassion for them,
As if they were small children.
And you yourself feel like a child.
In a sense, nothing has changed:
The good in you remains,
The evil in you remains.
But now you know,
You know that there is nothing more sublime, beautiful, and profound than the Cross.
Now you know what it means that He spilt His Blood for you in an agony of pain,
Which even He was afraid and sorrowful to endure.
And when, at the supper before His final agony,
He asks you to drink His Blood and eat His flesh
For the forgiveness of sins,
You too are ready to give up your flesh and shed your blood,
You too are ready to forgive,
That you may share in what He is,
In His ultimate, liberating love.
A love that is a pain,
But a pain that is a peace,
And a peace that passes all understanding.
Christ The Eternal Tao, Chapter 54 (pages 161-162)
Naming first century “tradition” only is rather arbitrary and simply a Protestant approach. Orthodoxy is the Tradition. I don’t know why you think that “isn’t love.”
I wondered if someone would ask me about Starry Night. I often just type the title of an article in and see what images Google suggests – then I go from there. This was among the suggestions. It made no sense. But Van Gogh’s Starry Night, also reminds me of Don MacLean’s song by that name which offers something of an elegy to Van Gogh and his suicide. The wildness of the painting, it’s out-of-control portrayal of the night sky, made me think of the insanity of the world, his suicide and many other things that swirl about with such an apparent chaos – that I believe is nevertheless being gathered into the Cross of Christ. I thought, “I profess the Cross, but I see Van Gogh’s Starry Night.”
If readers would go back over the last month and read the articles together – including the Long Defeat articles, but also the Dostoevsky stuff on the tragedy of our existence (which is gathered into Christ) – there is a connected thought through them all. It’s an extended meditation that I’ve been doing from day to day for about a month or six weeks that is finding its way into the blog.
Somehow, the painting worked for me. I like Van Gogh much like I do Dostoevsky. They’re messy, just like the real world. The only Christ I can know must be the Christ in the mess.
A.S. When you get into critique of traditions here is a danger that is easy to fall into
“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer― The Cost of Discipleship
Reading a book by Fr. Alexander Men, or a compliation of his writings and talks: An Inner Step Toward God. One section that really stood out:
This is, it seems to me, the life of the Cross, coming together in our woundedness to pray to God in thanksgiving, in contrition and in supplication. The Church provides the safe and nurturing place to do that as well as the grace to be healed.
Such a life leaves us quite vulnerable to one another. We should seek to help others bind up their wounds rather than add to them.
I think the 2nd paragraph should be: “Is there a correct way to think about the Church?”
“And though ecclesiological struggles remain with boundaries at the Cup, and arguments and comparisons abound, the Cross through History is not confounded by the sin and dysfunction of our lives. It is the only place where they are truly gathered and there they are being reconciled to God as the Cross through History inexorably gathers together in One all things in Christ Jesus.”
I’ve always greatly admired the somewhat clear and straightforward Christianity portrayed by Richard Wurmbrand in the concentration camps, but I’ve come to understand that this kind of situation does not usually come about without all the circumstances which created the environment where that Christianity could thrive. So until that time I resign myself to “boundaries at the Cup, and arguments and comparisons”.
Sobeit. We speak of such wonderful things here and then go back and try to institute them in our lives in small ways, but only the seeds planted in good soil will grow to fruition and no kind of food tastes good when everyone is too full of styrofoam pellets to realize their true hunger.
I have deleted a.s.’s latest comment. It’s simply an argumentative attack on Orthodoxy and contributes nothing to the conversation. He is welcome to go somewhere else.
Wonderful article, Father. Thank you for inviting another commenter to visit it. I love Don McLean’s “Starry, Starry Night”–one of my all time favorites from way back before my sister’s first break down which led to chronic mental illness. She is an artist, too. Yes, life is very, very messy. So is the Cross. Our brokenness is our healing. Sometimes I have to embrace that by a sort of blind faith, and every once in a while I get a glimpse of how that is true–then I am in awe.
Important lesson for me too. Thank you Fr Stephen
Yes Fr Stephen! This part:
“The Cross through History is the Crucified Body of Christ. And though ecclesiological struggles remain with boundaries at the Cup, and arguments and comparisons abound, the Cross through History is not confounded by the sin and dysfunction of our lives. It is the only place where they are truly gathered and there they are being reconciled to God as the Cross through History inexorably gathers together in One all things in Christ Jesus.”
Thank you for recommending this article. For me, I personally don’t care to use comparison to teach but I understand your position. You too desire for all to have this Truth in Orthodoxy. And for the Orthodox Christian to really live it. I get it.
It is unfortunate, but my experience is that many in the Church are only using comparisons to put others down. It’s hurtful because they can’t possibly appreciate the journey, really the struggle, that myself & other Protestant converts have been brought through and the sheer joy we have come to in Orthodoxy. To seek & seek & seek and to finally find what we were looking for…..words can not describe.
As much as I too desire for my Protestant friends to have this fullness in Orthodoxy, I have a love & respect for anybody that is seeking Christ – regardless of their religion. I want to trust God that he has that person in the palm of His hand. Like when I was trying to find Him, He still loved me in my error. He was patient & gentle with me. I believe the same is true for those outside the Orthodox Church.
I appreciate your time. Thank you.