In our last blog piece we examined the fundamental fact about the Church’s essential nature—viz. that the Church was the actual Body of Christ, the manifestation of His presence in this age. Here I would like to examine another fundamental fact about the Church—viz. that in this age it is destined to suffer.
The suffering of the Christians in this age is not simply a sociological fact, something which given a different set of social circumstances could have been otherwise. It is inevitable, given the Church being the Body of Christ. That is, because Christ suffered and has no place in the world, His Body the Church must suffer also and for the same reason. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann spoke of this with his usual brilliant insight.) The world rejected Christ and continues to reject Him whenever it begins to understand Him and the claims that He makes upon it.
Given this, it is inconceivable that the Church could ever have found a happy home in this age, an open-armed and permanent acceptance from everyone forever. The Lord Himself warned us of this: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). His chosen vessel Paul said the same: “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). That is why here we have no continuing city, no true home, and why we pass through this age as strangers and sojourners (Hebrews 13:14, 1 Peter 2:11). The persecuted condition of the Church is almost one of the “notes”, the defining characteristics of the Church in this age, along with its unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.
It is sometimes easy for the Orthodox to forget this, rooted as we sometimes are in Byzantium and with the Imperial stars still in our eyes. We still refer to Istanbul as Constantinople, dress our bishops in the garments once reserved for the Byzantine emperor (i.e. the mitre and sakkos), and makes images of the two-headed eagle, though that bird has long ceased to soar. Such concern for a Byzantine past can sometimes blind us to the realities of the present, and jeopardize us sensibly meeting the challenges of the future. But hard as it may be to accept, Byzantium was a blip.
A long blip, admittedly. And a blip that fulfilled much Biblical prophecy. The prophets looked forward to a time when the kings of the earth would bow the knee before Israel’s God (e.g. Isaiah 60:1-3). When the time came for some of those kings (such as Constantine and his successors) to bow the knee and worship the Trinity, writers like Eusebius of Caesarea were not slow to connect the Biblical dots and declare that a Christian Caesar was the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. And so it was. But even with the Cross triumphant in Rome the Kingdom of God was still not of this world.
And the triumphs of the Cross, though happily lasting a long time, were never universal, nor were they eternal. The panic of the Christians in Britain at the approach of the Vikings and their liturgical supplication, “From the fury of the northmen, good Lord deliver us!” testify to this. And the Roman empire, though at one time so vast that the Great Sea, the Mediterranean, was called by them mare nostrum (i.e. “our lake”), it never did cover the earth. The Parthians with their own empire lay outside it, as later did the Islamic empire. The lands of China never fell to the Roman eagle—nor, of course, did the lands of the then-undiscovered New World. Christian missionaries entering those lands often became martyrs—as shown by the experience of Jean de Brébeuf, massacred by the Iroquois.
He was but one of a multitude of those martyred in non-Roman lands. And even now persecution is occurring: Christians continue to suffer under Islam and in China—and invisibly, with the world refusing to notice or report it. Suffering is the Church’s lot, its destiny in this age. If they persecuted Christ, they will persecute His Christians, for they follow a Master and proclaim a message which the world hates.
There is, of course, a way to avoid such suffering—viz, to cease to truly follow the Master and to proclaim a different message from His, a message which the world will find more congenial. This is the path of secularization, and many Christians throughout history have embraced it. But we must be clear what we mean by “secularization”.
Secularization does not mean the rejection of religion, but its transformation so that it no longer threatens the established world order, the spiritual status quo. Churches (now often referred to as “liberal churches”) have sometimes chosen this path. They regard as their task to affirm what the world defines as good, and to denounce what the world rejects as harmful. As a result they find their place within the present order, a safe niche from which they can pursue their own agendas and do no harm to the present order. Their task is to uphold the present regime, to bless the weapons of war, to sprinkle Holy Water on the abortion clinics, to resist the patriarchy, and work with the world toward its goal of a more just society for everyone. Such secularization is not the monopoly of either the Left or the Right, for such compromise with the world is found everywhere, since the temptation to such compromise is found in every human heart.
It is the refusal to change and tamper with the message of Christ that brings down persecution upon our heads. Yet faithfulness to the Master demands that we stand beside Him and refuse to alter His message. Long ago St. Paul spoke of Christians as called to carry in their bodies the dying of the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:10), reproducing in their lives the rejection that He Himself suffered. This saving reproduction happens whenever Christians are faithful to Him.
Christ was abundantly clear: we are to follow in His footsteps, suffering as He did (1 Peter 2:21). In this age, the Church must always be on the cross. At time of writing, the Church in the West lives within the fast-fading vestiges of Christendom, and enjoys comparative freedom from persecution. Though the Orthodox deacon still cries out to the (now non-existent) doorkeeper, “The doors! The doors!”, we do not really fear that the police will burst through those doors to arrest us. But such freedom may be slipping away. Here in Canada when the media was filled with stories of atrocities against First Nations people at the hands of those running the residential schools, Catholic churches were vandalized and burned down—including (absurdly) Catholic churches owned and attended by First Nations people themselves. The immunity from persecution that the churches once enjoyed is fast slipping away. It is as if Diocletian and Nero stir in their long sleep. Another fundamental fact, the perennial hostility of the world, is now asserting itself.
The last word may perhaps be given by G. K. Chesterton, who wrote so movingly about these things, and about the first persecution that the Church suffered: “There shone on [the Church] in that dark hour a light that has never been darkened; a white fire clinging to that group like an unearthly phosphorescence, blazing its track through the twilights of history; that shaft of light or lightning by which the world itself has struck and isolated and crowned it; by which its own enemies have made it more illustrious and its own critics have made it more inexplicable—the halo of hatred around the Church of God”. That halo is still shining.