Thursday, 8 November 2012

Lumen Gentium: The mystery of the church

Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda

In my attempt to read the full set of Vatican II documents during this Year of Faith, and after having greatly enjoyed both reading Dei Verbum and trying to share my takeaways from it here, I have turned to the next one of the four dogmatic constitutions: Lumen Gentium.1

The first thing to note about Lumen Gentium (LG) is its heft - while Dei Verbum (DV) comes in at ~6K words, LG clocks up just short of 35K. To keep my posts from draining your tablet batteries and to make the challenge more manageable for myself, I am going to look at LG chapter by chapter. The second aspect of LG that jumped out at me was its language as compared with DV. While DV strikes me as much more direct, synthetic and to the point, in LG there seems to be a much greater use of epithets, honorifics and circumlocution. This is not by way of criticism, but just as an observation that would probably make me recommend DV more easily than LG to someone who would otherwise not read these kinds of texts.

With the preambles out of the way, let me share with you what the first chapter of Lumen Gentium, entitled “The Mystery of the Church,” meant to me. While the whole of LG is about the Church, its first chapter is essentially the answer the Church gives to the question: “Who are you?” Even if you aren't a Catholic, you can take the answer to be how the Church thinks of herself, and throughout this chapter you'd see that it does so along two dimensions: God-Church-World and Nature-Mission. The Church presents herself “as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” - facing not only towards God but also towards humanity, and “desires […] to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.”

God the Father created the world and planned to “raise men to a participation of the divine life.” The Church, which Jesus “inaugurated,” is the “Kingdom of heaven on earth,” the Kingdom of the divine life. This may at first sound odd, but I believe, it could also have been put as “where God's law (i.e., love) is adhered to on earth,” with the “where” not being restricted to location but applicable also to persons (i.e., an “in whom” and “among whom”). This ”Kingdom” is “the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ,” where that unity is “expressed and brought about” by the Eucharist:
“[I]n the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. “Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread”. In this way all of us are made members of His Body, “but severally members one of another”.”
The image of the Church as the “body of Christ” is very prominent in LG - Jesus is the “head of the Body which is the Church [… and all its] members ought to be molded in the likeness of Him, until Christ be formed in them.” This is very clearly not just about “what would Jesus do” but about a “becoming Jesus” and thereby “becoming one another.” This is not some rhetorical flourish, but an emphasis on the profound, existential nature of following Jesus, who “is the image of the invisible God and in [whom] all things came into being.” And neither is it about my, individual seeking of God only, but fundamentally about how I relate to others, how I become a “member of another,” how - as Cardinal Martini put it “the other is within us.” This is further emphasized in the following passage, where the role of the Holy Spirit (who “was sent [… to] continually sanctify the Church”) is presented:
“Giving the body unity through Himself and through His power and inner joining of the members, [the Holy] Spirit produces and urges love among the believers. From all this it follows that if one member endures anything, all the members co-endure it, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.”
If this all sounds too idealized and removed from reality, it is worth bearing in mind that it is about what the Church is (or how it thinks of itself) and not about what it looks like. While saying anything about being (as opposed to empirically observed phenomena) is very difficult (if not impossible, if you are epistemologically honest) in the context of philosophy and science. Christianity, on the other hand, holds beliefs about it, justified by revelation in the person of Jesus and subsequently illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

What about the way that the Church appears? How does that relate to the “body of Christ” presented above? Here LG is very explicit:
“[T]he society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.”
Jesus, the Word of God, is to Jesus the person who walked the earth 2000 years ago as the social structure - the Church, is to the Mystical Body of Christ - the Church. Just like every aspect of how Christianity views anything is ultimately rooted in the Trinity, so too the Church mirrors the incarnation of one of its Persons - Jesus. I believe this is a very powerful way of understanding the Church, that reconciles both the temporal, limited, imperfect with the infinite, perfect that sustains it and gives life to it.

Just to avoid giving the impression that LG is divorced from the phenomenological experience of the Church, with its obvious limitations, that sadly also include some shocking perversions, it is useful to highlight the following passage:
“While Christ, holy, innocent and undefiled knew nothing of sin, but came to expiate only the sins of the people, the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal. […]

By the power of the risen Lord it is given strength that it might, in patience and in love, overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both within itself and from without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light.”
Finally, I was also encouraged to see a clear acknowledgement that the Church as an organization does not claim to have a monopoly, by saying that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” and a clear reminder of the Church's status in the world:
“Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men. Christ Jesus, “though He was by nature God … emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave”, and “being rich, became poor” for our sakes. Thus, the Church, although it needs human resources to carry out its mission, is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, even by its own example, humility and self-sacrifice.”
While I have certainly found the first chapter of Lumen Gentium much more challenging than Dei Verbum (and I don't know how well I managed to get my impressions from it across), it has left me with a vision of the Church that is profound, universal, open and positioned to draw itself and all closer to God-Love.

1 If you haven't read my post on Dei Verbum (and I am not suggesting you should feel bad about that :), you might like to at least take a quick look at the caveat there in paragraph 2.