Continuing in the series on Vatican II, let me resume a reading of Lumen Gentium, where the last post looked at its sixth chapter, addressing the role of the religious (i.e., those who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). In its penultimate, seventh chapter, Lumen Gentium turns to the relationship between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven. As the full title of the chapter - “The eschatological nature of the pilgrim church and its union with the church in heaven” - sets out in a nutshell, the focus here is on the final purpose of the Church on earth (its eschatology) and its union with the Church in heaven. This may at first seem like just a bit of jiggery-pokery, and to be honest, when I read it for the first couple of times, I was at a loss to extract from it more than a sentence’s worth of essence. Repeated reflection, an overflowing measure of enlightenment from John Paul II,1 and a personal experience I already shared here, have all lead me to what I’ll try to set out next.2
The best way to approach this chapter is to let John Paul II lead us to what is novel about it:3
“It can be said that until recently the Church’s catechesis and preaching centered upon an individual eschatology [… and] this pastoral style was profoundly personal: “Remember that at the end you will present yourself before God with your entire life. Before His judgment seat you will be responsible for all of your actions” […] The vision proposed by the Council, however, was that of an eschatology of the Church and of the world.”Returning to Lumen Gentium, the opening paragraph of chapter 7 declares that:
“The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things.(cf. Acts 3:21) At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ. (cf. Ephesians 1:10)”The first insight then is that the final purpose (eschatology) of the human person is not their individual, singular business, but fundamentally a property of a community - the Church. It is not I, alone, self-sufficiently and relying on my individual powers only, who sets out into the deep, but the I-we of the Church. Returning to a frequently emphasized point in previous parts of Lumen Gentium, here too the focus is on the Church being Jesus’ Body, where it is His “having been lifted up from the earth [that] has drawn all to Himself. (cf. John 12:32.)” Jesus draws all to himself and takes us (an all-inclusive “us”) with Him to our ultimate destiny.
The nature of the eschatology referred to extensively in this chapter merits greater reflection, in particular in terms of its timing. A naïve approach could lead us to thinking of it as referring to an event in some distant future (at the “end of time”), while what John Paul II puts forward is a very different perspective:
“[What the] Gospel teaches about God requires a certain change in focus with regard to eschatology. First of all, eschatology is not what will take place in the future, something happening only after earthly life is finished. Eschatology has already begun with the coming of Christ. The ultimate eschatological event was His redemptive Death and His Resurrection. This is the beginning of “a new heaven and a new earth” (cf. Revelation 21:1). For everyone, life beyond death is connected with the affirmation: “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” and then: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins and in life everlasting.” This is Christocentric eschatology.”John Paul II again pivots what may have become a diffuse, deformed view and returns its focus to Jesus - it is His coming that has brought us into the final chapter of creation. As Lumen Gentium puts it:
“Already the final age of the world has come upon us and the renovation of the world is irrevocably decreed [… T]he promised restoration which we are awaiting has already begun in Christ, is carried forward in the mission of the Holy Spirit and through Him continues in the Church in which we learn the meaning of our terrestrial life through our faith, while we perform with hope in the future the work committed to us in this world by the Father, and thus work out our salvation.”This then is the second insight: we are not just waiting around for the world to come to an end, instead we are in the “Last Days” and are active participants in the universe completing its function and returning to perfection in God. This is an understanding that neither lets us “check out” of the world’s affairs (instead obliging us to engage in them for the good of all), nor does it amount to being a millenarianist Doomsday cult (since Jesus himself assured the apostles that “of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36)).
While some of us have already completed their earthly journey and form the heavenly Church, others are still “exiles on earth,” proceeding along it “groan[ing] and travail[ing] in pain” (cf. Romans 8:19-23). The two communities are not separate entities though, and instead:
“form one Church and cleave together in Him. (cf. Ephesians 4:16) […] For by reason of the fact that those in heaven are more closely united with Christ, they establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness, lend nobility to the worship which the Church offers to God here on earth and in many ways contribute to its greater edification. (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27)”The Church in heaven and on earth is the one Mystical Body of Christ. As a consequence, “the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead [… and] has always believed that the apostles and Christ’s martyrs who had given the supreme witness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are closely joined with us in Christ.” This then is the third insight - communion is not only among those of us who are alive on earth today and with Jesus whose body we form, but equally with those who have gone before us. While the death of loved ones is unquestionably and profoundly painful, it is not a separation, but, paradoxically, a coming closer “by reason of the fact that those in heaven are more closely united with Christ.” In many ways, the 14th Dalai Lama’s tweet from yesterday is also very well aligned with the concept of the Mystical Body that pervades Lumen Gentium as well as Sacrosanctum Concilium, when he says: “we develop care and concern by thinking of others not as ‘them’ but ‘us’”.
Not only is such union the case with those close to me, but with all, and in a particular way with the saints: “For just as Christian communion among wayfarers brings us closer to Christ, so our companionship with the saints joins us to Christ, from Whom as from its Fountain and Head issues every grace and the very life of the people of God.” Instead of being only examples, through their intimate union with Jesus, I personally am united with them too.
On the subject of saints, Lumen Gentium also cautions against superficial excesses and underlines the fact that the Christian life is always directed towards the Trinity:
“the authentic cult of the saints consists not so much in the multiplying of external acts, but rather in the greater intensity of our love, whereby, for our own greater good and that of the whole Church, we seek from the saints “example in their way of life, fellowship in their communion, and aid by their intercession.” [… O]ur communion with those in heaven […] in no way weakens, but conversely, more thoroughly enriches the […] worship we give to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit.”Instead of being a bit of esoteric navel-gazing, the insights about how the Church is one across heaven and earth, with Jesus at its head and as its heart, firmly place the focus on the importance of community, on acting in the world for its good and on the persistence of relationships beyond death and with all.
1 See the “Does “Eternal Life” exist?” chapter of his beautifully profound Crossing the Threshold of Hope.
2 Yes, I am going to send you to the second paragraph of a previous post, in case you are not a Catholic and would like my perspective on how to read the rest of this post.
3 Emphasis preserved from original text.