In the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read of Jesus telling his disciples:
Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined. (Matt. 7)
These words are the Gospel text for the Catholic Liturgy on the first Thursday in Advent. We are His contemporary disciples, and we need to hear these words in this urgent hour.
In the first reading of that same Liturgy, we find the words which the Lord spoke through the Prophet Isaiah, reminding Israel to “Trust in the LORD forever! For the LORD is an eternal Rock.” (Isaiah 26)
Advent is a time to make an honest assessment. We should ask a question, “On what foundation are we building?” We are living in turbulent times. There is a shaking underway.
There are riots in the Streets of major cities in the United States of America. They reveal fractures in the fabric of our civil order and wounds which must be healed. Our economy, in spite of the manipulation of malleable statistics and the silly banter of modern carnival barkers, is in an ongoing decline. There is little doubt that we went over the moral cliff long ago.
However, Christians need not be afraid. Our life together in the Lord, our connection together in Body of Christ, the Church, is meant to provide a place of shelter, not only for us, but for others who seek stability as the shaking continues all around.
Yes, the Church is also being shaken. However, that shaking is for her purification, fortification and reform. The Apostle Peter reminded the early Christians undergoing persecution that judgment begins in the household of faith. (1 Peter 4:17) So too does shaking (See, Heb 12).
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us “we who are receiving the unshakable kingdom should have gratitude, with which we should offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe.” (Heb 12:28)
Through our Baptism we now live in the in the Body of Christ. All who bear the name Christian, even if we are divided, are somehow still joined together in that Church founded upon Jesus Christ, the only place of safety.
The shaking will continue. False foundations, some of which lulled even some believers into complacency, may soon fall under the stress caused by the growing unrest and decline.
However, there is a place where we can stand secure and strong – and from where we must now reach out to those who fear. Its foundation is unshakeable. That place is the Body of Christ.
That is where we must stand, and stand together. Not in order to withdraw from the turbulence around us, but as a firm foundation from which we can bring stability and freedom to those who are beginning to fear what lies ahead.
From that place of safety we can wage war against the world, the flesh and the devil. From that place we can reach out to all men and women with the love of God, fully manifested in Jesus Christ. And from that place we can reach out to rebuild the foundations of authentic freedom and lead others along the path to the only lasting peace.
On Monday, May 21, 2012, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI held a luncheon with members of the College of Cardinals to thank them for their kindness in wishing him a Happy 85th Birthday on April 16, 2012. In addition, he wanted to thank his friends for wishing him a happy seventh anniversary of his election to the Chair of Peter on April 19, 2012.
Vatican News reported that the Holy Father reminded the brothers upon whom he relies for advice and counsel that “The Church, the Mystical Body, exists on this earth, and is called the Church militant, because its members struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil.”
He shared many of his moments of joy during his apostolic ministry as the successor of Peter, as well as insights into the struggles, telling the Cardinals:
(I) especially thank the Lord for the many years He has given me, years with many days of joy, wonderful times, but also dark nights. But in retrospect it is understood that the nights were necessary and good. We see evil wants to rule the world and it is necessary to go into battle against evil. We (see) it does in so many ways, bloody, with various forms of violence, but also disguised with good and thus destroying the moral foundations of society.We’re in this fight and (in) this fight it is very important to have friends. I am surrounded by friends of the College of Cardinals: they are my friends and I feel at home, I feel safe in the company of great friends who are with me, together.
In retrospect, I believe that the sentiment expressed on that day was pointing toward an historic and humble action which was to come on February 28, 2013. With the humility which characterized his extraordinary papacy, Benedict resigned his apostolic office.
The announcement was simple and straightforward. It was made to a consistory of his brothers in the episcopate, cardinals who had gathered in Rome where he approved over 800 causes for canonization. He became the first Pope since 1294 to resign his office in this way.
The use of the phrase “Church Militant” to describe the Church on earth used to be common. However, for lots of reasons, including a possible misunderstanding of the term, it fell out of use since the Second Vatican Council. It needs to be revived.
In 1953, the Pope Pius XII, who had led the Church through two decades of darkness in a world besieged by war, stated “We belong to the Church militant; and she is militant because on earth the powers of darkness are ever restless to encompass her destruction.”
As we face growing hostility it is important to hear the words the Apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesians:
We do not wrestle against flesh and blood; but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:11,12)
In 1969, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a small book entitled “Faith and the Future”. In it he spoke of what might be ahead for the Church. Little did he realize then that he would occupy the Chair of Peter. Here are a few excerpts for reflection today:
The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, she will lose many of her social privileges. As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution – when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.
Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
But in all of the changes at which one might guess the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.
We all have a need to belong because we are not solitary by nature. We were fashioned out of and created for relationship. The heart of the Christian Revelation is that God is not solitary either. God is a Trinity of Divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who, in perfect love, is one.
Through the saving Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity and the Incarnate Word, we are now made capable of participating in that Trinitarian Communion – beginning now and opening up into eternity.
It is in the gift of self to God and to one another that we actually find ourselves. The Christian claim is that we were made for God, and as St. Augustine said so well, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” It is there that we find our true home. That home is the Church.
The Church is fundamentally a relational reality, an ongoing encounter, a participation in the Trinitarian communion in and through Jesus Christ. Perhaps one of the most often quoted sayings of the early fathers is from Cyprian of Carthage who wrote, “He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother”.
The early Christians believed that to belong to Jesus was to belong to His Church. They believed that just as we were all born from our mother’s womb – so we are invited by God, in and through Jesus Christ, to be “born again” into the Church, the new humanity being re-created in Him.
The process of redemption begins when we pass through the Sacramental Waters of the font of Holy Baptism. It continues as we cooperate with the Grace given to us in our life within the Church.
It will only be fully completed when the Lord Returns and we are raised in Resurrected Bodies and live in a new heaven and a new earth! This understanding of the Church as a real participation in Christ and entry into the Trinitarian Communion runs throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers.
First, I share some words from Origen:
Christ has flooded the universe with divine and sanctifying waves. For the thirsty he sends a spring of living water from the wound which the spear opened in His side. From the wound in Christ’s side has come forth the Church, and He has made her His bride.
Then, a few words from Bishop Ireneaeus of Lyons, a disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John: “We need to take refuge with the Church, to drink milk at her breast, to be fed with the scriptures of the Lord. For the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise.” The early Christians did not see the Church as some-thing but Some-One. Membership was neither onerous nor optional. They saw it as normative for every Christian – and life giving.
The Church is a seed of the Kingdom to come. The Church is the vine into which we are grafted. The Church is the Risen Jesus made truly present in the world. The Church is the new family begun at the Cross. The Church is where we learn to love as we enter into the very communion of the Love of the Godhead revealed in the total gift of the Son of God on the second tree of the Cross. Birthed from the wounded side of the Savior, who is the “New Adam”, on the altar of the Cross, the Church is His Body continuing His redemptive mission on the earth.
We do not make the Church in our image, the Church re-makes us into Christ’s Image through the grace which is mediated through the Sacraments, revealed in His Word and experienced in our ecclesial life together. Let me conclude with some inspiring words from one of my favorite contemporary theologians, an Orthodox layman named Olivier Clement. He writes of the Church:
In the Risen Christ, in his glorified body, in the very opening of His wounds, it is no longer death that reigns but the Spirit, the Breath of Life. And the cross of victory and of light, which is the pattern of our baptism, can henceforth transform the most desperate situation into a death-and-resurrection, a ‘Passover’, a crossing-point on the way to eternity. And that is what the Church, this profoundly holy institution is: it is the baptismal womb, the Eucharistic chalice, the breach made for eternity by the Resurrection in the hellish lid of the fallen world.
“The Church is the Mystery of the Risen Lord, the place, and the only one, where separation is completely overcome; where paschal joy, the ‘feast of feasts’, the triumph over death and hell are offered to our freedom, enabling it to become creative and work towards the final manifestation of that triumph, the final transfiguration of history and the universe. .In its deepest understanding the Church is nothing other than the world in the course of transfiguration.
Let us build our lives on the Rock of the Lord and His Church – and open our doors wide to the men and women of our age who seek stability and refuge as the world is being shaken. Build your house on rock, stand strong and welcome others into the only place of real safety.
Then, get ready for the battle ahead but remember the words of the Apostle:
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. (Eph 6:10-18)
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