Reflections on Lumen Gentium, Part VI

6. In the old Testament the revelation of the Kingdom is often conveyed by means of metaphors. In the same way the inner nature of the Church is now made known to us in different images taken either from tending sheep or cultivating the land, from building or even from family life and betrothals, the images receive preparatory shaping in the books of the Prophets.

The Church is a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ.(26) It is a flock of which God Himself foretold He would be the shepherd,(27) and whose sheep, although ruled by human shepherds; are nevertheless continuously led and nourished by Christ Himself, the Good Shepherd and the Prince of the shepherds,(28) who gave His life for the sheep.(29)

The Church is a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God.(30) On that land the ancient olive tree grows whose holy roots were the Prophets and in which the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles has been brought about and will be brought about.(31) That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly Husbandman.(32) The true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing.(33)

Often the Church has also been called the building of God.(34) The Lord Himself compared Himself to the stone which the builders rejected, but which was made into the cornerstone.(35) On this foundation the Church is built by the apostles,(36) and from it the Church receives durability and consolidation. This edifice has many names to describe it: the house of God (37) in which dwells His family; the household of God in the Spirit;(38) the dwelling place of God among men;(39) and, especially, the holy temple. This Temple, symbolized in places of worship built out of stone, is praised by the Holy Fathers and, not without reason, is compared in the liturgy to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem (5*). As living stones we here on earth are built into it.(40) John contemplates this holy city coming down from heaven at the renewal of the world as a bride made ready and adorned for her husband.(41)

The Church, further, “that Jerusalem which is above” is also called “our mother”.(42) It is described as the spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb,(43) whom Christ “loved and for whom He delivered Himself up that He might sanctify her”,(44) whom He unites to Himself by an unbreakable covenant, and whom He unceasingly “nourishes and cherishes”,(45) and whom, once purified, He willed to be cleansed and joined to Himself, subject to Him in love and fidelity,(46) and whom, finally, He filled with heavenly gifts for all eternity, in order that we may know the love of God and of Christ for us, a love which surpasses all knowledge.(47) The Church, while on earth it journeys in a foreign land away from the Lord,(48) is like in exile. It seeks and experiences those things which are above, where Christ is seated at the right-hand of God, where the life of the Church is hidden with Christ in God until it appears in glory with its Spouse.(49)

26 Jn. 10:1-10.

27 Cf. Is. 40:11; Ex. 34:11ff.

28 Cf Jn. 10:11; 1 Pt. 5:4.

29 Cf. Jn. 10:11-15.

30 l Cor. 3:9.

31 1 Rom. 11:13-26.

32 Mt. 21:33-43; cf. Is. 5:1 ff.

33 Jn. 15:1-5.

34 1 Cor. 3:9.

35 Mt 21:42; cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Pt. 2:7; Ps. 117:22.

36 Cf. 1 Cor. 3:11.

37 1 Tim. 3:15.

38 Eph. 2:19-22.

39 Rev. 21:3.

40 1 Pt. 2:5.

41 Rev. 21:16.

42 Gal. 4:26; cf. Rev. 12:17.

43 Rev. 19:7; 21:2 and 9; 22:17

44 Eph. 5:26.

45 Eph. 5:29.

46 Cf. Eph. 5:24.

47 Cf. Eph. 3:19.

48 Cf. 2 Cor. 5:6.

49 Cf. Col. 3:1-4.

(5) Cfr. Origenes, In Matth. 16, 21: PG 13, 1443 C, Tertullianus Adv. Marc. 3, 7: PL 2, 357 C, CSEL 47, 3 p. 386. Pro documentis liturgicis, cfr. Sacramentarium Gregorianum: PL 78, 160 B.Vel C. Mohlberg, Liber Sactamentorum romanae ecclesiae, Romao 195O, p. 111, XC:.Deus, qui ex omni coaptacione sanctorum aeternum tibi condis habitaculum….. Hymnus Urbs Ierusalem beata in Breviario monastico, et Coclest urbs Ierusalem in Breviario Romano.

This paragraph of Lumen Gentium recounts a number of images the Scriptures present for the Church. All of these images are centered on the Church’s relationship with Christ.

The Church is a sheepfold whose door is Christ. The Church is a flock of sheep whose shepherd is Christ. The Church is a piece of choice land cultivated by Christ, or the fruit grown on the vine that is Christ. The Church is a building whose cornerstone is Christ. Finally, the Church is a mother or a bride, whose spouse is Christ.

The Church is the Church because of Christ. There is nothing that the Church can do without Christ. There is no revelation the Church has to proclaim without Christ. There is no good news to shout from the rooftops, there is no grace to confer, there is no comfort or solace to extend without Christ. The Church is the Church because of Christ.

Apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). So, it is critical that we stand with Christ and in Christ. How do we do this? How do we know what it means to stand with Christ and in Christ? Put simply, we stand with the Church.

There are a couple of reasons why moderns might find this difficult or even offensive.

First, many people confuse the Church with this or that particular person within the Church. So, to stand with the Church is to stand with the pope, or the bishop, or this priest or that sister. As a result, when a particular person within the Church, either historical or contemporary, says or does something that appears or genuinely is contrary to Christ, the understanding that to stand with Christ is to stand with the Church becomes suspect. “How can I stand with the Church when Father So-and-so has done something so horrible?”

This is why the sin of scandal is so grave. Scandal is more than just doing something horrible that leaves others confused or shaken in their faith. That’s bad enough. But scandal is more than that. Scandal, ultimately, is to be in a position of leadership or example, but to then live or act contrary to the good, the true, and the beautiful so that others are encouraged or convinced to live or act in the same way. So, we have the case of the priest who has an elicit affair and refuses to repent of it, instead leaving the Church so he can marry. His actions then convince other, previously faithful Catholics, that the Church’s discipline of celibacy is cruel and unjust, causing them to lose confidence in the Church as mother and teacher. Worse, he may even convince other priests to follow his example. But, it’s certainly not just priests or religious who are in this position. Catholic parents who claim the faith but live in discord with the faith set examples for their children. Poor examples leave their children either with a distorted understanding of Catholic faith, or inspire them to reject it outright.

What’s the answer? The answer is to recall and keep in mind two things: first, Christ Himself warned that there would be weeds among the wheat (Mt. 13:24-30). A farmer would never burn his field of wheat in order to get rid of his weeds. Instead, at harvest, he separates the two and burns the weeds. Just so, it would be unwise to reject the wheat of the Church because of the weeds within her. If a math teacher is guilty of all sorts of miserable behavior, and even of criminal activity, it’s certainly understandable that we would cast aside the math teacher as an role model for our behavior. But, would we discard the truth of mathematics that he taught? Of course not! Two plus two still equals four, even if the math teacher’s a jerk.

The second is to keep in mind that the Church is a community, and never boils down to just one person, or even a few. For every wrongheaded priest or dastardly bishop, there is another who is genuinely committed to living the life of the Gospel in fidelity to Christ and in service to others. Why should the example of the reprobates count for more than the example of the righteous? It’s far easier, in my mind, to account for the reprobates. After all, our culture is always at work and eager to lead good people astray, and most people are rather weak and want of the courage to resist the torrent. It’s more difficult to account for the righteous, for those who’ve resisted the call to abandon the harder road and have lived lives of sacrifice. There must be something to this Good News of Christ, then, if it can manage to inspire righteousness among some.

Another obstacle to standing with the Church is that old devil pride. Why do I need the Church? Why can’t I just figure this out on my own? Why can’t I live my life with Christ on my terms, rather than follow the dictates of a Church led by old men far removed from the realities of everyday life?

Well, here again there are a couple of responses. The first is to recognize the source of our faith. Our faith is in Christ, and the faith we have in Christ is the faith of the apostles. They were the ones who followed Christ in His earthly mission and who encountered the Risen Lord. It is their testimony we trust. It is their faith that we profess. They received the truth from Christ and have passed it on to us. So, already we realize that our faith in Christ is not our own, something that has welled up from within us. Instead, it is a received faith. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…” (1 Cor. 15:3). The Christian tradition is not one of people reading the Bible then discerning what they, as individuals, think it might mean. For, first of all, where did that Bible come from if not from the Church? Second, how can there be any unity in the Body of Christ if any particular believer’s faith in Christ is a matter of what he or she can figure out on his or her own? Were that the case, there wouldn’t be the Good News. There would only be my thoughts on the matter, or your thoughts, then her thoughts, and his thoughts. There would be a different revelation to each particular person. That isn’t Good News. That’s chaos.

A second reason is because Christ said that the Church was the instrument of His revelation and authority on earth, and we put our faith in Christ. Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19). Later, Jesus extended this authority to bind and loose to all the apostles (Mt 18:18), and gave them authority to forgive sins, as well, (Jn 20:23). Finally, He gave the apostles the Great Commission, to proclaim the Good News and teach Christ’s commands to all nations, baptizing them (Mt 28:18-20). How can we pretend that the Church is of so little use to us as followers of Christ when Christ Himself extended to His apostles His own authority to teach and act in His Name?

St. Paul says that the Church is the instrument by which the wisdom of God is made known (Eph 3:10) and the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tm 3:15). Do we doubt St. Paul? Do we call into question the authority of Scripture when Scripture make so clear the necessity of the Church as instrument of God’s revelation in Christ and of His authority?

We need the Church. We need the Church, not because all of her members are perfectly faithful to Christ, but because we are not perfectly faithful to Christ, and the Church is the instrument of Christ’s grace for mercy and strength in the struggle to be faithful.

The Church is not the Church because all of the members of the Church are perfectly faithful to Christ. The Church is the Church because Christ is perfectly faithful. Christ is the door. Christ is the shepherd. Christ is the husbandman, the vine, the cornerstone, and the divine spouse.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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