Friday, July 18, 2014

Some Thoughts on Christian Community

"I am the Vine and you are the branches..."

All who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ, and not only clothed: indeed, they have become members of Christ, members of His Body, the Church.  "One cannot have God for his Father without having the Church for his Mother" (St. Cyprian).  "Wherever two or more of you are gathered, there am I in the midst of them."  So we proclaim when we venerate the Cross at the end of Liturgy: "Christ is among us."  "He is and will be."  So He is in the midst of the Church, and so He is in the midst of two or more of the baptized who call upon His name; then we could say that each group of two or more, each Christian community, are a form of mini-Church, a micro-ecclesia, which is united to the remainder of the Church.

The union among those in the Church and in the Christian community is the bond of Christ.  It is a true, existing, real union.  "Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).  Bonhoeffer also calls it a "divine reality," a "spiritual reality and not a psychic reality."  So is a Christian community, and so is the Church of which it is an image; the real union of members in any community is only so because the members are first united in the Church.  The union is thus cemented by Christ, united by the Spirit: Christ is the vine on which all the members, as branches, are grafted.  All the members of the Church are thus united to one another.  This includes, as the West learned to call them, the Church Militant, Triumphant, and Suffering: Christians on earth, those in heaven, and those in the ante-chamber of heaven, being purified before their final joining in the eternal liturgy.  All the members care for one another and pray for one another, those on heaven praying for those on earth, and those on earth praying for each other, and both groups praying for those being purified.  Not only that, but they long for each other as true brethren: those on earth long to be in heaven, and those in heaven long to be joined by those on earth.  The following from a letter of St. Antony the Great shows the relation well:

"Today, my beloved in the Lord, let this word be manifest to you, that you may do good, and so give rest to all the saints...for because of us none of them has yet found rest....Truly, my children, this affliction of humiliation of ours gives distress to all the saints.  For our sake they weep and mourn before the Creator of All.  Thus, because of the mourning of the saints, the God of all is angry with all our evil deeds.  But our prayers and justification stirs up the assembly of the saints, and they pray devoutly and make joyful exultation before our Creator...But as long as we have peace with the natures of this world we remain enemies of God and of His angels and all His saints" (Letter V.8-9,11-14,36).

What unites the Christian community and the Church as a whole?  It is Christ.  As a vine gives life to its branches, so too does Christ give life to the Church.  Without Him, the Church would be nothing more than an organization, a community striving for good, but not a divine reality.  All community, as Martin Buber describes it, is dead without a living relation to some Center, whatever that center is, for a community is "made one by its Centre."  No organizational aspects, however important they are for the earthly life of the Church, "no disturbance on the periphery can serve as a substitute for the living relation with the Centre," (Buber) and in the Church, Bonhoeffer states aphoristically, "Christ is the Center."  Thus, the Church is not truly living if her members are not devoted to Christ her Center and Bridegroom, drawing all their energy from Him.  "Apart from Me, you can do nothing."  And from that relation, which fulfills the first Great Commandment, "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind," comes the love of man, the love of the other members of the Church and those who could be her members, thus fulfilling the second Great Commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  From the fact that all the members are devoted to the Center arises the Circle, as Buber calls it, the relations of man and man in the community; the "radii, the common quality of relation with the Centre" is what comes first, and from that comes the "periphery, the community."  So from our love of Christ springs our love of man, and this further springing of love is of necessity: "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another...If any one says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar."  Our responsibility to our brethren is seen well in the words of St. Antony, "Our life and our death is with our neighbour.  If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ."

Let us always remember the true, real community that exists among all the baptized, the Church, Bride of Christ.  Let us remember that she only truly lives when her members are devoted to her Center, Christ.  Let us remember that our devotion to Center must lead to a love for the periphery.  Let us remember the connection of all of us, and let us pray for and love each other, and let us plead the saints, the angels, and, most especially, the Theotokos, to pray for us, that we may have the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwelling in us, that we may join the Lord and His followers in the eternal liturgy in Heaven.  To Him be the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and always and unto the ages of ages.
 Sts. Antony the Great and Paul the Hermit

Nota Bene: The quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer are from a collection of his writings entitled Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Robert Coles (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998).  Specifically, these quotes originally come from Life Together, translated by John Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).  The quotes from Martin Buber are from his I and Thou, 2nd edition, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958).  The quote from St. Antony's letters is from Letters of St. Antony: Monasticism and the Making of a Saint by Samuel Rubenson, part of the Studies in Antiquity and Christianity series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).  The last quote from St. Antony is his Saying 9 in the Apophthegmata Patrum, found in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, Inc., 1984).

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