Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

On the Church. A catechetical exercise


Today, when somehow the divisions of the Church seem paramount in people’s minds, it is good to be reminded of the deeper reality upon which all forms of authentic Christian community ultimately depend: the Body of Christ, one through space and time, one through its union with God with the final destiny of the world. Metropolitan Anthony looks at this reality and relates it to the experience of each baptized Christian. The French original, which appeared in the Messager de 1’Exarchat du Patriarche russe en Europe occidentale, 109-112 (1982), pp. 25-35, is the transcript of a talk which Metropolitan Anthony gave in Geneva in 1967.)


I am going to speak of the Church only from one particular point of view, because ‘the Church’ is a vast subject which really includes all the problems of our faith. We live in the Church, and at the same time we wait for the Church to be fully revealed as the Kingdom of God. What I shall say about the Church will thus be fragmentary, but it is, I think, essential for the more developed understanding of it which we can later make for ourselves.

When we speak of the Church we are too prone to define it in terms taken from our catechisms, in terms which are familiar to us and speak of it as a human society founded by Christ, grouped around Him, united by a common faith, by common sacraments, by a common hierarchy, by the same liturgy. All these terms are true, and yet they are insufficient if we wish to comprehend and know the Church.

The reason for this is that the catechism, which is now studied by children who are already Christians, was originally intended for people who were not yet Christians; it was an introduction to the Church, and not a part of ecclesial life in its true depths. So what we find in it are definitions, explanations which are within reach of those who have not yet passed through the door leading into the Church, within reach of catechumens who are still outside the mysteries of the liturgy, outside the prayer of the Church which is conscious of itself and offers — with Christ, to Christ and in the name of the living Christ — the articulated prayer of the created world. And thus these definitions, however true they may be, nevertheless leave us outside the Church.

They are definitions that have the same sort of value as the explanations you might give to someone who comes to your city looking for a particular monument. You will describe it, you will try to make him feel the significance of it by stressing certain features that are peculiar to it; a sacred building will be defined by a certain number of characteristics which are not the same as those that you will choose for a town-hall or barracks. But in spite of all that this may provide you, such description does not lead you into the interior of the Church.

This is natural, because knowledge of the Church is above all an experience of the Church. Like everything that belongs to the divine realm, it is a knowledge made up of adoration, of communion, and of belonging. From this point of view, the Church appears to us as something very much deeper than a collection of definitions.

Yes, we are united by a single common faith, we possess the same sacraments, we serve the same liturgy, we have a hierarchy which unites us all and holds us together in a visible and perceptible unity. But the profound nature of the Church, the profound experience of the Church, is defined differently.

It is above all defined in the terms of Saint Paul: the Church is the Body of Christ. This is an expression which is either so familiar to us that it has lost its meaning, or, on the contrary, so strange that it no longer offers us anything at all. It is a combination of words whose meaning we must rediscover from generation to generation, especially because the word ‘body’ has acquired over the centuries so many shades of meaning and has become, above all, a sociological reality: a trade association, an army corps, a workers union. These are terms which define a society whose nature is only that of a group of people united to face a common task or in a common situation. But when we speak of the Body of Christ, we speak of something much more real, much deeper than that; it is a term which is linked with the Incarnation, and not with the cohesion of members who might afterwards separate.

In what sense, then, can it be said that we are the Body of Christ? In the realistic sense, I believe, which was brought out in this expression by a Russian theologian of the last century: the Church is an extension of the Incarnation… Each one of us is a presence of Christ, but in what sense are we an ‘incarnation’? In what sense is Christ really present in us? Can we take seriously such expressions as that of Saint Paul: ‘…yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’? But in this case what remains of us, if Christ lives in me and I no longer live? What reality has this? Has Christ simply taken the place of the human person?

First of all, this definition of the Church as Body, as organism, helps us at once to understand that it is not a whole made up out of parts which are separable one from the other. It is a whole which is not made up of parts, but of members, and of members which are inseparable for ever from the moment when they unite in a body. This feeling of an unbreakable unity was very strong in antiquity and was expressed in a remarkable way by Justin Martyr. Writing to one of his friends who had sinned gravely and was cut off from communion with the Church, he said: ‘Do you not realise that as long as you remain outside this living body, the body of Christ has a wound which no one can heal but you?’ It is not a matter of interchangeable members; one cannot forget a presence which one no longer perceives; one cannot replace someone who was there by someone who was not there. Someone who belongs to this Body belongs to it in a way which is often tragic, but he belongs to it for ever.

How does integration into this Body take place and what does it mean? In the present practice of most Churches, one usually becomes a member of the Church as a child through the mystery of baptism at such a tender age that it is a mystical event, but it is not a psychological event. It is not something which happens to us consciously, and therefore it is something that must be reappropriated at a later stage so as to become a conscious reality. Without this reappropriation baptism can be an event which is lost for years. When we think of the first generation of Christians, we see that there was something else as well: a whole forward movement of faith which leads to integration in the Church, the Body of Christ. And this integration is precisely into the person of Christ. It is Christ who is central in what is happening.

We all know by experience the kind of deep identification which in moments of tragedy takes place between us and someone who is dear to us. Those of us who have lost someone whom they have loved above all others, whom they have loved profoundly, certainly know this experience. The death of someone who is dear to us seems to divide our life into the life which surrounds us with trivialities, which is unworthy of the event which has touched us so deeply, into events or circumstances which are not at the level of what has happened and other events which do have the depth and the grandeur of life and death. There are moments — and these moments can, depending upon the depth of our feeling, last a few moments, a few days, months or, sometimes, a lifetime — when the death of someone carries off into the tomb all there was in us of futility, of vanity, of hollowness, all that has not the breadth, the grandeur of true human value. And it is something of this kind that is at the root of the experience which is the very foundation of baptism.

The word ‘baptism’ signifies ‘immersion’: to be baptised is to be plunged into the death of Christ and to return to life with a new life. This immersion in the death of Christ is something which is at once psychological, an object of personal experience, and an event in which God intervenes. At the level of the personal experience, of what is perceived, of what is conscious (or should afterwards become conscious), something happens which I would like to describe as follows.

You know that sometimes we are led into our deepest selves by a thought or by an emotion; something pulls at the very depth of our being, summoning all our powers. An inexpressible silence is created in us and we enter so far within ourselves that everything around us fades away, while something within becomes infinitely alive, intense and vibrant When this involves our memories or our emotions, there comes a time when this inner state is broken. Gradually, or sometimes abruptly for some reason, we return to a consciousness of external things, and there remains only a memory, sometimes tinged with sadness, of that lost depth. There is in this image of baptism something analogous to our relationship to Christ.

If we enter into ourselves with the thought of the Lord, and if we go deeply into ourselves through faith, through love of Him who is our Saviour, in the depth of ourselves we meet the Lord. It is a personal meeting, living, concrete. It is not an image, it is not a memory, it is Himself. And that meeting nothing can destroy. We cannot be separated from the Lord; no power in heaven or earth can do it. It happens like a kind of deep immersion in the presence of Christ, after which we return to our external life; but we are no longer the same.

What, essentially, has taken place on this level of the inner life which is not yet that of the sacramental miracle of the Church? This meeting with Christ is a meeting with eternity, and when we return to our external life, it is not just in order to exist there, it is to live there enriched by the eternity which we bring back with us. When Christ appeared to the Apostles who had themselves died in the experience of His death on the Cross, He did not simply give back to them a new duration of earthly life. He gave them, within that earthly life, the presence of eternal life. This is the difference between the resurrection of Lazarus and the Apostles’ return to life when they were bewildered and in despair after the Crucifixion. Lazarus was brought back from the tomb to live again until the moment when death would return him to the human condition; the Apostles returned to life without having been through physical death, but having taken part in a real death through their faith and their love for Christ.

The image I used earlier of a beloved person who carries with him to the grave all that is foreign to him, who seems to take from us all that is incompatible with him, is applicable here. Throughout His life, His communion of love with the Apostles, His teaching, His spiritual direction, the Lord had little by little separated everything in the world for them into what was in Him and around Him, and what belonged to the surrounding circle of hostility and shadow of death. The death of Christ was for them not only the death of a Master, the death of a friend, it was the death of a Him who possessed their life, who possessed the words of eternal life. His death was for them the extinction of life on earth, and what remained for them was simply to continue to exist. There could no longer be life for them, but only the duration of existence. The death of Christ had taken life itself from the world of the Apostles. It was not in vain that He had said: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’. And the resurrection of Christ was not simply the joy of a meeting with Him whom they loved, who was their master, their guide; nor was it the joy of a victory achieved when defeat seemed clear — it was a return to life in all its plenitude.

That is why the Apostle Paul, when he speaks of baptism in his Epistle to the Romans, draws a parallel between the death and resurrection of Christ on the one hand and, on the other, the immersion of someone being baptised into the waters of baptism with a view to their return to life. These waters of baptism are a symbol: they signify death. We plunge into them as if we were plunging into death, and we come out of them into life. But this image will remain a dead letter if it is not rooted in the experience which I have just described. It is only a living image to the extent that there exists in us a living relationship with Christ. Without that relationship this death is an image, to be sure; but it is no longer a symbol, it is no longer something rigorously parallel with the event which it expresses. For the Apostles the death of Christ was their death, His resurrection — a new life. If this apostolic experience does not exist for us, if it is closed to us, we have not yet understood our own baptism.

There is also another side of baptism which is not simply psychological, but objective; and in spiritual life, the objective cannot do without the subjective. In the spiritual life there is no dead objectivity, there is only an objectivity which comes to life at the moment when it is known and lived personally. This is true with doctrine, and it is also true for the sacramental mysteries. And what takes place on the side of God, on the side of the mystery, is a divine action which integrates us into the mystery of Christ. The act of faith and the act of love which must form the basis of the event itself make of us beings truly united to Christ in a way which is inseparable. This is a miracle, and in it God acts. Without this action there is no baptism; nor, without it, is there a Christian.

And there we have an affirmation which I believe to be essential in the Orthodox understanding of the Church. The Church is essentially a sacramental body. It is not a society united by a convention, even if this is a convention of faith. It is a society in which God acts and transforms, where God is active. Without the action of God, it is only a preparation which needs to be crowned, but which is not a plenitude.

So let us try to understand the relation which exists between us and Christ in the case of a baptised Christian. There are two images in the Scriptures which I would like to take up. One is of the vine and the vine shoot; the second is a phrase thrown out by Saint Paul in the course of an exposition in which he says that we are grafted — he is speaking here of the pagans and the people of Israel — the pagans have been grafted on to the living olive tree, which is Israel, in order themselves to become an olive branch full of life. Let us try to see what are the implications of these images for our understanding of the Church.

First, the image of grafting. The gardener has a tree which is full of life, full of sap, capable of sharing and of giving life. He looks around for a shoot, a branch, a bush which is drooping, but which is still capable of being revived. This first action of the gardener, full of charity and of wisdom, is the searching which Christ has described, for example, in the Parable of the Lost Sheep. This is followed by an action which appears to be so cruel and at the same time so violent in the experience both of the gardener and of the human person. The divine act of love which follows consists in pulling a branch from its roots, cutting it with a pruning knife, separating it from the life, transitory and ephemeral, which it none the less possessed, and suspending it in the possibility of total death. This happens when the gardener cuts with his pruning knife the branch he wishes to graft, but it happens also when, in human society, the Master Gardener, the Lord, pulls one of us up by the roots, tears him away from his surroundings, from his country, from his faith, from the conditions of his life, from all that was the support of his life, the security of his life, sometimes from what was his very life itself, and holds him suspended between the death which awaits him and that transitory and ephemeral life to which he can no longer turn because he has been torn away from it by a violence which is divine.

And then the gardener turns towards the olive tree, to the tree he has chosen to give life, and once again he cuts, he cuts it open with his pruning knife, and it is gash against gash, wound against wound that the meeting between the life-giving olive and the dying branch takes place. And this also is a law of the spiritual life: it is only at the price of suffering, wound against wound, that the life of one being is transmitted to another; it is always at the price of suffering and at the price of a pouring out of life, a loss of life, that this meeting and this gift take place.

And now the branch finds itself grafted on to a trunk which can give it life; but does that mean that already the branch possesses life? What will happen? Did not the Lord say: ‘If you abide in me, you will have life and bear much fruit’? (cf. Jn 15:4). But how can the branch ‘abide’, when it has simply been placed there?

Now there begins a struggle which we can observe both in the graft and in the experience of human life. Slowly, insistently the sap of the vine, or of the olive, presses forward, seeking to penetrate the tiny capillaries of the graft. It rises slowly, and penetrates them all. It reaches the last of them and surrounds each and every cell. Little by little it presses more firmly, more insistently, entering into the very life of each cell, displacing by its own life the wild, ephemeral life which led to death. And little by little the graft comes to live by a new life. Then gradually its leaves unfold and it becomes alive in a more profound sense than before. But at the same time it becomes itself in a more intense, more personal way than ever before: all its starved possibilities, which were unable to express themselves because they lacked life, flourish and come to perfection. And we see that the Lord was right when he said that if the graft abides in the vine, it begins to develop, to come to perfection and become itself in a way that we could not have suspected before.

Yes, it is the whole immensity of the infinite life of the life-giving tree which moves and informs the graft. And yet this graft is only itself because it has come alive with this life of plenitude. And here we come again upon the words of Saint Paul: ‘It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me’… But he has not displaced my own personhood; I am there; but all that I could be I have become, now that it is His life that is in me, His power to live, His eternal power. And the relationship of the Christian with Christ which we find in these images gives us at the same time both a fullness of personal life, and of shared life, since there is only one life — the life of God which is poured out in us.

And this life is not merely an earthly life which attains greater amplitude, for He who gives us life is not just Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet of Galilee. It is He who is at once both man and God; it is He who is fully God, and it is He whose very humanity is not simply our humanity with an added divinity, but a humanity which has become again what it should have been without the fall, a humanity surpassed in that which it is called to become.

Saint Maximus the Confessor, speaking of the Incarnation, gives us an image for this. He tells us that the mystery of the Incarnation resembles what happens when a metal sword is put in burning coals. A heavy, cold, dull sword little by little becomes brilliant with light, and this light makes it appear to us boyant and new. And the heat which fills it, this fire which fills it, means that we can no longer distinguish the heat and fire from the iron with which they have become integrated. As Saint Maximus says, we can burn with iron and we can cut with fire.

There is in the mystery of Christ this inseparable union of His divinity and His humanity, which means that His very humanity surpasses itself and attains the real vocation of man, theosis, deification, the surpassing of the created in communion with the uncreated.

But what happens in Christ? Because in him it is not a sword or fire we are facing, but a human person and a human substance united to God. What happens in Him?

Saint Maximus reminds us that according to the teaching of the Bible and of St Paul, death is the result of sin, of the separation between us and God, and that the union of God and a human nature in Christ makes already of that human nature a nature that is immortal and incorruptible. Nevertheless, we see Christ suffer and die on the Cross according to His humanity.

Yes, because in an act of sympathy, an act of love which accepts the total destiny of the beloved being in all its consequences, Christ accepts in His humanity which itself is no longer subject either to suffering or death, all the consequences of our fallen state and of sin. And yet, behind this vision of the suffering Christ, of a God infinitely weak and vulnerable who is delivered into the hands of men to do with Him whatever they want, there is the mystery of the victory already won, there is the revelation of man in all his glory.

We see him on the Mount of the Transfiguration, in His glory. But it is not He who has changed, it is the Apostles who are now able to see Him as He is. We see Him later at His Resurrection. Yet it is not His humanity which has changed, but that what was invisible, what God wished to hide, He now reveals in its plenitude. And it is into this glorious humanity, which is already that of the age to come, that we are integrated in the mystery of baptism, if we truly die with Him and if truly we are reborn with Him.

I say ‘if truly’ not because the divine action is insufficient, but because our salvation is not a unilateral divine act, but an act of cooperation in which our human will and our human liberty fully take part. One of the Fathers of the Church said: ‘God created us by His will alone, but He can only save us if we agree’. This is why it is not the fullness of the glory which appears in us on the day of our baptism, but a preliminary pledge of eternal life. In the words of Saint Paul: ‘All things are possible in Christ who sustains me’. It is a beginning, but one which already has a certain finality. It is an eschatological event in the full meaning of that word, for the word eschaton means two things: a decisive event and a final event. The decisive event has taken place: we have been grafted into Christ. The final event will be the fullness which is to come. In the same way the Incarnation, Christ’s death on the Cross and His Resurrection are decisive events for the salvation of each of us, but in their final form they must be acquired, they must become a personal reality for us all.

As a result of this relationship it is truly, as the Scriptures say, a new people, a very special nation, which is born of the baptismal waters, of these waters which seem to be the primordial waters from which all things came according to the first chapter of Genesis: a re-creation, a new creature. Yes, a new creature, a new society, but more than a society, a living organism, the total man. This expression of Saint Ignatius of Antioch has been frequently taken up by Saint Augustine: the total man, head and members — Jesus and all who are in Him with Him.

This total man is thus in a special relationship not only with Christ, but with the Holy Spirit and with the Father. The Scriptures, the experience of the Church, the meagre human experience we have been granted, teach us that no one can recognise the Incarnate God in the prophet of Galilee, in the man of Nazareth, in the criminal nailed to the Cross at Golgotha, unless the Holy Spirit itself reveals this to him. Someone who has believed, who has recognised Christ, who has responded to His appeal, who has entered into this mysterious communion with the mystical Body, with the body of Christ, has done so at each step by the action of the Holy Spirit.

This Holy Spirit first call us, then teaches us, then integrates us, finally going even deeper. For when we have become the living body of Christ, the living presence of Christ through the ages and through earthly space from generation to generation, then in our depths He causes us to take part in a new experience, for it is He who teaches us to say ‘Abba, Father’ while addressing Him who is the Father of Jesus Christ in all eternity. ‘Abba’ is a familiar name and the word ‘father’ translates it in a forced and solemn way. A child said ‘abba’ to his father in the time of Christ, as in our time he would say ‘papa’. There is something profoundly moving and infinitely simple in this call of the Spirit from the depths of our soul.

What, then, is this call? Does the Spirit of Christ, which is the spirit of sonship, place us simply in a situation analogous to that of Christ? Here we meet one of the great affirmations of the patristic thought of the second century, that thought which frightens us by its boldness and comes to us form Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, who tells us that ‘if all we believe of Christ and of the Church is true, then through the Church and we are all together the only Son of God’.

How are we to understand this? We say often the ‘Our Father’, and this prayer is repeated not only by Christians, but by innumerable believers throughout the world. What, then, is there in this prayer? For some, an analogy, but for others a reality which would be terrifying if this reality were not God’s love. The analogy is simple: if we know God in His works, in our experience as someone who acts as Father in respect of us, it is easy to call Him by this name. But for the Christian there is something else in this expression. For no one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom, if He wishes, the Son reveals him. Nor does anyone know the Son but the Father, as the Gospel of Saint Matthew says. This knowledge, an experience which surpasses all analogy and belongs to the order of ontology, to the substantial reality of things. If in our love of Christ, and in the action of the Holy Spirit and of Christ in His sacraments, we have truly become the living body which Saint Paul says we are, then truly, with Christ, we have for Father the Living God. This is something which is our vocation; it is not simply something which is given to us mechanically, automatically, in the mystery of baptism, in the gift of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, in eucharistic communion. It is something which is given — and is either received or not received. Because the human response is as decisive as is God’s gift. Grafted onto the life-giving plant, we share and have our part in the mysterious life of that divine eternity in sacramental communion, in the mystery of prayer, in the profound unity which establishes itself when we and Christ are united by the same will and the same life. And in that union the Father becomes our Father.

Thus the Church appears to us as something much more profound and much greater than any human society, whatever its character. The Church appears to us as the mystery of the meeting and the union between God, One in the Holy Trinity, and His creatures, whose dispersion, whose division is overcome and whose unity is realised anew, first in an act of faith and then in a mystery of communion. The Church is the presence of the Most Holy Trinity in the midst of us and in us. It is the action of the life-giving Trinity in His creatures.

But the Church is not only glory. There is in the Church a poor and unhappy side; there is a glorious side and there is a tragic side. The poor and miserable side is ourselves; it is the empirical Church, the one that we see. It is not of her that we speak when we say: ‘I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. It is not in this empirical aspect by itself that we profess our faith, for that is what is visible — all too visible. In a certain sense we belong both to the world and, at the same time, already to the Church. As Father George Florovsky said, we are at once in patria and in via; we are already in the Church and we are on the way to enter it. So long as evil, sin and death are not yet vanquished in us, we are still in the process of transformation. But nevertheless, in a deeper sense, we are already the children of God; we are the companions of God in His work of salvation. We are like the crew of a life-boat: we know the will of God, we have been called to be the companions of His labours. He has told us that he no longer wants to call us servants, but friends; for the servant does not know what his master wants, whereas to us he has told all that He wants. And in this there is a mysterious glory, a radiance, a light.

And then there is a tragic side. Briefly, it is this: Saint Paul says in his Epistle to the Colossians that we are like a colony of heaven on the earth; we are the representatives of a celestial metropolis in a strange land. And in spite of this, we still claim that we are citizens of this land; faced with kings and those who guide and possess the nations, we claim to be both totally integrated in earthly reality and to represent a reality which surpasses it. It is not surprising, therefore, that the world rejects us and that we appear to it as a sort of ‘fifth column’, as traitors who pretend to be citizens of this world while recognising the power of a king who is not of this world; as a group of people for whom the only law is the act of love, while they remain estranged from the law of the land. And this law of love is a danger and a threat to the land, because love implies renunciation of self even to the point of total death. And also because to be in communion with Christ, to have with Him a common life, means accepting the totality of His destiny, not only the glory which for us is yet to come, the eternal joy which for us is yet to come, but also His destiny in history: ‘I send you forth as lambs among wolves’…

But here we have a new theme and a new subject. What I wanted to do was to show you the link which exists between Christ and the Christian and the unity of life which exists between all Christians, for it is the one Christ who is our life. Also the mystery of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as it relates to that situation which we call the Church. And finally, the paradox of the Church, both already at hand and not yet here, present yet still to come. And the tragedy of the Church, because as long as the whole world is not saved, the mission of the Body of Christ remains the same: a body broken for the remission of sins…

Translated by Benedict Roffey

Published: «Sourozh». 1982. N. 48. P. 6-16

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