By Fr. Joseph Francis —
The Niceno-Constantinople Creed (381 AD) has a longer expansion of this: “I believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church”. First let us try to understand what we mean by the Church and then we shall examine 4 “notes” or “marks” of the Church as Niceno-Constantinople Creed tells us.
What does “Church” mean?
The word “Church” here does not mean a building, nor does it refer to any organization which you may have joined. I am reminded of a person who wrote me a letter saying that he wants his name to be scored off the baptism register since he has joined another church. This of course is impossible since baptism is permanent and entry into the Church is also permanent. You only become a dead member. So, what then is the Church that we are reflecting upon?
The Church I am told is a mystery and cannot be adequately be defined accurately and pinpointed. Whenever we are faced with such a dilemma, Catholic theology has recourse to using images or models (paradigms) to describe it. When we use such a stratagem it is understood that no one image or model is perfect. It may show some things well but other things will be found wanting. Hence normally we use a group of images and models to reach out to the reality.
Some of the models
Here are some major models: People of God, Body of Christ, Temple, Communion-Community, Servant of God, Sacrament of Christ and Bride of Christ. There are also many minor images that could be used e.g., Light of the World, Salt of the Earth, Sheepfold, the Way, the Door, the bark of God, the Ark of the Covenant and many others. A scholar enumerates more than 90 images in the Bible to describe the Church. It is not possible for us to reflect on each of them within a short space but we shall make a few salient remarks about some of them.
The description “People of God” is very biblical and connected with God’s choice and formation of a people chosen by him for him for the sake of all the peoples of the world. The Bible speaks of the call of Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12ff.); the famous Exodus story of escape from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 15) and the Covenant made with them using the same animal blood symbol touching both the covenanting parties at Mt. Sinai (Ex 19 & 24); they have becomes God’s chosen people but they broke the covenant.
Finally, God says he is going to make a fresh, renewed covenant with them written on their hearts and not on stone (Cf. Ez 36.21-36; Jer 31. 31-34) and finally fulfilled in the New Testament when the renewed Covenant is made in the Blood of Jesus the God-Man who entered the Holy of Holies, carrying his own precious blood for an eternal covenant and a permanent People of God that the Church is (Cf. Letter to the Hebrews chapters 8 to 10). Vatican II used this model in the document Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church chapter II.
The Communion-Community is another model which emphasizes how Jesus founded a community of believers who are united in mind and heart. These believers had the same teaching, same practices of worship and also shared what they had with one another (Cf. Acts of the Apostles 2. 44-47). In the Church even now you will always find such a spiritual sharing of all their spiritual wealth, beliefs and worship especially of the Eucharist.
The other sacraments in the Church also signifies this sharing which has to spill out into concrete actions of care and concern for those who are less privileged (Cf. James 2.14-17; Acts 4.34-35). The communion-community also has a hierarchical format in its governance but which is again is part of a communion of love, care, concern, service and not one of domination by a few.
The Church as a temple is a model reminiscent of the dedication of the temple built by Solomon (I kg 8.1ff.). A temple stands as a meeting place between God and the humans. The temple built by Solomon was repeatedly rebuilt and rededicated and finally was permanently destroyed in the first century CE by the Romans. But the New Testament temple is Jesus himself since in his very Person God and the humans have met and it is a union that is never to be broken because Incarnation is permanent. Jesus will always be for all eternity True God and true human.
Therefore he, the Risen Lord is the temple par excellence (Cf. Jn 2. 19-21 “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…But he spoke of the temple of his body.”) Above all we cannot forget that we too are called to be the living temple together with Jesus who is the corner stone; we are built up as living stones in contact with Jesus the Living Stone and made into the Church, where we as the priests of the New covenant offer a pure and holy sacrifice to God; and where we celebrate our union in and with God through Jesus Christ true God and true man; and also celebrate at the same time our union with one another in this temple (Cf. I Pet 2. 4-10).
Jesus Christ himself is the source of all sacraments because in his Incarnation the essentially invisible God becomes visible through his humanity which we can see, touch, hear and relate easily. The Risen Lord present in every sacrament continues to provide this chance of coming into a living contact with him in and through the Church which is his visible manifestation. It is in this his Church the sacraments are celebrated and the Risen Lord experienced in a way tangibly. This is why we say that the Church is also a kind of sacrament.
The Church as Bride has a long line of reflection in the Bible. The relation between God and humans is often presented as a marriage relationship. When the Israelites abandoned the true God and went to worship false gods and goddesses the God of Israel through the prophets calls it adultery (Cf. Ezekiel 16.15-43)and calls it to return to better ways (Cf. Hosea 14. 1-9). In the New Testament Jesus is called the Bridegroom and the church is his Bride.
Scholars tell that this is the significance of the miracle of the marriage feast at Cana (Jn 2.1-11). Jesus has come to claim his bride is implied in verse 11 which says: “This the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (the Church is the band of those who believe in Jesus). This is also the reason why Jesus instead of turning 6 bottles of water into wine turns 6 huge jars of water into wine of the best quality because joy should abound and overflow at the Messiah’s wedding. So, we the Church is the Bride of Christ eternally united to him, obedient and faithful to him; Jesus loves his bride and has embellished her with all his gifs, having given up his very life for her and washed her in the waters of baptism.
Read Eph 5.21-33 where Paul compares the relation between husband and wife to the relation between Jesus and his bride the Church and holds it up as a model for all Christian couples. Book of Revelation calls the Church the wife of the Lamb of God: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21.9).
These should suffice to realize the mystery that the Church is. Along with the many minor images you can get some inkling of the depth of the meaning of “Church”. Remember the Church is greater than its visible organization or expressions of life amidst the vicissitudes of the modern world.