Archive for December 28th, 2006

The Transfiguration of the World and the Life of the Church

December 28, 2006


For many centuries, the life of the Church (I am not here speaking particularly of the Orthodox Church though it applies even there) has been relegated to itself as institution and dispenser of the sacraments.

Many of the the things we think of as intergral parts of the institution have only existed for a short while and do not constitute anything of eternal value to the Body of Christ.

Parish Councils, to use a simple example, are recent innovations (in Orthodox life). Though our way of handling Church monies in America can be well served buy such organs.

Much of what parishes think of as “program” is wholly foreign to the history of Christianity. The modern Church can become a dispenser of programs, the priest, a sort of “club director.” With this, of course, have come increasing demands on priests and their time and attention, often to the detriment of prayer and study of the Word.

Many of the things that occupy Church headquarters are also recent additions. In many denominations, including non-hierarchical, people find the “tail wagging the dog,” where national concerns are overriding local concerns and (especially through the enforcement of property law) are becoming requirements of the local congregation.

The transformation that begins to take place is not the transfiguration of the World in the Life of the Church, but the transformation of the Life of the Church into an obedient dispenser of religious product.

Years ago, as an Anglican, I received annual mailings from Dunn and Bradstreet, that asked me questions about the “business” I ran. It wanted to know about membership, money, etc. What I found most amusing was its reference to me, as the priest of the local congregation in a hierarchical situation, as the “branch manager.” Sometimes things can be all too true even when they are unintended.

The Church exists primarily to give thanks to God and to make intercession for the world. Part of that mission (giving thanks and interceding) occur when we remember the poor and give to them (not that we hope to change the world – I have posted this before -but Christians should never expect to change the world – it’s delusional). We give to the poor in love because Christ commanded it and because in giving to them we give to Him (Matthew 25:40). Those who will not remember the poor in the name of Christ will never know God (unless they are so poor they cannot give).

St. Augustine once observed that the definition of poor is “not having enough.” And that the definition of rich means having “more than enough.” Thus, he said, if you wish to be rich, then give some of your wealth away, and by definition you are rich. This is a transfiguration of the world (one man at a time).

If the Christian Church disappeared tomorrow, how many of its activities would be subsumed by some para-political entity? Certainly a large number of them.

But there are things that connot be replaced. The ministry – the true ministry of priest – cannot disappear. When a priest ceases to chiefly be the presider at worship and “Christ among us,” leading us by example in prayer and praise of God – then there is nothing that replaces him. A “worship leader” in many congregations (protestant) is not acting as priest.

My oldest daughter spent a year in Siberia. There she faithfully attended the Orthodox Church. She had a friend who was Orthodox who invited her to go to Church one Sunday. The Church, however, was not Orthodox, but a recent American plant, using the “mega church” model. Being in Russia, and being culturally sensitive, this new Church met in a movie theater, but had large icons around the room. Russians expect them.

My daughter said to her friend, “But you are Orthodox? Why do you want to go to a protestant Church?”

“What’s the difference,” her friend replied. They both have icons, only the American Church has rock and roll!” This, again, is not the transfiguration of the world, but the morphing of the Church into a rock concert.

Each member of the Church is bound to gather for Sunday liturgy (at least), and to allow themselves to gradually be transfigured as they worship, give alms, receive the sacraments and forgive all those around them.

Just how much Dunn and Bradstreet stuff do you need to do that? This question we must ask of ourselves if we are ever to live properly in the culture that surrounds us.