The Church, the Countenance of Christ

Fifty years ago now, the Second Vatican Council taught that the council fathers wanted to “bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church”(Lumen Gentium, No. 1).

This is how they started to speak about the Church, so this is where we, as members of the Church, need to start to speak about it as well. If we start with the scandals or the politics, then we are starting with the flaws, human flaws, and we are not allowing ourselves to stand in awe of what Christ (not sinful human beings) is doing in the Church. If we look prayerfully at the right places in the Church, we shall see Christ!

First, the title of the document known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: in Latin, it is titled Lumen Gentium, which means, “the light of the nations.” This light is Jesus Christ. John the Evangelist says of Him: “Through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (Jn 1:4). And just so we do not get any romantic ideas about this light, John also said in one of his letters: “The life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us” (1 Jn 1:2). The play on light and seeing points us to concrete everyday life. In the life of Jesus Christ, we have a living example of the fullness of life. So we should expect the document to say a lot about the concrete parts of the Church as it manifests Christ.

Now, what about the nations? The life of Christ has universal meaning; it is for everyone. Remember Jesus’ words after His resurrection: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).

The various calls that we have heard for new evangelization, from Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, all point to something fundamental about the Church — namely, its life of grace and truth flows outward to every part of the world. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus does not stay locked up in a Church building. The faithful carry it to the four corners of the globe.

Where Is Christ?

bringing light to all men
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Now, where is Christ exactly? At the heart of the Church there is a profound and awe-inspiring mystery: the “inauguration and … growth [of the Church] are both symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of a crucified Jesus (see Jn 19:34), and are foretold in the words of the Lord referring to His death on the Cross: ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself’ (Jn 12:32)” (Lumen Gentium, No. 3). The life, death and resurrection of Jesus stays with us each day through His Spirit.

In fact, “By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body” (No. 7). His Body is concretely present in our situation. But much more than simply being present, “with His all-surpassing perfection and way of acting He fills the whole body with the riches of His glory” (No. 7). It is within this wonderful exchange of gifts that we live out each day.

The Body of Christ is so rich in grace and truth that words can barely describe it. The way the council did this was to use an ancient scriptural phrase, the People of God. The council reached back thousands of years into Old Testament times and explained: “It pleased [God] to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness. He therefore chose the race of Israel as a people unto himself” (No. 9).

As we know, Jesus was born into this people, and at the appointed time He called a community together within the old People of God to be the new People of God. There we have the Church, “established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth” (No. 9).

It is important for us to get this clear in our heads. We are in the Church to meet Christ in this communion of life and to join His mission. Perhaps we ought to read the early articles of the document several times — slowly and prayerfully — so that we are absolutely convinced that this is where we meet Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. Then we can confidently pray in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church.”

Our Vocation to Holiness

What goes on in this communion of life? To discuss this, we jump from the Introduction to Chapter V, which has the title, “The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church.” Put on your track shoes! The Church is not just the presence of Christ in the world. It is not just here for mankind to give glory to the Father. It is here for our holiness. So we still are not worrying about bishops and parishes. We are in the Church to be holy. This part of the documnet quotes St. Paul: “‘This is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1 Thes 4:3)” (No. 39). I am proceeding this way because we have to get our priorities straight — do we focus on holiness, or are we worried about how Mrs. Smith’s hat looks?

We “are warned by the Apostle to live ‘as becomes saints’ (Eph 5:3), and to put on ‘as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience’ (Col 3:12), and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness” (No. 40).

At the end of the document is a beautiful chapter on Mary (Chapter VIII). Why go there next? Well, members of the Church have to be deeply concerned about becoming holy. Mary is the perfect example of someone who did just that. In part, we can learn about what she did — the document gives a beautiful summary of what we know about Mary — and we can also learn about Mary as a member of the Church. These two parts help us to appreciate her role in the mysteries of the life of Jesus and then to appreciate how someone in the Church can ally themselves with her in intercession for his or her sins and for other graces. This is how the communion of life works.

The Common Priesthood

To mediate the presence of Christ to us, we need human beings and things like the Scriptures, signs like bread and wine and so on, because we are human beings. We receive so much through our senses. This is the only way that we communicate and share and realize that wondrous things are happening. Jesus Christ is not an idea, He is a person, and so a lot of communicating goes on in the Church. There is the inner working of God’s Spirit, of course, but we always check what we think is due to the Spirit with the concrete visible Church’s teaching.

This is where the bishops and the pope come in. The council said, “This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (No. 8). Lumen Gentium has a whole chapter on the pope, bishops, priests and deacons (Chapter III). We can learn a lot there, but don’t confuse knowing the details with becoming holy! The council was blunt: “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity” (No. 14). Love is the key to holiness, to the communion of life. (This is loving God and our neighbor.)

We have just mentioned the ordained hierarchy. They participate in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, in the ordained way, as he became priest and victim on the cross. The whole of human history turns on this moment. Everything in the Church gets its meaning from this event. But there is another mode of participation in Christ’s priesthood called the common priesthood of the baptized. In a very rich sentence, the council said, “The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light” (No. 10).

It would be silly to learn about the Church without seeing where the whole great process of being the Church, showing Christ to the world, is headed. The council described the Church as a pilgrim in this world. This is not our lasting home, here on earth; in fact, the world will end: “At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly re-established in Christ” (No. 48). Just as something that is going to happen tomorrow affects what we do today, so the coming end of all of history should make us sit up and pay attention. Perhaps we have to do something different today.

Father Bevil Bramwell is an Oblate of Mary Immaculate. He has taught theology for years at places like Ave Maria University and Franciscan University of Steubenville and was undergraduate dean at Catholic Distance University.