The use of the expression Church Militant as a description of the mission of the Church on earth used to be very common. However, for lots of reasons, including a possible misunderstanding of the term in this increasingly violent age, it has fallen out of use. It needs to be revived, and placed in its proper context, a spiritual context. In 1953, the Pope Pius XII, who had led the Church through two decades of darkness in a world besieged by war, stated without equivocation – We belong to the Church militant; and she is militant because on earth the powers of darkness are ever restless to encompass her destruction.Hear again the words the Apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesian Christians – We do not wrestle against flesh and blood; but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:11,12)
In the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read words from Jesus to his disciples concerning how they should live their lives. It is important to remember that Jesus Christ is not dead, He is alive. He has been raised and He lives that Risen life now in and through His Church, of which we are members. (1 Cor. 12:27, Eph. 5:30):
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.” (Matt. 7)
These words are found in the Gospel text chosen for the Catholic Liturgy, or Holy Mass, on the first Thursday in the season of Advent. We are His contemporary disciples, and we need to hear these words in this urgent hour in which we now live. In the first reading of that same Liturgy, we also find words which the Lord spoke through the Prophet Isaiah, reminding Israel to “Trust in the LORD forever! For the LORD is an eternal Rock.” (Isaiah 26)
Are we building our life on the Rock?
It is time to make an honest assessment. We should ask this question, “On what foundation are we building?” We are living in increasingly turbulent times. The turmoil of violence in our streets seems to be happening so often that we are no longer even surprised by it. Everywhere one looks, we see a shaking of the foundations upon which we once relied.
There are fractures in the fabric of our civil order and deep wounds which must be healed. Our National economy is in an ongoing decline, in spite of the manipulation of malleable statistics and the banter of some economists who are propagandists for the delusion pushed by ideologues who foster a rosy picture when the thorns are evident. The facts simply get pushed to the side, Finally, there is little doubt that we went over the moral cliff long ago. All of this is connected because there is a moral foundation to freedom.
However, Christians need not be afraid. Our life together in the Lord, our connection together in Body of Christ, the Church, is meant to provide a place of shelter, not only for us, but for others who seek stability as the shaking continues all around. Yes, the Church is also being shaken. However, that shaking is for her purification, fortification and reform. The Apostle Peter reminded the early Christians undergoing persecution that judgment begins in the household of faith. (1 Peter 4:17) So too does the shaking (See, Heb 12).
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews also reminds us “we who are receiving the unshakable kingdom should have gratitude, with which we should offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe.” (Heb 12:28) Through our Baptism we now live in the in the Body of Christ. All who bear the name Christian, even if we are divided, are somehow still joined together in that Church which is founded upon Jesus Christ. It is the only place of safety. The shaking will continue. False foundations, some of which have lulled even some believers into complacency, may soon fall under the stress caused by the growing unrest and decline.
There is a place where we can stand secure and strong. And, from where we must to reach out to those who are succumbing to the fear being unleashed in the hearts of men, women and Nations. That place has an unshakable foundation. That place is the Body of Christ, the Church. That is where we must stand – and stand together. Not in order to withdraw from the turbulence around us, but as a firm foundation from which we can bring stability and freedom to those who are beginning to fear what lies ahead and fight “the good fight of faith”. ( 1 Tim. 6:12)
The Church Militant
From that place of safety we can wage war together against the world, the flesh and the devil. From that place we can reach out to all men and women with the love of God, fully manifested in Jesus Christ. And from that place we can reach out to rebuild the foundations of authentic freedom and lead others along the path to the only lasting peace.
On Monday, May 21, 2012, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI held a luncheon with members of the College of Cardinals to thank them for their kindness in wishing him a Happy 85th Birthday on April 16, 2012. In addition, he wanted to thank his friends for wishing him a happy seventh anniversary of his election to the Chair of Peter on April 19, 2012. Vatican News sources reported that Benedict reminded the brothers upon whom he relied for advice and counsel, that “The Church, the Mystical Body, exists on this earth, and is called the Church militant, because its members struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil.”
He shared many of his moments of joy during his apostolic ministry as the successor of Peter, as well as insights into the struggles, telling the Cardinals:
“(I) especially thank the Lord for the many years He has given me, years with many days of joy, wonderful times, but also dark nights. But in retrospect it is understood that the nights were necessary and good. We see evil wants to rule the world and it is necessary to go into battle against evil. We (see) it does in so many ways, bloody, with various forms of violence, but also disguised with good and thus destroying the moral foundations of society. We’re in this fight and (in) this fight it is very important to have friends. I am surrounded by friends of the College of Cardinals: they are my friends and I feel at home, I feel safe in the company of great friends who are with me, together.”
I believe that the sentiments expressed on that day were pointing toward an historic action which he undertook on February 28, 2013. With the humility which characterized his extraordinary papacy, Benedict resigned his apostolic office. The announcement was simple and straightforward. It was made to a consistory of his brothers in the episcopate, cardinals who had gathered in Rome where he approved over 800 causes for canonization. He became the first Pope since 1294 to resign his office in this way.
The use of the expression “Church Militant” as a description of the mission of the Church on earth used to be very common. However, for lots of reasons, including a possible misunderstanding of the term in this increasingly violent age, it has fallen out of use. It needs to be revived, and placed in its proper context, a spiritual context. In 1953, the Pope Pius XII, who had led the Church through two decades of darkness in a world besieged by war, stated without equivocation “We belong to the Church militant; and she is militant because on earth the powers of darkness are ever restless to encompass her destruction.”
As we face growing hostility simply because we profess our Christian faith in in our daily lives, it is important to hear again the words the Apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesian Christians: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood; but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:11,12)
Faith and the Future
In 1969, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict, wrote a small book entitled “Faith and the Future“. In it he spoke of what might be ahead for the Church. Little did he realize then that he would occupy the Chair of Peter? Here are a few excerpts which bear serious reflection:
“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, she will lose many of her social privileges. As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.”
“It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution – when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.”
“Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”
“And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
“But in all of the changes at which one might guess the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.”
Our Faith and our Life Together
We all have a need to belong, precisely because we are not solitary by nature. We were fashioned out of – and created for – relationship. The heart of the Christian Revelation is that God is not solitary either. God is a Trinity of Divine Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who, in perfect love, is perfectly One. Jesus prayed for us to experience this kind of unity, beginning now – and being completed in the life to come. That beautiful prayer of Jesus is recorded in the 17th Gospel of John in its entirety. Here is an excerpt:
“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17: 20-23)
Through the saving Incarnation – the conception, nativity, life, death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity and the Incarnate Word – we are made capable of participating in the Trinitarian Communion, by God’s grace. That participation begins now and opens up into eternity. That is not some esoteric or mystical concept reserved for just a few, that is meant to be normal Christian living. We are, in the words of the Apostle Peter, “partakers of the Divine Nature’. (2 Peter 1:4) We are called into a relationship in Him and with one another for the sake of the world.
It is in the gift of self to God, and then by grace to one another, that we actually find ourselves and discover our real mission in this world. The Christian claim is that we were made for God, and as St. Augustine said so well, “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” It is there that we also find our true home. That home is in the Church, from which we now reach out to the world. God still loves the world so much that He sends His Son (John 3:16). His Son is still alive. He has been raised. He walks now through His Body, the Church, of which we are truly members. (1 Cor. 12:12-26)
The Church is fundamentally a relational reality, an ongoing encounter with the Risen Jesus, a participation in the Trinitarian communion in and through Jesus Christ. He is the Head of the Body. The Church is not some-thing but Some-One. This is an essential part of being a Christian. There is both a vertical and a horizontal bar to that Cross on the Hill of Calvary. Perhaps one of the most often quoted sayings of the early Christian fathers is from Cyprian of Carthage who wrote, “He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother”.
That kind of family language points tto the irrefutable fact that the the early Christians believed that to belong to Jesus was to belong to His Church. They believed that just as we were all born from our mother’s womb – so we are invited by God, in and through Jesus Christ, to be “born again” into the Church, the new humanity being re-created in Him.
The process of redemption begins when we pass through the Sacramental Waters of the font of Holy Baptism. It continues as we cooperate with the Grace given to us in our life within the Church. It will only be fully completed when the Lord Returns and we are raised in Resurrected Bodies – and live in a new heaven and a new earth! This understanding of the Church as a participation in Christ and entry into the Trinitarian Communion runs throughout the writings of the early Church Fathers. I offer a few examples in what follows.
The Early Fathers on the Church
First, some words from Origen (185-254 AD): “Christ has flooded the universe with divine and sanctifying waves. For the thirsty he sends a spring of living water from the wound which the spear opened in His side. From the wound in Christ’s side has come forth the Church, and He has made her His bride” Next, from Bishop Ireneaeus of Lyons (120-203 AD), a disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John: “We need to take refuge with the Church, to drink milk at her breast, to be fed with the scriptures of the Lord. For the Church has been planted in the world as a paradise.”
I could continue, but I have made the point. The early Christians did not see the Church as some-thing butSome-One. Membership in the Church was neither onerous nor optional. They saw it as normative for every Christian – and life giving to all.I will summarize some of what you will find in their beautiful writing in a few of my own sentences using the imagery deployed in the writings of the early Christian fathers.
The Church is a seed of the Kingdom which is to to come. The Church is the vine into which we are grafted. The Church is the Risen Jesus made truly present in the world. The Church is the new family begun at the Cross. The Church is where we learn to love as we enter into the very communion of the Love of the Godhead revealed in the total gift of the Son of God on the second tree of the Cross. Birthed from the wounded side of the Savior, who is the “New Adam”, on the altar of the Cross, the Church is His Body continuing His redemptive mission on the earth.
We do not make the Church in our image, the Church re-makes us into Christ’s Image through grace. Let me conclude with some inspiring words from one of my favorite contemporary theologians, an Orthodox layman named Olivier Clement. He writes of the Church:
“In the Risen Christ, in his glorified body, in the very opening of His wounds, it is no longer death that reigns but the Spirit, the Breath of Life. And the cross of victory and of light, which is the pattern of our baptism, can henceforth transform the most desperate situation into a death-and-resurrection, a ‘Passover’, a crossing-point on the way to eternity. And that is what the Church, this profoundly holy institution is: it is the baptismal womb, the Eucharistic chalice, the breach made for eternity by the Resurrection in the hellish lid of the fallen world.”
“The Church is the Mystery of the Risen Lord, the place, and the only one, where separation is completely overcome; where paschal joy, the ‘feast of feasts’, the triumph over death and hell are offered to our freedom, enabling it to become creative and work towards the final manifestation of that triumph, the final transfiguration of history and the universe. .In its deepest understanding the Church is nothing other than the world in the course of transfiguration”
Build on Rock, do battle
Let us choose build our lives on the Rock of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church – and open our doors wide to the men and women of our age who seek stability and refuge as the world is being shaken. Stand strong and welcome others into the only place of real safety, the Church which bears His name. She may be divided, but she is still His home and reveals His plan for the whole human race. As we pray, walk and work together, he will heal the wounds of our divisions and reestablish our full communion. As Christians together, we are called to Love one another, in Him. (John 13:34,35) We are also given the grace to do just that.
It is time to get ready for the battle ahead and become the Church militant for this moment in His-tory. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul:”Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
“Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Eph 6:10-18)