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Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Lamb's Supper Part 11 - Heaven Touching Earth in the Family Bond

As we being this next section in the study, we are going to be capitalizing on the idea of "heaven on earth," and it is here that two "pillars" - the Lord's Prayer and the Holy Eucharist - begin to be tied together.  But first, I wanted to recap the Real Presence a little.

As mentioned in the last section quoting Frank Tipler's book, there are now scientific evidences that something transformative happens when the bread and wine are consecrated helping them become the Body and Blood of Jesus Himself, and although it cannot be observed or even fully explained, Tipler noted that this was nonetheless a valid hypothesis based on what he called quantum coherence.  Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, in his classic volume Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (Lanham, MD:  Sheed and Ward, 1963) takes this scientific idea to theological terms, noting that there is a difference between the materia and the forma of the sacrament, noting that they are two constitutive elements of the outward sacramental sign (p. 92).  He then notes that the Fathers of the Church rightly thought of the sacraments as a bringing together of the earthly element with the heavenly, through the liturgical action of the epiclesis, or prayer of petition. The physical elements of bread and wine - the materia - are thus made into the Body and Blood of Christ by a principle formula of determination (the Prayer of Consecration) - the forma - thus completing the sacramental action.  Quantum coherence then, via the transformation of the earthly materia with the heavenly forma, is what makes the sacrament then our supersubstantial bread we petition God to give us in the Lord's Prayer.  And, it is the bridge by which we open this next part of the study.

We now look at Hebrews 12:22-23, which gives us some background here for our study.  In verse 22, it tells us that we have now come to this enigmatic place called "the heavenly Jerusalem" in which there are an innumerable company of angels as well as the spirits of "men made perfect" as part of "the general assembly of the Church of the Firstborn, who are registered in heaven."   The reference here is exactly the same as the earlier image we saw in Revelation of the martyrs under the altar, and it is a vision of the Church Expectant.  When we participate in the Mass, as the Lord's Prayer reminds us, God's will is indeed done "on earth as it is in heaven" in a way that means that the mystery of the Mass encompasses both us (the Church Militant) as well as the saints in heaven (the Church Expectant) and together we form the complete Bride, the Church Triumphant.  Like the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ itself, this mystery cannot be exactly explained, but it does happen.  And, in Christ, we are the true "family of God," and that is what I want to discuss more of at this point.

Revelation 19:9, as we have noted in earlier sections of this study, is a description of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, and in the true form of how Scripture transcends time, this Marriage Supper also has multiple dimensions.  First, it speaks of the Second Coming, when Christ is fully united with His Bride, the Church.  However, it also speaks of now too, and is a picture of the Mass itself,  but in God's economy these are one and the same.  The family bond it alludes to here is one that is to be understood in terms of an extended family, rather than the Rockwellesque "nuclear family" we often think of.  And, that family bond, like the ancient Middle Eastern context of Scripture itself embodies, was something that was the person's primary identity - one is known, therefore, by the family identification of name, etc.  The most conspicuous sign of that family bond in ancient times, however, was often a mark or a signet ring of some sort that bore some symbol which identified its bearer with that particular family, and in the Church we have that mark - it is the sign of the Cross.  Since the time of Genesis in the ancient world, nations in turn were formed by extended networks of such families.  And within families that unification was symbolized by a bond of covenant.  This covenant was often sealed with a sacred meal and/or sacrifice, as well as a solemn oath.  In ancient times, this also took on an extreme form - many of the covenants of the Bible, for instance, were sealed by the sacrifice of a bull.  When the bull was slaughtered, often it was split in half, and after the oath was said between the parties, both parties of the covenant would then walk between the two halves of the bull, and the symbolism here was that if the covenant was broken by either, then the consequence and judgement would be severe like what happened to this cow.  A part of the bull was then prepared, cooked, and eaten to seal the covenant between the parties, and the other half was often offered as a burnt offering to the deity of the covenant parties.  God too utilized a covenant system in the Old Testament in ancient Israel in a similar fashion, which is where many of the Temple sacrifices also were involved that we read about throughout the Old Testament.  Jesus likewise used the covenant to describe His relationship to the Church, as we see in Matthew 26:28 and I Corinthians 11:25.  The New Covenant of Jesus therefore is the most intimate of family bonds, as it involves a sacrificial meal (the Eucharist) and a mark or signet of "God's Tribe" (the Cross).

As the family bond is the imagery Jesus utilized in this covenant relationship, it is important that our family is not only named for God, but our family is God!  Christianity is the only religion where God is not an individual in a traditional sense, but is Himself a family.  His proper name is Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He has in Himself Fatherhood, Sonship, and the essence of family, which is love (note Pope John Paul II here).  God is therefore not just like a family in some abstract metaphorical sense, but truly is a family. He alone possesses fatherhood, sonship, and love in perfection.  God is therefore a family in His being, and we are His by adoption.  To elaborate on the latter, in establishing the New Covenant, Jesus founded one Church as an extension of His incarnation.  One classic way of looking at that is in the analogy of the moon, which is a common symbol for the Church utilized by many great Roman Catholic theologians.   Dr. Regis Martin, one of my Theology professors at Franciscan University of Steubenville, wrote about this in his book What is the Church (Steubenville, OH:  Emmaus Road Publishing, 2003) when he noted that the Church is a mystery, and behind its human exterior - which often still exhibits the effects of the fallen state of its members - stands the mystery of a more-than-human reality.  Like the moon itself, the Church radiates a light belonging to another, the Son (rather than the sun, in the case of the literal moon!), and one does not draw near to an institution whose structures magically emit light and life, but one draws near to a Person, Jesus Christ, the source of the Light and Life (Martin, p. 44).  Therefore, Christ founded the one Church as an extension - or if you will a reflection - of His own incarnation.  He extends the Trinity's life-giving grace to all humanity via the Church (although individual humanity can choose to accept or reject it), and we who are part of the Church in essence become "sons in the Son."    This bond is renewed every time we participate fully in the Mass, which is at once a shared meal, a sacrifice, and an oath.   Therefore, the Apocalypse unveiled in the Eucharist is for us a wedding feast where the Son of God enters into the most intimate relationship with His spouse, the Church.   To prepare for Communion, therefore, we must forsake our old name for a new one, much in the same way a bride takes her husband's family name.  We therefore join our sacrifice with His in the Mass and it makes our sacrifice perfect.  On that, remember the meaning of that word liturgy - we translate it in this study as a work from the people in a literal sense, right?   Our offering up of ourselves in the Mass is our work of sacrifice from ourselves to God, and we receive Jesus Himself as His sacrifice to redeem and restore us.  And, that seals and consummates our family bond.

Protestant Fundamentalists a lot of times have a big issue with the Mass, and often they are quick to accuse Catholic Christians of "resacrificing Jesus again."  However, that needs some clarification.  First, the teaching of the Church is that there was only one sacrifice of Christ, that being Calvary.   And, far from being a "resacrifice" of Christ, the Mass is our supernatural participation in that one sacrifice.  This is deemed a mystery because the embodied reality of the Mass transcends the human conception of time and space, but is rather in God's economy.  And, the Mass makes present in time what the Son has been doing eternally - loving the Father as the Father loves the Son, and the Son giving back the gift He received from the Father, for our redemption.   That gift is the life we were originally meant to share before the fall, and in order to share in it, we first must undergo significant change ourselves.  We are incapable in and of ourselves to give or receive so much, and we are also incapable of change on our own merit and effort.  Therefore is the reason why God gives us His own life in the sacraments.  First, that grace makes up for weaknesses of human nature.  Second, through that sacrifice, we are able to love perfectly and sacrifice totally with His help.  Third, what God the Son has been doing through all eternity He begins doing now in humanity on a personal level - within each of us.  Hebrews 13:8 affirms the immutability of Jesus - He doesn't change!   And, Jesus, like the other Persons of the Godhead, is without beginning or end (John 1:1, Revelation 1:11).  And, it is humanity that changes, not God (I Corinthians 5:17).   Therefore, every time we receive the Holy Eucharist, we receive Jesus, and only with His grace imparted to us can our own transformation take place.  The Eucharist changes us, although like the elements of it we do all we've done before, but what we do is made divine in Christ.  In essence, becoming part of God's family entails a complete transformation.  A Syriac Church Father and writer, Aphraat, said it this way - God becomes man's temple, and man God's temple.

Now, this leads to another common issue our Fundamentalist Protestant brethren often bring up about why we call our clergy "Father."  They point out that Jesus Himself, in Matthew 23:9, told us not to call any man "Father," yet what I find interesting as a side note is that if they dare call their own biological fathers by their first names, especially back when many were still young, they probably would have been whaled with a switch or a strap for disrespect!   That is actually quite interesting - as a former Protestant myself, I was also guilty of taking Scripture literally where it suited me, but then allegorizing it when it "helped" my argument.  This is one of those situations.  For instance, take the use of incense in Church.  A Fundamentalist will shriek in horror when the priest or deacon in an Anglican, Orthodox, or Catholic church brings out the thurible and starts censing the congregation, but incense is all over Scripture as a part of both the worship of the Temple in the Old Testament as well as around God's throne in the heavenly sanctuary.  Yet, for all the "literal interpretation" some Protestant Fundamentalists harp on, when it comes to this everything becomes an allegory - "Aww, incense is just a symbol of our prayers, " they say.  Another one in recent years that has really gotten a lot of attention is that verse in Matthew 7:1-3, which a lot of Protestant liberals and charismatics almost beat to death.  That is the classic "Judge not lest ye be judged" passage, and it has been used by many to justify everything from bad music in churches to "gay marriage."  Problem is, most of those using this verse to justify such things err in that they are trying to justify things that the Church already has authority to judge, and many of these same people interpret this verse inconsistently.  I have seen, for instance, people who use this verse to justify rock bands in churches, but often are the first to scream out in judgement at the weakness of one of their own family members - sisters condemning sisters, etc.  Perhaps such people need to study these things a little more closely themselves!  The verse "call no man 'Father' "  also falls into this category, and now we will discuss that a bit.

If we look at the earlier discussion about how the Church reflects Christ, and is an extension of His incarnation on this earth, then it only makes sense that it is Jesus Himself who allows for our clergy to be called "Father."  The verse in Matthew 23:9 is not a prohibition against that, but is rather a warning about self-promotion, or taking on titles to grasp after status and prestige.  Therefore, it is not man who recognizes a priest as "Father," but rather the Church.  

One final note on the familial dimension of the Church involves the communion of saints.  The communion of saints is not a mere abstract doctrine, but is rather a lived reality - we see it best expressed and lived out in the celebration of the Mass around the Lord's Table, sharing a common cup.  It is the familial bond that seals the covenant which identifies us as God's family, and therefore is a mystery that is lived in reality.  Picking that up in the next (and final) section, we will return to the supernatural heavenly dimension of the Mass.