The holidays can make it all too poignant: the terrible fact of broken communion. Often, our festivities bring us into close contact with some (few or many) whom we most commonly avoid. An uncle, an aunt, a brother, a parent whose relationship is marked with pain, misunderstanding, shame, and various other torments. Statistics say that these times (particularly Thanksgiving to Christmas) are frequently marred by things we would otherwise avoid. The holidays do not break our communion, but our close proximity often reveals it.
On the one hand, it is easy to write off such encounters as unpleasant facts of life while doing all in our power to minimize the damage and the discomfort. Walking on egg shells becomes a mode of existence. It has long been noted that “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.” It is an observation that was first made with regard to racial relations. In point of fact, it is much broader and deeper. Churches tend to be “affinity groups,” that is, self-selected groups of similar people. Socio-economic realities, educational levels, political affiliations, world-view, etc., all play a role in the make-up of a congregation. Of course, a Church is no simple slice of a random population sample. Its first great filter is that of common belief. No doubt, there are some congregations in our culture that do everything possible to minimize that filter (often substituting other, less obvious, versions).
The earliest Christian community in Jerusalem had a glaring cultural rift within its membership. There were Greek-speaking Jews, and Aramaic-speaking Jews. The former were likely far more engaged with the surrounding Greek-speaking Roman world, while the latter were likely more guarded and suspicious of anything non-Jewish. The rift broke into the open with the complaints surrounding neglected widows. Apparently, the Greek-speaking community felt that their widows were getting neglected in the congregation’s early relief efforts. The Apostles settled the matter by appointing seven “deacons.” It is noteworthy that all seven deacons had Greek names. You may draw your own conclusions.
St. Paul confronted an even greater rift as the fast-spreading Christian community began to incorporate the uncircumcised – that is, Gentile converts who had never formally become Jews. The amount of time he spent addressing the issue of circumcision reflects more than a concern for a point of doctrine. It was primarily a point that threatened the unity, and thus the existence, of the early Christian world. That there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” is not really a statement about what it means to be Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. It is a statement about the nature of Christ Himself. St. Paul goes on to say, “…for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:28-29)
The “unity” we experience in communities of affinity are secular in nature. Anybody can have a sense of unity with people who are fundamentally “like” them. This pushes us towards an important point about the nature of the Church.
It is possible to give a sociological definition of the Church. Such a definition would describe beliefs and relationships that make the Church distinctive. I could be compared and contrasted to other affinity groups. Such a definition, of course, need have no reference to God. It’s just sociology.
Sadly, it’s possible to inhabit the Church as a sociological space. Our shared community of relationships and shared beliefs can give a sense of belonging as well as identity. We are bound by what we have in common as well as what we reject. As such, our enemies are as essential as our friends. And though our shared beliefs may make reference to God, it is, in point of fact, something merely sociological holding us together. This example is the Church as tragedy.
The truth of the Church is found in the Eucharist – indeed, we only truly exist as a eucharistic community. And it is in considering the nature of the Eucharist that we see the true nature of our own being.
There is a theme of “union” that runs throughout the Liturgy. To confess the Creed, we pray that we might be of “one mind.” This is not mere human agreement, but the very mind of Christ. One aspect of the Liturgy is the constant gathering up of various threads. The litanies take us through prayers for bishops, churches, government leaders, the sick, the suffering, the departed, etc. At a climatic moment in the Liturgy, the consecrated elements are lifted up in an act of offering with the words, “On behalf of all and for all.”
For those who may at this point think I’ve gone off on some ecumenical rabbit trail, I want to pause and visit the essential problem of unity. For the Scriptures say that God has “purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.” (Eph. 1:9-10) There is a vast array of objectionable and reprehensible things (and people) encompassed in the phrase, “all things.” Anything less than this, though, is a denial of the central thrust of God’s purpose.
In 2 Corinthians 5, there is a significant passage that points towards the eucharistic life of the Church:
“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (5:18-21)
The Church gathers, not as a sociological phenomenon, not as a community of the like-minded, but as the Body of Christ that is a small portion and foretaste of Christ’s reconciliation of the world to God. If it is true that Christ was made “to be sin for us,” then, in Him, we also “become sin” for others, that is, we do not separate ourselves as though we pray from a place above and apart from them. In the Eucharist, we are the voice of the world, of “all things.” This is the very nature of reconciliation – that we gather all things together within ourselves, within Christ.
With that, I bring us back to the problem of broken communion. This is a deep condition of our sinfulness. It is not healed by avoidance. When Christ “became sin for us,” He restored our communion with Him from inside our sin. Only love can dare go to such a place, to say to us, “Even if you descend into hell, I am there.” (Psalm 139:8) This is the very heart of the Eucharist, that point to which God is gathering all things. There creation groans, waiting for us to be revealed as the children of God.
I think of the poem by George Herbert:
Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know SIn, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.