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The Mystery of the Church

Dumitru Staniloae, in Church, Kingdom, World,
The Chruch as a Mystery and Prophetic Sign
, ed. Gennadios Limouris, WCC, Geneva 1986, p. 50- 56.

1. Created by God the supreme mystery, the world is marked by mystery in its structure and its existence.

The whole of existence is a mystery. The cosmos is a mystery; the world around us is a mystery; my own person is a mystery and my fellow human beings are a mystery. Although I understand much of these realities, none of them is capable of an exhaustive understanding on my part. None of these realities was produced by me, nor can I dispose of any of them completely as I choose. In spite of the fact that they satisfy my needs to a considerable extent, they do not, on the other hand, satisfy me completely. I note so many inadequacies and imperfections in these realities. Human beings are wonderful, but besides much joy they also create countless problems for one another. The same can be said of things and the cosmos. Moreover, linked with human existence are disease and death, which mark it as tragic.

The existence of individual human beings and of everything that surrounds us is a mystery, but it does not confront us as an absolute existence. It is not, thus, self- derivatory, not self-subsistent, and cannot be the ultimate reality.

The insufficiency of the world and of human beings is explained, according to Christian faith and doctrine, by the creation of the world from nothing and its maintenance in being by a Creator who, by contrast, is self-subsistent, perfect and absolute.

This relationship of the world to its absolute Creator and Sustainer defines and augments its character as a mystery. In its existence the power of its Creator and Sustainer is manifested even though, on the other hand, he transcends it. The mystery of the world and the mystery of humanity are seen as an active presence of the absolutely Transcendent in their existence. But the world's own relationship with the Transcendent is itself a mystery. The Transcendent which is present and active in the world, on the one hand, imprints on the world a profundity and an ordered complexity and, on the other hand, shows it to be, in itself, lacking an absolute character; or, in other words, to have its profundity, complexity and duration not in itself but from the Transcendent who created and sustains it. This twofold aspect of the world has been described by the psalmist in unsurpassable words:

O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
In wisdom hast thou made them all...
They all look to thee, to give them their food in due season...
When thou openest thy hand they are filled with good things.
When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed;
When thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created;
and thou renewest the face of the ground (Ps. 104:24, 27-30).

This bond between the world and its Creator is “participation”, according to St Athanasius of Alexandria in his Three Discourses against the Arians. But who is able to understand what this “participation” means? In any case it does not mean that the divine powers become powers inherent in the world, even though the world, in a certain sense, also no longer remains separated from these powers. On the one hand, the powers of God act upon the world; on the other hand, it is by their operation that the world's own powers - which resemble the divine powers and attributes - come into being and are maintained in the world. In the created world's own distinctive energies and works, the energies and works of God are present and active.

Each of the world's component parts which exists in this relationship with the Transcendent, exists in the general mystery of the world or forms part of the world's mystery as a whole. But only the human person is conscious of this mystery of the world and of itself as constituting part of it, being itself a greater mystery than that of the world. It would be said that the mystery of the world's relationship with the Transcendent is powerfully realized in the human person. For in the understanding and experience of the mystery, the human person has an especial capacity for relationship with the Transcendent.


2. Although by their nature limited, creatures have received the capacity to participate in the infinite life of God their Creator by the positive use of their freedom.

The inadequacies of the world are not necessarily visible in its character as created reality. For the transcendent and absolute Creator could make these inadequacies good by his perfections. These inadequacies arise from the freedom of human beings as conscious creatures. God, the Creator and Sustainer of the world, has so ordered things that the world's full participation in his perfections depends on the freedom of the conscious beings for whom the world was created. He did not simply give the world inferior status of creature, but also compensated for its ontological inferiority, which is inescapable for it, by giving it the possibility of surmounting it by using the freedom of the conscious beings who form part of it. Thus the world can enjoy all the perfections of God as gifts bestowed on these conscious beings, provided that they respond to him by appreciating these gifts by the exercise of the capacity of understanding with which he has endowed them.

Since, however, these conscious beings have not used in a positive way the dignity of their freedom, either in themselves or in the world, many inadequacies arise in connection with their ontological status as creatures. And this is explained by the fact that the active presence of God in the created world has been diminished because of the free choice of the created beings. As a consequence of this, the character of the creation itself as a mystery has been weakened at the same time as the capacity of humanity to discern it.


3. Jesus Christ: the climactic mystery of the unity of humanity with God and the centre of the enlarged mystery of the church.

God brought the created world into being as a form of existence (other than his own) only in order to permit it to be filled with his perfections. He has not abandoned his initial goal, despite the sin of humanity, but employed another means in order to achieve it. He thus made the supreme mystery of his active presence a reality in the created world by uniting created humanity with his Son in an inseparable manner, by the fact that his Son personally assumed this humanity, becoming one human being among others, without ceasing, however, to be the Son of God, to enable him the more easily to keep human beings in the most intimate relationship with himself. By his human nature, which he united with his person, the Son of God ceaselessly remains among us human beings as an active presence, and is thus able all the more easily to communicate his divine perfections to us. He thereby became the centre of the mystery of the most perfect active presence of the divine Transcendence within the creation, the centre of the creation raised to the highest and fullest union with God, raised to the status of supreme mystery qua church. All who enter into communication (communion) with Christ as divine-human Person become in an enlarged sense his body, or his members, drawing even the world of things into this relationship with him. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Christ is the climactic central mystery from which a power of attraction operates permanently to draw human beings into union with him, making this union of which He is the centre the enlarged mystery of the church. Christ is the source from which the power which continually maintains the divine life in the church unceasingly springs. Thus, those who receive his power become increasingly united not only with him but also with one another. Because it is a life of love, the life which springs from Christ is communicated to them by another divine Person, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspires human beings with love for Christ, makes them responsive to his love as their chief Brother, and breathes into them his filial love for the Father. For it is because human beings know themselves to be brothers and sisters of the one Christ, and therefore sons and daughters of the one Father, that they know themselves to be brothers and sisters one of another. In this way they enter into a life of fuller communion, inspired more and more by Christ, and are spiritually united with one another as members of his body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body ... and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12- 13).

The Christ who communicates to us the life of his perfectly deified humanity is, however, the Risen One. He communicates to us the life of his risen humanity in order to prepare us, too, for the resurrection. The church is thus the spiritual locale where, gradually by his Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, Christ communicates the imperishable life of his risen humanity to our humanity. The church is the laboratory in which God prepares us for and makes us advance towards the resurrection and the life everlasting. It is the place in which we are brought back to the forward movement which is proper to our nature.


4. The church: the mystery of the perfectioning of human persons in their relationships of life and eternal love with God.

Humanity was created for eternal life as a life in an eternal relationship of filial love with God the Father and of brotherly and sisterly love with God the Son, in the Holy Spirit who fills us with his life and unites us in love with the Father and with the Son. Every human being was created for eternal life, for we are all unique in our way of grasping the meaning of life, of living it and of giving ourselves to the eternal God and to our fellow human beings, as well as receiving from them the life they communicate. No human being can be replaced by another. None is ever duplicated- God did not create this richness of personal modes of existence, of understanding and loving communion, only to allow them eventually to be lost; on the contrary, his purpose was that each should be enriched in relationship with all the distinctive modes of understanding and loving communication between them. And each individual person is called to grow to infinity through the knowledge and reception of the infinite spiritual richness of God which is communicated to us in Christ. On this communication depends the inexhaustible capacity of the human person to communicate himself or herself in ever different ways to other persons and to receive from them what they have to communicate.

Each human being, moreover, is unique in the capacity to be enriched spiritually, to give himself or herself in ways that are inexhaustible and ever new, as a whole being composed of both body and soul. The uniqueness of every human being is reflected in his or her face; and this no matter how many myriads of human beings have already lived or will live in the future! In the face of every human being, there is reflected another way of spiritualizing the matter of the body, another way of communicating spiritually through material things, another way of imprinting on material things a spiritual significance and beauty.

But this communication is all the richer, all the more inventive and attentive towards other human beings, the less anxious a human being is to satisfy the blind passions of the flesh in an egotistical way. When this happens, their spiritual communication and the luminous sense shining in their faces are hindered by self-love, by the avid desire to acquire fresh means of satisfying desires by deceiving or dominating others, incurring thereby the distrust of many. Communicating thus becomes poor, monotonous, lacking love, and relationships between human beings are weakened.

Once the power of the spirit over the body is weakened, the latter becomes the prey to a process whereby its component elements disintegrate and which leads to death. This is how corruption and death were introduced at the beginning of humanity's sinful way. Since this process, however, affected the whole material universe, the only way in which death could be vanquished was in a body worn by the Son of God himself. But it was not by avoiding death that he conquered it, for such a victory could not have been appropriated by the ordinary human being who dies before attaining the resurrection. And if death had been vanquished without having first been accepted, this would have deprived us human beings of the possibility of growing spiritually into the condition in which, while knowing death is inevitable, we no longer fear it, believing very firmly in the God who will raise us again from this death which we shall undergo. More particularly, if death had been vanquished without having first been accepted, the Son of God would have been deprived of the opportunity of demonstrating the measure of his love for us, a love which even shares our condition as creatures subject to death, and we human beings of the opportunity of showing our complete detachment from the present order of the world, since faith in God and love for the neighbor call us to sacrifice our own lives.


5. The life of the church is participation in the mystery of the cross and resurrection in the power of the Holy Spirit.

From what has already been said, we can understand why the Epistle to the Hebrews so emphatically stresses the significance of the sacrifice of Christ for our salvation. This Epistle shows that our salvation was accomplished not only by the work of the Son of God in relation to human beings but also by the sacrifice he offered to God for us, a sacrifice which implies for us to the need to offer ourselves in sacrifice to God in order to be delivered from egotism and to show our love to God and our neighbor, and in this way to open ourselves to the love of God made known to us by the Son of God and to its effects on us. It is in order to communicate to us this spirit of sacrifice that Christ continues in a state of sacrifice before the Father. This is why he “holds his priesthood permanently” (Heb. 7:24). He is “the High Priest who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent” through the sacrifice “without blemish” in his blood (Heb. 8:1 - 2, 9:14).

Christ communicates himself to us as “priest forever”, in order that by his power to offer himself in sacrifice, we too should offer ourselves in sacrifice “to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). If, as St Cyril of Alexandria said, it is only in this spirit of unblemished spiritual sacrifice after having abandoned our egotism, that we can enter into full communion with the Father, and we can only attain this spirit of unblemished sacrifice through union with Christ, then it is obvious that Christ is constantly engaged in exercising his priesthood, since he not only offers himself in sacrifice to the Father but also draws us into this sacrificial action as well and, by the power of his sacrifice, makes us priests who offer up ourselves in sacrifice.

Our voluntary sacrifice of ourselves does not consist simply in the acceptance of death with a sense of committing ourselves to the heavenly Father but also in an increasingly complete purification and deliverance from the works of our sinful egotism. In this sense Christ, who communicates himself to us as the One who continually makes an offering of himself to the Father, “purifies our conscience from dead works” (Heb. 9:14). We ourselves also become, with Christ, more and more the sons and daughters of the Father and each others' brothers and sisters; in other words, ever more transparently sons and daughters of the Father and brothers and sisters of the Son, and in relation to one another.

It is in this way that we are prepared for the resurrection, namely, by participation in the power of the sacrifice of Christ who offered himself for us and was raised from death for us, by dying to the old humanity, spiritually dead, opaque to communion, arid and confined within the narrow walls of its egotism. It is in this way that we are made ready to enter into the broad and complete communion of the kingdom of God, which simply the imperishable life is obtained by the resurrection.

Without the struggle for the victory over our egotism by our union with the crucified and risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot attain that full communion with Christ and one another in the future life, nor the kingdom of God, in which we shall each other be able to receive in him the whole life of God and of us all. Only in this way do we all become completely transparent and intimate, with no reticence due to distrust, no distance due to fear, and no opacity isolating us.

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