Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jesus Our Medicine

Today all too many popular and influential voices are advocating views of the Church which are fundamentally flawed.  The Church is being refashioned into the image of our own warped egos.  Since the Church is, from one point of view, the sum of those who comprise it, it makes sense that it would come finally to be remade after our own image.  And so we have "churches" that are designed merely to satisfy our own felt needs.  We feel the need for a coffeehouse, and good music; we feel the need for social networks, and edifying relationships; we feel the need for some resource in our life which can help us exercise our intellectual muscles, and which can even help us improve our habits, and modify our behavior, make us better people.  Lost in such worldly wisdom is any unique raison d'etre for the Church.  And if there is nothing special about the church, nothing other-worldly, then there really is no point in it at all. 

On the same note, Flannery O'Connor in one of her letters to "A" in December of 1955 recalls the following incident: 

I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater.  She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual.  We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say.  The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick.  Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.  Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend.  Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the "most portable" person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one.  I then said, in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."  That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.  (The Habit of Being 124-125)

Instead of seeing the Church as though it were a rock show at Summerfest, or better yet, as all of Summerfest, or even merely as the place where one enjoys singing his favorite hymns, instead of treating the church as though it were a visit to one's favorite coffee house, instead of thinking of the church as a sort of spiritual version of the fitness club, let us consider afresh and take seriously what the Church says about itself.  And if our faith (fides qua creditur) takes seriously the faith (fides quae creditur), and is seeking for an apt metaphor, we will come to rediscover the richness and truth of the Church as a hospital for the spiritually sick, wounded, and dying.  For our sin has cut through every cell of our livelihood; like a cancer, it leaves us dying and helpless.  Not only does our sin harm ourselves through and through, it also harms everyone around us, or as Bernanos writes in The Diary of A Country Priest, our sins "poison the air which others breathe" (129 in the Doubleday Image Book edition).  (Speaking of this great little novel, note also how, in the face of the modern worldly dogma that life apart from the claims of Christ and His Church is supposed to be liberating and exciting, Bernanos with literary genius has his protagonist in the very beginning of the story compare the deadly sin in his parish to an essential "loneliness" and "boredom.")

In fact, we are attacked on all sides in this world, not only by our own sinful flesh, which due to our own depraved will, wages war against us, but also by the ruler of this world, the devil, and also by the world which he so masterfully rules.  And in the light of this onslaught we are left mortally wounded and in need, not so much of advice or affirmation, as of rescue, healing, and of new life. 

This is precisely what the Church provides.  How does it do this?  By dispensing the remedy for sin, namely forgiveness and absolution.  It can do this because it is not so much a thing, a social institution, as much as it is the living Body and holy Spouse of Christ Himself, the God-man Whose sacrificial death in the lonely and forsaken torment of crucifixion has paid the price for our sin.  Henceforth, then, we shall refer to this living embodiment of Christ in the world as though she were a feminine person in relation to her Lord and Redeemer, for that is what she is.  This Church, like the caring and competent mother who has exactly the remedy that her child needs, offers to us the forgiveness of sins, the forgiveness of Christ Himself.  It is Jesus Himself Who forgives sin, and thus offers us the medicine we need, for He is the great Physician. 

We have already spoken of the sacramental nature of this medicine, since Jesus administers it to us by means of the Church.  Yet we must go a step further.  For He gives us the forgiveness of our sins, won for us by the glorious merits of His Passion and death, indeed by means of giving us His own self.  Jesus Himself is not some distant God who tosses down what we need, like a NATO plane dropping boxes of food and medicine to us from several thousands of feet in the air.  Rather, He Himself gives us the gifts He won on the cross by giving us His own crucified and risen flesh.  Jesus is the Physician Who heals us by giving us a divine medicine, namely, Himself!  He is the pelican who feeds her young by feeding them her own flesh, as the ancient hymn puts it.  Or, He is the mother, at whose breast we nurse, as Luther put it in one of his New Testament lectures.  In other words, Jesus does not merely give us medicine which is somehow essentially alien to him; rather, He is the very medicine we need, for our bodies and souls broken by sin. 

As often as we sit at the feet of faithful preachers of Christ, Christ Himself is healing us, He is bespeaking us whole and clean, and we are born anew.  As often as we partake of the holy liturgy of the Church in faith, we submit ourselves to the healing of the eternal Word.  As often as we go to Confession and lay bare our sin and the wounds of our soul, Christ Himself heals us and brings us back to our Baptism through the mouth of His minister, or what Luther calls a "brother" in the office of Christ.  And most profoundly, as often as we open our mouths, like good patients, at the altar, Christ feeds us the very medicine we need, namely, His own sacred Body and Blood. 

Saint Ignatius, in the second century, wrote to the Ephesian Church on his way to martyrdom, that the Eucharist is "a medicine that brings immortality, an antidote that allows us not to die but to live at all times in Jesus Christ" (Bart D. Ehrman's translation, proving that bad theologians can still be good for something).  When Christ gives His very flesh to us in the Sacrament, He is administering to us the pharmacon athanasias, the medicine of immortality.  The holy bishop was not here engaged in mere literary flourishes, but was writing at a most sober point in his life, on the very road to his own torturous death, when he wrote about the true life we have in Christ our medicine.  In light of his appreciation of what the Eucharist is and gives, he says in the same letter, "Be eager, therefore, to gather more frequently and celebrate the Eucharist."  (Some, to be sure, prefer to translate this as to come together and give thanks; that's okay, there will always be room in the Church for literalists.) 

Today you and I do not have death thrown in our faces in the same way that the Christians did in the early and middle ages of the Church's sojourn, at least not in America.  Yet we do have death and destruction thrown at us from all sides, and the first step to healing is to wake up to this reality.  The second is to learn again to appreciate the immeasurably rich and awesome healing that is offered to us and is available to us in the sacramental life of the Church.  The understanding of the Sacrament of the Altar as medicine, bringing us to the eternal life of body and soul, which we see so beautifully articulated in Saint Ignatius of Antioch, is picked up and handed on for us in manifold ways by the tradition of the Church.  For example, in the Litany of the Blessed Sacrament, we pray:

Medicine of immortality:    Have mercy upon us.
Pharmacum immortalitatis:    Miserere nobis.

Some of you have not heard of this Litany of the Blessed Sacrament.  Well, we'll just have to remedy that.  But for now, just know that the Church never saw the phrase 'medicine of immortality' as mere pious speculation.  Rather, it is pious faith, which she has preserved for us in her rich devotional tradition, and which reflects a truth sorely in need of recovery today.  For there is no automatic guarantee that the truth to which I refer will be apprehended in a church that claims itself to be sacramental, like the Lutheran Church, nor even where the holy Eucharist is celebrated often.  Rather, we need to continually meditate upon this truth, and delve more and more deeply into it.
And that truth is this:  while we will always need medication and other therapies, of mind and body, in this world, the Eucharist, ie., our Sacramental Lord Himself, ought not be overlooked or given merely peripheral consideration as the healing agent that He is, for not only our hearts, as though we could really fragment our lives into parts, but for our whole selves.  Let Him truly be the "center of your existence," and the heart and core of any therapy for your own brokenness.  He, that is, Christ our medicine, is there waiting to give us forgiveness and life.  For in the Spirit He is not only our Lord, but also vivifivcantem, the One Who gives us life, in all its fullness.

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