Another point is more subtle, but worth examining. It has to do with the inversion of the primary mission of the Church to lead people to the love of God and neighbor—and hence to salvation, through Word and Sacrament—and the secondary and related mission to fight evil wherever it is found. Schmemann comments: “The pathos of our era is the fight with evil, with a total absence of any idea and vision of the good for which one fights. So the fight becomes an end in itself, [but] a fight as end in itself unavoidably becomes evil. The world is full of fighters with evil. What a diabolical caricature. Non-believers—like Turgenev, Chekhov—still knew ‘good,’ its light and power, whereas now, even believers, maybe especially believers, know only evil. They do not understand that the terrorists of all kinds about whom we read every day in the paper are the product of such a belief: the declaration of a fight is the goal and the content of their life. They completely lack any convincing experience of goodness. [Indeed, one group has threatened, referring to suicide bombing: “We swear to God to send you people who adore death as much as you adore life.”] Terrorists, from that point of view, are consistent. If everything is evil, one has to destroy it!… In what kind of world will [boys and girls] live?… some enthusiastic nuns will teach them to ‘fight evil’ and will point out an enemy whom one must hate. Who will share with them the knowledge of goodness, will let them hear the sounds of heaven? Such sounds are without words, but alive. They are the only ones that give depth…”
Of course, he doesn’t mean there aren’t evildoers or vicious enemies of truth and of the Church as such, or that we shouldn’t fight evil—though I’m sure he would say we must fight it first in ourselves—but that it is the primary mission of the Church to direct our eyes and hearts heavenward, to see the glory of God shining on the face of Christ, to learn to love even our enemies, though without condoning or joining them in their errors or evildoing. It’s something of a tightrope walk: if one doesn’t stand for the truth, he falls into unhealthy or even wicked compromises with the world, and if he does, he risks becoming a self-righteous crusader who glories in nothing more than the demolition of all opponents. Or perhaps it is not a tightrope but simply the “narrow way” that Christ says we must walk if we are to be saved. It is the Church that is supposed to be guiding us to the fullness of both truth and love, to overcoming evil and embracing good, to discovering “the presence in the world of a saved world.” By the grace of God mediated through the Church, “the world itself becomes life in Him, meeting with Him, contact with Him. The world does not become God, but life with God, joyful and full. This is God’s salvation of the world.”
At the heart of our experience of salvation in this world—that is, of our experience of the Kingdom of God in anticipation of its full and eternal manifestation—is the Holy Eucharist, the Mystery of the death and resurrection of the Son of God, the primary and essential element of the grace and power of the Kingdom. It transforms our life into a “life of faith in the Son of God,” for it is now “no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Thus life in this passing world is profoundly permeated with the life of the eternal world to come. Schmemann explains: “To understand St Paul when he says, ‘The image of this world is passing away,’ to make it real, we need in this world the experience of the other world, its beauty, depth, treasure, the experience of the Kingdom of God and its Sacrament—the Eucharist. The Church has been established in this world to celebrate the Eucharist, to save man by restoring his Eucharistic being. The Eucharist is impossible without the Church, that is, without a community that knows its unique character and vocation—to be love, truth, faith and mission—all of these fulfilled in the Eucharist; even simpler, to be the Body of Christ. The Eucharist reveals the Church as a community—love for Christ, love in Christ—as a mission to turn each and all to Christ. The Church has no other purpose, no ‘religious life’ separate from the world. Otherwise the Church would become an idol. The Church is the home each of us leaves to go to work and to which one returns with joy in order to find life, happiness and joy, to which everyone brings back the fruits of his labor and where everything is transformed into a feast, into freedom and fulfillment, the presence, the experience of this ‘home’—already out of time, unchanging, filled with eternity, revealing eternity. Only this presence can give meaning and value to everything in life, can refer everything to that experience and make it full.”
Reflect especially on his statement: “The Church has been established in this world to celebrate the Eucharist.” It is profound. The Church exists to manifest and communicate the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in all his mysteries, his words, his saving activity on every level of life. All this is centered in his mystical sacrifice and the gift of Himself to each of us, personally, intimately. The Eucharist is in a sense analogous to (if I may speak like this) that unimaginably concentrated point of matter that scientists say burst forth at the moment of creation and endlessly expanded to become the entire universe. Christ is the Center from which all life, all love, all joy and eternal fulfillment flow. And He is made present by simple priests at every altar, so that He may permeate all souls, all creation, filling us with his all-sanctifying Life and Light, that we may “shine like the sun in the Kingdom of the Father” (Matthew 13:43).
Even in this brief reflection I think you can see something of the need to understand the true relationship between the Church and the world. It is not the Church’s task to “evolve” with the world, to adopt its mentality, its jargon, the vicissitudes of changing times and mores. This will only result in her dissolution, or her transmogrification into the tame and ineffectual “religious establishment” she was never meant to be. Rather she is to manifest the glorious and immutable Kingdom of God in every time and place and culture, with an invitation to receive the life and joy of Christ Himself, who came to bring it to us in abundance. He is the true Light shining in this world, scattering the darkness of evil and error, and illuminating everything else, revealing the world in its true dimensions as the creation of a loving God. The Church as manifestation of the Kingdom ought to be the hope of the world, that which gives it meaning, that which transforms its sufferings and sorrows into sacrifices acceptable to the Lord, who crucified Himself to the world and thus redeemed it. Jesus Christ, through his Holy Spirit, is “everywhere present and filling all things,” and the Church is his body, the fullness of Him who fills all.
Much prayer is needed, much repentance and humility, especially among those who have stood idly by—or even orchestrated—the decline of the Church, who have obscured her meaning and vitiated her strength and purity by numerous compromises with the world—that “world” which is “not of the Father”—so that the redeemed world, illuminated from on high by divine grace through the Church, has been made practically inaccessible, or has been too closely identified with the world whose form is passing away (1Cor. 7:31). The agenda of this world is not the agenda of the Church. For “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). The mission of the Church is not to follow the world, or to become one of its elements or agencies, but rather to fill it with the grace of its redemption, manifest the glory of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection, transform it into the “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2Peter 3:13).
Jesus said that Hell will not prevail against his Church, but He didn’t say Hell would not infiltrate her. It is time for a housecleaning, a re-enlightening, a recovery of the meaning and mission of the Bride of Christ, so that her children can serve the Lord with gladness, in Spirit and in Truth. “The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1Peter 4:17). Souls are at stake. The Lord has commissioned his Church to give life to the world. Let us pray that He will strengthen what remains and fulfill his promise in his beloved Church—“coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them’” (Revelation 21:2-3). Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!