He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Love it to Death: The Bride of Christ

From the life of the early Christian church onward, the Church has been known as the Bride of Christ.  The Epistles speak of the Church being married to Christ, as a husband and wife are married; the marriage of husband and wife is also to be an icon of Christ and the Church, a living example of mutual loving sacrifice.  We Christians, as members of the Church, must participate in this divine life of loving sacrifice in order that the whole Christian community might become worthy of the promises of Christ.

This participation cannot be easy; like a marriage or any other lifelong relationship of filial love, keeping our commitment to our beloved is extremely difficult.  Who among us has not noticed the many weaknesses of those we love?  Who among us has not seen them fail and fall?  Who among us has not been hurt by those we love?  Who among us has not deeply wounded those we love?  Who among us has not been confronted by the harsh reality of our own weaknesses as we fail and fall over and over again?

The relationship that survives our weakness is the relationship of mutual service, the relationship in which we forgive and make amends by serving each other through many small sacrifices of love.  The close relationships are kept strong by a habit of sacrificing our transient desires for the real good of the other.  As we mutually will the good of the other person, our wills are formed in love so that our will is no longer directed toward the satisfaction of our own desires, but instead is oriented toward building up the relationship by building up the beloved.

The Church has as her beloved Christ Himself, and she is perpetually helping us to build up her relationship with Christ by loving service to Him.  She does so by consistently acting to make all the members of her body holy, capable of participating in the divine life of love.  She does this by teaching us to form our wills in the love of Christ, knowing that when we live in loving service to Christ, thus is His will is accomplished.  His will is to accomplish the greatest good for us, to show us the most glorious beauty and truth, to help us reach endless peace and joy.  When we live so as to accomplish the will of Christ, we are indeed willing the greatest good for ourselves by willing the good of Christ because to Him the good of all is His ultimate good.

For this reason, life in the Church requires us to build a habit of proclaiming with our every act, "Thy will be done!"  The Church fosters this habit by requiring us to sacrifice our time every week and on holy days of obligation for the sake of being with our beloved Christ.  She fosters this habit by requiring us to sacrifice our own transient desires in obedience to her canons.  She fosters this habit by requiring us to sacrifice our tastes through fasting so as to master our bodies just as Christ mastered the human body as he underwent the temptations in the desert.

The Church requires us to give up our desire to take the easy route to forgiveness by confessing our most shameful failings to another human being and facing the real human consequences of our weakness by means of a penance; the Church does not allow us to live without learning how difficult it is to rebuild relationships, thus teaching us to value the relationship with Christ more highly and treat it more carefully.

The Church requires us to give up our desire to pray to Him only as much as necessary by requiring us to pray in the liturgy with words from Scripture and the early Church rather than our own words, with the movements of the body that orient us toward Christ rather than serving our temporary comfort, with the intellect that recognizes and submits to the wisdom of God in the Creed rather than puffing itself up in pride with its own theology, with the heart that cries out, "I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof!" rather than the heart that proclaims, "I am most excellent and truly worthy of all you give to me!  I deserve your ultimate sacrifice of love!  I will take my inheritance now!" 

In embracing the Church with a willingness to meet all her requirements, we allow ourselves to learn through regular practice how to live a life of loving sacrifice in which our will and the will of Christ are united.  The Bride of Christ teaches us how to love Christ, always directing us away from our unhealthy attachments and forcing us to face our fears so that all the parts of us that would keep us from loving fully in mutual service are burned away, leaving behind our purest individuality that shines all the more brightly once no longer shrouded in the darkness of the ego.  The Church is a loving instructor of those who would follow her in following Christ into the fullness of time; just as any Bride wants all to know of her joy and wishes to introduce them to her bridegroom, so will the Church always point the way, the Via Dolorosa, to Christ so that we might encounter Him.

If we would exist in Christ's Church, we must love to death our inability to fully love by practicing over and over again the deeply difficult art of loving service to someone other than our self-centered ego.  In the life of the Church well-lived, the darkness of Self-worship is emptied of its place at the center of our lives and the light of Christ takes it place; our most ancient religion of Selfianity is transformed into a true Christianity in which we take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Christ.

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