Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fr Touma Bitar on Ecumenism

Arabic original here.

Pentecost and the Ecumenical Movement: Observations and Conclusions

Last week was Pentecost and today is All Saints’ Day. So, we are within the scope and depth of the Church—the Church as the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, to Him be glory. “We are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones” (Ephesians 5:30). But, is the body of Jesus other than the Lord Jesus—that is, than the person of the Lord Jesus Christ? Should the Church be seen as a part of Him, an extension of Him, or identical with Him? Should she be seen as a sort of institution in His name or is she His presence in fullness, extending into eternity?

She is not a part of Him nor is she an institution in His name! When the Lord established the mystery of the Eucharist, He gave to His disciples—and to us through them—His body and His blood. This means, effectively, Himself completely. On that day He established the Church! His body meaning Himself and His blood meaning His life. When the Chosen Apostle stated that from now on—starting with Christ—we do not know anyone according to the flesh, even though we have known Christ according to the flesh but now we do not know Him any longer, when the Apostle stated this he wanted to cast light on what he called “the new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17) , meaning on the Church who is herself the Lord Jesus Christ.

The disciples knew the Lord Jesus, before the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost, in human flesh. We, however, know the Lord Jesus in the Holy Spirit. This does not place our knowledge of Him and our closeness to Him apart from His flesh. Rather, it makes it a different kind of knowledge: theanthropic—or, you could say, divine in the flesh! Not just divine, but theanthropic. And not just spiritual. Pure spirit is unknown to us. For this reason, when we say “spiritual”, we mean something that is human but spiritualized, that which is spiritual but is in the flesh, as one and the same.

The incarnation of Christ brought us to a new creation, in which we treat spirit in human terms, just as we treat the flesh spiritually. Those who reckon that there is still a division between what belongs to the body and what belongs to the spirit and that the body has its bodily things while spiritual things exclusively belong to the spirit are in error! The body in itself, for your Lord, is of no use: it is the spirit that gives life! We have come to be in a new, completely other realm of existence. In Christ, we deal with everything that pertains to man, from the simplest matters to the most complicated, but spiritually—or, you could say, incarnationally, not in a bodily manner, but in a theanthropic manner!

This is a new datum, a new being, a new reality and so this new sphere is the Church. As long as this remains the case, the body in the Church is one, and the Church of the Body is one, because in both cases Christ the Lord is the same. Likewise, the Spirit in the Church is one, because He alone grants us to be of the one Christ and to live in Him. Thus, the Church cannot but be one, in all cases. No one and no power outside of Christ threatens the unity of Christ’s Church—her axiomatic unity! Neither Christ nor His Holy Spirit can fragment her!

When we partake of the holy things, we receive in part from what is visible; however, this visible, sensible part contains all of Christ as one, who is unseen, and likewise all the Spirit. In other, perhaps more precise words, the unseen is manifest in the seen, as in the Bible or as in an icon.

Thus, speaking of a divided Church is an incorrect image. Christians alone are divided into opposing groups and rival factions. But the Church is one thing and Christians are another. The Church might exist among some people that we consider Christians, and Christians might exist in the Church. However, the Church as an entity and Christians as a group are not coterminous! Naturally, in common usage the word “churches” is used with the meaning “groups of believers.” But in its deep and fundamental usage, the word “Church” is used to mean “the Body of Christ.” Thus when we want to indicate one of the Orthodox groups/churches, we say: the Church that is here or there, indicating the one Church in each group or location—the one Church in her fullness, in Spirit and in truth, here or there. If the fullness and unity of the Church were not represented in a specific place and a specific group, then we do not at all speak of the one true Church that is in this group or that place. In that case, even within the one group, there may be a person from the Church or there may not be. Or, you could say: the Church may be there or may not be. It is possible, then, for there to be churches, but this does not necessarily mean that each person from these groups/churches is in the body, in the Church, in Christ and of Him! Someone like this comes from a Christianity—perhaps a counterfeit one—and does not necessarily come from the Lord’s Christ and His Spirit!

There are those, then, who are numbered within an ecclesial group without being in the true, theantrhopic Church! It is possible for one who is called a believer to belong outwardly to an ecclesial group: baptized, professing the Creed, receiving the mysteries of the Church, even fasting and praying, without being in the Church, in Christ—that is, without belonging, in Spirit and in truth, as we have said, to the one Church that is the Body of Christ. Naturally, belonging to the body of Christ, being a living member in the Body of Christ, presupposes that one be baptized, just as it presupposes everything we just mentioned. However, primarily and existentially it means living a living and active faith in love. Belonging to the Church only through visible things is not enough. We see what is unseen—we live at that level, we practice it completely, even if, on account of our weakness, we are ailing from sin. We live on the level of what is seen of our faith in the Lord Jesus, but starting off from what is unseen, in terms of total, living faith in the Lord Jesus that is active in love!

These elements/truths raises the issue of ecclesial unity, or you could say that it makes raising the issue inevitable, not in human terms but in theanthropic terms. Unity is not an issue of verbal expressions of the faith or of joint services! It is not a question of a single human head or a single synod, nor is it a question of total administrative unity! It is not an agglomeration of bodies and the convergence of sects, nor is it the convergence of ideological opinions in how groups deal with each other or how they deal with the world! Naturally, ecclesial unity has some of these aspects: a single or unified creedal formula, rituals with a single basic structure, leaders with various gifts, administrations that manage their affairs in an appropriate and orderly fashion, cooperation and mutual understanding between individuals and groups, here and there. All of this exists with regard to our human, social reality, as a domain in which true Christian unity might blossom forth. However, all this is not what makes ecclesial unity a reality, but rather what is manifested as an expression of it! To regard it as the basis for bringing back unity, after the putative schism in the Church, prioritizes and substitutes what is human, theoretical, and organizational over and in place of what is of the living Holy Spirit. It likewise makes the Spirit and the activities of the Spirit in people’s minds at the level of a support for human activities, something of a foregone conclusion, or, you could say an attribute bestowed on people’s plans according to their convictions, interests, and reckonings! In other words, they attribute to the Spirit of God what is of them and for them, and thus they make themselves into gods by pilfering what belongs to God, abandoning the spiritual things that belong to the Spirit of God! This is a great error!

Let it be clear that the unity of the Church is eternally actualized and the Holy Spirit ensures its persistence. People, as believers, place themselves on the path of holy things, in the Spirit, in Christ. They walk in faith, in Spirit and in truth. They receive the mysteries of the Church. They keep the commandment. They practice repentance. They gird themselves with Christian virtues. They are always armed with prayer in the name of the Lord Jesus. They remain firm in the love of God and of their brothers. They perfect all for Christ in life and in death! If they do this, then in the Spirit they become one with God and thence one among themselves! We are not the ones who bring about the unity of the Church. It is not possible for us to bring it about ourselves in terms of unity of the churches. It is not necessarily identical with the one Church, the Church of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the Church of God which He purchased with His blood! We only participate in the one Church or we are cut off from her. We belong to her, or we are strangers to her, in Spirit and in truth! Thus, the Church’s unity exists in the Holy Spirit, then in the Spirit it is reflected in us in our relationship with each other. From below upwards, then it comes down upon us to what is among us, in order to bring us together, one with the other, and raise us all up as one to the one Father!

Thus, those who seek visible unity among us but do not earnestly work to become one with God unwittingly fall into ecclesial paganism and thence into demonic selfishness. They prepare, not for the coming of Christ the Lord—“Come, Lord Jesus”—but for the coming of the Antichrist, unwittingly!

As the sphere of the great, effective apostasy, of which the Chosen Apostle spoke in his second epistle to the Thessalonians, widens and as the work of the ecumenical movement continues in earnest toward the putative unity of the churches, it is appropriate for us to wonder: At root, is the goal the one Church or is the goal something else? If the goal is sincerely the one Church, then we are no doubt looking at an error that needs to be corrected. I will cite here the position of Fr Georges Florovsky at the time of the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1938. From the beginning, he stated that the Church is one and that the Greek Orthodox Church alone preserves the apostolic consciousness across history until today and that her role in the World Council of Churches is to help the non-Orthodox recover that apostolic consciousness that they are lacking. If this is really the goal, then it is for the one Church. But if the goal is something else—and this is how it appears to many observers—then there is the fear that the real goal is to unite the churches as preparation for uniting all the religions of the world under the pretext of coexistence. As we understand it, this involves the total elimination of Christ’s Church in the name of unity of peoples, by emptying her of her Christ and her Spirit and placing her within a relativist intellectual framework and thus regarding Christ as but one of a newfangled council of gods! As for the Church, it effectively proceeds to making a division between her being Christ Himself and her being an institution in His name! In this case, it proceeds to being satisfied with her stone, human, verbal, ritual, historical, organizational edifice! Deep down, our feeling is that in this regard we are confronted with an earnest effort to turn the Church into a museum, to psychologize her and make her worldly!

In the meantime, out of sight and far from worldly lights, like what happened in a cave in Bethlehem, there is a little flock where souls sigh for their Lord, from among those who are strengthened by the Holy Spirit for the Holy Spirit, with longing, desire, and overwhelming love for the one who is above. From them emanates an aroma of divine perfume that spreads among those who have not yet lost their spiritual sense of smell! To them alone is manifest the radiant unity of the Church, perfect in her fullness, while the majority with their failing vision seek the Church, the bride who is said to be missing! Where? In the fog of the darkness of the mind and the shadow of death, the death of correct consciousness, amidst the rubble of fantasies and innovations established as newly-invented axioms!

In sum: give me an authentic concern for holiness that shows you those who truly work to show the manifestations of the face of the bride, the one true Church! Anything else searches and strives for her in vain!

June 30, 2013
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan-- Douma

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