04 March 2006

Hearing, Yet Hearing?

In the Gospel at today's Mass, the disciples are caught alone in a boat during a storm. Our Lord sees them "straining at rowing," comes to them, acts as if He would walk right past them, and then comes to their aid after they have cried out to Him. Clearly He is testing their faith. And equally as clear, this Gospel beautifully contrasts how we (like the disciples) often cower in fear when temptation strikes during our Lenten fast; and how we should instead imitate Our Lord's example when He endured temptation during His Lenten fast (which we will hear about in tomorrow's Gospel).

However, the homily I read from St Bede the Venerable speaks not of us (individually) but of the Church. He says that the Church is the boat caught in the storm. And during these storms, says the saint, "Right well is it written that the ship was in the midst of the sea, and the Lord alone on the land. For sometimes the Church is not only sore pressed by the Gentiles, but also in such wise broken up that, if it were possible, it would seem for a time as though her Redeemer had abandoned her."

As I read (and heard) this venerable man, I considered what St Bede meant by "the Church" and "broken up." Surely he would not have thought as we think today. For our (Protestant) understanding of "the Church" is governed by the hermeneutic that the Church is primarily, if not exclusively, invisible. In other words, we hear the words "the Church" and we think not of a particular communion; i.e., an organic body which is concretely manifested by eucharistic fellowship between bishops or (if you must) congregations. Rather, we think of an amorphous, vague "thing" whose "communion" is not in eucharistic sharing but the shared belief of scattered believers (who may be found in various communions, often times despite their particular communion's prayed confession). In other words, we spiritualize "the Church" or, worse yet, noeticize it. For this reason, we think the "broken up"-ness of "the Church" has to do with the various denominations--all of which are imperfect because none have a pure confession (except, perhaps "us" who live within an heterodox or heretical communion).

Yet this is not St Bede's understanding of "the Church." In his day, the Church is a concrete organism. You can point to the eucharistic fellowship by pointing to the inter-communion between the bishops or churches. The "broken up"-ness, then, is not one which has to do with varities of confessions, or greater or lesser degrees of heresy/heterodoxy, among those who are not in communion with each other. Rather, for St Bede, the "broken up"-ness has to do with the weakness or pride of men (primarily the clergy) within the real communion who still actually confess the same Faith. In other words, the "broken up"-ness is not that some blatantly reject the Faith while calling themselves "true Christians," or change the Faith with self-chosen liturgies (editting out the things that don't seem to fit their thinking). Rather, the "broken up"-ness is that the Faith they hold is being weakly held; or that rigorism compels some to break communion for a while.

The point I'm making is twofold. First, because of our context (and our interpretive tradition), we hear both the Scriptures and the fathers vastly differently than their original, intended sense. And second, for the same reason, our understanding of the "broken up"-ness of "the Church" would be completely foreign to someone like St Bede the Venerable.

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