For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.
A New Kind of Thing
The liturgical year is in some sense a study on the whole universe, from the mystery of creation to the most exceptional creature, man, to the man who is God, Christ, and all he did. This final season of the year, called “the Sanctification of the Church,” turns our sights not to the end of earthly time as did the season of Elijah, but to something existing both before and after that event: the Church. If creation is a mystery to a created mind such as ours, and if our won human nature is beyond our grasp since it is God’s image, and if the Incarnation is utterly above our understanding, it stands to reason that the Church, which is somehow a combination of all these, is also a mystery we struggle to comprehend. Salvation history is the story of the encounter between God and man, and the Church is the culmination of that history: it is the place where man can meet God. Why this is the case depends on what the Church is, and on her relationship to Christ, who is not only the ‘meeting place’ between God and man in his own flesh, but who is both at once. All that the Church is, therefore, depends on who Christ is.
A Succession of Symbols
When one image is not enough to express an idea, an author is forced to move to another. This sometimes makes for weak poetry. But in the case of the Divine, it is easy to understand the need for mixed metaphors. The Gospel of John begins with a combination of many fascinating images used together: Word, Light, Life, etc. Christ himself is too much of a reality to be encompassed with a single image; the Church, therefore, must possess a similar characteristic. But because the Church only exists – the Church is only the Church – in relation to Christ, then any description of it we offer must include somehow not only a word on her, but also a word on how she relates to Christ, and he to her:
O Lord, behold your Church, saved by your cross,
The first defining thing about the Church, therefore, is that she has been saved by the cross of Christ – that is, by his passion and death. The same idea is enriched with another image:
and your flock bought with your precious Blood,
Now the Church is shown not only as an individual but as a collection – a ‘flock,’ which was purchased by the Blood of Christ. The response on the part of the Church (again, this is a matter of relation, which moves in two directions) is a particular type of thanksgiving:
offers a crown of thanksgiving in faith to you,
A crown is the reward given to a champion who has won a contest and the hearts of those watching, but here it is one of “thanksgiving,” because by winning the contest the Champion has won not his own freedom but the freedom of the spectators, of those around him. This crown is given “in faith” because it is by this faith that we have access to the freedom won for us by our Divine Champion. The Church, then, is so far a flock being given salvation by her Shepherd, who is also the Champion with the crown. The next image:
O High Priest of justice who has exalted her by your abasement.
The image is taken from the letter to the Hebrews: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). This gives insight into the role of Christ: he offers her this salvation by lowering himself for her; he can offer sacrifice to God on her behalf as her High Priest because he is near to her. Exactly how near he is to her is made clear in the next image, one which will become the predominant one for the rest of the Season:
And, like a glorious Bride, she rejoices and exults in you, O glorious Bridegroom.
The Lord is as close to the Church as a husband is to his wife – in fact, even closer, since husbands are told to look to Christ as their example (Ephesians 5:25).
But the Church is no simply heavenly reality or mere idea or image. She is an earthly institution with flaws and enemies, and so there is a petition at the end of our hymn for Christ to:
In the strength of the Truth, raise the bulwarks of her salvation,
We are not speaking, therefore, of a totally perfected and glorified Church, but of one still in need of prayer here on earth. The hymn ends with perhaps the most visible element of the Church, which again is revisited in later hymns during this season: the priesthood. The Church at the end becomes a mother, one with many children, children who need help and protection in this world:
and establish priests within her, to be ambassadors of peace on behalf of her children.