December 2008


The various local Churches had to wrestle – perhaps unconsciously – with the problem of the relationship between the “catholic Church” in the Episcopal community and the catholic Church in the world. The moment they would admit a supra-local structure over the local eucharistic community, be it a synod or another office, the eucharistic community would cease to be in itself and by virtue of its eucharistic nature a “catholic Church.” The moment, on the other hand, that they would allow each eucharistic community to close itself to the other communities either entirely (i.e. by creating a schism) or partially (i.e. by not allowing certain individual faithful from one community to communicate in another or by accepting to communion faithful excluded from it by their own community) they would betray the very eucharistic nature of their catholicity and the catholic character of the eucharist. The council was, therefore, an inevitable answer to this dilemma, and its genesis must be seen in the light of this situation. (156-157)

In this third subsection of chapter four of Being as Communion Zizioulas addresses the relationship between the local and the universal and argues that a eucharistic ecclesiology enabled the early Church to transcend the antithesis between the local and the universal, so that the term “catholic” could apply to both the local and the universal at the same time.

Each eucharistic community revealed the whole Christ and the whole Church in a particular concretisation. It revealed the eschatological unity of all in Christ. However, this necessarily applied to all the eucharistic communities and so “no mutual exclusion between the local and the universal was possible in a eucharistic context, but the one was automatically involved in the other.” (155) This relationship between the different eucharistic communities was expressed through the bishops who represented their own local Churches and who also shared in the episcopacy of their brother bishops.

The fact that in each episcopal ordination at least two or three bishops from the neighbouring churches ought to take part tied the episcopal office and with it the local eucharistic community in which the ordination to it took place with the rest of the eucharistic communities in the world in a fundamental way. This fact not only made it possible for each bishop to allow a visiting fellow-bishop to preside over his eucharistic community but must have been also one of the basic factors in the appearance of episcopal conciliarity. (155)

While the origins of conciliarity are obscure, they are clearly rooted in the search to explicate the implications of eucharistic communion. They represent “the most official negation of the division between local and universal, a negation which must be taken in all its implications.” (157)

The whole Christ, the catholic Church, was present and incarnate in each eucharistic community. Each eucharistic community was, therefore, in full unity with the rest by virtue not of an extended superimposed structure but of the whole Christ represented in each of them. The bishops as heads of these communities coming together in synods only expressed what Ignatius, in spite of – or perhaps because of – his eucharistic ecclesiology wrote once: “the bishops who are in the extremes of the earth are in the mind of Christ.” [Eph. 3,2] Thanks to a eucharistic vision of the “catholic Church” the problem of the relationship between the “one catholic Church in the world” and the “catholic Churches” in the various places was resolved apart from any consideration of the local Church as being incomplete or any scheme of priority of the one over the other, in the sense of a unity of identity. (157)

Certainly there was a basic difference in faith that distinguished Christians from their environment. But there was also a certain distinctiveness in the manner of their gathering together, which should not pass unnoticed. This distinctiveness lay in the composition of these gatherings. Whereas the Jews based the unity of their gatherings on race (or, in the later years, on a broader religious community based on this race) and the pagans with their collegia on profession, the Christians declared that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek,” “male or female,” adult or child, rich or poor, master or slave, etc. To be sure the Christians themselves soon came to believe that they constituted a third race, but this was only to show that in fact it was a “non-racial race,” a people who, while claiming to be the true Israel, declared at the same time that they did not care about the difference between a Greek and a Jew once these were members of the Christian Church. (151)

In this second subsection of chapter four of Being as Communion Zizioulas addresses how the early Church’s understanding of catholicity was reflected in her structures. He notes that coming together in “brotherly love” was not a Christian innovation and was already found among both pagans and Jews. For the Christians, however, the Sunday synaxis would be the only one in a particular place and would thus include the “whole Church,” which transcended not only social but also natural divisions.

It is very significant that, unlike what the Churches do today in an age marked by a tragic loss of the primitive ecclesiology, there was never a celebration of the eucharist specially for children or for students, etc., nor a eucharist that could take place privately and individually. Such a thing would destroy precisely the catholic character of the eucharist which was leitourgia, i.e. a “public work” for all Christians of the same city… (151-152)

This catholicity was also reflected in the Church’s structure. The ordering of the Church in which the bishop occupies a central place and in which the different orders are given particular places is intended not to create division but rather to enable the “many” to be expressed through the “one”.

A fundamental function of this “one bishop” was to express in himself the “multitude” (poluplhqei/a) of the faithful in that place. He was the one who would offer the eucharist to God in the name of the Church, thus bringing up to the throne of God the whole Body of Christ. He was the one in whom the “many” united would become “one,” being brought back to him who had made them… (153)

However, both the bishop and the various orders in the Church were dependent on and emerged from the Eucharistic gathering and it is this that prevents them from becoming sources of division.

By restricting all such ordinations to the eucharistic community and making it an exclusive right of the bishop, not as an individual but as the head of this eucharistic community, to ordain, the early Church saved the catholic character of its entire structure. The bishop with his exclusive right of ordination and with the indispensable restriction of ordaining only in the eucharistic context took it upon himself to express the catholicity of his Church. But it was the eucharistic community and the place he occupied in its structure that justified this. (154)

… now that grace was appearing, it would be fitting that many tokens of that exalted citizenship be expressed. It is like the sun not yet arisen, but from afar more than half the world is already illuminated by its light. So did Christ, when about to rise from that womb – even before his birth – cast light upon all the world. In this way, even before her birth pains, prophets danced for joy and women foretold what was to come. And John, even before his birth, leaped in the womb.

John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 4.4 in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ia, (InterVarsity Press, 2001) 14-15.

Do not speculate beyond the text. Do not require of it something more than what it simply says. Do not ask, “But precisely how was it that the Spirit accomplished this in a virgin?” For even when nature is at work, it is impossible fully to explain the manner of the formation of the person. How then, when the Spirit is accomplishing miracles, shall we be able to express their precise causes? Lest you should weary the writer or disturb him by continually probing beyond what he says, he has indicated what it was that produced the miracle. He then withdraws from further comment. “I know nothing more,” he in effect says, “but that what was done was the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Shame on those who attempt to pry into the miracle of generation from on high! For this birth can by no means be explained, yet it has witnesses beyond number and has been proclaimed from ancient times as a real birth handled with human hands. What kind of extreme madness afflicts those who busy themselves by curiously prying into the unutterable generation? For neither Gabriel nor Matthew was able to say anything more, but only that the generation was from the Spirit. For we remain ignorant of many things, even while learning of them. So how could the infinite One reside in a womb? How could he that contains all be carried as yet unborn by a woman? How could the Virgin bear and continue to be a virgin? Explain to me how the Spirit designed the temple of his body.

John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 4.3 in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ia, (InterVarsity Press, 2001) 12-13.

In the first section of this fourth chapter of Being as Communion Zizioulas traces the relationship between the “one” and the “many” in the eucharistic consciousness of the early Church. This idea of the incorporation of the “many” into the “one” is developed by the Apostle Paul (especially in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17) but can be traced back to earlier ideas of the figure of the “Servant of God” and the “Son of Man”.

But what is significant for us here is that this idea was from the beginning connected with the eucharistic consciousness of the Church. Paul in writing these words to the Corinthians, was simply echoing a conviction apparently widely spread in the primitive Church. (146)

The connection between the Servant of God imagery and the Eucharist continues in I Clement and in the Didache, while the imagery of the Son of Man is further developed in the eucharistic consciousness of John’s gospel.

It is significant that Christ appears here as the Son of Man, and not in another capacity, as he identifies himself with “the true bread.” Hence the eating of this bread is called specifically the eating of “the flesh of the Son of Man” who takes into himself every one who eats this bread, thus fulfilling his role as the corporate Son of Man. (146-147)

The ecclesiological consequences of this can be seen in the sources of the first three centuries. The fact that the Church comes to be called an ecclesia indicates a gathering together in a dynamic sense. Moreover, this gathering constitutes it as the whole Church.

… in the literature of the first three centuries at least, the local Church, starting again with Paul, was called the e0kklhsi/a tou= qeou or the “whole Church” or even the kaqolikh\ e0kklhsi/a and this not unrelated to the concrete eucharistic community. As the ecclesiology of Ignatius of Antioch makes clear, even the context in which the term kaqolikh\ e0kklhsi/a appears is a eucharistic one, in which Ignatius’ main concern was the unity of the eucharistic community. Instead of trying, therefore, to find the meaning of the “catholic Church” in this Ignatian text in a contrast between the “local” and the “universal,” we would be more faithful to the sources if we saw it in the light of the entire Ignatian ecclesiology, according to which the eucharistic community is “exactly the same as” (this is the meaning I would give to w3sper  which connects the two in the Ignatian text) the whole Church united in Christ. (148-149)

In this context, then, catholicity simply means the whole, fullness and totality of the Body of Christ as portrayed in the eucharistic community.

… although the catholicity of the Church is ultimately an eschatological reality, its nature is revealed and realistically apprehended here and now in the eucharist. The eucharist understood primarily not as a thing and an objectified means of grace but as an act and a synaxis of the local Church, a “catholic” act of a “catholic Church”, can therefore be of importance in any attempt to understand the catholicity of the Church. (144-145)

Zizioulas opens the fourth chapter of Being as Communion, entitled “Eucharist and Catholicity”, by attempting to understand the catholicity of the Church in the light of the eucharistic community. For the early Christians, “catholicity” was not concerned with universality as it later came to be understood in the West (and in some ways also in the East), but was rather concerned with the catholicity of the local Church. They spoke of “catholic Churches” in the plural. This had to do with a concrete gathering together which identifies the whole Christ and the whole Church with the local episcopal community.

Question   What is the sign that a man has attained to purity of heart, and when does a man know that his heart has entered into purity?

Answer   When he sees all men as good and none appears to him to be unclean and defiled, then in very truth is his heart pure. For how could anyone fulfill the word of the Apostle, that ‘A man should esteem all better than himself’ with a sincere heart, if he does not attain to the saying, ‘A good eye will not see evil’?

St. Isaac the Syrian,The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (I, 37), translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. p. 177.

Question  What are the exact tokens and accurate signs that the fruit which is hidden in the soul has begun to appear from a man’s labour?

Answer   When a man is deemed worthy to receive the gift of abundant tears which come over him without effort. For tears are established for the mind as a kind of boundary between what is bodily and what is spiritual and between passionateness and purity. Until a man receives this gift, the activity of his work is still in the outer man and he has not yet at all perceived the activity of the hidden things of the spiritual man. But when a man begins to relinquish the corporeal things of the present age and crosses this boundary to that which lies inside of visible nature, then straightaway he will attain to the grace of tears. And from the first hospice of this hidden discipline tears begin to flow and they lead a man to perfection in the love of God. The more he progresses in this discipline, the more he is enriched with love, until by reason of his constant converse with tears he imbibes them with his food and drink. …

There are tears that burn and there are tears that anoint as with oil. All tears that flow out of contrition and anguish of heart on account of sins dry up and burn the body, and often even the governing faculty feels the injury caused by their outflow. At first a man must necessarily come to this order of tears and through them a door is opened unto him to enter into the second order, which is superior to the first; this is the realm wherein a man receives mercy. These are the tears that are shed because of insight; they make the body comely and anoint it as if with oil, and they pour forth by themselves without compulsion. Not only do they anoint the body with oil, but they also alter a man’s countenance.

St. Isaac the Syrian,The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (I, 37), translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. p. 174-175.

If my blog stats are anything to go by, it would appear that my quote from Father K.M. George on The gift of tears is one of the most popular posts on this blog. Given this interest, it seemed worth sharing these words of Abba Isaac that I read this morning. (On a totally unrelated note, Wei Hsien reports that the aforementioned Father George was an observer at the recent Catholic Synod of Bishops).

The incarnation of the Logos is the blessed end on account of which everything was created. This is the divine purpose, which was thought of before the beginning of creation and which we call an intended fulfilment, and yet the fulfilment itself exists because of nothing that was created. Since God had this end in full view, he produced the natures of things. This is truly the fulfilment of providence and of planning. Through this there is a recapitulation to God of those created by him. This is the mystery circumscribing all ages, the awesome plan of God, superinfinite and infinitely preexisting the ages. The Messenger, who is in essence himself the Word of God, became man on account of this fulfilment. And it may be said that it was he himself who restored the manifest innermost depths of the goodness handed down by the Father; and he revealed the fulfilment in himself, by which creation has won the beginning of true existence. For on account of Christ, that is to say, the mystery concerning Christ, all time and that which is in time have found the beginning and the end of their existence in Christ. For before time there was secretly purposed a union of the ages, of the determined and the Indeterminate, of the measurable and the Immeasurable, of the finite and Infinity, of the creation and the Creator, of motion and rest – a union that was made manifest in Christ during these last times.

Maximus the Confessor, Questions to Thalassium 60, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky (ed), John 1-10, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (InterVarsity Press, 2006) 34.

More than once theological and dogmatic questions were also raised with great poignancy. One should not forget the immanent difficulties or temptations of ascetic experience and thought. First of all, the question of sin and freedom arose. Connected with this was another question concerning the sacraments and prayer. In another formulation this is also a question about grace and freedom — or struggle; that is, man’s creative coming-into-being. It is not surprising that Pelagianism and Origenism — and even the heresy of the Eutychians — disturbed monastic circles.

All these individual questions reduce to one general question, one which concerned fate and man’s path. In ascetic texts we find not only psychological and ethical meditations but also the metaphysics of human life. The problems of asceticism could be resolved only in a precise dogmatic synthesis. This was clear even with St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians. Christological disputes were resolved not only by dogmatic synthesis but by ascetic synthesis as well. We find it in St. Maximus the Confessor. Dogmatics and ascetics are organically and inseparably brought together in the system of St. Maximus.

The essence of the spiritual ideal of monasticism is within Christianity from the beginning. Monasticism is not an aberration from original and authentic Christianity, not a distortion of the Gospel, of the kerygmatic apostolic deposit. Rather it is one form of Christian spirituality, a form whose essential features are found in the Gospels, the epistles of the New Testament, and in the life of the early Church. The fourth century merely begins to develop, to organize those ideals, those precepts which were always a part of the Christian message. And it is precisely here that one of the deepest problems facing the Ecumenical Movement is to be found — there are two basic and contradictory views toward monasticism. And in these two opposing views toward monasticism one clearly sees two differing views toward the essence of the Christian message, toward the Christian vision of God, man, and redemption, toward the very essence of Christian spirituality. The question must be raised. It must be confronted, not forgotten or neglected. What precisely were those essential aspects of monasticism that were contained in the Christian message from the beginning? What precisely defines the two opposing views toward monasticism and monastic forms of spirituality? Again dogma and spirituality are intertwined, are inseparable, and again it concerns the metaphysics of human life and destiny.

Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, chapter five.

There is much here that strikes me as important even though Fr Florovsky does not develop these two differing views, at least not here. His words remind me of a quote from Peter Brown’s The Body and Society that I once noted:

Theologians of ascetic background, throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, would not have pursued with such ferocious energy the problems around the incarnation of Christ and the related uniting of the human and the divine in one person had they not experienced it as a compelling image of the mysterious union of body and soul in themselves.

(My apologies: this is not an accurate quote as I only have access to a Dutch translation of Brown’s book and am translating it back into English. I’ll try and get hold of the original English and update this sometime!)

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