Eschaton et Ecclesia

Consider the reading from the Gospel of Mark (Mark 4:26-32) for tomorrow's Mass:

 

[Jesus] said, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.” [Jesus] said, “To what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”

 

A dominant theme of this Third Week of Ordinary Time is the Kingdom of God. And when discussing the Kingdom, Our Lord normally speaks in parables. This is what we find in the above reading. Rather than defining the Kingdom for his disciples Jesus prefers to describe it through images. No doubt the images He uses would have vividly communicated His meaning to those who were listening at the time. Down through the history of the Church these images have constantly been able to capture the imagination of hearers of the gospel, and even today we are able to attain to their meaning -- though perhaps greater effort is required today within the contexts of non-agrarian societies.

 

Why does the Church offer to us this day two parables rather than one, especially since the realities of the Kingdom of God to which they allude are so different? The parable of the growing seed, on the one hand, envisions the Eschaton or "last days" of creation: some day all things will be brought to a close, and the "harvest" of souls will be reaped from the earth. Through this parable we are called to meditate on the temporal quality of our salvation: that creation has an end which will be ushered in by the Second Coming. On the other hand, the parable of the mustard seed points to the all-encompassing nature of Ecclesia: the Church embraces both Jew and Gentile, "those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation" (Re 5:9, NABRE). We know this especially from similar words used by the prophet Ezekiel in chapters 17 and 31: "All kinds of winged birds will dwell in the shade of its branches" (Ez 17:23, NABRE). Through this parable we are called to meditate on the spatial quality of our salvation: that salvation is intended for all mankind, and that the Church will grow across the globe in order to realize this universal salvation (though always imperfectly).

 

Eschaton et Ecclesia, time and space: It is important to keep these two realities in tension during our time in this world. The seed of salvation has been planted in every baptized Christian, and we rise each "night and day" patiently waiting as the grace of God causes us to "sprout and grow" -- and we "know not how." In due course, our days will come to an end, and as Our Lord warns us elsewhere, the Son of Man will come like a "thief in the night" (cf. Mt 24:43, Lk 17:24). Thus, we are always living in the last days, for we know not when the Lord will come. Yet, in the meantime, the Church grows and spreads and is preached to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8 and 13:47) until it encompasses all peoples. And this process began only with the "smallest of grains": the "mustard seed" of the gospel. Though our days are numbered, the "tree" of the Church matures as evangelization proceeds, as new Christians are born or re-born, and as the saved die to this world to enter eternal life. Does this not require planning? Institutions? Coordination? As Our Lord seems to tarry -- "waiting," so-to-speak, for the "close of the age" (cf. Mt 13, 24, and 28) -- it seems that we must settle down in the midst of the world: we're in it for the long haul. There is no temporal and temporary Church without a spatial and permanent Church.

 

These parables have a significance for me as I work my way through the first volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's Christian Tradition. In the latter portion of the second chapter the history of the Montanist movement is recounted, a movement that sought to live a more pure Christian life in opposition to what was perceived as the "worldliness" of the mainstream Church. Montanus and his followers were disturbed by what they perceived to be a lack of charismatic gifts within the Church, from gifts of healing to ecstatic prophecy to speaking-in-tongues. They blamed this lack of "charismata" on the moral laxity of the Church, a moral laxity which tends to arise as a natural consequence of the Church's "settling down" in the world. The Montanists emphasized the Eschaton. They sought to recapture the zeal and moral purity of the Apostolic Church, an era when the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit flourished. They believed a new age was upon them which would see the flourishing of the charismatic gifts... but only for the "pure." In turn, the "institutional Church" was viewed with suspicion and derided for having sold out to the world. As Montanism matured, its radicalism gave rise to heretical doctrines concerning the Trinity -- a sort of modalism, in the end -- and schismatic attitudes towards the Church. It was not violently suppressed: it simply fizzled-out.

 

Clearly then, Eschaton et Ecclesia have not been kept in the healthiest of tensions in some ages. In our own new age of "new evangelization," do we sometimes look at the "institutional Church" of episcopacy and Pope as a hindrance rather than a gift in spreading the gospel? Are we keen for miraculous events and new prophecy which will lead us out of the doldrums we find ourselves in? Are we over-zealous at times for an exciting, "Spirit-filled" Church which has little time for the slow, patient work of conversion that Pope Francis seems to favor in Evangelii Gaudium (see n. 222ff)? In fact, this age of new evangelization calls us to a new unity within the Church, that all may work together to mission ad extra and renewal ad intra. "Yes" to the Eschaton, and the charismatic gifts -- all gifts -- that the Holy Spirit desires for all believers in these times. And "Yes" to the Ecclesia, that hierarchical Body which embraces all Christians in teaching, worship, and governance. The Holy Spirit belongs to all the baptized from the laity up to Pope Francis, and He leads us in accord with the quality of His presence within us.

 

Let us, then, be like the Montanists in their zeal to be fitting vessels of the Holy Spirit who leads us forward into the future Kingdom of God that is the fullness of the reality of the Church. But let us always remember that His charismatic gifts are given through the Church and for the Church so that she may prosper, giving the Church the stability necessary to grow into that all-encompassing Kingdom she is to become.

 

Amen.