May 4th, Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church
The Church is so profound a mystery that no one image fully plumbs it depths and explains it exhaustively. Each image has its own aspect to emphasize and bring to light in ways the others do not.
We heard from the book of Revelation that the Church is the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. From this we can see not only the Church’s divine origin and permanence, but also its perfection, which gave rise to the understanding of the Church as a perfect society. This was a prevalent ecclesiological model in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Church had to establish her legitimacy before earthly governments intent on belittling and crushing her. A perfect society has within itself all that is needed to accomplish its goal as a society: governors and governed, laws and bonds of unity, as well as a common goal.
We then heard from Revelation how the Church is like a bride adorned for her husband. This bespeaks both the intimate and wholehearted love the Church has for Christ, and the joy with which she moves through history to meet Him. The union between bridegroom and bride is indissoluble and fertile.
Then St. Paul likened Church members to God’s household. When we look at our own homes, we see the close familiarity between the children who are all united more deeply than they sometimes would want. But just as they look like and act like their parents, so also Christians look like Christ Himself in their souls through baptism and charity, and His virtues inform their acts, so that what we show in our particular ways He possesses in fullness.
And then in the same sentence St. Paul changes metaphors to likening the Church to a temple. The foundation is the Apostles and prophets; Christ Jesus is the capstone. From bottom to top, a temple is a place of worship and prayer; its keynote is holiness. Ancient temples were made of stone to denote solidity and permanence. This temple, the dedication of which we celebrate today, also has Christ Jesus, more or less at the capstone. The top of the triumphal arch mosaic has Christ the Light of the World.
And in the upper half of the apse mosaic there is another image of the Church. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in Me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without Me you can do nothing.” This vine is practically writhing before our eyes, teeming with unstoppable growth. If you were close enough, you would see that the blue tiles between the branches are not simply in vertical rows to fill space but rushing along in eddies, as if the vine were moving rapidly through water.
But it is one vine, and the vine is Christ. The implication is that this one vine is not simply growing in the recess of the sanctuary but stretches out to encompass the whole abbey church and everyone in it. That is one meaning of the Norbertine figure cutting fruit from the vine to offer the little figure in white.
Christ is the vine; we are the branches. “Without Me,” He says, “you can do nothing.” As if we would want to. And wherever we go, we are connected to each other in Him. This is the mutual indwelling spoken of in the book of Revelation today: “He will dwell with them, and they will be His people.” Such is the communion of saints: distance is no obstacle to charity; we are united across time and space and death.
And this vine cannot not grow. The power of the Holy Spirit to effect the salvation of souls, to fill up the number of the elect, cannot be stopped. We do not know where it will lead; it is never predictably symmetrical like in the mosaic.
Just on Saturday we celebrated the newest shoot of the Norbertine branch on the vine which is Christ Jesus. Our expansion to the Corpus Christi Priory in Springfield, Illinois, is one more sign that the grace of Christ is infallibly intent on reaching an untold number of souls to fill them with the light of the Gospel. In this particular way will Christ’s promise again be fulfilled: “The gates of the hell shall not prevail against [My Church].”
Our Holy Father St. Norbert promised us that our Order would last until the second coming if we were attentive to three things: almsgiving, the correction of our faults, and cleanliness around the altar. So also do we enjoin on those pioneer confreres this same charge in order to ensure their success against all the power hell will bring against them. For charity is the love of the Holy Spirit, the sap of the vine which is Christ. Almsgiving is charity towards our poor neighbors. Correction of faults is charity towards our religious community and ourselves. And the solemn celebration of the sacred liturgy is charity towards God. If we persevere in charity, there is nothing to separate us from Christ, but rather God Himself will unite us as branches on a vine, stones in a temple, and children at home, and He will always be with us as our God.