|Image from the Waldburg Prayer Book (1476),
showing the Coronation of Mary, and the Sacrifice of the Mass
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis is the motto of the Carthusian religious order. It’s Latin for “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.” It’s a recognition that the Gospel is timeless and eternal. But the Gospel is also historical. The Gospel is part of history, because Christ entered history in His Incarnation. So we see, in every age, the Church presenting the timeless truths of the Gospel in a way that the surrounding world can understand. She’s used different methods, but always with the same message.
This understanding of the Gospel is challenged from two sides. On the one hand, you have those who claim that the Church needs to “get with the times” by abandoning her teachings. It’s sadly common for people to leave the Church due to disagreements over political issues. They’ve become so convinced of their own political views that they treat the Church’s views as outdated and false. This is a rejection of the Gospel’s timelessness.
On the other hand, you have those who treat Christianity as a do-it-yourself project, as if the way to discover the truth of Christianity is to pick up the Bible and piece together what you imagine this to mean. This is a rejection of the Gospel as historical. It would be a bit like starting your own country, based upon your interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. No matter how close you got to the original spirit of the Constitution, the end result wouldn’t actually be America. So it is here, in the Church’s relationship to the Gospel,
Both of these errors – rejecting either the timelessness or historicity of the Gospel – are answered by the Bible.
Several promises are made to ensure us that the truths of the Gospel will remain uncorrupted forever, This means that they don’t need to be “updated” to get with the times, or “rediscovered,” as if they could be lost. Let’s look at five specific times that Scripture points to the future to tell us what the post-Apostolic Church would be like.
At the Last Supper, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit, to guide the Church into the fullness of truth (John 14:25-26):
“These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
What’s more, He promises that this Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, will remain with us forever (John 14:16-17):
And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.
A little later in the same discourse, Jesus reiterates this same point (John 16:13):
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
This is really a twofold promise: that the Holy Spirit will remain with the Church forever, and that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church in the fullness of truth.
On the surface, this isn’t a promise at all, but a prayer. It’s also from the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel, in which Jesus prays for us, the post-Apostolic Christians (John 17:18-23):
As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.
But if you look closely, there’s a promise contained in this prayer: that we’ll be able to preserve unity because of the glory that Christ has given the Church. He has consecrated the Church in the truth. And it’s only due to this that we can remain with the Church forever.
If this weren’t the case, we’d be forced into a catch-22. If the Church somehow lost the fullness of truth and started teaching heresy, we would be forced to either accept heresy, or go into schism. But Scripture condemns both of those things, so we would be damned if we did, and damned if we didn’t. In instructing us to remain with the Church forever, Christ is letting us know that we’ll never have to make that choice.
|Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1680)|
The Passover was established as a perpetual celebration, to last forever (Exodus 12:13-14):
The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever.
Christ doesn’t abolish the Passover. Rather, He fulfills and perfects it. In His Passion and Death, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). But this Paschal Sacrifice begins at the Last Supper – which, not coincidentally, is a Passover meal (Luke 22:14-16):
And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
Luke’s description of the Last Supper is filled with meaning, as when he says that it all happens on “the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed” (Luke 22:7). He plainly has two lambs in mind: the lamb of the Old Covenant, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
In the Jewish Passover, there are two separate actions, performed on separate days: (1) the lamb is slaughtered, and (2) the lamb is eaten. These correspond to (1) Good Friday, and (2) the Last Supper and the Mass.
Good Friday, Jesus’ death on the Cross, occurs “once for all” (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27). But the Last Supper isn’t designed to be “once for all.” Rather, Christ instructs His Apostles to “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). The memorial of the Passover becomes the Memorial of the Last Supper.
St. Paul explains this view of the Eucharistic Liturgy as a Sacrifice by comparing it to Jewish and pagan sacrifices (1 Corinthians 10:18): “are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?” Therefore, the Eucharistic Sacrifice incorporates us into the Body and Blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17):
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.
We hear this in the first century Didache, which describes the Sunday Mass:
But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.“
So we can rest assured that the Mass will continue, day after day, week after week, from the time of Christ until the end of time. And in fact, beyond that: if you read Luke 22:14-16 closely, you’ll see that Christ promises the ultimate fulfillment of the Last Supper will occur “in the Kingdom of God.” This is a reference to the Eucharistic Banquet of Jesus the Bridegroom and the Church His Bride, in which our union is perfectly consummated (Revelation 19:9).
|Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John the Baptist (1500)|
In Mary’s famous Magnificat prayer, she proclaims (Lk. 1:46b-49)
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
Mary is both prophesying what’s going to happen — that every generation of Christians will praise her — and letting us know that this is what ought to happen. She says that this praise of her is due to the holiness of God. In other words, Mary tells us that honoring her doesn’t detract from God’s holiness, but flows from it.
Stop and think about what this means. Mary’s not just talking about the tepid, lukewarm praise of modern Christians who are afraid that praising Mary will somehow make her Son jealous. Mary’s talking also about all of those generations who praised her unabashedly,
For example, the praise offered by the third-century Church included St. Gregory the Wonderworker’s prayer:
Now is it meet and fitting for me to wonder after the manner of the Holy Virgin, to whom in seemly wise before all things the angel gave salutation thus: “Be thou glad and rejoice”; because with her are quickened and live, all the treasures of grace. Among all nations she alone was both virgin and mother and without knowledge of man, holy in body and soul. Among all nations she alone was made worthy to bring forth God; alone she carried in her Him who carries along all by His word.
It would be easy to write texts like these off as the excessive devotion of one or two individuals: as not representative of their generation. That doesn’t work, however, when dealing with popular devotion, or with the Liturgy.
The Liturgy in both the West and (especially) the East praises Mary in strong terms. For example, in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the most common Eucharistic liturgy for Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics, the people pray:
It is truly right to bless you, Theotokos [Mother of God; lit. God-bearer], ever blessed, most pure, and mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. We magnify you, the true Theotokos.
That’s what Mary means when she says that all generations will call her blessed. And she says this as if this is a good thing.
One last promise from John’s account of the Last Supper. In John 14:18, Jesus promises, “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” One way that He fulfills this is by sending the Holy Spirit. But He also promises to remain with us, as the last line of Matthew’s Gospel shows: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And in His promise to the Church, Jesus famously says to Peter (Matt. 16:18-19):
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
To be sure, we might still fall away from the Church (although Christ prays that we won’t: see #2). But the Church itself will last forever. And not just last forever, but remain with the fullness of truth (see #1).
Compare what Christ and Mary promise in Scripture with what the Reformers and modern secularists offer. Broadly speaking, the Protestant Reformers denied each of these promises, claiming that:
- the Church didn’t have the fullness of truth anymore;
- it was morally right (even necessary) to break away from the Church;
- that the Mass wasn’t a real sacrifice, and should be eliminated;
- the sort of devotion to Mary offered throughout prior generations was offensive to the glory of God, and should be stopped; and
- the entire Church fell into apostasy at some point in the past.