It was in the middle of January 2016 and the ecumenical service in the RC Bavo Basilica was over. Two people were rushing into the vestry when I was just about to leave. One of them commented on the organ intro and called it dreadful and unsuitable. The other, an altar server at the Bavo, just smiled beatifically, not knowing what to answer to this complaint. Having been in an adjacent room, I had only heard some fragments of the organ intro.
But I had recognized it as “l’Apparition d’Église eternelle” by Olivier Messiaen, in English “the appearance of the eternal church”. I thought it was an excellent choice for an ecumenical service in a cathedral, and when I confessed this, the altar server was visually relieved.
Perplexity and awe
Different sentiments concerning this organ piece were to be expected, though. It is majestic, but not exactly cheerful. It is harmonious and yet it is not. It has slowly shifting chords and repeated motifs in the pedal. It has no fixed meter, but a strange mystical feeling about it, which is characteristic for the deeply religious Roman Catholic composer, who wrote this in 1931 at the age of 24.
According to the New York Times, “You needn’t be a pipe organ cabalist or an initiate of the new-music illuminati to be moved, even shaken, by Olivier Messiaen’s [organ] music…” In 2006 Paul Festa made a film about the different responses to just this music. He clapped head-phones on all sorts of people, then captured their reactions of bemusement, perplexity and awe. The 31 people in this experiment were not told what they would hear, but asked to describe it in words. Well, some listeners reported they were taken to the heights of spiritual ecstasy. For others, the encounter with Messiaen was like spending 10 minutes in Dante’s Inferno!
Today is Mothering Sunday. We honour women, who have such important roles to play in our society and more and more so in the church as well. But Mothering Sunday is actually about mother church! People would go to their home church on this day, the church in which their spiritual journey began. For, just like no one is born without having parents, so no one except the apostles has ever become a Christian without some other Christian telling them about Christ and the good news of His salvation. Believing comes through hearing, says the Bible. Today there are many other media where we can find information about Christ and Christianity. But we still need the Christian community for keeping us informed, for mutual encouragement, for worship, for mission and Christian action.
The nature of the church
But what actually is the church? The word ‘church’ comes from the Greek Kyriakos, which means ‘belonging to the Lord’. The actual Greek word used in the New Testament is ecclesia, which means called out (out of the world and towards God). Since the whole earth belongs to God, and all the people of the world are called, the church is potentially much larger than what we usually think of. Another and more usual translation of ecclesia is meeting or gathering. And again, those who meet in church on a particular Sunday are not necessarily all those God wants to be involved. Our intuition that some or many people are missing, is absolutely right. The church is a gathering, but the gathering is incomplete and fragmented. So what we should be looking for as being the church is partly a future situation. It simply isn’t complete yet. It is just like the Kingdom of God which has come in Jesus Christ, but will only be complete when He returns.
If we use this view of “the church”, a lot of things will fall into place. We will understand Isaiah 56:7,8 “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered”. We will understand the language in Revelation 9 about the wedding feast of the Lamb. “His bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clear was given her to wear.” One thing is clear from this: the wedding requires preparation on both sides.
Heavily under construction
Ephesians 2 compares each of us to building blocks in the temple of God. It follows that this temple is unfinished! “Jesus Christ Himself is the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord”. This temple, this church, is heavily “under construction”. Sometimes the pieces don’t quite fit together and we have to take them apart, but only to fit them back together in a different sequence.
We have now seen how the church can be compared to a mother, to a bride and to a building. Question: How can the church be compared to a mother and to a bride at the same time? Well, if we look at it from the point of view of a struggling and developing church, it actually makes sense. Even Mary gave birth to Jesus before she was married. Everywhere on earth there are women who are not ready to become a mother, and yet give birth and take that huge responsibility to raise a new living being. Likewise the church is not always prepared, but still has to take the responsibility of helping new Christians to find their way in a world which is new to both.
Spirit and people
Mistakes can and will be made. But the good news is that the church does not face all this alone. God’s spirit, also considered by many as having a female aspect, is constantly at work to guide and correct the church. And let us not forget that we may be mothered by the church, but together we also are the church, so we have some mothering to do ourselves. We cannot sit back and let it all happen. We too, are as it were engaged with Christ, preparing for a wedding and He has already entrusted others to our care.
So this is the church for you. To some the church feels like a warm bath. But we cannot deny that to many others it can be a cold shower. Which of the two is right? Could it be that there is truth in both ways of looking at the church? For the simple reason that the church is not ready being the church? It is like the uneasy chords in the organ piece!
Hope and pain
But yet there is a sense of something great and mysterious which is slowly unfolding.
It is something that cannot be stopped. When on Palm Sunday a crowd of disciples praised God, and the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke them, Jesus answered, “If these are silent, the stones will cry out!”. This is how unstoppable the good news of the love of God really is. Worldly or even religious authorities may try to exclude some groups from the love of God, or deny the authority of the radical Jesus, but they cannot stop his message. If they do, the Holy Spirit will continue to work. But it will not be painless. Just like the birth of a child is painful, so the birth of a new generation of Christians can be painful, not least to the mother.
For that reason the church deserves our respect and support. She cannot be like a Father figure who is always right and punishes his children for the slightest deviation. Her model is the caring mother or perhaps the forgiving Father of the prodigal Son. She will not be afraid to admit mistakes and make new beginnings. And since we are all part of this mother, we too, are called to show compassion towards each other and the world, to have a caring attitude, to not play power games or lending ourselves to them.
Noise or majesty
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Any real majesty of the church can only be manifested if we are prepared to feel the pain of the outcast, the marginalized, the rejected, the forgotten, the scorned, the lonely, the misrepresented, the ignored, the abused and the outnumbered, inside and outside our perimeters. To quote the pope’s comment on Donald Trump, Christians are not to erect walls, but to break them down and build bridges. When we attempt this, our “music” will sound differently. There will be something in it of the sorrow and concern of a mother over her children.
So I leave you with this question: “What kind of music will we make?”