Monday, February 25, 2008

The Church: Head and Heart of Christ

By Aimee Milburn

I was finishing up morning prayer this morning using the Liturgy of the Hours, when a series of images and reflections passed through my mind. They were triggered by this line from the Intercessions:

Teach us to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Church.

And the thought crossed my mind: in the Church we are in the Body of Christ – which struck me as a little odd, because we usually speak of how we are members of the Body of Christ. But the image that passed through my mind was of the church itself, the cathedral where I presently worship, which is a traditional cathedral, and it seemed to me that when we are inside it we are actually inside Christ’s own body.

I saw the shape of the floor plan, and remembered something I learned in my degree program: the traditional church floor plan, with baptismal font at the rear, the altar in front, and behind the altar the tabernacle, with a side table for the unconsecrated bread and wine, is based directly on the architecture of the Temple at Jerusalem, which is revealed architecture, God’s architecture, His own design for His place of worship, which He directly gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Since Christ dwells in the tabernacle in the Eucharist, and He is our Head, the Head of the Body, it makes sense to me that the tabernacle should be at the head of the church, behind the altar, which is the traditional location of the tabernacle. To move it elsewhere to me is to dislocate the Head.

But I had not thought of the rest of the church, the traditional design, as representing His body, and that we are in His body when we are in it. And all of the sudden something else flashed through my mind: the confessionals traditionally are located to one side of the church.
One side. The side of Christ, pierced by the lance, from which blood and water, mercy and grace, flowed forth. In the confessional, the blood of Christ and water of the Holy Spirit, mercy and grace, flow forth in forgiveness and absolution of sin.

And I saw: if the Church is the Body, and the tabernacle is the Head, then the confessional is the Heart. When we go into the confessional, we are going into the Heart of Christ, to be forgiven and washed clean of sin.

I love confession; I’ve been meaning, when I have a little more time and a clear head unpreoccupied with other things, to write a long post on the beauty of confession, what it has come to mean to me. One thing is clear: confession is not for the purpose of making us feel guilty. It is for the purpose of freeing us from guilt. When I go to confession, I feel like I am stretching my soul wide, like a sheet, and Christ Himself is reaching in and scrubbing it out, over time removing more and more deep stains of sin. And the more I am opened up and cleansed, the more prepared and open I am to receive Him in the Eucharist – and the more freely and deeply He can enter into me in the Eucharist.

Tabernacle and confessional. Head and Heart. Eucharist and forgiveness. The Body and Blood of Christ, operating in the Church, of which we are not only members, but which we are actually in.

And I remembered one other thing: when visiting a traditional chapel recently at the seminary here, it was explained to me by a seminarian that the architectural design of the sanctuary around the altar actually represents the arms of Christ, reaching out to wrap around and embrace the congregation. And I had an image: Christ gazing tenderly at us from His Head, embracing us with His arms, holding us close to His Heart.

These images flashed through my mind in only a moment, after I closed my prayer book – but they have changed forever, I believe, how I will think of the space inside the church when I go there. I will forever see it as the space inside Christ’s body, close to His Heart, where He tenderly feeds us with His own life, and continues to pour streams of mercy and grace upon us from His Heart, torn open on the Cross, remaining open in the Church, forever.

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