Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Challenge of Freedom

At the beginning of the fourth century CE there was a radical shift in the status of the Christian church—it became the official imperial religion of the Roman Empire. Until then it was just one of the several religious movements competing for a bare survival in the empire. It was often frowned upon by the rulers. Many of them were persecuted and even brutally killed. The edict of Milan (313 CE) changed everything; Christianity replaced the existing imperial religion. People and wealth began to flood in. Basilicas began to rise. The leaders of the church became imperial dignitaries, and began to be dressed like Roman senators.                

This changed status in the fourth century radically altered the self-identity of the church. Church had finally gained the freedom it had always sought. It was no more in slavery, but it was ruling the world. During this time, Eucharist also changed radically in form and meaning. Christians were no more meeting in their homes, and they didn’t have their love feasts any more. They started meeting in their basilicas, and they were having elaborate ceremonial Eucharist on Sundays.

A shallow and easy-going view was gaining ground that the Kingdom of God was already on earth. They didn’t feel like pilgrims any more. There was a general feeling that they had reached the Promised Land. The goal was achieved.  The emperor of Rome was ruling on behalf of Christ, and all that was left for Christians to do was to rule the world along with Christ. 

Although there was a general feeling that the Kingdom of God was already on earth, there were a few who were not fooled by the appearances. They refused to believe that the Roman Empire was the same as the Kingdom of God. They took it as a temptation to overcome.  Many of them turned to monastic movement. They left social life and lived in isolation. This was in revolt against the utter foolishness with which people in general faced the new situation.

Eventually some others developed a better vision of the role of the church. Instead of running away from social life, they decided to face the temptation staying right in the midst of the society. Running away from social life and living in isolation was seen escapism by them. They asked themselves what Christ would do in this changed situation. Would Christ run away from everybody else into a deserted place? Of course, he went to the deserted place for a short while, and that was to gain some strength to come back. Christ’s mission was right in the middle of the people. They decided to live in the very midst of the society as the embodiment of Christ. They took upon their shoulders the mission of Christ.

They saw the church as the visible embodiment of the invisible Christ. Church had been related to the body of Christ by Paul long time ago. He used this metaphor to tell the church members that they have to act in perfect cooperation like the members of the same body. This metaphor gained a renewed sense in the fourth century-- Christ was viewed as living in the world through His body, the church. Paulos Mar Gregorios clarifies the situation in his book, The Faith of our Fathers:

The official approval of Christianity by Emperor Constantine in 313 has sometimes been deplored by historians as the beginning of the decline of Christianity. It is true that the Christian Church was no longer persecuted and therefore there was no more opportunity to become martyrs. But martyrdom is not the only way of expressing the Christian faith. Constantine’s Edict of Milan placed the Church in a position where it had to take this world more seriously. Today we live in the same situation. It is not sufficient to think about the other world alone. We have to give expression to our faith here and now, in this world. The Church was forced to take an active and responsible role in politics, in culture and in education because of the Constantinian settlement. Previously the Church could condemn the Roman Empire as Babylon the harlot, which persecutes the faithful. Now the Empire was in the hands of the Church, so to speak.

The great leaders of the church who developed this sophisticated view were the church fathers. They refused to run away and live in isolation, but lived in the midst of the society. They saw church as the embodiment of Christ-- not as the Christ who rules the world, but as the suffering Christ. They encouraged Christians to live like Christ. It was not easy to change the mindset of the people. Some of them were excellent orators. Sunday after Sunday they taught people how to live like Christ. Some of them were excellent writers. They wrote essays, hymns, Bible commentaries, parables, and prayers.
Read more here.

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