The Church, Vertical and Horizontal
Father Vladimir Berzonsky – Word Magazine, May 1967
“Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with . . . ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at table. But when the disciple saw it, (they said) “Why this waste? This ointment might have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor. Jesus said … ‘She has done a beautiful thing to me. For the poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me.’” (Matt. 26:6)
Generally, there are two types of critics of the Church, both of whom see the Church imperfectly.
On the one side, there are the activists, whose idea of Christianity is almost exclusively that of social welfare. They see the need for action and reform at every level of society. Salvation as a goal is replaced by human improvement. Christianity is to witness to the world its concern for humanity.
The Church for the activists fails because it concerns itself with dogmatic Truths that are not “relevant” for “modern man.” The Church as an institution no longer “relates” to society; therefore, it must redeem itself.
At the other extreme are the contemplatives, who see everything in the light of eternity. This world is sinful and corrupt; it has always been so, and will be this way until the Second Coming. All this will pass, so there is no need to be concerned about world conditions… “God will provide” is their motto, so we waste our time getting involved in the world.
These people see no relation between the Holy Altar and the beggar at the church steps. For them, society is irrelevant. Even the care and provision for the Church’s welfare is not their concern. If we have Faith, we will endure until the end.
Neither the activists nor the contemplatives are right. Each without the other distorts the meaning of Christianity.
We must remind the activists that Christ came not just to improve the world, but to change it radically from within. He calls for a transformation, a total death and rebirth. We agree that He identifies Himself with the poor, the sick, the thirsty, those in prison, and “the least of these, my brethren;” (Matt. 26:45). Yet, this is not enough. Charity and concern are Christian virtues, but they do not exhaust the meaning of God’s Plan for redemption in Jesus Christ.
In His every act and word, Jesus Christ was presenting the Kingdoms of God. Those with eyes and ears open could contrast that Kingdom with this world. The impact of His coming can never be reduced to social welfare.
On the other hand, the implications of the Incarnation make us aware that God is concerned for every atom of His universe. This world is worth saving and helping. Everything matters. To love God is to love His world, and every living thing in it. We have to be concerned, because He is crucially concerned.
The Church is vertical, looking to God and waiting on His mercy, and at the same time it is horizontal, sharing the gracious gifts of God with those who share our world. The Church must always reach out in both dimensions.