This article refers to us...

How St. Augustine explained the Creeds article on the Church.

What follows: holy Church, refers to us. We are holy Church. But I didnt say we as if it meant only us who are here or you who are now listening to me. I mean all who are here, by Gods mercy, the Christian believers in this Church, that is, in this city, but I mean also all those in this region, all those in this province, all those across the sea, all those throughout the world, because the name of the Lord is being praised from the rising of the sun to its setting (Ps 112[113], 3). This is what the catholic Church is, our true mother, true spouse of that Bridegroom. Let us honor her, because she is the wife of so great a Lord.And what am I to say? Great and special is the Bridegrooms kindness toward her: he found her a prostitute and made her a virgin. Because she was a prostitute, she must not deny or forget the mercy of the one who freed her. How was she not a prostitute when she was fornicating with idols and demons? All were fornicating in their hearts: few with their bodies, but all with their hearts. And he came and made her a virgin. He made the Church a virgin. She is a virgin in her faith. In body she has few virgins, that is, nuns. But all she has, both women and men, should be virgins by faith. In her there should be chastity and purity and holiness of faith. Do you wish to know how she is a virgin? Listen to the Apostle Paul, that friend of the Bridegroom; listen to one who was jealous for the Bridegrooms sake, not for his own sake. I have betrothed you, he says, to one husband. He says this to the Church. To which Church? Wherever his letters could reach. I have betrothed you to one husband to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, he says, that just as the serpent seduced Eve by his cunningthat serpent didnt bodily sleep with Eve, did he? And yet he did destroy her hearts virginityI fear that your minds may be corrupted from the chastity that is in Christ (2 Cor 11:2-3). The Church is a virgin, then. She is a virgin: may she remain a virgin. Let her avoid the seducer, the corrupter. The Church is a virgin.Perhaps you will say to me: If she is a virgin, how does she bear children? Or if she does not bear children, why did we give in our names so that we might be born from her womb. I answer: She both is a virgin and bears children. She imitates Mary, who bore the Lord. Did not holy Mary both bear a child and remain a virgin? That is how it is with the Church: she bears children and she is a virgin. And, if you think about it, she bears Christ, because those who are baptized are his members. You, the Apostles says, are the body of Christ and his members (1 Cor 12:27). If the Church bears the members of Christ, she is very similar to Mary. (Augustine, Sermon 213, 7; PL 38, 1064)

A couple of things strike me about this passage:

(1) That Augustine speaks very concretely of the Church. The article of the Creed refers to the congregation he is addressing, and the Churchs child-bearing will occur when the catechumens in front of him will emerge from the baptismal waters of that congregations womb. The local Church will be their mother.(2) That Augustine did not, as so many preachers do today, shy away from such metaphors as mother and virgin, but sought to explain to his congregation what they meant about their lives as Christians and as the Church.(3) That his interpretation of the verses cited from 2 Cor 11 holds up well when compared to contemporary exegesis of the passage. Here is C.K. Barretts comment:

The presentation [of the Church] to Christ [by Paul] will presumably take place at his coming; the betrothal correspondingly refers to the conversion of the Corinthians and the establishing of their church. In the meantime, during the period of the engagement, it is the duty of the Corinthians to keep themselves completely loyal to the one to whom they are to be unitedwithin Pauls metaphor, to preserve their virgin status. It is because Paul doubts their will, or ability, to do this that he writes....At least he recognizes a real danger that his work in Corinth may be lost, and that the church there may perish.... As I Cor ix. 27; x. 1-13 show, he did not believe that either he or his fellow Christians enjoyed any security before God. Neither their participation in baptism and the Lords Supper, nor the original purity and innocence of their faith, could act as a safeguard to prevent corruption. Ecclesia semper reformanda: because the church is always exposed to corruption it must always give heed to the apostolic admonition. ...The result of their work [the work of Pauls enemies at Corinth], if successful, as Paul fears it may beperhaps that it has beenwould be to corrupt not the Corinthians morals..., but their understanding of the Gospel (<i>The Second Epistle to the Corinthians</I> pp. 272-274).

(4) That Augustine sees Paul as the friend of the Bridegroom, that is, as a paranymph, the close relative or friend who helped find a bride, who arranged the terms of the marriage, and whose task it was also to see to it that the betrothed woman kept her virginity till the date of the marriage. Augustine often alluded to this figure in describing the work of John the Baptist (see Jn 3:28-30), St. Paul, and other figures, including his own role. It is quite a different understanding of the role of the ordained minister than the one that sees the latter as representing Christ the Bridegroom, that is, as acting in his role. For St. Augustine, the ordained minister does not stand in for Christ but for the friend of the Bridegroom. He often cited the Baptists words to make his point against certain Donatists who he felt were usurping the role of Christ: It is the Bridegroom who has the Bride. The friend of the Bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices with joy at the voice of the Bridegroom. 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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