By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Many of us have the notion that the Church was created on the day of Pentecost, that is to say, when the Holy Spirit descended into the hearts of the Apostles. And of course we could say that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church from the point of view that it was then that the Church became the Body of Christ. It acquired substance. However, the beginning and existence of the Church is to be found in the time before Pentecost.
Professor John Karmiris states that there are three phases in the emergence of the Church. The first is the creation of the angels and men, the second is the life of Adam in Paradise, but also the period of the Old Testament, and the third phase of the Church is the incarnation of Christ. Indeed the full revelation of the Church will take place at the Second Coming of Christ
Let us look more analytically at these periods of the Church, for then in some way we can grasp the mystery of the Church and gain a deeper awareness of our being and scope.
The beginning of the Church
It is a teaching of the holy Fathers that with the creation of the angels we have the emergence of the first Church. And it can be seen in the writings of the Fathers of the Church that the angels too are members of the Church. Moreover, God the Father is the creator of “all things visible and invisible”. Among the invisible are listed the angels, who sing in praise of God. In the book of Job this witness is preserved:
“When the stars were born all the angels in a loud voice sang in praise of me” (Job 38:7).
Thus, before the creation of the sensible world there were angels, who sang in praise of God for the creation. And, to be sure, this means that the angels were the first to be created by God.
The fact that the angels are members of the Church, since they sing in praise of God, appears in many troparia. I would like to mention one of these:
“By Thy Cross, O Christ, one flock came into being, of angels and men, and one Church: heaven and earth rejoice; O Lord, glory to Thee”.
Angels and men belong to the same Flock, to the same Church after the incarnation of Christ. But this means that this unity also existed in the life before the fall. In the teaching of the holy Fathers it is clear that the `last things’ are like the first and like those in between, because we cannot speak of eschatology apart from the life of man before the fall and apart from the deification of the saints already even before the Second Coming of Christ. Besides, according to the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas and other saints, the vision of the uncreated Light is the substance of the good things to come, this very Kingdom of God.
In Holy Scripture it is taught repeatedly that the angels constitute the first church. The Apostle Paul writing to the Hebrews says:
“You have come to Mount Zion to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly” (Heb. 12:22-23).
Thus the first Church, of which the angels were members, was spiritual. Clement of Rome says that the Church
“from above, first, created spiritual before the sun and moon, and being spiritual, it was made manifest in the flesh of Christ”.
And St. John Chrysostom, urging silence during the services in the Temple, said with his characteristic expressiveness:
“For the Church is not a barber’s shop nor a perfume shop nor any other workshop in the markets, but a place of angels, a place of archangels, Kingdom of God, heaven itself”.
Chrysostom says further that the Christian should have in mind that in the Church, especially during divine Worship, there is a “choir of angels”.
The angels are members of the Church because they too are created by God. Everything created is a creature, since it has a beginning. The angels not only were created by God, but they have also been perfected by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit. Therefore St. John of Damascus writes:
“All the angels were created by the Word and were perfected by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, taking part according to the standing and rank of their illumination and grace”.
This view that the angels are members of the Church is very moving. It is a witness of the saints, because many of them, like St. Spyridon, saw angels worshipping with them during the Divine Liturgy. And this offers another dimension to the spiritual life.
The first Church was completed with the creation of man, Adam and Eve, and their being placed in Paradise. So it is that men sang praises to the glory of God with the angels.