The church militant

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William Blake, “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun” (c. 1806-1809)

In his commentary on the twelfth chapter of Revelation, Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina gives a picture of the church militant that I find so powerful as to quote at length:

Because God has not kept his distance and because the Messiah is born and dies in history, the church exists to insure that he is not lacking in younger sisters and brothers. In its “Marian” dimension, the church is our mother. It brings forth children into a dangerous world, a world in which its adversary, the devil, is always seeking new victims to devour. At the center of the vision in Rev. 12 is the figure of warfare, Michael and his angels fighting against the devil and his angels. Let the reader understand: Christ and his followers against the powers! The vision concludes on an ambiguous note, with a clear indication that the warfare continues even up to the present day: “The dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring” (12:17). Who else can “the rest of her offspring” be but the present hearers of the Apocalypse, whether in the ekklēsia of the first century or in the missionary congregations of the twenty-first? 

The picture of the church that emerges from Rev. 12 is of a harassed, threatened, and quite vulnerable community. Vatican II famously spoke of the church as the “pilgrim people of God”. That phrase should not be taken to mean progress along a series of tourist stops following a safe, well-established route. In the medieval world, setting forth on pilgrimage was a dangerous activity: the church’s existence can be no less so. There will, of course, be certain signposts, markers left by past pilgrims to guide us across a forbidding landscape. For these we can only be grateful. This does not change the church’s movement through the world having the character of improvisation, a constant relying on the grace of God rather than a mastery marked by total control. That the church can, however, rely on God’s grace means that we can have confidence in the church surviving (and even flourishing) despite all the assaults of the evil one. In traditional language, this is the Christian conviction concerning the “indefectibility” of the church. Truly the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).  

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2 thoughts on “The church militant

    • My students are looking at Marc Chagall and I am giving them the choice of reinterpreting their impressions of that passage (we are learning about in chapel) from the book of Revelation.
      Such rich imagery and great thoughts!

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