What does ‘Remnant’ mean?

When we look at businesses or organizations as a whole, there tends to be a core group within the whole who constitute the “heart.” Not necessarily the ones who put in the longest hours or do the most taxing work, yet something irreplaceable and necessary rides on the shoulders of these core people: their vision, their behavior, their commitment. And through their work, the whole organization, all the way out to its margins, benefits and shares in, even can take on the character of, that core.

The Chicago Blackhawks of 2015 are a pertinent example. There is a spectrum that constitutes everything meant by “the Blackhawks.” Certainly much rides upon the shoulders of the players themselves, whom we can easily see as “the core.” Yet important also are the trainers, team management, all of the ticket-holders and fans, all the way to the kids who wear Patrick Kane jerseys at their neighborhood ice rink. All are part of the same “team” yet with different roles to play according to their gifts and vocation. Seen in this way, the “team” in the narrow sense becomes something of a wider “family.”

This manner of thinking can be applied to the Church, and particularly the Parish, with intriguing ramifications. The theological term used by the Church is “Remnant.” We find this in Saint Paul: “At the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5-6). In the Authorized Version (popularly but inaccurately called the “KJV”), the term also occurs in The Revelation to John (12:17): “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

To what does “woman” refer? Marian scholar Hilda Graef writes, “The early patristic tradition unanimously regards this woman as a symbol of the Church” (Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, Chap. 1). Later patristic, medieval and modern tradition grew to see the “woman” as a composite symbol of both the Church and Blessed Mary. Writes Graef: “Mary is not merely the individual mother of Jesus, she is also the ‘daughter of Sion,’ the representative of the People of God.” This means that Mary is representative of the Remnant as seen in Elisha, Amos, Micah, First Isaiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Joel, Ezra, and Deutero-Isaiah. Furthermore, Remnant is directly implied by the stories of Noah (Gen 7:23), Abraham (Gen 18:12-32), Jacob (Gen 32:9), and Joseph (Gen 45:7). In each of these instances we see the common theme in two parts: 1. a person or small group of people chosen by God as His instrument and 2. upon whom the salvation of the whole world depends.

These are in fact complementary emphases. For without the core people who are chosen (elected) by God, who continue in the example of Blessed Mary and reform into ever-greater likeness of Jesus, what are the Saints but curious, even bizarre, people? Likewise, absent the participation of the wider community according to their gifts and talents, what claim can the Church possibly make to being “Catholic,” a term which means “universal” and “according to the whole”? And without the whole, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7) is empty sentiment.

Now, just as the Blackhawks players must, in fact, play, the Remnant must do their work in relationship to the whole. This work is the perpetuation of Christ comprehensively and completely. A classic description of the Church is that it is the extension of the Incarnation of Christ. This in fact is a Remnant way of describing the Church: people who are to be the extension of Him. The preaching, teaching, healing, leading—all of what Jesus did—we can sum up as His Prayer, which was always in perfect adoration of the Father Almighty. By perpetuating His prayer, we perpetuate Him, by His grace—and actual people are called by God to do this. These people we call the “faithful Remnant” and together with their community, “the Remnant Parish”—all exercising their gifts and talents given by God for the common good.

It is a severe distortion to imagine that only the Remnant is going to heaven, a mistake some are tempted to make. Our Lord did not command his Apostles to baptize the nations so that, upon baptism, they would perish in eternal damnation. Rather, His command was for the salvation of the whole world. The faithful Remnant Parish is not pessimistically withdrawn from the world; Remnant is the opposite of retreat. Remnant means engagement, as Jesus himself was the Suffering Servant giving himself to all of humanity.

Our terms are that we are to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” from our Baptismal Covenant. Likewise, the faithful Remnant and Remnant Parish pray as a family on behalf of those members of society who do not sense any calling whatsoever to attend church, and even are actively antagonistic towards Christianity. Such a parish prays in part because others cannot or will not—Remnant prayer is “substitutionary prayer,” so to speak. This is particularly evident liturgically during the Prayers of the People: “Let us pray for the Church and for the whole world,” “For all people in their daily life and work” (Forms IV and VI). The Remnant Parish is distinct because called by God, yet is intimately and sacramentally connected with, and responding to, the concerns, challenges, problems and evils of the world through the compassion of Christ.

What emerges in relief are five, possibly startling, points for further pastoral, devout experimentation:

  • The Remnant are “the bearers of the community’s future existence” (Fr Leslie Hoppe, OFM, The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 827). Canonical and local Saints teach us about who we the Church will become.
  • In the Remnant is an infectious holiness demonstrated through purity in worship, loyalty in faith, and complete abandonment to God and His Providence. Remnant prayer is the prayerful center of the Parish and is its central activity.
  • The Remnant serves the whole of the Parish. As Fr Thornton wrote, “It is the very heart which recapitulates and serves the whole; in fact the complete Body of Christ in microcosm, and its relation to the environment is the relation between Christ and the twelve, to their world. This palpitating heart pumps blood of life to all the body as leaven leavens the lump or salt savors the whole” (The Heart of the Parish, IV). The primary condition is that a parish “believes, practices, and teaches the full Catholic faith and supports and promotes authentic Catholic culture,” in the words of Fr Fraser. True catholicity implies locality.
  • The norm of parochial Prayer is the threefold Regula performed daily by the members of the faithful Remnant, elected by God to pray vicariously on behalf of all, and joined by the whole community as they are able, which typically means in the celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Remnant prayer truly pervades all.
  • Part and parcel of Remnant reality in the parish is Catholic imagination. To wit: “It is not, however, merely the human part of the created order that receives redemption and makes its true self-offering to God by joining ‘with the angels and archangels’ in the heavenly worship. The whole material realm in involved, for man is ‘nature’s priest.’ . . . Not only man, but the universe, will be transfigured and glorified, and in this transfiguration the great mystery of the Resurrection of the Body will be brought about” (20th-century Anglican divine Eric Mascall, in Christ, the Christian, and the Church, XIII and IX). Parochial activity overflows into all of life and involves the whole material realm.

What, in sum, does Remnant mean? Remnant doctrine emphasizes that God does His saving work through His Body. He works through the diverse gifts and graces He has given particular members to exercise for the benefit of all (see 1 Cor 12). As a whole, we are “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20). Remnant doctrine synthesizes fundamental Church’s theology (e.g., Incarnation, Baptism and all the Sacraments, the Church, Election/Vocation, People of God, Theosis) and emphasizes both corporate and individual aspects of our shared call to follow the example of Blessed Mary and all the Saints in obedient life dedicated to Jesus, extending and perpetuating the Catholic faith within Christ’s Church with infectious holiness and through vicarious, trinitarian prayer (Regula). Remnant doctrine teaches that the one Body of Christ shares in each other’s God-given gifts and graces, and is so doing we share in the prayer life of those particular souls, lay and ordained, who are elected by God to the full life of Christian prayer on this earth.

In short, Remnant means being Blessed Mary’s children. The Mother and Bearer of God—Theotokos—Saint Mary is also, we must proclaim, the Mother of the Remnant. Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.