Our faith continually invites us to look at the visible world and make analogies that will help us understand the spiritual world. The prayer of blessing the Baptismal water at the Easter Vigil, for example, reminds us, that the Father "give[s] us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of [His] unseen power." Thus, when he arrives at the sentence of the Creed in which we profess our faith in the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas asks us to consider what makes us the persons we are: individuals composed of body and soul. He answers that as a human soul gives life to our bodies, so the Holy Spirit gives life to the body we call the Church.
The ancient word for "church" is ecclesia, which means "assembly." In the early days of our Christian history, the building we now call a church was called domus ecclesiae, "the house of the church." To profess our faith in the Church expresses our belief that each of us is a member of something far greater than any of us is individually - an assembly of believers, animated by the Holy Spirit, to continue the work of Our Savior.
No matter how closely we may resemble one another, each person differs in some way from every other. One of the Churchís early writers, St. John Damascene (c.676-749), argued that these unique personal qualities are what identify us as individuals, because we do not define something by what it has in common with other similar, beings, but by what distinguishes it from the rest. When we look at the Church, and compare it to other institutions, we see that it, too, is distinguished by identifying characteristics.
The first of these distinguishing marks is the Churchís unity. Jesusí words, especially at the Last Supper, when He asks the Father, "...that they may be one even as we are one, I in them, and Thou in me..." (Jn 17:22), reveal how deeply He was concerned for unity among His followers. Similarly, unity among its members was a concern for Church leaders from the beginning. In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul begs the members of the infant Church, "...that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Cor 1:10).
The Ten Commandments, the Creed, and Christís words, recorded in the gospel accounts, form the basis of the Churchís unity in faith. This unity is preserved and guarded by the Churchís teaching authority, which helps the faithful to understand what Jesus demands of us, here and now, and what He promises for the future. The sermons preached at Mass, no less than the writings of the Church Fathers, theologians, and other spiritual authors, guide and help the members of the Church to grow in faith. Taken together, these explanations of Godís Word form the "deposit of faith," a vast storehouse of wisdom from which individual Christians take the instruction that equips them to enlighten the world with Christís wisdom, and warm it with His love.
Faith reveals the Eternal Life Christians look forward to. So great a gift is obviously beyond our unaided grasp, but hope gives us the certainty that while the rewards of heaven may be hard to obtain, they are not impossible. Hope also enables us to trust in Godís assistance as we strive toward the reward He promises. Thus, St. Paul writes of "...the one hope that belongs to your call" (Eph 4:4). Here again, the Churchís teaching authority draws Christians together, by describing the good things God has prepared for His followers.
In his first letter, St. John describes the movement of love. It is not, he says, "...that we [have] loved God but that He loved us and sent the Son to be the expiation for our sins" (1 Jn 4:10). St. Thomas elaborates on these words and teaches that Godís love for us enables us to love God in return. As friends influence one another, Godís love influences us, and we begin to love Godís creatures (beginning with ourselves) as God does.
Our theology teaches that gifts are never given just to enrich the one who receives them, so Godís for us must overflow in love for one another, and for the world God has created. "For each," St. Thomas preached in his homily on the Creed, "ought to be of service to his neighbor by making use of the grace God has bestowed on him."
"Godís temple is holy," St. Paul writes, "and you are that temple" (1 Cor 3:17). The Church is holy, as an institution, because it is a society established by Christ and given life by His Spirit; the Church is holy as an assembly because Jesus commands it to wash its members in Baptism.
The holiness of the Churchís members is further promoted through the anointing Christians receive in Confirmation, and the daily benefits they receive through the continuing life of Godís Spirit in their midst. Finally, the Church daily invokes Godís blessing upon its members so that their actions may reflect the holiness of God.
The evangelists Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus commanded His disciples to "go into the whole world..." (Mt 28:19, Mk 16:15). Thus, the Churchís faith in Christ is professed in all nations, and the testimony of the Churchís early writers reveals the efficiency of the Churchís missionary activity to carry the Gospel to all parts of the known world. The 2nd Century bishop and martyr, St. Irenaeus, wrote
However, the universality of Christís Church is not simply a matter of geography. The Church is universally, i.e., equally, present in each of its members, as St. Paul assures us "...there is neither slave nor free" among the members of Christís Body, "neither male nor female" (Gal 3:28), Christ is manifest equally in each member of His Church. And the Church is present in every moment of human history. Christís promise to His disciples, "Behold, I am with you all days, even to the end of the world" (Mt 28:20) is a guarantee that the Church, prefigured in the Old Testament, will exist in visible form in time, and enjoy a spiritual existence throughout eternity.
A famous hymn by Samuel Wesley, a nephew of Charles and John Wesley (and a convert to Catholicism) proclaims, "The Churchís one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord." These words are easy to remember and thrilling to sing, but like the very best of the Churchís artistic tradition, they also convey a profound truth, namely, "no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus" (I Cor 3:11).
Upon this foundation is laid the written testimony of the apostles, and the example of their dedicated lives and heroic deaths. Each of us is called to add to the edifice of Christís Church, but the testimony of the apostles remains the first - and firmest - contribution.
The leadership of the early Church was entrusted to the apostle Peter (cf., Mt 16:18, Jn 21:15 - 17). Although the administration of the Church has evolved to meet the changing demands of the centuries, the Church has always been led by a successor of Peter. But perhaps more important than the lineage of the Popes, is the unbroken tradition of the Churchís theology. The expression of what Catholics believe must adapt itself to the ever-changing demands of the world the Church is called to save, but the tradition of the apostles remains the standard by which all doctrine is judged.
Peterís faith was often shaken, but each challenge was met with Christís promise of watchful care and eventual triumph. The Saviorís words, "I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail" (Lk 22:32) remind us that the weakness of individuals may mar the glory of Christís Church, but cannot undermine its stability. The Churchís spiritual and political foes may assault the Church from outside, while error and internal dissent among Church members may distress those within its walls, but Christ has promised that not even the gates of hell will prevail against His Church (Mt 16:18).
The Book of the Old Testament is a rich treasury of symbols from which we draw images that help us understand the mysteries of Godís purpose. St. Paul was the first to remark the parallels between Adam and Christ: one brought sin into the world through his disobedience, the other grace through His obedience to Godís command to offer His life for our salvation. And as soon as Church writers made a connection between the old Adam and the new, they began to consider the person of Adamís wife.
The author of the Book of Genesis relates, "the man called his wifeís name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living" (Gn 3:20). No individual stands in relation to Jesus in the same way the first woman did to Adam, but the Churchís activities and functions mirror the first Eveís, although with far different - and happier - outcomes.
When the Churchís early theologians wanted to describe the Church and its part in our salvation, they looked to Eve. As she was taken from the side of Adam, they saw the Church born from the water and blood that poured from Christís side on the cross. And as Eve gave birth to fallen humankind, the Church became the mother of humanity redeemed by Christ.
The author of the Book of Genesis looked at the physical union of our first parents and observed, "therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gn 2:24). The Preface of the Nuptial Mass reminds us that this companionship of husband and wife is "the one blessing not forfeited by sin, nor washed away in the flood." As St. Paul looked for images to describe Christís everlasting union with His Church, the intimacy of marriage must have come quite naturally to mind, for when he describes how husbands and wives ought to relate to one another he says,
Who can say why our human minds naturally seek to identify individuals who embody the qualities we admire? Whatever the reason, we are quick to confer labels on the individuals we hold in high esteem. We call George Washington the "Father of Our Country" because we hold both our nation and the notion of fatherhood in high regard. Washington never had children of his own, but the popular imagination endows him with paternal characteristics. Likewise, as we consider the Church, we look about for individuals whose behavior helps us to grasp some aspect of the Churchís presence in our lives.
As we have seen, the early Church found a helpful example in Eve as it sought to define itself. But Eveís example is often negative, so when the Church sought a positive role model, it embraced the Mother of God as the exemplar of all the noble attitudes, qualities, and behavior it stands for.
Most Catholics are familiar with the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, which addresses Mary by a number of lofty titles, among them: Tower of David, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Health of the Sick, and Refuge of Sinners. This litany dates to the end of the 16th Century, but some of the titles it confers on Mary were initially given to the Church, nearly a thousand years earlier. This evolution demonstrates that, over time, when the Church looked at itself it saw the image of the Blessed Virgin, and vice-versa.
Both Mary and the Church are honored as the "New Eve," because both said yes when our first parent said no. Both present Christ to the world, both show what we must do if we seriously wish to follow our Savior, and both share the distinction of being without sin from the first moment of their existence. To look at the Church is to see what each of us is called to be; to look at Mary is to see the way to our salvation.
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