Throughout my adult life, I had believed that Pentecost was the birthday of the church. After all, Pentecost was the day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and other followers of Christ. A frightened and seemingly lost group of individuals was forged into one body with a mission of bringing the good news to all nations.
That's certainly part of the story. But if we want to find the birthday of the church, we need to look for a less uplifting occasion — the crucifixion.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the Second Vatican Council in making the point that the church was born from the blood and water which flowed from the side of Christ as he lay dead on the cross: "'For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the "wondrous sacrament of the whole church."' As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam's side, so the church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross" (Catechism, no. 766).
Certainly this is a puzzling notion for people in the late 20th century trained to view reality in a most literal fashion and to see the church as one more organization in society, albeit one that was divinely instituted.
However, this is one of many points where the church's teaching forces us to let go of our literal-mindedness and to seek spiritual understanding. Visible realities become signs of a greater reality which exists on an eternal plane.
"Mystery" is one of the most commonly-used words in the catechism. In this section, it pops up several times, most notably in another quote from Vatican II: "The church 'is the reign of God already present in mystery'" (no. 763).
The church, one might say, provides a hint or anticipation of what eternal life will be. Eternal life is already a reality, but we see it, as Paul said, "in a mirror, dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Jesus' preaching of the good news then is actually the first step in the establishment of the church. The church was born on Calvary and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost made for the sanctification of the church, an everlasting seal of the Holy Spirit on its ministry of governing and sanctifying.
But what of this birth of the church?
On the cross, Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant and opened up to humanity the possibility of a whole new way of life. God's covenant with the Jewish people calls them to lead morally upright lives. They were called to act out of something greater than their instincts and emotions. They were called to live by a moral law which sometimes meant overcoming one's selfish desires in order to do the right thing.
But often God's people failed to live up to this moral law. They disappointed God by turning away from the law. This happened because, on their own, people do not have the ability to consistently do what is right. The inclination to sin is that great.
Christ's death on the cross offered us the way to overcome sin in our lives. Christ entered into an intimate solidarity with each one of us in our pain and loneliness. And he called us to be in solidarity with him at his moment of crucifixion. We can share in the water and blood which flowed from the side of Christ.
St. John Chrysostom, the great fourth century bishop of Constantinople, explains this further in his Catecheses: "Water and blood symbolized baptism and the Holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the church is born: from baptism, the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal from the Holy Spirit, and from the Holy Eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam."
Through baptism and the Eucharist we are fashioned into something previously unimaginable — one body in Christ, a people empowered to leave sin behind by relying on God's presence in the graces of the sacraments.
The development of a people united with God through Christ's death on the cross is a great mystery, one which stretches human understanding. This mysterious body is something quite different than what sociologists can analyze. Yet, it is something which we continue to live today, united through the water and blood from Christ's side with all other Christians over the last 2,000 years and into an undetermined future.
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