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May 30, 2016

Following the celebration of Pentecost, the Church moves abruptly into Ordinary Time. Prior to Vatican II, this lengthy season was referred to as the Sundays after Pentecost, and the continuity was clear. There were as many as 27 such Sundays, followed by the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which is now the feast of Christ the King.

Today, we often call Pentecost the birthday of the Church, which on one level is accurate. On another level, it can be seen as trivializing this great feast by surrounding it with an aura of birthday cakes, party hats and streamers. It gives the impression that the Church is more institution than communion. Institutions celebrate their anniversaries; a Christian communion is rooted in the Holy Spirit.

The Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for Pentecost refers to the Spirit bringing forth the profession of one faith "as the Church came to birth." However, Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) states, "The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus." That statement, in line with the council's understanding of the Church as a sacrament, would make Good Friday the point of the Church's birth.

Later on, Lumen Gentium refers to Israel wandering in the desert as the Church of God. The New Israel, which lives in the current age, but which yearns for the future, abiding city of God, is the Church of Christ.

The point of such comments is not to spark a controversy over the real birthday of the Church. Rather, it is to call us to a deeper understanding of the Church as well as of the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in the world and in drawing us to the fullness of the kingdom.

The Church, while it is expressed in institutions that come and go, is a sacramental reality in which abides the presence of the Holy Spirit. We ought to be aware of this distinction since Eastern Orthodox theologians - not without reason - have long criticized the Western Church as over-institutionalizing the Church's nature as well as having a seriously deficient understanding of the Holy Spirit.

Vatican II made a start at responding to these critiques. However, an institutional understanding of the Church is still well ingrained in the Catholic faithful. Further, the council took only baby steps toward developing the Church's theology of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is the communion of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ, a sacrament, which is on journey as a pilgrim to its final realization when Christ comes to be Lord of the universe. Each of those notions can be explored as we deepen our understanding of the mystery of the Church.

Discontinuing references to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church is one small step towards deepening our communion with our Orthodox brothers and sisters.