Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Building Blocks: Where Did the Catholic Church Come From? - Homily for January 15

In the first Sunday of Advent, I mentioned that I would begin doing homily series and that those would include lots of things on the basics of our faith - the hows, whats, whys of our daily experiences of Catholicism. What followed was a series of things that didn't exactly seem like the basics; they may not have been formed with a lot of questions of why, what and how, but indeed I prefaced them as a sort of foundation before we get into the things of our faith. I say that because if you remember, in Advent, we looked at the reconciliation of God: how the coming of Christ, first in the flesh, as He comes to us through the course of our days (in the scriptures, the Eucharist, and various other ways, as well as the coming in glory that we await in the end - all have one singular purpose: mainly to reconcile broken humanity back to the Father. As Christmas came upon us, we reflected upon the earthly life of Jesus, and especially those invitations for us to meditate upon the marvels that God shows to us, of how the Lord speaks to us in so many various ways through the course of our days. And last week, the invitation for us to obey the voice of the Lord when we hear Him speaks. Those points are important for us, again, because unless we recognize that reconciliation is our entire purpose, our entire goal in this life, and when we hear the voice of God we ought to follow Him to be able to be reconciled, unless we know those things, we ultimately fall short and all else can be lost because we fail to recognize the foundation of everything we do. 

For this entering into ordinary time in the Church year, I want to begin some of those basics that I mentioned during the First Sunday of Advent - to look at some of the whys, whats and hows of our faith. And I want to begin with looking at some of those things that are the basic building blocks of our Catholic experience. This week I would like to look at the question of "Where did the Catholic Church come from?". Next week, to look at, "Where did the Bible come from?, " and the week after that, the things that we profess as Catholics that are not in the Bible, where do we get that and why does it hold weight if it's not explicitly found in the scriptures. I would like to use these starting points for us in our reflection through the course of this year. 

And so, where did the Catholic Church come from?

We can find lots of answers for that particular questions. We can say, as the secular wisdom tells us and various encyclopedias, that the Catholic Church was found by Jesus Christ. It's true. We can say that the Church first came into being on Pentecost Sunday with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles when they received the fullness of the strength to be able to go out and spread the Good News as Christ calls. And indeed that's true. But I would like for us to go back a little further and find the roots of our faith. Not just the external express because that's only a small portion of what we experience. 

The roots of our faith ultimately go back to the same thing we talked about in Advent, mainly reconciliation with God. In the first reading today from the prophet Isaiah, we heard the Lord God speaks to Isaiah, but through Isaiah to the whole people of Israel, the whole Jewish people saying, "I will make you a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." That is our starting point. Again, always the invitation for us to focus on our reconciliation with God, the story of salvation. And so what I'd like to do, as brief as possible, is to be able to give you the salvation history timeline. Now we could go out and break this up. There's a DVD series that has 24 DVDs that are an hour long each that cover exactly this, so if you feel like I am giving you a whole bunch of information and you can't keep up with it all, there is a whole bunch more to be had and it goes at a much slower pace. You're welcome to go check it out. We also have on our website the link to FORMED.org that we subscribed to as a parish, you'll find a number of works that are very similar to this. If you are looking for more time to immerse yourself, we've got resources for it. But I would like to go back to the roots, to tell the whole story, from Adam and Eve until today. So ... pray that it's under half an hour. (I’m not joking)

Adam and Eve begin. They are created by our Lord God and He breathes life into them. We know the accounts. Adam and Eve have their children - Cain and Abel and Seth - and others that are not explicitly mentioned in scripture but that we know are there. And for generations, they go on doing exactly what the Lord God had said: to increase, multiple and to fill the face of the earth with your children. Except the problem is, because of the sin of Adam and Eve, as the generations increased, more and more come to recognize their brokenness, and the world falls into great depths of sin. The world is looking forward to a reconciliation with God. We know that in Genesis that as soon as Adam and Eve fell into their sin, the Lord God promised that a Virgin would bear a child, that the Man would crush the head of the serpent, and that ultimately God would have the victory. And so they looked forward to that day. But in the meantime, generation upon generation came and populated the earth. We know that at some point, the sin became so great that the Lord God sent a great flood. Noah, with the ark, brought a bunch of animals in and saved a number of the righteous and members of his family as well, and brought them safely to the land after the flood. The Lord God cleansing the world in a sense of its sin. So they start fresh once more, but it didn't actually heal humanity. It's just that the worst part was deleted in a sense and we started over, much like Adam and Eve. The families of Noah, the children of Noah, go out to various nations, and we can trace in the scriptures where exactly they went. We can look at where they went, and the nations began to increase and multiple once more. And always this longing for reconciliation with God. 

There came a day when the Lord God said, "It's time to begin the work." For generations, they have been waiting, but today is the day. He takes one man, Abram, whom he would later name Abraham, and he says, "Abram, I want to form a covenant with you. I want to form a family bond." That's what a covenant is, it's not just a contractual agreement. It would be a family bond that 'you're going to be a part of my family and I'm going to be a part of yours.' And so the Lord God says, "Abram, in your person, I want you to be part of the family of God." And as part of that covenant, as with a contract, there are promises and stipulations that were made. Abram was promised three things by God. First, "Your generations will increase." Remember how Abram looks up at the sky and the Lord God says, "As numerous as the stars in the sky, so greater will be the children that come forth from you." His family was to be immensely blessed even in his old age. So it's that question of faith for Abraham. So the Lord God promised him a greater lineage. From that, He secondly blessed him saying, "I will give you a promised land," the land of Israel as we understand it today. And He said, "This land I will give to you and your future generations." Lastly He said, "Through your family, I will bestow upon the whole world My blessings." There is ultimate crown that in the end, God will bless the entire world through this one particular family, ultimately through one particular man, Abraham himself. 

So begins the story of reconciliation: Abraham had Isaac, Isaac had Jacob, Jacob had the twelve sons. If you remember the story of how the twelve sons, eleven of them were jealous of their youngest brother, the baby brother, and so they sold him off to the Egyptians for a little profit... always a good idea, right? To sell your little brother and get a little money on the side ... And providentially, the Lord God used that because Joseph, the young one, worked his ways up the ladder by God's grace to be the second in charge in Egypt, second to Pharaoh, his right hand. And when the famine struck, the eleven brothers who remained and all the family who was with him, they fled to Egypt because Egypt had food. It was Joseph who became a type of Christ of saving the people. Joseph took in his nation, and he brought them into Egypt safely. Soon, they entered into exile in a sense. By being in Egypt, they were taken into slavery, and became slaves of the Egyptians, forced to build their towns, cities, etc. By all the time, the nation increased. More and more the people of God grew. The time came of course where God raised up Moses after several hundred years, and Moses brought the people of God out of Egypt, passed through the Red Sea, and they wondered in the desert for 40 years. At the end of that time, they entered into the Promised Land, the land of Israel. And there they rejoiced. 

To take a brief aside, as I'm speaking, I'm using multiple terms, but all are referring to one particular people. As Isaiah said, that was a common Jewish custom; they would say things in different phrases that meant the exact same thing just to heighten the intensity of it. They would say something and then double it up. As we heard in Isaiah, "They will raise up the tribes of Jacob, and they will restore the people of Israel." They were saying the exact same thing because the tribes of Jacob were the people of Israel. The people of Israel are the Jews. The Jews are Judaism. It's an interesting thing because a lot of times we can get the terms mixed up. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham. And Jacob is the last of the patriarchs (the fathers - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Jacob one night fought with an angel and after wrestling with this angel all throughout the course of the night, the angel bestowed his blessing upon him and then gave him a new name which always indicates a new mission. The name that was given to him was Israel which means, "The one who wrestles with God." So whenever we hear "Jacob," it simultaneously means Jacob the individual as well as the entire family tree that comes forth from Jacob. When we hear "Israel," we understand Jacob the man who was renamed Israel, but also the entire people is Israel because the entire people now wrestles with God, trying to make sense of God's will and living in that family with God, trying to make sense of everything as the Lord God speaks. So too, they were also later referred to as the Jews, the Jewish nation. It was interesting because it was not only a nation; it was a family tree that became a political nation, but also was a religion. It was one particular family, who became a country, literally, and that country was embody with the one true worship of the one true God. So, whenever we say Israel, the Jews, Judaism, Jacob, it's all the same. We have to think in both contexts. And so, getting back off the side track there ... 

Now that the people of God have entered into Israel, into the Promised Land, we see that two of the promises of God have been fulfilled. Entering into the Promised Land, you can go back and they have the numbers exactly of each tribe of how many were included, and it's well over a million people. I think it was 1.6 million people who were wondering in the desert for those 40 years and ultimately walked into Israel and the Promised Land. So, many people in the generations of Abraham. The land has been given - the Promised Land - but they are still waiting for when God will bless the entire world through their family. They are looking for the day and they don't see it yet because so far they have seen exile and slavery. Where is the blessing that will come through them to the world? And they wait for that for many years. 

As each of the twelve tribes get into Israel, the twelve sons of Jacob, they get their own portion of the land, a family portion. They are basically states in the country of Israel that was given to them. They go through the course of their years. They raise of kings, David and Solomon and so forth. The king became divided, north and south, and their was raising up of other kings and all sorts of upheaval in the political realm of things. Through that time there was even more separation. The people of God were exiled from the Promised Land twice before the coming of Christ. What happened during the exile, they would be prisoners of wars. A foreign country would come in and conquer the army of Israel. Rather than taking all the people and bringing them to one other place where they would be together and possibly have an uprising there overturning the government in return, what they would do is take the individuals in small groups. For example, if there were 100 people, they would take 5 and send them to one city, 5 people and send them to another city, and so on spreading them all through the nations, all over the empire they controlled they would send the various people they would conquer. The Jewish people, the Jewish nation, Jewish family, that was supposed to be a blessing to all the nations, began to disappear entirely almost. There was a point where there were almost no Jewish people in the land of Israel. And yet, the Lord God still had that one promise to give: universal blessing.

A thousand years passed from the time of King David, and a virgin conceives and bears a child. We know that story very well. Our Lady bears the Lord, and raised up, humbly living in Nazareth. St. Joseph as the father of the household. The Lord Jesus growing in holiness and wisdom, trying to understand what it is God the Father wills of Him in His earthly life. There comes the day where He enters into His ministry, and that's what we hear in the scriptures. As the Gospel comes to us, Jesus is baptized and we hear those blessed words of John, "Behold the Lamb of God." 'All these years, we were waiting for the blessing that would come forth from our family tree, here He is. This is the one. Follow Him. This is the one through whom all the world will experience God's blessing. The time is here. God is fulfilling His promise.' It was made manifest that that was exactly what was taking place as Jesus began to gather crowds around Him. Although He could have just kept it vague and general over the thousands around Him, He selected explicitly twelve people, twelve sons representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Any Jewish person looking at Jesus, hearing that He was the Lamb of God, and seeing Him raise up twelve disciples to gather around Him as a central core that would travel with Him, would have known immediately that everything is changing. The day God would come and restore the tribes of Israel, when He will raise up the sons of Jacob, it's now. And here He is at work. They would've understood that very clearly. They could've fought against it, and many did, because of the things that Jesus did and said, repulsed them. But they couldn't reject what He was saying. 

The Lord Jesus comes among us. For three years, He walks with those twelve and the countless thousands who walk around them. He trains them in the ways of His teachings. He gives them the new commandment of love. He tells them that one day, they will eat His body and drink His blood, and indeed they will do it in the same way He has, and so many other things. On the night before He died (as we will hear in just a few moments), He said those blessed words, "This is My body. This is My blood. Do this in remembrance of me." He went to His death on the cross and three days later was raised up in the tomb. For 40 days, He wandered around Israel appearing in different places to various peoples. We hear the accounts through the Acts of the Apostles. At the end of those 40 days, our Lord ascended into the heavens to sit at the right of God the Father and to claim the throne which was rightly His. Nine days later - the first novena - the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and our Lady who were gathered in the upper room in fear. In that moment, the birthday of the Church. 

The Church just didn't come out of nowhere. It's not as if the disciples were hanging out in the upper room thinking, "Well Jesus did this incredible thing. We ought to come up with a cool name for it and give it a title. Let's call it the Catholic Church. It'll be great!" It's not exactly what happened. But rather, they took their faith they knew, that they had been raised in through their entire life, and they lived it in a new way. There are so many things about our Catholic faith that are intensely Jewish, and yet we don't always clearly understand it. The arrangement of our churches is very similar to the arrangement of the Jewish temple. The vestment we wear, very similar to those that described in Leviticus, of how the priests were vested in the celebration of their rituals. The prayers we offer in Mass, very similar to those of our Jewish brothers. The fact that we come and celebrate two main parts to our Liturgy - the reading of the Word of God and the presence of the sacrifice - is the same as the Jews. The synagogue and the temple were meant to be together. We could go down a long list of things, but it suffices to say that the Catholic Church, Christianity, was not a radical transition or separation from Judaism, from the Jewish celebration of the faith, but rather the fulfillment of it. For a thousand years people were looking for the one who would bring the universal blessing to the world. In Christ Jesus, it begins, But He knew that He wanted it to go from generation to generation, and it wasn't His job to stay here among us in the flesh. And so He formed His Church. He reconstituted the twelve tribes in a sense. He gave the mission to go forth, to be the light to the nations, to spread the good news of salvation to all the earth. 

Those disciples took that message, went out and began to preach. Enlivened by the Holy Spirit, they went from town to town preaching about this Jesus. They would speak of the name of Jesus. They would set up shop somewhere, often times a synagogue or a local center of town, and they would teach the things that Jesus said, and tell about the things that Jesus did. As people would come and begin to listen and believe in this Jesus, they would do this for days, weeks, months, even years at a time. As the Christian community would be formed up, eventually there would come a day where the apostle or the disciple who was there, saw that they were more or less self-sustaining; that the apostle didn't need to be there anymore and he could go off elsewhere. And so they would ordain a priest to be able to offer the Eucharist. They would have deacons to assist in the service of the community, to serve those who were sick or homebound. If there was a large enough community, they would come together and a bishop would be ordained, so that he could watch over a number of smaller churches. This was from the first centuries. It wasn't something that was made years and years down the line. We can see all of these things within 100 years of the life of Christ. The disciples of the disciples write and speak of these things. 

In the 2,000 years subsequently, yes things change. Things have happened that we have become more formalized, more ritualized. But the reality is the same. That the Lord God comes and He sets one particular person over a community, and He says to build up the faith. That one is sent out to go, to preach and to teach. His disciples come. The day comes that the community seems to be self-sustaining and they move to the next place. Over and over and over again it's happened through history. And yet, here we are, almost exactly the same as the first day. The same mission. The same people. The same Holy Spirit who comes to compel us. That's where the Catholic Church comes from. Not from men, but from God. It's the fulfillment of the promise of God who said to Abraham 3500 years ago, "Through your family, all nations will be called blessed. Through you there will be a universal blessing." The word Catholic means universal. 

Brothers and sisters, we are the blessing. Not in ourselves in the sense that we are a blessing from God, God's gift to the world, but in the sense that we bring the name of Jesus. Every single one of us is a Christian. We bear the name of Christ, conformed to Jesus by our Baptism. We are lights, just like that of Christ, sent forth into the world. A world where darkness is meant to be cast out, it is our place to do so. We are the light to the nations. We are the ones who bring salvation to the world. What a blessing to be a part of the mission of God. What a blessing to be a part of the promise, to be a part of God's promise that He spoke Himself, is fulfilled in you. It's your words, your deeds that become the light to the nations, salvation to the people. 

May God grant us the grace today to open our hearts to Him even more than we already have, to let the light shine even more than it already does, to rejoice in being a part of the people of God, a chosen people, a holy people, ones called to go forth and share the light, to make known the name of Jesus. Let's call upon our Lord, to adore Him and worship Him here, that we might be able to rejoice and show Him and we leave forth today.