The Birth of the Church
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"But . . . the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (Jn 14:26).
These words of Our Lord, taken from his last discourse on the night before he died, contain his promise to send the Holy Spirit to give life to his Church. In the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we find St. Luke's account of this great event.
The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles is called Pentecost and is considered the "birthday" of the Church. On this day the Holy Spirit appeared - in the form of fire - to the small community of Jesus' followers who had gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem - the first members of the Catholic Church. The Holy Spirit gave them the grace to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ so that the Church might increase and spread as Our Lord has commanded.
Pentecost was, however, only the final step in God's plan to establish his Church on earth. For thousands of years God had been preparing for this moment when his Church would finally be manifested to the world. There were, in fact, three stages in the establishment of the Church. It was prefigured in the Old Testament, made present during Christ's life on earth, and made manifest to the world on Pentecost.
The beginnings of the Church can be found in the promises God made to Adam after the Fall. God made further promises to Noah after the flood. In fact, the ark, which saved Noah and his family from the waters of the flood, is a symbol of the Church.
With Abraham and the formation of the chosen people, the origins of the Church become more clear. At this stage, God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants to be their protector. This was the beginning of the "ekklesia" - the people set apart - that they might become holy.
As we follow the history of the chosen people - the Jews - we see even more clearly the early stages of the Church. When Moses led his people out of Egypt God renewed his covenant (now with the whole people), making them into a true nation. Now they began to worship God through a formal religion, with special ceremonies and a certain code of moral behavior, namely, the Ten Commandments. They now prefigured what what Peter said of the Christian Church. They were a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people. . ." (1 Pet 2:9).
In the laws of the Old Covenant we can see the Church prefigured. This chosen race, a people set apart, was established with a sacred priesthood to celebrate their Liturgy. This worship of God was a corporate act, that is, the action of the whole people. At the head of the chosen race was God himself, but on earth Moses was his representative. Under Moses there was a hierarchical structure. Aaron and his sons were priests and all other priests would come from their descendants, members of the tribe of Levi. All of this was so that this "church" could fulfill its purpose - to make the people holy.
Later in their history God formed his people into a kingdom, renewing his covenant with David, who foreshadowed the eternal King - Christ. This chosen people was now firmly established, with God as King and David as his earthly vicar, a foreshadowing of the relationship of Christ and the head of his Church.
God continued to reveal himself and his will to the people through the prophets. Through these prophets God prepared this chosen race for the coming of the Savior, through whom the Church would be firmly established.
"In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things; through whom he also created the world" (Heb 1:1-2).
When the Son of God became a man and made his dwelling among us, the Church was actually established on earth. Christ laid the foundations as he preached during his public life. First he chose twelve disciples, called apostles, who were to be the leaders of the Church. They were from different backgrounds some were uneducated - simple fishermen; another was educated and held a position in the government - a tax collector. Jesus spent a great part of his time teaching and forming this group of specially chosen men, the Twelve Apostles. To the multitude he taught in parables, but to the Twelve he spoke directly, "The secret of the Kingdom of God is given to you, but to those outside everything is in parables" (Mk 4:12). His intention clearly was that they would be carriers of his message: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men" (Mk 1:17).
One of the apostles, Peter, was chosen by Our Lord to be the leader of all and to be Jesus' representative on earth. After Peter demonstrated great faith, Our Lord said to him, ". . .you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the kings of the kingdom . . ." (Mt 16:18-19). By giving Peter the "keys" Our Lord signified the authority that was given to Peter.
At the Last Supper, the night before he died, Our Lord prayed for unity in his Church. He prayed "not. . . for those only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they ay all be one . . ." (Jn 17:20-21). He also promised to send them the Holy Spirit so that they might recall all that Jesus had taught them and be able to teach his message. Through these words Jesus made it clear that his Church was to continue after his death.
When Our Lord ascended into Heaven, the basic structure of the Church was complete. By his death he merited for us the graces of salvation. We call this the deposit of grace, which is dispensed to us through the sacraments of the Church. The truths that Our Lord revealed during his three years of public life and during the forty days after the Resurrection were given in a special way to the apostles so that they might teach others. This we call the deposit of faith.
The last instruction of Our Lord to the apostles, according to St. Matthew's Gospel, mandated the mission of his Church. On the day of the Ascension, Our Lord told his followers, let by St. Peter and the apostles, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:19-20). The Church, in other words, must manifest herself to the world.
Ten days later, while the leaders of the Church were gathered in prayer, this manifestation began. The Holy Spirit, promised by Our Lord, descended upon them, and they were filled with the Spirit of Love and Truth, who gave them the grace to go forth and preach. On this day Peter, as leader of the Church, preached his first sermon to the Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem, urging them to be baptized and there were added that day about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). At this point the Church began her mission to the world.
Since that first Pentecost, the Church has grown and spread into every part of the world. The same Church that was prefigured in the Old Testament, formed by Christ, and manifested to the world on Pentecost still exists today, leading men to God. The Church was finally established as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation . . . who in times past were not a people, but now are the People of God" (1 Pet 2:9-10).
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
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