Feast of the Epiphany – January 2, 2011 – St. John’s
Every Sunday, in the third part of the Creed, dedicated to the Holy Spirit, we profess our belief “in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” that is, in our Church, in us, as one by faith and love, holy in virtue of our holy God’s gifts, catholic as all-inclusive, and apostolic as founded on the revelation made by Christ to the Apostles. Today’s feast celebrates the third of these characteristics of the Church: that it is catholic.
Catholic here does not name a denomination, that is, the Catholic Church as distinct from Protestant, Anglican, or Orthodox Churches. Catholic is a designation of the Church that goes back to the early second century, long before there were the kinds of divisions among Christian bodies that we are, unfortunately, so familiar with. Catholic is an adjective formed from a Greek phrase that refers to wholeness or integrity. It meant a Church that in principle was to be all-inclusive, embracing the whole of humanity, all the regions of the earth; it meant a Church in which all God’s gifts of word and grace were received and lived.
This was not simply a celebration of variety or of diversity for its own sake. To be catholic meant that all the diversity, all the wonderful variety, of tribes and nations and languages were to be brought together, made into a whole, and this, not because the variety and diversity were melted away and absorbed into a featureless pudding, but because a single faith was expressed and celebrated and lived in a hundred different cultures and languages. A catholic church was an integrated whole, whole because excluding no one, integrated because united in grateful faith in what God had done in Jesus Christ.
This belief about the Church is grounded in biblical readings such as the ones we have heard today. The passage from the prophet Isaiah beautifully describes how the light that will shine upon Israel when it is redeemed and restored by God will brilliantly bathe other nations also, who will bring their gifts and join Israel in “proclaiming the praises of the Lord.” The prophecy is fulfilled in anticipation when the magi from the east come with their gifts and fall down in adoration of the newborn King of the Jews. The coming of the magi at the beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel already looks forward to the end of it, when Christ will instruct the Apostles to “Go and teach all nations.” As we listened to the second reading we could still hear and almost feel the joyful awe with which St. Paul announced the great mystery that was unfolding before his eyes: “that the Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
St. Paul, of course, was the great instrument of this redemptive integration being accomplished in and as the Church: he was the great “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Two passages in his Epistles put the matter very concretely. In Christ, he told the Galatians (3:28), “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” The claim is even broader in the letter to the Colossians (3:11): “There is neither Gentile nor Jew…, barbarian nor Scythian, slave nor freeman; but Christ is all in all.” The differences between the sexes are overcome, as are those between civic and economic classes along with those among the nations: alongside Jews there now entered in also Greeks, and not just the civilized Greeks but barbarians, too, and not just barbarians, but even Scythians, people who symbolized all that was rude and uncivilized. All of them are welcome, and they all constitute that integrated whole that is a catholic Church.
We who have gathered here today are the heirs of the most important decision made in the first generation of Christ’s disciples: that the assembly of believers, the Church, would be catholic. All the great areas of the world are represented here, are they not: the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania. All the nations, too, and races. We could expand St. Paul’s list: there is here no Italian, nor Irish, nor Polish, nor British, nor Hispanic, nor African, nor Philippino, nor Chinese. Not that they are not here; but they’re not here because of their ethnic identity. Immigrants are welcome alongside the native-born. There is no economic criterion: the poor are here with the rich. Political affiliations don’t count: Democrats sit beside Republicans. All of these differences, which in other contexts can set groups against groups, are not obliterated, but transcended as we all confess our sins and ask for God’s mercy; as we all hear the word of God challenge and comfort us; as we all declare our belief in one God and in what he has done for us all in the one Christ and in the one Holy Spirit; as we together give thanks to the Lord, our God and ratify a single great prayer of thanksgiving with a common Amen; as we come together to receive the one Body and through this communion become what we have received: ourselves now “one body, one spirit, in Christ.” Through what we do and what we receive here we become, in all our diversity, the integrated whole that is a genuinely and concretely catholic Church.
All this, of course, is not just for ourselves. Our catholic gathering should become a sign, a demonstration, that a similar integration is possible elsewhere, within communities, within nations, and among nations. Catholics ought to be catholic not only in their churches but also in their families, in their workplaces, in their politics, in everything they do and say. If we Catholics are genuinely catholic not only in church on Sunday, but at all other times and places, too, then the light that shines upon us today will shine on others, too.