To see Christ only as a teacher who gave the world a new and beautiful message is to see only one aspect of His life and work. He not only taught, but He opened up a new way of life for every man and woman of every age. He founded a new people, the People God.
We have seen how the People of God gather with Christ around the altar in the sacrifice of the Mass and share together the Eucharistic meal (the meal of thanksgiving). In the Mass Christ Himself becomes the very food and drink of their souls under the form of bread and wine. All united together, the People of God offer themselves with Christ and in Christ to the Father, making a priceless gift of themselves, in this way.
The Bible uses other pictures to describe this People of God. Christ spoke of Himself as a Shepherd who gathers the sheep into one safe fold. “I am the Good Shepherd,” He said. “My sheep know me and I know them, just as my Father knows me and I know Him. And for these sheep I am laying down my life. I have other sheep too which do not belong to this fold. I must bring them in too; they will listen to my voice; so there will be one fold and one shepherd” (John 10, 14-16).
No man has ever spoken words like that about himself; and we have seen how in truth Jesus did lay down His life for His sheep. Christ also called Himself the door by which the sheep can enter into the fold.
The Bible often speaks of God’s people as a field, especially a field where grape vines grow. The Lord of the vineyard tends it with care, visits it often and watches over the growing fruit. Further, Christ, as we have already seen, calls Himself the vine: “I am the vine, you are its branches. If a man lives on in me and I on in him, then he will yield abundant fruit; separated from me, you have no power to do anything” (John 15, 5).
Finally, the People of God are called a body – the Body of Christ who is the Head, and we who are the members:
“The body is one and has many members, but all the members, many though they are, are one body; and so it is with Christ. It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body. All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit.
“Now the body is not one member, it is many. If the foot should say, because I am not the hand I do not belong to the body,’ would it then no longer belong to the body? If the ear should say, `because I am not the eye I do not belong to the body! If the body were all eyes, what would happen to our hearing? As it is, God has set each member of the body in the place he waited it to be. If all the members were alike, where would the body be? There are, indeed, many different members, but one body…”
“God has so constructed the body… that there may be no dissension in the body, but that all the members may be concerned for one another. If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honoured, all the members share its joy. You, then are the body of Christ. Every one of you is a member of it” (I Corinth. 12, 12-27).
All these comparisons help us to understand the close bond between the Church, its members and Christ. But none of them can fully describe the riches that Christ brings to us, His people. However, from them we gather:
Any association or club that is made of members has its rule or method of admission for mew members. The People of God is for every man, woman and child because God is the Father of all, and Christ died to bring His new life to all.
The People of God is not for any particular race or nation, but for all. Therefore, membership is not restricted to birth in a particular place or caste. Membership comes to the person who accepts Christ as the way to the Father when he or she is baptized. Baptism is an action established by Christ in which He Himself comes to meet us, in which He gives us a lasting share in His own life. In Baptism a person is either plunged into water or water is poured on his head as a sign of life and the washing away of all sins.
It was not without reason that Christ chose water as the sign of new life in Baptism Men have always seen its life-giving power. Each year the monsoon rain bears witness to this. We live through the long summer months with dry , dusty fields not having a trace of life in them. Then suddenly, clouds gather in the sky, the monsoon busts, and almost overnight, the miracle of new life bursts forth to cover the fields like a rich green carpet that grows steadily to feed and nourish the whole people.
Washing with water is also a symbolic action among almost all nations and peoples to signify cleansing form sin. Men have always recognized this purifying power of water. They have journeyed to distant rivers to bathe in their waters in the hope of washing away their sins, of starting life anew. In our own land bathing in the Ganges or any other of the holy rivers of India is considered a highly meritorious act. Christ took up this deep urge felt by men everywhere for self-purification and gave a new power to the waters of Baptism; for in Baptism, He Himself comes to dwell in the very depths of a man or woman, bringing new life to replace a selfish self.
Baptism in Christ is truly a new life, a new life in Christ. This new life has a negative and positive aspect. Negatively, both our own personal sins as well as the inherited guilt of original sin are washed away. Positively, the life of Christ (or the life of Grace as it is also called) begins in the soul of the baptized persons, so much so that a person could say with St Paul: “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me.” Jesus Himself commanded this rite of Baptism when He said to His disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28, 18).
Baptism in Christ is both a death and a life – it is Christ’s death and rising to a new life repeated in me. It is truly a rebirth that puts an end to any need for a series of rebirths to escape the consequences of sins. Saint Paul’s words are worth reading again here:
“Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.
“If we have been united with him through likeness to his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection. This we know, our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might be slaves to sin no longer.
“A man who is dead has been freed from sin. If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with him. We know that Christ, once raised from the dead, will never die again; death has no more power over him. His death was death to sin once for all; his life is life for God.
“In the same way, you must consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6, 3-11).
In baptism our old selfish self dies and a wonderful new life bursts forth inside us – the new life of Christ.
Closely tied to the question of Baptism is conversion. This is a topic on which there is much misunderstanding so it is necessary to consider a few points here.
Conversion is a much misunderstood word which simply means turning - turning towards. When correctly understood, it is seen that conversion is a continual necessity in the life of every man and woman, whether Christian or not, whether young or old, rich or poor, saint or sinner. There is no man alive who cannot turn to follow God more closely. That is conversion.
Conversion is turning away from the slavery to my selfish self and turning towards God instead.
Conversion in this real sense, therefore, can never be forced, for that would be a contradiction in words. It must always be a fully free action. It is necessarily the action of an adult. In this sense, no one can object to conversion in a free country. For it means that an adult, man or woman, after giving thought to the matter, freely decides to follow God in a way he or she judges to be right and proper for himself or herself.
To deny this right is to deny freedom. There are some who would not allow women, or people of economically depressed classes, the right to follow God according to their conscience. Such people, if they wish to be consistent, should also take away their right to vote, to read a newspaper or book of their own choice, because they consider them not capable of making their own judgments and free decisions - or , in other words, they consider them sub-human. It is a tragedy when any adult person is unable to take a step that he judges to be best for himself. This happens quite often through social or economic pressure and though prejudice. It means that a free human being is denied exercise of his or her most precious gift, namely, freewill, which is the right to shape one’s own life according to one’s own decisions and choices.
In Baptism, Christ comes to meet that free choice of a person and begins to dwell in that person, bringing with Him His own new risen life.
Are Christians intolerant because they insist on Baptism? Does this mean that they believe that all those who are not baptized are therefore condemned?
Again, this is a point where inaccurate ideas need to be clarified. Baptism is the normal way determined by Christ of receiving divine life. But the mercy and love of God is so great that He gives it in extraordinary ways whenever a person, through no fault of his own, cannot receive Baptism.
One has only to see the obvious holiness of crowds of people who have never heard of Christ, and to remember that God’s love is so vast that it burns for the salvation of all peoples. God’s love will find a way of bringing to Himself all those who truly love Him and are sorry for their sins against Him.
It also needs to be said that, on the other hand, not all those who are baptized will thereby be saved. Only those who live and die in God’s love and friendship will be saved. There is a process which is the opposite of conversion. It is turning away from God back to one’s own selfish self. And because a baptized person remains free he can still turn away from God.
One tragedy is that there are so many people who don’t MEET JESUS and do not enjoy all the riches that He lays at their feet. Another is that many are attracted by Jesus, they profit greatly from His teaching, but for some reason they never discover fully the riches that are waiting for them in Him.
We have seen two of these meeting-points with Jesus (which are also called Sacraments), i.e., the Mass and Baptism. A third, Confirmation, meets another real need.
The man or woman who tries to lead a good life and make the world a better place for his or her passing through it, soon discovers plenty of difficulties and temptations along the way. The person who is reborn in Jesus Christ through baptism meets many dangers threats to his precious new life. He / shf also receives from Jesus the task of helping his fellowmen discover for themselves the treasure that he / she has received.
Jesus is fully aware of the difficulties in all this, and He promised His followers that He would send the Holy Spirit to enlighten them in their journey through this world in their daily lives.
The Acts of the Apostles describes this spiritual gift when Peter and John went to Samaria: “On their arrival, they prayed for the people that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for as yet He had not come upon any of them, as they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. They than laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Act 8, 14-17).
Confirmation means strengthening. And that is what the Holy Spirit does. He makes spiritual adults of us. As a spiritual child a person thinks mostly about himself or himself, about his own prayers and union with God. The Spirit makes us adults by turning our care and concern towards others whom we can help. We receive special help and strength to live and die in God’s friendship and in the love and service of our fellowmen.
When a person is baptized into the People of God, he or she is reborn into a truly new life. But great though this gift is, God never takes away our free will. The person who is reborn in Christ can lose this new life by sin. He can still turn away from God and so bring death to this new life. He can put back his old selfish self in place of the divine life given to him by Christ’s love.
As long as we live in this world, we shall meet temptation. This is because we are in a time of testing, where we must use our freedom to turn to God. This means also that we can receive the joy of heaven not only as alms, but as a gift which we cooperate with God in winning for ourselves.
Knowing both the power of the temptations that come to us and also our weakness, Christ left in His Church the means of regaining His gift of new life if we lose it through serious sin. He Himself comes to meet the fallen sinner and to return his or her lost treasure.
When He appeared after His resurrection to the followers to whom He entrusted His Church, Christ said to them. “Peace be with you, I came upon an errand from my Father and now I am sending you out in my turn.” With that, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit; when you forgive men’s sins they are forgiven, when you hold them bound, they are held bound ”(John 20, 21-23).
The Catholic priest is the minister of this power given to the Church by Christ, and Catholics bring their sins to Christ in the Sacrament of Penance. The necessary condition for forgiveness is sincere sorrow for having turned away from our loving God by our sins. This calls for another genuine conversion – i.e., a turning back to God.
This meeting with Christ repeats again, in the life of each of us, the story of the younger son returning to his Father: “I will rise up and go to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am not worthy to be called your son” (see book I).
Pope Pius XII described the benefits of frequent meeting with Christ in this Sacrament of Penance (or Confession as it is also called):
“To hasten daily progress along the path of virtue, we wish the pious practice of frequent confession to be earnestly advocated. Not without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was this practice introduced into the Church. By it genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are countered, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the sacrament itself.”
The Church or the People of God on its pilgrimage through this world is not a church of saints. It is a church of sinners, of people who struggle with their own selfishness to remain in the friendship of God. Christ in His deep understanding and love foresaw this, and so He Himself comes to meet us after our falls and is waiting to lift us back to Himself.
These special meeting-points with Christ in His Church touch our life in vital stages and tasks - birth, the struggles of life, pardon of our sins, food for spiritual growth. Since marriage and family life are so important for men and women, Christ comes to meet us in marriage and makes it a sacrament in which He offers His special help to the new family.
A very mistaken idea that is often found is that sex is something evil. To see how wrong such an idea is, we must go back to the beginning of our story where we saw that God created the first man and woman and told them to increase and multiply.
Far from being evil, sexual relations in marriage are sacred and holy, for they mean that God Himself calls husband and wife to cooperate with Him in the task of bringing a new human person into existence. And when we reflect on the value of a person we see what a tremendous task God has entrusted to parents.
Not only do they play their part with God in the birth of a new child, but man and wife have the task of raising, training and educating their child. They have to give it a good home and set their child on the path that leads to God. Parents help each other to attain holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children. In Christian marriage new citizens of human society are born who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in Baptism, are made children of God, thus continuing the People of God through the centuries.
When it is realized how tremendous this task of parents is, it is not surprising that God has surrounded the use of sexual powers with certain laws which are to ensure a healthy and proper climate and surroundings for the child.
That is one reason why the unmarried must remember that they are merely preparing for this noble task, and therefore are not free to use their sexual powers before marriage. That is why the place of women in society must be respected; they are not merely an object of pleasure for men, but they have the noble talk of bringing children of God into this world. That is why divorce is not according to God’s plan, because both parents are needed for the proper education of children; nor is polygamy which prevents that close and exclusive intimacy which man and wife seek for in marriage. That is why sacrifice and control are necessary between husband and wife. For where there is no self-control and self-sacrifice, there is no love.
We have considered the Church as the People of God. Each family can truly be called a little Church or little People of God. In view of the responsibility of husband and wife in bringing new children to life in cooperation with God, in providing for them and developing their characters so that they finally reach God, in helping each other to grow in love and friendship for each other and for God – in view of all this, Christ made marriage and family life one of those meeting-points where He comes to us in a special way to strengthen and help us.
The beauty of marriage is shown in the words that the priest speaks to the couple in the marriage ceremony:
“Dear friends in Christ: As you know you are about to enter into a union which is most sacred and most serious, a union which was established by God Himself. By it He gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way He sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other to live as children of God by sharing a common life under His fatherly care.”
“Because God Himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and higher beauty.”
“He referred to the love of marriage to describe His own love for His Church, that is, for the People of God whom he purchased back by His own blood. And so He gave Christians a new vision of what married life ought to be, a life of self-sacrificing love like His own. It is for this reason that His apostle, Saint Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern.”
Every race and people throughout history have chosen from their midst special representatives to make their prayers and offerings to God and to interpret God’s word to men. Such men are called priests.
This vacation of a priest is to live in the service of God. He, as Scripture says, “is taken from among men and appointed their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” This does not mean that his work is restricted to a mere rituals confined to the precincts of the church. For the Christian, the altar is the meeting-point of God and man. There, God’s redeeming love is tangibly made known to man; and there man responds in the most fitting way to his love by offering himself with Christ to the Heavenly Father. Hence, the sublimity of the office of a priest as he stands daily at the altar!
Besides, the priest is like the father of a family. As a father cares for his family, so too, must the priest spend himself entirely in the service of God’s household (the People of God). Like Christ, he must be a teacher to God’s children, an example to the members of the Church and a fearless leader of His people. And like Christ, he must also be ready to lay down his life, if need be, in the service of Christ and His Church.
Such a vocation cannot be lived without the very special help of God. And so we see that Christ has blessed the priesthood in a special way, making it a sacrament whereby weak men are appointed priests of God.
The last and perhaps most important act of a human being is his or her death, for the state of my soul at that decisive moment - either friendship with God or separation from Him - will be the state in which I remain forever in heaven or hell.
Since this last journey from time to eternity is so important, Christ has made it one of His special meeting-points with man. He Himself comes to strengthen the soul for this journey.
St James, one of Jesus’ co-workers, advises Christians to have special recourse to prayer in the time of illness. A Christian who is ill, writes St James, “should send for the elders of the Church to pray over him and anoint Him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick man, the Lord will raise him from his bed (if so God wills), and any sins he may have committed will be forgiven” (James 5, 14-25).
We can stop here, recalling the rich blessings that Christ has left in His Church for men and women in the most meaningful moments of their lives. They are the seven sacraments or meeting-points with Christ: Baptism to give new life; Confirmation to strengthen us with the Holy Spirit for our life’s journey; the Sacrifice of the Mass, where we thank God for all His gifts, and where Christ comes to feed us the bread of life; Penance or Confession for the forgiveness of our adult sins; Marriage for a rich and blessed family life; the office of Priesthood for the service of God’s people; the Last Anointing, or the Sacrament of the Sick, for our final journey through death to our Father.
My God, these are seven vital moments in my life.
Your love for all your children is great.
Please give me your special blessing for these moments,
for I am weak and am in great need of your constant help.