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A question of Faith: When was the Church Born?

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I have heard that Pentecost is the Church’s birthday, but I have also heard that Good Friday is when the Church was born. Which is correct?

The Church is the family of God; she is the body of Christ. Because the Church is truly a body, she has a birthday, but because she is not a material body but a mystical one, the manner of her birth is likewise mystical. Unlike humans who can point to a single birthday, the Church can point to several. With the help of the Church Fathers, we will see that, in varying ways, the beginning of time, Good Friday and Pentecost, could all be called the birthday of the Church.

BORN FROM ETERNITY

The birthday of the Church at the beginning of time may be the most surprising, yet ancient sources suggest it. One example is the Shepherd of Hermas, a work from the 2nd Century, which contains a vision of an older woman representing the Church. When the shepherd asks why she is aged, he is told: “Because she was created before all things; therefore is she aged, and for her sake the world was framed.” The Church Fathers confirm this view.

St. Clement, for instance, said the Church existed before the sun and the moon, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus spoke of the Church before and after Christ. How could there be a Church before Christ? St. Augustine offered a helpful analogy: Just as a baby’s arm might be born before his head, so the Church was born before Christ, the Head. Thus, all the ancient patriarchs, prophets and faithful children of Israel formed part of the Church. The Church was born at the beginning of time because there was never a time when God was not working to bring humanity into His family.

BORN FROM CHRIST’S SIDE

If one day were considered the Church’s proper birthday, however, it could be Good Friday. On Good Friday, God gathered sinful humanity to Himself once and for all. As St. Paul writes of Jesus, “Through Him God was pleased to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:20). The one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church was born from Jesus’ self-gift, and we see this in the blood and water that gushed forth. What do blood and water have to do with the Church? St. John Chrysostom said, “Water and blood symbolize baptism and the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments, the Church is born.”

The Church is born on Good Friday because it was when God definitively united all of humanity to Himself and gave us the sacraments through which we enter into His family even now.

BORN FROM THE SPIRIT

Finally, and, perhaps, most popularly, we can say that the Church was born at Pentecost. After the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, Peter preached to those gathered and 3,000 were baptized. It was then that the Church’s mission was revealed to the world. St. Pope John Paul II said, “As the Fathers teach, [the Church] was born on the Cross on Good Friday; she revealed this birth to the world on the day of Pentecost.” On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit began visibly uniting all of humanity into one body, and the Church was first seen in her sacramental fullness.

To celebrate the Church’s birthday, then, we can look to three moments: the beginning of time, when the Church was conceived in the mind of God; Good Friday, when the Church was born from the heart of Jesus; and Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit first visibly sent the Church on a mission. All three understandings help us appreciate how God’s plan for our sanctification continues to unfold through the Church.

Fr. David Endres is associate professor of Church history and historical theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the April 2021 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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