Today, we celebrate the birthday of the Church - when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and Mary empowering them to spread the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Growing up, when I heard the word “Church” I thought either of the building where we celebrate Mass or the Vatican. I never heard of the idea of the Church as the People of God or the Mystical Body of Christ. And, even if I did hear those words in religious education or at Mass, I probably would not have understood them.
On the other hand, though I didn’t understand those concepts, my everyday experience of Church through most of my life was one of family and community. In fact, many of my dearest memories from childhood were connected to Church whether it be my first communion or weddings of family members.
And the same was true throughout my adult life. The parishes I’ve belonged to and served have been big families, places where I found comfort, and communities I could count on for support and encouragement. Though when I thought of church I thought of dark, smoky buildings or old men in Rome coming up with new rules for me to follow, my everyday experience of Church was that of people who cared for me and a community that nurtured me.
The idea of the Church as primarily a people of faith goes back to the first days of Christianity. We profess that the Church was born on Pentecost day when the Holy Spirit came rushing down on Mary and the apostles in tongues of fire. At that time, there were no church buildings and there was no Vatican. Yet there was a Church because the Church is, first of all people, and not just buildings and institutions.
Saint Paul expresses this reality in his First Letter to the Corinthians, a portion of which we read today:
“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body...Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor 12: 12,13 & 27).
It is amazing to think just how beautiful this idea of the Church as the Body of Christ is!
First of all, it means that all of us, no matter who we are, are important members of the Church.
Saint Paul tells us: “Now the body is not a single part, but many...The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’ ...But God has so constructed the body... that there may be no division in the body”
The Church as Christ’s body is not just made up of priests and nuns any more than our bodies are made of just an eye or an elbow. Every baptized person is a vital part of the whole. Each one of us is needed to make sure the Body of Christ is healthy and growing.
There is a great story about a cardinal who was walking down the street on his way to his office in the Vatican. He greeted a man who was sweeping the sidewalks.
The man said to him, “Your Excellency, are you on your way to the Vatican?”
The cardinal said, “In fact, I am.”
The street sweeper then said, “I imagine you are going to be making some very important decisions there and doing some very important work.”
The cardinal replied, “In fact, I am.”
Then, puffing out his chest with pride, the street sweeper said, “However, if I clean these streets with great love, my work will be just important as yours in the eyes of God.”
The cardinal replied, “You are exactly right, my friend.”
Saint Pope John Paul II said, “It is not the work that gives dignity to the person but the person who gives dignity to the work.” Whatever it is we do, whether we are mopping a floor, visiting a sick person, or working with the Pope, it is important and vital to the whole body, particularly when we do it with great love.
We need each other just as the parts of the body need each other. We need each other’s contributions, no matter how small they may seem. And we cannot afford to lose even one of our members. This is the lesson that we learn when we contemplate the Church as the Body of Christ.
And so this day we celebrate the reality that we are the Church. All of us are called to extend the love of Jesus into the world. As a people of faith, we branch out into our families, communities, schools and places of business, bringing the joy of the gospel message. All of us are crucial for this outreach of love just as every member of our bodies is vital to our health. Like those first apostles, then, let us go out with confidence that the Holy Spirit is guiding us until the whole world is set on fire with the love of Jesus!