The Church at Christmas: The Light of Truth Shines In The Darkness
“Christ is the light of humanity; and it is, accordingly, the heart-felt desire of this sacred Council, being gathered together in the Holy Spirit, that, by proclaiming his Gospel to every creature, it may bring to all men that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church”–Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 1
Man bears within himself an irrepressible desire for communion with the Other who is the Alpha and Omega of life, love and peace. As St. Augustine so beautifully stated: our hearts will not rest until they rest in Thee, O God. The truth about man is that he who lives as if God does not exist remains woefully incomplete, flawed, miserable. Thus the importance of the truth about man and of the Truth who is God.
This unceasing yearning for unity with God, which is rooted so deeply within every man and woman so as to be unremovable, cannot be sufficiently explained merely in the hope of escaping an encounter with the emptiness found in the world; nor is it only a product of our longing to alleviate that loneliness which often remains an unwelcome guest who all-too-often knocks in the night; nor can it be solely the result of an unfulfilled physical or emotional need. Further, the longing for God found in the human heart runs far deeper than simply an effect of the want to remove suffering. Taken in toto, in all, these things fail to adequately explain our hunger for God.
All men experience — whether clearly recognized or not, whether sincerely admitted or not — an unrelenting movement within their being which reaches for something beyond itself and which thirsts to transcend the boundaries of man’s finitude: we crave a participation in the supernatural life of the Other: our God who is Creator and Author of Life. Man’s thirst — an unquenchable, inescapable and continuous thirst — is for the Infinite, the Eternal, the Love who is Lord and giver of life.
Why is this so? The answer is self-evident: man is made for the Creator who himself has made man. That is why man is homo religiosus: religious man. In the Creator’s infinite wisdom, he has made us men of religious thirst: men who long to worship God, to abandon ourselves to the Other who is our origin and end, and who experience an intrinsic need to share as fully and completely as possible in the sublime life of the Holy Trinity. Our human fulfillment and flourishing, our brotherly and sisterly freedom, our happiness as man, love and joy and peace and truth and goodness, all these are attainted in their totality in God alone.
Man: Called Into The Womb of Holy Mother Church
So critical is the understanding of man’s relationship with God, the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the outset explains the origin of our insatiable thirst for communion with the Creator:
“God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life” (1).
The Father calls all men across the vast sphere of the earth to become members of the divine family: baptized sons and daughters who freely reside within mother Catholic Church. It is here, within the guiding and nourishing womb of the Church, that the sacraments of life — instituted by our Savior in order to usher us into the kingdom of heaven — are conferred upon the faithful “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10) in Christ.
If we trace this wondrous invitation to abundant life to its specific, historical origin, we find it became a reality in first the conception and then the birth of the Prince of Peace: here, we stand with the shepherds in the solitude of Bethlehem and, along with the sweet Virgin Mother whose fiat brought salvation into the world, gaze into the eyes of the Christ Child who is Savior and Redeemer. The Star who infinitely outshines every star in the cosmos has risen in the East. The eternal Word of God is made man for our sake: the gates of heaven are unlatched, and, through the Paschal Mystery, they are swung open.
Thus St. Bernard was able to write: “Notice that peace is not promised but sent to us; it is no longer deferred, it is given; peace is not prophesied but achieved. . . . As the Scriptures tell us: A little child has been given to us, but in him dwells all the fullness of the divine nature. The fullness of time brought with it the fullness of divinity. God’s Son came in the flesh so that mortal men could see and recognize God’s kindness.”
The Light Shines In The Darkness
Yet we could not know of such a wondrous and incomparable reality with certainty if not for holy mother Catholic Church, the city of truth, founded twenty centuries ago by Christ upon St. Peter (see Mt. 16:17-19) as the household of the living God and the pillar and bulwark of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). This is so because God’s revelation to humankind through his Son is deposited within the living body of the Church (thedepositum fidei); and there it is cherished, guarded by the Holy Spirit and transmitted in its fullness to the nations. A world without the Church is therefore a world of uncertainty, a place of groping and anxiety born of ignorance, an earthly residence of confused darkness lacking in wisdom and purpose.
Those who reside in full communion with the Church also reside in full communion with the fullness of truth. It is Christ, the head of the Church, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). The purpose of life, how we are to live and act, what we must believe in freedom and love, who we are called to be, and the destiny which awaits us, is unveiled in the words of truth spoken by the Church. Within the Church, men access the treasure buried in the field (Mt 13:44), and attain the highest possible human hope as members of the body of Christ. The city of truth is thus both our earthly and eternal home of peace.
Moreover, it is the Holy Spirit, the soul of the Church, who inspired St. John, the beloved disciple and one of the first children of the city of truth, to write the following astounding and magnificent words which, again, draw us back to the origin of that irrepressible thirst found in the human heart:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (Jn 1:1-4).
To Live Catholic Is To Live In Christ
It is Christ who gives to the Church her life, light and mission. Since the Church is Christ’s Mystical Body, we can say in a real sense that the Church is Christ (cf. Lumen Gentium 7). “For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free . . .” (1 Cor. 12:13). By virtue of our Christian baptism, we are grafted as branches onto the vine of the Risen Lord: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn 15:5).
However, the Church is not merely an invisible, abstract concept in which membership is gained simply in confessing belief in Jesus the Christ, as if an affirmation of Christian faith and “church” are entirely synonymous. Rather, the Church is an authoritative, specific and definite, divine and human community of persons: a visible and invisible reality in which we truly reside in the kingdom of heaven — albeit here imperfectly. Life in the Church is life in Christ.
All this began when the eternal Word of God assumed human flesh and then, in the quiet, far-removed village of Bethlehem, was laid in a poor manger. Here, in the stillness of humble poverty, gaudium de veritate, joy in the truth, becomes a reality. The eternal Word emptied himself and become man for our sake. Even as a Child in the Virgin’s arms, the shadow of the cross is cast upon the Savior. That shadow, too, is our destiny as we enter into the Paschal Mystery, as we make Christ’s life our life. Although the way of the cross might mistakenly be taken as a cause for fear, let it not be so. For God has given his life as man that man may have life in God.
Let us speak plainly: we stand on the horizon between the present and eternity. With each passing moment, our journey across the sea of earthly life nears its inevitable completion. There are storms which lay on the horizon, from which destructive winds labor in an effort to dash us against the rocks of sin and confusion. This journey, lest it end in failure, must be one of love for the truth, and hence must be carefully directed toward the highest and greatest Truth: God. It was our Savior who said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).
From our Savior’s pierced side on the cross poured forth his sacred blood and water, forming the Church, the Bride of Christ and the sacrament of salvation. Within the secure womb of the Church, the unrelenting thirst for communion with God and truth is both recognized and satisfied. It is within her tender arms, a place of holy dwelling, in which men experience the highest and most sublime solidarity as members of Christ’s one body; it is within her bounds that Light is seen, tasted and lived. It is by her maternal guidance that we sail securely. It is by her hand that men are taught how to live and how to die.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
By F. K. Bartels
F. K. Bartels is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic Faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at catholicpathways.com