Christ's Abiding Presence

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"I Will Not Leave You Orphans" (Jn 14:18).

These overwhelming words of Our Lord Jesus at the Last Supper ring in our ears as they have rung through the ages.  Christ suffered the agony of his Passion and the ignominious death on the Cross because of his love for us.  he said, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13).  He died to save us from sin and to show us the way to glory through taking up our daily crosses.  He wanted to lift us up to himself.

But what would happen after Jesus' death, Resurrection and final Ascension into Heaven?  His friends feared what would happen.  Would he leave only a memory of those days when his friends and disciples so keenly felt the joy of his presence among them?  Imagine what it would be like if you had been among them and known him.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus said to each other after Jesus parted from them, "Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us?" (Lk 24:32).  That question shows something of the mysterious power his words and his presence must have had.  Was this loving holy presence of Jesus to be gone forever from the earth?  There would be a terrible desolation without him.  No, Jesus Christ himself said, "I will be with you always even to the end of the world" (Mt 28:20).

A good father does not forget his children when he goes away.  He wants to make sure that they will be taken care of in his absence.  Jesus' love for us was so great that it did not stop even with dying for each one of us personally.  He wanted to continue to take care of us.  How did Jesus provide for us?  How is he with us always?

The words to the apostles "I will not leave you orphans" were immediately preceded by the promise that the Holy Spirit would be sent to them.  God the Father would send "the Spirit of Truth", also called the Spirit of Love, or the Fire of Love, who would be the soul of his Church.  Christ has left us that Church.  Christ is the eternal Shepherd and has appointed a chief shepherd and other shepherds to represent him in the care of his flock.

Christ Founded His Church

It is recorded in the Gospels that many times Christ spoke of the Church in parables or implicitly.  But twice he spoke of her explicitly.

1.  First Christ said to Peter in front of the other apostles, "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).  What did he mean when he said he will build his Church?  He obviously meant what he said.  He said so with some emphasis and solemnity.

2.  In another passage (Mt 18:17) Jesus says that, if disputes and grievances cannot be settled charitably among those involved, they should be brought to the Church and the Church will make the ultimate decision about the argument.  If then the offender "refuses to listen to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile, and a tax collector".  In other words in the mind of Christ, the Church was to be the final judge and arbiter of whatever questions might arise among his followers.

In both these passages Jesus clearly speaks of his intention to begin his Church.  He in fact continues immediately after both these declarations to say to his apostles, "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven. . ." (Mt 16:19; 18:18).  This is an almost shocking statement.  Christ here was actually giving power over Heaven, to a select group of twelve apostles.  It was a divine authority that he gave them.

So we see that the Church was willed by Christ, founded and built by Christ.  He said, "I will build my Church."  The Church is therefore a divine origin.  She is different from any other society or community.  No other human society can claim the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  The Church is not man-made or merely human.  This is why we call the Church a supernatural mystery.

The Church Has a Structure

Her members are human, to be sure.  And God who understands and provides for our needs, made us to live together in community.  "It is not good that man should be alone" (Gen 2:18).  He also takes into account the universal characteristics of human societies: for instance, that a society needs leaders, a hierarchy (or assistant leaders), members, rules, and some kind of organization.  Without these, societies would become chaotic.  It belongs to the nature of things that societies cannot function without structure.  We see this in a family or in a sports team.

Or take the example of an orchestra.  There is a conductor.  Then there is the first violinist, who leads the string section, while the clarinetist leads the woodwinds.  It is also necessary to have all sorts of instruments, not just one or one kind.  Some - for example, the cymbals - may seem to have an insignificant role.  But what would it sound like at the crucial moment without them?  They are truly necessary for the music to sound complete.

Using the example of an orchestra as a comparison to the Church we can say that the structure of the whole orchestra, the conductor, the various leaders, the players, and the instruments are absolutely necessary for the sake of the music.  The music cannot come through harmoniously without a structure.  On the other hand, they would all be mute without the music.  The music is the soul of the whole thing.  So it is with the Church.  The Holy Spirit - the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Love - is, as it were, the music.  He is the very soul of the Church.  So Christ has promised us this heavenly music, the Holy Spirit sent by the Father, coming through the structure of the institutional Church.  In the case of the Church, the fundamental structure itself is willed by Christ.

Christ's Church

Through, with, and in the Church, Christ Our Lord is present.  She is his Church.  She is not someone's idea of what is needed, or the decision of some group that it would be a sensible thing to found a community and elect leaders.  She is not a mere human construction, something created by man which can be reorganized at will.  It is Christ himself who has founded his Church and divinely appointed his apostles and their successors.  He has called each one of us through baptism to play a vital role as a living member of the Church.  It is through the Church that we receive the sacraments.  It is through the Church that we receive the Holy Eucharist, which is the staggering gift of his presence among us.

Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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