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The Church: Prefigurement and Revelation

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As we have been doing we will have a master theme: in this case, the Church. And we will look at our subject first from the vantage point of the Old Testament and then from the New. We begin first of all by noting that as sacred scripture views the redemption no one is finally delivered from sin and reaches Heaven alone. Perhaps the single most significant fact, in the context of which we are speaking, is to tell ourselves Christianity is not a solitary religion. The Messiah foretold in the Old Law and Jesus Christ who instituted the New Law, is our redeemer. Even though it is I, the individual who please God will be saved, but no one will be saved alone.

On closer scrutiny this stands to revealed reason. When Adam failed, his sin did not only affect Adam individually. It deprived the whole human race of the precious gift of supernatural life that would have been the common possession of every, every son and daughter of Adam of Eve had Adam not fallen. Consequently there is a collective sinfulness of mankind. As we pray in the Miserere, in guilt was I born, and in sin my mother conceived me, long before we reach the age of reason, and the possibility of personally offending God. With a certain exception only of Christ and His mother, human beings have inherited Adam’s sin and its consequences and will continue doing so until the end of time. Having decided to deliver mankind from this collective inherited sin God also decided to provide the deliverance collectively. St. Paul could have not been more clear. Fifth chapter of his letter to the Romans eighteenth to the twenty-first verses: As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. When law came it was to multiply the opportunities of failing. But however great the number of sins committed, grace was even greater. And so just as sin reigned wherever there was death so grace will reign to bring eternal life thanks to the righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Before we get into the Church’s actual foundation by Christ, it is well I think to look a little more closely at what we call our collective redemption. This collective redemption had two stages: one in the Old Law before Christ through the chosen people of Israel; and the second, the Church founded by Christ which is to endure into eternity. Remember we said at some point that the article of the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints” that bifocal article belongs together. We might say from another perspective the Old Testament foretells not only, though of course, but not only the coming of the messiah. It also predicts the rise of the messianic kingdom. Surely Jesus is our Lord and Redeemer. But His redemption though the grace was merited by Him alone on the cross. That grace is communicated only through a society.

We are now ready to get deeper into our subject. And we will take this as I said in two stages. Though for a variety of reasons, mainly because of the element of time, I won’t be able to divide the time just with mathematical logic evenly, much as I’d like to. We’ll first look at the covenant people of the old law for the prelude and the prefigurement of the church to come. And then the Church founded by Christ, but up to the apostles. Then after we get to the apostles, we’ll take a break. And we’ll continue in our next conference with the apostles and with emphasis we’re going to talk about the prince of the apostles and of course His successors.

First then the covenant people. Whatever else we learn in the Old Testament it is the existence of a chosen people: people, a group, a society, a nation otherwise and more commonly known as Israel whom God Himself called the inheritance of Yahweh. Abraham we know was specially called by God to found a new dynasty. Twelfth chapter of Genesis, the first three verses. God as you know was fond of changing people’s names. One reason why in religious communities and I’m happy when they keep up the practice, when a person enters a community or takes his or her vows they change their name. The practice has an ancient ancestry. Chapter twelve of Genesis: Yahweh said to Abram, leave your country, your family, and your father’s house for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name so famous that it will be used as a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who slight you. All the tribes of the earth shall bless themselves by you. And shortly thereafter Abram’s name was changed to Abraham as the father of all the faithful. Even the prescribed rite of circumcision was part of God’s covenant with the descendants of Abraham and as Yahweh told him, he was changing him name to Abraham because he would be quote “the father of a host of nations.” Consequently the name Israel became not only another name like Edom or Moab for the Pagan nations. Israel was a sacred name, which identified the covenant people. Under this name it was addressed as quote “the whole community of Israel.” Exodus 12:3. Again the whole assembly of Israel, Exodus 12:6. By this title Moses addressed the people when he gave them the Decalogue and all the commandments of Yahweh which they were to observe. It was a group of people, a community that were the chosen descendents of Abraham. We are told Moses summoned all Israel and said to them [sounds strange, “summoned all Israel” sounds singular, “and said to them” that’s quite plural] “Hear oh Israel” he told them “the statutes and decrees which I proclaim in your hearing this day. That you may learn them and take care to observe them.” What I wish to do is, this meditation is to bring out the fact that from the very beginning, when Abraham was chosen by God in the mind of God redemption was to be accomplished for individuals indeed but through a community.

If we look back at the people of Israel who prefigure the Church to come, we see that the basic structure of Israel was a people of twelve tribes corresponding to the names of the twelve sons of Jacob renamed Israel. In spite of the many generations from the time of Jacob’s death, this number twelve from Genesis on remained the sacred number to identify the people of God. It became related to the worship service of the twelve months of the year. Did you know that? We may say that this was the first historical form that the chosen people took in the Mosaic covenant. Whoever associates the twelve months of the year with the twelve sons of Jacob? Well, I just did. As the generations went by the sacred writers emphasized that Yahweh is the God of Israel and they are His people, with stress on the pronominal adjective ‘His people’. He is their God, their Holy One, their Strong one, their Rock, their King and best of all, their Redeemer. All titles from the favorite prophet of Advent, Isaiah. But if He was their God by specially watching over, protecting and caring for them, this is a covenant. They had responsibilities too. They then, became the people of Yahweh, His servant, His chosen one, His inheritance, His flock, His vineyard, His domain, and most beautifully, His spouse. And all of this is still in the Old Law.

Unlike all other nations, Israel was not only a political society. It was by divine election a theocracy, where the ending “c-r-a-c-y” as you know means rule: democracy, ruled by the ‘demos’, the people; theocracy, ruled by ‘theos’, God. In God’s designs that small nucleus of people and even when pre-Christian Israel was most numerous, it was still only a minute fraction of the already then total population of the world. But that small, relatively, people of God, in God’s designs were to become the very epicenter of mankind. Even the divisions and conflicts that were such a sad part of Israel’s history only highlighted this unique relationship of a whole people to God. David became in sequence the king of Judea in the south and then of Israel in the north. After Solomon’s death Israel separated from the house of David. So the people of God became politically divided. The Prophets adjusted themselves to this unfortunate condition. Which as we know was contrary to God’s original covenant. And in the process one tribe, Judea became distinguished from Israel. Then came the fall of Samaria and with it, Judea became the center for the regrouping of all Israel. After Jerusalem fell the model for national restoration once again became the twelve tribes. But in the mean time Judea became so prominent in the restoration that for all future ages this name became the one by which the chosen people would be known. I’ve never had the nerve to ask one of my Jewish friends in Manhatten, “why are you called Jews?” Which is simply the anglicized form of the Latin Judea. You see in the infinite plans of God the messiah was to be conceived and born of the tribe of Judea.

One of the surprises of Jewish prophesy before we get into the New Testament is that the oracles of Isaiah, Ezechiel and Jeremiah do indeed foretell a future Israel and a re-assembly of the twelve tribes. But watch this, all of this we are told when it finally takes place will come only through a remnant. This is so important. Let me give you the three texts in the Old Testament where it was foretold that when the messiah would come and his kingdom would be established that would come only through a remnant. Isaiah 10:20, Micah 2:12 and Jeremiah 3:17. The number of Jews from whom the New Israel would come would be only a very small number of people to qualify as a remnant. Unless we see that clearly it is very hard to understand God’s providence in having only such an infinitesimal fraction of all the chosen people to have actually accepted the messiah when He came. And from that small number would eventually derive the New Israel, the new people of the covenant. In other words, most of ancient Israel would reject its redeemer when he came. Only then we are told when this small remnant is left will God make a new covenant and establish a new king. Only then will Israel become the focus of unity among nations. When the nations see in Israel the presence of the one true God, they will turn toward Him. The conversion of the Gentiles will thus bring salvation and glory to Israel.

I’ve got only one short paragraph left, but let me say it with all the emphasis at my disposal. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this prophetic message about the new Israel arising from the remnant of the chosen people of God. Seen from this perspective, everything in the Old Testament was a preparation for the incarnation twice over. Once in the fact that the word of God became flesh and dwelt among us and once again because this word incarnate formed a new people through whom He would lavish on the world the blessings of His redemption. So far, the Old Testament prediction of the church to come, the Church would, as it were rise up from the ashes of an Israel that except for a remnant would reject her savior when He came. Whatever else this tells us, it should tell us that God, what He wants: a community. Numbers are unimportant to Him it is the number who remain faithful.

Now the revelation and foundation of the Church, by Christ. The Old Testament prepared for the Church and as we’ve been saying, prefigured it. The New Testament records how Christ revealed the purpose and nature of the Church and during His visible stay on earth established His mystical body. Not surprisingly the term that Christ most commonly used for the Church was the Greek word Basilea which means kingdom. In Saint Mathew Christ foretells the coming of the Church as the Kingdom of Heaven. But this will be preceded by a long period of slow growth. Which Christ as you recall described in the famous parable about the mustard seed, talk about small beginnings. And by now in less than two millennia, not all as we know by looking into our own hearts, not all members are not as faithful as they should be. But their number is now over one thousand million members.

Suppose we look briefly at the stages of the Church’s foundation up to the time when Christ assembled His apostles. We may distinguish two stages in the Church’s original formation. First was the period during Christ’s mortal existence. By His preaching and miracles, His exercise of power over Satan and His choice and training of the apostles Christ established the Church as a visible community. That we may call stage one. The second period was the period from Calvary to Pentecost. On Calvary, Christ offered the sacrifice by which the Church became Christ’s mystical body born of His opened side. As the father’s tell us like the second Eve coming from the second Adam. By His resurrection Christ sealed what He had begun on the cross and conferred on the apostles and their successors His share in His own divine power of forgiving sins. Oh how this needs to be said today. If Christ came to save mankind from its sins… Let’s change the hypothesis…BECAUSE Christ came into the world to save mankind from its sins, is it conceivable that He would found a Church that would not forgive sins?

I think the longest long distance telephone call in my now years of my coming to Jemez Springs I made the other day. And dictating in two stages, a long article to the Twin Circle an answer, have you heard about him, to Jimmy Swaggert: A vitriolic opponent of the Catholic Church. Poor Jimmy. I’ve never heard him. People tell me he has a good voice. But he has a poor understanding of the bible. Any church that Jesus the Savior would found must, the auxiliary imperative ‘must’ is of the essence of the whole bible, must be a church that in the name of Christ forgives sins.

At Pentecost Christ sent the Holy Spirit on the apostles. This spirit inspired them to courageously proclaim the necessity of faith in Christ and repentance as a condition for salvation. Thus began the Church’s outreach to the believers who then in turn were to reproduce other believers through baptism become incorporated into Christ. Although as we believe the Church was fully constituted by Pentecost Sunday one more event in apostolic times took place to symbolize the final separation of the new Israel from the old. This was, it was inevitable, the final destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It was predicted at great length, as we know, by the savior in the twenty-fifth chapter of Mathew’s gospel, just before Christ began His passion. As a tragic sign that the Church that Christ established was replacing for all times the Jewish people and as a prelude of the final judgement. Historians tell us that when the Romans 69-70 AD were laying siege on Jerusalem Christian believers fled from the city because they remembered Christ’s prophesy and they realized this is that prophesies fulfillment. All the Christians in Jerusalem were saved.

Let’s close with a short prayer. Lord Jesus, the prophets foretold both your coming and your founding of the Church as your mystical body. Teach us to know both you and your spouse the Church. Help us to realize that although our salvation comes from you, that it also comes through her. So that believing in You and obedient to your church we may enter that heavenly kingdom which is the Church triumphant for which you became man and we were made to live in your city on high for all eternity. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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