This is a beautiful feast on which to end our celebration of the Christmas season: Our Lord’s own Baptism launches us forth into ‘Ordinary Time.’ The whole reason for the Incarnation, for Christmas, for the birth of Jesus, is that He might come to teach us the Mind and Heart of God. This He does in earnest once He is baptized, and enters into His three years of public ministry. But Our Lord does not work His will in some sort of a vacuum: His preaching as the Son of God made man is set in the context of the People of God — Jesus is re-forming that People from being the Israel of the Old Covenant to being the Israel of the New Covenant, the Church. The Church herself is our theme for the next few weeks’ homilies … “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” we say in the Creed. The Church is the product of God’s relationship with the world; the Church is the fruit of Jesus’s life-giving encounter with humanity. We cannot imagine what Jesus came to achieve here in the world without the Church. The Church is the very response of man to God, and was prepared for by God, long before Christ. The Catechism says:
759 “The eternal Father, in accordance with the utterly gratuitous and mysterious design of his wisdom and goodness, created the whole universe and chose to raise up men to share in his own divine life,” to which he calls all men in his Son. “The Father … determined to call together in a holy Church those who should believe in Christ.” This “family of God” is gradually formed and takes shape during the stages of human history, in keeping with the Father’s plan. In fact, “already present in figure at the beginning of the world, this Church was prepared in marvellous fashion in the history of the people of Israel and the old Alliance. Established in this last age of the world and made manifest in the outpouring of the Spirit, it will be brought to glorious completion at the end of time.”
And in fact, even more succinctly, there is a saying from the 1st century AD, “The world was created for the sake of the Church.” What that means is that the plan of God, since before the beginning of time, was that man should be called together as a ‘People of God.’
In fact, the very word ‘church’ in its Greek original, “ekklesia” means a gathering, an assembly, a calling-together. So, the Church is not a by-product, an optional extra, to Christian faith. We cannot believe in God, and in Our Lord Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit, and not also believe in who and what the Church is, and is for: the Church is ‘called together’ by God’s Word. Anyway, Christ made this very clear, as He established structures for His people even within those years of His earthly ministry. He chose 12 apostles, echoing the number of Jacob’s sons, heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. And He chose a leader, prince of the apostles, St Peter, to be their rock, their focus of unity, their anchor-point. These were not meaningless choices: Jesus clearly intended to give a structure to the People He would entrust with His message. He wanted them to go out into the world with the Good News; He wanted them to have the apostles and their successors as leaders; He wanted them to have the Successor of St Peter as the Rock, the focus of unity in the Church. That is what we have — the Catholic Church is in every sense one and the same community that Our Lord founded in His earthly ministry, in His Resurrection appearances, and in His great gift of the Holy Spirit sent at Pentecost.
As He prepared to ascend, Jesus said to His apostles: “Go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News. Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is Jesus’s great command, to build up the Church in faith and baptism. Baptism is at the same time baptism into Christ, and baptism into the Church … As baptized Christians we are made one with Christ our God in Baptism; and at the same time we are made one with the family of the saints, and sinners, who make up the Church. Baptism doesn’t do one or the other; it does both. And that’s why we can’t have a Christian faith that doesn’t acknowledge, love, and live the Church.
The life of the Church is, for the most part, the very way the Lord reaches out constantly to others, and to offer them the divine forgiveness, healing, and life, that they need. That means us. That means that it is our responsibility, through our Baptism, to be at all times — every day — ambassadors for Christ; holy ambassadors for Jesus the Lord. St Teresa of Avila put it poetically like this:
Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours.
That is the Mystery of the Church, that we do His very work on earth, we are the Body of Christ.