At the centre of salvation history is the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Son of God who became truly and completely human in the womb of Mary while remaining truly and completely divine. He lived the first 30 years of his life quietly in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph before embarking on his ministry.
During his three year public life, Jesus claimed to be God and proclaimed that a new era had arrived in the vast panorama of human history, namely the 'Kingdom of God'. However, Jesus broke the reality of his divinity slowly and gently using a variety of names for himself which resonated with a Jewish people steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures.
He was the Messiah, the 'anointed one', or Christ in the Greek language, (John 4:25-26); the Son of God (Matthew, 7:20); the Son of Man (Mark 15:39); the Nazarene (Acts); and the Lord (John 20:25).
Jesus also referred to himself, or was given the titles of Emmanuel, the Lamb of God, the Son of David, the Son of Joseph, the Lord of the Sabbath, the King of the Jews and the Son of the Most High, the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life and the Saviour.
However, through this variety of titles, Jesus claimed to be God and illustrated his assertion by
* working a wide variety of miracles in many places for many different sorts of people;
* forgiving sins, often after he had cured a person; and
* his resurrection from the dead.
Jesus gave signs so the people would know that God was in the world exercising his kingship through himself and a new era had arrived. His miracles were those signs. However, these were discreet and understated so Jesus did not stun, dazzle or overwhelm his listeners while giving sufficient evidence for belief.
However, the hearers had to make some effort and give assent in faith. As a result, while many saw the miracles, not all believed.
In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, for example, where Jesus fed thousands of people in the barren countryside, he could have provided mountains of loaves and hundreds of small fires on which to cook the fish. Such signs would have been more spectacular. However, he simply directed the disciples to spread through the crowds with their baskets and as they distributed the food, the baskets remained filled until all had eaten. Many would not have realised a miracle was occurring; no-one was stunned, dazzled or forced into belief.
Everywhere we are used to signs, e.g., about the weather, of sickness, of happiness, or signs of war. In the religious traditions of the Jews, important signs were those which showed that God was working in their history. There are many examples in the Old Testament.
The great Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, foretold that there would be clear signs when the Messiah came: the blind would regain their sight, the lame would walk, lepers would recover their health, the deaf would hear, the dead would be raised to life, and everyone - including the poor, marginalised and disadvantaged - would have the Good News of eternal salvation preached to them.
Isaiah's was a well known prophecy and it is no wonder that many Jews asked Jesus for signs: 'What sign will you give us to show that we should believe in you?' (John 6:30). However, when Jesus gave the required signs, fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy to the letter, some believed while others turned away.
The visually impaired did regain sight and the evangelists give examples: Mark recounts the healing of a blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26); and Matthew recounts the cure of two blind men as Jesus walked through the countryside in these words: 'As Jesus went on his way two blind men followed Him shouting: 'Take pity on us, Son of David'â ... He asked: 'Do you believe I can do this?'. They said: 'Yes, Lord we do!'. Then he touched their eyes saying: 'In view of your faith, let it be done to you', and they regained their sight' (Matthew 9:27-31).
While Jesus cured blindness in many people, he also assisted the paralysed to walk again. In Luke (5:17-26) and John (5:1-16) we have examples. In one case, the carriers of a paralysed man were so desperate to get their friend into Jesus' presence that they lowered him through an opening in the flat roof of a house in which Jesus was preaching.
What occurred followed this sequence:
* Jesus was impressed by their faith and forgave the sins of the man on the stretcher.
* Some Pharisees and other leaders who were standing among the milling crowd objected: 'Only God can forgive sins'â they grumbled.
* Jesus confronted them with the obvious question: can a person who forgives sins also give back his health to the paralysed man? At this point he cured the paralytic.
In similar vein, there are many places, including Matthew (8:1-4) and Luke (17:11-19), where Jesus cured those afflicted with the hideous and incurable disease of leprosy.
Finally, Jesus raised a number of dead people to life: the widow's son at Naim, the daughter of Jairus, a synagogue leader, and immediately prior to his passion, Lazarus, a personal friend who lived with Martha and Mary at Bethany, a few kilometres from Jerusalem.
However, Jesus' most spectacular miracle was his own resurrection from the dead. None of the Gospel writers goes into detail about the actual crucifixion of Jesus, simply stating, 'and they nailed him to the cross'. But all the evangelists stress what happened during the three hours Jesus was hanging on the cross and his actual death.
The Roman Centurion in charge of the execution assessed Jesus as dead even though the other two criminals were not. In order to be doubly certain Jesus was not merely unconscious or very weak, a soldier thrust a lance into Jesus' side and a mixture of blood and water flowed out.
The evidence of the eye- witnesses is clear - Jesus was dead. The chief priests and Pharisees at no stage denied this. Their main concern was that Jesus' disciples might steal his body and cause trouble later. Hence they sealed his grave and posted an armed guard.
Understandably each of the Gospel writers focussed on Jesus' resurrection: Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-10, Luke 24:1-12 and John 20:1- 10. This was his final critical claim to be the Son of God.
Mark's account commences in this way: 'When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary, the mother of James and Salome, brought spices with which to go and anoint the body and very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen ...'.
There follows a description of the empty tomb, the revelation of the angel that Jesus has risen, his appearances to many of his apostles and disciples in different places throughout Judea and Galilee over the next few weeks, and finally his ascension into heaven.
Where an iconic and charismatic religious leader has arisen throughout human history and in due course died, his followers mark the site of his grave as a place of pilgrimage. Jesus is the exception. There is the place where he was crucified but there is no grave. His followers witnessed to Jesus' resurrection and proclaimed his life and message throughout the world and would ultimately suffer martyrs' deaths for this.
Jesus did not establish church structures. On the contrary, he instructed his Apostles to go forth and preach the Gospel ('Good News') and appointed one of them, Peter, to be their leader ('You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church'). He did not specify how the Church should be organised.
However, at the Last Supper (before his passion and death) Jesus told them to repeat the Eucharist as he had done, and after his resurrection, he told them to baptise in his name, and gave them the Holy Spirit to inspire them in continuing with his mission.
Beyond this, Peter, together with the other eleven apostles, the seventy-two disciples and their later followers, had gradually to create the structures through which Jesus' message would be proclaimed. They had to provide the institutions for a Church that would be the vehicle for the common salvation of human beings.
The expression 'Catholic Church' first appeared in the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch (69-107) who said, 'Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church'. Catholic means 'totality' and 'universal'. Hence the Catholic Church contains the totality of Jesus' teachings and is spread throughout the world.
Two millennia later, Catholics have to face the fact that the message of Jesus has fractured into a bewildering range of Christian denominations each claiming to be an accurate witness of Jesus' life and a true interpreter of the Christian message. Hence Catholics encounter questions and situations like the following:
* A member of the family leaves the Catholic Church and joins another Christian community.
* Catholics married to non-Catholics may face the task of explaining to spouses that they are not invited to Holy Communion if they attend Mass.
* Catholics might wonder whether they can trust Church leaders to tell the truth about what to believe and how to act, since some of those leaders are no great witnesses to Christian virtue.
* What makes the Catholic Church unique among all Christian communities?
* How are Catholics related to other Christians?
Marks of a true Church
The Catholic Church bases its claim to be the one that Jesus Christ inspired by four distinctive characteristics: it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. These are technical terms and they require explanation.
1. In the history of the early Church visible unity was very important: 'They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and to the communal life and to the breaking of bread and to prayers ... All who believed were together and had all things in common' (Acts 2:42-44).
Unity in the 'Body of Christ' was vital if the whole body was to function according to God's plan. This unity was based on authority coming directly from Christ himself. After Jesus' ascension into heaven, his Church depended upon the Holy Spirit guiding his earthly shepherds. These were originally the twelve apostles. Today they are the successors of those apostles, the bishops of the Church.
However, even apostles and bishops do not always agree on the essential content and thrust of the Gospel. As already noted, Jesus gave his Church one to whom the other apostles could look for leadership and guidance. This was Simon Peter, and when Jesus renamed 'Simon' as 'Cephas' (Peter) and declared him leader of the other apostles, he indulged in a divine pun since Cephas means 'rock' in the original Aramaic.
2. The holiness of the Church resides in its founder, in the Eucharist and the other sacraments such as Baptism and Confirmation, its prayer life and its capacity to inspire great holiness in some of its members whom it recognises as canonised saints.
3. The Church is Catholic (universal) in that it is not the Church of some group or region but, rather, is the Great Church, the one that is spread everywhere and to which people of all cultures are called by Christ to belong. For some 2,000 years the Church has been further extending that call.
4. The Church is apostolic, that is it traces its foundation and authority to the first apostles. Jesus gave his own teaching authority to the apostles and they in turn handed on this authority to their successors. One important measure of divine truth in the early Church was whether a teaching could be traced to the teaching of an apostle.
Human weakness mediated through personalities, politics and cultural differences made it almost inevitable that there would be splits from the Catholic Church. Sometimes these breakaways were fuelled by real weaknesses among the leaders of the Catholic Church in particular times. In 1054, the Orthodox Churches of the East broke with Rome, while keeping other aspects of their 'Catholicity' intact, and, in 1521, the Protestant Reformation commenced the further and widespread fragmentation of the Christian community.
However, the Catholic Church has remained intact in its four distinctive marks or signs, and its apostolic succession via the popes and bishops remains unaffected.
Dr Barry Coldrey CFC taught in Christian Brothers colleges for many years and has written and lectured extensively on religion topics.