If Advent is to open our minds and hearts to the Person of Jesus Christ, we must also acknowledge the importance of hearing the voice of Christ transmitted to the world through the teaching of the Church.
By F. K. Bartels
12 December 2012
Advent is a sacred season in which the faithful prepare for Christ who is come, is coming, and will come again. It is, then, a time in which we open our hearts to the grace and truth of Jesus Christ in order to enter more deeply into the saving mysteries of the life of the Savior of the world (cf. Jn 3:17). That we desire Christ presupposes that we, too, desire to belong to the truth, for the Lord is Truth. Advent is, therefore, a time of seeking Truth in the hope that its full light will penetrate our minds and hearts.
When Pilate questioned Jesus, “‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice’” (Jn 18:37).
Since Christ came to bear witness to the truth, it follows that the truth is needed. In fact, humanity is a truth-thirsty people. Whether admitted or not, everyone desires truth, since it is one of the primary goals of the human intellect. Throughout all of history, as is evident from the historical artifacts, art and architecture of the human race, man has always been a religious being in search of the truth that both applies to himself and transcends himself. Humankind wishes to know its origin, purpose and destiny, including what it means to be a human person and how life is to be lived in order to attain its fullest possible dimension. Consequently, people of all nations and all races unceasingly search for not only the truth about themselves but the truth about the reality in which they live.
The answers we seek are found in God. The irrepressible search for truth leads toward and ends in God, who made mankind for himself. That God is Creator really says it all. It is through God’s divine revelation that man comes to understand both the human story and the story of God. This divine and human story is, we could say, the story of reality, which is revealed in its fullness in Jesus Christ, who is the perfect image of God and the totality of divine revelation, and who is himself “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6).
Vatican II taught that “in reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear” (GS 22). In that sentence, the Council Fathers articulated a vital and stunning truth claim. If we want to understand who man is, it is Jesus Christ who alone provides the definitive answer. If we want to know how to live and how to die, then we must listen to God-made-man who assumed human nature and died for our sake. If we want to know Who the elect shall one day be like, we must look to the resurrected and glorified Savior who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. In Christ the mystery of man is unveiled. Therefore it is Jesus Christ who provides the answers to man’s most pressing questions. But how do we listen to Christ the Divine Teacher? How is his saving voice of truth transmitted and received in the here and now?
We Hear The Truth Through The Catholic Church
The importance of prayer is obvious. However, given the level of religious disagreement and confusion in the world, it is just as obvious that more than prayer is necessary. Some will here point to the Bible as the sole point of reference; but that, too, alone and of itself cannot clear up the disagreements because the Bible is incapable of defending itself. The Bible must have an interpreter: when men wrongly attempt to fill that role, doctrinal confusion and disagreement and loss (or illusory progress) is the result. What is required is an authority on earth that speaks in Christ’s name.
Man requires an earthly institution of truth, a city of certainty and a holy dwelling place of light that speaks with the authority of God. If such a thing were to be merely an abstract, invisible entity, uncertain and indefinite, it could never be relied upon to guard the truth and provide definitive answers. Humankind, if it is to hear the truth, must have someplace to go and listen to it! We require a secure home whose soul is the Holy Spirit and whose guide is the Lord who himself gives abundant life and light and truth. Something so obvious could not have escaped the divine gaze of Jesus Christ. It is unthinkable that the Son of God would assume human flesh, say that everyone who “is of the truth hears my voice,” then die on the cross and leave the world and generations to come with nothing but silence, disagreement, chaos and confusion.
That Jesus must have chosen certain followers (disciples) to carry out his ministry in the future, whom he would send forth into an often dark and hostile world as messengers (apostles) of salvation and truth, is both reasonable and obvious. Sacred Scripture, of course, confirms in numerous places just such a plan. Jesus Christ indeed insured his ministry would continue in order for generations of the future to hear his voice:
After Simon Peter professed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:17-19).
Here Christ promised to found his definite and specific Church upon St. Peter. While much confusion about the above passage from St. Matthew’s gospel was introduced by the Protestant reformers and their followers in the sixteenth century — persisting to this day — in order to rationalize a jettisoning of the authority of the Catholic Church, it is clear that the Son of God himself instituted one Church (not “churches” nor “a church,” but the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church) and placed St. Peter at her helm. If we read Scripture in its greater context, it is easy to see that using human instruments to accomplish God’s will is the methodology of the Holy Trinity. From Genesis to Exodus to St. Paul to Revelation, we find that God lovingly calls his people to participate in and therefore live out his divine plan of goodness. It is in keeping with such a plan, that Jesus Christ installed Peter as leader of the Church, and sent his apostles out into the world to proclaim the gospel.
The Church Is Given The Authority To Proclaim The Truth
The Old Testament offers numerous examples in which the Divine Methodology is to install beloved servants in positions of leadership and authority over the people of God. For instance, Moses stands out in Exodus as the one who is given the authority to exercise the will of God in order to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and lead them toward the promised land. When the people complain against Moses, as happens more than once, they are in fact complaining against God himself. As a particularly relevant example, when Aaron and Miriam speak against Moses, the Lord asks them, “‘Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?’ And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed; and when the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow” (Num. 12:8-10). There are consequences for challenging the authority of God’s appointed leaders.
Moving to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ, we find that, again, God follows the method of installing leaders in positions of authority. A very clear example is found in the command of Jesus that refers his disciples to the authority of the Church in order to settle disputes: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt 18:15-17).
It is instructive to recall the fact that Gentiles and tax collectors were not looked on favorably in the days of Jesus’ earthly life. Clearly, these strong words from the Son of God emphasize the necessity of free obedience to the authority of the Church, as do those recorded in Luke’s gospel: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (10:16). The point is, the Church is given by God the authority to proclaim the truth because Christ himself is the foundation of her life, light and mission, as we find stated at the end of Matthew’s gospel in the Great Commission of the apostles:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:18-20). Here God himself has promised to sustain his Church. Two thousand years of history in which the Church has survived the extreme forces of a hostile world and severe attacks from every possible front, shows that God’s will cannot be undone.
“I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
As Vatican II taught in Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution On the Church), Christ “established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicated truth and grace to all” (LG 8). The Church on earth, then, is a definite and specific Church who in virtue of her divine Founder is “the pillar and mainstay of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). “This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (LG 8 § 2).
Through The Church We See Reality
In embracing Truth is found the path leading to human fulfillment. Ultimately, that is what Advent is about: opening our hearts to Christ who is Truth, that he may enter into our life and we may enter into his, that we may receive the divine love he thirsts to give, and that we may share in the supernatural life of God and thus attain to everlasting life. God’s plans for his people are not small and ordinary but great and magnificent; they issue from the profound, sublime and incomparable brilliance of the fount of ineffable light that flows from the Divine Mind, and have at their foundation but one aim of sheer goodness. In order to make this wondrous plan our plan, the story of God our story, it is necessary to seek out and live by the truth. We need understand ourselves and our purpose, we need learn how to live and how to die.
Those things and more are definitively revealed only in the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, whose purpose was to testify to the truth, and whose divine words bring life. Yet it is God’s plan that we should come to know Christ and ourselves through the Church. If we wish to peer deeply into the reality in which we live, it is necessary to listen to the words of truth transmitted by the Bride of Christ, the Church whose mission is the mission of the Savior of the world. It is within the womb of the Church, a holy dwelling place and city of truth, that we gaze on Christ in the full light of truth; it is then, in this light, that we hear the Risen Lord’s voice.
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Photo Credit: photo of candles by Alex Harden, https://www.flickr.com/photos/aharden/332323561. Photo modified for Joy In Truth.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.