I imagine everyone knows that one of the disputed theological questions of the 20th cenury was: Who exactly belongs to the Church?
The Lord Jesus founded one Church and gave specific instructions about what to do and how to do it. Pope Pius XII explained how the Mystical Body of Christ is the visible Roman Catholic Church, governed by St. Peter’s successor in office. The invisible life of this visible Church is the Holy Spirit, given to us through the sacraments of faith.
But what about the holy fathers of old–and the holy mothers of old, too? What about Abraham and the prophets? What about Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist? St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the faithful citizens of ancient Israel, called the “holy remnant”–St. Thomas says that they made it to heaven by holding the faith of the Church, our faith.
Let’s try to understand this, especially because we keep Advent as a season in honor of the holy remnant of ancient Israel. The Israelites who kept the faith of Abraham, no matter what happened. No matter how many times the Promised Land got over-run by conquerors, or the Temple desecrated or destroyed; no matter how many times everyone else worshiped the golden calf or Baal or the fertility goddess–the faithful remnant still believed that all the promises God made to Abraham would be fulfilled. The remnant still believed that the Ten Commandments had to be followed. And the faithful Israelites believed that the Messiah would come–a descendant of Jacob, of the tribe of David–they believed that the Anointed One would come and save the world.
We study the era of the ancient fathers and mothers every year in Advent because, in order to be true to our faith, we have to be true to theirs, too. It purifies our faith to study their faith.
The saints of the Old Covenant lived in the desert in more ways than one. They saw selfishness and corruption in the institutions of their religion, but they were able to look beneath the surface and focus on the divine origins of their nation. Our holy ancestors studied the books of the prophets and believed in them, even though they did not altogether understand. Above all, the saints of the remnant of Israel greeted every day believing that this could be the day when God would act, when the Messiah would show himself.
In other words, the remnant of Israel remembered the works of God from centuries earlier as if they had just happened, and they expected the coming of God’s glorious future as it were just about to happen. The past that God had given them, and the future that He promised to give: that was all the present that they cared about. They greeted each day thinking to themselves: today belongs to God.
Among the ancient remnant, one holy man holds a unique place. He ate locusts and wild honey… First of all, he was the holiest man of all: utterly fearless, absolutely pure of heart, fiery in his zeal, untiring in his love. He was kin to the Savior. He greeted the Christ with a leap of joy, even before he himself was born. He had the unique task of initiating the initial sacrament of the New Covenant, Holy B… John saw the Messiah with his own eyes.
But, holy as St. John the Baptist may be–the faithful remnant of ancient Israel actually has one consummate representative, one perfect citizen, one person who sums up the entire Old Covenant in one simple life. Not a holy man…
The Blessed Mother demonstrated everything that Israel was all about in one moment:
‘You will have a son, even though you are still a virgin. He will save the world. He will reign forever.’
‘Okay. How will this come to pass?’
‘By the invisible power of God.’
‘Amen. I’m in.’
Like Gimli in The Return of the King: ‘Oh, divert the armies of Mordor by offering battle? Even though we don’t have anywhere near enough men? Let’s see… Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?’
The Blessed Virgin Mary, paragon of our faith: She had the sacrament of sacraments to nourish her faith, Christ Himself. The Body and Blood that we consume from the altar was formed from her body and blood, in her womb.
Here’s something to imagine and contemplate: Our Lady receiving Holy Communion during the years after Pentecost. Blessed Pope John Paul II referred to this in his encyclical on the Holy Eucharist:
“We know that she was present among the Apostles who prayed with one accord in the first community which gathered after the Ascension… Certainly Mary must have been present at the Eucharistic celebrations of the first generation of Christians.”
The Church then–we see–has one faith, from Abraham right down to us: we believe in the Christ. We believe everything said about Him by the prophets, and of course everything He said about Himself, about the Father, and about the Holy Spirit. We believe what Mary believed.
O holy saints of old, help our faith! Make it stronger and more luminous, so that we can welcome Christmas Day like true Christians.