The Church Was Born From the Side of Christ

‘That He completed His work on the gibbet of the Cross is the unanimous teaching of the holy Fathers who assert that the Church was born from the side of our Savior on the Cross like a new Eve, mother of all the living.’ —Pope Pius XII

Berswordt Altar, 14th Century, Marienkirche, Dortmund, Germany
Berswordt Altar, 14th Century, Marienkirche, Dortmund, Germany (photo: Public Domain)

Of the three great Solemnities that follow in the wake of Easter, the Solemnity of Pentecost, falling exactly 50 days after the Lord’s Resurrection, is the one we are most likely to remember. Sandwiched between the prefiguring event of the Ascension, which is one week before, and Trinity Sunday, one week after, it appears to enjoy pride of place in the Church’s calendar of feasts. And yet while clearly surpassing the former, it is totally eclipsed by the latter.

That is because who God is necessarily takes precedence over what God does. Being before doing, as it were. Without the Holy Spirit breathing forth the love of the Father and the Son from all eternity, you can forget about the Spirit’s fiery descent upon anyone, never mind the disciples cowering away in the Upper Room on the morning of Pentecost.

The issue here is hardly a matter of mere academic interest. It is at the heart of all that we believe as Christians. The teaching of the Church is most emphatic on the matter, describing God as “the central mystery of Christian faith and life … the mystery of God in himself ... therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them” (CCC 234).

G.K. Chesterton, in his usual idiosyncratic way, has gotten hold of the right end of the stick here. “Take away the Nicene Creed,” he warned back in 1903, “and you do some strange wrong to the sellers of sausages.” In other words, our unique and common dignity as human beings absolutely depends on the maintenance of such truths as are inscribed in the Nicene Creed, the centerpiece of which being the triune God. His point is that from the moment you strip the faith of this singular and pivotal fact, you do irreparable damage to all whose dignity depends upon that truth. If there is no God, then then can be no safety net to catch us as we fall ineluctably into nothingness.

Still, despite such strictures, we persist in thinking of Pentecost as the primary feast, dwarfing all else. Leaving most of us with the mistaken impression that so foundational is this feast that we even attribute to it the birthday of the Church. In my own parish, for instance, which is a bulwark of orthodoxy, it was the bishop himself who presided at the feast, waxing at great length on the subject, reminding us repeatedly that until the Pentecostal fire fell there really wasn’t much of a Church at all. And when Mass ended many of us marched excitedly downstairs for cookies and donuts, party hats optional.

But in one sense, the birthday of the Church had transpired exactly 53 days before, which is to say, at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of Good Friday as Christ died upon the Cross, his side pierced by a Roman soldier, from which a veritable wellspring of blood and water came forth, destined to continue until the end of time. Calvary is the place of her birth, life springing forth from death.

And Pentecost? What’s that about? If there’s no birth signified by the event, by the sudden and fiery descent of the Holy Spirit, what’s it for? The point of Pentecost is to mark the necessary and quite unmistakably public manifestation of a Church already in being, however enshrouded in the deep mystery of Christ’s passion and death. Empowered thus to carry on the mission entrusted to her, the Church may now set about the work of bringing home to the Father a world ransomed by the sacrifice of his Son. And in saying so one is not being at all pedantic.

I shall call upon two popes to confirm the point. Starting with Pope Pius XII, who, in Mystici Corporis Christi, perhaps the most consequential encyclical of the last century — issued in 1943 while an entire world was going up in flames that were most decidedly not Pentecostal — puts it with admirable simplicity: “Having established the Church in His blood,” he tells us, “He then fortified it on the day of Pentecost.” In other words, the Church first emerges amid the torments of Calvary, deep within the wounded side of Christ; followed by the cauterizing fire of Pentecost, in which the Spirit presents the Church — the Heavenly Bride wedded to the Crucified Lamb — to an entire world waiting to be rescued from its folly and sin.

Then there is the inestimable Leo XIII, who, in Divinum Illud Munus, an encyclical written near the end of the 19th century, gets the sequence exactly right as well. “The Church,” he tells us, “which had already been conceived and which issued, as it were, from the loins of the New Adam when He slept on the cross, was dazzlingly manifested to men for the first time on the solemn day of Pentecost.”

What a lovely and moving image that is of Christ, sleeping on Friday’s Cross as the New and Second Adam, only to be shown in all his radiance and power before the world on a precise Sunday some 50 days later. Telling his disciples, who until a moment before had been hiding behind locked doors lest the Jews come and kill them, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (John 20:19-23).

But perhaps there is yet an earlier date on which to fix the birthday of the Church, a time years and years before Christ either took up his cross in order that he might die, or summoned the Spirit in order that we might live, enabling others to live as well, no longer for themselves but for him. What could that be but the moment when a young Jewish girl, strangely visited by an archangel inviting her to become the Mother of God, actually agrees to bear the very Logos of God into human being? “Receiving your Word in her Immaculate Heart,” we pray on the day following Pentecost, the Feast of Mary as Mother of the Church,

she was found worthy to conceive him
    in her virgin’s womb
and, giving birth to the Creator,
she nurtured the beginnings of the Church.

It is the whole mystery of Mary’s fiat that becomes the catalyzing force, the event kickstarting the Church into being. Here begins the Marian dimension of Christian discipleship, which precedes everything else, including even the institution of the Petrine Office. In saying Yes to God, in refusing him nothing, everything else follows. It is the greatest possible gesture of self-giving that any human being has ever been asked to make. “Surrender to God,” writes Gertrude von Le Fort in a beautiful and prophetic work called “The Eternal Woman,” “is the only absolute power with which the creature is endowed.”

Accordingly, in the annals of the spiritual life, no surrender has ever been more complete, nor fruitful, than that of the Blessed Mother. Hers is the supreme expression of a life filled to overflowing with the gift of faith; it became the benchmark of her life. Hans Urs von Balthasar has expressed it well. “Faith,” he writes, “is the surrender of the entire person: because Mary from the start surrendered everything, her memory was the unsullied tablet on which the Father, through the Spirit, could write His entire Word.”

It is because the Church is not finally an institution, but a person — indeed, a Virgin and a Mother — that we can speak of her as the animating source, under God, of all that is life-giving in the Church. It is she, therefore, to quote those lovely lines taken from Hopkins, from “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe,” his superb act of homage paid to Our Lady, who not only gives

Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
    But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race — 

She is the one who,

This one work has to do —
Let all God’s glory through. …
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

So, all you children of the Church, go and say hello to your Mother.