—Originally posted back in July, perhaps you will give it a second look on this day before we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.
I ran a half-marathon once, courtesy of the United States Marine Corps—13.1 miles on a hot, humid September morning in Quantico, Virginia. Along with 120 other happy Leathernecks, I never could have run this distance successfully without prior training.
I couldn’t have made it without the refreshment stops provided by our benevolent leaders along the way either. Even though I had stamina, discipline, and faith in my abilities, all of that would have been for naught without ice cold water available at stations along the route. I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line without them, and no one else would have either.
The passage below is from the Old Testament reading last Sunday.
All those attending Mass then, or at the Vigil on Saturday, heard or read along with these words. The Gospel reading that day was about the Good Samaritan, or “who is my neighbor?” as the scholar of the law asked Our Lord. That reading is usually the one which carries the day with a homily.
But for me, and for my family, the reading below is the one we needed to hear most. Not only does it set the stage for the other readings, but it also helps explain the whole reason why the Church is necessary for our salvation and why Christ founded it for that purpose, which is how I explained it to my kids.
Moses said to the people:”If only you would heed the voice of the LORD, your God, and keep his commandments and statutes that are written in this book of the law, when you return to the LORD, your God, with all your heart and all your soul. For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say,’Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say,’Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”-Deuteronomy 30:10-14
As simple as Moses makes it seem, “carrying it out” is the most difficult part of the equation. In fact, “it” can’t be done without Christ, which is why He came. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Colossians,
For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven.
Thus, “it” can’t be done without the Church. And what is “it?” Well, a lot harder than running a half marathon, let me tell you. Quite simply, “it” is to become fully human, to reach the zenith of what it means to be a human being. To reach the “end” that we are created for. The Gospel reading in Luke tips you off with the quote from Deuteronomy 6.
You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
Our vocation, then, is to love, wholeheartedly and unconditionally, so that we can become like God. This can’t be done by yourself, can’t be done without the Sacraments (which sustain, cleanse, and commit us to one another, while fortifying us in this endeavor), and can’t be done through reading Scripture alone. Come to think of it, I couldn’t have become a Marine on my own either.
What did Gandhi say about Christians? “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” That is because we are works in progress, while Christ is God. We have potential, but Christ is the model for us to emulate. He is the genuine article, Man as he is intended to be.
There is a huge chasm between us and Him, between where we are now and where we want to be. This is where the Church comes in. She is the bridge across this chasm, a beacon on the journey, serving much the same purpose as those water stops in Quantico did on a very long run, a long time ago. Because as Frederick Faber describes clearly, the Church
is the pillar and ground of the truth, the Bride of the Lamb, a city set upon a hill which cannot be hid. The Church is a government and a kingdom, a society and an institution, a witness and a missionary. Her business is to teach, to command, to console, to edify, to punish, to praise, at all times and in all the ends of the earth. Thus light is her very life and office.
The Marine Corps used to have the recruiting slogan you see in the poster here: The Marine Corps Builds Men.
That ordinary teenagers are transformed into something completely different after they join this organization is well known. That the Church is here to transform us too is perhaps less recognized, but no less true.
More subtle than 12 weeks of boot camp, the transformation takes a lifetime of study, prayer, and perseverance in the faith. But unlike some quickie self-help program, with a lame money-back guarantee, a hand shake and a smile, the Church is here eternally with both tangible and spiritual aids to help us make it to the finish line.