I’d like to start with a proposition. Here it is: To be a Christian is to believe in history.
Think about the Bible. All the great world religions have sacred books: the Qur’an, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Analects of Confucius. What those sacred texts have in common is that they’re essentially wisdom literature. They’re collections of noble teachings aimed at helping believers live ethically and find the right path to peace or happiness or enlightenment.
The Bible also aims to make people wise. But it does much more. It seeks to lead them to salvation , which is much more than enlightenment. The Bible’s starting point is totally different from any other sacred book. The first words are: “In the beginning . . . ” The Bible begins with a step-by-step report of the first day in the history of the world.
The entire Old Testament is like that. After telling us about the first man and woman and their descendants, it proceeds to present a historical account of God’s chosen people, the children of Israel. We read about their captivity in Egypt, their deliverance and wandering to the Promised Land, the rise and fall of their kingdom, their exile and restoration. The biblical narratives are filled with dates and geography, even the names of foreign rulers.
The New Testament continues that history. It focuses on one particular child of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, and the community he founded, the Church. The story is told with lots of references¯some direct, others subtle¯to that earlier history. Jesus is portrayed as fulfilling all that God promised in the Old Testament. The Church is described as the new people of God, the final realization of Israel’s calling to be God’s light to the nations. Here’s how the Gospel of Luke introduces the ministry of John the Baptist: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee and his brother Philip tetrarch of . . . ” You get the idea.
Christianity, thus, means believing definite things about history and about our own respective places in history. We don’t just profess belief in the Incarnation. We say we believe that God took flesh at a precise moment in time and in a definite place. Pontius Pilate and Mary are mentioned by name in the creed¯and the reference to Mary, his mother, guarantees Christ’s humanity, while the reference to Pilate, who condemned him to death, guarantees his historicity.
All this ensures that we can never reduce the Incarnation to an abstract concept, a metaphor, or a pretty idea. It ensures that we can never regard Jesus Christ as some kind of ideal archetype or mythical figure. He was truly a man and truly God. And once he had a place he called home on this earth. There’s something else, too. We believe that this historical event, which happened more than 2,000 years ago, represents a personal intervention by God “for us men and for our salvation.” God entered history for you and me, for all humanity.
These are extraordinary claims. To be a Christian means believing that you are part of a vast historical project. And it’s not our project. It’s God’s. We believe that since the beginning of time God has been working out his own hidden purposes in the history of nations and in the biography of every person. He’s still unfolding his purposes today, and each of us here has a necessary part to play in his divine plan. Again, no other religion makes anywhere near these kinds of claims about the meaning of human life¯and not just “human life” in general, but each and every individual human life. God willed each of us to be here. He loves us personally.
Let’s go back to the creed for a minute. We believe the Incarnation was a real historical event. For our salvation, Jesus came down from heaven at that point in history when Pilate was Caesar’s officer in Judea. And we believe that event changed everything. It’s the center and meaning of history. Everything before that was a prologue and a prelude. But what about everything after that? Well, that’s where we come in.
The creed not only tells us about the past. It also speaks of the future. We believe Jesus Christ will come again in glory to usher in a kingdom that will have no end. We anticipate that kingdom in every Eucharist, when he comes to us in the form of bread and wine. We live in joyful hope for the coming of the “end” of history¯when “time no longer shall be,” as the Book of Revelation says.
Until that day, we live in the era of the Church. If the Incarnation represents the past, and the Second Coming represents the future, then the Church is always the “present tense” of God’s plan for history and for each of our lives.
Simply put, the Church is Jesus Christ risen and alive and working in the world through you and me. Paul said Christ is “one flesh” with the Church, like a man and woman become one flesh in marriage. We are the Church. In a mystical unity with Christ, we make up the family of God and the kingdom of God. And the Church we see on earth is united inseparably to the Church we can’t see in heaven, the communion of saints.
In all this, we have Christ’s promise that he will be with us until the end of the age. And he is. Through the Holy Spirit that guards the truth of what the Church teaches. Through the Eucharist and sacraments that sustain and sanctify us on our journey in this world.
A lot of people¯and probably men even more than women¯don’t “get” these connections between the divine and the human, the invisible and the visible, the spiritual and the material. And that leads to a lot of problems. We hear people all the time saying they’re upset with “the Church.” Or that “the Church” has let them down. Or that “the Church” has distorted Christ’s message and needs to be reformed.
I agree with these people. I’m not satisfied with the Church either. I want the Church to be more holy. I want the Church to purge all the corrupting influences of sin, temptation, and worldliness. I want the Church to be fearless in love, courageous in confronting evil, and eloquent in bearing witness to the Gospel in a culture of greed and despair.
But what most of those people are really complaining about is the clergy. Their definition of “the Church” includes only the visible leadership of the Church: the pope, the cardinals, the archbishops and bishops, the priests and deacons. That’s the Church they want to criticize and turn around.
I’m glad they hold bishops and priests, including me, to high standards. Members of the clergy should lead holy lives that are an example for the Church. I only wish these people would remember that the Church includes them, too. When Christ said, “Be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect,” he wasn’t talking only about the clergy. When he said, “Go and preach the Gospel to all nations,” he wasn’t talking only about religious professionals. The demands of holiness apply to every one of us¯and in a special way to husbands and fathers who have the task of leading families. No excuses. No exceptions.
One of my inspirations as a Catholic adult was the French Catholic writer, Georges Bernanos, author of The Diary of a Country Priest . He wrote: “The visible Church is not only the ecclesiastical hierarchy. She is you, she is me¯which means the Church is not always a pleasant thing. At times, it’s even been a very unpleasant thing to have to look at the Church up close.” Bernanos knew that if the Church was already holy and perfect, sinners like you and me would be frightened away. “Instead of feeling at home,” he insisted, “you would stop at the threshold of this congregation of supermen, turning your cap in your hands, like a poor beggar at the door of the Ritz.”
We all very easily agree that the Church needs to be renewed and revitalized. But we need to understand what Jesus Christ wants from us. What I suggest to you is this: The renewal of the Church begins inside each one of us. If the Church isn’t what we want her to be, it’s because you and I aren’t yet the men that Jesus Christ has called us to be.
A key part of your Catholic identity is to be a missionary; a missionary of God’s love. We think of missionaries as people like Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit who sailed off to evangelize China in the sixteenth century. But most of us are called to be missionaries in a much more ordinary and local way¯in our families, neighborhoods and workplaces. Actually we’re living in an environment that’s much worse than official atheism. In our own country and throughout much of the developed world, we often hear that this is a “post-Christian moment” in history. But that’s just a polite way of saying that most people go about their lives as if the Incarnation had never happened.
In his last book, Memory and Identity , finished just before his death in 2005, Pope John Paul II warned us about this. He wrote: “Again and again we encounter the signs of an alternative civilization to that built on Christ as ‘cornerstone’¯a civilization which, even if not explicitly atheist . . . is built upon the principle of thinking and acting as if God did not exist.”
That’s what we’re up against: an alternative civilization. The most powerful nations on earth are organized and operating as if they have no need for God. “Practical atheism” has become a world religion.
So what are you going to do? How are we going to convert this world? I want to suggest an answer from history.
Did you ever wonder how the early Church did it? I mean, how did a handful of very ordinary men, disciples of an obscure man executed as a criminal, wind up changing the world¯conquering an empire and founding a whole new civilization on the cornerstone of that executed man’s life and teachings? And they did it in just a few centuries, without armies, and usually in face of discrimination and persecution.
Never before had a religion taught that God loved people personally and that God’s love began before the person was even born. Abortion and birth control were rampant in the Roman Empire. Christians rejected both of them from the beginning. Athenagoras, a Christian layman, explained why in an open letter he addressed to Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He said: “For we regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care.”
Before Christianity came on the scene, no religion had ever taught that God could be found in our neighbor. The world largely ignored the poor, the hungry, the stranger, and the imprisoned. And it still does. And yet Jesus said that we find God in our love for these least brethren of ours.
Christian love is not weak or anesthetic. It’s an act of the will. It takes guts. It’s a deliberate submission of our selfishness to the needs of others. There’s nothing “unmanly” about it, and there’s nothing¯and I mean nothing ¯more demanding and rewarding in the world. The heart of medieval knighthood and chivalry was the choice of a fighting man to put himself at the service of others¯honoring his lord, respecting the dignity of women, protecting the weak, and defending the faith even at the cost of his own life.
That’s your vocation. That’s what being a Christian man means. We still have those qualities in our hearts. We are not powerless in the face of today’s unbelieving civilization. We can turn this world upside down if only we’re willing to love¯the kind of Christian love that is vastly more powerful than just a sugary feeling; the kind of love that converts men into something entirely new; the kind of love that bears fruit in a man’s zeal, courage, justice, mercy, and apostolic action.
So I leave you with this: Be men who love well. Be the Catholic men God intended you to be. Be men of courage and fidelity to your God, your wives, your families, and your Church. Put your belief into practice. Do everything for the glory of God, even the little things you have to do each day. Love those who don’t love you. Love¯expecting nothing in return. Love¯and those you love will find Jesus, too. Love¯and through your actions, God will change this world.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Denver. This talk was given in September at an Indianapolis men’s conference for Legatus.