The Church has four marks: it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. These marks, states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “indicate essential features of the Church and her mission.” They are not produced or created by the Church, but are gifts from her Head: “The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities” (No. 811).
The roots of the Church, of course, are found in the Old Testament, in the chosen people of the old covenant. The reading from Nehemiah describes Ezra the priest reading the book of the law to the people — not for a few minutes, but for hours on end. Ezra, along with Nehemiah, were key leaders in the restoration of the Jewish people to the promised land following the Babylonian exile (c. 587-538 B.C.). The 50 years in exile had been devastating. Not only was the identity of the people in tatters, the will of the people was likewise crushed. Of the 2 million to 3 million Jews given permission to return home, probably less than 50,000 actually made the treacherous 900-mile journey back to the promised, but mostly ruined, land. In reading the law, Ezra not only reminded them of their covenant and identity, he was interpreting the law “so that all could understand what was read.” In this way, they could again be united.
Yet, as Father Hans Urs von Balthasar has noted, the Jews “were not members but were individuals within a national community … ” Christians, however, are “interrelated members within the body of Christ.” This unique, supernatural body exists only because of the God-man, Jesus, who established it through his life, death and resurrection. Today’s Gospel points to this truth. Jesus, when he stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth, appeared to be just like so many other Jews: the son of a carpenter. But he was the anointed Messiah, the man with a genealogy who was also the Son of God (Lk 3:23-38). He experienced hunger and fatigue, but was sinless (Lk 4:1-13).
In making his proclamation in the synagogue, Jesus revealed himself as prophet, but uniquely so. While all true prophets were called to proclaim the word of God, Jesus was the Word of God proclaiming his identity and mission, rooting this proclamation in the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
Who are the captives, the blind, the oppressed? They are each person who recognizes his desperate need for liberation from sin and restoration to divine life, and who calls upon the name of Christ. They are those who make up the Body of Christ, the Church — not through their efforts, but through the will and grace of God. This is the profound truth contemplated by St. Paul. A body has many parts, he wrote to the Corinthians, but all those parts are one body — “so also Christ.” We are baptized into that body in the Holy Spirit, “whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons … ” Having come home from exile, we hear the Word, and we are united to the Word, the Head of the mystical Body.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.