As many of you know by now, I often begin my homilies with some sort of amusing comment or story. You may think, then, that since it’s Mother’s Day, I’d begin with a few jokes about mothers. But I know that I’d be risking my life if I did. If the mothers of this parish didn’t kill me, my own mother would.
One of the things my mom taught me from an early age was what we mean when we speak of “the Church.” When people speak of “the Church,” especially if they are being critical, they often mean the leaders of the Church—the Pope, bishops, priests, and deacons—those in positions of authority. In many people’s minds, “the Church” is identical with these leaders, with their teachings, decisions, faults, and failures. But although these leaders play an essential role in “the Church,” one established by Jesus Himself, they are not identical with it. That is what my mom taught me, and that is why she had no tolerance for people criticizing “the Church.” Criticizing a certain leader was occasionally justified, if it was done respectfully, in all truth and charity, but to direct this criticism at “the Church” was not allowed: Because it was not theologically correct. The Church was bigger than just these leaders. We were also part of it. And there were more of us than there were of them. So, you couldn’t point a finger at “the Church” without three fingers pointing back at yourself.
Our readings today provide us with a similar understanding of the Church. In the first reading, we see the essential role of our leaders in the Church. The Apostles, the first bishops, recognize that there is a need in the community that is not being met. The Church’s first food pantry is not operating fairly. Certain widows are being neglected. Anxious to serve their people, the Apostles ordain the first deacons by prayer and the laying on of hands. Like Jesus, the leaders of the Church are called to serve the Church, meaning that they are not identical with it. The Church is both the shepherds and the sheep, and the shepherds are to lay down their lives for their sheep.
In the second reading, we see another image of the Church: the image of a temple built of living stones. Writing to a Christian community in exile, St. Peter exhorts them: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Every member of the Church, leaders and laity alike, are called to be living stones. Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation, and we are the stones built upon Him, assembled with Him to form a single edifice: the temple which is the Church. There’s a reason why we refer to the people gathered for Mass as “the assembly.” It’s because we are living stones, assembled with Christ the cornerstone, to form the temple which is the Church. We are not just a pile of rocks; we are an ordered assembly. We each have an important place in the edifice of the Church. When we don’t participate in the Mass, when we fail to offer spiritual sacrifices to God the Father through Jesus Christ, the Church is less for it. A living stone is missing from the temple.
This is also why we build beautiful churches. The physical church, the brick-and-mortar church, is an image of the Church which we, as living stones, form with Christ the cornerstone. An ugly church tells us that we, as living stones, are made to live beige, mediocre lives. A beautiful church tells us that we, as living stones, are made for greatness, to live lives radiant with holiness and resplendent with truth, goodness, and beauty.
In the gospel, Jesus refers to the Church as His bride. When He tells His apostles that He is going to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house, Jesus is drawing on the practice of a typical Jewish marriage. At the time of Jesus, a typical Jewish marriage would take place in two stages. First, the future bridegroom and bride would get engaged. At that point they’d be legally married. But they wouldn’t live together just yet. After the engagement, the bridegroom would go to his Father’s property to build a house for His bride. When the house was prepared, he would return and take his bride to live there with him. At that point they would celebrate the wedding and have a feast. This is what Jesus is referring to when He says that He is going to prepare a place for the apostles in His Father’s house, and that He will eventually come back and take them to Himself. He is referring to the apostles, and to all those who believe in and remain faithful to Him, as His bride. He is the bridegroom, the Church is His bride, and He is going to heaven, to His Father’s house, to prepare an eternal home for her.
The last image of the Church that I’d like to preach about is based on the last verse of the gospel: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus’ claim that those who believe in Him will do greater works than the ones He does may rightly confuse or astonish us. How is that possible?
Commenting on this text, St. Thomas Aquinas says that God works in two ways (Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapter 14, Lecture 3). In one way, He works without us. When God the Father created the universe, He did so without us. When God the Son walked on water, healed lepers, and raised the dead, He did so without us. He didn’t need our permission or our help. This is one way in which God works. In the other way, God works within us but not without us. God works in this way when He is making us holy. God cannot share His Divine Life with us, and so make us holy, without us. He needs our permission. He needs us to say “yes” to Him, to say “thy will be done” to Him. He never forces Himself upon us. God cannot make a baby holy through baptism without the permission of the parents. God cannot make an adult holy through baptism without their own permission. God cannot forgive our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, restoring us to holiness, without our permission. God cannot help us grow in holiness through the reception of Holy Communion without our permission to enter our mouths and hearts. And so on for all the other Sacraments and other means by which God shares His Divine Life with us.
God works in this second way through the Church. And the best image to describe the Church operating in this way is that of a mother. With respect to Jesus, the Church is Bride; but with respect to us, the Church is Mother. Like a mother who gives natural life to her children through her womb, so also Mother Church gives Divine life to her children through her womb which is the baptismal font. And even as a mother nourishes and heals her children by giving them natural food and medicine, so also Mother Church nourishes and heals her children by giving them the Divine Food and Medicine which are the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Reconciliation. And these works which God does through Mother Church, which are works which He does within us but not without us, are greater than the works which He does without us. For, as St. Thomas says, quoting St. Augustine, “a just man to be made from a sinner is greater than to create heaven and earth, for heaven and earth shall pass away, but the justification of [sinners] shall endure [forever]” (Summa Theologica I-II Q113.A9).
When Mother Church baptizes a baby or adult, it’s a greater work than the creation of the entire universe. When Mother Church nourishes and heals her children through Holy Communion and Reconciliation, it’s a greater work than walking on water, healing lepers, and even raising the dead. Because these are all transformations on the natural level, a change from one natural state to another. But when Mother Church gives her children Divine life through prayer and the Sacraments, it’s a transformation from a natural state to a Divine state—a change far greater, far more significant, far more lasting, than any natural change, even the creation of the entire universe. The universe will pass away, but we will live forever. With our permission, through the hands of Mother Church, God can do greater works within us than He can do without us.
And, so, as we celebrate Mother’s Day today, let us thank God not only for the great gift of our own natural mothers, but also for the gift of our supernatural mother, the Church. Let’s be cautious about criticizing the Church, because we’re really just criticizing ourselves. And when you hear someone badmouthing the Church, just tell them: “Don’t speak about my mom that way.”