It would seem, then, that the people of God would follow the same course as God who, himself, was “sent into exile” at the time of the Flood till the birth of Jesus Christ. When Abraham was called by God to be the father of nations- the father of a promise – he was living in the land of Ur (close to where Baghdad is today). But in order to inherit the promise from God, he was summoned to the land of Canaan (where Israel is today). And in order to survive, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, took his family to Egypt from the land of Canaan during a famine. About 400 years later, Moses would be sent into exile for killing an Egyptian soldier. He would return decades later to retrieve the Israelites. That was the beginning of a forty year journey in the desert. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, the Catholic Church is like the Israelites in the desert, searching for a better home.
When the nation of Israel settled into the land of Canaan, she prospered into a powerful kingdom under King David. As with most prosperous kingdoms, the people of God grew complacent and eventually turned to idolatry. About five centuries after the reign of David, the Jews were conquered by the Babylonian Empire. In the year 586 B.C., Jerusalem, along with the Temple built by Solomon, was destroyed. The Jews were then transported to Babylon. Strangers in a foreign land, they would come to recognize the inspired writings of the prophets who warned them of their sins and the chastening of God that would follow. Indeed, it was in their exile and plight that awoken them to their own infidelity and the veracity of God’s Word.
In the fullness of time when Christ was born, the holy pilgrimage of exile would be repeated yet again. King Herod, in order to eliminate any rivals to his throne, sought the life of the Christ-child. In order to escape his wrath, the angel warned St. Joseph in a dream to take the mother and her child to Egypt. In flight, therefore, Christ, as a young child and then as a man, would twice retrace the steps of his people:
First, by taking flight to Egypt as a child with Joseph and Mary. Second, by returning to the desert for the duration of forty days at age 30 in order to conquer the Evil One. Through his fidelity in fasting and a resolute rejection of Satan’s temptations, he atoned for Israel's infidelity. But it was only through the painful experience of exile that this blessing could come about.
Interestingly, the Gospel of Luke characterizes the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord as a kind of “exodus.” During his transfiguration on Mount Tabor, St. Luke wrote that Moses and Elijah (both sent into exile in their own day), spoke to Jesus about his exodus. In fact, the Ascension of Our Lord is considered as a kind an exile from this world. But as Moses returned to Egypt to liberate his people after a prolonged absence, so too our Lord will return in order to fulfill his Father's promise in Psalm 2: “I will proclaim the decree of the LORD, he said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask it of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and, as your possession, the ends of the earth.”
In the meantime, the Catholic Church can only consider herself as one in exile; never completely at home in any given country. In the early years of the Christianity, the Church understood this well. For the first 300 years, she was hated and persecuted by the Romans. Indeed, a great number of martyrs were produced. In fact, one historical source reports that out of the 30 popes, 29 died a martyr’s death. Yet, conversions to the Catholic Faith abounded. Through it all, there was something very attractive about an other-worldly society.
A famous letter, supposedly written in the second century during the height of Christian persecution, captures how the early Christians saw themselves. A Letter from Mathetes to Diognetus speaks of a Church in exile; one that is not defined by any ethnicity or nationality. He writes, “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…”
Even as the Roman Empire was beginning to fall and even as the Church seemed to be in retreat, Mathetes gives the reason why the early Christians were full of hope: “As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers…They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven…They love all men, and are persecuted by all…”
Even with the fierce persecution of Christians and being cast out of Roman society time and time again, the Catholic Church was full of confidence in her mission. She knew that in order to save the world, she had to be set apart from the world. Mathetes summarizes this mission as follows:
“To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world…
The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.”
It is only through the age-old pilgrimage of an exile as outsiders, strangers and victims that the Church can recover her native strength. Only under this banner can she be a symbol of that future happiness that awaits us in heaven. Perhaps, this is why another Catholic historian, Hilaire Belloc, wrote about that peculiar sign for which we are to look when the Catholic Faith is on the precipice of rising again:
“But if I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the Faith is at hand, I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning.”
To read part one of this column, click here.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.