It is a cliché in some catechetical circles that Pentecost is the celebration of the birth of the Church. I have heard of priests who bring out birthday cakes with candles on Pentecost, and it is also a mantra of many PSR teachers that the feast is the birthday of the Church.
The problem with this assertion is that it is neither traditional nor is it theologically complete. I distinguish between the two because I think there is reason to wonder if the “traditional” idea of the birth of the Church completely explains the relationship between Jesus and the Church.
The traditional view of the birth of the Church is found expressed in Mystici Corporis Christi, the encyclical of Pius XII issued on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul in 1943. Recalling the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, the encyclical says:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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As We set out briefly to expound in what sense Christ founded His social Body, the following thought of Our predecessor of happy memory, Leo XIII, occurs to Us at once: “The Church which, already conceived, came forth from the side of the second Adam in His sleep on the Cross, first showed Herself before the eyes of men on the great day of Pentecost.” For the Divine Redeemer began the building of the mystical temple of the Church when by His preaching He made known His Precepts; He completed it when he hung glorified on the Cross; and He manifested and proclaimed it when He sent the Holy Ghost as Paraclete in visible form on His disciples. (26)
The metaphor is clear. Jesus’ side is opened by the lance of the Roman soldier and the blood and water that flows out is considered a birth. God had opened the side of the first Adam while he slept and created Eve from the rib of the first man. Jesus, the second Adam, “sleeps” on the cross and His side is opened up for the birth of the Church. The water and blood that flowed from His side were symbolic of the Baptism and the Eucharist. As Eve came to be from the flesh of Adam, so the Church, which had already been “conceived, came forth.”
According to Mystici Corporis Christi, Pentecost was then the great day when the Church “first showed Herself before the eyes of men.” That manifestation was not the birthday. The theologian Louis Bouyer said Pentecost marked the inauguration of the “missionary expansion” of the Church. I think you could say that the evangelization mission of the Church began that day, if we consider the sending out the 12 apostles in Matthew 10 and the 72 disciples by the Lord in Luke 10:1-12 as similar but obviously not the complete Good News of Jesus because they preached before the Passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus.
The poetic image of the birth of the Church from the side of the Crucified Lord is beautiful and resonant with the Old Testament imagery of Adam and Eve. It is problematic however, if you ask how the Last Supper could be the first Eucharist if the Church did not yet exist.
On Holy Thursday the Church has two special liturgies, the Chrism Mass (often moved for logistic reasons to another day in Holy Week) and the Mass of the Last Supper. The first recalls the Sacrament of Order and, besides the blessing of holy oils, includes a ritual asking for the spiritual renewal of the grace of Order in the priests present. The second, evening, liturgy recalls the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist.
Could there be Holy Orders and the Eucharist before the Church was born? At the Last Supper, Jesus gave His Body and Blood to the apostles, realizing sacramentally, before the fact, the sacrifice of Calvary.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave a conference at the Pastoral Congress of the Diocese of Aversa, Italy, on September 15, 2001. His topic was the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. In that conference, he talked about when the Church was “founded.”
He began with a question: “What do we mean by ‘Eucharistic ecclesiology’?” His answer addresses the “problem” I mention above of a Eucharist before the birth of the Church.
I will attempt to answer this question with a brief mention of some fundamental points. The first point is that Jesus’ Last Supper could be defined as the event that founded the Church. Jesus gave His followers this Liturgy of Death and Resurrection and at the same time He gave them the Feast of Life. In the Last Supper, He repeats the covenant of Sinai—or rather what at Sinai was a simple sign or prototype—that becomes now a complete reality: the communion in blood and life between God and man. Clearly the Last Supper anticipates the Cross and Resurrection and presupposes them, otherwise it would be an empty gesture. This is why the Fathers of the Church could use a beautiful image and say that the Church was born from the pierced side of the Lord, from which flowed blood and water. When I state that the Last Supper is the beginning of the Church, I am actually saying the same thing, from another point of view.”
Ratzinger, by then Pope Benedict XVI, returned to the theme in the second volume of his masterful work Jesus of Nazareth. There he ironically refers to a Protestant theologian as the source of the illumination about when the Church was founded. I have always thought the idea of Pentecost as birthday of the Church was Protestant. Skipping the Last Supper, one would not have to bother about the priesthood or the Eucharist, themes not especially congenial to some kinds of Protestants.
In 1921, the Protestant theologian Ferdinand Kattenbusch tried to show that Jesus’ words of institution at the Last Supper constituted the act of founding the Church. With these words, he argued, Jesus gave His disciples something new that bound them together and made them into a community. Kattenbusch was right: with the Eucharist, the Church herself was established. Through Christ’s body, the Church became one, she became herself, and at the same time, through His death, she was opened up to the breadth of the world and its history.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two)
So if your pastor decides it would be an exciting idea to jump out of a birthday cake on Pentecost, perhaps you could mention some of these reflections and save the drama for another day. That the Eucharist and true communion with the Real Presence is the heart of the Church is one of the themes of the Eucharistic Revival promoted by the bishops. The Eucharist is not only the heart, but it is also the origin of the Church.