Looking at the past sometimes helps us face life today. Our first reading in the Mass today describes emissaries of the church of Jerusalem arriving at Antioch in Syria, the place where followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” The emissaries represent Jerusalem, the center of Christian power after Jesus died and rose from the dead and the place where the Holy Spirit came upon crowds of people in tongues of fire.
In one sense, the Jerusalem church offered its blessing to a new church, which in turn brought the faith to others through apostles like Paul and Barnabas.
Yet, could any that day have predicted what would happen to their own powerful churches and cities in the years to come? Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Antioch continued to be a flourishing Christian stronghold for a few hundred years until Moslem invaders in the 7th century gradually turned it into a Moslem city.
Visit the ancient city of Antioch today, which is now part of modern Turkey, and you may be struck by the absence of signs of its Christian past. Paul and Barnabas once walked its streets; St. John Chrysostom and teachers like him were honored by other Christian churches throughout the world. Now, only scattered Christian relics remain, largely in the city’s museums, and they give little indication of what this city was like in New Testament and early Christian times.
As Christian churches and other religious institutions close in our part of the world now, as religious communities decline, we wonder: Are we Jerusalem and Antioch today?
The church shares the mystery of Jesus Christ, it dies and rises again. When the messengers arrived at Antioch from Jerusalem long ago, the church they belonged to was a church on the rise. What did Christians who followed them think when they watched Jerusalem fall and the city of Antioch became a Moslem stronghold?
Did the mystery of the Lord’s death help them understand what was happening to them then? Will it help us embrace the mystery of our time too?