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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 4: The Church's Jesus
Part 2

The Mysteries of the Public Life

The New Testament itself alludes to the growth of the Child not only in stature but also in wisdom. The incarnation, we can say, is augmentative: the Word seizes and appropriates those new sides of the human being which are generated in authentic human development. But the moment of breakthrough par excellence in Jesus' developing awareness of his mission is surely his baptism: in both East and West a major "Christophany" or disclosure of who Jesus is.

The public ministry of Jesus began with his baptism at the hands of John, when he both received and inaugurated his mission as the Suffering Servant. John spoke in the "person" of "all the voices" of the Old Testament hope,[18] and Jesus as the God-man replied "in the person of the Word." To "fulfill all righteousness" (Matt 3:15) to submit himself to the will of the Father he undergoes this anticipation of the "baptism" of his sacrificial death. His self-identification with sinners is accepted by the Father whose voice expresses delight in the Son's action. At this point the Spirit, which Jesus possessed from the moment of his conception, begins to "rest" on him to constitute him as the source of the Spirit's presence and activity for all humanity whose me­diator with the Father he is. The waters of the Jordan are sanctified by the descent into them of the Son and the Spirit, the beginning of the new creation. In their own baptism of water and the Spirit individual Christians become identified sacramentally with Jesus who in his archetypal baptism anticipates his death and resurrection. This is a mystery of humility and repentance where the Christian is reborn to become a "son in the Son."

"If the sun with stars and moon is bathed in the Ocean, why should not Christ be bathed in the Jordan? He is the king of heaven and the ruler of creation, the rising sun, who shone upon the dead in Hades and upon mortals on earth. He alone is the sun who rose in heaven."[19]

As the sun descends daily into the bath of the ocean, so the true Son descended into the waters of Jordan, prefiguring his going down into Sheol, the waters of death. But though the waters seem to snuff out the sun's radiance, as the grave swallowed Christ, the sun's light is not lost in itself. So Jesus' light is not lost in itself, but shines out for the saints, to the old covenant, and, ultimately, for all the redeemed.

After the baptism, Jesus lives for a period in the wilderness, reliving the temptations of Adam in paradise and Israel in the desert. The abyss of the physical water, as the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar remarks, changes into the spiritual abyss that interprets it. The Gospels present him as the new Adam who, unlike the first, stayed faithful: the perfect Israel of God fully obedient to the divine will. Christ's work of "recapitulating" summing up, and thus fulfilling all human existence in God involves a negative recapitulation of the Fall of Adam, and hence a super-positive action. As Irenaeus presents Christ's work of deliverance, a movement backwards, taking over again what man has done awry, is also a movement forwards: the bringing into existence of something new, a man of earthly flesh and blood who is simultaneously the image of God and recipient of his unending life. In the temptations, Christ takes his stand against the devil, forcing his way back, as it were, through the Fall and emerging on its far side, in God's sinless creation. But the place of his final emerging will be the resurrection on the third day.

In the case of Jesus, the temptation could only be from without, not from within, and the result was never uncertain. That did not make his struggle any less intense, nor did the suffering of temptation without the possibility of sinning mean that the internal tearing was less. On the contrary: since the incarnate Word had the most perfect and delicate spiritual fiber of any human being, his mental anguish was more exquisite than that of sinners.

From this point on as our exploration of "the historian's Jesus" in the last chapter has indicated his ministry of preaching and acting unfolds: his message is of the unconditional nearness of the Father's love and mercy, which will become the sovereign norm of the world (the kingdom) for those who accept it by faith and repentance. That message is embodied in his own practice: his warmth towards those who, though morally guilty, accept the grace of forgiveness and begin to live out the feast of the kingdom, his judgment of those who are hardened in self-righteousness.

The message is sealed by acts of power in which the Son reverses the disintegrating effects of the activity of the evil angels, in his exorcisms restoring men and women to the sanity which is their birthright since they were created in the Logos, the archetype of rationality; sealed too by miracles of healing and recreation in which power goes out from the Son to make good the deficiencies of the nature made through him and also to provide signs of the yet more wonderful remaking of human nature, his raising of it to share in grace and glory.

The transfiguration signifies precisely this. On a high mountain, the glory of God which is Jesus' everlasting possession as the Father's only Son breaks through briefly in his human features and appearance. It discloses to the disciples the transparency of Jesus, in his humanity, to the Godhead something to be further manifested in the resurrection when, through the' cross, the kingdom of God is at last inaugurated on earth. Jesus is flanked by the figures of Moses and Elijah, who, according to Jewish tradition, were taken forward at their deaths into the coming glory of the divine reign. Their appearance at this juncture is highly significant. In the Hebrew Bible, they embody the holy war against evil (personified in Pharaoh in the one case, Jezebel and the gods of Canaan in the other). They are, then, suitable presences for the "last days" Jesus' final confrontation with Satan, with sin and with death.

Acclaimed by the Father as his "Beloved," to whom the disciples must pay heed, Jesus uses the opportunity of this visionary disclosure to point his followers to the sacrifice of his dying. That sacrifice is necessary if his humanity is to become (at the end of time) the perfect organ of God's self-expression to the world.

The feast of Christ's transfiguration, as kept liturgically by the Church, may be described as the foundation of all Christian theology. For theology begins with the flooding of the mind by the uncreated light, and the concentration of the heart on the person of the Savior. We cannot create this foundation: rather, we live within it, resting upon it. So this feast (6 August) is one to exult in, filled as it is with that beauty, love, and joy of God now within our reach in Christ, our friend and brother. The transfiguration is the sign of humanity on the way to final redemption in God, the dawn of a history of joy in the midst of the unanswered suffering of the world.

When we are one with the Son, and lovingly return toward our Beginning, then we hear the voice of the Father, touching us and draw­ing us inwards; for he says to all his chosenn in his eternal Word: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." For you should know that the Father with the Son, and the Son with the Father, have conceived an eternal satisfaction in regard to this that the Son should take upon himself our manhood, and die, and bring back all the Chosen to, their Beginning.[20]

And so we come to the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, the true center of the Catholic faith.

The Mysteries of the Lord's Passover

Considered simply from the viewpoint of the nature assumed, the re-creation of humanity is complete from the moment when the hypostatic union was first established, at the annunciation. But in terms of its applicability to ourselves, the re-creation of humanity is initiated only at the moment when, in his death upon the cross, Christ overcame the powers that enthrall us, though they never enthralled him. By his incarnation he took a perfect human nature to himself. By his passion, however, he actively identified his nature with ours, not by a metaphysical union alone but by the personal sacrificial offering thereof in obedience and love.

Owing to this union of life and being, in Jesus Christ God himself took on the existence of a slave and, appropriately, died as man the slaves' death on the tree of martyrdom (Phil 2:8), given up to public shame (Heb 12:2) and the "curse of the law" (Gal 3:13), so that, in the death of One who was personally God, life might win victory over death. Jesus "was given up for us all" on the cross, in a death which can only, therefore, be termed "sacrificial."

Here the Church gives priority not to analysis but to praise.

The prophets announced many wonderful things about the Passover mystery which is Christ. To him be glory forever, Amen!

He descended from heaven to earth for the sake of suffering mankind, clothed himself with a human nature through the Virgin Mary, and appearing in our midst as man with a body capable of suffering, took upon himself the suffering of those who suffered. By his Spirit which could not die, he slew death, the slayer of men. Led forth like a lamb, slain like a sheep, he ransomed us from the servitude of the world, just as he ransomed Israel from the land of Egypt. He freed us from the slavery of the devil, just as he had freed Israel from the hand of Pharaoh, and he has marked our souls with the signs of his own blood. He has clothed death with dishonor and he has grieved the devil, just as Moses dishonored and grieved Pharaoh. He has punished wickedness and taken away the children of injustice, just as Moses punished Egypt and unchilded it. He has brought us from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life, from tyranny to an eternal kingdom.

He is the Passover of our salvation. He was present in many so as to endure many things. In Abel he was slain; in Isaac bound; in Jacob a stranger; in Joseph sold; in Moses exposed; in David persecuted; in the prophets dishonored. He became incarnate of the Virgin. Not a bone of his was broken on the tree. He was buried in the earth, but he rose from the dead, and was lifted up to the heights of heaven. He is the silent lamb, the slain lamb, who was born of Mary the fair ewe. He was seized from the flock and dragged away to slaughter. Toward evening he was sacrificed, and at night he was buried. But he who had no bone broken upon the Cross, was not corrupted in the earth, for he rose from the dead and raised up man from the depths of the grave.[21]

Here we reach the theme of the atoning efficacy of Christ's death, a theme explored in liturgy, preaching, and devotion down the Christian centuries, and expressed in art, music, and literature, both high and low.

If Christ's death was a universal sacrifice, it must somehow have atoned for the sins of the human race at large: humankind and God, estranged from each other as they were through sin, were restored by Christ's dying to a condition of "at-one-ment." The early Christians illuminated the meaning of Christ's sacrifice not so much through rational investigation as by relating it to the ritual sacrificial practice of the Jewish people, as set forth in the Old Testament. The New Testament, and notably the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, sees Christ's sacrifice as fulfilling and superseding these sacrifices. Hebrews, while having principally in mind the expiation sacrifice of Yom Kippur, seems to refer to others as well. Its message is that the functions served by these rituals have now been taken over by the sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice which took place "once for all"; its effects continue even now, since the sacrificed Christ still stands before the Father, pleading efficaciously for the sins of the world. The blood of Christ has thus achieved what the blood of the myriad animal sacrifices could not. Christ has "washed away our sins with his blood" (Rev 1:5).

In his sacrifice, Christ acts as our head or representative. In his cry of dereliction on the cross he voiced the pain of every desolate and lost human being. But since he is a divine person, this action has infinite saving power. By it he brings light to the blackest vault of human misery.

One can say that these words of abandonment are born at the level of that inseparable union of the Son with the Father, and are born because the Father "laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa 53:6). They also foreshadow the words of St. Paul, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin" (2 Cor 5:21). Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the "entire" weight of the turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of his filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. But precisely through this suffering, he accomplishes the Redemption, and can say as he breathes his last, "It is accomplished" (John 19:30).[22]

In his "Why?" there is no protest, rebellion, or despair. Christ accepts his sacrificial death willingly, and so places the final conclusion of humanity's rebellion within his freely given loving obedience to the Father's will thus locating it within the existence of the uncreated. Hereafter, everyone can transform the necessity of death into a freedom of self-renunciation, can repeat the "moment" of Christ which is the very inversion of Adam's rebellion. Everyone can rest the possibility of existence no longer in mortal nature but in personal relationship with the Father.

The Cross is indeed a feast and a spiritual celebration. Once the Cross meant punishment, now it is an object of honour. It used to be a symbol of condemnation. Now it is the source of healing and salvation. For the Cross is the cause of countless good things; it has delivered us from error, enlightened our darkness, reconciled us with God. We had become his enemies, strangers afar off; the Cross has made us his friends, close at hand to him. The Cross for us is the destruction of enmity, the pledge of peace, the treasure-house of thousands of good things. Thanks to the Cross we no longer wander in desert places, for we know the true Way. We no longer have to stay outside the king's palace for we have found the Door. We are not afraid of the fiery attacks of the devil, for we have discovered the fountain of water. Thanks to the Cross we are no longer widowed but have found the Bridegroom. We are not afraid of the wolf, for we have a Good Shepherd. Thanks to the Cross we are not troubled at the prospect of the usurper, for we are seated by the King himself. And so we are keeping holiday, celebrating the memory of the Cross. St. Paul himself invites us to the feast which honours the Cross. "Let us keep the feast," he says, "not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." He says why: "Christ our passover has been sacrificed for us." He orders a feast in honour of the Cross, because on the Cross Christ was slain. There the Sacrifice was offered and so there we find the abolition of sin, reconciliation with the Lord, festivity and joy. Christ our Sacrifice has been slain, slain on a gallows high and lifted up, a new altar for a new and altogether extraordinary Sacrifice. He is at once victim and priest, victim according to the flesh, priest according to the spirit [23]

But the use of the language of sacrifice to speak of the atonement need in no way exclude what has long been called the "judicial" or satisfaction" theory of what was done on the cross of Christ. The truth that the cross shows the willingness of divine love to suffer the consequences of sin on our behalf, need not exclude the further truth that, on the cross, the sinless manhood was offered so that, having passed into the heavenly world, its sanctifying and life-giving power might be available (by humble and thankful receptivity) to sinful humankind.

The main concept the symbolism of Christ's sacrifice offers to rational theology is, in fact, that of an all-inclusive, substitutionary satisfaction for the sin of the world.

As analyzed by the classic divines of the Latin Church, sin consists of two elements. There is a conversio, a turning towards something, but equally, by a kind of negative complement that transforms the moral charge of the action, there is also an aversio, a turning away from something. In every sin, no matter how aberrant, the conversio is always to something good. Though people can be mistaken in placing their good, their flourishing, in objects that actually are not their good, the error this involves cannot be total. Absolute or unconditional evil does not exist, and so the object of sinful choice always includes an element that in some way befits the human good. This is why novelists, playwrights and filmmakers, can render sin intelligible. The element of malice in sin is the aversio, whereby in making a particular choice I orient myself morally in a different direction from that which God has imposed upon me not arbitrarily but by the creative act which brought me into existence, and which is found in concrete form in my nature (apart from original sin), as well as by the supernatural vocation which takes its own, more intimate, concrete form in my personal election to grace. In the aversio I refuse to recognize God as my last end, as the absolute good to which all other goods must be referred. I negate God practically even though theoretically I continue to profess his existence. This is why sin contains an infinite malice.

"As for the evil which is sin, the good to which it is opened is the Uncreated Good itself. Sin is the contrary of the accomplishing of the divine will and love by which the divine Good is loved in itself and not simply as participated in by creatures."[24]

Just as the freely willed openness of the person to God through desire and love has an infinite positive dimension which will ultimately be realized in the Beatific Vision and the beatifying love of God, so (precisely because the free creature is thus ordered to a communion of life with Father, Son, and Spirit) there is in the closure on self which is sin an infinite negative aspect. The enclosure of sin involves a refusal of the infinite Object to which the person is open by nature and grace. Sin, then, is an infinite offense and it attacks the very order of the universe, because humanity and this must mean individual human beings is responsible for the ordination of the world to God.

As Anselm pointed out, it is unthinkable that God should accept the disorder sin brings with it (though this does not mean, as Anselm also thought, that God must obtain a sufficient reparation for sin: since God is transcendent, he cannot be confined by any created state of affairs, even that of sin and its possible reparation). How then did God will to overcome the rupture in our relations with him which sin involved? He who at the dawn of history created human freedom by creating our first parents free, proved able to redress the sinful human will from within by grace, and thus to reestablish the order disturbed by sinning. As the disorder was in the free will, it was at the level of the free will that the redressal had to take place. The Son of God achieved this in his coming among us. As one of our race, he was capable of making the human gesture of reparation. As the divine Word, the initiative he thus took had an infinite value. Moreover, he could make an (infinitely valuable) act of reparation or satisfaction on behalf of all human beings, since the Father had made him the new head of all humanity the second or last Adam by making the destiny of all human beings turn on the work of the incarnate One. Thus Paulinus of Nola's poem Verbum Crucis, "The Word of the Cross":

Look on my God, Christ hidden in our flesh.
A bitter word, the cross, and bitter sight:
Hard rind without, to hold the heart of heaven.
Yet sweet it is; for God upon that tree
Did offer up his life: upon that rood
My life hung, that my life might stand in God.
Christ, what am I to give Thee for my life?
Unless take from Thy hands the cup they hold,
To cleanse me with the precious draught of death.
What shall I do? My body to be burned?
Make myself vile? The debt's not paid out yet.
Whate'er I do, it is but I and Thou,
And still do I come short, still must Thou pay
My debtors, 0 Christ; for debts Thyself hadst none.
What love may balance Thine? My Lord was found
In fashion like a slave, that so His slave
Might find himself in fashion like his Lord.
Think you the bargain's hard, to have exchanged
The transient for the eternal, to have sold
Earth to buy Heaven? More dearly God bought me.

"For our sake," writes Paul, "God made him to be sin who knew no sin" (2 Cor 5:21). The sin-bearing of the sinless Son manifests therefore the gratuitous superabundance of the divine justice. But it also reveals the breathtaking proportions of the divine mercy. Within the moral order as it stands, it would be irresponsible immoral for one person to take the place of another. No one can take on another's moral responsibility. No one, therefore, can be a responsible substitute for another's guilt. That God in Christ has actually taken our place, substituted himself for us, tells us that the whole moral order as we know it in this world needed to be redeemed, and set on a new basis. This is what the justifying act of God in the sacrifice of Christ was about. The atoning mediation perfected in Christ is to be grasped not in the light of abstract moral principle but only in the light of what God in Christ has actually done in descending into the dark depths of our twisted human existence and restoring us to union with himself. In this interlocking of incarnation and atonement, of creation and redemption, there took place a soteriological suspension of ethics, in order that the entire moral order might be regrounded in God himself.[25]

It is easy for us to suppose that the sinner can return to God in virtue of the same freedom by which he has turned from him. But Scripture sets its face against any such supposition, as does the whole dogmatic tradition of the Church. Reconversion to God can only be an act of charity, an act which alone can overcome the refusal of loving communion with God which we made in sinning. But just because by sin we have become deprived persons deprived of the grace which alone can transcend our natural limitations an act of true charity is the one thing that, without divine reconciliation, we cannot bring off.

The satisfactory value of the passion and death of Christ comes from his charity, the defining characteristic of his agapeistic life. More precisely, it derives from his penitent charity, for all humankind was included in him, not with its sins but in its character of having sinned. Christ's charity, therefore, was permeated by penitence because of the sins of the men and women he freely bore in his own person. This charity pressed him on to a work of satisfaction that would be really proportionate to it. And he found this "external work" in the gift of his own life. "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am straitened until it is accomplished" (Luke 12:50). Or again: "How I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22:15). He must suffer, for, as the Johannine Christ explains, the cross on which he will be lifted up is his "hour." It is for this that he came. In his Good Friday sacrifice, Christ offered his life to the Father by immolating it in obedient penitent love, as the all-inclusive, substitutionary satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.

The dialogue between Anselm of Canterbury and the monk Boso in Anselm's treatise Cur Deus homo brings out perfectly the gratuitous, gracious quality of the divine action.

Anselm: To whom will it be more appropriate for him to transfer the fruit and recompense of his death than to those for whose salvation, as we have learned from reliable arguments, he made himself man and to whom, as we said, he gave by his death an example of dying for the sake of justice. It is useless, surely, for them to imitate him if they will not share in his merit. Or whom will he more justly make heirs of what is due him, and which he does not need, and of the super-abundance of his own fullness, than his kinsmen and brethren, whom he sees bound by so many and such great debts, perishing in penury, in an abyss of miseries, so that what they owe for their sins may be pardoned, and what they have need of because of their sins, may be granted them?

Boso: Nothing more reasonable, nothing more agreeable, nothing more desirable can be proclaimed to the world. In fact, I derive such great confidence from this that even now I cannot describe the tremendous joy with which my heart exults. For it seems to me that surely God rejects no person who draws near to him under this name [26]

And indeed at Easter the Father manifests his acceptance of the Son's sacrifice in the twofold but intimately related events of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on forgiven humankind. The disciples rightly interpreted the resurrection of their master as signifying forgiveness and reconciliation, and they tasted its power in the gift of the Spirit, whereby charity was set abroad in their hearts. In principle for all human beings in practice for all those who turn to Christ in order to appropriate the fruits of the redemptive sacrifice God is reconciled with them. Sin, to return to our departure point, is washed away in the blood of the Lamb.

Taken in conjunction, then, the sacrificial and judicial theories simply give greater precision to the truth of Melito's classic statement from which we started: namely, that by the cross God-made-man has won the victory that redeems humanity from the powers of evil the fundamental affirmation of the Gospels and the liturgies of the Church. And thus, finally, the fullest truth is found in the great principle vindicated by Peter Abelard that the cross is the supreme demonstration of the love of God.

There is yet more to be said, for in manifesting the triune love, the atonement founded a new worship, and brought the Church to birth. In electing to substitute himself for the ritual victims by which human beings have expressed their desire for forgiveness and renewed relationship with God, the Son manifested his self-giving love, and thereby revealed what is most divine in him. He showed forth, first, the divine nature as generous, fruit-bearing goodness. Second, he revealed that life of communion between the divine persons in which the divine nature has its concrete form, where selfhood is defined by self-giving. The diffusive, self-surrendering goodness had already manifested itself in creation: God makes room for the world, graciously enabling his own act of existence (albeit at an infinite remove) to terminate in creatures which have their own limited yet real autonomy vis-à-vis himself. At the same time, the manifestation of the divine self-giving on the cross goes far beyond this, since here the Son enters into the abandonment of death and hell. Though God is not changed by the crucifixion we are brought to see that in God there is sacrifice: the eternal event whereby the Father becomes the Father of the Son, the Son consents to be as sheer relation of obedience to the Father, and in this moment, the Spirit to be the mutual love of them both. The suffering of the cross is thus, in the words of Balthasar, "the manifestation of the Trinitarian Eucharist of the Son." Thus Calvary shows us what the eternal God is like.

Christ's death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the aversio of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ's sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy. Aquinas remarks that by his sacrifice on the cross, Christ inaugurated the cultus of the Christian religion. His sacrifice is the objective basis of our worship.

Furthermore, if the sacrifice of Christ is thus the goal of the incarnation (i.e., governing the whole life of Christ who "must" suffer and is constrained until this "baptism" is accomplished) then the whole of the subsequent history of grace in the Church, and notably the sacraments, flows through that sacrifice, taking no other course. The saving power of the cross extends via the resurrection through all subsequent time. The Church is born from the cross: so the Fathers loved to interpret the lance-thrust of John 20. From the riven side of Christ flow water and blood, the life-giving stream of baptism, the nourishment of the Eucharist. And so in her deepest reality, the Church is nothing but humankind's taking hold of the fruits of Christ's sacrifice.

This is how Augustine saw things in his comments on Psalm 21:

This psalm that we have been singing puts the picture before us. "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?"-the very words the Lord cried out on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" What can he possibly have meant by that? How could God have forsaken him? He himself is God, God the Son of God, God the Word of God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. And the Word was made flesh. And the Word made flesh hung on the Cross and cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It would only make sense if he were including us in himself. The body of Christ is the Church, and we, the body of Christ, were being crucified there. Similarly the psalm goes on to say, "Far from my salvation are the words of my crimes." His crimes? He did no sin, neither was any guile found in his mouth. How can he talk about his crimes, except by way of praying for our crimes and treating our sins as though they were his sins, and so making his righteousness our righteousness. Then he says, "I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people." We are coming to the story of his sufferings. First of all we shall see what he suffered and then why. What was the use of it all? Our fathers hoped, and they were delivered from Egypt. Thousands have called upon God and been delivered. But not so our Lord. He was scourged and there was none to help. He was spat on and there was none to help. He was knocked about and crowned with thorns and there was none to help. He was nailed to the cross and no one came to rescue him. Why, brethren? What was to be gained by suffering such as these the psalm describes to us? Listen as the psalm goes on and answers my question. You must be ready to ask yourselves if a man has any right to call himself a Christian unless he has some part in the stake for which Christ suffered. What was his stake, for which all his bones were counted and his garments divided and his coat made the stake in a dice game? Tell us, Son of God, what was the use of your passion? Certainly you endured it because you yourself were prepared to do so. But what was it all about? I will tell you, he answers, and tell you plainly. It is no secret, even if men are too deaf to hear it. It is all there in this psalm. "I will tell your name to my brethren; in the midst of the Church I will sing to you; and all the ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord." The Church is the reason for his suffering: that is what he bought. The Church was the stake in his game. The Church is what he shed his blood for, the great Church in the whole wide world from the rising of the sun to its setting [27]

Such a rich and many-faceted doctrine of the atoning significance of the passion and death of Christ has given rise, naturally enough, to a devotional cultus to the "Man of Sorrows." The Sacred Heart, the wounded heart of the Savior, is, in the words of Pope Pius XII, the "lawful symbol of that boundless charity whieh moved our Savior to shed his blood and so to enter into mystical marriage with the Church."[28] Karl Rahner wrote in his meditation for what Germanophone Catholicism delights to call the Herz Jesu-Fest (feast of the Sacred Heart, kept on the Friday following the second Sunday after Pentecost):

Only in this heart do we know who God wills to be for us. Only by it, the heart of Christ, is the riddle, into which all the wisdom of the world leads us, changed into the mystery of love that gladdens and blesses. In the heart of Christ our heart is all-knowing because it knows the one fact without which all knowledge is vanity and spiritual nuisance and without which all the practical experience of our heart causes only despair: in the heart of Christ our heart knows that it is one with the heart of God. It knows that it is one with the heart of God in which even the thief and the murderer find pardon, one with the heart in which our deepest, darkest nights are transformed into days, because he has endured the nights with us. It knows that it is one with the heart in which everything is transformed into the one love. If he is our heart, our diversity can enter into the apartness of God without being burned to nothing in it. In him our dispersion can be collected without being confined and constricted, our heart can gush forth into the expanse of the world without being lost. The heart of Jesus is God's heart in the world, in which alone the world finds its God as its blessed mystery, in which alone God becomes the heart of our hearts, in which our being finds its centre: at one and the same time unified and all-embracing. [29]

If devotion to the Sacred Heart is especially connected with the present experience of grace (which enabled it to play an indispensable, positive role in the struggle against Jansenism, with its soteriological minimalism), the cultus of the Sacred Wounds relates the passion to the final consummation of human history: when Christ comes as judge he will display his wounds, to the elect as pledges of love, to sinners as bitter reproach. In preparation for that end, acts of penitent charity form an inseparable part of the practice of this devotion, that wounds of judgment may become wounds of mercy for humankind.

If, finally, the Lord's wounds and his pierced heart have spurred the creativity of Christian piety, and, in its train for as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, the symbol gives rise to thought sacred theology, it is the crucifix, the figure of the Lord's body, that must count as the supreme icon of Christ's abiding solidarity with suffering humankind. This can range from the Christ robed in the royal and priestly tunic of the (Syrian) Rabula Gospels, or crowned in the Catalan "majesties" to the "Lily" crucifixes of the English Middle Ages where the figure of Christ hangs on the lily plant, symbolizing the fulfillment of the Annunciation in the Passion, and, finally to the anguished realism of their German counterparts in the sixteenth century.

The burial of Christ is not a common topic for theological reflection. Yet both the Apostles (or Old Roman) Creed and the Creed of Nicaea­Constantinople take the trouble to note it distinctly from the death. As I have written elsewhere, regarding the treatment of this subject in The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The mystery of the Burial belongs with the mystery of the Descent into Hell: the Father willed that the Son should experience death in its fullness, for our sake, and that means in the first instance the natural yet unnatural separation of soul from body of which the body's laying in the sepulchre is the potent sign. But, as the procession of the faithful accompanying the flower-covered bier of Christ on the evening of Good Friday in the Byzantine rite attests, the Burial of Christ, insofar as it forms an integral part of our happy salvation, is by no means a matter of unrelieved gloom. Beautifully, the Catechism describes it as manifesting the Sabbath rest of God this time not after his work of creation is completed, but on finishing his work of redemption with its power to "bring repose to the whole world."[30]

Having been, separated from his body, the soul of Christ "descended" into what the Hebrew Bible calls sheol, the abode of the dead. Here is at once the lowest pitch of the suffering of the passion and the beginning of the resurrection. For, on the one hand, death is the absolute opposite of the God who is "the God not of the dead but of the living," and yet, on the other, for Tradition, Christ's soul was immediately in glory following its separation from the body and actively communicated its state of beatitude to the waiting souls of the just (as in the great Byzantine Easter icons where Christ takes Adam and the patriarchs by the hand). An ancient homily, now used in the Office of Readings of the Roman Rite for Holy Saturday, puts into words the silent message of such icons.

Today a deep silence covers the face of this earth. A deep silence and a profound stillness. The king is asleep. Earth shook and trembled because the King, God, fell asleep in the flesh. Hell trembled. For a moment God slept, and he woke up those who were in hell. He came to seek man, the beautiful Shepherd seeking the lost sheep. He came to visit to the uttermost those who were seated in darkness and in the shadow of death. He came to deliver Adam and Eve from their prison and their suffering, he who is at once both God and son of Eve. He took man by the hand and said to him: "Awake O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light." I am your God. For your sake I am become your son. And to you and your descendants in chains I say: "Come forth." To those who find themselves in darkness I can say: "Be enlightened": to those who are sleeping: "Rise." To you I say "Awake, O sleeper," for I have not made you to stay chained up. To you I say, "Rise from the dead," " for I am the life of the dead. Get up, my image, created to my likeness. Get up, let us go away from here, for you are in me and I in you: together we are one and indivisible.

I am God; for you I have become your son. I am the Master; for you I have taken the form of a slave. I am above the heavens; for you I have come down to earth, and even down under the earth. For you, man, I have become like a helpless man, free among the dead. You came out of the garden; for you I have been delivered up to the Jews in a garden, and crucified in a garden. See on my face the spit I received to give you back your first breath. See on my cheeks the marks of the blows I received to re-create your face in my likeness. See on my back the cuts made by the whip, the lashes I received to remove from your back the heavy weight of your sins. See my hands fastened to the cross by nails, fastened there for you who stretched out your hand to the tree in the garden.

Rise, let us go from here. The enemy tricked you out from the earthly paradise. I want to take you, not back there, but to heaven. I forbade access to the tree of life, but I myself am the Life, and now I am united to you. [31]

The descent into hell redeems the past. The redemptively causal power of Christ's humanity works not only forward in time, but backward also.

Yet, because the liberation of the dead is also prospective, and touches our own future, the commemoration of the Lord's burial is also a personally liberating matter. Indeed, the celebration of the death and burial of the Jesus who is soon to be hailed as the ever-living One gives us a final theme in the theology of the atonement before we pass on to consideration of the resurrection itself.

Today, brethren, we are commemorating the burial of our Savior. He has gone down to hell, and he has burst it open. He has fired the world below with his splendor; he has roused from sleep those who were lying there. We who have not yet gone down to the dust, we who still remain on earth, we too rejoice and exult; we need fear death no longer, for it will not prevail against immortality. "You will not leave your holy one to see incorruption," the Bible says. It may well be that Jews and Greeks will laugh at our wisdom that the Jews will go on looking for the Christ, that the Greeks will bring their hopes to an end in the grave. But though we weep now, soon our sorrow will be turned into joy.

Death has seized our Lord Jesus Christ, but it is not going to be able to keep its hold on life. Death has swallowed him up, not knowing who he was. Death binds him fast today, but it is because he himself wills it that the Lord is bound. Tomorrow death must release him, and many more besides. Tomorrow he will rise again, and hell will be emptied. Yesterday on the Cross the splendor of his passion darkened the sight of the sun, and at noonday it was as midnight. Today death is losing its dominion, suffering itself a kind of death. Yesterday the earth mourned as it looked on the hate of those who put Christ to death. Today "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Yesterday the earth quaked as though it were collapsing, threatening to open and engulf those who dwelt on it. The mountains were cleft asunder. The rocks were split. The temple, like a living thing, threw off its veil. The elements wept for him, as though chaos were about to dissolve the world again.

This was altogether quite new, and quite unheard of: By his word the Lord stretched out the heavens; by soldiers he is stretched out on the cross. He placed the sands as the bounds for the sea; now bonds hold him fast. He has given us wells of honey, but we give him gall to drink. We crown him with thorns, though he crowns the earth with flowers. He is struck on the head with a reed, though of old he struck Pharaoh with ten plagues and submerged his head in the waves of the Red Sea. The cherubim do not dare to gaze on his face, but his guards spit on it. Yet while he suffered all this, he was praying for those who tormented him, and saying, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.". . . Let us leave them in their unbelief for now. Let us watch not with them but with faithful Mary Magdalene. With her we stand weeping by the tomb. "Weeping may last for a night but joy comes with the morning." So with her we prepare to say, "I have seen the Lord."[32]

The mystery of the Lord's resurrection gives Catholicism its radiance and joy. Resurrection must not be reduced to resuscitation. The resurrection does not simply signify that Jesus was restored to physical life in the world and to the society of his friends, living on for some further weeks until a final withdrawal expressed by Luke as Christ's ascension. The resurrection includes that, but also goes far beyond it. The resurrection as the Church, rather than the historian, comprehends it tells us that something has happened so world-shaking that from now on everything else we know about reality must be related to this, not the other way round. The universal significance of the resurrection is brought out in symbolic language in Chromatius of Aquileia's homily for the "Lord's Vigil," Easter Eve.

So angels in heaven and men on earth and the souls of the faithful departed in the world below, all celebrate the Lord's vigil. In heaven the angels are getting ready to celebrate it, since Christ by his death has destroyed death and trodden hell underfoot and saved the world and delivered man. There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. But the whole world is redeemed. The angels must really be going to rejoice tonight. Men on earth are getting ready to celebrate the vigil, for it was for them, for the salvation of the whole human race, that Christ suffered death and by his death killed death The souls of the faithful departed in the world below are getting ready to celebrate the Vigil, for Christ went down into the world below just so that death and hell would no longer have any dominion over them. Christ who dies is the Creator of heaven and earth and hell-surely all should celebrate the Vigil tonight.

But there is still more to say. It is the Lord's Vigil. The Father himself is getting ready to celebrate it with the Son and with the Holy Spirit, for it was according to his will that the Son underwent death to bring us life. So tonight is not going to be a feast just for angels and men, but also for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the salvation of the world is the joy of the Trinity itself. So tonight we must celebrate the Vigil with all possible devotion, the Vigil in which death is destroyed, the world redeemed, and we and all mankind set free.[33]

The Son made man is brought from under the control of human destructiveness, as of death, into a new order of existence: a re-creation in which the Father at last fulfills the promise inscribed in our being at the original creation, but constantly spoiled by us. Humanity is now open to the intimate and irreversible redemptive and transfiguring action of God. But unless there were some element of physical continuity between Jesus and the risen Lord of Christian faith, if it were not the earthly and hence the bodily-life of the rabbi from Nazareth that was this transformation's immediate and foundational subject, the proclamation of a new creation would have no purchase on the cosmos. The Lord Christ is raised up in all the dimensions of his human being to share the glory of the Father. Thus the resurrection confirms the claim to authority made by Jesus and reveals his unity with the Father, just as he had said. Fittingly, then, the Church celebrates on Easter night the vindication of her Lord, and the confirmation of the truth of his message and saving work, the seal on the good news of the mercy and love of God.

Tonight the great marriage-hall will be full of guests,
all dressed for the wedding of the Lamb,
no guest rejected for want of a wedding garment.
Tonight the bright new lamp-light will be shining,
the light in the lamp of the wise virgin Church,
the light of Christ that will never again be extinguished.
Tonight the fire of grace will bum in us all,

in our bodies and in our souls,
fed with the oil of Christ.
Therefore we pray you,

God, our Sovereign, Christ, King for ever in the world of spirits,
to stretch out your mighty hands over your holy Church
and over the people that will be forever yours.

Defend them. Protect them.
Fight and battle for them against the rulers of the darkness of this world.
Raise now the sign of your victory over us,
that tonight with Moses we may sing the triumph-song.
For yours are victory and power for ever and ever.

Christ is the first fruits of a wider harvest. He is the Head who draws his body with him to where he is. So the resurrection is a mystery of hope for the Church. As the Fathers say, when a baby is born it is usually born head first, but when the head is born the whole body follows naturally, for it is the birth of the head which is the hardest part. As the glorification not only of the human soul but of matter also, the resurrection promises the transfiguration both of humanity and of the cosmos in which our life is set.

Last night did Christ the Sun rise from the dark.
The mystic harvest of the fields of God,
And now the little wandering tribes of bees
Are brawling in the scarlet flowers abroad.
The winds are soft with birdsong; all night long
Darkling the nightingale her descant told,
And now inside church doors the happy folk
The Alleluia chant a hundredfold.
O Father of thy folk, be thin by right
The Easter joy, the threshold of the light

The risen Lord possesses a universal dominion (Phil 2:7-11), which all creatures must acknowledge. In him, God reestablishes the harmony of the world, making all things converge on himself. Though its effects have not yet spread through the world, nothing less than a cosmic revolution has taken place in the risen Christ. Moreover, not only nature but history too is now placed in the hands of the exalted One. The glorifying of the Lamb brings about a continual crisis ("judgment") in the world process whose development forms the innermost history of humankind. Moreover, in Christ humankind is lifted above the realms of the angels, whose entire host is now drawn into the Savior's exaltation, and, in Paul's metaphor, fastened to his triumphal chariot (Col 2:15). As the Father's heir the glorified Christ inherits the whole life of God insofar as bodily humanity can live it. Redeemed humanity enters into this patrimony through him, the Church moving toward the fullness that she will attain when she has come to the stature of Christ in glory. Since now the Spirit plays unchecked in the Lord's humanity, in him the divine spontaneity and liberty breaks into the world. Through that uniquely efficacious sign of the new and everlasting covenant, the "circumcision" of his death and resurrection, Christ now ceases to be confined to the Jewish nation and can become the foundation of the Catholic Church. The resurrection is the Father's acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ: with his glorification his priestly activity is inserted into the eternal now of God (this is why Scripture compares him to the "timeless" Melchisedech, without father or mother). The offering of Calvary, as it exists transfigured in the Father's welcoming embrace, is prolonged in eternity: one who wishes to penetrate the sanctuary of God can join oneself to Christ, who enters in his condition as victim.

To understand what the ascension entailed we must briefly consider the relation between God and space and time. The universe's creation out of nothing implies the absolute priority of God over all space and time. God does not enjoy a spatial or temporal relation to the cosmos, but a transcendent and creative one. Even the relation between the actuality of the incarnate Son within this world of space and time, and the Father from whom he came, cannot be made spatial or temporal. But space and time as a continuum of relations given with created existence are order-bearing, and indispensably so, for without them nature would be indeterminable and unintelligible. So they are the medium in which God makes himself present and known to us. We must bear in mind, however, how God's nature and acts and those of humans differ in the way they relate to these orderly functions of contingent events. In the incarnation, Jesus Christ does not just fit into patterns of space and time as formed by other agencies, but rather organizes them around himself, giving them transcendent reference to God in and through him. As Aquinas remarked, Christ is, as man, the way for us to tend to God; in more modern terminology, he provides in the movement between annunciation and exaltation his own distinctive and continuous "space-time track," travelling through the cosmos, fulfilling the divine purpose within it and pressing on to the consummation of God's plan in the new creation. Just as the bodily resurrection is a stumbling-block, or may be, if we look at it merely as one phenomenon to be correlated with others according to the laws of physics and chemistry, removing it from the "field of force" set up by God in the incarnation, whereas it appears quite differently if considered in terms of the incarnate Son's whole "space-time track," so we should think of the ascension as a movement from humanity's place to God's "place" the former being bounded at one end by the nature of humankind and of its space, the latter being limited only by the boundless nature of God and the limitless "space" which he makes for himself in his eternal life and activity. Christ ascends in order to fill all things with himself, so that what follows on the ascension is not absence but a new mode of presence. He left us in the mode of our presence to each other so as to return to us in the mode of God's presence to humankind.

The Letter to the Ephesians says that Christ ascended in order "that he might fill all things" (4:10). To fill heaven and earth was, for the Old Testament, one of the marks of deity (Jer 23:24). The ascension of Christ is the assertion of God's control over the created order, the endless repercussiveness of the resurrection triumph over sin and death. At the same time, it is the affirmation of all humanity's reflected glory, the second Adam's being taken into God: "It was not merely one man, but the whole world that entered" (Ambrose). In this unique bursting forth of the power of the resurrection, the world of our space and time, wounded by sin and death but now healed and redeemed in the humanity of the crucified and glorified Lord, enters the very radiance of the Father, to the wonderment of the angels. Christ ascends so as to be unspeakably closer to us, to fill the universe with his intimate and transforming presence. The priestly activity of his Church in sub­mediating his glory should not therefore be seen either in purely this­worldly terms or simply in those of preparation for a consummation still far off. Rather do we stand within the movement of ascension, the lifting up of human life to God, and it is only within this movement that the Spirit will come upon us.

The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is also a Christological mystery in that the Spirit is not the Spirit of the Father only but of the Father and the Son. The visible mission of the Holy Spirit in history also enters into the cycle of the mysteries of Jesus, and, with the exception of the final parousia, gives them their crown.

Jesus told his disciples, "It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counsellor will not come to you" (John 16:7). With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the exalted Lord the kingdom begins. The First Letter of Peter has as its theme the spiritual house being built on the foundation of Christ as cornerstone. He is the new temple, the dwelling place of the glory. When everything is placed under his feet, he is given to the Church as her head. The Church is Christ's mystical body because she is united in all her members to the Savior's risen body.

The Holy Eucharist is the rite that expresses and effects this unity. In his death and resurrection Jesus becomes able to impart his life unconditionally. Whereas the old covenant is composed of people related to Christ according to the flesh, the new covenant, now inaugurated, consists of those related in the Holy Spirit to his glorified body. Ancient Israel passes theologically into the new Church of Christ.

The members of the Church from now on will live "in" the risen Christ: in a sphere of existence where a person's whole being is energized by a new principle. As a result Christ becomes a co-subject of our actions: "the love of Christ presses us" (2 Cor 5:14). In the Christocentric coinherence of Pauline theology, the personal sufferings of our Lord are undergone by the believer, and the apostolic sufferings of Paul are those of the Lord. Human beings become open to the person of Christ as the Spirit raises them to the divine mode of living. This new life can also be spoken of as life "with" Christ: the believer, by uniting himself or herself to the glorified Christ of the present, communicates in the saving acts he did in the past. Our identification with Christ (supremely in baptism, the sacrament of faith, and the Eucharist) involves a communion with those acts that form the permanent basis of the Savior's new existence. The believer ascends into the heavenly places, and as a result acquires a new knowledge and a new ethos: the eyes of the heart behold the Lord in the glory of the resurrection whose riches are destined for the saints (Eph 1:18-20), while the whole of the Christian life becomes obedience to God's righteousness, to the law ofthe Spirit, who brings forth virtues as a plant its fruits (Gal 5:22). The Church's very being "demands charity even before her teaching does," for that being lies in the Christ of Easter who is "eternally a renunciation and a giving."[37]

The Parousia of the Incarnate One

The Creed affirms that the Son once made human will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, in such a way that "his kingdom will have no end." The eschatological good of salvation which Christ has won by his saving incarnation, life, death, and resurrection is possessed by the Church but only in faith and hope, as she looks forward to the end of all things, when her Lord will return, to be a source of everlasting joy for the redeemed, for those who have corresponded with God's grace in seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful in this life, and to be a sign of judgment for the unredeemed.

It is part and parcel of Jesus' own teaching that we do not know when the end will be even though the Church is its anticipated realization. Nor do we know what the world's transformation will involve, which is why Scripture presents it under a plethora of images. Yet the sacraments, the signs of the Word made flesh, tell us all that is essential, as do the New Testament images, the signs of the divine Flesh-taking made word. The Second Vatican Council in its decrees on, respectively, the mystery of the Church and that Church as set "in the modern world," sums it up:

When the Lord comes in his majesty, and all the angels with him, death will be destroyed and all things will be subject to him. Meanwhile some of his disciples are exiles on earth, some have finished with this life and are being purified. Others are in glory, beholding clearly God Himself, triune and one, as he is.... When Christ shall appear and the glorious resurrection of the dead takes place, the splendor of God will brighten the heavenly city and the Lamb will be the lamp thereof. Then in the supreme happiness of charity the whole Church of the saints will adore God and the Lamb who was slain.[38]

We do not know the time for the consummation of the earth and of humanity. Nor do we know how all things will be transformed. As deformed by sin, the shape of this world will pass away. But we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling place and a new earth where justice will abide, and whose blessedness will answer and surpass all the longings for peace which spring up in the human heart. Then, with death overcome, the children of God will be raised up in Christ.[39]

We shall return to the subject of this definitive epiphany of Emmanuel, God-with-us, in the soteriological perspective opened by these quotations, when in chapter six we investigate "The Nature of Salvation."



18. Augustine, Sermon 288.

19. Melito, On Baptism.

20. Jan van Ruysbroeck, The Sparkling Stone 12 ("Of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Thabor"). 

21. Melito, On the Pasch 65-71.

22. John Paul II, Mystici doloris 18.

23. John Chrysostom, Homily 2 on the Cross and the Thief 1, with an internal citation of 1 Cor 5:7.

24. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1.46.6.

25. See T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (Edinburgh, 1988) 146-90.

26. Anselm, Cur Deus homo 2.19.

27. Augustine, Enarration on Psalm 21, with additional internal citation of Matt 27:46.

28. Pius XII, Haurietis aquas, 39.

29. K. Rahner, The Eternal Year (London, 1964) 127-28.

30. A. Nichols, The Splendour of Doctrine: The 'Catechism of the Catholic Church' on Christian Believing (Edinburgh, 1995) 90-91.

31. "From an Ancient Homily on the Holy and Great Saturday," in Liturgia horarum iuxta Ritum Romanum (Vatican City 1977) 2:383-89.

32. Amphilochius of Iconium, Oratio 5 on Holy Saturday, with internal citations of Ps 15:10, Isa 9:2, Lk 22:34, Ps 30:5, and Jn 20:18.

33. Chromatius of Aquileia, Sermon 17 on the Great Night.

34. Hippolytus, Homily on the Holy Pasch 62-63.

35. Sedulius Scottus, Carmen paschale.

36. I gladly acknowledge here the help of T. F. Torrance, Space, Time, and Resurrection (Edinburgh, 1976).

37. F X. Durrwell, In the Redeeming Christ (London and New York, 1963) esp. 3-19, 144-61.

38. Lumen gentium, 49, 51.

39. Gaudium et spes, 39.

Copyright ©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 27th April 2010

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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