"On Earth as it is in Heaven": The Vision of Christ That We Preach

Editorial FAITH Magazine January-February 2013

"Your grace is enough." (2Cor. 12:9)

In this Year of Faith we are summoned to re-evangelise the People of God, starting with ourselves, as a prelude to evangelising the world once again. To "evangelise" means to announce good news. Jesus Christ is The Good News of God for mankind whom the angels proclaimed to poor shepherds at the first Christmas. So to evangelise means to announce Jesus Christ to the world.

In our words and in our living witness we must proclaim him as Messiah, the one for whom and in whom all things find their meaning and purpose; as Saviour and Redeemer, whose mission is to unite and reconcile wayward humanity with our heavenly Father; as the Son in whom each one of us is adopted as a child of our heavenly Father and heir with him to the communion of the Blessed Trinity.

Yet he is also a sign of contradiction. He brings peace, but also the sword. His Word is Truth that liberates and heals, but also challenges and divides as it penetrates the very heart of a man, "where the soul is divided from the spirit", and demands a response. His Way can seem narrow and hard, yet his "yoke", the burden of commitment to him, is light and easy when accepted and lived with the love he elicits. He commands us to "take up our cross and follow" him unto death, walking by faith and trust, and yet what he gives and what he leads us to is Life that is eternal and full beyond earthly comprehension.

His birth, life, death, resurrection and continuing sacramental ministry among us in the Church are the crowning glory of all of God's works. To "those on earth who are of good will", he is the cause of a joy that the world can neither give nor take away.

Vatican II and Post-Conciliar Christologies

This is the Good News. This is the Jesus we must proclaim, but how do we present and explain him to the modern world? The Second Vatican Council teaches us that:

"The tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down.
"This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts, through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For, as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfilment in her
" (Dei Verbum 8).

What development can we offer in our understanding of Christ? In the years following the Second Vatican Council, many teachers and catechists were told that that they had put too much emphasis on the Divinity of Christ in the past, so they should now concentrate on his humanity. Influential theologians constructed Christologies "from below", with all claims to Divinity "demythologised".

They presented a Jesus of social challenge and communitarian vision, a moral and political hero whose struggles mirrored our own, whose death, whose resurrection is symbolic. One could admire and seek to imitate the historic example of such a Jesus, but not love him and follow him in any meaningful personal sense in the here and now.

Such a Jesus is all too easily made into our own image, compromised with sin in one way or another. His teachings are edited and interpreted according to our own prejudices and preferences, conscious or unconscious. He cannot be adored as the co-equal of the Father whose words command our consciences. He cannot be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, personally undoing our spiritual failures and countless imperfections in the Mass and in Confession. His does not bring us into the very presence of the Father of Light.

Yet it is right that we should want to relate to the humanity of Our Lord. We need to know that he was tested in every way we are, but that he did not sin (Heb 4:15). We want to identify with him and know that he identifies with us.

But to set up a tension between the humanity and the Divinity of Christ is a classic example of a false contradiction. We can only understand and relate to his humanity properly if we accept his Divinity, for that is Who He Is. Only in grasping this will we understand why he became man and what his humanity means for us.

The humanity of Christ is our gateway to the Godhead. It is in him as the Word made flesh that we have access to the Father, and through him as our risen Lord that we are filled with the Holy Spirit. We can say more: he is the very identity of our humanity in the first place. He is the reason human beings exist as creatures of body and spirit. Without him humanity, and indeed the whole of creation, is meaningless. To understand this thought, we need to revisit our theological account of human nature.

Humanity Made for Christ

When speaking to modern audiences, especially young adults, about what distinguishes us from the animals, it is not always a good idea to start with negative distinctions -pointing out, for example, that animals cannot do such and such, but we can. This may appear to belittle the beauty and dignity of animals. It can also leave us hostages to fortune as new discoveries reveal amazing abilities in higher animals. The capability of the highest brains in nature immediately preceding the advent of Man in nature might even be found to be remarkably close to that of our own, in many respects. This should not surprise us.

What we can safely say as a phenomenological fact, however, is that we human beings do not find our place, our fulfilment and our identity in the organic environment around us, as the animals do. For all the subtlety and complexity of living matter, the scope and contentment of its powers lie within circles of organic life. Manifestly the same cannot be said of us. Even Richard Dawkins has been asking what "religion without God" might look like and what it must become. The laws of physics, chemistry and biology do not provide an answer to the enigma that is Man. They may well define our organic heritage, but they cannot illuminate our spiritual future.
Having agreed the uniqueness of human nature in this way, we can go on to make a rigorous argument for the spiritual soul, directly created by God, yet naturally and metaphysically complementary to the body as the existential form of the material potential, so as to make one integral person. The details of this argument have often been rehearsed in Faith publications, so we will not repeat them here. What is important is the theological implication of our place in nature, or rather our lack of it.

Every organism, in its activity, its potential, its joy-seeking and its limitations, its life and death - indeed every thinkable system or sub-unit of matter, every "thing" - is defined and administered from that vast, dynamic Unity. This cosmic unity is intrinsically constituted to act through mutual laws, valencies, times, seasons, values and purposes of anything and everything within it. The whole material unity is also developmental and directional, producing higher levels of material synthesis, yet always according to the same principle of control and direction. Indeed, we call this principle the Unity Law of Control and Direction.

We can also argue that this points us directly to the Mind of God, but again there is no space to go over that argument here. What matters is that for life below man that Law, which is the constitution of matter, demands and sets coherence - place and purpose, control and direction - for everything within it. It is this very principle which also demands the creation of the soul in Man as matter passes the limits of the environment to hold it in meaningful order. So there is a creature who is beyond nature in its core identity, but the fundamental Law of creation must still hold. What is this creature's place and purpose? Where is its control and direction? What is its true environment?

The answer we give is God himself. We make sense only in communion with God. His grace - the impact and inflowing of the Divine being upon our own creaturely personalities - is natural to us, as the environment is to the animals. If we are looking for a new metaphor to describe that beautiful word "grace", Edward Holloway suggests one that is both poetic and scientific in its inspiration. Grace is the "sunshine to our souls". It is natural for us to seek God, and grace indeed "builds on nature". And yet, at the same time, it is truly supernatural to us, lifting us beyond our fragile contingency into a destiny that is both eternal and glorious.

"Our personal spiritual lives too ... relate direcdy to the humanity of Jesus"

We have no claim or right to such a gift. No created nature can make a demand upon the Divine as if it were a debt owed. Even less can it be intrinsic to our being, even as a dimension, aspect or existential "horizon", to be part of the Eternal and Absolute. The distinction between the created and the Uncreated cannot be confused without ending up, sooner or later, in pantheism. This is a mistake that is made by many modern theologians, including Karl Rahner and Teilhard de Chardin.

Are we left, then, with the unsolvable conundrum of why God made human beings who find no home in nature, yet who cannot claim the communion with Him that alone is their actual destiny, by any right or title of their own nature?

The Cosmos Made for Christ

Because matter cannot have by itself and does not need direct communion with God, of itself, the whole world appears to come to be futile when viewed from an intramundane point of view. When we understand human nature as the pinnacle and goal of material development it all appears to come to nothing, or at least to frustration, without an end in God - and that quandary cannot be answered from within the categories and potential of created being.

And yet there is an answer because God is Wisdom and Charity, and always perfectly Self-consistent. The answer lies in the Incarnation. Through the hypostatic union of God the Word with the human nature, men are given the highest possible destiny - beatific transformation as co-sharers of the infinite Godhead. In God the Son made flesh, we are adopted as true children of God.

What this does mean, however, is that we exist only in the order of charity and gift. We have no other destiny or identity, no "natural end" apart from in him. Everything created exists only because of the charity of God, of course; but human nature, uniquely, only has meaning and purpose at all because of the Divine Self-giving to the creature in the fullest way that is possible.

In plain English this means that we only exist because of Christ. We are made with his Incarnation in view. Indeed it is the founding decree of creation itself (cf Col 1:15-16).

The whole of creation is aligned on him from the very beginning. And we do mean that the real laws of matter are aligned on him. This thought is no abstraction. God does not deal in abstractions. God knows and loves only concrete realities, both spiritual and material, in their existent actuality and unto their final purpose in the one plan of creation centred upon Christ. So the laws of matter, while they can of course and should be studied and unravelled from the point of view of material science, will only find their full perspective and interpretation in the highest synthesis of all - the Incarnation and the gathering of things under Christ as Head.

And this applies not just to the laws of matter, but to the whole of the human world - to the ebb and flow of history and of progress in science, culture and religion. All good gifts, both physical and spiritual, descend from the Father of mercies, through the Eternal Word who becomes flesh in Jesus Christ. But this is not a mathematical law of progress, of course. It is a providence and an economy of grace, marked by freedom and now also marred by sin. As God reveals and prompts, builds and leads towards the full knowledge of himself and the consummation of all things, this is the work of the eternal Word who is coming in the flesh.

And when he comes, he is revealed as The Son of Man. He is the template of humanity. We are made to his image, not the other way around. Again, this is no abstraction. Each of us finds his or her true identity in relationship with Jesus. This is why he and he alone could atone for our sins in his own body. And that atonement was no abstraction at all! Through all his very real torments, each of us, in all our spiritual failures and betrayals, were known intimately to him, as we are each related to him more intimately than children to their parents. The obedience of his human will through suffering and death on the cross restores our adoption as children of the Father.

Christ in Our Spiritual Lives

Our relationship with him is fully human because his humanity is the root of our own humanity, and his human friendship with us as our Risen Saviour is the means of our healing and growth. If we are alive at all to God then it is Jesus Christ who lives in us. This too is no mere metaphor. Physically we know that humanity is a shared nature because we are genetically and socially intertwined. But spiritually, humanity is also a shared nature in Christ. All growth in holiness, all increase in depth of spirit, wisdom, charity, courage, reverence and glorification of the Father in individual souls is directly and personally the work of Jesus the Word through his own sacred humanity. He lives our lives in us and with us. Our spiritual triumphs and virtues are his, our good works are his worksto the glory of the Father, and all prayer is Christ praying in us.

The matrix of this human relationship with the risen Jesus, which is thereby full of Divinity, is the sacramental life. The sacraments flow directly from Christ living and acting through his Church, and they necessarily involve the bodily and social order as he confers divinity upon us through all that is human. The sacraments are not optional extras or "Catholic" additions to basic Christianity. They - and especially the Eucharist - are the very means by which we live and grow in Christ. To know Jesus fully in a personal relationship in the power of his cross and resurrection is to find him above all in the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Holy Eucharist.

"It is through union with his risen Body and Blood in the Eucharist that the bodies of the saints will rise to glory at the end of all things"

The Mass is the unending prayer of Jesus, his ceaseless self-offering to the Father in heaven as Son of Man and Son of God. It is a human offering in both time and eternity. It is himself and all those who belong to him, those he ransoms, heals, restores and perfects, brought before the Father in intercession and triumph. The liturgy we celebrate is not just a ceremony of eloquent signs and symbols, it is our direct participation in this heavenly liturgy.

The Catechism quotes St Augustine, who said:

"It would not be inconsistent with the truth to understand the words 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven' to mean 'in the Church as in our Lord Jesus Christ himself; or 'in the Bride who has been betrothed, just as in the Bridegroom who has accomplished the will of the Father'" (CCC 2827) De serm. Dom. 2,6,24:PL 34,1279.

"On earth as it is in heaven"... In these words we can find the whole motive and mystery of the Incarnation; indeed the whole motive and mystery of Creation, the vocation of the humanity of Jesus, and the meaning of the Eucharist, which is the summit and consummation of everything He is to us as both God and Man.

Our personal spiritual lives too, which are not separate from the ecclesial, sacramental and liturgical life, derive from and relate directly to the humanity of Jesus. Blessed Columba Marmion, who was known for his great emphasis on our divine adoption in Jesus, wrote:

"Christ is God's great Revelation to the world. God tells us: 'This is My beloved Son, hear ye Him.' Ipsum audite. It is as if He said to us: If you wish to please Me, look at My Son; look at My Son, imitate Him; I ask nothing besides this, for in this is your predestination that you be conformed to My Son (Rom 8:29)... (When Jesus says) 'Father, I will that where I am, they also whom Thou hast given Me may be with Me' (Jn 17:24)... (and)... 'No man cometh to the Father, but by Me' (Jn 14:6) it is as if He said: You will never attain to the Divinity save in passing through My Humanity."

And St Teresa of Avila said:

"Were you at the summit of contemplation take no other road than that of regarding the holy Humanity of Jesus. One walks with assurance along that road. Our Lord is for us the source of every good; He Himself will teach us. Look at His life; He is the best Model."

In his human soul united to his Divine Personality, Jesus is the personal Spiritual Director of every human life. He is the guardian and overseer, the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He is the custodian of our bodies too. It is through union with his risen Body and Blood in the Eucharist that the bodies of the saints will rise to glory at the end of all things. The body of our Blessed Lady, so intimately and necessarily bound to his Incarnation, and being free from all fault, was the first to follow him in bodily glory. The rest of the saints await the general resurrection, the risen and glorified Christ being the guarantor.

So much more could be said in this deepening of that most Catholic theme of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is "mystical" not because it is nebulous and unrelated to the mundane realities of our human lives. Quite the opposite. But it is a great Mystery. We become more human the more deeply we are committed to Jesus in the Church, the sacraments and in prayer. It is from his Sacred Head that all Wisdom shines out, and from his Sacred Heart that all tenderness, compassion, justice, peace and true charity flow - and all mercy too.

We must indeed emphasise and meditate on the humanity of Christ, not in competition with his Divinity, but as the very means of our relationship with him as our God and Saviour. Neither does emphasising his Divinity in any way diminish his humanity or make him remote from us. Understood properly it makes him supremely close to every one of us. "For me to live is Christ" (Phil 1:21). Only he can make us completely our true selves.

Thanks be to thee, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which thou hast given us,
for all the pains and insults which thou hast borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly,


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