ND   Christ in the Church / by Robert Hugh Benson




It has been believed by all Christians up to the present -- Christians, that is, in the historical sense of the word -- that the Personality of the Figure whom we know as Jesus Christ was the Personality of God; that God sent forth His Son to redeem and teach the world; that this was accomplished by His Life and Death and Resurrection; and that it should be the endeavor of all who call themselves His disciples to imitate the example which He set. Let us scrutinize that statement a little more closely.

1. It is believed by Christians that this work of Redemption and Revelation was accomplished through Human Nature assumed into union with the Divine -- that God did not, so to speak, act merely in virtue of His Deity, but through Humanity as well -- that, first a nation, then a tribe, then a family, and then a person, were successively drawn from the world as a whole -- Israel, Judah, the line of David, and, finally, Mary -- and then, by an unique act of the power of the Holy Ghost, a created substance was produced so perfect and so pure as to be worthy, in a sense, of becoming the vehicle of the Deity; -- this is, in short, the entire summary of the Old Testament -- that this substance was then assumed into union with God, and used for His Divine purposes -- in short, that the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ, by which He lived and suffered and died as man, was the instrument of both Revelation and Redemption; that by a human voice He spoke, that human hands were raised to bless, that a human heart loved and agonized, and that these human hands, heart, and voice -- broken, pierced, and silenced as they were -- were the heart, hands and voice of Very God. Consider that claim carefully. Though the Person was the Person of God, the nature by which He was accessible and energetic was the nature of man. It is by union with that Humanity that Christians believe themselves redeemed. Thus in that last emphatic act of the life of His Humiliation He took Bread, and cried, not Here is my Essential Self, but "This is my Body which is given for you," since that Body was the instrument of Redemption. And, if the Christian claim is to be believed, this act was but a continuation (though in another sense) of that first act known as the Incarnation. He who leaned over the Bread at that "last sad Supper with His own's had, in another but similar manner, leaned over Mary herself with similar words upon His lips. God, according to the Christian belief, used in both actions alike a material substance for His Divine Purpose.

2. Up to this point practically all those known as "orthodox Christians" are more or less agreed, if they will but take the trouble to think out their religion to its roots. And it is at this point also that Catholic Christianity parts company from the rest. For, while Protestants find in the individual Life of Jesus Christ in the Gospels the record of the sum of all His dealings, and in His words "It is finished" a proof that Revelation is concluded and Redemption ended, Catholics believe that there is a sense in which that ending was but a beginning -- an inauguration rather than a climax. For, while Protestants hold that there is no vital need of a Church, except so far as a human society is convenient and even necessary for the carrying out and organizing of the energies of individuals, Catholics believe that the Church is in a real sense the Body of Christ, and that in the Church He lives, speaks, and acts as really (though in another sense and under other conditions) as He lived, spoke, and acted in Galilee and Jerusalem. Let me express that under other terms.

We saw just now that all Christians were at one in holding that God assumed into union with Himself at the Incarnation, created Human Nature, in order to accomplish His work -- that He took from Mary created substance in which He lived and through which He energized. Very good. Catholics, then, go a step further -- a step in a certain sense parallel to, though not identical with, the act of the Incarnation -- and believe that He further takes into union with Himself the Human Nature of His disciples, and through the Body thus formed, acts, lives, and speaks. Let us sum it up in one sentence. Catholics believe that as Jesus Christ lived His natural life on earth two thousand years ago in a Body drawn from Mary, so He lives His Mystical Life to-day in a Body drawn from the human race in general -- called the Catholic Church -- that her words are His, her actions His, her life His (with certain restrictions and exceptions), as surely as were the words, actions, and life recorded in the Gospels: it is for this reason that they give to the Church the assent of their faith, believing that in doing so they are rendering it to God Himself. She is not merely His vicegerent on earth, not merely His representative, not merely even His Bride: in a real sense she is Himself. That in this manner, as well as in another which is not our business at present, He fulfills His promise to be with His disciples all the days, even to the consummation of the world. To express the whole position once more under another aspect, in order to make clear what is the position on which I purpose to enlarge, it may be said that God expressed Himself in terms of a single life in the Gospels, and of a corporate life in the Church.

If, then, we Catholics declare to the Protestant world, you would truly "see Jesus" (as the Greeks in the Gospel), you can see Him only as He really is, living in that Body called the Catholic Church. The written Gospel is the record of a past life; the Church is the living Gospel and record of a present life. Here He "looks through the lattice," visible to all who have eyes; here He reproduces, in century after century and country after country, the events and crises of the life lived in Judaea. Here He works out and fills up, on the canvas of the world's history, that outline laid down two thousand years ago: He is born here, lives, suffers, dies, and eternally rises again on the third day. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.

3. (1) Before passing on to consider the possibility of this position, as well as a very startling analogy supplied to us by recent scientific research, it is suggestive to consider how extraordinarily strong is the support given by the Scriptures to the Catholic claim that the idea which I have described was the idea of Jesus Christ Himself and of His contemporary disciples. It is impossible to dismiss the claim as one of later growth, as brought about by the ambition of man or the dreams of mediaeval mystics, when we reflect upon certain words uttered by our Lord and His Apostles.

For example, the position could hardly be put more explicitly than in the words "I am the Vine, you the branches," or "He that heareth you, heareth Me: he that despiseth you, despiseth Me," or

As My Father sent Me, even so send I you.

For the only distinction possible to draw between the Vine and the branches lies in saying that the Vine stands for the whole and the branches for its parts. The branches are not an imitation of the Vine, or representatives of the Vine; they are not merely attached to it, as candles to a Christmas-tree; they are its expression, its result, and sharers of its life. The two are in the most direct sense identical. The Vine gives unity to the branches, the branches give expression and effectiveness to the energy of the Vine; they are nothing without it; it remains merely a Divine Idea without them. You cannot, that is, apprehend the Vine at all in any real sense as vine except through the branches. So, again, in passage after passage of St. Paul's writings, phrases are used that are practically meaningless, or at the best wild and furious exaggerations, unless this identity of Christ and His Church is assumed to have been in the writer's mind. Again and again souls living in union with Christ are named His Body considered as a whole, or as members considered separately; they are said to possess the "Mind of Christ"; they are described in a mysterious phrase, lucid only on the Catholic interpretation, as filling up what is "wanting of the sufferings of Christ" -- carrying out, that is to say, on the stage of the world's history, the agony and death recorded in the Gospels, extending before the eyes of the world to-day -- and, indeed in every period of history -- the bloody sweat, the nails, and the scourge seen in Gethsemane and Calvary. The instruments of the martyr's passion are the instruments of His. It is impossible, I think, for those who at any rate regard the New Testament as an adequate record of the intentions and words of Christ and His friends, to deny that the idea which I have attempted to describe was the idea of the Founder of Christianity as understood by those who heard Him speak.

(2) Now, what has been said up to this point may well be regarded by some critics as being nothing more than a rather forced and metaphorical statement of what is really an impossible position to maintain literally -- a presentation, possibly rather picturesque, but hopelessly idealistic, of a mere illustration. I mean, however, a great deal more than that.

It is asked, In what sense can this position be more than a metaphor? A "life," it is said, is a single unit -- the life of a plant, of a man, of even the most divinely inspired Teacher that ever lived, is no more than a single life. It is an extension and a stretching of words beyond their proper meaning to say that the Life of Jesus Christ can be identical in any real sense of the words with the corporate life of a multitude of disciples, however deep may be their sympathy with their Master, or however identical their aims and ideals with His.

Now, I would ask those who feel that the criticism just stated is their own, to consider a fact of what is known as organic life, as revealed to us by recent research. Fifty or even twenty years ago, the illustration would have been impossible; at the present day it is a commonplace of science that organic life, however mysterious its unity may be, so far as we know it on the physical side, the result of an innumerable company of cells, each possessing an individuality, yet an individuality merged in and transcended, yet not destroyed, by the unity of the body of which each is part. Let us state it in simpler words.

Every organic body -- the body, let us say, of a man or a dog -- may be regarded under two aspects. First, it possesses its one single and unique life, that may properly be called the life of the body, beginning before birth and ending at that moment called death. Yet, sheltering, so to speak, under this unity -- in fact contributing to it -- are lives whose number is beyond computation -- viz.: the lives of the innumerable "cells" that compose the body. Those cells are continually coming into being, living each its life, and finally dying and passing away with the destruction of the tissues, yet in no sense interrupting by these changes the one continuous life of the body as a whole. The body of a full-grown man has no single cell, at any given moment, which it possessed at the time of his birth; yet his body, we say, has lived continuously from his birth up to that given moment. The cells are indeed individuals, but they are a great deal more, in virtue of their mystical cohesion.

An illustration of this is found in the phenomena of dissolution. The man, as we say, "dies" -- his life is extinct -- that is, the unity of his life is gone. Yet for a considerable period after that moment the cells still live, each its own individual life. Death marks the destruction of the one body; corruption, of the myriad cells. So markedly clear is this distinction between the two sets of lives in every organic body, that there are actually various terms in use, describing the death of each. "Legal death" is a phrase used for the ordinary extinction of life; "somatic death" for the further event of the dissolution of the individual cells themselves. Or consider the same idea from another point of view. It was commonly held until recently that when the body was wounded or injured, by some mysterious and almost mechanical process, the tissues tended simply to heal themselves. We know now that the blood is full of a countless multitude of units, each with its own life -- at least so long as the body lives -- its own instincts, its own independent movements, and that when a wound is received, or poison absorbed, it is by an apparently instinctive, yet almost intelligent, process of summoning the garrison or police force supplied by these units that the injury is repaired. Certainly the body is one, it possesses one life and no more; yet it is, simultaneously, a commonwealth of inconceivable intricacy, governed as a whole by one will, yet possessing departments of energy and activity that seem to work practically independently of that will, and yet are subject to it in manners of which psychology and biology can tell us very little. The mysteries of the quasi-mechanical theory are dispelled, but the mysteries of animal life indefinitely increased.

Now this physical illustration may perhaps appear a little forced; yet surely the analogy is too remarkable to be passed over. We considered just now whether it was possible to speak of the Life of the Church as identical with the Life of Christ -- of the identity, that is, of the myriad consciousnesses of Catholic Christians with that Divine consciousness of Christ; and we see that recent research supplies us with a parallel, exact, so far as we have considered it, with the entire Catholic claim on the point. We see how it is not only possible, but essential, for an organic body -- that is, for the highest form of physical life with which we are acquainted -- that it should consist from one point of view of a myriad infinitesimal lives that lose themselves, and yet save themselves, in the unity of the whole, and that the unity of the whole, while it transcends the sum of the individual cell-lives, is at once dependent on them and apart. If this is true of physical life, literally and actually, it is surely not unreasonable to expect that it should be true also of spiritual life; and the coincidence is the more remarkable when we remember that the science of cell-life is of very recent date.

4. It is possible now to contrast vividly the Protestant and Catholic ideas, respectively, of Christianity.

To the Protestant, Christianity consists in the union of the individual with Christ -- of individual with individual -- that, and no more. A Divine Person, he asserts, lived on earth two thousand years ago, performed actions, spoke words, finished His work, and went back whence He came; and true Religion consists in the adherence of the human unit to the Divine Person, with no priest, prelate, church or sacrament, since none are necessary.{1}

Now, the Catholic idea is far larger, as it seems to me, and also simultaneously far more simple, as well as far more elaborate, than the Protestant. For the Catholic, Jesus Christ still lives upon earth as surely, though in another and what must be called a "mystical" sense, as He lived two thousand years ago. For He has a Body in which He lives, a Voice with which He speaks. As two thousand years ago He assumed one kind of Body by which to accomplish His purposes, so He has assumed now another kind of Body in which to continue them; and that Body consists of an unity of myriad cells -- each cell a living soul complete in itself -- transcending the sum of the cells and yet expressing itself through them. Christianity, then, to the Catholic is not merely an individual matter -- though it is that also, as surely as the cell has individual relations with the main life of the body. But it is far more: it is corporate and transcendent. The Catholic does not merely as a self-contained unit suck out grace through this or that sacramental channel; the priest to him is not just a vicegerent who represents or may misrepresent his Master; a spiritual life is not merely an individual existence on a spiritual plane. But to the Catholic all things are expanded, enlarged, and supernaturalized by an amazing fact: He is not merely an imitator of Christ, or a disciple of Christ, not merely even a lover of Christ; but he is actually a cell of that very Body which is Christ's, and his life in Christ is, as a matter of fact, so far more real and significant than his individual existence, that he is able to take upon his lips without exaggeration or metaphor the words of St. Paul -- "I live -- yet it is no longer I that live; it is Christ that liveth in me"; he is able to appreciate as no separatist in religion can appreciate that saying of Christ Himself, that unless a man lose his life, he cannot save it. Still, to the eyes of the Catholic, there moves on earth that amazing Figure whose mere painted portrait in the Gospels has driven men -- artists, seers, and philanthropists -- mad with love and longing -- and he is part of it. There still sounds on the air the very voice that comforted the Magdalene and pardoned the thief: the same Divine energy that healed the sick and raised the dead is still active on earth, not transmitted merely from some Majesty on high, but working now, as then, through a Human Nature that may be touched and felt. If the Catholic be mistaken in this astounding vision, yet at least he cannot be accused of substituting a system for a Person, since it is the groundwork of his whole life and hope that what men call a system is a Person, far more accessible, more real and more effective than one can be who is thought to reign merely in a distant heaven, and no longer in any real sense to be present on earth. The true minister of every sacrament, for example, as every Catholic believes, is none else than the supreme and Eternal High Priest Himself.

This is an amazing claim. It remains now to consider some conclusions that will follow from it if it can be accepted as a working hypothesis.

{1} I am aware that some branches of non-Catholic Christianity -- notably among the Anglicans -- repudiate altogether this individualism in religion. They, too, claim to adhere through the living Church to Christ, and to be members of that Mystical Body in which He dwells. But I am not here concerned with that claim, though personally I do not believe it. It is not my object, as I have already said, to attack in any way other religious bodies, least of all those who hold so much of Christianity in common with Catholic Christendom. It appears to me, as well as to practically all the rest of both Catholic and Protestant Christendom, that the claim is an impossible one, and that it has not the logicality of either side; but I do not propose to discuss this. It is possible that later on in these lectures a good deal that I have to say will indirectly militate against the Anglican position; but I am concerned here only with the two clear-cut conceptions of Christianity as they have always existed amongst us from the Reformation down to the Tractarian movement -- the Catholic and the Individualistic.

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