CHAPTER FOUR

THE MYSTICAL BODY OF CHRIST

In the previous chapters we have been drawing an outline of the fall of the human race and of the work of its redemption as far as the Death and Resurrection of our Savior and the foundation of His Church. Now we must examine, somewhat more closely, the connection between the different parts of this story, and in particular the connection by which we obtain pardon of our sins and become partakers in the merits of Christ. Once it is remembered that Christ is God, and that, although there were two distinct natures in Him, the divine and the human, yet there was but one Person who was God, and that all His human actions shared in the infinite dignity of the divine Person who performed them; then it becomes easy to understand that His Life and Death would offer to God a glory and a worship which would infinitely outweigh all or any insults or sins which the whole human race could ever commit against Him. And at first sight there is no great difficulty in seeing that God’s anger could have been thus appeased so that He should be ready to restore men to His friendship. Yet a closer examination of the case reveals some difficulties.

The guilt of sin is a personal thing. One man can repair the injury done by another man; one man can use his own personal influence or credit with an offended party to induce him to overlook the offense offered him by another man; one man can pay another’s debts; but how can one man take away another’s guilt? How can one man actually render the offender pleasing in the eyes of the offended? How can one man actually merit in the name of another? Questions like these cause us to seek for some light on the “how” of the Redemption; that is, how is it that each of us is redeemed from our sins, made holy in the sight of God and made a partaker in Christ’s merits by His Passion and Death?

Three suggestions which occur in this discussion may be cited.[12] The first would take the redemption in the literal sense of a ransom or a “buying back.” This suggestion does find an application, but it must not be pressed too far, or else we would have God paying a price to the devil for our deliverance, which is unthinkable. The second suggestion is that of penal substitution. This again finds a true application in the scheme of the Redemption, but it, also, had its limitations. Pressed too far, it would lead to the notion of God persecuting God; and no matter how far it is pressed, it still leaves unsolved the difficulty of the transfer of merit and the vicarious removal of guilt. The third suggestion is the theory of satisfaction. The offence must be atoned for, and that calls for a divine agent to make due satisfaction; Christ does this super-abundantly since He is God and Man. But the theory presupposes that every sin must either be punished or have adequate atonement made for it. Now God could have forgiven and remitted sin even after inadequate satisfaction. And on this theory, the former difficulty of the transfer of personal merit and guilt remains; and there is the further difficulty that it seems, at least, fitting that satisfaction should be also in some way personal.

The solution of all these difficulties—and in fact, the foundation of the whole spiritual life—lies in some principle of solidarity between Christ and the sinner. When St. Thomas considers this difficulty just mentioned of the transfer of punishment and merit between Christ and the Christian, he solves it by saying that Christ could do all these things for us because He and we together form “one mystical person.” There is, of course, no question of our forming one physical person, as we shall explain.

To the question then: “How did Christ save us?” the answer is: “by making us part of Himself.” And when we ask: “How are we to save ourselves?” the answer is: “by making ourselves part of Christ.” Obviously such expressions need careful understanding. They could be understood in an heretical or in a pantheistic sense by taking them too literally; but they can also be interpreted in a metaphorical, or even sentimental sense that is utterly inadequate. Despite the difficulty which their proper interpretation presents, we must attempt to examine them and to reach some definite understanding of the unity that embraces both ourselves and our Redeemer, for that unity is the central point of this whole book.

We first meet a clear statement of this unity in our Lord’s last address to His apostles. His words are a summing up of the whole Christian scheme of life and form a key to the understanding of all His doctrine. Speaking to His apostles at the Last Supper, bidding them farewell and preparing them for their fruitful work, He first recalls the unity existing between Himself and His Father; He then promises to send His followers another Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, who would abide with them and be in them. Significantly, He immediately reverts to the unity of men with Himself, and still stresses the unity of the Blessed Trinity:

I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you . . . you shall know, that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

Being asked how that would be, He explained:

If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him. (Jn 14:18–23)

A little later He continues:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. (Jn 15:1–5)

Almost immediately after that He lays down the principle of unity among men:

This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 15:12)

Finally, in His concluding prayer to the Father He reveals the unity of what St. Augustine calls “the whole Christ”:

For them do I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. And not for them only do I pray, but for them also who through their word shall believe in me; that they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us . . . And the glory which thou hast given to me, I have given to them; that they may be one, as we also are one: I in them, and thou in me; that they may be made perfect in one . . . And I have made known thy name to them, and will make it known; that the love wherewith thou hast loved me, may be in them, and I in them. (Jn 17:19–26)

A lifetime of prayerful meditation on these words would not exhaust their meaning. Here we can do little more than refer the reader to the text of St. John’s Gospel where these words occur in chapters 14 to 17 and beg him to read and re-read them, and to remember that they are our Lord’s last words to His followers, spoken on that night before His death. Three points may be noted: firstly—that the unity of all the faithful is “in us,” that is, in the Father and the Son; secondly—that the unity of the faithful is modeled on the unity of the Blessed Trinity, “as we also are one”; and thirdly—that our Lord sanctifies us by sanctifying Himself so that, He being in us, we are “made perfect in one.”

The next witness to this unity is the Apostle St. Paul. His conversion started with the famous vision on the road to Damascus as he was going to persecute the Christians. “Saul, Saul,” exclaimed our Lord, “why persecutest thou me?—who said: Who art thou, Lord? And he: I am Jesus whom thou persecutest”(Acts 9:4–5). This identification of the Redeemer with the redeemed seems to have taken possession of St. Paul’s mind, for throughout his Epistles, there runs the ever-recurring theme which he sums up in the phrase: “In Christ.”

In one place (Rom 11:24) he speaks of the process of regeneration as the grafting of a wild olive into a healthy stock. In another (Eph 5:23–32), he compares the union of Christ and the Church to that of man and wife: “And they shall be two in one flesh.” But throughout all his writings he continually uses or assumes the figure of the union of a body with its living members. Christ is the Head, we are His members—the arms, the hands, the mouth, and even the heart of His Mystical Body. Texts such as the following could be multiplied. “For as the body is one and hath many members, and all the members of the body, whereas they are many, yet are one body; so also is Christ” (1 Cor 12:12) . . .”Now you are the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). For our purpose here, it is best to try to see what was St. Paul’s notion of this Mystical Body of Christ.

The human body is composed of many members, or organs, each of which has its own function yet shares the personal life and identity of the whole. If my mouth speaks, or my eyes see, or my hand strikes, it is I who speak or see or strike. The ancients ascribed many more functions to the head than modern knowledge would warrant. St. Paul is using the parallel as it was understood in his time, and thus when he speaks of Christ as the head of the body, he is ascribing to Him not only the functions of government and all the superiority that belongs to the brain, but also many other functions that today are known to be performed by other organs, especially the heart; for as the body is supplied with its life-giving blood by the heart, so also Christ’s Mystical Body derives its vital circulation from Him.

But a closer examination of the human organism will throw more light on this union of the Mystical Body. Speaking in everyday terms, and not in strict scientific fashion, we can say that the human body is built up of small units called cells; in fact, it originated in the union of two elements to form one cell, which grew and multiplied. There are living beings of a very low order which consist of single cells; but in the human body, the number of cells is enormous. Yet they form only one body. Why? The reason is because they are all animated by the same one principle of life, the human soul; and accordingly each cell lives not for itself, but for the whole. These cells are united to form organs, and these organs, in turn, function not in their own interest, but in the interest of human being of whom they form part. Foreign matter, such as a leaden bullet, may be lodged in the human body, but it forms no part of it because it does not take part in the vital processes. Sometimes it happens that cells rebel, as it were, and cease to be subordinate to the benefit of the whole organism, and we get a cancer, which may ultimately destroy the life of the whole body; but in a healthy body, all the cells are subordinated to the one principle of life. Even the chemical action of many materials in the human body is modified by their participation in the living being; once death occurs, they assert themselves, so to speak, and corruption sets in.

To what extent may this concept of a body be applied to the union of the faithful “in Christ”? As a first step to the finding of an answer to that question, let us note that the term “body” can be applied to such unions in various ways. For example, it is often applied to any group of persons who unite for some special purpose. Such unions are called “moral” bodies; their unity depends on the wills of the members who are animated by a common purpose, and one finds in such bodies various degrees of organization, involving the bonds of authority and inter-dependence as well as mutual rights and duties. Clubs, corporations, societies, religious communities; all such have a moral unity that causes them to be called a “body.” Is, then, the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ such a unity?

If that question inquires whether the unity of the Mystical Body involves the will of its members and depends on it, the answer is most emphatically “Yes”; and we shall see in our discussion of the spiritual life that our part in it involves that continual use of the will which is called love. But if the question would limit the unity of that body to such unity as is illustrated by these societies, the answer is best given in the words of our Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ:

Comparing now the Mystical Body with a moral body we must notice also between these a difference which is by no means slight, but, on the contrary, of the very highest importance. For, in a moral body, the only principle of unity is a common end, and a common aspiration of all to that end by means of social authority. But in the Mystical Body, there is an addition to this common aspiration, another internal principle, really existing and operative both in the whole structure and in each of its parts, and this principle is of such excellence that by itself it immeasurably transcends all bonds of unity by which any physical or moral body is knit together.[13]

This principle of unity whose working we shall have to examine, is, as the Holy Father says, the Holy Ghost Himself, who, “numerically one and the same, fills and unifies the whole Church.” There is then something more than moral unity. But can one say that the unity of the Mystical Body is of the same nature as that of the cells of the human body uniting to form one single physical person? The Holy Father answers that question also in the following words:

Whereas in a physical body, the principle of unity forms the parts together in such a way that each of them lacks a subsistence of its own: on the contrary, in the Mystical Body the cohesive force, intimate though it is, unites the members one with another in such a way that each retains his own personality.[14]

So therefore the Mystical Body is not one physical person involving the destruction of the individual personality of the members. The pope then points out a further difference:

In a living physical body, the sole final purpose for which each and every individual exists is the benefit of the whole organism, whereas any social structure of human beings has for its ultimate purpose, in the order of utilitarian finality, the good of each and every member, in as much as they are persons.[15]

And the pope shows that the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, exists for the good of the faithful, and to give glory to God and Jesus Christ whom He sent. Further, the pope condemns as erroneous the theory that “the Divine Redeemer and the members of the Church are united to form one physical person, and which consequently, while attributing divine properties to human beings, makes Christ our Lord subject to error and human frailty.” He also condemns the error of those who “would attribute the whole of the spiritual life of Christians and their advance towards virtue solely to the action of the Divine Spirit to the exclusion and neglect of the cooperation which we must provide.”

The pope, therefore, teaches that the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ is something far more than moral unity, but he rejects any idea of unity which would involve the negation of the personality of each member, and the consequent need for his personal cooperation in the life of that Body. The Mystical Body of Christ, while being one mystical person, endowed with life coming from within, is not one physical person. There are two special unions which may help us to understand the unity of the Mystical Body, although its unity is not the same as either of them. In our Lord Himself, there are two natures united in one person. While we have a human nature, and a participation in the divine nature by grace, there is no question in our case of this hypostatic union, as it is called. The other union is the one which our Lord Himself cited as the model of the union between Himself and His members, namely, the unity of the Blessed Trinity. In God there are three persons, yet there is only one divine nature; so also in the Mystical Body of Christ, there are millions of persons, sharing in the divine nature, but each preserving his own human nature. But we must immediately mark the difference. In God, each of the Divine Persons is the Divine Nature and the Divine Substance; in the Body of Christ each of the members only shares in the divine nature in a limited way after the manner of an accident, not as a substance. Otherwise we would have pantheism. Yet despite that important difference, there is a parallel.

To return now to St. Paul’s doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ; we see that it cannot be pressed so far as to exclude the individual physical personality of each member of any of its consequences. But as long as that limitation is kept in mind, we can use St. Paul’s concept to throw much light on the unity of the whole Christ. In fact, it is that very opposition between the claims of personal independence and supernatural dependence that leads to the struggle which characterizes the spiritual life. For in the human organism, as we saw, the cells and the members and all the components are only completely part of the organism insofar as they are vivified and ruled by the vital principle which is the human soul. The individual parts have no “personality” of their own; they have no freedom of choice. In the Mystical Body of Christ, conditions are quite different. The Holy Ghost acts in that Body in a way which corresponds to the action of the soul in the human body (although He is not its substantial form). He vivifies and rules every healthy member of that Body insofar as that member is living the life of that Body. But each member retains the dominion over his own actions; he can choose in every action whether he will live the supernatural life of the Body of Christ, or live his own natural life; and his actions only belong to the supernatural organism insofar as they are in accordance with the rule of the Spirit of that organism, in other words, only insofar as they are in accordance with the will of God. Conformity, then, to the will of God, is the fundamental principle of vital union with the Body of Christ, and every act of obedience to God’s will is an act of real communion with Christ. There is the secret of the whole Christian philosophy and history.

Let us be clear on the point. We are not at the moment discussing how one becomes a member of this Mystical Body; that, as we shall see, is effected by the sacrament of baptism. But we are examining what is the fundamental condition of healthy living membership. Each member retains his own personality, and the consequent dominion over his actions; he can live in every act either as a member of Christ or as a private independent individual. In fact one could even say that he can do both at the same time, at least to an imperfect degree, insofar as human actions can spring from very mixed motives. The man who, in any particular action, does the will of God for the love of God, is living in full vital union with Christ. The man who deliberately acts against the known will of God in a matter that binds under venial sin definitely removes that action from the life of Christ, without severing the vital connection that joins him to the Head; or rather, it might be better to say that he prevents Christ from participation in that particular action, for he does not prevent his Redeemer from having to participate in paying the penalty for His member’s sin. The man who deliberately acts so as to commit mortal sin not only removes his action from the life of the Mystical Body, but he stops the vital circulation that joins him to that Body. It is true that he has still faith and hope, and unless he sins against faith he is still a member of that Body; but until charity is restored to his soul through contrition and the grace of God, he is a dead member, and like all dead members, is liable to decay, with all its consequences.

To sum up then what we have established: God’s plan for our Redemption is to re-establish all things in Christ. Our Lord, by His Passion and Death, laid the foundations of a supernatural organism, of which all the faithful are members, united to Him in somewhat the same way as the members and head of the human body are united together, yet without any loss of individual personality or responsibility, such as the formation of a new physical person would involve. In this organism the Holy Ghost acts as a soul, and Christ as the Head; but because of the vital and mystical union between Christ and each member, the whole organism can be called Christ, as is evident from the writings of St. Paul and St. Augustine. Our salvation depends upon our membership of this body; and the fullness of our membership depends upon our doing the will of God; for as our Lord said: “Whosoever shall do the will of God, he is my brother, and my sister and mother” (Mk 3:35). Is it any wonder then that the one counsel which Mary, the Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ, gave to men is: “Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye”; or that our Lord Himself should say: “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, that I may perfect his work” (Jn 4:34).

There is then a vital unity embracing Christ and the faithful, which is unique in its nature. It is called mystical, not because it is not real—one might say, figuratively speaking, that it is the only reality in the world—but in order to distinguish its nature from all other corporate unities. But it has very real properties. To quote Prat[16]: “There are in this marvelous composite, first a real action of the head on each and all its members, then a reaction of its members upon one another through the communion of saints, and lastly, a real interpenetration of the Holy Spirit, who vivifies the entire body and forms in it the most perfect of bonds—charity. What distinguishes the mystical body essentially from the moral entities, incorrectly named ‘bodies,’ is that it is endowed with life and that its life comes from within.”

The Mystical Body of Christ is thus a four-dimensional entity; it completely transcends space and time. The interaction of the head and members is not limited by separation of space or time, and—what is important to realize especially as far as time as well as space is concerned—this mutual action can take place in either direction, into the past as well as into the future. For example, Christ, as we have pointed out, suffered for our sins before we committed them; our Lady was redeemed before even the birth of the Redeemer, whose Death was the source of her Redemption. For let it be remembered that the “soul” of this Mystical Body is the Holy Ghost, who is outside all time; He is eternally. We exist in time; that is to say, we enjoy or possess our life bit by bit in a long series of “nows”; an eternal being possesses his life “tolasimul”—altogether and all at once—his existence is one eternal “now.” With such an eternal being giving life to the Mystical Body, it is evident that the limitations of time and space cannot be applied to it in the ordinary way.

At this point, we would suggest to the reader that a re-reading of St. Paul’s Epistles with this concept of “Christ” in mind would not be fruitless; and if one goes to the Gospels realizing that our Lord often had this concept of the Mystical Body in His mind when He spoke of the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, one will find much light on this mystery and great comfort of heart in those sacred pages.

As an authoritative statement of doctrine, let us conclude this chapter by again quoting the Holy Father:

Christ is in us through His Holy Spirit, whom He imparts to us and through whom He acts within us so that any divine effect operated in our souls by the Holy Spirit must be said to be operated in us also by Christ . . . It is due also to this communication of the Spirit of Christ that all gifts, virtues and miraculous powers which are found so eminently, most abundantly, and fontally in the head stream into all the members of the Church and in them are perfected daily according to the place of each in the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, and that, consequently, the Church becomes as it were the fullness and the completion of the Redeemer, Christ in the Church being brought to a complete achievement, (or, as another translation has it, “attains a fullness in all things.”) This, in brief, is the reason of St. Augustine’s doctrine which we mentioned above: that Christ, the mystical head, and the Church, which like another Christ represents His person on earth, together constitute one new man joining heaven and earth, in the continuance of the saving work of the Cross; Christ, Head and Body, is the whole Christ.[17]

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