Monreale adamo soffio di Dio

How is the Church, as St. Paul says in Ephesians, the fullness of Christ? A thoughtful reflection on the deeper meaning of the events we are now celebrating

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth… And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:14, 16)

“…and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)

These verses confront us with mystery; or is it perhaps a contradiction? An absurdity? Paul says the Church is the fullness of him from whom John says we all receive grace. The Church is the fulfillment of him who is the fulfillment of all. How can this be?

We readily accept the idea of Christ as our fulfillment; Christ is the fullness from which we receive our fullness — our union through love and faith (and, one day, knowledge) with God. Yet, as Church teaching and Sacred Scripture attest, we partake of the divine life through Christ, not as individuals but by incorporation, by baptism, into the Body of Christ, the Church (I Cor. 12:13). Jesus Christ, thus, is our fulfillment in and through the Church.

But if Christ is our fulfillment through the Church, how is the Church the fulfillment of Christ? To answer this question, we must look more closely at the Church as the instrument of human fulfillment. By understanding Christ in his Church, we will discover how the Church fulfills Christ – how he is imperfect without her.

Our path of discovery, however, shall not begin with revelation and theology, but with a consideration of human nature and its fulfillment. Thence, we will consider man in his relationship to the Church, and how the God-Man relates to the Church – the fullness of him “who fills all in all.”

It is Not Good that Man Live Alone

How very incomplete man is; how very partial.

Human nature has a lofty end. Man is able to know. He is able to love freely. In his freedom, man is truly a maker, who, by his reason, transforms the world around him. And man has been made to see God, to know him, and to love him. Man has been made for deification.

Yet, when we contrast man’s lofty end with man as he is, we can only marvel at his weakness. Setting aside his supernatural end, we see that, with his natural powers, he can achieve very little by himself, an individual. As an infant and a child, he requires the care of others for his very survival. As he grows, nearly everything he knows and learns to do, he learns from others. To realize his biological perfection, he must unite himself to another of his kind. By himself, a male is only a male; only by union with a woman does he become a father.

Thus, by the demands of his nature, man must live in relation with others of his kind, without whom he cannot have, keep, or perpetuate life. Community thus arises from man’s nature. But even the most natural community, the family, is itself radically inadequate in relation to human fulfillment. To attain a higher existence than mere subsistence, families unite in extended family groupings, tribes, and villages. Because they realize that certain common goods can be secured only by a directed common life, several families and family groupings in a region unite under a common directive principle and form the polity. In the polity they can attain a higher material sufficiency but also leisure — the striving for what perfects man in his apprehension of truth, goodness, and beauty.

The polity allows men to escape from the isolation of the now. No generation by itself can achieve all the perfections of art, knowledge, and wisdom. We must learn from those who have gone before us lest we be condemned to perpetual reinvention and discovery. Life in a polity affords greater scope for the recording of collective memory. Political life preserves tradition – the organ that joins individuals and families in a union that crosses time.

Yet, the various traditions, rooted as they are in particular cultures and peoples, suffer from limitations. No one culture encompasses all the knowledge, wisdom, insight, moral ethos, and feeling of which man as man is capable.

Since no people or culture is sufficient to itself, it needs the influence of the mores, experience, and thought of other cultures. Though a certain pride in, and preference for, one’s own culture is proper, chauvinism turns a people in on itself, exaggerating its peculiarities, and perverting even its virtues (by isolation) into vices. As long as it is not an excuse for moral or intellectual indifference, the diversity of mankind is an opportunity for the mutual enrichment of cultures.

Man, radically incomplete as an individual, can only approach fullness through the complementarity of his fellows in a series of ascending unions that transcend first sex, then age, then blood relation, and, then finally, time and place.


The Witness of Revelation

Sacred Scripture itself bears witness to man’s fulfillment in community. In Genesis’ first account of man’s creation, we discover a curious linguistic dance of singular and plural. God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” — seemingly speaking of man in the singular; but then God says, “and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle….” Here, man becomes they; he who in his creation was one becomes many in reference to his dominion. And this warp and woof continues in what follows: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” God creates man in the divine image and likeness, but that image cannot be fully expressed except when he becomes they.

Genesis further suggests that man’s dominion is not to be realized in the simple union of man and woman, but through its abundant fecundity. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” Man is not to live as one, or even two, united in “one flesh.” Rather, he fulfills his call, his destiny, by making this union with the woman productive of many offspring. This union gives rise to the family, but it is not to end with one family. It is to give rise to many families who will fill the earth and make it their own.

Scripture’s account of post-lapsarian mankind is a tragedy of division. After they eat of the fruit, Adam and Eve are alienated from one another (“the woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree and I ate”) and from nature (“in pain shall you bring forth children,” “cursed is the ground because of you”). Brother murders brother. The murderer flees “from the presence of the Lord” and is cut off from his own people. The pride of sin that separates men from God snaps the bonds of brotherhood; the community of mankind dissolves into a babel of tongues and peoples.

Yet, Scripture sings the counterpoint to this strain of disunity. Through the centuries, God raises up “new Adams” from whom the hope of unity springs anew: Noah, the restorer of the human race; Abraham, through whom “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:3); Moses, by whom Israel’s tribes are united under a common law; David, under whose rule this people rises from a period of anarchy, when “there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25); and Solomon, who establishes a permanent center for the worship of the one God of heaven and earth. Yet, once again, sin divides. Solomon’s love of many women seduces him into the worship of many gods. The kingdom is divided. The northern tribes go a-whoring after the multiple gods of the nations, while Judah alone remains faithful to the House of David.

This very people, Judah, was God’s promise of universal unity, but, as it were, in seed. Just as in the seemingly lifeless seed, life itself lies dormant but not dead, so in Judah: though not ruling, the family of David remained, the earnest of God’s promise. And as heaven’s moisture softens the seed’s hard crust and the sun’s warmth stirs it to life, so Mary’s fiat secundum verbum tuum broke the shell of Judah’s infecundity. God’s Spirit entered her womb, eliciting life. And the Virgin conceived and bore a son, the definitive Adam who would restore what the first Adam lost: the unity of man under the fatherhood of God.

re magi

Christ in the Church — the Fulfillment of Man

In Jesus Christ, God gathered all the promise of mankind. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel, the son of Abraham in whom all nations bless themselves, the true guarantee to Noah, more certain than the rainbow, of God’s mercy for mankind. He is the flesh of Adam, Adam’s son, who, triumphing over Adam’s sin, assumes Adam’s place and renews his name.

Christ became man and died to free us from sin. Yet, liberation from sin implies a renewed unity for mankind. As we have seen, it is sin that separates; thus, when sin is forgiven and its effects healed, unity is restored. Our Lord himself indicated this — “and if I shall be lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all things to myself” (John 12:32). In Christ, God the Father has established all things, both in heaven and on earth; God’s plan, “for the fullness of time,” is “to unite [or, in the Vulgate, instaurare: “renew” or “restore”] all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).

There is thus a cosmic significance to Christ’s redemption; omnia, all things are united, summed up, and restored in Christ in the fullness of time. Not just man, but all creation yearns for the redemption of mankind. Yet it is mankind’s redemption that is primary, for “Christ died to save sinners” (I Tim. 1:15). Through his cross, for Jew and Gentile, Christ is “our peace,” reconciling all men in his body (Eph. 12:11-17). This body, Israel transformed and sublimated, is the mystical body of Christ, the Church, in which we are all members and of which Christ is the head (I Cor. 12).

Christ is the principle of mankind’s restoration, in and through the Church. Through the fullness of grace that his human nature possesses, that is communicated to us in the baptism by which we “are baptized into one body,” paradise is renewed, our alienation is overcome, and our partiality is rendered complete. Since the Church embraces all nations, she reverses the curse of Babel. Through her Sacred Tradition, the Church links the generations of man. By her catholicity, she embraces all that is true and good in the heritage of the nations; she is able to draw them into her unity without destroying their diversity. Thus, in a sense, the differences in culture born of Babel remain, but the peoples are no longer scattered.

The cynic (or the realist) might sneer at such a description of the Church. And, indeed, who can deny that the historical Church has often fallen short of her calling as a sacrament or instrument of unity? But we must distinguish the Church in her members from the Church in her head, enlivening and perfecting the members. Christ calls his members so to conform themselves to him that the Church on earth may enjoy the unity that she has in heaven even now.

The Church possesses nothing — we possess nothing in the Church — that we have not received from the fulness that is Christ. It is only by abiding in the vine that the branches grow verdant and fruitful; that vine is Christ, who said, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5).

monreale cristo crocifisso

The Church, the Fulfillment of Christ

Christ is our fullness in and through the Church. But how is the Church, as St. Paul says in Ephesians, the fullness of Christ? How is Christ imperfect, apart from the Church?

The Christ Paul speaks of is he whom God raised from the dead and made to “sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20). This is Christ in his human nature, not in that nature by which he is equal to the Father. Moreover, Paul in Ephesians 1:2-23 speaks of Christ in relation to the Church — Christ, whom God has made “the head over all things for the Church, which is his body…” As head, Christ must be understood in relation to another, as a head is always the head of a body. Though we must assert that Christ is the principle of this body, the source of its life, the body is not Christ alone, but Christ together with the members of the body. Understood in this context, we must say, though it seem overbold, that, except in communion with his body, Christ is not perfect.

Christ, too, is true man, like us in all things except sin (Hebrews 4:14-5:10). If, then, Christ is truly man, he finds his fulfillment as every man does—in that community that embraces all mankind in universal unity. Yet, Christ’s place in this community is unique, for he is the new Adam in whom this community finds its principle and fulfillment. But in bringing fullness to this community, Christ himself finds fulfillment. In his spiritual offspring Christ becomes fruitful, fills the earth and subdues it.

Again, Christ, understood in his person, is the true Son of God. He requires no one or nothing else to complete him. Yet, when we speak in relation to the Church, we are not speaking of Christ simply in his person but of Christ as the principle of another reality. As such, Christ, God incarnate, is inexplicable apart from the Church, and for this simple reason: God the Son became man in order to save man, and by no other means than the Church. The truth of this may be seen by contemplating what it means for the Church to be, not simply the body, but the bride of Christ. A bride cannot be understood apart from her husband, nor a husband apart from his bride; the terms are correlative. Moreover, Christ became man to sacrifice himself for the Church, so that “he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). Without his bride, Christ could be no husband. And he became incarnate precisely to become a husband — to win a bride to himself. Without the bride, the Church, Christ’s incarnation could have no fecundity. From the union with his bride comes the progeny through whom Christ fills the world and subdues it. It is on account, then, of the human nature which Christ shares with us and the very purpose of the Incarnation that the Church is the “fullness of him who fills all things in all.” Christ became man so that he, as head, could win to himself a body — redeemed man. Without the body of the Church, the Incarnation would be incomplete, unfulfilled; for, without the Church, mankind could not participate in the fullness of divine life that is in the head, Christ Jesus Our Lord — and it was to bring this fulfillment that God became man. The Incarnation, then, finds its terminus in the Church; Christ fully incarnate is Christ the head, giving life to his mystical body. He “fills all things in all” so that he in turn might be fulfilled. And in Christ’s fulfillment each man, along with all mankind, finds his fullness.

Christopher Zehnder, M.A. holds his master’s degree in Catholic dogmatic theology and was an editor for Catholic publications for 15 years. He is now the general editor of the Catholic Textbook Project history series, for which he has written three titles. He has recently published a novel, A Song for Else, a tale of the Reformation in Germany.

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