One: "figura transit in veritatem: Jesus' radical novum
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Day of Recollection, Kenrick Seminary
On the cross, as he breathes his last, our Lord says, “…it is finished.” He dies. And it is finished. We should wonder though, what is finished? It is clear from the events that follows his death that what the Lord came to do is not finished. And it should be ever more starkly clear that the work he has given us to do is unfinished. Though we have work left undone, we are not left undone by the work remaining. In fact, what is finished on the cross is precisely that relationship between God and His creatures that makes what we have left to do here not only possible but complete; that is, the work of evangelization, of preaching and teaching the Word is made possible for us because Christ himself has already finished the job. This leaves for us then the work of catching up, of “living through to” what Christ has already accomplished on the Cross and out of the Empty Tomb. If this is true, then can we say that as preachers and teachers of the Word, we ourselves are “figures transforming into truth”? Pope Benedict XVI teaches in his apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum caritatis, that the radical novum of Jesus, initiated by our Blessed Mother’s fiat and finished on the Cross, is the transformation of the figura of the Passover meal into the veritatem of the Eucharist. For your reflection today, let me put it to you that there is a parallel between this transformation and the transformation of the human person from being a figura of Christ among us to being the veritatem of Christ for us—from the mere foreshadowing of who is to come to he who is with us and for us.
Our Holy Father, writes in his apostolic exhortation, “The mission for which Jesus came among us was accomplished [finished] in the Paschal Mystery. On the Cross from which he draws all people to himself, just before ‘giving up the Spirit,’ he utters the words: ‘it is finished.’ In the mystery of Christ's obedience unto death, even death on a Cross, the new and eternal covenant was brought about”(SC 9). In one act of surrender, Christ accomplishes two, apparently contradictory tasks: he ends his public ministry by dying publicly and by dying he makes the continuation of his ministry possible. His “obedience to death” on the Cross is the act that moves his ministry out of history, into the eternal with the Father, and back into history through his Spirit and with the Church. With the divine breath of Pentecost, the apostles and disciples are shaped into the Church, charged with setting the world on fire with the Word, and sent out to free all of creation from the slavery to sin. Our Holy Father writes, “In [Christ’s] crucified flesh, God’s freedom and our human freedom met definitively in an inviolable, eternally valid pact.” We can conclude from this that the transformation of the human person from the figura of Christ to the vertitatem of Christ for others is the transformation of that person in perfect freedom. Each of us then is a project of the Lamb, each of us an object of his mission, a focal point for the “taking away of sins.” And, since we are happy to be called to his supper, we eat and drink and take our fill before moving out, eagerly setting out again, into the world, to not only preach and teach the Word, to tell others about Christ, but to be Christ for others, to practice the fine art of being the Lamb, of being the sacrifice, of being the sacramental sign that points to and makes possible the transfiguration of the world.
II. from ritual commemoration to definitive liberation
With his dying breath on the cross, Christ pronounced, for the ears of history to hear, his signature, his seal on the last covenant between Creator and creature: “It is finished.” As Benedict notes in his exhortation, the covenant meal that foreshadows the Eucharist is the Passover meal. He writes: “This ritual meal, which called for the sacrifice of lambs, was a remembrance of the past, but at the same time a prophetic remembrance of a deliverance yet to come. The people had come to realize that their earlier liberation was not definitive, for their history continued to be marked by slavery and sin” (SC 10). The insufficiency of animal sacrifice to fulfill the prophetic promise of the Passover marks for the people of God an incomplete revelation of their salvation history; that is, though the Passover meal is more than sufficient to mark the past, to celebrate the theophanies of God in Egypt and in the desert, no amount of animal sacrifice could bring them to the “deliverance yet to come.” Merely remembering the past fails to enlighten the present in a way that transforms the future. More is needed; therefore, our Holy Father writes: “The remembrance of their ancient liberation [was] expanded to the invocation and expectation of a yet more profound, radical, universal and definitive salvation”(SC 10).
Embodying this “invocation and expectation,” Christ with his last words on the cross, his spirit commended and released to the Father, introduces a radical gift into the salvation history of God’s people. At the Last Supper, Jesus transforms the Passover meal into the Eucharist. Benedict writes: “In the prayer of praise, the Berakah, [Jesus] does not simply thank the Father for the great events of past history, but also for his own ‘exhalation.’ In instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus anticipates and makes present the sacrifice of the Cross and the victory of the resurrection”(SC 10). Sitting at table and eating with his friends, Jesus takes the familiar meal of his people and makes it into something else entirely. He reveals himself to be the sacrificial lamb, the one who will take away the sins of the world. This is the beginning of the promise, just the start of a new and final covenant that will seal the salvific history of all humanity and deliver us whole and secure into the hands of the Father. We will no longer merely remember God’s mighty deeds nor will we wait in anticipation of His mighty deeds. We are now and will always be God’s mighty deeds; we are divine acts set loose to do what Christ did: “…whoever believes in me will do the works that I do AND will do greater ones than these (John 14.12). That this is possible at all is a gift.
III. from gift to giving
What exactly is Christ’s gift to us? Quickly, we might say “salvation” or “God’s love” or “forgiveness.” We could say that he donates himself as our connection between memory and What Is To Come. He forms the bridge between God and
Remembering again by looking back to God’s rescue of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, we can see a “figure” of what is to come for us all—Jew and Gentile alike. We can anticipate our delivery from the slavery to sin. We do this as a Church who embodies in her liturgy that very rescue: the liturgical year compresses our salvation history into a series of public works that mark in time the progress of our trek from chains to freedom. Even more profound, the Church takes this liturgical year and concentrates this series of public works into one work of praise and thanksgiving: the Eucharist. While we look a little closer at the liturgy, let’s not lose sight of the fundamental question: what is it that Christ donates on the cross?
We can say that the Church’s liturgy (especially the Eucharist) is more than an opportunity to teach Christian morality, more than a moment of spiritual refreshment, and more than exhortation to be socially just. Our public work as the Church is the Christian life concentrated, highly focused, and distilled into a moment of intense clarity, an instant where God meets the human need for transformation. In our liturgies, as the Body of Christ, we perform acts of sacrifice, acts of sanctification by assenting to, surrendering to the salvific history that Christ embodies; in other words, the Church’s liturgy (again, most especially the Eucharist) is that moment and that place where the human person meets his/her final end: the transfiguration of the merely human into the perfectly human through Christ.
We are not simply reorienting the Christian moral life toward “being good” behaviorally. Nor are we simply restoring a broken down but salvageable spiritual life. If we take seriously the prayer of the Church’s liturgy, we cannot help but come away from its celebration stunned by what we have experienced and overwhelmed by what we have committed ourselves to: the satisfaction of an ecstatic desire for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, a desire to be Truth, Goodness and Beauty in the world and for the world. Benedict writes: “The institution of the Eucharist demonstrates how Jesus’ death, for all its violence and absurdity, become in him a supreme act of love and mankind’s definitive deliverance from evil”(SC 10). Yes, we are delivered from evil and death to goodness and life, but even more: Jesus’ supreme act of love, his kenosis on the Cross, makes us Christ.
Traditionally called “theosis” or “divinization,” our being made into Christ is the graced process whereby the believer is transformed into He Who Is Believed. The imperfect creature who loves imperfectly is perfected by the perfect Creator who is Love. And there is only one way to accomplish this act of divine mercy: the giver of all good gifts must make of Himself a good gift and give Himself freely to us. Christ’s death on the Cross is a sacrifice, made present in the Eucharist, carried forward into the world by those who receive him as gift in communion; but that sacrifice on the cross is an act of vanity unless it is God who dies there, God who is donated, given up.
IV. Now what?
I said earlier that there is a parallel between Jesus’ transformation of the Passover meal into the Eucharist and the transformation of the human person from the figura of Christ among us to the veritatem of Christ for us. Just as Christ’s death on the cross is foreshadowed in the Passover meal, so his death is presented again in the Eucharistic sacrifice. The moment that binds the two, that moves his death for us from figure to truth, from foreshadow to fact is completed on the cross, Jesus breathes his last, “It is finished.” It is now possible for us to become Christ; it is possible for us—each of us—to move from being a figure of Christ, an outline of Christ, to being Christ in truth. And though we may think that this is an occasion of joy—and it is—it is most fundamentally a somber occasion as we take in all that this move means for us. Having been “fleshed out” as Christ for others in the sacrifice of the Mass, we are now flesh and blood and bone for the world; our hearts and minds and spirits sacrificed—literally, made holy in surrender—by our repeated “amens” and our bold communion. With every “amen,” and most especially in the eating of his Body and the drinking of his Blood, you become a little less your own, a little more His, and every bit ours. Remember: the celebration of the Mass is not about strength for moral fortitude or righteous energy for social justice or even a chance to be truly pious. The Mass brings into the presence of the divine so that we might see our end, taste what is coming for us, and clearly see that the road from here to there is paved with the works Christ has left undone for us for finish. The Mass is not about the Church. It is the Church. The Mass is not about Christ. It is Christ. The Mass is not about our salvation. It is our salvation. We are not waiting on the coming of the Lord. He is here. We are not remembering our liberation. We are free. We are not gambling on a future in heaven. We have something far better than the odds: we have hope, the guarantee that our Father keeps His promises.
For your reflection: what do you need to do to move from being a figura of Christ to being Christ in veritatem? In other words, what do you need to do to move from being ABOUT Christ to BEING Christ?
Question for Mass: what are you doing when you say “amen”? Rather than routinely mumble “amen” on cue, listen very carefully to what it is that you are saying “amen” to. Why? Because you are committing yourself—heart and soul—to that prayer.