Emile Mersch - John the Mystic Apostle July 9, 2021 13:01

Christ, Lord of the Cosmos

We continue our series on Emile Mersch's The Whole Christ by guest contributor Andrew Kuiper. This is the second of five posts.

In sketching the lineaments of the Mystical Body, Fr. Mersch’s favorite and most fundamental terms—life, light, and unity—reveal his devotional and theological dependency on the Gospel of John. This is no frivolous preference. For Mersch, even though all of Scripture—Old and New Testaments—teaches, directly or indirectly, the dogma of the Mystical Body, St. John was given the special privilege of teaching it most clearly and definitively, being the final inspired author of the nascent canon. Moreover, Mersch tells us, “[d]estined as he was to be the instrument of God in so great a doctrinal development, the Apostle John had need of a special preparation” (152).[1] The visions on Patmos are the most obviously unique gift that John received, but his other gifts were subtler:

God, who had granted him the lightning-like visions of Patmos and had also given him to behold the sweet and humble appearance of the Master in Judea, now gave him the interior grace to understand how these two manifestations explained each other, and how the Christ he had contemplated in former days was the same who ever lives in the Church and suffers in the Church. (157)

Mersch thus somewhat counter-intuitively argues that the Apocalypse of St. John is a kind of introduction to and source of the Gospel of John. Not that St. John’s visions endowed him with esoteric data to which the other apostles did not have access. As demonstrated by the bitter struggles between the early Christians and the Gnostics, there is no such parallel track. There is one faith, one Lord, and one baptism. What the tradition does allow, however, is what Clement of Alexandria called the practice of Christian gnosis or what exegetes and theologians in all ages have known as a journey of interior insight into the self-same mysteries available to all. This journey unfolds for each Christian as he or she continues to overcome passion-distorted understandings in the struggle for spiritual maturity (1 Cor. 3:1-3). As St. John himself progressed in this development, the vision of the Apocalypse communicated to him a particular insight into the union binding Christ’s life on earth, His pre-existent divine life, and the life of the Church.

Even the casual reader can discern a marked difference in the style of St. John’s gospel as compared to the synoptics. Not only is it the gifted work of a fertile interior life but it also contains traces of a special relationship between Christ, His mother, and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Mary and John the Apostle, both historically and symbolically have always been the entrance and model for a more contemplatively perfected intellectual and spiritual understanding of Christ. Mersch is more specific: the entire Johannine corpus (the gospel, the epistles, and the apocalypse) has one thesis with two aspects:

Now John’s thesis, the purpose of his Gospel, is to teach us who the Master is in Himself, and what He is for us: it is written that we may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that we are in Him, and that, in Him, we have life. . . . It is because He is God that Christ is able to give us life, and it is by belief in His divinity that we receive His life within us. In the supernatural order, we cannot be separated from Him. (160)

This simple thesis of “mysterious intensity” (164) Mersch applies to three areas: 1) the union of God in Christ with historical existence; 2) the union of God in Christ with the human race; and 3) the union of God in Christ with the entirety of the created order.

1) God’s incarnate union with historical existence. With respect to Christ and history, Mersch draws our attention to Christ’s death as a moment of transition, in which God’s incarnate relationship to historical existence is perpetuated through the union of Christ’s members with their head. Writing in an Augustinian mode, Mersch explains:

Christ’s death, far from marking His departure from this world of ours, is seen rather to effect a more profound penetration of Jesus into the souls of men. Jesus will continue to belong mystically to this earth; He will continue to act, to suffer, to affect its history, but in a new way: His history will no longer be separate from that of the world; He will become, in the hearts of humanity, the very life of history. (45)

Christ is both the eternal Lord of History and—according to his union with the visible Church—is within history. The Church, head and members, “is Christ in a more perfect sense than was the historical Christ; for she is Christ inasmuch as He forms one Body with us” (48). To put it another way, because the Incarnate Word is Emmanuel, his entire life is an act of sacrificial love to God the Father for our sakes. His miraculous birth was already a preparation for death and his anointing as the Christ was a preparation for burial.

After his resurrection, his redemptive action continued by his bodily withdrawal and sending of the Spirit. Christ’s heart-breaking rebuff to Mary Magdalene, Noli me tangere (Jn. 20:17), can be understood as an act of love only if we realize that Christ had to ascend in order to be more intimately united with his beloved children by the interpenetration of lives. Hence Christ’s own prophetic and haunting words concerning his Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit: It is better for you that I should go away (Jn. 16:7). To say that the Church is a more perfect Christ is to say that the Church is the mission of Christ fully performed for us and the body of Christ completely given to us.

2) God’s incarnate union with the whole human race. Here, Mersch makes two points. First, from the moment of creation, God desired supernatural elevation for the entire human race; therefore, “human ontology, viewed in its origins, was in reality as supernatural ontology” (22). We were never intended for a purely natural existence for “even the creation of the world speaks to us of grace; it speaks of a union with God which is offered to us; it speaks of Christ, Head and Body” (22). Even since the fall, our existence is esse in Christo, waiting to be incorporated into and united with Christ by grace. The historical catastrophe of Original Sin has interrupted, distorted, and frustrated but not erased this original calling.

Second, Mersch also defends a maximalist view of the extent of the Incarnation such as is present in St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Namely, based partly on the natural solidarity already present in humanity considered as a species, and based partly on the divine power of the Incarnation, these fathers argue that when Christ assumed flesh in the particular hypostatic union, he also—in some way—assumed the nature of all members of humanity. Mersch (293) has us consider, for instance, this paradigmatic passage from St. Hilary’s Commentary on St. Matthew:

Every man was in Christ Jesus, and so His body, the instrument of the Word accomplished in itself the whole mystery of our redemption. Our Lord is transfused into the bodies of each of the faithful. He has taken the body of each of us, and through this body He is become our closest of kin. Thus, by reason of this body, all humanity is contained in Him. By this union of all men in Himself, He is like a city, and by our union with His flesh we are the inhabitants.

Mersch grants that this is difficult to expound clearly and he does not think that this first joining of Christ and all of humanity immediately effects the divinization that Christians receive through baptism, the Holy Spirit, and life in the Church. However, even if the mystery is difficult to account for metaphysically, Mersch thinks it a worthwhile model because it allowed fathers like St. Hilary “to condemn the heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches years before their appearance” (297). Mersch’s focus on Christ’s unity with the Church and the reality of our exaltation through God’s abasement brought with it an unflinching affirmation of both of Christ’s natures. “Hilary loves to repeat that all men were in Jesus Christ, in Him was the nature of us all; and, at the same time, he tells us, Christ is in the nature of every man, in the nature of all flesh, by reason of the body that He has assumed” (294).

3) God’s incarnate union with the created order generally. Again, Mersch draws deeply from patristic and Scriptural insights. In an earlier chapter, he hinted at the relation between the Mystical Body and the doctrine of creation by expounding the letter to the Ephesians:

Creation is for Paul so intrinsically Christian that he returns again to this loving design, conceived by God before the foundation of the world. For from the very beginning, Christ is the term and center of all; all things were created in Him, and subsist in Him. . . . He is the supernatural unity of all creation, as He is the unity of the supernatural work which was God’s purpose in creation. (23)

Not only does Mersch understand the Incarnation to establish a new and real union with humanity in general, but it is also—as powerfully evinced in the prologue of the Gospel of John’s declaration that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us—“a union of God with all creation, a communion without bounds” (163). Here, “without bounds” means that there is no thing that is outside the scope of God’s desire for union. Through Christ and His Church, all of creaturely reality can be redeemed from its groaning and pass into glory. There is a fitting relationship, lodged in Christ’s personal identity as the Logos, between the fact that all things—not just humanity—were created by and for Christ and the fact that redemption includes the entire cosmos. St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches this quite explicitly:

But the greatest of all our good is submission to God, which brings all creation into harmony. Then every knee shall bend in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Thus all creation becomes one body . . . (319).[2]

While the meaning of these statements is remains in part mysterious, Mersch particularly admires the vast breadth and detail that this vision of salvation brings with it. “It is the universe itself that pays its obedience to God in Christ” (319).[3] Thus the light, life, and unity invoked by Mersch are the fullest expressions of the work of the Incarnate Christ when by means of His historical, ecclesial, and mystical body “things of heaven are wedded to the things of earth and divine to the human.”[4]

[1] All parenthetical references to page numbers refer to Mersch’s The Whole Christ.

[2] St. Gregory of Nyssa, In illud: Tunc ipse Filius subjicietur, PG, Vol, 44, 1317. St. Maximus the Confessor and others demonstrate that this is by no means an isolated theological thesis in the tradition.

[3] These patristic reflections on all flesh and the Incarnation are taken up in a more thematic way in Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism. See especially: Chapter I: Dogma and Chapter V: Christianity and History. Indeed, de Lubac acknowledges that “the informed reader will notice that we owe much to Fr. Mersch” (p.17, fn.7). See also, e.g., p.41, fn.53; p.47, fn. 67; p.72 fn.87; p.73 fn.93; p.90 fn.30; p.118 fn.27; p.127 fn.65; p.128 fn.72; p.195 fn.126; p.307 fn.9; p.308 fn.11.

[4] Exsultet, Easter Vigil.