Words of Past Experience

Christianity (1939)

By Émile Mersch, SJ (1890-1940) - Marche-en-Famenne, Belgium


The following text is excerpted from Chapter Two of Morality and the Mystical Body, trans. Daniel F. Ryan, S.J. (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1939), pp. 20-33. This book was originally published in French as Morale et corps mystique (Brussels: L'Édition universelle, 1937).



The religion of Christ, we say. The Christian religion in fact, as we shall see more and more clearly, has Christ for an essential, and, so to speak, a unique element.


And so, the first requisite is to recall what Christ is. Let us begin then by doing that.


Christ is, in the unique Person of the Word, perfectly God and perfectly man.


This point must be developed a little; otherwise Christianity will not appear in all its beauty. Let us consult then Scripture and Tradition....



"Alas," St. Francis DeSales used to say, "I am so much a man." Yes: But Jesus was that too. Apparuit humanitas et benignitas. It was even a revelation: without this sweet vision of humanity and of goodness we would never have known all that the human heart, the work of God, can be.


He was so human, so marvelously in accord with what is most profound in us, so accessible and so open that the little children ran to Him; instinctive reaction of our humanity at its most candid before the perfection of the Son of man. He commanded respect, however, and the Sanhedrites did not always have the courage to withstand His glance.


But especially He captivated men. The mothers harassed Him to compel Him to touch their little ones. The lame, the blind and the leprous, those whose miseries had habituated them to rebuffs; poor men) beggars, publicans, those whose condition had accustomed them to contempt; sinners, thieves and condemned persons, those whose falls had embittered them against themselves; all, far from being frightened by His entire purity, pressed towards Him, as flights of birds, lost in the night, rush towards a beacon-light. Οστε επιπιπτειν αθτω so much so, says St. Mark, that they fell upon Him, a needy and tumultuous crowd swarming about His Goodness.


In His presence everyone was at ease, and without pretense. Peter at once took possession of Him; the sick, the crowds, His own, felt Him so near to them that they considered Him their own property. And He allowed Himself to be taken. That was why He came: to engage Himself in the gear of our events and of our psychology. Like us He was hungry and thirsty and He said so; like us He had His mother and He loved her; like us He admired the splendor of the fields in flower and the settings of the sun, and He willed to show it. His soul trembled to the rhythm of the universe as ours does. And, when His hour of suffering was come, He suffered as we suffer. No theatrical attitude, nothing false, no pretense; He did not deny sorrow, He did not defy it; but He accepted it; He allowed Himself to be overcome by it; He even allowed Himself to be overwhelmed by shame and disgust. He, who could have been of stone, wished to be only man, and His point of honor and the magnificence of His goodness lay in being simply that.


Like all men He had His familiar gestures, His ordinary expressions and His own manner of looking at His interlocutors. Like everyone else He was of His own time and of His own country. There was nothing hazily abstract or vaguely extratemporal in His attitude. His procedures are frankly stamped and dated: today we would conduct ourselves differently. Even His manner of teaching religion is the one which was suited to the Palestine of that time. Soon Paul will speak in a different manner on the Areopagus, and Thomas of Aquin, His humble disciple, will build his expositions in another style.



Still, despite this local and temporal color, He remains a contemporary of all the ages. What this Jew said in Aramaic to the laborers of Galilee reveals to the intellectuals and to the workers of today, the mystery that their souls are their own.


If He enters into our forms, He surpasses them. If He is man, and in the fullest sense of the word, the very fullness of His manhood causes Him to be a man in a way that is astonishing and full of contrasts.


Contrast, one might say, is His proper element. He can comfort all the afflicted; but He Himself in His agony stays near His own and begs their moral support. He reads souls; but He asks them questions. He forgets Himself, He effaces Himself; but He declares that He is Master and Lord. He is nothing; and He is all. Last end of our tendencies, He affirms that He came only to be a means, to give His life for His brothers. His miracles are His own and they are the sign of His power; but He did not perform them for His own advantage; and He who multiplied the loaves of bread for others, Himself suffered from hunger.


This perpetual servant has limitless exigencies. As God He wishes our hearts without reserve, and one cannot glance backward once one has set himself to follow Him. The key of consciences and the key of Heaven are in His hands, and He gives them to whom He pleases. But He does not allow it even to be said that He is good; God alone is good, He replies, and the places which are nearest His own are not His to give, but the Father's.


He is man, and He continues to be man. But to His grandeur neither He nor the Gospel set any limits. The word alone is lacking and it seems to have been rarely on His lips and on those of the Twelve. But the word is a secondary thing. The difficulty is not to affirm that one is God; it is to make it believed by the companions of one's daily life.


So Jesus did. Coepit facere. He dared to take the role of God, to act all His days according to the last rule of all perfection, as a model of all virtue, without ever ceasing to conduct Himself as a man and to wish to be like His brothers. And He did not sunder Himself with the effort; and He was not overwhelmed in ridicule. All took Him seriously; and after twenty centuries no defect has been found in His claim.



There is something more marvelous still: He has maintained this overwhelming role without stiffness. The terrible contrasts of which His conduct is composed, far from destroying His personality, make it stand out in perfect unity.


The synthesis is so complete, it is so well incarnated in Him that by a sort of communion between two extremes, He makes His grandeur shine forth in the very marks of His weakness.


It is after having fallen from fatigue upon the pillow of the pilot, that He lifts Himself up to make the sea lie down and to silence the tempest with a word. He was so simply man in His sleep that the Twelve did not hesitate to shake Him to wake Him up. And in the miracle itself, which filled them with terror, He remains still so human that soon they are again familiar and indiscreet. The most prosaic comparisons serve Him in speaking of divine realities. Scorpions, eggs and pebbles become in His discourses messengers of Providence. The birds of heaven, when He speaks of them, form a part of His teaching about our adoptive sonship. A glass of water, provided that one gives it in His name, demands an eternal recompense; and even His body, yes, His flesh and His blood, that of a condemned man, are made to give to the world the divine life.


The unity of divine and human is in Him so total that it leads like a living way from one to the other. Merely by seeing this man, the Apostles ended by believing in His divinity. The vision of their eyes of flesh became faith in their souls; Peter finally one day understood and, perhaps before Jesus stated it, he confessed who Jesus was.



The attitude of Jesus before God resembles His attitude before men: the same contrasts and in the same unity. Only here there is no longer equality and superiority, it is equality and inferiority; but the unity of divine and human is still total: before His Father Jesus unites perfect ease to adoration.


He prays, He drags Himself along the ground, He obeys even to death, and, when it shall be necessary, He will go Himself with a step anguished but decided, towards the whips and towards the Cross.


And still He, the sweet and humble of heart, installs Himself in the place of God. He lifts Himself up above the Law and the Temple and the Sabbath, above everything. And these divine prerogatives He exercises without excuse or oratorical precautions, in His own name and as something that belongs to Him.


Rigorously equal, infinitely inferior, He remains tranquilly from one part to the other identical with Himself. He prays, yes; but He knows that He is all-powerful. He obeys and He sacrifices Himself; but on His gibbet He gives paradise to the good thief.


Such is Christ always: a perfect synthesis of a perfect dualism. As natural as it is to us rational animals to be at once spirit and matter, so simple and easy is it, in a certain sense, for Him to be man and God both together. And just as we, since we are a unit, can give a spiritual sense to our bodily gestures, He can, in the supernatural perfection of His humanity, make plain His divinity to those whose souls are pure.



It was reserved for Tradition to express in formulas this unity of the two natures, which Christ has realised in His person and in His actions. It was a long and delicate work, often crossed by heresies, always taken up again by Christian thought. Generations have brought their efforts to it. So, when the Council of Chalcedon defined the dogma, it merely summed up a great Christian activity.


The point of departure of these researches, the base of the argumentations, is the contrast in the Saviour's manner of acting.


Let us hear Saint Leo, for example, describe Christ for us:


The very same one who is true God, writes the Pope, is also true man, and this unity is not an artifice, since the humility of the man and the grandeur of God exist, the one in the other.


No more than God is altered by this condescension, is man absorbed in the glory. Each of the natures operates, in communion with the other, that which is proper to it: the Word does that which is proper to the Word, and the flesh receives that which is proper to the flesh. The one is radiant with prodigies, the other succumbs under injuries. And, just as the Word does not remove itself from its equality with the glory of the Father, neither does the flesh lose the nature of our race. One only and the same one, it must be often repeated, is truly Son of God and son of man. . . . The nativity according to the flesh witnesses to His human nature, but the virginal birth is the indication of the divine power. His human infancy appeared in the humility of the manger; but the grandeur of the Most High is declared by the voices of the angels. . . . To be hungry and thirsty, to be tired and to sleep, these are evidently human. But to nourish with five loaves of bread five thousand men, and to give to the Samaritan the living water . . . this, beyond possible doubt, is divine (Epist. XXVIII, P.L. LIV, 767-769).


And the saint, after having piled up examples of contrast, ends with this phrase, of which all the words are weighty.


Although, in our Lord Jesus Christ, God and man are only one person, yet, it is one thing which gives access in the two to common humiliations and another thing from which a common glory comes. From us He holds a humanity inferior to the Father; from the Father He has a divinity equal to the Father (Ibid. 760-771).


That is what the Council of Chalcedon will define, after having canonized the Tomus ad Flavianum which we have just quoted....



If the body of Christ is not very exactly of our flesh and of our blood, if His soul is not in all points what ours is, He has then assumed another than the human nature, and it is not we who, in Him, have access to the Father.


And if He differs from God, by the most delicate nuance, if He is not of the very substance of the Father, it is not then truly to the Divinity that we are united in Him.


Finally, if He Himself is not one with the real unity of only one person, the tie which should attach us to heaven is broken at the moment of its binding and we are still in our first abjection.


One with God, One with us, One in Himself, Christ has a function which is no other than His very essence. And this function is to be our union with God, our sanctity, our redemption, our Christianity, merely by being what He is.


That is the mediation of the Saviour. It signifies that Jesus is not merely an intermediary who places Himself between us and God, a sort of intercessor whose good offices assure, by a sort of going and coming, frequent relations between two different points. He is rather a bridge which establishes continuity between two banks of a stream, or rather, a marvel which would place the two banks in full contact. His role is Himself; merely by existing He brings it about that in Him humanity touches divinity directly.


Likewise, the formula which expresses His mediation with relation to humanity forms a unit with the dogma which defines Him, Himself. The two have developed from the same movement, and we might say even, that it is through reflecting on what the Saviour is for Christians, that the Church has come to say so well what He is in Himself. He is then Everything in the religion of which He forms the centre, and, if He were not all that He is, Christianity would be nothing.

But He is all that He is, and, in Him, Christianity is everything.


Christianity, the religion of the Man-God, is the perfect religion of humanity.

Religion is a relation between man and God. It is an appeal for help, a tendency in which our entire being expresses itself.


In Christ, this relation becomes the hypostatic union; the appeal is heard and granted beyond all merit and all desire, and the tendency arrives at possession.


Towards this summit tended, by their essence itself, all the aspirations of our being. But its very elevation, which gave it its attractiveness, screened it from our efforts and from our vision.

As a general takes possession of the unique defile which joins two countries, Christ came to occupy the precise point where all the appeals of our being would converge, if our natural weakness did not arrest their flight, the point where every man must pass to go to the Father. Or rather, He has not had to take this position; He constitutes it by His substance.


In the midst of us an Individual has arisen, who, man and God at the same time, is the perfect priest. Let our religion be organized about this Emmanuel and in this Emmanuel, let it pass through Him, and it will pierce the skies and will penetrate into the Holy of Holies. God Himself, if we dare say it, could not resist this pontiff taken from our midst. And, in order to pass through Him, our religion need not impose any mutilation on itself. Christ has assumed all our nature. There is then, nothing human which cannot be integrated into His religion.


The required manner of thinking is our own manner of thinking.

Not because it is ours, but because God has taken it in Christ.


Had not Christ assumed all our nature, evidently, it would have remained lamentably insufficient. Have we not said that natural religion, in our intelligence, consists in a perpetual effort to purify our most elevated concepts from an ineradicable anthropomorphism?


But the Word itself has become flesh. To the incurable ill, the truth has brought a remedy by accommodating itself to it, and to our native weakness has become a light.


The Man-God is there, let us look at Him: to know God, the best thing henceforth is to have eyes of flesh and the heart of a man. We shall learn much more about the Ineffable by seeing the Son of Mary act and by hearing Him speak, than the proudest geniuses have been able to perceive in subtile speculations on the Pure Act.


The required manner of suffering is our own manner of suffering.

It must be so: God has come here below to take it. But how simple, and human, suffering has become, in Him!


By implanting it in His soul and in His flesh, He has made something expiatory and divinising of what before was merely terrible. We can then, even in the embrace of suffering, even in death, be joyous, and love and open our souls to it, and receive it, and will it. And even while suffering—for nothing of the human in us is suppressed—we shall be happy because of the life which enters into us like a sword; for suffering, as suffering—that is the miracle —makes us like to the Word of God.


The Incarnate Word does not ask that we should be made of bronze in order to suffer well. He Himself suffered as a man suffers. The human manner of suffering, with its numbness, its revolts of the flesh and its powerlessness in prayer, is the one which is necessary for us; humble, confident, and drawing its virtue, not so much from our courage, as from the resemblance to the Crucified, which it implants in us.



Even in its most rigorous requirements Christianity remains human, and its restrictions and retrenchments should overturn only our narrowness, and open us wide to the Infinite.

"God was made man": this is our religion and the formula for the ennobling and divinising of our race.


Our little human values have received a divine worth. God has come down to the roads we tread. He has walked by our side under the same sun and under the same rain which the Father sends down equally upon the just and the unjust. Our trifling earthly events have from now on an interest for Him: He has taken part in them. We may speak to Him then in prayer of harvests and of storms, of thorns and of gall, even of silver and of hammers; all this, in Him, has taken on a religious meaning.


The required manner of praying is our own manner of praying.

Why should we treat God as a grandiose abstraction, or as a superhuman entity, or even as a simple Pure Act? Of what advantage is a complicated etiquette and a laborious approach, when there is no longer any distance between us?


God expects of us something other than remote homage. The supreme value for man, after God, is it not man? And is God not man in Jesus Christ? Sociable by nature, sociable even with all the supernatural perfection of His nature, He has need of those who are like Him.


We can go to Him then as we are. When we speak to Him with sincerity, we shall never find that we were of no interest to Him or that we were importunate. We shall open our hearts to the heart of another man; we shall speak of our sufferings to One who has had experience of sorrow; we shall confide our faults to One who has willed to feel in His soul the shame of being covered with all crimes, and we shall have adored God, as God, since the Incarnation, wishes to be adored. Henceforth, to believe in God, we shall need to have the immense simplicity, or rather the imperturbable assurance, that we are precious in the eyes of the Infinite.


The required manner of loving is our own manner of loving.

God, through the Incarnation, wishes to be loved with a human love, in the Man-God, in the neighbor.


We may note especially this last point: charity towards the neighbor.


No cult goes so straight to the heart of God as the love of man for man, when it is given in the name of Christ. Man, in fact, is united with God through the Incarnation; it is in a man that God places Himself within our reach; it is the Incarnate Word which every human creature resembles. So, in every man, we must venerate God; and God will treat us, Jesus assures us, as we shall have treated others.



These are some of the features of the religion of the Man-God. In Christ, men can go to God on the same level with God; that which, without Christ, would always have forced our cult to be merely human, becomes the means required for rendering it divine.


Christianity then, is human, as human as anything can be; just as Christ is fully man. It is then, in perfection, the religion of men.



But, we must add at once, it is not merely human. The very perfection of its humanity is due to a character of divinity. Its features are composed of the same contrasts as those of Christ, and are resolved in the same unity.


It exalts human nature, yes, but in humility, and to give to it a divine importance, it insists in the first place that it cease to belong to itself.


It respects in human nature all its resources; but it is to hand over all of them to God. It opens up humanity to the Infinite, but requires of it a total abnegation.


Opposites and paradoxes. But no collisions. Total humility and religious great-heartedness; exaltation and abnegation join in a unique adoration and in a limitless confidence in the God who, by becoming man, has made us like to Him.


God remains then, whole, and man remains also quite entire; Christianity can be totally human and truly divine, and still one, as Jesus is human and divine and one, and all this through Jesus.