The Mystical Body and its Head
Robert Hugh Benson
of the Mystical Body
The Church is Christ’s Body
The work of Redemption and Revelation was accomplished through Human Nature assumed into union with the Divine – that God did not, so to speak, act merely in virtue of His Deity, but through Humanity as well – that, first a nation, then a tribe, then a family, and then a person, were successively drawn from the world as a whole – Israel, Judah, the line of David, and, finally, Mary – and then, by a unique act of the power of the Holy Ghost, a created substance was produced so perfect and so pure as to be worth, in a sense, of becoming the vehicle of the Deity; that this substance was then assumed into union with God, and used for His Divine purposes – in short, that they Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ, by which He lived and suffered and died as man, was the instrument of both Revelation and Redemption; that by a human voice He spoke, that human hands were raised to bless, that a human heart loved and agonized, and that these human hands, heart, and voice – broken, pierced, and silenced as they were – were the heart, hands, and voice of Very God. Consider that claim carefully. Though the Person was the Person of God, the nature by which He was accessible and energetic was the nature of man. It is by union with that Humanity that Christians believe themselves redeemed. Thus in that last emphatic act of the life of His Humiliation He took Bread, and cried, not Here is my Essential Self, but “This is my Body which is given for you,” since that Body was the instrument of Redemption. And, if the Christian claim is to be believed, this act was but a continuation (though in another sense) of that first act known as the Incarnation. He who leaned over the Bread at that “last sad Supper with His own” had, in another but similar manner, leaned over Mary herself with similar words upon his lips. God, according to the Christian belief, used in both actions alike a material substance for His Divine Purpose.
Catholics go a step further – a step in a certain sense parallel to, though not identical with, the act of the Incarnation – and believe that He further takes into union with Himself the Human Nature of His disciples, and through the Body thus formed, acts, lives, and speaks. Let us sum it up in one sentence. Catholics believe that as Jesus Christ lived His natural life on earth two thousand years ago in a Body drawn from Mary, so He lives His Mystical Life today in a Body drawn from the human race in general – called the Catholic Church – that her words are His, her actions His, her life His (with certain restrictions and exemptions), as surely as were the words, actions, and life recorded in the Gospels: it is for this reason that they give to the Church the assent of their faith, believing that in doing so they are rendering it to God Himself. She is not merely His vicegerent on earth, not merely His representative, not merely even His Bride: in a real sense she is Himself. That in this manner, as well as in another which is not our business at present, He fulfills His promise to be with His disciples all the days, even to the consummation of the world. To express the whole position once more under another aspect, in order to make clear what is the position on which I purpose to enlarge, it may be said that God expressed Himself in terms of a single life in the Gospels, and of a corporate life in the Church. The written Gospel is the record of a past life; the Church is the living Gospel and record of a present life. Here He “looks through the lattice,” visible to all who have eyes; here He reproduces, in century after century and country after country, the events and crises of the life lived in Judæa. Here He works out and fills up, on the canvas of the world’s history, that outline laid down two thousand years ago: He is born here, lives, suffers, dies, and eternally rises again on the third day. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
1. Before passing on to consider the possibility of this position, as well as a very startling analogy supplied to us by recent scientific research, it is suggestive to consider how extraordinarily strong is the support given by the Scriptures to the Catholic claim that the idea which I have described was the idea of Jesus Christ Himself and of His contemporary disciples.
The position could hardly be put more explicitly than in the words “I am the Vine, you are the branches,” or “He that heareth you, heareth Me: he that despiseth you, despiseth Me,” or “As My Father sent Me, even so I send you.”
For the only distinction possible to draw between the Vine and the branches lies in saying that the Vine stands for the whole and the branches for its parts. The branches are not an imitation of the Vine, or representatives of the Vine; they are not merely attached to it, as candles to a Christmas tree; they are its expression, its result, and sharers of its life. The two are in the most direct sense identical. The Vine gives unity to the branches, the branches give expression and effectiveness to the energy of the Vine; they are nothing without it; it remains merely a Divine Idea without them. You cannot, that is, apprehend the Vine at all in any real sense as vine except through the branches. So, again, in passage after passage of
’s writings, phrases are used that are practically meaningless, or at the best wild and furious exaggerations, unless this identity of Christ and His Church is assumed to have been in the writer’s mind. Again and again souls living in union with Christ are named His Body considered as a whole, or as members considered separately; they are said to possess the “mind of Christ”; they are described in a mysterious phrase, lucid only on the Catholic interpretation, as filling up what is “wanting of the sufferings of Christ” – carrying out, that is to say, on the stage of the world’s history, the agony and death recorded in the Gospels, extending before the eyes of the world today – and, indeed in every period of history – the bloody sweat, the nails, and the scourge seen in Gethsemane and Calvary. The instruments of the martyr’s passion are the instruments of His. It is impossible, I think, for those who at any rate regard the New Testament as an adequate record of the intentions and words of Christ and His friends, to deny that the idea which I have attempted to describe was the idea of the Founder of Christianity as understood by those who heard Him speak. St. Paul
2. Now, what has been said up to this point may well be regarded by some critics as being nothing more than a rather forced and metaphorical statement of what is really an impossible position to maintain literally – a presentation, possibly rather picturesque, but hopelessly idealistic, of a mere illustration. I mean, however, a great deal more than that.
Every organic body – the body, let us say, of a man or a dog – may be regarded under two aspects. First, it possesses its one single and unique life, that may properly be called the life of the body, beginning before birth and ending at that moment called death. Yet, sheltering, so to speak, under this unity – in fact contributing to it – are lives whose number is beyond computation – viz.: the lives of the innumerable “cells” that compose the body. Those cells are continually coming into being, living each its life, and finally dying and passing away with the destruction of the tissues, yet in no sense interrupting by these changes the one continuous life of the body as a whole. The body of a full-grown man has no single cell, at any given moment, which it possessed at the time of his birth; yet his body, we say, has lived continuously from his birth up to that given moment. The cells are indeed individuals, but they are a great deal more, in virtue of they mystical cohesion.
Now this physical illustration my perhaps appear a little forced; yet surely the analogy is too remarkable to be passed over. We considered just now whether it was possible to speak of the Life of the Church as identical with the Life of Christ – of the identity, that is, of the myriad consciousnesses of Catholic Christians with that Divine consciousness of Christ; and we see that recent research supplies us with a parallel, exact, so far as we have considered it, with the entire Catholic claim on the point. We see how it is not only possible, but essential, for an organic body – that is, for the highest form of physical life with which we are acquainted – that it should consist from one point of view of a myriad infinitesimal lives that lose themselves, and yet save themselves, in the unity of the whole, and that the unity of the whole, while it transcends the sum of the individual cell-lives, is at once dependent on them and apart. If this is true of physical life, literally and actually, it is surely not unreasonable to expect that it should be true also of spiritual life; and the coincidence is the more remarkable when we remember that the science of cell-life is of very recent date.
3. Jesus Christ still lives upon earth as surely, though in another and what must be a “mystical” sense, as He lived two thousand years ago. For He has a Body in which He lives, a Voice with which He speaks. As two thousand years ago He assumed one kind of Body by which to accomplish His purposes, so He has assumed now another kind of Body in which to continue them; and that Body consists of a unity of myriad cells – each cell a living soul complete in itself – transcending the sum of the cells and yet expressing itself through them. Christianity, then, to the Catholic is not merely an individual matter – through it is that also, as surely as the cell has individual relations with the main life of the body. But it is far more: it is corporate and transcendent. The Catholic does not merely as a self-contained unit suck out grace through this or that sacramental channel; the priest to him is not just a vicegerent who represents or may misrepresent his Master; a spiritual life is not merely an individual existence on a spiritual plane. But to the Catholic all things are expanded, enlarged, and supernaturalized by an amazing fact; He is not merely an imitator of Christ, or a disciple of Christ, nor merely even a lover of Christ; but he is actually a cell of that very Body which is Christ’s, and his life in Christ is, as a matter of fact, so far more real and significant than his individual existence, that his is able to take upon his lips without exaggeration or metaphor the words of St. Paul – “I live – yet it is no longer I that live; it is Christ that liveth in me”; he is able to appreciate as no separatist in religion can appreciate that saying of Christ Himself, that unless a man lose his life, he cannot save it. Still, to the eyes of the Catholic, there moves on earth that amazing Figure whose mere painted portrait in the Gospels has driven men – artists, seers, and philanthropists – mad with love and longing – and he is part of it. There still sounds on the air the very voice that comforted the Magdalene and pardoned the thief: the same Divine energy that healed the sick and raised the dead is still active on earth, not transmitted merely from some Majesty on high, but working now, as then, through a Human Nature that may be touched and felt.
I see through her eyes, the Eyes of God to shine, and through her lips I hear His words. In each of her hands as she raises them to bless, I see the wounds that dripped on Calvary, and her feet upon her altar stairs are signed with the same marks as those which the Magdalene kissed. As she comforts me in the confessional I hear the voice that bade the sinner go and sin no more; and as she rebukes or pierces me with blame I shrink aside trembling with those who went out one by one, beginning with the eldest, till Jesus and the penitent were left alone. As she cries her invitation through the world I hear the same ringing claim as that which called, “Come unto Me and find rest to your souls”; as she drives those who profess to serve her from her service I see the same flame of wrath that scourged the changers of money from the temple courts.
As I watch her in the midst of her people, applauded by the mob shouting always for the rising sun, I see the palm branches about her head, and the City and Kingdom of God, it would seem, scarcely a stone’s throw away, yet across the valley of the Kedron and the garden of Gethsamane; and as I watch her pelted with mud, spurned, spat at and disgraced, I read in her eyes the message that we should weep not for her but for ourselves and for our children, since she is immortal and we but mortal after all. As I look on her white body, dead and drained of blood, I smell once more the odor of the ointments and the trampled grass of that garden near to the place where He was crucified, and hear the tramp of the soldiers who came to seal the stone and set the watch. And, at last, as I see her moving once more in the dawn light of each new day, or in the revelation of evening, as the son of this of that dynasty rises and sets, I understand that He how was dead has come forth once more with healing in His wings, to comfort those that mourn and to bind up the brokenhearted; and that His coming is not with observation, but in the depth of night as His enemies slept and His lovers woke for sorrow.
Yet even as I see this I understand that Easter is but Bethlehem once again; that the cycle runs round again to its beginning and that the conflict is all to fight again; for they will not be persuaded, though One rises daily from the dead.
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