The Ramification of the Flesh of Christ

By J. David Franks

I have to begin with a note about a change in the column. My wife Angela and I have been co-authoring for the last year, but she has felt an urgent need lately to concentrate on her scholarly work. She is a very fine scholar indeed, so I understand, though I will miss collaborating with her. Please always keep the Frankses in prayer—even if you don’t like the column!

What joy to have the Body of Christ laid on my tongue by a man just ordained to the priesthood, one I have had the privilege to help form over many years at Saint John’s Seminary. The oldest of our children is twelve. We’ve witnessed prodigies: seen ballet and piano performances, heard tremendously clever things, observed acts of charity. But their maturity is still ahead. As a seminary professor, an instrument of bishops in the formation of men for the priesthood, I get to enjoy some of that paternal pride already.

Without the priesthood, there would be no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no permeation of the flesh of human existence—the banalities, the inanities, the horrors, the joys—with the transfiguring presence of divine love. Jesus comes to justify. He comes to raise us from our dung heap of self-love. He comes to cause us to attain our full stature under His merciful and saving Headship. This rising of each human person, this redemption of our vain lives, is the mystery we celebrate in this Easter season drawing to a close.

Ascension makes clear that the economy of salvation is about the justification of our seemingly unjustifiable lives. Baptism justifies us by causing us to be conformed to the dying and rising of Jesus, breaking our old habits of self-assertion, initiating new habits of abandonment to the Father’s loving wisdom. Towards the baptismal font does the Father drive every human heart interiorly, by the Spirit of His Son. Towards a more profound conformity to this total loving and this vindication, the Spirit continues to drive us. Baptism causes us to die to the death-in-life that is worldly existence, “flesh” without the Spirit. What Jesus is working in us is the resurrection of this “flesh” into a vessel of divine love. This resurrection begins now; it will be consummated when we actually receive back our bodies on the last day.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ Who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” (Col 3:1-4)

This resurrecting movement, this justification that is worked out as our sanctification, is the ramifying of the Kingdom of divine mercy through every human heart. But the coming of the Kingdom is as painful as death, for we must die to self, day after day.

Within and without, our struggle indeed is not against flesh and blood as such, but “against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11) Flesh has been subjected to a demonic discipline, formation by ideology. The Word becomes flesh, and gives us His flesh, to liberate our flesh in His Spirit of truth.

Though the demons wreak immense and horrific havoc upon human flesh, the victory is Christ’s. He has come back from the dead, having swallowed up all our darkness, having become the Victim in every victim: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mt 28:18)

This is usually not apparent: its effects are sub contrario, as Luther puts it. It is only as the slain Lamb that He is sovereign Lord of history. No magic wand for suffering humanity. But sometimes we are given a glimpse of victory. So, with the attempted “black mass” a few weeks ago.

Not only did the event not occur, but thousands bore witness to our Eucharistic faith. What an awesome victory! We need more such occasions of public avowal of our faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The only redemption of the world is in the Body of Christ: divine flesh to redeem suffering flesh, dying flesh. But precisely for that reason, we must not fetishize or exoticize the Eucharist. If we segregate the Eucharist from the substance of daily human life, we have missed the point of the real presence: the food Jesus gives is “His flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn 6:51)

As Pope Francis just reminded us on his return flight from the Holy Land: “When a priest commits abuse, he betrays the Lord’s body. A priest must guide children towards sainthood. And the child trusts him. But instead, he abuses him or her. This is very serious. It’s like celebrating a black mass!”

In fact, every time a child is abused or aborted, it is the Eucharistic Jesus who is desecrated. Every time we act against true love, we act against the Eucharist. Every single time. What “liberal Christianity” got wrong was not its emphasis on everyday correlates of dogma. It was in losing the faith. We need both simple faith in Christian dogma and correlation to everyday life. To choose one or the other is a betrayal of the Incarnation.

Liberal Christianity debouched the Christian substance without remainder into thisworldly realities, humanitarianism, “social justice.” But it was not the emphasis on this world that was wrong. It was losing the unsurpassable source of Christian engagement with the world: Jesus Himself, Christ crucified and risen, the Eucharistic Lord—Christ, our justification, the only possible source of true social justice.

Jesus says, “You have not chosen me. I have chosen you, to bear fruit that remains.” (Jn 15:16) Jesus chose those men ordained a few days ago. He chose them to give us the sacramental grace and paternal care and sound instruction necessary for us to carry out the mission He chose each of us for: to serve as instruments of the Father’s mercy. The tree of life grows downwards from the golden city, ramifying through each moment of your life. Eternity is blossoming, hardly noticed. The Lord is risen indeed.

[This column appeared in the May 30, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.]


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