“If I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you,” says Jesus to the Apostles at the Last Supper, according to John (16:7). “As if He said plainly,” writes Gregory the Great, “If I withdraw not My body from your eyes, I cannot lead you to the understanding of the Invisible, through the Comforting Spirit.”
It’s likely you haven’t thought much about this line. I know I haven’t. The idea that absence, separation (indeed, death), lack of visibility, operating on a spiritual not a verifiable basis – that these things are often better for us – is a fascinating theme, and much needed in our culture of pragmatism and visual media. History and tradition, for example, and the whole “deposit of faith” can only be seen “spiritually.” Indeed, the Spirit gives this “understanding of the invisible” to the Church – and even, in some times of crisis, as Newman pointed out, primarily to the laity.
But even more interesting is what St. Augustine says about the line. He connects the promised coming of the Spirit, after the Resurrection, to an earlier coming down of the Spirit, over Mary when she conceived, at the Incarnation. In both cases, he says, the Spirit is connected with hiddenness. With the first coming, the divinity of Christ was hidden in his humanity. But when Jesus returns to the Father, then the humanity of Christ becomes hidden as well. In both cases, Christ “hides,” so that the Spirit can reveal.
We can have faith only in what we cannot see. Thus, after the Lord’s Ascension, his humanity too, finally, becomes an object of faith. St. Thomas Aquinas builds this thought into his Eucharistic hymn, Adoro te devote. “On the cross, his divinity alone was hidden. But here [in the Eucharistic], his humanity is hidden too, at the same time. Despite their being hidden, I believe in both, and confess both.” He means belief in the “body, blood, soul, and divinity” of Jesus in the Eucharist. But the object of faith is the same. Eucharistic faith is faith in the continuing humanity of Christ. One can be sure that the Spirit is there for anyone praying before the Tabernacle.
It’s likely that we misinterpret the line from the Creed, et homo factus est, “and became man.” Maybe we bow as we say it, reinforcing for us, through imitation, the divine condescension of the Incarnation, the lowering, the kenōsis. But even so we perhaps take it to be merely a statement of historical fact, like, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. At some point in time God took on human nature, presumably, in Nazareth, around 2 or 3 BC.
The line is also, however, as St. Thomas indicates, a confession of faith in the humanity of Christ. This too we are likely to take for granted. The humanity of Christ is the easy thing to believe, right, not the divinity? Not so. Certainly not today. But let’s trace out some consequences.
First, if Christ took on human nature, then there is a human nature; indeed, that there is, is part of the Catholic faith. If we want to know and love Christ, then we must come to know and to love this nature as good. We might copy Terence’s nihil humani alienum a me puto . We have heard that the Church is an “expert in humanity.” But it is so not because it can pick the right specialists for international conferences, in the manner of an NGO, but in the sense that, guided by the Spirit to remain in the truth, it is guided in that way also in the truth about humanity.
Second, human nature, not humanity after the Fall, has to be the sort of thing such that God could assume it. This principle must guide our thought. Are we so composed, for instance, that we are fundamentally unrestrained and ruthless, lusting after pleasure, which, of itself, except for restraints imposed from without, would cause us to rape our mother and murder our father? (So said Freud.) Fallen nature might acquire that aspect, but such could not be our nature in the intention of the Father.
Third, if Christ’s humanity is an object of faith, then, as in other areas of belief, we would expect there to be corresponding false gods and deceptive representations. And this is exactly what we see, in the “religion of humanity” which subverts Christianity, as Daniel Mahoney has brilliantly argued in The Idol of Our Age . Faith in humanity goes wrong unless it is faith in Christ’s humanity.
Fourth, we see clearly that attempts to undermine the teaching of the Church on same-sex attraction or male-female complementarity are also attempts to undermine what Church teaching about the humanity that Christ assumed. These efforts, then, are directly against what the Spirit has disclosed; one cannot claim that they are inspired by the Spirit. They obscure, they do not help us to see, the hidden human nature of Christ.
Finally, unclarity about whether women can be ordained priests has the same root, lack of faith in the humanity of Christ, because he took on a male humanity, and therefore the Incarnation is completed precisely through the feminine character of the Church – so much so that St. Thomas, among others, taught that the original unity of Adam and Eve was a sign of the Incarnation that was to come.
Those who serve in persona Christi must be male. The instrumental reason, that to admit women to Holy Orders would “clericalize women” (Querida Amazonia 100), is hardly the basic reason .
It can sometimes seem that we are a long way from the days of an encyclical such as Pius XII’s Humani Generis , or the clarion “man is the way of the Church” in St. Pope John Paul’s Redemptor Hominis .
But separation can be good. The need for faith remains the same, and each Sunday, with homo factus est, the Spirit brings us back to a crucial truth.
*Image: Head of Christ (Christuskopf) by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1645-50 [Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]