Circular Letter: Summer 2002

The Science of the Cross and the Communication of the Holy Spirit

In this is the love, not that we have loved God, but that He has first loved us, and sent His Son a propitiation for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10)

Imitating the Death of Christ

While it is important to learn to live well, it is equally important to learn to die well. St. Paul exclaims: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). In fact, Jesus makes the two inseparable, since to live in His likeness we have to take up the Cross daily and die to ourselves (cf. Lk 9:23-24). Whoever seeks his life will lose it, and whoever loses it will gain eternal life (cf. Jn 12:25).

Christ could have redeemed us by each and every deed of His life here on earth, inasmuch as each of these was infinitely meritorious. Notwithstanding, He chose to redeem us by His death on the Cross, in order to overcome in this way the death of man and so reveal the plenitude of His love. Deeply moved at this, St. Paul exclaims: “The love of Christ impels us, because we have come to the conclusion that, since one died for all, therefore all died and that Christ died for all, in order that they who are alive may live no longer for themselves, but for Him Who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor 5:14-15).

Our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, that is to say, in His grace, comes to us through Baptism: “Do you not know that all we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? For we were buried with Him by means of Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ has arisen from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4; cf.CCC 1227).

Baptism is the source of grace from which issues the entire Christian life (cf. Eph 5:21; 1 Cor 16:15ff.). Baptism is the sacrament of faith, in whose light we come to know Christ (cf. Mk 16:16). In the letter to the Hebrews it is called “enlightenment” (cf. Heb 10:32; cf. CCC 1227). Still, this is only the beginning of the knowledge of Christ in faith. Accordingly, “for all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism” (CCC 1254).

In our striving for a deeper knowledge of Christ, the Holy Spirit assists the faithful with His sevenfold gifts, in order that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith and so that by love we be able to comprehend the surpassing riches of Christ’s love and be filled with the very fullness of God (cf. Eph 3:16-20).

Efficacy of Christ’s Death and Resurrection

In the grace-filled knowledge of our crucified Savior, the gift of Science comes to perfection. St. Paul confesses: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, …in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, …that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8, 9a, 10-11).

Historically, Christ’s death and resurrection were also the prerequisite for the full salvific outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Did not Jesus say at the Last Supper: “If I do not go, the Paraclete will not come to you”(Jn 16:7)? Pope John Paul II observes in this connection: “The Holy Spirit will come insofar as Christ will depart through the Cross: He will come not only afterwards, but because of the Redemption accomplished by Christ” (Dominum et Vivificantem, On the Holy Spirit in the Church and the World = HS 8). “Describing His ‘departure’ as a condition for the ‘coming’ of the Counselor, Christ links the new beginning of God’s salvific self-communication in the Holy Spirit with the mystery of the Redemption” (HS 13; cf. 14; 61).

The question is why Christ’s death and resurrection is such a fitting means for the acquisition of this ultimate gift of the Spirit? Briefly, the answer is because we can share in God’s life only in the measure we have been disposed for it, assimilated to it. The Cross paradoxically assimilates us to the life of God, which is nothing less than infinite love, for “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). This constitutes the life of the Trinity in which we share by grace. Such love is stronger than death. In this sense, Christ’s death on the Cross, beyond offering an infinite satisfaction for sin, is a mystery to which we must be configured in order to enjoy its fruit of eternal life.

To Die out of Love

To die is the lot of all men, and also to rise again. The mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ will bring about the resurrection of all men at the end of the world. Only those who die in Christ’s grace will rise in glory, even as Christ did in the power of the Holy Spirit. In the likeness of Christ, the children of God are called to make of their death a sacrifice of loving surrender. This is the science of dying in Christ. Now, there can be no sacrifice without a gift.

Dying as a sacrifice can only be consummated with the fire of love. In every form of holocaust or complete sacrifice, some life is taken, something is consumed by physical fire as an extrinsic sign of the individual’s devotion and surrender to God. In the case of Christ, the Holy Father writes: “The Holy Spirit as Love and Gift comes down in a certain sense, into the very heart of the sacrifice which is offered on the Cross. Referring here to the biblical tradition, we can say: He consumes this sacrifice with the fire of the love which unites the Son with the Father in the Trinitarian communion. And since the sacrifice of the Cross is an act proper to Christ, also in this sacrifice He ‘receives’ the Holy Spirit. He receives the Holy Spirit in such a way that afterwards He—and He alone— with God the Father can ‘give Him’ to the Apostles, to the Church, to humanity” (HS 41).

The True Nature of Love

By its very nature true love always makes a gift of self to the beloved. In supernatural love, the soul makes a complete gift or oblation of self to the Divine Beloved and begins to live in Him, or in a yet deeper union. Love is sacrificial. As such, the death of Christ, both as willed by the Father and lovingly desired by the Son, is the paradigm of perfect, divine love which we are called not only to imitate but even more, to share in spiritual union with Christ. The reciprocal love in God is the foundation for the very procession of the Holy Spirit; in Him we, too, are loved. The Holy Father teaches: “It can be said that in the Holy Spirit the intimate life of the Triune God becomes total gift, an exchange of mutual love between Divine Persons, and that through the Holy Spirit God exists in the mode of gift. It is the Holy Spirit Who is the personal expression of this self-giving love, of this being-love” (HS 10).

Christ became what we are—mortal man—so that through death, in virtue of His death, we might share in His Divine Sonship and in His glory! A holy death in love is more than a transitory act, it is a state of perpetual oblation that lives on in the Beloved; it shines forever in heaven as a state of glory.

Cross and Trial in the Light of God

Too often we get arrested with a rather static idea of perfection, equating it with a state of rest. Hence trials, crosses and sacrifices are seen, as it were, as obstacles to be overcome and left behind. It is only the few who see crosses and trials from the perspective of glory, as a mystery of transformation in Christ. But do we not have the saying in the Work of the Angels, “Trial is grace!” Spiritual perfection is clearly not a state of inactivity; rather, it is the highest state of all-absorbing activity. It is the state of the most perfect giving and receiving in love towards which we are schooled in trials through the cross. Death is the door to life! Christ assures us: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living One; I died and behold I live for evermore” (Rev 1:17-18). Similarly, St. Paul assures us: “You too have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, your life, shall appear, then you too will appear with Him in glory” (Col 3:3-4).

Revelatory Character of Christ’s Wounds

Upon beholding the Lamb in the Apocalypse, St. John exclaims: “I saw a Lamb, standing as though slain” (5:6). The Church confesses this mystery in the Liturgy, declaring: “Qui immolatus iam non moritur, sed semper vivit occisus!” (Easter preface, III), that is: “He Who was immolated, is now no longer dying, but lives forever as slain.” By interpolation, we can render it: “He Who immolated Himself, is no longer dying, but lives forever this act of immolated love!”

Christ’s glorified wounds give witness to this. This is why He retains them forever in glory. Now, it is important not only to see and worship the adorable wounds of Christ, but also to see and understand them as a revelation of the life of the Trinity. Understanding the revelatory character of Christ’s suffering and wounds will help us imitate Christ in His love. The perfect imitation of Christ requires that we comprehend His interior sentiments, even as St. Paul exhorts: “Let your lives be worthy of the Gospel of Christ, …Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:27; 2:5), namely, His humility and His love for the Father in His will for the Cross. Elsewhere St. Paul claims that we enjoy the mind of Christ precisely by sharing in His Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2:10ff., 16).

Christ’s wounds in glory are more than a mere document of His passion; they are more than mere beatitude for His humanity in glory. The wounds of Christ are the mark and revelation of Who Christ is, of Who the Son is in the Blessed Trinity.

The Hypostatic Union is the greatest possible mystery after the Blessed Trinity. It is likewise absolutely the greatest possible miracle that God could perform. Still, God was not without an encore: The God-Man chose to die and rise from the dead. He also chose to elevate bread and wine, transforming them into Himself, so that by their reception we might be incorporated into His Body, the Church. The passion of our Lord, the Blessed Sacrament, the Church are further unveilings of what is both hidden and revealed in the Incarnation, namely, the purpose of the Father “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10).

“Christ’s Eucharistic presence, His sacramental ‘I am with you’ enables the Church to discover ever more deeply her own mystery as shown by the whole ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, whereby ‘the Church is in Christ as a sacrament or sign and instrument of the intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race’ (Lumen Gentium 1). As a sacrament, the Church is a development from the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s ‘departure’, living by His ever new ‘coming’ by the power of the Holy Spirit, within the same mission of the Paraclete-Spirit of truth” (HS 63).

Christ’s Life, a Revealing Drama

The life of Christ, and even more so, the Paschal Mystery is a drama, offering us a view into the transcendent life of the Trinity. Everything Christ does, God does, because Christ is the very Son of the Father. In this way the perfections of the eternal Godhead are revealed. Whatever, therefore, Christ does in time and as man reveals something about Who the Son is in eternity.

Our word “person” comes from the Latin term “persona”, indicating the mask worn by an actor in an ancient drama which identified and depicted his principal trait. In a similar but vastly superior way, the humanity of Christ depicts, makes visible, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, thus revealing God in a singular manner. Hence, in virtue of the Hypostatic Union it is not only the Son Who becomes visible (although He alone assumes a human nature), but also the Father is revealed by the human Face of Christ. For the Son is the “brightness of [the Father’s] glory, the image of His substance” (Heb 1:3). The Son as Son can only be known in relation to the Father: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9).

The distance between Christ’s two natures, divine and human, is infinite. Still, since they are united in the self-same Divine Person, Christ’s humanity and human actions will always tell us something about Himself (as God) and His eternal Father.

The Twofold Revelation in the Cross

Now the apex of Christ’s life is His passion, death and resurrection. Christ Himself calls it His exaltation, His being lifted on high, with all the beauty and irony possible. It is the supreme act of the Son of God in the flesh, and therefore a decisive moment not only in the work of Redemption, but also in the revelation of God.

1. The Cross reveals Christ as Son of the Father

The Cross of Christ is the supreme revelation of God; it is the high point of the revelation of the Son in two senses. First of all, it reveals fully His personal relation as Son to His Father, for it is there on the Cross that Christ especially demonstrates His love for and submission to the Father: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again…Such is the command I have received from My Father” (Jn 10:17-18). His obedience is an act of pure love, so that “the world may know that I love the Father, and that I do as the Father has commanded Me” (Jn 14:31).

A catechetical text also explains this from the side of the Father: It is in the obedience of Christ that “the mystery of the Cross (theologia crucis) acquires a paradigmatic value. First of all because it reveals the paternity of God. By handing over His Son to death, God manifests Himself to man that He is not impassible and indifferent, but that He is a God of love and mercy” (Your Spirit Lord =YSL, Official Catechetical Text in Preparation for the Holy Year 2000, p.12).

2. Communion with the Father Spirating the Spirit

Secondly, the Cross is not only the high point of Christ’s mission from the Father as the Son, but also the beginning of the Son’s return to the Father, with Whom He is one in breathing forth the Holy Spirit. In His death Christ reveals His communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit and so brings about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church: “If any one thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his (bosom) heart shall flow rivers of living water’. Now He said this about the Spirit, Which those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not yet been given, because Christ had not yet been glorified” (Jn 7:37-39).

In the Blessed Trinity, the procession of the Son does not lead Him outside the bosom of the Father: They are absolutely one in being. All that the Father has is His; therefore His procession from the Father is the foundation for His being one common principle with the Father in the procession of the Holy Spirit (cf. CCC 246). All that is in God is eternal; hence, so too are the divine processions in God co-eternal. To express it in rather temporal-spatial terminology: even as the Son is being generated and proceeding forth from the Father, He is returning back to the Father in an embrace of Love, which is the spiration of the Holy Spirit.

The Theological Commission for the Jubilee 2000 explained: “The Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the pinnacle of the revelation of the divine mercy: it is the gift of the Son to the merciful Father in the embrace of love of the Holy Spirit. It is out of love that the Father sends the Son into the world. It is out of love that Christ offers Himself to the Father for the redemption of sinful humanity…It is out of love that the risen Christ bestows the Holy Spirit on His Church: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…’(Jn 20:22) (God, the Father of Mercy; Official Catechetical Text in Preparation for the Holy Year 2000, p. 53).

The Father had, as it were, extended His hands out over the Son and anointed Him in the Spirit (at the Incarnation, at His Baptism, at the Transfiguration), and the Son stretches out His arms on the Cross to embrace the Father in the Spirit with a love hitherto unknown in the world. Christ is glorified in His return to the Father because this return manifests that He is one with the Father and together with Him the source of the Holy Spirit.

The Communication of the Spirit to Us

In dying Jesus “handed over His Spirit” (Jn 19:30). “Historically” this expression means “to give back to the Father, through death, that vital breath that He had received, but theologically [it] stands for the gift of the Spirit to the believers…Jesus gives now to all believers that same Spirit that He Himself had received from the Father, and gives it in the very act of His redemptive death…” (YSL, p. 44).

The Holy Spirit, the Nard Oil of Sanctification

This truth about the communication of the Holy Spirit through the Cross of Christ is contained for us in the allegorical episode of Christ’s anointing with precious nard oil: “Two days before the Passover…there came a woman with an alabaster jar of ointment, genuine nard of great value, and breaking the alabaster jar, she poured it on His head” (Mk 14:1,3). Some were scandalized at what they considered to be such a squandering of wealth, but Jesus reproved them: “Let her be. Why do you trouble her? She has done Me a good turn. For the poor you have always with you, and whenever you want you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me. She has done what she could; she has anointed My body in preparation for burial. Amen I say to you, wherever in the whole world this Gospel is preached, this also that she has done shall be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:6-9).

The question is: Why would Our Lord draw such attention for all generations to the gesture of this woman? Evidently, this woman’s attentive gesture consoled Our Lord, Who saw the deed immediately in the context of His imminent passion and death. But this anointing is commemorated for its link to the Holy Spirit. “Jesus is Christ, ‘anointed’, because the Spirit is His anointing, and everything that occurs from the Incarnation on derives from this fullness (cf. Jn 3:34). When Christ is finally glorified [through the cross and resurrection] He can in turn send the Spirit from His place with the Father to those who believe in Him: He communicates them His glory (cf. Jn 17:22), that is, the Holy Spirit, Who glorifies Him” (CCC 690).

The alabaster vessel itself is an image of Christ, the Anointed One. Alabaster, as you know, is a translucent gypsum, through which shines in a certain degree the radiance and promise of the Holy Spirit, yet sealed in Christ’s humanity. The precious nard oil represents the Holy Spirit. During Jesus’ hidden and public life, the Holy Spirit is, as it were, a personal gift of the Father to Jesus, which could not yet be poured out over His disciples. “The New Testament gives particular evidence to two fundamental moments of the relationship between the Spirit and Christ: a) before Easter the Spirit is given to Christ; b) after His death and resurrection it is Jesus Who gives the Spirit” (YSL 41-42).

Normally speaking, one would open an alabaster vessel to pour out the precious nard oil; but in this case, Mary broke the vessel in a prophetic sign of Christ’s being broken in death. In the divine plan, the Holy Spirit (nard oil) could only be poured out by breaking the vessel (Christ’s body). “Did the Christ not have to suffer all these things in order to enter into His glory?” (Lk 24:26).

St. John adds the significant detail: “The house was filled with the odor of the ointment!” (Jn 12:3ff.). Initially the perfume was restricted to or sealed in the vessel of Christ’s body, but when it—the vessel of His body—had been broken in death, the unction of the Holy Spirit filled the whole room, namely the Church, His Mystical Body! Thus He explained: “I speak the truth to you: It is expedient for you that I depart. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (Jn 16:7).

Final Application

The pentecostal mission of the Holy Spirit in wind and flame (cf. Acts 2:2-4) is also—biblically and theologically speaking—accompanied by a corresponding intensification of the mission of the Angels. “Of the Angels indeed He says, ‘He makes His Angels spirits [winds] and His ministers flames of fire’” (Heb 1:7). May the fact that this spiritual outpouring is an effect of Christ’s departing and going to the Father through His holy death be for us in the Work of the Holy Angels a light of understanding and encouragement; to wit, that through our weekly commemoration of His passion we be more disposed for the outpouring of His Spirit in our hearts and for a more efficacious union and collaboration with the Holy Angels.

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

The texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission.

©2021 Opus Sanctorum Angelorum Inc.