Christ, Primate

Anthony Zimmerman
December 1989
Reproduced with Permission

Martin Luther taught that a baptized person remains a sinner, but Christ's justice is imputed to him as a coverup. Trent, in 1546, identified the novelty and refuted it.

If anyone denies that the guilt of Original Sin is remitted by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ given in baptism, or asserts that all that is sin in the true and proper sense is not taken away but only brushed over or not imputed, anathema sit.1

Perhaps some of the early Protestant thinking is resurfacing in our Catholic churches today, when the entire congregation lines up to receive Holy Communion, whereas the once upon-a-time lines to the confessional are mostly memories of the past.

Lifestyles accepted

By confessing our sins we used to make a resolution to reform our lives; and with the help of God's grace, we truly did so. Today, however, so large a part of the community has become habituated to modern sinful lifestyles that we almost imagine it to be an impossible ideal to live in accordance with the Commandments.

We have accepted lifestyles of contraception-abortion-sterilization, of divorce-and-remarriage, of extramarital and pre-marital sex, of homosexual indulgence, of drug abuse and alcoholism. Without changing or intending to change the lifestyles, the community marches to receive Holy Communion in a kind of lock-step solidarity.

Are we thinking again, like the early Protestants, that faith in Christ should cover over the incurable sinner who lives underneath, unrepentant and unwilling to repent?

On the other hand, we know that Christ is not about to change His ways today, just as He did not change in the 16th century. Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He must continue to be our Primate, who calls for conversion, who forgives, who infuses new life.

To forgive, He offers himself as a sin-offering; to renew our lives, He gives us His Spirit.

We see everywhere in the Scriptures that God associates, a sin-offering with forgiveness. The prophets present God as being so angry at sin that He must first be appeased, and the sinner must be converted, before He will forgive. He destroys cities when they become hopelessly decadent.

God spoke plainly to Ezekiel, for example, about the coming disaster of Jerusalem; the city did not repent; and so God carried out His threat.

The Lord spoke to me. "Mortal man," he said, "tremble when you eat, and shake when you drink. Tell the whole nation that this is the message of the Sovereign Lord to the people of Jerusalem who are still living in their land. They will tremble when they eat and shake with fear when they drink. Their land will be stripped bare, because everyone who lives there is lawless. Cities that are now full of people will be destroyed, and the country will be made a wilderness. Then they will know that I am the Lord."2

God was especially angry because the sinning did not stop with the lay people; even God's appointed priests were involved:

No, they must come and do them right here in the Temple and make me even more angry. Look how they insult me in the most offensive way possible. They will feel all the force of my anger. I will not spare them or show them any mercy. They will shout prayers to me as loud as they can, but I will not listen to them.3

Jerusalem had become hopeless when its priests also became corrupt.God vented His anger by bringing up the army of Babylon who sacked the city, killed ruthlessly those who had not starved, and dragged a remnant into exile, who would eventually convert.

Darkest moment

Christ became the sin-offering, as the Prophet Isaiah foreshadowed, upon whom God vented His fierce anger until it was appeased. For us, Christ vicariously became the sinful Jerusalem upon whom God visited His anger against sin:

But he endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne. All the while we thought that his suffering was punishment sent by God. But because of our sins he was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did.4

The darkest moment of Christ's human experience elicited from Him the soul-wrenching cry from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"5

Pope John Paul II comments:

This term 'God' of Psalm 21 (22) is used, in the first cry, as an invocation which can signify the dismay of a man in his own nothingness before the experience of abandonment on the part of God, considered in his transcendence and almost experienced in a state of 'separation' (the 'Holy One,' the Eternal, the Immutable).6

Christ, in His human experience, felt that He was the target of God's anger against sin and sinners; for them He was offering himself vicariously.7 When He had completed this task, only then was He ready for the next task, namely to also re-create the sinner. Pope John Paul II, in profound words, describes the transition in Christ, from being victim to becoming victor:

Moreover, in the first cry Jesus also asks God the question "why," certainly with profound respect for his will, for his power and infinite greatness, but without concealing a sense of human dismay which such a death must certainly arouse. Now, instead, in the second cry, there is the expression of trusting abandonment in the arms of the wise and kind Father who disposes and upholds everything with love. There was a moment of desolation when Jesus felt without support and defense on the part of everyone, even of God -- a dreadful moment; but it was soon overcome, by entrusting himself into the hands of' the Father, whose loving and immediate presence Jesus realizes in the depths of his being, since he is in the Father as the Father is in him, even on the Cross!

Thus, after all the agonies of physical and moral sufferings, Jesus embraces death as an entrance into the immutable peace of the "Father's bosom" to which His whole life had been ordered.8

Cosmos High Priest

Christ brought His sacrifice to completion when He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, there to present himself to the Father.

Then did He offer the solemn sacrifice, when in heaven He showed himself to the eternal Father in His glorified body?9

He brought to heaven the worship and adoration of the cosmos, embodied in His sacrifice. In Christ the cosmos expresses its creaturehood, its dependency, its gratitude, its joy, its obedience.

Scheeben explains:

. . . His resurrection and ascension actually achieved in mystically real fashion what is symbolized in the burning of animals by the burning of the victim's flesh.... The resurrection and glorification were the very acts by which the Victim passed into the real and permanent possession of God. The fire of the Godhead which resuscitated the slain Lamb and, after consuming its mortality, laid hold of it and transformed it, caused it to ascend to God in lovely fragrance as a holocaust, there to make it, as it were, dissolve and merge into God."10

With His death, then, Christ appeased God's anger against sin, and the way is cleared for our re-creation.

For this reason Christ is the one who arranges a new covenant, so that those who have been called by God may receive the eternal blessings that God has promised. This can be done because there has been a death which sets people free from the wrongs they did while the first covenant was in effect.11

As God promised the exiled Jews through Ezekiel:

I will give them anew heart and a new mind. I will take away their stubborn heart of stone and will give them an obedient heart. Then they will keep my laws and faithfully obey all my commands.12

Christ had kept God's laws under extremely difficult circumstances. The same Christ can now empower His followers to do the same. No need for whitewash because everyone can now become real, can become genuine persons, adopted children of God, whose behavior is like that of Christ, worthy of heaven.

This second aspect of the redemption, the divinization of humans, is the constructive activity of our Primate, made possible after He had cleared away the obstacles of sin. This constructive activity, according to the Scotist concept, was in the mind of God prior to any consideration of Original Sin.

Redemption vs. divinization

St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) gave the classic explanation in Cur Deus Homowhy Christ, to satisfy God's justice and to save us, became Incarnate and then died for our sins.

Sin is a "quasi-infinite offense against God. Humans alone, since they are finite, cannot make adequate satisfaction: God cannot make satisfaction to himself because that would be pure fiction. Therefore the God-man is necessary. His actions are of infinite value, acts of the Son of God, performed by the Man-God in His human nature.13

St. Anselm's explanation is too narrow, thinks Pancheri among others. The Greek Fathers speak not only about the forgiveness of sins, they speak even more about the positive divinization which Christ imparts to us by the gift of adoption:

The gravest defect of the Anselmian perspective is the total neglect of the value of the Incarnation as a mystery of universal divinization, according to the admirable teaching of the Greek Fathers. Latin iuridicism, already present in Tertullian and St. Augustine, acquires in Anselm an absolute importance and is colored by Germanic justice, according to which an offended nobleman "had" to demand an adequate satisfaction, not from just anybody, but from one of his peers. Indeed, in the Anselmian thought, redemption appears situated within a cold, abstract sphere of debit and credit, within a rigid scheme of "injured honor," and "adequate satisfaction." We seem to be dealing here with a mechanical world of moral-juridical values, all personal intimacy seems to have vanished."14

The theory of Anselm leaves too much unsaid, continues Pancheri. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. c. 386), who articulates the vast tradition of the Greek Fathers, speaks of Christ not only as Redeemer, but as "the beginning of God's ways" and the "foundation of every created reality."15

In other words - we labor with steps of human logic here - before God made the decision, so meaningful to us, to create the universe, He focused His attention first of all upon the God-Man. Christ, in this perspective, is the beginning, the center, the focal point of the universe.

Grace of Christ

It would become the task of this Christ to divinize humans, to raise them to the dignity of adopted sons of God. The forgiveness of sins, then, is only part one of the package-decree.

Part two, the positive part, is the divine work by which Christ divinizes the redeemed; He is for us "the way, the truth, and the life."16 "It is through Christ that all of us, Jews and Gentiles, are able to come to the one Spirit into the presence of the Father."17

All this implies that the Incarnation is not an afterthought to Adam's sin at all; God's plan for the cosmos began first and foremost with Christ as Primate. If that is true, then Adam's original state of holiness and justice is already a gift of Christ.

The grace of Adam's forgiveness18 is, then, also the grace of Christ. And we know that the spiritual rock which went with the Jews in their wanderings in the desert, and from which they drank "was Christ himself."19 The one who elevated Mary to the state of original grace is, again, Christ.

On Holy Saturday we solemnly recognize the~ Primacy of Christ in the universe by enthroning Him ritually through the Easter Candle:

Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha, and Omega, all time belongs to him, and all the ages, to him be glory and power, through every age for ever. Amen.

At any rate, Adam did sin, and so sin entered the world into which Christ eventually came. To blot out the darkness of sin, Christ must first become the Easter Candle, the new source of light. From that candle, lit and in place, we, in turn, can become children of light.

Unless there is conversion, sin cannot be forgiven. Sin cannot be annihilated in the simplistic manner in which Montezurna sought to annihilate bad news. Montezuma would strangle messengers who reported bad news, hoping to destroy the news by killing its bearer.20

Just as Montezuma could not kill facts, so the death of Christ alone does not kill sin, unless there is repentance. To destroy our sins, Christ must help us to turn away from them by lighting His Easter Candle in us.

To be wise, you must have reverence for the Lord. To understand, you must turn from evil.21

Only Christ can give us the grace to turn to God as His adopted children.

I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.22

Blessed Duns Scotus (d. 1308) presents Christ as not only the center of the creature's reditus in Deum after sin, but also as the gate of our original exitus a Deo,of election in Christ. As Scotus puts it succinctly:

God first loves himself; secondly, He loves himself for others, and this is an ordered love; thirdly, He wishes to be loved by one who can love Him in the highest way - speaking of the love of someone extrinsic to Him; and fourthly, He foresees the union of that nature which must love Him with the greatest love even if no one had fallen.23

God's ordinate love, then, meant that Christ should love Him from the outside, from the world of creaturehood. And all the rest of creaturehood would be oriented to God by none other than this Primate. As Paul exulted to the Ephesians:

Let us give thanks to the God and Fatherof our Lord Jesus Christ! For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing, in the heavenly world. Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him.

Becauseof his love God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his sons - such was his pleasure and purpose.24

We know that an act of loving God is just that: an ACT. It is not a passive drifting, it is not like a wave of the sea which is pushed up by pressure on one side and releases the pressure on the other. To love God requires a creative exertion, a movement from inertia to a positive labor of love.

Not a free gift

But if Christ is to capacitate us to love God, then it is fitting that He should first consecrate himself to complete love for God. Thereafter He can give to others what He has already made His own.

In other words, before He orients us to God through the gift of grace, it is fitting that He should sanctify himself completely as a holocaust:

And for their sake I dedicate myself to you, in order that they, too, may be truly dedicated to you.25

By himself hanging on the cross and offering His life to God there, Christ personally merited the title to impart to us the grace to likewise love God under all circumstances. His Primacy is not merely a free gift donated by God; that great title is the reward of a personal conquest. He gave all He had, "He loved to the very end,"26 until His work was complete; until He could drink the wine and say, "It is finished!"

27  [Back]

He had completed the task which made Him Primate in His own right.

Having first tasted the challenge of the combat himself, Christ can now impart grace to us by which we likewise succeed in combat.

And now he can help those who are tempted, because he himself was tempted and suffered.28

He can support the hesitant beginnings of virtue in us, can firm up our first tottering steps away from sin. To the lost sheep He can radiate calmness to avoid panic at the approach of the Good Shepherd.29 To the woman who lost a coin, He can give the grace to search diligently until she finds it.30 To the prodigal son He can give the creative impetus of conversion: "I will get up and go to my father."31

Today, Christ calms the modern lost sheep for whom He does not cease to search: He hoists to His shoulders distraught women numbed by a post-abortion syndrome; He pours oil and wine into the wounds of families traumatized by divorce; He beckons practicing homosexuals to arise and return to the house of their Father; He assists couples to give up the vicious practice of contraception and to adopt the peace of natural family planning.

He assists bishops' conferences to make necessary corrections to earlier uncertainties about Humanae Vitae (the Austrian bishops corrected their 1968 statement March 29, 1988). He helps couples who are sterilized for contraceptive purposes to amend their ways by real repentance. He can slow down the stampede of Marxist liberation theologians and redirect them into His fold.

He beckons to those lost in the man-made jungles of atheism, to those enticed by satanic rituals, to women peering into windows of a pseudo-church, to those laboring in hostile religious and political structures.

Christ measures realistically the enormous help we need to reverse our course, to rise after a fall, to take another step under a burdensome cross.

Having become genuine as Primate through suffering, Christ can now assist each and all to become genuine persons in their respective vocations.

To the confessor He can supply the strength not to be a "good Joe" but to say to the penitent: "This is the Word of the Lord!"To the dejected AIDS patient, He can give comfort:

Can a woman forget her own baby and not love the child she bore? Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you.... I can never forget you! I have written your name on the palmsof my hands.32

To the woman caught in adultery, Christ can become a Savior, saying:

Where are they [the accusers]?Is there no one left to condemn you? Well, then, I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.33

Because He knows formidable challenges from personal experience, He also knows how to strengthen us when the going is almost desperate.

"The greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them,"34 Christ said to His apostles. And the greatest love a person can have for God, is to give his life to God.

Secret plan

Christ, in order to complete His theandric love for God, laid down His life, thus exercising that love to full capacity. Had He not done so, He would have clouded the essence of His function as Primate, which is to head the universe in its orientation toward God.

His resurrection and glorification are one continuous completion of the love ignited on the cross.

Christ died, then, to save us from our sins, as we all know. But over and above this, He died in orderto fulfill in himself His personal mission as Primate of the cosmos; that Primate who enriches us with that which is His own; who resonates in himself the symphony of the universe which offers itself to God in Him.

The Christ who suffered thus, who consumed His total energies in fueling His love for God, was Christ at His best, was our Primate functioning at peak performance. Now He can give the universe the energies to go and do likewise, namely to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind" and to "love your neighbor as you love yourself."35

Yes, Christ died for our sins, but we may believe with Scotus and many theologians that even had sin never been committed, God intended from the beginning to carry out "the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ."36

Christ should first complete in himself the fullness of the love of God, and then impart to His followers a portion of this fullness into which He had grown.

How, you ask, would Christ have perfected His love on earth, had Original Sin never been committed? Certainly, Christ would not have been crucified by those who hated Him because without Original Sin there would be no rejection of Christ, no hatred of Him.

Nevertheless, Christ could have passed from a condition of mortal life to a life of immortality, from a passible condition to one of glory, as after the resurrection. Such a passage, too, would have given some witness to the absolute nature of God as opposed to the contingent nature of the universe.

Christ could have made this passage to come about, for example, in the manner by which He transformed himself on Tabor. Because mortals cannot see God and continue their mortal life, Christ would enter into His immortal state by removing the block which prevented, until then, the glory of the beatific vision from invading His sense life. By removing the block, glory would flood the senses and spiritualize them, in the same way Christ was glorified by the resurrection.

But such a Christ, we might say, would seem to us to be "less developed" and less convincing than the Christ who first allowed himself to be crucified, then arose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

Sharing Christ's joy

We see, then, the irony of the complete and final frustration of the devil's designs against Christ: The sins of humans and the hatred of the devil were consumed as fuel to strengthen and perfect Christ's's love, to heighten His victory, and to manifest His glory.

Certainly we were not a comfort to Christ when we sinned and occasioned His sufferings. But Christ turned all that into a priceless triumph of love, and tucked it into the folds of the ineffable goodness in which God envelopes the universe.

And the good news is the fact that our own sins are no longer an obstacle to glory; to the utter frustration of the devil, Christ helps us sinners to become like himself, victors over sin. "0 felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!" the Church sings in her joy on Holy Saturday, knowing that His victory can be ours too.

The Church shares the joy of Christ that precisely through the cross He was able to glorify God most completely, and to fulfill himself as our Primate most perfectly.


* Bible quotations are from The New Catholic Study Bible, St. Jerome Edition, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

1 Denzinger-Schoenmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Herder, 1967. p. 1515; Neuner, S.J., Dupuis, S.J., The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, Alba house, 1982. p. 512. [Back]

2 Ez 12:17-20. [Back]

3 Ibid., 8:17b-18. [Back]

4 Is. 53:4-5 [Back]

5 Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46. [Back]

6 General Audience, Dec. 7, 1988. [Back]

7 Jn 10:38; 14: 10 ff. [Back]

8 Ibid. [Back]

9 See PL, LXXIX, 42, a gem which is falsely attributed to St. Gregory the Great; Scheeben, Matthias Joseph, The Mysteries of' Christianity, trans. by Vollert, S.J. Herder, 1946. p. 436. [Back]

10 Scheeben, p. 436. [Back]

11 Heb 9:15. [Back]

12 Ez 11:19-20. [Back]

13 Cf. Pancheri-Carol: Francis Xavier Pancheri, 0. F. M., The Universal Primacy of Christ, trans. by Juniper B. Carol, O.F.M. Christendom Publications, 1984. p. 15- 16. [Back]

14 Ibid., pp. 16-17. [Back]

15 Ibid. p. 17. [Back]

16 Jn 14:6. [Back]

17 Eph 2:18. [Back]

18 Implied in Gn cf. e.g. 3:2 1; 4: 1; 5:25. [Back]

19 1 Cor 10:4. [Back]

20 Collis, Maurice, Cortes and Montezuma, a Discus Book, published by Avon Books, 1978. p. 57. [Back]

21 Job 28:28. [Back]

22 Jn 15:5. [Back]

23 Scotus, Duns, Opus, Par. III, d.7, q.4; see Pancheri 37. [Back]

24 Eph 1:3-5. [Back]

25 Jn 17:19. [Back]

26 Cf. Jn 13: 1. [Back]

27 Jn 19:30. [Back]

28 Heb 2:18. [Back]

29 Cf. Lk 15:5. [Back]

30 Cf. Lk 15:8. [Back]

31 Lk 15:18. [Back]

32 Is 49:15-16. [Back]

33 See Jn 8: 10-11. [Back]

34 Jn 15:13. [Back]

35 Lk 10:27. [Back]

36 Eph 1:9. [Back]