ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson

Part II
Christ in the Exterior


Christ in the Eucharist

I am the Bread of Life. -- JOHN vi: 35.

UP to the present we have considered the Interior Friendship of Christ with the soul, -- a Friendship, it must be remembered, that is open not to Catholics only, but to all who know the Name of Jesus, and indeed, in a sense, to every human being. For our Lord is the "light that enlighteneth every man,"{1} it is His Voice that speaks through conscience, however faulty that instrument may be; it is He, since He is the Only Absolute, who is the dim Ideal Figure discerned standing in the gloom of all hearts who desire Him; it is He whom Marcus Aurelius and Gautama and Confucius and Mahomet, with all their sincere disciples, so far as they were true to themselves, desired, even though they never heard His historical Name of Jesus, or, having heard it, rejected Him, so far as that rejection was without their own fault.

This, then, is the explanation of Non-Catholic, and even of Non-Christian, piety. It would be terrible if it were not so; for in that case we could not claim that our Saviour could be, in any real sense, the Saviour of the world. But that Christ whom we Catholics know to be incarnate and to have lived the Life recorded of Him in the Gospels, has always lived an interior life in the human heart. An old Hindu, it is related, after hearing one sermon on the Life of Christ, begged for baptism. "But how can you ask for it so soon?" inquired the preacher. "Have you ever heard the Name of Jesus before to-day?" "No," said the old man, "but I have known Him and have been seeking Him all my life long." It was partly in order to convince men of the true nature of sins against conscience -- men who "knew not what they did" -- that Christ was incarnate and suffered the death of the Cross. "This," He says in effect, "is what you have done to Me interiorly, all your lives."

We pass now to consider another avenue along which Christ approaches us and seeks our friendship; another mode, and, indeed, other gifts which He conveys to us. It is not enough to know Christ in one manner only: we are bound, if we desire to know Him on His own terms and not on ours, to recognize Him under every form which He chooses to use. It is not enough to say, "Interiorly He is my Friend, therefore I need nothing else." It is not loyal friendship to repudiate, for example, the Church or the Sacraments as unnecessary, without first inquiring whether or no He has instituted these things as ways through which He designs to approach us. And, particularly, we must remember, in the Blessed Sacrament He actually conveys to us gifts which we cannot otherwise claim. He brings near to us, and unites to us, not only His Divinity, but that same dear and adorable Human Nature which He assumed on earth for this very purpose.

As we look back over history, the first thought that occurs to us with regard to the Blessed Sacrament is that of the Majesty in which Christ has manifested Himself -- how He has used His Sacramental Presence, that is to say, to assert openly and vividly His Royal Sovereignty in this world. Those who have seen earthly monarchs following, bareheaded, Jesus Christ in the Eucharist; those who were present, even in our own day, at those tremendous scenes when, in London, for example, Christ blessed His people from the balcony of the Catholic Cathedral, or in Montreal was lifted up in the open air for the adoration of a hundred thousand persons; those who have ever witnessed, even on the smallest scale, perhaps in some Italian village, a procession of Corpus Christi, have seen the outward emblems not only due to Divinity, but to an earthly sovereignty, openly displayed, cannot help marvelling at the manner in which, under His own guidance, that Sacrament which was instituted under the poorest possible outward conditions, in a mean little upper room, before the eyes of a few uneducated men, has come to be the means by which not only His humility and condescension, but His inherent Majesty, is made visible to the world, whether for that world's adoration or its hostility.

This, however, is not our subject. We are thinking rather of the amazing manner in which Christ in His Sacrament approaches us along our own level of matter and sense; and, in terms that are unmistakable by those who approach Him in simplicity, offers us His Friendship.

I. Explicit devotion to the Dweller in the Tabernacle is, as we know, of comparatively late development. Yet it is a development as inevitably certain, and therefore as Divinely intended, as the earthly splendour which has gradually gathered round that Sacrament, and as the dogmatic conclusions which, though not explicitly worked out in the earliest centuries, are yet irrefutably contained in Christ's own words and were present implicitly to the minds of His earliest friends. In fact in this, as in many other points, the Eucharistic Life of Jesus offers a marvelously suggestive parallel to His Natural Life lived on earth. He who was all Wisdom and all Power "advanced in wisdom and age"{2} gradually manifested, that is, the characteristics of Divinity -- Life and Knowledge -- inherently present in His Personality at the beginning. He who worked in the Carpenter's shop was, for all that, God from the beginning. So in His Eucharistic Life. That Sacrament, of which the whole elaborate Catholic doctrine of to-day, has been always true, gradually increased Its own expression, gradually unfolded that which It had always been.

Jesus Christ, then, dwells in our tabernacles to-day as surely as He dwelt in Nazareth, and in the very same Human Nature; and He dwells there, largely, for this very purpose -- that He may make Himself accessible to all who know Him interiorly and desire to know Him more perfectly.

It is this Presence which causes that astounding difference of atmosphere, confessed even by Non-Catholics, between Catholic churches and all others. So marked is this difference that a thousand explanations have to be framed to account for it. It is the suggestiveness of the single point of light burning there! It is the preternatural artistic skill with which the churches are ordered! It is the smell of ancient incense! It is anything and everything except that which we Catholics know it to be -- the actual bodily Presence of the Fairest of the children of men, drawing His friends to Himself! Before this strange Presence the bride of yesterday presents the new life now opening before her; the dead man of to-morrow offers the life that is past. The mourners and the happy, the philosopher and the fool, the old man and the child -- persons of every temperament, every range of intellect, every nationality -- all these unite in that which alone can unite them -- the Friendship of the Lover of their souls. Could there be anything more characteristic of the Jesus of the Gospels than this accessibility of His -- by which He stands waiting for all who desire to come to Him -- this undiscriminating tenderness to those, not one of whom will He cast out? Could there be anything more characteristic of the Christ Who dwells in the heart, than that He Who is so simple interiorly, Who lies patiently within the chamber of the soul, should lie also in the realm without, desiring us to acknowledge Him not only in ourselves, but outside ourselves; not only in interior consciousness, but also, in a sense, in that very realm of space and time which so often seems to obscure His Presence in the world?

It is in this manner, then, that He fulfils that essential of true Friendship, which we call Humility. He places Himself at the mercy of the world whom He desires to win for Himself. He offers Himself there in a poorer disguise even than "in the days of His Flesh,"{3} yet, by the faith and teaching of His Church, by the ceremonies with which she greets His Presence, and by the recognition by His friends, He indicates to those who long to recognize Him and who love Him, and (though they may not know it), that it is He Himself Who is there, the Desire of all nations and the Lover of every soul.

II. Yet He does not enter the Tabernacle direct. He first becomes present on the altar, at the word of His priest, in the form of a Victim. In the Sacrifice of the Mass He presents Himself before the world, as well as before the eyes of the Eternal Father, in the same significance as that in which He hung upon the Cross, performing the same act which He did once for all, the same act by which He displayed that passion of friendship in whose name He claims our hearts, the climax of that Greatest Love of all by which He "laid down His Life for His friends."{4}

This is, of course, an unthinkable conception to those who know little or nothing of the Living Jesus -- whose whole knowledge of Him lies (as they openly admit) within the covers of a printed book. To such as these the Sacrifice is finished and closed in the same manner in which a book itself can be finished, closed and done with -- living only, hereafter, in the effect of its energy. Even to those who know more of Jesus than this -- who recognize Him as living a real interior life within their own hearts -- even to men of real inward spirituality, the doctrine of the continual Sacrifice of the Mass sometimes seems derogatory to the Perfection of Calvary. Yet to the Catholic who enjoys the friendship of Christ, this Sacrifice follows -- I might almost say inevitably -- from his knowledge of Jesus as "yesterday and to-day and the same for ever."{5} To him, that "finishing" on the Cross is a new beginning. It is that first supreme and inaugural act in which all sacrifices are summed up, and which, in its turn, projects itself into all the future presentations of itself; in such a sense that Christ remains always that which He was on Calvary, the Eternal Victim of this and every altar, through Whom alone we "have access . . . to the Father."{6}

The Tabernacle, then, presents Christ to us as Friend; the altar presents Him performing before our eyes that eternal act by which He wins in His Humanity the right to demand our friendship.

III. And yet there is one last step of humiliation, even deeper, down which He comes to us -- that step by which our Victim and our Friend descends to be our Food. For, so great is His Love to us that it is not enough for Him to remain as an object of adoration, not enough for Him to lie there as our sin-bearer -- not enough, above all, for Him to dwell within our souls in an interior friendship in a mode apprehensible only to illuminated eyes. But, in Communion, He hurries down that very stairway of sense up which we so often seek to climb in vain. While we are "yet a great way off"{7} He runs to meet us; and there, flinging aside those poor signs of royalty with which we strive to honour Him, leaving there the embroidery and the flowers and the lights, He not merely unites Himself to us, Soul to soul, in the intimacy of prayer, but Body to body in the sensible form of His Sacramental Life. . .

This, then, is the last and greatest sign that He could give, in this manner. This is, after all, what Jesus must do. He who sat at meat with the sinners gives Himself to be their meat. He at Whose table we desire to stand as servants comes forth Himself to serve us. He Who lives secretly within the heart, yet Who was Incarnate before men's eyes, once more repeats that crowning act of love and presents Himself under visible appearances to those eyes that desire to see Him. If Humility is the essential of friendship, here, surely, is the Supreme Friend. And those who do not "know Him in the breaking of bread,"{8} however great may be their interior knowledge of Him, cannot know one tithe of His perfections. If He merely lived in Heaven, in His Human Nature at the right hand of the Majesty on high, He would not be the Christ of the Gospels. If He merely lived in His Divine Nature in the hearts of those who received Him and made Him welcome, He would not be the Christ of Capharnaum and Jerusalem. But that He, the Creator of the world, Who made Himself once to be in the form of a creature; that He, Who, dwelling in inaccessible light, descended to our lower darkness -- that this God of ours, Who so passionately desired the friendship of the sons of men as to make Himself in their image and likeness -- that Jesus Christ, of the Gospel and the inner life, Who, "rising again from the dead, dieth now no more,"{9} Who has taken up our Human Nature to that glory from which that same Human Nature once brought Him down -- that He Who is above all laws should use those laws to His own purposes, and present Himself not once but ten thousand times as our Victim, not once but ten thousand times as our Food, and not once and no more, but eternally and unchangeably, our Friend -- this is indeed the Jesus Whom we have known in the Gospels and in our own hearts -- our Friend by every right and every claim.

Learn, then, something of His own Humility before the Sacrament which is Himself. As He strips from Himself that glory which is His, we must strip from ourselves the pride to which we have no right -- every rag and shred of that complacency and self-centredness that are the greatest of all obstacles to the designs of His Love. We must humble ourselves in the very dust before those Divine and gracious Feet, which, not only in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, but to-day and in these cities in which we live, travel so far to seek and save our souls.

{1} John i: 9.

{2} Luke ii: 52.

{3} Heb. v: 7.

{4} John xv: 13.

{5} Heb. xiii: 8.

{6} Eph.ii: 18.

{7} Luke xv: 20.

{8} Luke xxiv: 35.

{9} Rom. vi: 9.

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