The Divinity of Christ – An Argument: Chapter IV

cover of the ebook 'The Divinity of Christ: An Argument', by Bishop Louis-Victor-Emile BougaudThe perfect holiness of Jesus Christ – The spotless and absolute perfection of His life

These last words lead us to consider a new feature, the most beautiful perhaps in the physiognomy of Jesus Christ. I mean His perfect sanctity, the spotless and absolute perfection of His life in the midst of a world filled with sins and uncleanness. We have already contemplated His mind, His heart, His will. His actions: let us go one step beyond, let us look into His conscience.

Pascal, after contemplating it, was as it were dazzled, and wrote these words of sublime incoherence: “Jesus Christ was gentle, patient, thrice holy in the sight of God, terrible to demons, sinless.”

This, in fact, is the divine feature, and all that we have hitherto considered fades in presence of the sanctity of Jesus Christ.

But that which strikes me most in this unique sanctity is, not the marvelous efflorescence of all the virtues, each attaining its ideal in a harmonious group: – No, there is something more delicate and more human that I seek in Him, and that I do not find. I seek regret for sin, the sad remembrance of former faults, and also the holy tears of repentance, the firm resolutions of amendment – all this divine side of the soul and of the human conscience. This is what I look for, and what I do not find.

Strange! I find in Him the highest summits of perfection: I do not find that on which it rests. What does this mean? Who will explain to me this mystery?

Saint John declared, “If any say he has no sin, he deceives himself, and the truth is not in him.” Saint Paul called himself “the chief of sinners, a man sold to sin, and in whom dwelt no good thing.” M. de Maistre said, “I do not know what the heart of a villain is like. I only know that of an upright man, and it is frightful.” Every sound conscience must use this language. Picture to yourself a saint, let him be the greatest saint, put these words on his lips, “I am holy, there is no sin in me;” at once he falls from his pedestal, and the conscience of man turns against him in anger, and strips him of his crown. Man may be proud that he can no more realize his dream of holiness than he can his other dreams; that he stops powerless before his ideal of good, as before his ideal of beauty; and whether he spreads a masterpiece on his canvas, or whether his noble heart in self-sacrifice begets some heroic act, dissatisfied with himself he will say sorrowfully, I shall never reach it.

Yet there is one exception. There is a man who once said, I am holy; a man who said, “Which of you shall convince me of sin?” There is a man, the humblest, the purest, the most clear-sighted of all, who said, “Be ye holy, as I am holy;” and yet this strange affirmation, repeated twenty times, has detracted nothing from the glory that encircles Him. And not only throughout his entire life is there not a single moment of hesitation visible in the calm assertion of His absolute perfection, but this man who has ever the liveliest perception of sin, who has a thirst for the conversion of the whole human race, who passes His life in calling all men to repentance, who, while touching the eyes of the blind, and the limbs of the paralyzed, seems to be moved by their sins alone: “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven you. Go, sin no more!” This man, I say, never betrays the faintest suspicion that He Himself may stand in need of pardon. Never does He strike His breast, never does He shed one single tear of repentance, neither at the Garden of Olives, nor at Golgotha: never does He regret a single thought, nor a single act. He says to His disciples, “You, when you pray, shall say, ‘Our Father who art in heaven, forgive us our trespasses.'” He Himself never prays thus. Man like us, acting like a man, living, suffering, dying like a man: I will say more, tempted like a man, surrounded with sin, having the most intense horror of it, thirsting for the salvation of the whole human race; never do we see Him concerned about His own salvation. He has a pure and spotless conscience; a conscience of sublime peace and serenity, never clouded by a shadow of regret, or remorse, or fear, and the pure breath from His bosom, the ineffable brightness of His glance, the divine calm of His soul, seem to say ever, “Holy, holy, holy: innocent, separated from sinners.”

This conviction that Jesus had of the perfect and absolute purity of His soul, all His contemporaries have also, even those who are the nearest to Him. Or rather, the more familiarly they live with Him, the more intense and boundless becomes their admiration. From the first they were struck with an instantaneous conviction of the perfection of their Master, and that conviction gained strength every day. They are prostrate at His feet, and thither they drag the world with them. Not that their enthusiasm finds vent in praises, in words of admiration for His virtues: this does not enter into their minds. They relate humbly, simply, without phrases, without commentary, what they have seen. But what they have seen is of such an order that, on reading the Gospel, the words of Pascal in their searching power rise involuntarily to the mind: “Jesus Christ was humble, patient, thrice holy in the sight of God, sinless.”

Even His enemies shared this impression. Recognizing with the unerring instinct of hatred that no fault was compatible with the part He had assigned Himself, they are always watching Him, and laying snares for Him. As a traveler belated on a winter’s night is followed by a troop of wolves, if He make a false step He is lost: thus Jesus passed His life, surrounded by Pharisees who seek to surprise Him in an imperfect or culpable act or word, and the proof that they could not succeed is, that in the end they have recourse to violence. He, always pure and gentle, always calm, beaming with inward peace, only replies to all their stratagems by this word of sovereign holiness: “Which of you convinces me of sin?” None had said it before Him, and none has dared to say it since.

And He does not address this challenge only to His enemies in Jerusalem: He addresses it to mankind in all countries, in all ages. He has made His Church to rest on this word. This is its foundation of granite. Its corner-stone is the diamond of the spotless purity of Jesus. Suppose, indeed, that a deception or a sin were to he discovered in the life of Jesus Christ – one of those faults of which there are thousands in our lives – the Church would vanish, and nothing would remain of this majestic edifice in which so many virtues have blossomed in the sunlight of the virtues of Jesus. It is an unique fact, and it raises Jesus Christ to a height immeasurably above the greatest men of the world. For which of them has been without sin? Which of them has given his immaculate purity as the basis of a work of eighteen centuries? Which has so identified his life with moral beauty that to depart from it is to depart from good, and to copy it is to attain good? In this respect Jesus has no equal, no rival. He stands alone, and by the single fact of His spotless purity, He appears to us in the midst of other men as in a sublime solitude.

Must we add that the holiness of Jesus is not purely negative? That which characterizes it is, not only exemption from all sin, but the perfection of every virtue. He has every virtue, and in Him each virtue so attains its full development, so perfectly fulfills its ideal, producing flower, and fruit, and perfume in such rich abundance, that great souls with all their efforts will but follow Him at a distance, without ever approaching Him. And although each virtue exists in Him in its full and absolute perfection, it is not prejudicial to the contrary virtue: it rather calls it forth. So that in Him we never see one virtue alone: there are always two absolutely opposite virtues, one as beautiful as the other, and from them spring the most unexpected contrasts, which blend at last in perfect harmony, as we have seen in studying the qualities of His mind and heart. Who, for example, was more stern than Jesus Christ? Yet who was more tender? Who ever had a greater conviction of His intrinsic glory? Yet who was humbler? “This combination of the spirit of humanity in its lowliest, tenderest form, with the consciousness of unrivaled and divine glories, is,” said Channing, “the most wonderful distinction of this wonderful character.” Just now we were admiring His innocence and purity; but where shall we find a penitent who was more austere? Who ever knew the misery of mankind as He did? but who has loved men more? who has despised them less? Who has expected more from them? “As for me,” says M. Guizot, “nothing strikes me more in the Gospel than this twofold character of severity and love, of austere purity and tender sympathy, which appears and triumphs uniformly in the acts and in the words of Christ.”

In short, take all the virtues, the beauties of soul the most opposite and contradictory in appearance. Name one, you will see another spring up: and whilst you are considering which is the more beautiful, you will see them blend in so perfect a proportion, in so pure a harmony, that you will be transported with delight.

And there is no break or effort. There are none of those moments where the man appears, nor are there any of those moments in which a man rises above himself by a violent effort which does him honor, but which cannot last. He rises without effort to the summit of the highest virtues. Or rather He has not to rise: He is there as in perfect naturalness, in peculiar sympathy. I call it peculiar, because this naturalness and this simplicity constitute His true originality. John the Baptist is certainly one of the greatest souls that have ever appeared. This great giant of penance arrests our attention and fills us with emotion. But there is nothing original in him. He continues the prophetic type: he resembles Elias and Eliseus: his holiness is of the same order. Christ is quite different. No camel’s hair, no wild honey, no austerities to excite our fear. All is plain, simple, and ordinary: but if you look closely you will perceive a virtue which with the greatest ease surpasses all other virtues – an intense depth of humility, detachment, self-denial, contempt for the world, charity for men, union with God, which appears trifling at the first glance, but which soon makes those despair who try to approach it. These qualities play the part in the moral order which simplicity, sobriety, good taste, and exquisite beauty that characterize the greatest geniuses of Greece, play in the intellectual order. To write like them we fancy we have but to mend our pen, and we very soon learn, throwing it aside in vexation, what it costs to arrive at this naturalness.

As, moreover, suffering is the touch-stone of moral perfection, it is not spared Him. Every trial is brought to bear on Him, in order to make His virtues more resplendent. He had said. Blessed are the poor! and He is exposed naked on a cross, but there is no change in the serenity of His countenance. He had said, Blessed are the meek, and He was bound to a column, inhumanly scourged, buffeted, insulted, but He uttered no complaint. He had said. Blessed are the merciful, and when Judas betrayed Him with a kiss, when Peter denied Him, when the executioners spit in His face. He has but one word, one look, one prayer, the word of pardon and of love. He had said. Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice, – and after He has given everything to the world. His mind, His heart. His life, receiving in exchange suffering, and the infamy of the cross, He is thrilled with joy. Ah! it is a grand thing to do good in this poor world, and not to ask a recompense. We bend the knee before those, who, forgetting self, sacrifice themselves, and before those, happier still, who are forgotten by those whom they have most loved. But to be hated by them, to be persecuted by them, to do the greatest possible good, to give one’s whole life to men – and the purest, the most elevated of all lives, and to have no reward, to reap but ingratitude, to sink beneath the weight of one’s benefactions, and so to be happy – never has there been anything greater on earth. Yes! I throw a veil over the divinity of Jesus Christ. I look at Him on His cross, having done good by the impulse of the purest love that ever existed, having realized it at the price of the greatest sufferings, and having been paid by ingratitude, and I say that there is the sublime height of moral beauty and virtue. What was the death of Socrates beside this death? What was Plato’s ideal of the just man suffering, compared to this reality? True indeed is the saying of Rousseau, “If the life and the death of Socrates are those of a sage, the life and the death of Jesus are those of a God.”

If I seek the cause of a virtue so high, so constant, so sustained in life and in death, so simple, yet so natural – in one word so perfect: if, after following the course of this grand river I try to reach its source; if, in order that I may understand the exterior man who fills me with wonder, I endeavor to penetrate into the interior man, what do I find? It would seem as though in the inner-most sanctuary of His soul, there were some unseen guest who never leaves Him. “He never leaves me alone,” He said when speaking of this guest. Whilst men keep silence to gather His words, He keeps silence also, hut it is to listen to Him. He converses with this unseen guest as with a confidant. He contemplates His face, invisible to all except to Him. It is an intimate communion with another, so that in solemn moments, like a man thinking aloud. He lets words escape Him which are but detached fragments of the mysterious colloquy which is going on within. “I knew well,” He says at the tomb of Lazarus, “that Thou hear me always.” And in the Garden of Olives, “If it be possible, let this chalice pass from me! But not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” And on the cross, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” It would seem as though He had another self, above Him, and yet His equal, whom He adores in silence, whom He loves above all, by whom He is loved, and with whom He lives in that tender unity of which He says, “He and I are one.”

Moreover, He makes no mystery of this interior intimacy. He never tires when He endeavors to make His disciples understand the ineffable relation which unites Him to this unseen Being, who to Him is more living, more present, more familiar, more visible than the most beloved of His apostles. “My Father,” so He calls Him, “loves me.” “As my Father knows me, so I know my Father. The words which I say to you, I do not say of myself, I have learnt them of my Father. My food is to do the will of my Father. I and my Father are one;” and many similar expressions which we shall meet with later.

But what then is this relation which exists between Him and His Father: this full and perpetual indwelling of God in Him? Is it only the relation that we ourselves have with God; a higher relation no doubt, but of the same kind? Is it something different? Who shall tell us? Who knows except He? We proceed as we can – from what we see to what we do not see: we conjecture, we catch a glimpse, but beyond a certain point we see no further. If God be there, let Him say so. We have penetrated to the tabernacle. God! open it; say if Thou art there! Jesus! Art Thou but a saint, a just man, a man most tenderly, most deeply united to God? Is there anything further? Is there more? Speak, oh speak! It is time that Thou should speak, and our hearts, prepared to listen, will reply to Thy words by the silence of adoration, and the joyous outpouring of love.

– taken from The Divinity of Christ, by Bishop Emile Bougaud