Stunned silence—that is invariably the response when I ask what, at first glance, seems to be a softball for any Christian. How do you know that Christ died, not just “for us”, but for you? It is the classic head and heart problem. The head can answer that Christ died for all of us and that includes me. But only the heart can echo the confidence of St. Paul “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20, emphasis added). All of the Church’s doctrine and dogma is meant to feed the head with truths that are then realized in the heart of the believer. But it is this very specific truth upon which the entire edifice of faith rests.
When the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” time and eternity met. Everything that the Son of God did during His earthly sojourn does not merely remain the past as a single historical event, but “participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all” (CCC 1085). Abstractly we can say that this means that the effects of the Cross and Resurrection are felt at all times (even those “prior” to the actual event). We can move beyond the abstraction if reverse what is being said: at every moment during the Incarnation, all of history was present to the Son.
Sitting with this for a moment, something profoundly personal emerges. If all moments of time were present to Him, then every moment of my life was present to Him. In other words, there was not a single moment in time when I was not on Our Lord’s mind. There was not a single moment of His life that He did not love me, not just affectively, but effectively. At every moment He was actively working out my salvation for me and winning some very specific grace for me.
Now, I recognize that this may be very difficult to believe, not because it is unbelievable per se but because it is almost too good to be true. That is why it helps to come at this truth from the darker side first. Christ took on the burden of our sins during His Agony in the Garden. The guilt of each and every sin of mankind was laid upon Him so that He could pay the price of our reconciliation. While He saw each and every act of disobedience, there is a flip side of this as well; a side that Pope Pius XI points out in his encyclical on the Sacred Heart:
“For anyone who has great love of God, if he will look back through the tract of past time may dwell in meditation on Christ, and see Him laboring for man, sorrowing, suffering the greatest hardships, ‘for us men and for our salvation,’ well-nigh worn out with sadness, with anguish, nay ‘bruised for our sins,’ and healing us by His bruises… Now if, because of our sins also which were as yet in the future, but were foreseen, the soul of Christ became sorrowful unto death, it cannot be doubted that then, too, already He derived somewhat of solace from our reparation, which was likewise foreseen, when ‘there appeared to Him an angel from heaven’, in order that His Heart, oppressed with weariness and anguish, might find consolation. And so even now, in a wondrous yet true manner, we can and ought to console that Most Sacred Heart …” (Pope Pius XI, On Reparation to the Sacred Heart, 13).
More on the implications of this in a moment, but it reinforces the truth that what Christ did, He did very specifically for me. How do I know this? Because what I do now, effected Him then, both good and bad. In other words, I know this because I was there with Him. He willed to do what He did for me. I can say that Christ would have still done what He did even if I was the only one who needed saving because in a very real sense, I am. Each and every one of His acts is a personal act done for me. It is not a single moment or act, but all of His moments and acts.
Profound as this seems, this idea is not something new. It has been part of the treasury of the Church and is summed up best by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical on the Mystical Body:
“[F]or hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love. O marvelous condescension of divine love for us! O inestimable dispensation of boundless charity! In the crib, on the Cross, in the unending glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church present before Him and united to Him in a much clearer and more loving manner than that of a mother who clasps her child to her breast, or than that with which a man knows and loves himself” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 75).
Certainly our hearts are stirred when we grasp this, but we can realize in our lives in two particular ways.
Once grasped this truth takes flesh in our prayer lives; changing them forever. St. Ignatius taught his followers to use their imagination in developing a composition of place when meditating on the life of Christ. The reason why this is such an effective means to entering into dialogue with Our Lord is because we were actually in those places with Our Lord. It is left to us to discover why Our Lord had us there. In essence, we enter into those moments with Our Lord and ask Him what He wanted to give to us for our particular situation. This also explains why when we meditate on the same event in Our Lord’s life at two different times, our experience is vastly different each time. He didn’t just have a single grace to give us, but a particular grace suited to the very time we would approach Him. It also keeps us from merely offering exegesis on Scripture during our prayer, but breathing it all in. We will be exhausted long before we exhaust all that Our Lord willed to give us by His actions.
The second way is particularly appropriate during this Year of Mercy. In Dives in Misericordia, St. John Paul II says that it is possible for us to show mercy to Jesus Himself. He is referring not just to the Scriptural Works of Mercy of Matthew 25, but also acts of love that relieve the sufferings of Christ (DM, 8). This follows directly from Pius XI’s teaching on Reparation to the Sacred Heart quoted above. The idea of reparation may seem mechanical and cold, but once we look on it as “mercy” on Jesus it becomes a richly personal activity. Mercy means to take on the misery of your friend as if it is your own. So, for example when we genuflect before Him in the Tabernacle, we alleviate the pain of the mockery during His Crowning with Thorns. When we have a bad night’s sleep we can offer it to Him who had nowhere to lie His head. The instances could be multiplied, but the point is that in “offering it up” we are not mechanically writing in some spiritual ledger but personally entering into the Incarnation.
Pope Francis throughout his pontificate has spoken of the necessity for Christians to foster a “Culture of Encounter” by which we step out of ourselves to encounter other people. This encounter is founded upon a very real encounter first with Jesus Himself—a response to His encounter with each of us during the Incarnation..