In his 1938 work, Catholicism, Henri de Lubac begins by stressing the theme of communion that runs throughout the whole of Christian doctrine. From the doctrine of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ to the Sacraments to our final destiny, the theme of uniting a fallen humanity stands out. At the very beginning of the book, de Lubac points out that because we are all created in the one image of the one God, we are inexpressibly bound to one another.
For the divine image does not differ from one individual to another: in all it is the same image. The same mysterious participation in God which causes the soul to exist effects at one and the same time the unity of the spirits among themselves. Whence comes the notion, so beloved of Augustinianism, of one spiritual family intended to form the one city of God.
This is not to deny individuality in man, but it highlights our familial bond. Whereas in an earthly sense, our family bonds are signified by bloodline, in a spiritual sense our bond is much more real in that it is through the imago Dei. This is a view that found much favor in the early fathers of the Church. De Lubac also notes that this familial bond via the imago Dei was ours in its full meaning in the Garden of Eden. Only with the fall was this spiritual bond corrupted by sin and the end result mankind becoming dis-united. Our communion was broken. It is with the coming of Christ that this communion is once again restored, and this communion will reach its fulfillment at the end of time; but that is getting ahead of ourselves.
It is well known what the Catholic Church teaches regarding herself as the “Mystical Body of Christ,” so I will not dwell on that too much here. Suffice it to say, the theme of unity and communion runs throughout the Church’s teaching regarding herself. In this one Body, Christ gathers all those who abide in Him. This communion is real, such that if one member suffers, the entire body suffers. If one member rejoices, so to does the entire body. This is an idea that runs throughout the writings of St. Paul as well as the early Church fathers. In passing I will note that in contemplating what it means for an earthly Church to be the Body of a divine Christ, de Lubac writes that the Church is at once stained by sin and the spotless bride of Christ; at once human and divine. De Lubac likens this to man himself, in that we are undeniably sinners, yet redeemed by grace. We are at once sinner and saint; so to is the Church.
In the sacramental life of the Church we too find the mark of communion. In Baptism, we are incorporated into the One Body of Christ. Baptism in this respect is seen as bringing one into the family of God; it is a re-unification brought about through the regenerative work of Christ. The Sacrament of Penance (Confession) is seen in the same light. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this sacrament, among other things, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. By our sins, we separate ourselves from this Body. Remember that humanity was given a special communion by being created in the imago Dei, and that it is through sin that this communion is broken. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are brought back into the Body of Christ through the forgiveness of our sins. The sins that are forgiven are the very sins that brought about a dis-unity; but we must not think of this dis-unity as merely a dis-union which each other. It is truly a breaking of union with Christ; Christ as the one who is one with the Father, and Christ as the one who is present in His Body the Church. It is in both senses that we are reconciled in this sacrament. De Lubac also notes that this is seen very clearly in the practice of public penance in the early Church. Since grave sin was seen as a breaking with the Body of Christ, only a public repentance in front of those with whom we have broken communion will suffice to restore us to the One we have hurt by our sins. Likewise, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is also seen in this light. The way in which we commonly refer to this sacrament as “communion” will show this clearly enough. From St. Paul to the early Church fathers, the same note of this sacrament as communion with the Body of Christ is struck. It is in this sacrament that the Head and the Body are united in a very real way. We are united with each other and with Christ, when we partake of the One Bread and the One Cup, confessing the one faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Even with regard to the last things and our final destiny is this mark of unity in communion seen. What is heaven, but the full re-unification of the Body of Christ with its Head? Within the first millennium of the Church, a theology was ever present that said none will see the beatific vision of God until the whole of the Body of Christ is united at the end of time. De Lubac does not seem to concur (at least fully) with this line of thinking, but he uses it to underscore the importance placed upon untiy in the early Church.
If it was possible to believe – mistakenly – that the soul could not arrive at the beatific vision before the end of the world, was it not, in part at least, because it was held, and rightly, that the salvation of the individual could only be obtained within the salvation of the community? In these ages men’s outlook was primarily a social one, and was related only secondarily to the individual. They loved to think of the Church entering heaven after she won her victory. As long as she was the Church militant, so it was more or less vaguely supposed, none of her members could enjoy the fullness of triumph.
This is a note struck in Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology. Salvation of the individual only comes about in the salvation of the whole; the whole Body of Christ (those who have been incorporated into Christ) that is. So it was with Israel, so it is with us.
This vision of Christianity is one that breaks down all national, social, and economic barriers. Our unity is found in Christ, and our incorporation into His One Body, the Church. Ratzinger further makes this point of union in and with Christ from an eschatalogical point of view in his book Eschatology: the line of demarcation is not between those who are alive and those who are not. The line is between those who are in Christ, and those who are not. With this in mind, the necessity of the doctrine of the communion of the saints becomes clear. All who are in Christ are in communion with Him and with one another. Not even death can prevent such a communion brought about by the One who has conquered death.
Have a happy and blessed Easter!
* all quotations are taken from the 1988 Ignatius Press edition of Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, translated by Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sister Elizabeth Englund, O.C.D.