By Christopher Zehnder
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth… And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:14, 16)
“…and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)
These verses confront us with mystery; or is it perhaps a contradiction? An absurdity? Paul says the Church is the fullness of him from whom John says we all receive grace. The Church is the fulfillment of him who is the fulfillment of all. How can this be?
We readily accept the idea of Christ as our fulfillment; Christ is the fullness from which we receive our fullness— our union through love and faith (and, one day, knowledge) with God. Yet, as Church teaching and Sacred Scripture attest, we we partake of the divine life through Christ, not as individuals but by incorporation, by baptism, into the Body of Christ, the Church (I Cor. 12:13). Jesus Christ, thus, is our fulfillment in and through the Church.
Nevertheless, how the Church serves as the instrument of human fulfillment in Christ is not, perhaps, readilly apparent. After all, is it not the individual intellect that perceives God through faith? Is it not the individual will that loves him? The Church may appear, then, as a temporary expedient, a mere instrument of the soul’s union with God, not a constituent aspect of it. Christ is our fulfillment; but how does the Church figure in this fulfillment?
And how is the Church, as Paul says, “the fullness of him who fills all in all”? The Church lives the divine life because she is joined to God through the instrumentality of Christ’s human nature. The Church receives her all from Christ; how, then, can Christ receive aught at all from the Church?
These questions — what role the Church plays in human fulfillment and how the Church is the fulfillment of Christ — are not unrelated. Indeed, we will find, if we consider them deeply, that the questions are intimately connected. Moreover, we will find, by answering the first question (how does the Church fulfill man?) that we will obtain the key to the second — how the Church fulfills Christ.
We will, then, first discuss how the Church, a society of men, conduces to human fulfillment. But to address this question sufficiently, we will initially step back from any considerations arising from divine revelation or theology; we will look at man’s nature and discern what in the natural order brings about its fulfillment. To begin thus with nature is not improper, for it is an axiom of theology that grace builds on nature. Man’s supernatural fulfillment is not contra-natural but an elevation of nature in accord with nature’s capacity, inutile though it be without the agency of grace. When we have discerned what we can know about natural human fulfillment, we may then ascend to theology and consider man in his relationship to the Church, and the Church in her relation to Christ. Such considerations may give us some insight into the seeming paradox presented to us by John 1:14-16 and Ephesians 1:22-23 — that the Church is the fullness of him “who fills all in all.”
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