I’ve posted twice on this wonderful book, A. G. Sertillanges’ What Jesus Saw from the Cross, already (here and here) and I wanted to post one more on its amazing conclusion. I did want to post this before Easter Sunday, but I was just too busy. But here it is on Easter Sunday night.
As I’ve noted, Sertillanges’ book is a devotional on Christ’s passion, taken from the perspective of Christ looking out hanging from the cross. Sertillanges identifies the sights and sounds, the events of Christ’s last days, Christ’s friends and His enemies, His last words, and what all this sound and fury was about. In the last chapter, as Christ raises His eyes toward heaven in His last moments of life, the vision steps away from what is below, and Sertillanges attempts to contemplate Christ’s vision beyond the earth.
In the eyes of the dying Savior, things and people are never withdrawn from their natural environment nor isolated from the divine sphere in which they are enclosed. When He meditates upon what He sees He cannot but consider its divine content. Heaven envelopes the earth and all things that are upon it. Lifted up from the earth, more by His soul than by His Cross, Christ finds in Heaven the first object of His contemplation. From Heaven He comes and to Heaven He returns. Thus it is with His eyes raised to Heaven that we must think of Him uttering His first and His last sentences, each of them beginning with the word Father. (p.211)
Two things are important there—the intermingling of the divine with the material and the source of the first cause, God the Father. In that glance toward the Father, eternity and the temporal meet, and the mutual love of the Father and Son, which blossoms in the form of the Holy Spirit, is made manifest. What Sertillanges sees at that moment is the reconciliation of all things, the material and the spirit, the eternal and the transient, the internal and the external.
It is not without importance at the foot of the Cross, which reconciles all extremes, to notice how the heavens—especially the heavens at night—are related to the mystery of the soul. The ether is beyond all measure; and beyond all measure and understanding also are the stirrings of the heart. We cannot rise to the stars or descend to the depths of our being. Two infinites stretch beyond the bounds of our experience, and both attract us irresistibly yet hold us at a distance.
What can we do without God in the heights, and without His grace in the depths of ourselves? Yet we feel that these two domains coalesce and that God, who is in us and ineffably beyond us, welds the whole of nature into one. If we go to God and give ourselves to Him, then we reconcile all things—being, our own being, and the Subsistent Being upon whom all else depends. (pp. 213-14)
Reconciliation implies that despite fragmentation there is unity. Christ being one of the Trinity is aware of the impalpable wholeness. Sertillanges continues:
We cannot doubt that Christ always has an intimate realization of these things. If “the father had given all things into His hands” (John 3:35), it was assuredly with the full consciousness that this was so. Filled with the knowledge of what is, He has by that very fact full assurance of what He does. His vision reaches unerringly to God, the living Heaven, to the soul, that lowly heaven in which the other is reflected, to the nature of the universe, and to Himself in whom all these fragments of reality find their unity.
And so Sertillanges has Christ first lovingly contemplating the beauty of creation, the natural world, the blue vault of sky, the gathering clouds, expressing that vision in His imagination as a poet expresses mystery. Here Christ becomes an artist, expressing truth and beauty, all leading to God and a part of God.
Who better than this human and heavenly soul was able to taste God in the universe and the universe in God who sustains it? Associated with the divine harmony (One in Three, Three in One), is He not wholly attuned to the music of creation? Son of Man, does He not find in man’s dwelling place His proper home? He has caught up in Himself the whole of humanity. He bears within Himself the Idea, the begetter of beings. He is the “beginning of creation of God” (Rev 3:14) and He is the End. Everything is a symbol of Him. Nature tends to Him with all its significance and all its powers. (pp. 216-17)
In that last moment Christ “perceives the harmony of creation as an eternal Will whose applications to human life for the object of His teaching, of His exhortations, and of His grace. He mingles Heaven with earth, nature with the soul, time with the eternal outcome of time” (217). Christ both contemplates the vastness of the grand universe and the minuteness of the molecular world, the infinity inside the microscopic. His vision is both expansive and confined.
Second, Setillanges has Christ, at that moment of looking heavenward, in prayer on the cross. Christ’s contemplation of the harmony of all things is a prayer.
Jesus prays. His prayer on the Cross is a continuation of His constant prayer. If the sky is Heaven, if the universe, the soul, and God are Heaven, then the act by which Jesus links all of these together in one common thought is a communion with Heaven in the most complete sense of the word, a vision of Heaven boundless and sublime. (p. 220)
It is in prayer that the sublime of Heaven interfuses with the physicality of earth, the transcendence of the spirit with the incarnate of flesh and blood. The cross is the axis between the two realms.
The cross, then, is the great place of prayer, just as it is the great altar, the great monstrance, and the first tabernacle. It is not in vain that we are told to begin and end prayer with the sign of the Cross. Properly understood the sign means: “I adore Thee, my God, by the Cross, by Jesus on the Cross, with Jesus on the Cross, in a spirit of commemoration and trust, but also in a spirit of obedience and sacrifice…I ask of Thee all that I need in the name of the Cross, that is, in the name of the same memory, in the name of the same merits, to which I humbly unite those things that are wanting, according to the exhortation of the Apostle” (Col 1:24). (pp 224-25)
Paul in that passage in Colossians speaks of uniting his sufferings with that of Christ. Sertillanges is suggesting that through such a union, we too marry the transcendence with our flesh and blood. We reach it through prayer and sacrifice, which amounts to love. Jesus prays on the cross the 22nd psalm, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me.” We all know the famous first line, but surely Christ didn’t stop praying there. He prayed the whole psalm, and in it we hear of the suffering servant but we also hear of the transcendent. By the middle of the psalm, the psalmist gives praise to the Lord, and by the conclusion the Lord is triumphant. The dualism of suffering and victory merge, as does Christ on the cross.
In Christ there are two lives, the one is a temporal life, which moves on from the manger to the Cross and the grave, the other eternal, immutable at the right hand of the Father. The Beatific Visio, identical in each, welds as it were these two lives in one. For Jesus, life after death is not entirely a renewal; it is a continuation. Jesus is reborn and glorified in His flesh; but in His soul He merely pursues His destiny and continues His eternal colloquy with God. The crown of His destiny makes no deep change in Him. In the dust of daily action, and under the searing fire of pain, He was already in glory; He saw God face-to-face. What was there still for Him to acquire, save that His body should finally share the glory of His soul. (p. 230)
So in that moment of looking toward heaven, just before Christ dies, defeat and victory, heaven and earth, spirit and body, fuse. Sertillanges has Jesus watching the heavens open. “This is His vision of victory, symbolized on Calvary by those eyes that look out upon the infinity of space through a film of blood” (pp. 233-34).
This is a remarkable book, one of the best devotionals—if not the best—I have ever read.
I hope your holy week was blessed and Easter Sunday joyous. Alleluia, He is risen.