Humility & Honesty: How We Witness to the Perfection of Christ

As Our Lord was about to go to the Cross, He prayed to His Father in Heaven, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (see John 17:4). It might seem like an astonishing thing for anyone to say — and especially someone who defines the virtue of humility. But humility dispenses with modesty. A truly humble man who is six feet tall doesn’t, in a spirit of false modesty, say that he is only five foot eight.

We take delight when our projects come out right because we have all experienced doing things badly. I have a hobby of sketching, and there are times when I have been pleased with what I have drawn — but I also have closets full of mistakes. It is the second-rate carpenter who does not notice the cracks; the first-rate carpenter is as aware of the defects as he is of the apparent perfection in his work.

But not one person has been able to say to the perfect King, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.” And indeed, in another context, the people affirmed Him with astonishment: “He has done all things well” (Mark 7:37). They were accustomed, as we all are, to imperfect people. And in fact, just as we do, they preferred imperfect people: Others’ flaws excuse our own, all while we imagine that our peculiar imperfections are themselves a subtle kind of perfection. And so many of those who heard and observed Our Lord fled. More would have stayed, if He had told them the lies about Himself and themselves that they wanted to hear, for in their eyes, Christ’s real offense was that He was not a blank slate upon which they could write their own ideas. He was the Truth, and that Truth was inescapable. One either embraced it or fled from it.

There is a school of philosophy called idealism. It doesn’t mean reaching for the highest and best, but rather believing that something is true simply because it is your idea. The French have glorified Western civilization in many ways over the centuries, but since at least the time of Descartes, many French thinkers have placed more confidence in their pet theories than in demonstrable facts. It is said that a typical French philosopher will ask, “That may be true in practice, but how is it in theory?”

 

For two thousand years, the world has been tempted to deal with Christ that way — to say that He did wonderful things but that the moral and spiritual theory behind His practice just doesn’t work. The Trinity doesn’t work. The whole idea of the Word Made Flesh doesn’t work. Would it not be better to let Him be the humanitarian, the reformer, the social liberator and leave it at that? But Our Lord did not come into the world to be merely a humanitarian or a reformer or a social liberator. He came to reconcile earth and Heaven. That is why He said that He had accomplished the work His Father had given him to do: He has let the world see God.

This article is from a chapter in Fr. Rutler’s Grace and Truth.

Our Lord came into the world to do all things well, and He did so. The Lord tells us that among the things that are abominable in His eyes is an intellectual conceit called bearing false witness — against our neighbor and ultimately against Him (Prov. 6:19). One way our modern culture is particularly adept at doing that is by denying the existence of truth itself. If we make God an abstraction, we have freed ourselves to create our own idol.

Therefore, to say that Christ is not Christ — to say He is only a humanitarian, to say He is only a reformer, to say He is only a liberator, to say He is as close to perfection as could be but not perfection itself — that is to bear false witness against reality and against the God Who made and did all things well.

Living an abstraction by bearing false witness against the truth inevitably causes an emptiness in the soul. We know that there is something wrong with emptiness; there is an instinct in everyone to fill a void. Some time ago, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. In the weeks between the theft and the painting’s recovery, when the wall was blank, more people went to the Louvre Museum to see the empty space than went when the painting was there.

I suppose we could make that an analogy with the philosophical conceits of our modern age. The philosophy of existentialism really was a fascination with emptiness, the creation of a myth that said that life is not really alive, that there is no purpose, that there is no dignity in the human condition apart from the simple fact of our existence. More dramatically, nihilism and anarchism were (and are) forms of fascination with emptiness.

Our Lord fills our emptiness with His Own Body and His Own Blood. He says in the Eucharistic dialogue in John’s Gospel: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). His disciples, used to theory rather than fact, accustomed to abstract ceremonies instead of something so basic as the Body and Blood of the Messiah, responded: “This is a hard saying” (John 6:60). Jesus then asserted, “But there are some of you that do not believe,” which the Gospel writer comments is in reference to the one who would betray Him (John 6:64).

This man, Judas, followed Our Lord as though He were a theory. Judas confected his own mental image of what the Messiah should be: a humanitarian, yes; a reformer, yes; a political liberator, yes — but not the Son of God, the Word Made Flesh, the Redeemer crucified on a Cross for the wiping away of sins and the reconciliation between man and God. And so he walked away.

There are those who call themselves fundamentalists, who with the best of intentions take words of Scripture and decide on their own what they mean. These interpretations always conform to their pre-existing prejudices. (This is why fundamentalists really miss the fundamentals.) They might accept Baptism, because it is mentioned in the Scripture, but according to their lights it is only a kind of initiation ceremony. The Church has taught us, however, because Jesus says we must be born again of water and the Spirit, that the sacrament of Baptism has a regenerating effect.

So, too, the fundamentalist might reject the sacrament of Confession. But Our Lord said to the Apostles when He had risen from the dead: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22–23). And yet this economy of grace, the manifestation of God’s mercy through the sacrament of Reconciliation does not fit the fundamentalist’s theory of the way God is supposed to work.

Indeed, it is very difficult, looking back upon the experience of Christian history, to understand why God made the Church the way He did, why He structured it around the apostolic succession with the papacy as the central governing, confirming, and consoling voice of the Church. And yet Our Lord said to Peter, “On this rock, I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18). It may not fit our theory of the way things should be, and yet Our Lord made it that way.

The Church’s teaching about human life, especially with regard to abortion and euthanasia and contraception, doesn’t fit the modern theory of the way the world is supposed to work. It doesn’t fit the temper of the times. And yet respect for life is one of the things that Our Lord was thinking about when He said that He had done His Father’s work: He manifested to us the dignity of life from the moment of conception. If we deny these things, we are bearing false witness — false witness against our human dignity, as well as against our God.

Our Lord was crucified by people bearing false witness. Annas, who had been high priest from 6 B.C. to A.D. 15, listened to Our Lord and saw a truth in Him that apparently unsettled him. He turned Our Lord over to his son-in-law Caiaphas, who was high priest in that year. And before Caiaphas came bearers of false witness. Mark says that one accuser quoted Our Lord as having said, “I will destroy this temple” (Mark 14:58). What Our Lord truly said was: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

Perfection unsettles imperfection. There is a strange notion that the more perfect someone is, the less human he is, but that is like saying that the more cracks there are in a window, the more of a window it is. Our Lord is true man and true God; His humanity is displayed in His perfection. In Him, for the first time, we saw what a man should be and can be. When we say “can be,” we have proof: every saint who has lived in each generation. And each one of them has been subject, one way or another, to calumny, misrepresentation, false witness.

Consider the Irish bishop St. Oliver Plunkett. In 1681, he was accused by an ex-Franciscan of treason, a charge for which he was executed. Sometime after that, the man who had borne false witness against the saint had the audacity to call upon a priest. Whenever people lie against Christ and His saints, they do seem to grow in boldness. The priest excused himself for a moment and came back with a box. He opened it, and inside was the head of Oliver Plunkett. Needless to say, even that man was human enough to shrink away.

In 1955, the bishop of Shanghai, Ignatius Kung, was arrested by the Chinese Communists and taken into an arena, where he was put on the platform and instructed before thousands of his fellow Christians to deny the pope and the Catholic Church. The bishop of Shanghai, who was little more than five feet tall, reached up to the microphone and shouted, “Long live Christ the King! Long live the pope!” He was dragged away, and false witnesses accused him of treason — but his only treason was his loyalty to God. He spent thirty years in prison in one of those slow-motion martyrdoms of which we hear little. In March 2000 at the age of ninety-eight, Cardinal Kung — for he had been given the red hat by John Paul II secretly in 1979, then publicly in 1991 — went to his eternal reward. And when we speak of such a man as Cardinal Kung, we are not using a pious convention when we say that “he went to his eternal reward.” Christ is faithful to those who bear faithful witness to Him.

In the book of Revelation, in the third chapter, God declares Himself “the faithful and true witness” (Rev. 3:14). If the world wants to live a lie, God will not be deterred from telling the truth. Every one of us will fail Him at some point. We have not done all things well as Christians. We know our mistakes, and we know how generation after generation has failed to match the glory of the spotless Bride of Christ.

But She is still the spotless bride. The Church is still the supernatural gift that Christ gives us from Heaven. The saints are witnesses to that — and we, in our better moments, are witnesses to that. However defective our acts may be, however frail and weak our prayers and the intentions of our petitions may be, whenever we talk to God in prayer, we end by saying, “Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.” We do that because, while we are imperfect, He is perfect. And if we, with the solemn intention of the intellect and the will, offer our imperfections to Him, He joins them to His own offering of His very self when He says, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.”

This article is from a chapter in Grace and Truth: Twenty Steps to Embracing Virtue and Saving CivilizationIt is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. His latest book, Hints of Heaven: The Parables of Christ & What They Mean for You, is available from Sophia Institute Press.

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