The divine and human natures of Jesus have regularly influenced church history. Sometimes the church has inclined greatly toward the divinity of Christ. During those centuries labeled the Dark Ages, monasticism, worship, prayer, the preservation of the Scriptures and other pious pursuits dominated most of Church life.
The mature St. Augustine whose thoughts guided most of the church during this age of monasticism certainly preferred the spiritual world over the material world, largely influenced by Plato’s idealistic philosophy. Still even as the Catholic world was absorbed with the contemplative life, the human nature of Jesus Christ and its ramifications were not entirely overlooked. The silent monks became great agriculturalists, handing much of their field expertise on to area peasants. They were also greatly concerned for travelers. Monasteries became great havens of hospitality.
In the Middle Ages, the human nature of Jesus Christ began to be appreciated once again by the Catholic world. Mankind took a second look at the world around him. Monks came out of their monasteries and became preaching friars, freely mixing with people in the streets. Monasteries blossomed into universities. Castles were abandoned for cities. Europe became interested in the Middle East with its spices and silks. Still, even in the midst of this new found Christian materialism, devotion to the Eucharist flourished, missionary activity increased and the very otherworldly Imitation of Christ was written.
The present day continues to witness the shifting balance between the divine and human elements of the church, reflecting the two natures of Christ. The second half of last century saw great emphasis on social justice issues. The grape boycott, the freedom marches, the draft card burnings, women’s lib, the sexual revolution – all these headline grabbing events gave Catholics suggestions about making this world a better place to live. The riots in the streets made their echoes in Catholic sanctuaries. Mass became more and more a humanitarian exercise. Community spirit replaced contemplation; regard for the neighbor squeezed out reverence for God. Catholic life experienced what a French bishop recently termed a “systematic desacralization.” The liturgy in particular became “ever more pervaded by the secularized culture of the surrounding world, thus losing its own nature and identity.”
Pope Benedict too recently lamented the diminished sense of the spiritual within the church and especially within the liturgy: “Paying less attention at times to the rite of the most holy sacrament constitutes a sign and a cause of the darkening of the Christian sense of mystery, such as when the center of the Mass is not Jesus but rather a community preoccupied with other things instead of being taken up and drawn to the only one necessary: their Lord.” Yet almost simultaneously with this lack of mystery in some parts of the church, other Catholic communities were becoming immersed in the charismatic movement, the Divine Mercy devotion, and, recently, the Latin Mass. The spiritual dimension of the church reflecting the divine nature of Christ is lately resurging – certainly not to overpower the social concerns of the church but to empower the church’s membership to face public responsibilities.
The solemnity of the Ascension dramatically and deliberately draws the attention of all believers to Christ the Lord who has risen from the dead, dispensed his sacramental gifts to the church, and sits now at the right hand of the Father in heaven. This bodily ascension of Jesus graphically reminds the Catholic world that now the human nature of Jesus Christ shares fully in the eternal, cosmic and heavenly life of God himself.
The celestial destiny of the ascended Christ is a goal enjoined on all Christians. This world, this earth, this human family must be permeated by the Gospel message, by God’s grace and by the spirit of Jesus. Believers may never choose between the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. Believers must strive fully to embrace the whole Christ in both his secular and his sacred manifestations.
History will no doubt illustrate that the balance will tip this way and that. There will be eras of piety and periods of productivity. But Christ’s return to his Father with his human nature permeated by divine grace must give hope to every generation that God truly can be all in all, that the divine and the human can meet in history as they once met in Jesus Christ.