Much has been written by the Holy Fathers over the centuries about the close union between Christ and the Church. This mystical union between the Head (the Lord Jesus Christ) and his Body (the Church) is everywhere assumed, both in the New Testament Scriptures, and in the patristic corpus. For example, the story of Saul’s encounter with the Risen Lord highlights this unity between Christ and his Church with some rather startling words (Acts 9:3–5):
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
And he said, Who are you, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom you persecute: it is hard for you to kick against the goads.
We see here that the Lord Jesus, when he confronts Saul, challenges him as to why Saul was persecuting him. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He did not accuse Saul of persecuting the Church, or even Christians in general, but (in the first person): me. As well, when Saul asks the Lord who he is, Christ answers him “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” Whom you persecute, not Whose Church you persecute. So identified is the Lord Jesus with his Church that when they suffer, he suffers; when they are glorified, he is glorified.
This close identification of Christ with his Church is found in multiple places throughout the New Testament (cf. Col. 1:24; Rom. 6; Gal. 3:27).
This wonderful truth of the mystical union and identity of Christ and his Church serves as the foundation of our life in the Church, our life in Christ. And yet, admittedly, sometimes this mystical truth can seem rather abstract at times, especially to us in the modern era who live in societies that promote an emotion-centered existence. And while we Orthodox Christians, as we grow in Christ and in the ascetical tradition of the Church, are called to grow out of our more immature behaviors and perspectives and to become more mature in our approach to Christ, we still need various reassurances oftentimes, tokens of God’s love and favor.
In fact, this is why the Church and her entire Tradition – with its liturgy, hymnody, prayers, icons, rites, asceticism, priesthood, vestments, and Scriptures – has been given to us. The Lord Jesus, seeing our weakness and frailty in the midst of our earthly and mortal existence, emptied himself, came down to us, and took flesh from the womb of the All-Holy Virgin Theotokos. Living his divine life as a human, giving us parables, sermons, and ultimately, his life-giving Passion on the Cross, and his Third-Day Resurrection, he has graciously condescended to our lowliness to remind and encourage us about how to live the only true human life – that of Christ. So, too, he offers our Holy Tradition as a kind of extension of his work on earth, through the Holy Spirit. In this vein, Professor Vladimir Lossky is entirely correct when he writes that Tradition is “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”
A further realization of Christ in the Church and as the Church, one that takes the mystical reality of such a unity a step further for our feeling hearts, is that expressed by the recently glorified saint of the Serbian Church, the Venerable Justin Popovich. In his wonderful essay The Attributes of the Church, he describes what the personality of the Lord Jesus Christ is like. Avoiding sentimentality that is so often characteristic of modern-day evangelicalism and the mega-church movement, he begins by laying the foundation for this teaching (1 Cor. 3:11):
The Christ-bearing apostles are divinely inspired as they announce the unity and the uniqueness of the Church, based upon the unity and uniqueness of her Founder—the God-man, the Lord Christ, and His theanthropic personality: “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
Beginning with the mystical unity of Christ with his Church, he moves on to Christ’s personality, which he describes as a theanthropic, or God-man, personality. Christ’s personality, at its deepest level is both divine and human.
Continuing on this theme, and expanding it with an organic metaphor, he writes:
In the theanthropic organism of the Church everyone lives in the fullness of his personality as a living, godlike cell. The law of theanthropic catholicity encompasses all and acts through all. All the while, the theanthropic equilibrium between the divine and the human is always duly preserved. Being members of her body, we in the Church experience the fullness of our being in all its godlike dimensions. Furthermore: in the Church of the God-man, man experiences his own being as all-encompassing, as theanthropically all-encompassing; he experiences himself not only as complete, but also as the totality of creation. In a word: he experiences himself as a god-man by grace.
The unity of Christ and his Church, combined with his divine-human personality, means that we Christians all live as godlike cellular organisms within the Body of Christ. We participate in Christ’s god-like-ness, his catholicity (wholeness). But, we also experience now, in the Church, our being as god-like. And not only god-like, but complete, and even as the whole creation. A microcosm, if you will. So, we too, experience our life in Christ, in the Church, as that of being a god-man — which is what the epithet “Christian” simply means — by grace (not by nature).
Not content with these wondrous realities, St. Justin moves on to define just what apostolic succession — that guardian of our Holy Tradition, in fact, of the entire Church — is:
Apostolic succession, the apostolic heritage, is theanthropic from first to last. What is it that the holy apostles are transmitting to their successors as their heritage? The Lord Christ, the God-man Himself, with all the imperishable riches of His wondrous theanthropic Personality, Christ—the Head of the Church, her sole Head. If it does not transmit that, apostolic succession ceases to be apostolic, and the apostolic Tradition is lost, for there is no longer an apostolic hierarchy and an apostolic Church.
Note here that St. Justin is saying that apostolic succession is nothing other than the transmitting of the Lord Jesus Christ himself; his (divine-human) personality. And what is this personality of Christ that is transmitted and safeguarded within the organism of the Church?
The personality of the Lord Christ the God-man, transfigured within the Church, immersed in the prayerful, liturgical, and boundless sea of grace, wholly contained in the Eucharist, and wholly in the Church—this is holy Tradition. This authentic good news is confessed by the holy fathers and the holy ecumenical councils. By prayer and piety holy Tradition is preserved from all human demonism and devilish humanism, and in it is preserved the entire Lord Christ, He Who is the eternal Tradition of the Church. “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3 16): He was manifest as a man, as a God-man, as the Church, and by His philanthropic act of salvation and deification of humanity He magnified and exalted man above the holy cherubim and the most holy seraphim.
The personality of Christ, in no uncertain terms, says St. Justin, is nothing other than Holy Tradition itself. In other words, if you have ever wondered, as I have, what Christ was like when he was on the earth, teaching and traveling about in first-century Palestine; what he was like when he spoke to his disciples over dinner; what the walk with him was like on the road to Emmaus; what his Passion was like; or his teaching during the 40 days from Pascha to his Ascension — well, we don’t have to wonder, really.
We know what Christ was like, because we know what he is like in the Church today. His personality — the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb. 13:8) — for those in the Church is everywhere around us. His personality is in the prayers. His personality is in the Liturgy. His personality is in the sacraments. His personality is in the priesthood. In fact, his personality is in all of us, as god-like cellular organisms, insofar as we are living in his Grace. Let us all hasten to the Church, which contains the personality of the Lord Jesus as in a prism, refracted into its constituent colors that are the various elements and tokens of Holy Tradition.
Want to know what Jesus’ personality was like? It’s all around you in the Church.