Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Recapitulation in Christ

by Fr. Edward Leen, C.S.SP.

Descriptive Title

"Recapitulation" in Christ


This excerpt from Fr. Leen's book, The True Vine and Its Branches, is a study of Jesus Christ as the new Adam, and the way in which all things human are re-established in Him.

Larger Work

The True Vine and Its Branches

Publisher & Date

Kenedy, 1938

"That He might make known unto us the mystery of His will, . . . in the dispensation of the fulness of times, to re-establish all things in Christ" (Eph 1:9-10).

The Sacrifice of Calvary was the supreme act of the religion of Jesus Christ. Because of that and because of the consequences that issue from it, it is the culminating point in the destinies of mankind. All that precedes it converges on it and derives its significance from it. What follows from it is but the evolution of what it contains in germ. It is a sign of contradiction and a source of salvation. If the history of man from the beginning to the end of time were likened to a lofty mountain, Golgotha would be the summit of that mountain. World events prior to it would be an ascending slope. World events following it would be a gradual incline falling away from that towering eminence. This is an idea familiar to every Christian from his infancy. He is aware that, were it not for the crucifixion, his life and that of others would be robbed of hope.

That the cross alone unbars heaven to us and makes happiness attainable is, in itself, sufficient reason for considering the passion and death of the Saviour as an event of supreme and unique importance for the human race. Salvation is the one thing absolutely necessary; hence, what happens in this world has value and significance only in so far as it bears on the salvation of souls. Events are good or evil according as they promote or frustrate the attainment of heaven. It is not, however, only in reference to what is to be that the cross has significance. A full understanding of it carries our vision right into the heart of the mysteries that surround actual human life. "The Cross," writes Newman, "has put its clear value upon everything which we see. It has given a meaning to the various shifting courses, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings of this earthly state. . . . In the Cross and Him who hung upon it all things meet: all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their center and interpretation."[1] Until one has, in some measure, probed the depths of the mystery of the cross and glimpsed there the plan of God's marvelous designs, radiant with wisdom, goodness, and mercy, one can but imperfectly grasp the full Christian philosophy of life.

It would be difficult to overestimate the extent of the change that would be wrought in the outlook of the average Christian were he to pass from the mere knowledge of the fact of his redemption through the cross to an intelligent grasp of the mode according to which that redemption was worked out. That vision, in a blinding flash of light, burst upon the soul of St. Paul. What he beheld, he reveals in terms rendered lyrical by his enthusiasm. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. . . . Who hath predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ unto Himself according to the purpose of His will . . . in the dispensation of the fulness of times, to reestablish all things in Christ that are in heaven and on earth in Him" (Eph 1:3-10). In these last words the Apostle enunciates what, for him, is the great central theme of Christianity: "the wondrous mystery hidden from ages and generations," He strains language to express what he feels to be inexpressible, because it is so far beyond human thought and human imaginings.

Redemption was a word familiar enough in a world where slavery entered into the very frame of the social fabric. But human experience furnished no adequate analogy to supply a term to convey the exalted, yet sublimely tender, manner in which God brought mankind out of the slavery of sin into the freedom of grace. The word "re-establish,' which is the Douay translation of St. Paul's term in the text above quoted, gives a very feeble rendering of the Apostle's meaning. It must be confessed that the locution invented by the Apostle is practically untranslatable. This is necessarily so, for it expresses something unparalleled and incapable of being paralleled in created experience.

The Vulgate term "instaurare" gives the result of the accomplishment of God's mysterious designs but does not describe the mode of that accomplishment. The idea that, in the mind of St. Paul, is struggling to find expression is not merely that Christ restored order in creation out of the chaos created by the Fall. Nor is it that Jesus summarizes or synthesizes all creation in Himself. His thought is much more profound. It is that God, in order to reward Christ for having laid down His life to expiate the sins of humanity, made Him to be a new Head for humanity. Humanity supernaturally slain, or, to use a metaphor, decapitated by the disobedience of Adam, is "recapitated" or "reheaded" by the obedience of Christ.[2] The Saviour is Himself the new vital and vitalizing Head of the body of mankind, through whose veins flows the vivifying life blood of sanctifying grace. What is the import of the mystery revealed in this strange word?

To understand it, the parallel between Eden and Golgotha must be closely studied. The garden of delight and the hill of shame both witnessed a radiant dawn for humanity. In Eden that dawn was clear and cloudless. On Calvary it was tinged with red. The first dawn did not grow to its promise of a glorious noon. Its day ended in the darkness of eclipse. The second advances from brightness to brightness, and its sun will never know a setting. Of it will be verified the words: "Thy sun shall go down no more, and thy moon shall not decrease" (Is 60:20). As Eden witnessed the birth of humanity and was the cradle of its brief life, so Calvary in its turn sees a birth of humanity which is a rebirth. The cross is the cradle of the "new creature." The convulsions and throes which nature underwent at the death of the Son of God symbolized the birth throes of the newborn humanity. Many sensitive souls are shocked by the attachment of the attribute "good" to that dark day on which Christ suffered so shameful and so cruel a death. The adjective "bitter" might seem more appropriate. Yet the term which has sprung from Christian instincts is perfectly apt. In spite of the material darkness which blotted out the heavens, that Friday saw a glorious dawn. It was good, as was that day good in which Adam issued forth from the creative hands of God, not only in the full perfection of humanity, but pulsating with the divine vigor of a supernatural life. To the vision of St. Paul the horrors of Calvary dissolve and its bloodstained slopes become transfigured. He sees God at work, with a working which recalled the sixth day of creation. On that sixth day He made man to the divine resemblance with the Words: "Let us make man to our own image and likeness" (Gn 1:26).

On the sixth day of the week He re-created man and fashioned him afresh to His own image and likeness, but in a still more marvelous way. He did it by casting man into the mold of the humanity of the Son of God. "For whom He foreknew. He also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of His Son" (Rom 8:29). In Eden there was a creation. On Calvary there was a re-creation. Through Christ's death humanity came to life. "And Christ died for all: that they also who live may not now live to themselves but unto Him who died for them and rose again. . . . If then any be in Christ a new creature [i.e., a being created afresh], the old things are passed away. Behold all things are made new" (2 Cor 5:15-17).

The first creation was a work of great power and goodness, in that God took humanity and, infusing into it a breath of His own life, made it, by sanctifying grace. His adopted child and heir to His riches. The second creation was a work not only of power and goodness: it was also one of incomprehensible magnanimity and surpassing mercy. Of a surety the Lord's "tender mercies surpass all his works" (Ps 144:9). Man had traversed God's designs for his happiness. He had rejected the Creator's divine gifts and forfeited the great preternatural privileges bestowed on him. He had proved himself ungrateful, senseless, and rebellious. He had plunged himself in ruin. Adam had made the earth a valley of death, strewn with the scattered members of humanity, supernaturally dead. It would have been much had God confined Himself to giving back the supernatural life which had been forfeited. He did more. He gave much more than was bestowed in the first instance. He restored more than had been lost and at an incredible cost to Himself. He loved man so extravagantly "as to give His only-begotton Son, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish but may have life everlasting" (Jn 3:16). When sin was destroyed through the awful holocaust of the Son of God, the floods of divine grace, pent up in the Sacred Humanity, were free to pour themselves forth over all mankind. "But now in Christ Jesus, you who were afar off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, the enmities in His flesh . . . that He might make the two in Himself into one new man, making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body by the cross, killing the enmities in Himself" (Eph 2:13-16).

The death throes of Christ were the birth throes of the "new man" of whom St. Paul speaks. The all-merciful God and Father of Jesus came into the valley of death, to the hill "of the skull," and breathing on the lifeless and scattered limbs of humanity. He revivified them and refashioned them into a living organic unit, animated by the same supernatural life. Under Cod's breath there arises a "new man" (2 Cor 5:17), the Mystical Body of Christ. It was not only Jesus came forth from the tomb in the garden, it was humanity reborn, revivified, "reheaded," in Him. On Holy Saturday in the morning office. Holy Church used to instruct her catechumens in the great mystery of re-birth, which they themselves were about to undergo in the waters of baptism. In the seventh prophecy the inspired seer relates: "In those days the hand of the Lord was upon me and brought me forth in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of a plain that was full of bones—and there were very many up the face of the plain and they were exceedingly dry. And He said to me: Son of man, dost thou think these bones shall live? And I answered: O Lord God, thou knowest. And He said to me: Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God to these bones: Behold I will send spirit into you and you shall live . . . and you shall know that I am the Lord. And I prophesied as He had commanded me; and as I prophesied there was a voice and behold a commotion, and the bones came together each one to its joint . . . but there was no spirit in them. And He said to me: Prophesy to the spirit; prophesy, O son of man, and say to the spirit: Thus saith the Lord God: Come, spirit, from the four winds, and blow upon those slain and let them live again. And I prophesied as He had commanded me, and the spirit came into them and they lived, and they stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army. And He said to me: Son of man, all these bones are the house of Israel" (Ez 37:1-11).

In this splendid allegory is set forth what was wrought by the redeeming death of Christ. The valley is an image of the world strewn with the bones of dead humanity, slain by the crime of Adam. Through the merits of the Sacrifice of Christ came the spirit into the wide spaces of death. The Fathers of the Church, using a striking figure, speak of the Mystical Body as having sprung from the open side of the Saviour on the cross. This expresses that the re-creation of humanity through the formation of the Mystical Body was the reward of Christ's obedience unto death. "If He shall lay down His life for sin. He shall see a long-lived seed" (Is 53:10).[3]

God, in creating, had planned to secure his glory through the deification of rational creatures. Deification consists in the knowledge and love of God, in that knowledge and that love which constituted God's own life and happiness. From the clear knowledge of God, praise pours forth spontaneously. This is the very definition of glory —clara notitia cum laude—undimmed knowledge issuing in praise.

The glory of God was meant to be coincident with the happiness of man. God's purpose was checked by the revolt of the first head of mankind. But the divine purpose remained unchanged and was forwarded on its way to fulfilment by the obedience unto death of the second Head of mankind. "Christ Jesus . . . humbled Himself becoming obedient unto death, even unto the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted Him and given Him a name which is above all names" (Phil 2:8-9). The reward given to Christ for His heroic obedience was His being constituted the new life-giving Head of the race. . . . He merited that humanity should be re-created in Him, or, to give the full force of the term used by St. Paul, to which reference has already been made, Christ merited that humanity should be "reheaded" in Him. For humanity to be headed once more is equivalent to its being constituted a body—that is, a living body. For a dead body is but a body in appearance. It is an aggregate of elements amidst which reigns no unity. It is not an organism. As regards supernatural life, such was humanity as a result of Adam's sin. If the scattered members of dead humanity be given a head by a merciful intervention of God, it means they once more become one living thing, in which the different members are held together by, and share in, a common life. Mankind recovers organic unity through Christ. This is the mystery which St. Paul felt he had a special mission to reveal to men. "Let us," he writes, "grow up in Him who is the Head, even Christ: from whom the whole body, being compacted and fitly jointed together, by what every joint supplieth, according to the operation in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in charity" (Eph 4:15-16). This position as Head of the Mystical Body which was to come into being through this very Headship, with all the consequent glorification for Himself and His members, was the splendid perspective that, set before the mental gaze of Jesus, strengthened Him to sustain the cross. "Who having joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:2).

The members of the Mystical Body are called to share the same glorification as the Head. This is in virtue of their union with Him. They reach that glory by the same path. The Apostle bids them find courage to face the hardships of this path through "looking on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of faith" (ibid.). The good pleasure of God was to resupernaturalize the human race by forming it into a Mystical Body through Jesus Christ, its Head and the source of its life. This good pleasure of God was to Jesus, because of the love He bore His heavenly Father, as a law. Out of regard for it He braved His passion. The Church was the reward God held out for that great trial. Christ not only loved His Father, He also "loved the Church and delivered Himself for it, that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5:25-27).

Many Christians, contrasting the condition that was theirs in the first creation in Adam with the condition that is actually theirs in their re-creation in Christ, judge themselves to be at a serious disadvantage. The loss of integrity, science, and immortality that had been enjoyed by the first Adam, casts, for them, a dark shadow on their restoration in Christ. At times forgetful of their huge indebtedness to God, they permit themselves to be querulous with Him and to consider that He was unduly exacting, and ungenerous in the terms of peace He granted to fallen humanity. This is an extremely superficial view of things and betrays a lamentable want of understanding of the "great mystery" of Christianity. It is not possible for us to explore all the reasons why the preternatural gifts were not given back with the supernatural in the rehabilitation of mankind.[4] But from the knowledge of God's heart that is gained through revelation it can be safely asserted that the reasons that moved God in this matter regard man's interests. They certainly did not spring from any narrowness on the part of God or any reluctance to grant unreserved pardon. He who in the interests of man's salvation did not hesitate to surrender His own divine Son to death, is certainly prepared to bestow on redeemed men, with limitless generosity, whatever in the order of divine wisdom is possible. That is, in order to procure man's eternal welfare. He gives all that in the nature of things is possible. St. Paul writes: "He that spared not even His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how hath He not, with Him, given us all things" (Rom 8:32).

The reasons why redeemed man is shorn of the preternatural gifts are certainly bound up with those for which the all-wise God decreed the passion as the mode of redemption. There was a mysterious moral necessity for the sufferings and death of the Son of Man, as He Himself revealed to His disciples on the evening of the resurrection. "Ought not Christ," He said to them, "to have suffered these things and so to enter into His glory?" (Lk 24:26).[5] The members must, perforce, share the passibility of the Head. It would be an utter incongruity, were this not so. As it was fitting, in accordance with the plan of God's wisdom, that He should reach His glory through pain, so it is fitting that His members should tread the same path in order to be glorified along with Him. "The Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God, and if sons, heirs also: heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ; yet so, if we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified with Him" (Rom 8:16-17). St. Thomas writes in this connection: "The satisfactions of Christ have their effect in us inasmuch as we are incorporated with Him, as members with their Head. But the members must be conformable to the Head. And just as Christ had grace in His soul, whilst at the same time having a body subject to mortality, and had therefore to attain the glory of immortality through the passion, so we, who are His members, are indeed freed from all the obligations as regards chastisement, by Christ's passion. But this is in such wise that we first receive the spirit of adoption of children (which destines us to everlasting glory) whilst still having a body subject to mortality and suffering. It is only later, when we shall have been conformed to the sufferings of Christ, that we are conducted to a glorious immortality."[6] Did we possess the preternatural gifts, this fellowship with Christ, in His human experience, would not be possible for us.

Hence the mystery of our redeemed state is intimately bound up with the mystery of the Mystical Body. These disabilities under which redeemed mankind labors are not due to any vindictiveness on the part of God nor any desire to make the human race smart for its great betrayal. The truth is that, in spite of these disabilities, the status of those redeemed in Christ is incomparably superior to that status that would have been theirs, were they children of an unfallen Adam. To be "graced" in a sinless Christ confers a far greater dignity than to be graced in a sinless Adam. To be united supernaturally with Christ's humanity is a much more royal privilege than to be united supernaturally with Adam's humanity. Adam, even when raised by grace to be the adopted child of God, was not united "personally" with God. He remained, even in his eminence, a human person. The humanity of Christ is substantially united to the Word of God. And we return to God's favor by being mystically incorporated in the Sacred Humanity which is so intimately united to the Godhead. It is through being one with the humanity of Christ that we effect contact with the divinity—a contact of faith and love.[7]

United with the Sacred Humanity, we participate in all its privileges and graces. To the Sacred Humanity itself all these privileges and graces come from the Word, to whom the human nature of Christ is hypostatically united. The luster and distinction of the divinity of the Word are shed in us when we are made one with Christ. St. Thomas states that in somewhat the same way as the merits of a person in grace belong to that person, so the merits of Christ belong to Him and to His members. Christ's graces become ours when we are bound to Him by faith and love. "Christ," he says, "received grace not only in His individual capacity, but also as Head of the Church, so that grace should stream from Him to His members. For that reason, the [meritorious] actions of Jesus have the same relation to Him and to His members that the actions of an ordinary individual have to that individual himself." [8] It is the realization of this mysterious truth that provokes the cry, so daring and so paradoxical, that bursts from the lips of the Mystical Spouse of Christ on the morning of Holy Saturday: "Truly fortunate is the sin which procured for us a Redeemer, so great and of so exalted a nature," We are of more noble birth when born of Jesus Christ than we would have been, even were we able to trace our lineage to a sinless Adam. To be stamped with the image of a divine Christ is a title to glory far more exalted than the glory due to us were we to bear the image of a purely human head, even though a sinless one. When God pardoned, He pardoned magnificently. So far was He from being grudging in His concessions to submissive humanity. He loaded it with favors. He gave with a divine generosity. He did not content Himself with restoring what had been forfeited. He added superabundantly to His first gifts. Cod's incredible magnanimity brought it about that man, instead of losing all by the Fall, can profit exceedingly by it, if only he is willing to utilize all that has been won for him and placed at his disposal by the great Sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is no wonder that the Church exclaims: "O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere redemptorem" Of this exclamation St. Paul's words in his Epistle to the Romans are an apt commentary: "For if by one man's offense death reigned through one, much more they who receive abundance of grace, and of the gift, and of justice, shall reign in life through one Jesus Christ" (Rom 5:17). •


1 John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons 6: Sermon on "The Cross of Christ."

2 E. Mersch, S.J., in his work, Le corps mystique du Christ 1, 152, points out that though the Greek verb avakefalaiosasthai employed by St. Paul is etymologically derived from a term kefalaion, meaning head in the sense of or completion, yet the context demands the notion of kefale or simply. The word kafale or head occurs frequently throughout this Epistle to the Ephesians.

3 Cf. the following pages from F. Prat, S,J., La theologie de saint Paul 1, 266: St. Paul says "we are immersed in the death of Christ, that is, in the dying Christ. In truth, we become associated with Christ and are formed to be His members at the exact moment when He becomes Saviour. This moment coincides with the moment of the death of Christ. Thereafter all becomes common between us and Jesus. We are crucified with Him, buried with Him, raised from death with Him. We share His death and His new life, His glory. His reign. His inheritance. This is a union that defies expression. It is likened by St. Paul to the process of grafting, which commingles two lives, until they become undistinguishable and the life of the graft is lost in the life of the living tree."

4 Thomas amongst other reasons gives the following: Man's perfection and happiness essentially consists in his love for God. Hence our heavenly rather willed that baptism should restore grace "unaccompanied by the preternatural gifts, lest man should be moved to desire baptism through self-regarding love of integrity and immortality rather than through a real desire of God." Sum. theol. 3, q. 69, a. 3.

5 Cf. St. Thomas, Sum. theol. 3, q. 46, a. 1.

6 Sum. theol. 3, q. 49, a. 3, ad 3m.

7 Cf. the following from the Ecrits spirituels of the Venerable Libermann, C.S.Sp., p. 51: "The Word assumed the Sacred Humanity to render to the Father the duties of the creature. He thereby attached an infinite value to these duties. God henceforth sees all human nature as forming one with His Son. This manifests that the nature of man is raised to a more eminent dignity, since the sins of man have been atoned for, than it enjoyed prior to the Fall. Before Adam fell, man did not have such intimate relations with the Creator as he has now. His union with God was less perfect then than now, because since the redemption he in a certain measure, by his union with the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, Head of the Mystical Body, is brought into the economy of the hypostatic union. In the days of innocence God's communications of Himself to His creatures were limited. Now God imparts His spirit without measure. Formerly the glory rendered by man to God was finite, now it is infinite. In the first days sanctity was a pure gift of God, now it is something merited by Christ, the Head of the race. In the beginning man was a servant, and the divine adoption extended to him was of a very restricted kind; now he is a child of God, having Christ for his elder Brother,"

8 Sum. theol. 3, q. 48, a. 1.

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