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Through Christ Our Lord

by Karl Adam
Translated by Father Justin McCann, O.S.B.

Continued from previous page

It is not the least merit of Jungmann’s book that he has proved that the Roman liturgy alone remained unaffected by the dogmatic struggle of the fourth century. Not that the Roman liturgy passed entirely unscathed through that severe contest which the Church had to wage with Arianism; for there are, here and there, indubitable traces of the struggle. It is none the less true that the Roman liturgy is distinguished among all others for its fidelity to the ancient forms. In none is the thought of Christ our Mediator, that is to say, the High Priestly function of the humanity of Jesus, so powerfully expressed. That is a point which I need not establish in detail. The Church concludes prayer with the decisive clause: “Through Christ our Lord.” In the Prefaces of the Mass, Jesus Christ is represented either as the ultimate ground of the thanksgiving or as its mediator. The first words of the Canon assert his mediatorial function: “We humbly beseech and pray you, most merciful Father, through Jesus Christ Thy Son.” These very words of the Canon go to prove that the liturgical formula “Through Christ our Lord” is not to be restricted to the sense of “through the merits of Christ” as won for us by the sacrifice of Calvary, but connotes also that High Priestly activity of Christ whereby he is continually offering our prayers to the Father, “always living to make. intercession for us.”8 Consequently at the present day in the Roman liturgy, and in it alone, is that law still effective which was formulated at the Synod of Hippo in the year 393 and in the presence of St. Augustine. The twenty-first canon of that Synod lays it down that the prayers of the liturgy should be addressed always to the Father: Semper ad Patrem dirigatur oratio. We are instructed to pray, not to Christ, but through Christ to the Father, through God Incarnate to the Triune God.

This liturgical rule is in entire harmony with dogma, for it corresponds with what revelation teaches us of the fundamental relations existing between God, Christ, and the Church.

Certainly, according to revelation, Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity and true God. As the Creed says, he is God of God and Light of Light. But he is also true man, consubstantial not only with the Father, but also with us. Jesus has a purely human consciousness, a purely human will, a purely human emotional life. He is a complete man. So unimpaired is this human nature of his that its union with the divine Word is founded only upon the unity of the (divine) person, and implies no destruction of itself. The mystery of the Incarnation does not necessarily entail any communication of the divine nature or attributes to the humanity of Christ. On the contrary, that humanity persists, even after its union with the Word of God, in its specifically human quality. The Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God, contributes nothing to the human nature that implies any enrichment of the human nature as such. What is contributed is simply the Person. Without here investigating in detail the character of this personal union, we may nevertheless say this much: that it involves such an intimate and essential conjunction of human nature with the divine Word that this nature belongs essentially to the divine Word, that it is his humanity, and that the divine Word can say, “I am this man.”

Therein lies the mystery and the miracle of Christ. It is not that a human nature was taken up into the divinity, but that the divinity became a full and perfect man. It is not the ascent of the human to the divine, but. the condescension of the divine to the human. It is not that flesh became God, but that God became flesh. Such is the mystery, the miracle, the stupendous prodigy. And hence the thrill and the joy of those words: “And the Word was made flesh.” Can we utter them without thankfulness and joy? “he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man.”9

Why is the Incarnation the fundamental and decisive thing? Because it was the first manifestation and the literal bodying forth of God’s will to redeem mankind. There is no conceivable form of redemption in which God’s love could have revealed itself so visibly, so forcibly, so effectively as in the Incarnation. So visibly: for what is more visible than flesh and blood, more visible than the Child in the manger, than the Crucified, than the Risen Christ? So forcibly: for what more could God have done than give us his only-begotten Son? And so effectively: for when God became man, the redemption was no longer a mere announcement of glad tidings of future joy; it was already a present joy and a resplendent reality. We had a new man in our midst, one who might with pure heart cry “Abba, Father,” and to whom there came the heavenly answer: “You are my beloved Son.” The many thousand generations of mankind, separated from God in their first parent, were again at this one point united to God, and so firmly and essentially united with him that there shall never again be separation. In this one man the whole of humanity was raised from out of its nothingness and worthlessness, and given a positive being and a genuine worth. And since this elevation of mankind was a fundamental and a real elevation, therefore were we made a genuine and a real unity in him? He is our new foundation, our new origin, our new root. We are related to him as the branches are to the vine. He is the head of the body, and we are the members. There is really now no longer any individual or isolated man, for we are all members of Christ and he is our head. As there is but one head, so is there but one body.

And that is the central point of the glad tidings of the Gospel. The vital fact is not that God dwelt bodily among us and that we can see the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus, but that this God is our brother, that he is of one blood with us, that he is the head of our body. Of course, the divinity is an essential element in the picture of Christ. If Christ were not true God, then the infinite gulf between God and the creature would not be bridged in the person of Jesus. That was the point of the fierce struggle with the Arians. That struggle drew its energy and fervor from this very conviction, that if Christ be not himself true God, he cannot raise us to God and give us a share in the divine life. But this divine element is not the only element in the picture of Jesus; nor is it even the prominent element, during the time of this world. Rather it is the golden background, from which his human activity stands out and from which it draws its secret strength and redeeming power. It is the element of peace and repose. But contrasting with that quiet setting is a thrilling fact: this divinity appearing in our human form. Incredible though it may seem, we have among us a man who is God; in his person all mankind is formed into a unity and bound to God; and we all through him have access to God. For that is the deepest meaning of Christ to us, that we go through him to the Father. The vital fact for us and for our world is not that he as the Incarnate God is entitled to the adoration of human beings, but that as the new man he makes all who would be saved members of his body. As king of God’s new people he leads them to his Father. Parallel with the eschatological contrast between this world and the next, between seed- time and harvest, there is a christological contrast between the Man Christ Jesus here and the Triune God there, between the kingship of the Incarnate here and the rule of the pure Godhead there. There is a deep meaning in the statement that the history of Christianity is the history of the becoming, unfolding and realization of the man Christ Jesus. In the doctrinal, priestly and pastoral functions of the Church, the glorified Christ carries out his Messianic work. In that same Church he builds himself his body. As St. Paul says, the Church is his fullness.10

Through her he becomes whole and complete. For as long as his Father wills that this world shall endure, for so long is Christ unfinished and incomplete. He is still ever at his work, still constantly acting as our mediator. Continually, in all places and at all times, he is completing himself in ever new members, until according to God’s unsearchable decision the Last Judgment shall come and the new era be inaugurated. Then end the eschatological and christological contrasts of which we have spoken. The time of Christ’s becoming and ripening, the time of his redemptive, mediatorial, high-priestly activity terminates; and the time of the Triune God begins. Then will he as the head of the body, as the king of the new Israel, lead his people to his Father and resign his authority to the Triune God: “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then the Son also himself shall be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”11

I need not show you in detail how plainly the New Testament evidence concerning the devotion of the early Christians to our Lord supports these fundamental ideas. We know that Jesus, while he lived on this earth, directed all his prayers to the Father. He never requires his disciples to adore him. What He does require of them is that they should pray to the Father in his name,  that is to say in faithful union with him. True, he once speaks of prayer to himself and promises his disciples that he will grant what they ask him.12 So that prayer to Jesus is permitted, and he is the proper object of adoring worship, not only as the Word of God, but also as God made man. But, for the period of this world, while requiring human beings to recognize his Godhead, he desires that in their worship they should regard him as their mediator. Certainly we know that the early Christians prayed to Jesus, not merely in petition,13 but also in praise;14 but these prayers either are concerned expressly with his redeeming function, or else occur only in private devotion. In its the early Church turned to the Father, Triune God ;15 yet of course that prayer was quickened and supported by the thought of Jesus and by the consciousness of union with him. The Christian confessed Jesus in his baptism, celebrated the memory of his death in the breaking of bread, and implored his coming in his prayers: “Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus!” It was always Jesus around whom his thought revolved; but the goal of his prayer, with Jesus and through Jesus, was the Lord God. Hence the primitive Christian formula of prayer: “in the name of Jesus.” “Giving thanks always for all things, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God the Father.”16 “All whatsoever you do in word or in work, all things do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”17 It is practically equivalent to that other formula: “through Jesus.” St. Peter writes: “that in all things God may be honored through Jesus Christ.”18 St. Paul: “I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ.”19 St. Paul even seems to indicate that this formula—“through Jesus”—had already taken its place in the apostolic liturgy.20

This manner of prayer was a direct consequence of the apostolic teaching regarding the mediatorship of Christ. There was no truth which the Apostles strove more strongly to impress upon their disciples than this: “There is one God and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus: who gave himself a redemption for all.”21 “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the just, and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”22 The Epistle to the Hebrews employs the language of liturgy and describes this mediatorial activity of Jesus as a high-priestly activity, setting the Son of God before our eyes as the Eternal High Priest: “Having therefore a great high priest that has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but one tempted in all things as we are, without sin.”23 The early Church held fast to this apostolic teaching regarding our High Priest. It was so dear to it that up to the end of the second century the Church abstained from applying the title priest to its ministers, lest it should be misunderstood by Jews and pagans. Up to the fourth century all liturgical prayers were directed to the Father through this high priest. The formula, “through Jesus Christ your Son,” found as early as the Didaché, which is the most ancient Christian writing outside the New Testament, recurs in all the early Christian liturgies without variation, except that it develops either into the formula “through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit,”24 or—inasmuch as the Holy Spirit works in the Church—into “through Jesus Christ in the holy Church.”25 Only towards the end of the fourth century was this sacred rule violated, so that there crept into the liturgy from private devotion forms of prayer that were addressed directly to Christ. To be sure these prayers are in the beginning found only in the Liturgy of the Word and in the ritual of baptism, and never in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It was the anti-Arian struggle—as has been pointed out already— that first brought this new mode of prayer into the innermost sanctuary.

The fact that the Roman Church remained substantially true to the ancient tradition gives its liturgy its pre-eminence and proclaims once again the consoling truth that it, and it alone, not only in its faith, but also in its prayer, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is true that there are in its liturgy a few prayers which do not conform to the ancient rule but are addressed to Christ alone. Under Pope St. Gregory the Great, the Kyrie eleison was taken over from the book known as the Apostolic Constitutions. Later on, the Benedictus qui venit was added to the Sanctus. Pope Sergius I. took over the triple Agnus Dei from anti-Arian sources. The three prayers to Christ before the priest’s Communion were added at a very much later date. There are also a couple of prayers in Advent deriving from the Gallican liturgy, as well as the prayer for the feast of Corpus Christi. But, even so, all these prayers bear the soteriological stamp, for their object is our Lord in his character of Savior and Redeemer and not purely in his Godhead. They are directed to the Lamb of God, our mediator. By the constantly recurring “through Christ our Lord,” they are all worked into the texture of that ancient prayer, whereby the Mass is in a supreme sense “the sacrifice of our mediator.”26

If then we desire to pray according to the mind of our Lord and the manner of the early Christians and the will of the Church, we can do so by following the liturgy and by praying “through Christ our Lord.” That is the profound value of the liturgical movement of our days, that it is revealing once more the rich significance of the liturgical formulas and that it is teaching us to assimilate our own practice to the spirit of the liturgy.

What is the significance of the formula “through Christ our Lord”? In the first place, and before all else, it teaches us that we are most intimately united with Christ our Head, and brings home to us the fundamental fact that as Christians we live and move in Christ. Within that general effect we may distinguish two particular results of this teaching. The one is that we get a vivid realization of our native remoteness from God and of our natural inability to reach God by our own power, so that we are substantially grounded in the fundamental Christian temper of humility. Being true fellows of the humble publican, we reject and discard all presumptuous self-confidence. The other result is that we get a joyful certainty that in Christ we have all. This is the high mood of Christianity, the holy joy of the redeemed, who can no more despair for their sins, whose whole life now is centered, not in the struggle with sin, but in love for Christ. Christianity is joy, Christianity is trust, Christianity is constant thanksgiving. How much good will has already been squandered to no profit, because we insist on setting our own strength between us and Christ, because we would work out our salvation through ourselves, and because, even when we utter the words, we are not really living and praying “through Christ our Lord”!

But the third value of those words for us is certainly the least appreciated of all. We mean the lesson that St. Paul inculcates when he insists that “the body is one and his many members. . . and so it is with Christ.”27 Here is the widest gulf between our piety and that of the early Church. How vividly did the Christians of the early centuries realize the truth—and how deeply they were penetrated by it—that they in Christ their Head were united and formed into a new supernatural unity, a spiritual temple, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation..28 There are few doctrines which from the very start were proclaimed with such confidence, clarity and fervor as was the truth of the mystical unity of the faithful in Christ and of their holy priesthood. So real was the supernatural mystery of the Church to those early Christians, that the Gnostic heretics took the conception of the “heavenly Church” and gave it an independent existence as a spiritual entity. In its relation to God, the early Church was a supernatural fellowship, a community solidly compacted in Christ, and not a congeries of isolated individuals. It was only later, in conflict with the heretics who denied that the Church was one and visible, that the structural form that Christ himself had imposed upon his Church was fully realized and formulated in exact theological language. Then was the official priesthood distinguished precisely from the priesthood of the laity, and the bishop distinguished from the priest. But, even so, the supernatural and invisible unity of the Church remained throughout axiomatic and unquestioned. It is not until the Reformation period, when Lutheran theology exaggerated the priesthood of the laity, that Catholic apologists here and there seem in the stress of the conflict to have lost sight of that principle and to have formulated an unduly empirical and external notion of the Church. But in the beginning it was not so. The Christian regarded his Church from within and not from without. He regarded it primarily as a Body whose Head is Christ. And that selfsame conception of the Church remains to our own day presupposed in the prayers of the liturgy.

Indeed, it is the truest and deepest meaning of the liturgy; this is my last point, and it seems to me the most important. The communion with the flesh and blood of Christ which we celebrate in the liturgy is a real communion with Christ our Head, and therefore a real communion with all his members. “For we, being many, are one bread, one body, all that partake of one bread.”29 This aspect of the Eucharist is emphasized by St. Paul and especially by such Fathers as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Cyprian, and St. Augustine. Their constant teaching is that by means of this one heavenly bread the supernatural unity of the many in Christ is established and realized. The Mass is never an individual act, but always essentially a community act. This is true not merely in the sense that the whole community should take part in it, but also and emphatically in the sense that participation in the one Bread gives the community its true cohesion and unity, and builds it up into the supernatural organism of the Body of Christ in which form it is presented to the Father by the hand of the divine High Priest. The ultimate meaning of Holy Communion is not union with the uncreated Word, with the pure Godhead, as some ancient Greek theologians erroneously held; nor is it more than a half-truth to say that its meaning is union with the living Christ. The full truth is that it is union with Christ and through Christ with all his members, in whom, in mysterious yet real manner, he achieves his fullness. The Eucharist is not the sacrament of the personal Christ alone; it is also at the same time and for that very reason the sacrament of the mystical Christ. It is a community thing, through and through. This truth has long been an accepted fact among the historians of dogma, nor can the Fathers be understood if we ignore it. Now it has been confirmed by the historians of the liturgy, such as Jungmann and Kramp. Jungmann lays stress on the fact that the liturgy still represents the Eucharist, not as an end in itself and an object of worship, but as a means to an end, that is, as a sacrament. It represents the Eucharist as a sacrificial gift and then as the sacrificial food of the community, which shall unite them to one another and form them into the Body of Christ. The personal presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a certainty of our faith; but the liturgy does not dwell upon that presence, or seek to adore it, lest it should obscure the proper purpose of the sacrificial food, which is Communion. The liturgy turns to the glorified Christ and through him begs the Father that he would not deny to “these holy mysteries,” the sacrament of the flesh and blood of Christ, their proper “fruit,” which is nothing else than the communion of the faithful in Christ. For—so Jungmann declares—“it is precisely this communion and fellowship, the normal condition of the living Christian, that the sacrament is intended to secure.”30

Whatever part of the liturgy we examine, we find Christ represented as our head who binds us together into one whole and offers us with thanksgiving to his Father. We are continually brought back to that fundamental attitude which is indicated in the ancient formula “through Christ our Lord.”

It is none of my business to inquire whether we have actually in our current practice exhausted the immense possibilities of this substantial prayer, or have not rather dug for ourselves various trivial and paltry cisterns, although we had in our dogma and in our liturgy rich wells of the water of life. Yet I wonder if we are not ourselves responsible for the fact that in many regions of devotional life there seems to be little appreciation of the inmost treasure of Christianity of its truest glory and strength. Has not that Christianity, which we plant and water, become variously a weary, wilted, morose Christianity and not a victorious and glad Christianity? Do we Catholics really feel and realize that holy unity and sacred fellowship whose head is Christ? Are we not isolated and separated one from another, forming all too often no more than an external organization? I see but one road to renewal, and that is the road which both dogma and liturgy point out to us, and of which we ourselves shall be daily reminded, as often as we pray “through Christ our Lord.”

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8. Heb. vii, 25.

9. Phil. ii, 7.

10. Eph. i, 23.

11. Cor. xv, 28.

12. Jn. xiv, 14.

13. Acts, vii, 59.

14. Apoc. v, 13; vii, 10; xi, 15.

15. Acts, iv, 24; xii, 5.

16. Eph. v, 20.

17. Col. iii, 17.

18. I. Peter, iv, 11.

19. Rom. i, 8; xvi, 27, etc

20. II. Cor. i, 20.

21. I. Tim. ii, 5.

22. I Jn. ii, 2.

23. Heb. iv, 14.

24. Cf. Eph. ii, 18.

25. Hippolytus

26. St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 110.

27. I. Cor. xii, 12, etc.

28.I. Peter, ii, 5-9.

29. I. Cor. x, 17.

30. The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer , p. 258.

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