5th Sunday of Lent, John 12:20-33
Jesus said, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.”
In both options for the Gospel this Sunday (whether from year B, on the Son of Man being glorified and raised up on the Cross so as to draw all men to himself; or from year A for RCIA, on the raising of Lazarus from the dead), Christ is deeply troubled and intensely sorrowful.
Our Savior truly suffered not only in his body but in his soul. Our Lord was profoundly acquainted with grief. Both the thought of his own death and also of the death of his friend Lazarus make our Lord to offer prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears (Hebrews 5:7).
But, if Christ’s soul was troubled, how can the Church claim that our Savior knew all things?
Christ knew all things and enjoyed the beatific vision
We are not here going to defend the traditional belief that Jesus, in his human intellect, knew all created things (and also a good number of the possible worlds which could have been created). Neither will we put forward all the reasons why Christians must affirm that our Lord enjoyed the beatific vision.
Rather, the point of this post will be to respond to the most common objection to the perfection of our Savior’s human knowledge and beatific vision – namely, as they say “because Christ was sorrowful and cried out in anguish, he could not possibly have enjoyed the perfect fruition of the beatific vision.”
Two important Magisterial texts:
The following proposition is rejected: “The opinion cannot be declared certain, which holds that the soul of Christ was ignorant of nothing but from the beginning knew in the Word everything, past, present and future, that is to say everything which God knows with the ‘knowledge of vision’.” (Pope Benedict XV, Decree of the Holy Office of 1918)
“The knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of His Incarnation, exceed all the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the beatific vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love.” (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis 75)
For those interested in further reading, consider the following articles:
Why Jesus had to know all things [here]; That Jesus knew the day and the hour of the final judgment, and he knew all things [here]; Perfect knowledge does not make Jesus less human [here].
Christ suffered in both his body and his soul
Sacred Scripture clearly affirms that our Savior did indeed truly suffer in both his body and in his soul. Indeed, that he suffered in his body should be obvious to all – he even fell several times under the weight of the heavy Cross.
But that he suffered in his soul requires some explanation. Our Savior did not suffer inordinate or sinful desires in his soul, both because he is God and because he was subject neither to sin nor to the effects of sin (namely, concupiscence).
Thus, while our souls are often troubled by disordered desires, lust, greed, envy, etc., and also by memories of past sins, the soul of our Savior was in no way troubled by such defects.
However, St. Thomas Aquinas affirms that the human soul of Christ was truly troubled during his life on earth, before the Resurrection. While there was certainly no ignorance in Christ, there was sensible pain in his soul, together with sorrow, fear, wonder or astonishment, and just anger. (cf. ST III, q.15, aa. 3-9 [here])
Let us focus specifically on the sorrow and fear in Christ’s soul, considering how it can be that these realities co-existed with the beatific vision and in no way hindered the perfection of our Savior’s joy.
Christ’s fear did not proceed from ignorance
Both sorrow and fear are caused by the apprehension of evil: Sorrow, from the recognition of a present evil; fear, of a future evil.
Now, fear is not so much about a future evil which is certain and unavoidable – such an evil causes not fear, but rather sorrow; for we fear only that which he have some hope of avoiding. And those future evils which we recognize as certain do not arouse fear, but rather sorrow insofar as they are (by reason of their certainty) considered as an evil in the present.
Fear may be considered in two ways: First, as a natural instinct such that (for example) a man naturally shrinks from the possibility of future bodily injury. In this way, fear was present in the soul of Christ.
In a second way, fear may be considered in relation to the uncertainty of the future event (as when we hear something in the night and are uncertain as to what made the sound and fear what may come next). In such a respect, fear was not and could not possibly be in the soul of our Savior.
Because the Lord knew all things, he knew with certainty that he would suffer upon the Cross and he knew that he would not avoid this suffering. In this respect, we say that Christ was filled with sorrow rather than with fear.
Christ suffered true sorrow
Sorrow is caused (as we said above) by the apprehension of a present evil. Now, Christ’s soul could apprehend evils as being hurtful to himself (e.g. his passion and death) and also as being hurtful to others (e.g. the sins of men). In both respects, Christ our God had true sorrow.
However, sorrow was not in Christ in such a way as to disturb his reason. In other words, our Lord was never overcome with sorrow so as to grieve inordinately or excessively. Rather, our Lord’s sorrow was always perfectly regulated by reason.
And hence we make a distinction between the higher and lower powers of the soul. In the lower parts of the soul, those dealing most directly with sense experience and the passions, Christ did indeed experience both true sorrow and fear. It was the lower part of Christ’s soul that was troubled.
In the higher parts of our Savior’s soul, the Lord experienced the perfect joy of the beatific vision. Here there was no trouble or disturbance, but all was well ordered and perfect.
It was only by a special decree of God that the glory and joy of the beatific vision which so filled these higher realms of the Savior’s soul did not overflow into his soul’s lower portions as well as into his body. Such occurred perfectly only after the Resurrection.
Our Savior’s sorrow did not diminish his joy
As the power of Christ’s Godhead did not overcome or absorb the human nature he assumed, neither did the glory of the beatific vision (before the Resurrection) so fill his body and the lower faculties of his soul in such a way as to rule out all suffering.
Now, it is impossible that the same man be both perfectly sorrowful and perfectly joyful about the same thing in the same respect. However, this is not what the Church claims regarding Christ in his passion.
It is wholly plausible that a single man may be both sad and happy about two different objects, or (perhaps) even about one and the same object under two respects.
And so it was with Christ, for he was perfectly joyful insofar as the higher part of his soul enjoyed the vision of God which is called “beatific”; but he was deeply grieved by the Passion he suffered. The beatific vision made him to be perfectly happy, but the suffering of the Cross made him to be most sorrowful.
In a similar way, a man may be relieved in finding his eldest son alive after a ship-wreck, while at the same moment being grieved in finding his youngest son dead in the same wreck. Would any claim that the loss of the youngest makes the father to be grieved at the finding of the eldest? Or that the safety of the elder makes the father to be joyful at the death of the younger? Of course not!
And, with Christ, the distinction is even greater, for the joy was not only regarding a different object, but was experienced in a different part of the soul – for the higher part of his soul was joyful, while the lower part was filled with sorrow.
And thus is shown the absurdity of those who claim that Christ’s sorrow proves that he did not know all things and enjoy the beatific vision.
Perfect knowledge and the beatific vision increased our Lord’s sufferings
Finally, we point out that our Savior’s perfect knowledge and the beatific vision even increased his sorrows. Knowing all things, Christ knew the horrific nature of the sin of the Cross – and this sin grieved him terribly.
Further, he knew of all those who would turn away from his love and would reject the Cross and the salvation which he offers to all. Our Lord also knew well the malice which his executioners had, and even the malice which all men have in sinning; not merely by way of conjecture, but by a perfect knowledge – this would grieve the Lord immensely.
Additionally, even the bodily sufferings he endured would be greater on account of the fact that his senses would be more active than ours. We dull our senses through sin, but Christ’s flesh would have suffered the physical pains of the passion in the highest degree. Still, these bodily pains are as nothing compared to the pain and sorrow which our Lord experienced in his most holy soul.