In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.
This verse came up in a conversation about Paul’s teaching and Francis of Assisi’s reception of the Stigmata – the matching of signs on his body with the physical wounds of Christ in the Crucifixion. A discussion ensued about what Paul means – because, as the WR Orthodox say in the Anaphora of St Tikhon, Christ has made “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” How can that be matched with what St Paul says, about “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”?
Anyone who was raised with (or around – as I was) Irish Catholic parents might remember hearing a child complain about a scraped knee, or how cold it was outside, or “But, Mom! I need to eat a pop tart now, I’m starving!” To which an exasperated, and overworked parent would reply, “Offer it up!” Which is shorthand for “offer it up to God for the souls in purgatory…” And that, too, seems a stretch, no? Jesus’ sacrifice was full, perfect, and sufficient” so what can I do? What can Paul do? Or Francis or anyone living or dead, no matter how holy they are? Not a thing was wanting, right? So what can be lacking?
The answer is in the Eucharist, really.
In the Divine Liturgy, in the Mass, we take bread and offer it to God and he gives it back to us as the Body of Christ. It is not the Body of Christ in abstract or in symbol but in reality. And, in the Eucharist, we stand, not just before the Throne of God, but also, at the foot of the Cross. Jesus is not dying again – as some Protestants say making blasphemous fun of the Holy Mysteries: Jesus is offering himself from the Cross before us. Right there, right here. Right then and always now. It’s not a redoing. It’s not even a reminder of the event. It is, to borrow a Greek word, an Anamnesis: a making present in our now of a thing in the past. Or, more correctly, a being present both here-and-then. In ScFi Terms: a Tesseract, a bending of space and time. All of universal reality changes at the Cross. We do not see “the Body of Christ” in abstract, but in reality at that moment, at that time: when he says “Father into my hands I commend my spirit” we receive the host.
Now. It is always now.
The Church is the Body of Christ. Not in abstract, or in symbol, but in reality. Partaking of the Eucharist makes it so: literally, you are what you eat. As a Church Father said, “The Eucharist is the meal that consumes us.” In that filled-with-Christ/being/becoming-Christ state of ontological change: when one suffers, we all suffer. When Christ suffers – we all suffer. When you suffer, Christ suffers. When I suffer, Christ suffers. We’re not talking about scraped knees, or needing pop-tarts here, but if you unify yourself with Christ in His Church it’s not that your pain “adds” to his but rather, your pain is his. We are one.
It helps to realize as we pray in various Western devotions, at least, that it is the entirety of Christ’s life that is Saving Us. His infancy, including wetting his diapers and maybe having a little baby vomit on the blessed Virgin, his puberty, including his awkward voice changing, acne and other things that happen at that time in life that embarrass teenagers, his struggles in school, his fumbling, first uses of a hammer in his father’s woodshop, etc. All of Jesus’ life is God saving us. All of the common-place struggles of Christ were the act of Salvation being worked out. And so: “offer it up” becomes not a parent saying “don’t bother me” but rather an ontological fact.
As the Church is really the body of Christ, as the Church really is Christ in his person saving the world; and as you are in Christ in the Church, so Christ is in you, continuing his working of salvation. Your sufferings do not add to Christ in a mathematical sense, as if anything was missing from his “full, perfect, and sufficient” action, but rather they literally are the sufferings of Christ inasmuch as we present them in faith before the Altar of God and pray them to be offered in union with Christ. Your pain at your illness, your loss of a child, your grief, your inability to work – and anything else – are all, potentially, anamnetic channels of Christ’s salvific presence in the world.
Paul says in verse 27, “Christ in you the Hope of Glory”; and again in verse 28 he wants to present us “Perfect in Christ.” We are, to the degree that we are willing to let go and trust his providence, presented before God as “little Christs” as “Christians”. And received (in energy, not essence) into the Godhead’s divine dance of self-emptying. Not as individuals: it’s not “Huw Christ” and “Ben Christ” and “Mary Christ”. But rather, Christ, the one and only Son of the Father, consubstantial and coeternal, presented in your person. The Resurrection is the fulfilment of Christ’s action on earth, proof that God, who raised him up, validated his teaching. But on the Last Day, in the General Resurrection, it’s not a new thing, not billions and billions of Resurrections: there can be only one.
Christ is risen.