Christmas With Quesnel

This year, for Christmas, I wanted to present a brief, original translation of Pasquier Quesnel’s edifying Réflexions Morales. The following passages, which concern the second chapter of St. Luke, are taken from the 1693 edition, Volume III, pages 30-37. All Biblical citations are from the Douay-Rheims.

Dutch portrait of M. Quesnel, Priest of the French Oratory (Source)

The Birth of the Incarnate Son of God – Luke 2:1-7

  1. And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled.
  2. This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria.

The greatest princes often give themselves to great movements and take up magnificent designs without knowing the reason why. Augustus imagined working for the glory of his name and the splendor of his reign – and his orders, by orders more powerful and more absolute than his own, served to accomplish the prophecies that were unknown to him, at the birth of a king he would never know, and the establishment of a monarch that would subjugate his own and all others. This is what happens in every age, and we think not of it.

3. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city.
4. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David,
5. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.

Nativity, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

There is nothing here that seems to happen by chance; and yet, all is ordained by Providence to assure and fix by a public testimony the knowledge of the time and the place of the birth of the Messiah and the origin of the house of David.

The Son of God, recorded from his birth as a real man, acknowledges, so to speak, his obedience, his humility, and the accomplishment of his promises. It is well visible from this that his grandeur, predicted by the angel, is not a human grandeur.

The poverty, fatigue, and subjugation in which Joseph and Mary find themselves are the preparation for the gift that they are going to receive from God.

Let us learn to submit ourselves to every creature for God, and principally to the royal power, in seeing Jesus Christ begin to obey from his birth and before his birth.

6. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered.

Jesus Christ subjected himself to the laws of nature and to a prison of nine months. He hides the glory of His birth, in being born in an unknown place; teaches us to detach ourselves from our country and from all the present world, in being born in a voyage; recommends to us poverty, mortification, and humility, in being born in a borrowed place, deprived of all conveniences and help.

What instructions for us from this first moment, if we know how to hear them well! Let us listen to them in a spirit of adoration and annihilation.

7. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the Virgin; we are, in a certain sense, the next-born.

His humiliation in the infirmity of childhood is all the more worthy to be adored, as it seems the more unworthy of His grandeur and His wisdom. Rejected by men, he borrows the dwelling of beasts. May human pride blush as long as it is pleased to have a God become a child of a day and a moment, reduced to the captivity of swaddling-clothes, to the lowliness of a manger, and to the dwelling of beasts, to race again to the help of His creatures – and to be rejected! It is the glory of the Christian that his God has desired to do and to suffer all that for his salvation. It is his honor to adore Him, to recognize Him as his king, and to render him homage in all His states.

The Shepherds – Luke 2:8-20

8. And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock.

9. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear.

Jesus Christ manifests Himself to the simple and the poor rather than to the learned and the rich. He reserves to the vigilant shepherds the knowledge of the mysteries and duties of religion; the negligent ones are left in their shadows.

Thou dost begin from this moment, Lord, to show who are those whom Thou hast chosen for Thy Kingdom, and who are the ones whom Thou hast cast off.

The Light of the World, François Boucher, 1750 (Source)

10. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people

The birth of Jesus is the joy of this world, and the world did not know it. The world has its vain joys, its criminal joys, and by these it is unworthy to share in the joy of the birth of the Savior. It is the image of what happens every day; men have a heart closed to the things of God, in proportion to the extent to which they have one open to the pleasures and greed of this world.

11. For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.

Abridgement of all the grandeurs of Jesus exposed to the faith of the shepherds, and which God formed in their hearts by the exterior sign of the light which surrounded them. As son of David and heir of the promises, he had a royal birth; as Savior, a sovereign goodness; as Christ, the fullness of the Spirit of God and of the sacerdotal and prophetic unction; as the Lord, a divine power.

What must we not hope of a Savior in whom one finds a sovereign power joined to an infinite goodness, which he annihilates for us?

12. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.

Is it there, Lord, the mark of Thy grandeurs, the ornaments of Thy royalty, the throne of Thy glory? O crèche, worthier than all that the world has of great riches and precious things, may I learn at your feet that it is by humility that Jesus comes to reign and that there is only “this path which leads to his kingdom!”

Pride is the character of the sons of Adam; humility, the mark of the Son of God and of the elect.

13. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying:

God, bringing honor by the celestial spirits to his Son, annihilated in infancy, teaches those of the earth, for whom He comes, what homage they owe Him in this state.

The angels remain happy to raise up by their praises the glory of a newborn infant, and to adore Him as their God. Will men be disdainful?

The crèche of the Savior is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks as much as the Cross; His infancy as well as His death is the pitfall of human pride. But it is the power of God for the salvation of those who have faith, and even the object of adoration for the angels.

Adoration of the Shepherds, Eustache La Sueur (Source)

14. Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.

The two principal motives of the Incarnation are the glory of God and the reconciliation of mankind.

God promises peace on earth to those whom He loves, but not repose.

The peace of God consists in His love, through whatever trouble and whatever storms this love may expose the Christian.

The peace that reigns on earth in these times only marks the birth of God in peace.

15. And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us.

When God inspires someone to search out Jesus Christ, to render Him some duty, to apply one’s self to one of his mysteries, we must not neglect it.

The angel does not order the shepherds to go to Bethlehem; but rather makes known and proposes the good to faithful souls so as to make them undertake it. It is thus to a good Christian and to a pious lady to say to them: Jesus Christ is in this poor tabernacle as in a manger, wrapped up in the appearances of bread, abandoned by all the world – He is in this poor one, almost naked, lodged in a miserable hut, lacking everything.

This is the image of the holy assemblies of zealous persons, who, profiting from exhortations and the light of their visible angels, mutually encourage each other to visit the Blessed Sacrament, poor households, and foundlings, in honor of Jesus the poor infant, swaddled and sleeping in a manger. Let us go to Bethlehem, the “house of the bread” of Heaven. May it please God that those who are outside this house, that is, outside the Church, might encourage each other to go look for Jesus Christ to taste there what our Savior causes us to know!

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Jean Baptiste Marie Pierre, 1745 (Source)

16. And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

Will not sinners blush from the luxury and the delicacy of their beds, seeing the Son of God in a manger?

When a good work presents itself, far from losing time, we must follow the movement of grace without delay, for fear lest it pass, and for fear that another will take from us either the occasion or the beginnings of a holy work.

This reversal of order, the bride named before the bridegroom, creatures before the Creator, marks well the reversal made by the Incarnation. Mary is truly the Mother of God, and this dignity grants her the first rank in His house.

17. And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child.

These shepherds believe the word of the angel without reasoning about it; they see the lowness and poverty of the manger, without being scandalized, and reflect on all, without being troubled. This is the advantage of a humble, simple, and submissive faith.

What false reasonings do the Philosophers make! How many apparent contradictions are embraced by the beaux esprits of the world!

18. And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds.

The shepherds, first apostles of the infant Jesus, are faithful in announcing the news of His birth. God blesses the simplicity of their report in causing it to be believed everywhere.
God does not love and does not bless that human prudence which believes it must hide the apparent lowliness of the mysteries of religion. It belongs to man to obey and to suppress nothing, and to God to cause belief by inspiring faith.

19. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.

Mary, consecrated and elevated to Jesus Christ, full of his mysteries, and entirely applied to the collection of virtue, spirit, and grace, condemns the forgetfulness and negligence in which Christians live with regards to what the Savior has done for them.

It is not easy to profit from the mysteries and the truths of the Gospel, and to preserve them in one’s memory; one must sustain them in the presence of Our Lord, and meditate upon them often, according to the example of the Blessed Virgin.

She is the teacher and the first model of Christian meditation upon the life of Jesus Christ. Let us profit in the school of our holy Mistress.

20. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

The shepherds imitate her in adoring and glorifying God. This is the first effect of faith, the first duty of religion, a tribute of recognition that we owe to the gifts of God.

The praise of these good people is as simple as their faith, and that is what God loves.

Thus should true Christians return to their own homes from the Church where they came to adore Jesus Christ and to listen to the preaching of His mysteries, His virtues, and His maxims.

An Ecclesiological Note

Perhaps the fundamental flaw of our ecclesiology is that we think the Church was founded. By that I mean, that Christ came, set up the Church, sent the Holy Spirit, and it’s all been moving onward, outward, and upward ever since. One points to the words of Our Savior – “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” – and leaves the question at that. (Matt. 16:18). A somewhat more sophisticated version of this argument extends the Church’s life – her gestation, if you will – into the covenants of the Old Testament.

This kind of ecclesiology weds the Church to the vicissitudes of history, and the necessary fruit of this unhappy union is a Tradition that oscillates between mythopoetic antiquarianism and charismatic presentism. Tradition is either an ark to carry us across the sea of changes, or the constantly renewed speech-act of the Pope, or people, or Council, or some ill-defined combination of the three. And whether one reads this historical narrative in a traditionalist or a progressive key, one always ends up interpreting the story of the Church in the light of the past’s dying embers.

Icon of the Synaxis of All Saints. (Source)

But that is not the model of the Church we find in Scripture. The Church which is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Redeemed Heaven and Earth, all this is the self-same Church that sojourns in history (Rev. 21:1-2). But in the Apocalypse we observe her at her true birth beyond time. It is in the culminating moment of all creaturely existence, in her final and lasting Union with God in His essence eternal, that the Church takes her true being. It is the bright light of that ageless day which illuminates history, and not the ever-dimming torches of chronological time. Indeed, history furnishes no light of its own, only dim reflections of God’s glory that we misunderstand in uncountable ways. In the words of the Apostle, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Cor. 13:12).

In the same letter, he writes, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). Here we have an image of the eschaton – that redeemed dimension in which everything that is, is Christ, by the grace of participation in Him. The eschaton is thus non-different from both Christ and the Church. All souls participating in the eschaton likewise share in Christ’s singular mediation before the Father, albeit in ways proper to their scope. Humans are His Body, the Angels are His High Priestly garments, and the new heavens and the new earth are the temple. For the eschaton – the Wedding Feast of the Lamb – mediates God’s salvific action with creaturely, chronological reality (Rev. 19:9). It is like the upmost layer or outer shell of time, giving all creation its true shape. It is the blissful union by which God weds the cosmos.

A genuinely eschatological ecclesiology, an ecclesiology that takes apocalypse seriously, must demote any definition of Catholicity that relies too heavily upon the unstable facts of history. If the Church is, as the Apostle writes, “the pillar and ground of the truth,” then it must be rooted in a life that exists beyond the vicissitudes and fallibility of the creaturely world. (1 Tim. 3:15). However, this raises a question of knowledge with soteriological ramifications.

Too often we hear from Catholics (or Orthodox) in an apologetic mood that “We know we are in the True Church because we have Apostolic Succession.” No, you are in the Church because you are saved by the grace of Christ; your Judgment has already taken place beyond time, your eternal place in glory allotted, your soul blissfully united to the Lord – but you haven’t consciously arrived there yet. This is the mystery of Predestination, but not, as commonly misconceived, in a linear, chronologically anterior direction. Election does not happen before time, but above it – or rather, both before and after history. When St. Paul writes, “And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified,” he is fundamentally describing a single divine work in the eschaton. (Rom. 8:30). To be in the Church is to be a child of God. However, the grace of divine adoption is eschatological in both its root and in its orientation. Scripture says, “He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son.” (Rev. 21:7). And elsewhere, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.” (Rev. 21:3). This image, which comes from one of the final visions of St. John, depicts the Church’s eschatological life, and not her earthly existence. Thus, only the Saints in Heaven are the Church, properly speaking; the damned have no part in Christ’s Body. Ultimately, there is no third category.

The True Church is thus, like God Himself, hidden. She abides in and beneath the purple trappings of worldly glory, but takes no part in it. The tendrils of grace that reach down from the supernal world move invisibly and invincibly to the hearts that are hers; they are as so many crooked and narrow paths up to the temple, lit by the lamp of Revelation. As the Psalmist sings, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 118/119: 105).

This is not to say that apostolic succession is unimportant. It has its uses, insofar as it preserves and passes on the saving truth of the Scriptures and Creeds, the threefold order of ministry, and the seven sacraments by which we receive certain graces. In this sense, it is a gift of God’s condescension to us mortals. But apostolic succession is not constitutive of the Church’s essence. Only final participation in the eternal life of Christ can do that.

Christ the Judge, mural in St. John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN. Mural by John DeRosen. (Source)

Which brings me to a question I have been wrestling with lately: what is Catholicity? When we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Church is “Catholic,” what does that really mean? The common answers one usually hears on this point are either “communion with the Pope” or “possesses apostolic succession.” The first of these is an irrelevant, Ultramontane fable. The second simply confounds the question of Catholicity with the question of Apostolicity.

My own attempt at an answer would divide the question thus: we may speak of what Catholicity looks like, and we may speak of what Catholicity is. Catholicity looks like those things I have already mentioned: teaching the faith of the Scriptures and Creeds, prayerfully distributing the seven sacraments, and preserving the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons in apostolic succession. In what it seems to be, Catholicity means wholeness. But Catholicity is participation in the eschatological Church which is already united to Christ, that is, the whole body of the saved, whosoever and wheresoever they might be. In this sense of its utmost reality, Catholicity means universality. Thus, Catholicity means different things when applied to the Church visible and the Church invisible, with the latter taking priority.

The temporary Church visible and the everlasting Church invisible are never completely commensurate. But one can nevertheless “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” more confidently in a church with these elements, and where one can be reasonably sure that the priest is offering a true oblation to the Father. (Phil. 2:12). One can never truly be sure that one is a member of the Universal Church simply by virtue of the necessary historical features I have outlined. A Christian can still be damned, even if he is a churchgoer; surely, no Catholic who is paying attention could say otherwise. As we move through time, who can know whether any of us will prove to be Saints in that last and most surprising Day? “Watch and pray.” (Matt. 26:41). As M. Quesnel said of the two thieves at the Crucifixion, “Un se convertit à la mort, espérez; un seul, craignez.”

I said earlier that this issue is a question of knowledge with implications for our salvation. But that’s not quite true. One’s adherence to the True Church is not a question of knowledge, even with all the best historical or empirical evidence we can gather. It is, rather, a question of faith. Too many Catholics are uncomfortable with real faith. The over-exalted epistemic claims of our church means that far too often we treat our doctrines and even our own salvation as matters of knowable fact, and end up forgetting that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Let us pray to receive the grace of rediscovering epistemic humility, for with it, faith will follow.