I Believe in Jesus

Aimee Milburn Cooper, M.A. Th.

(Note: This is the beginning of a long essay on my belief in Jesus, and how my beliefs have changed and deepened during my journey from Evangelicalism to Catholicism.)

Last night I heard a homily from Archbishop Charles Chaput on the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 that got me thinking about Jesus.

I believe in Jesus. I've believed in Him unwaveringly since my first radical, life-altering, face-to-face encounter with Him 10 years ago. But what do I believe? What did I believe then, as an Evangelical? And now, as a Catholic, what do I believe about Jesus? How is it different, or how has it changed, from when I was an Evangelical?

A little perspective first. Though infant baptized in the Episcopalian Church, my parents resigned from the church when I was young, and the religion never "took" with me. I never had any experience of Christ or any particular belief in God. I supposed there probably was one; but if there was, He didn't seem to have much to do with me. Coming of age in the late 70's and early 80's, I was a lot more interested in feminism and the fun, freewheeling lifestyle of the liberal college town I grew up in than in religion.

As a young adult, however, I had what I call my "spiritual awakening," where I woke up and realized, deep in my bones, that there is a God and I had to find Him. I think it was a real grace from God, Who caused me to thirst after Him, and seek and find Him. It was a deep, radical intuition that nothing could be more important, or even come close to being as important, as finding and knowing God, the Creator of everything and reason for our existence. As a feminist I was very closed to Christianity and did not even consider looking there - but over the years, I searched everywhere else I could think of.

When I did finally find the God I had been seeking, more than a decade later and having exhausted my options, not knowing where to look anymore, it came in the form of a personal and shattering encounter with the Risen Christ. It left the old Aimee in ruins, and in her place a new Aimee was born, a babe, though a grown woman, having to start all over again in life to learn how to live, only this time as a Christian and a follower of Christ.

To me, this is what it means to be "born again:" to be demolished, to die, to reject your whole life as nothing and hand it over to Christ, who destroys what is worthless in it, and then begins to rework what is left into something wholly new. It is to be radically changed and transformed, to start all over living again, but this time in a completely new way, the real way, God's way, in tandem with God.

I started out as a new believer in an Evangelical church, and as an Evangelical, I believed in Jesus as my Savior, the Son of God and God, who died on the cross for my sins. Believing in Him, having faith in Him, meant I was forgiven of my sins and could go to heaven. It was more than mere belief. Because of the powerful encounter I had had with Christ at the beginning, it was also powerfully relational, a living, personal relationship with the living God, who accompanied me day by day in my new life with Him.

To me, Jesus was, and is, real, present with me each day, speaking to me in my mind, speaking to me in Scripture, listening to me, responding to me, guiding and correcting me. A person, a man, enfleshed and visible; and yet transcendent, the mighty God and Creator of all the universe; yet also deeply personal, tenderly loving, the God who called me personally into existence because the idea of me to Him is beautiful and loveable, and so He wanted me to be. The idea of each one of us to Him, and each detail of existence, is beautiful and loveable, and so wills each one of us, and the whole wide creation down to the smallest detail, to exist.

I wrote the beginning of some thoughts about my belief in Jesus the other day, and now pick my thoughts up again.

As an Evangelical, I had a strong relationship with Jesus, whose presence was with me all the time, and especially during times of prayer and scripture reading/meditation. I trusted that Jesus was the God I had been searching for, whose presence I had felt dimly all those years, and whose presence was with me strongly, palpably, overwhelmingly, now.

It was a strong, one-one-one relationship between Jesus and me; Him standing before me, speaking into my mind and my heart, me listening and responding.

As I read and studied scripture over time, one passage about Jesus gradually emerged into my consciousness, and one day I stopped and really read it, from the first chapter of Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God.

In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth.
All things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

All things were created through him. In him all things hold together.

In my mind's eye, I began to see a different image of Jesus than I had seen before, an image I have pondered since: not just standing before me personally, but standing above, beyond, and around all creation. In my mind's eye the whole earth, and all creation, took shape within Jesus and emerged into visibility through him; and yet continued to remain fully within Him, being held together in Him. I saw Christ surrounding all creation with His whole person, His whole being, encompassing it, through His inner life and reality giving creation existence and cohesion within Himself. And another line of scripture sprang into my mind:

In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

I saw that all creation, even now, is being held together in and by Christ, within Himself, continuously. He is holding us, the earth, this desk I sit at and computer I write at, the yard outside my window, me and you and all creation, within Himself, and continuing us in being, constantly. Christ is not somewhere else, nor are we apart from Him. We are inside of Him, right now, living and moving and having our being inside of Him.

Previously, I had thought of God and creation as being like two things in two places. We read in Genesis 1 that "the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters," and think of God above the waters, and the waters in a separate place, below God; we do not think of the waters as being within God, and God all around and encompassing the waters, the waters emerging and having being within God.

We are accustomed to space, to the separation between things in space, and so think of God the same way: the space between us and God. But space itself is held within God (perhaps this is why, as scientists have observed, space is curved); there is no direction we can go that is truly away from God; though we may not see Him, we are always facing Him.

As David said,

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from they presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
(Psalm 139)

I have continued to ponder these things over time, and over time these have deepened my conception of Jesus, paradoxical and yet magnificently unified: Jesus as personal, loving, up close, intimate; and yet huge, majestically grand, encompassing all creation, the earth and the most far-flung galaxies, in Himself. This is the God-man spoken of by the Fathers: Jesus, at once both personal and loving man, and great God and Creator of all.

When I began my journey into Catholicism, I began to encounter for the first time the teaching of the Church about the Holy Eucharist as real flesh and blood of Christ. I had always wondered about those Scriptures in the bible, the words of Jesus Himself about His flesh and blood, both in John 6 and at the Last Supper, and the words of Paul about the same in 1 Cor 11. The explanations of my Evangelical pastors that communion was only symbolic didn't seem to really fit with these. But the Catholic doctrine did fit, and seemed entirely consistent with the words of Scripture.

As an Evangelical, I already had a close spiritual relationship with Jesus, very real and deep. But as I studied Catholic doctrine, I began to ponder what it would mean to have not only a spiritual but a physical union with Christ, with His flesh and blood, in the Holy Eucharist, received interiorly into me. And as I pondered it, I began to hunger for it.

I had to wait a long time, as the Church causes us to wait, study, ponder, and reflect, before entering into this most serious and intimate of unions: union with Christ as one flesh, and with His Church, through the Holy Eucharist. But when the night finally came, and I went forward with all those being received into the Church that Easter Eve and received my first real Holy Communion, my first real Holy Eucharist, something happened so deep in my soul that I went back to my pew, knelt, and sobbed deeply for several minutes, sobbed with deep, painful joy, the painful joy of a deep longing and emptiness I hadn't even known I'd had, finally being assuaged.

When I received my first Holy Eucharist, it was as if a marriage took place deep in my soul, a marriage with Christ far deeper and more permanent than any union I had felt with Him yet. And not only with Christ, but with His whole Body, a deep, permanent, abiding union with the whole Church in all its ages, from the women and men who followed Christ to the foot of the cross, to the Apostles in their travels, the martyrs of the early centuries, and all the holy men and women throughout all the ages of the Church, up until today and beyond, into the future and into all eternity.

I became one flesh with all of them, in and through my one flesh union with Christ that was taking place now not only in my soul, but in my body. And I knelt in my pew and sobbed helplessly at all the power and beauty of it, now being rooted in me, body and soul, even as I was being grafted, painfully and beautifully, into it.

The Holy Eucharist, the flesh and blood of Christ, when we receive it, does something interiorly that is hard to describe, but that seems to me to be deeper even than my inmost self, deeper than any place that I am capable of truly grasping, comprehending, or fully experiencing. It is deeper than either my senses or my soul. And yet it is real, more real than my body or my soul. I am in the Hand of Christ, who grasps me and works me in ways that are beyond me, and that I can only entrust and abandon myself to, in obedience to Him.

Since then, I have focused on deepening this interior union with Christ through the Holy Eucharist, and through Christ with His whole Body, the Church. And my understanding of Him has continued to grow, and deepen.

And that I will attempt to describe in another installment. But this experience of my first reception of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is the crux and the turning point, the point to which everything has led, and from which everything else had flowed, and continues to flow. Union with Christ, the great God and Creator of the universe, in and through Whom our Father in the power of the Holy Spirit caused us and all creation to be, is the whole point of existence, the reason why we exist at all.

After I came into the Church, I began to meditate much on the meaning of Jesus present in the Holy Eucharist, making us one flesh with His whole Body when we receive the Holy Eucharist, and the Church as His Body. One day I was meditating on the presence of the Holy Eucharist, Body and Blood of Christ, in tabernacles in churches all over the earth, and the Church itself all over the earth as Christ's Body, when suddenly I grasped: wherever the Holy Eucharist is, there is Jesus.

In my mind's eye, I saw churches all over the earth with tabernacles in them. And where there was a tabernacle with the Holy Eucharist in it, there was Jesus. I saw Jesus standing all over the earth, like a sentinel, everywhere there was a church with a tabernacle housing the Holy Eucharist. Jesus was standing all over the earth.

In one of my classes in school last year, I wrote a paper that traced the development of thought about the Temple in the writings of the early Church Fathers. In the Old Testament, there was only one Temple, the Temple at Jerusalem, and God only dwelt in that one spot on the earth. The Temple, in a sense, was considered the geographic center of the earth, because that is where God dwelt.

Jesus said, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up again in three days." His hearers thought he meant the Temple at Jerusalem; the traditional Christian interpretation is that he meant his specific personal body. But with his death, resurrection, and Pentecost, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the spreading of the Church, his words had a much richer meaning: the Temple, the residence of God on earth, is no longer confined to just one geographic spot.

The Temple, the dwelling place of God, has spread all over the earth in the Church, because Jesus dwells in the Church, present in the Holy Eucharist. And more: the Temple is also embodied in us, in the temples of our bodies, we who receive the Holy Eucharist in us. Through the Holy Eucharist, we enter into a marriage, a one flesh union with God. Ephesians uses marriage imagery when speaking of Christ and the Church; older translations, better reflecting the original Greek, say that we are made from His very flesh and bones (Eph 5:30; see KJV or Confraternity). We literally embody Christ all over the earth, the more so the more we give ourselves to Him, and receive Him. Through the Holy Eucharist, we become bone of His bone, and flesh of His flesh.

The Temple is embodied also in the whole mystical Body of Christ, all who are joined in Christ through the Church, through faith and baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit, though not formally a part of the Catholic Church. The Temple has spread all over the earth in the Body of Christ. God in His Temple is encompassing and holding the whole earth, through Christ in us. We have become His Temple.

The world itself was created to show forth the glory of God, so in a sense the world itself is the original Temple, the original place of worship of God. But soon after the creation of the first man and woman, they fell, lost their relationship with God - and the Temple meant to glorify God was darkened. God was still there, holding it in existence, but men and women were unable to see Him or feel His presence, with few exceptions. But now, the Temple of the world is being re-lit, first with the Temple of the Old Testament, when the presence of God descended and dwelt there, and now with every man and woman born into Christ and assimilated into the new Temple, all over the earth.

The other day, while meditating on all this, I saw a progression: in my mind's eye the whole earth, and all creation, took shape within Jesus and emerged into visibility through him; and yet continued to remain fully within Him, being held together in Him. But the creation fell into darkness, while still being held in Him. And so, to rescue His creation, Jesus entered the darkness.

To me, one of the most beautiful lines of scripture (a line most Protestants are unfamiliar with, because it occurs in the book of Wisdom, not present in the Protestant Bible), speaks of the moment Christ entered the darkness:

For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land. Wis 18:14-15

In my minds eye, Jesus leapt from heaven, and emerged and began to take shape in the womb of Mary. He, within whom all creation took shape, lowered himself and took shape within one of His own creatures.

Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Phil. 2:5

And so, the Life of the world that gives light to the world entered the darkened world in the form of one of his own creatures, to bring light, the Light of Himself, back to the world.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . all things were made through him. . . . In him was life, and the life was the light of men. . . . The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory. Jn 1:1-5, 9, 14

And now he is entering each of us, one by one, through faith, baptism, and reception of the Holy Eucharist, and we are being brought back into communion with God in all His fullness, through Jesus. For Jesus is the face of the Father revealed to us, and through Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are reunited with our Father, and made His children through grace.

And so my understanding of and belief in Jesus, in the end, has become not just Jesus, but all the fullness of the Trinity of God, whom Jesus reveals to us, and through Himself restores to us, and us to Him. For we were created by the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit; and through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are restored to our Father, forever.

There is one more thing. Soon after I came into the Church, I was made Music Director of my parish, and there I was plunged into the cycle of the liturgical calendar. As Music Director, though a new Catholic, I felt I should know and understand the seasons and feasts of the calendar, what it is for, so that I could really use music to support it the right way.

And so I studied and read about it, and put into practice what I learned. What I learned was this: the liturgical calendar is far more than just a rote or arbitrary observation of Christmas, Easter, and feasts of various saints. In the liturgical calendar we re-live in a mysterious way the whole cycle of the life of Christ, and embody it in ourselves. We also re-live the lives of the saints, and embody their lives, and the lessons of their lives, in ourselves.

Through the liturgical calendar, we sanctify time itself. Christ Himself lives and walks again year by year on the earth in the Church through Her seasons and feasts, present in the Eucharist, present in the liturgy, present in the Word that is Himself, read and spoken of from the pulpit - present in us, not only through faith but in a very real way when we receive Him in the Holy Eucharist. Christ Himself, through the liturgy, through its cycles, through us, is perpetually lifting up all creation and time itself, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to His Father in heaven, for salvation and sanctification. When we participate in the liturgy, we are participating in Christ Himself, and in all his saving, redemptive work throughout history and in heaven.

Jesus is more than just my personal savior. He is the God of all creation, the savior of the world, present in me, present in the Church, present in all believers, present in creation, present in heaven, surrounding and holding all creation, lifting all creation and us with it up to God our Father in heaven, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created. . . . In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Col 1:15-16, 19-20

His work will be done at the end of time, when He comes again. For me, my understanding about Him has grown and evolved, and continues to grow and evolve. It has evolved even during this writing. I don't think it will ever be finished, for if He is God, then He is infinite, and there is no end to Him, and so no end to knowledge of Him, no end to understanding Him.

But pursuing Him and learning about Him has been, and continues to be, the great adventure of my life. And so I thank Him, and praise Him, for extending His very personal hand to me, and lifting me up, along with you, I hope, into the infinite Heart of the God of all creation, who is beyond all creation, and without end.

Addendum: I went to mass tonight, and at the end, after receiving Holy Communion, was meditating on everything I had written here earlier. Suddenly, in my mind's eye, I saw the fullness of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each pouring out to the other in an endless cycle of love. In the heart of the Trinity was creation, emerging in the heart of God as an expression of all the glory and love of God.

At the intersection of the smallest point of the heart of the Trinity was emerging the individual human heart. It was as if every human heart was emerging from the center point of the Trinity.

Emerging in the individual human heart, when it was opened up and given over to God, was the Trinity itself, like a beautiful flower coming forth.

As Jesus said on his last night on earth,"[I] pray . . . that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us . . . that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me . . . that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them." (Jn 17:20-26)

We emerge in God, and live and move and have our being in Him. God, when we give ourselves over to Him, in and through Christ, emerges and lives and moves and has His being in us. And the cycle is complete - and will never end.

Used with permission. Creative Commons License

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