The Holy Name and the Primacy of Christ

Lomán MacAodha OFM

Bernardine’s purpose in developing a theology of the Name of Jesus which would embrace the entire spiritual life of the Christian was primarily pastoral. It did not lack, however, a deeply theological foundation. He wished to place in the centre of his message in a very striking manner suited to the spirit of his times, Jesus Christ the author of salvation and its unique mediator. The emblem bearing the Holy Name of Jesus manifested in practical fashion this basic truth which is at  the heart of any authentic presentation of the Christian message.

The vernacular sermons spell out in the clearest manner what the Name of Jesus meant for him.  Its significance was not confined to the earthly appearance and existence of Christ. The Name Jesus spoke rather of God’s eternal design for the creation and salvation of the world in and through the Word Incarnate. Jesus was at the centre of God’s creation ‘ante constitutionem mundi’ and could be said to be brought into the picture, as it were, simply to repair the damage done by Adam at the suggestion of the Serpent. On the contrary, in the mysterious design of God’s self-communicating love the Word Incarnate was the beginning and the end: the world is created, redeemed and glorified in and through Jesus Christ.

Creation is essentially the unfolding of the mystery of God’s love; God willed to communicate himself in the most perfect manner possible by decreeing the incarnation of the Word. All creatures are thereby ordered in an ascending scale towards the summit of creation viz., that sacred humanity which God willed to unite with Himself in a personal union. Because of this supreme grace which transcends the order of nature, Christ is predestined to be the Head and Lord of all creation: everything else is created through Him and for Him; He is the universal and unique Mediator between God and creatures in the order of nature and of grace; He is the first in God’s predestination of the elect. He is the cornerstone destined by God from eternity on which all creation would be built up (Eph.2,20-22); for Him the rest of creation is ‘a fitting entourage.’ In this way, He is Mediator of nature, grace and glory to all rational creatures and through them to the whole universe. It was from the plenitude of Christ that God willed every creature to receive grace and glory (cf. JN.1,16).  Because Christ is at the head of all and creation receives all from Him, God is fittingly and adequately honoured and glorified in the homage rendered by the Man-God. The rest of creation, as it receives all from God through Christ, honours God through Christ and with Him.

If Christ is said to be the cornerstone on which creation is built this is true in a more profound sense with regard to rational creatures. God planned to raise angels and men to a share in the intimacy of divine life only through Christ. He is the corner-stone of God’s plan therefore not only in the sense that He has brought Jews and Gentiles into the unity of one people but, more profoundly, in that angels and men are made one community of salvation and blessedness in Him. This unity was indicated by St. Paul (cf. Col. 1,19-20) when he said that it was the Father’s pleasure that all fullness should dwell in Christ, that through Him God would reconcile to Himself every being and make peace both on earth and in heaven through the blood shed on the cross.   In order to bring out the universal mediation of Christ, Bernardine explains in some detail how Christ mediated grace and glory to the angels. In doing this, he follows closely the commentary of Mathias of Sweden on Apoc. 11, 19–12, 11.

Bernardine bases his discussion of the testing of the angels on what he calls in one sermon ‘quaedam regula divina’: he who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.   Another rule which applies to the salvation of all free creatures is this: ‘Non sequitur Victoria nisi cum praecesserit pugna:’ in the case of the angels this struggle was the testing of their humble faith in the role of the Incarnate Word in the plan of God’s salvation. Seeing that God meant to bring every intellect into the captivity of faith under obedience to Christ (cf. Cor. 10, 5), the choice put before the angels at the dawn of creation was this: would they accept in faith the mediation of the God-Man on which depended their confirmation in grace and glory? Or would they reject God’s wisdom which planned to put an inferior nature, however eminent, at the summit of creation? Would the cornerstone through their refusal become a stone to fall on them and crush them. The revelation made to the angels at the dawn of creation regarding God’s plan in Christ is indicated, according to Bernardine following Mathias, by the words of Apoc. 11,19: ‘the temple of God was opened and the ark of His covenant was seen’  (i.e. God’s will in Christ was revealed to the angels). This announcement was followed by the revelation of the great sign of the Woman in the sky  (Apoc. 12,1-2) which leads to the battle in heaven (12, 7-12).

This great conflict which was for Bernardine the paradigm, as it were, of the struggle between the Church of Christ and its Adversary down through history, was a clash between two radically opposed attitudes towards God’s wise plan for salvation in Jesus Christ. Christ as universal Saviour is at the centre of the conflict and it is only through belief in him that Michael and his angels win the victory. The fundamental testing of the creature’s right attitude towards God constitutes for Bernardine the trial of the angels. This is also seen to be true in the case of Christ himself who humbled himself even unto death (cf. Phil.2,5ff, ) and also of men who must  accept in faith and humility the salvation which God offers them in Christ by means of the visible, material signs of the sacraments.  It is always a question of choice between God’s wisdom and the wisdom of the creature: will the creature choose himself within the ambit of his own created nature and possibilities or will he open himself in true creaturely fashion to the transcendent will of God?   The clash was between those who submitted humbly to the will of God, led as they were by Michael whose name pointed to his God-centred attitude (“Quis ut Deus”), and those who were led astray from God’s ways (for that is the meaning of “seducere” as Bernardine points out) by Lucifer, coiled like a Dragon in the folds of his own self-esteem and self-love. Lucifer who would not be beholden for salvation to a nature lower than that of the angels (cf. Ps. 8,6-8) relied uniquely on his own created gifts which were indeed very great. However, there can be no equality between grace and nature, no matter how sublime; Satan learned by experience this truth in his defeat and expulsion from heaven. Thus it is that Lucifer becomes Satan, the Adversary who opposes salvation as planned by God: he pursues this on the earth by tempting man to sin and join his rebellion against God. It was Satan’s intention thereby to render human nature unworthy of being assumed by God and united to him.

The Hymn of victory sung by the faithful angels (Apoc. 12,10) emphasises above all the saving truth that “salvation and strength and kingdom” have God alone for Source, and Christ, his anointed, for Mediator. This is true for the angels as well, because the future merits of Christ embrace all time through the infinite power of God who transcends time and space. As a consequence, the angels who won salvation through their faith in Christ become ministers of this same salvation for men, their brethren in Christ (cf. Hebr. 1,14).

As Satan fell because of his pride in his own sublime nature and his envy of man’s dignity in Christ, God has thereby revealed that rational creatures cannot attain to the divine life of generous love except in a spirit of humble acceptance. This is revealed in the most striking fashion in the entire life of Christ and most particularly in his willingness to humble himself unto death for the sake of the will of his Father. Such is the profound meaning of the words spoken to the prophet (Ezech. 17,24): “And all the trees of the country shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree and exalted the low one.”

Christ was that “low tree” in his acceptance of death on the cross. In the unfathomable mystery of God’s counsel the cross was at the centre of the revelation of his love from the beginning as the supreme evidence of his divine love. In this sense, the cross of Christ was no tragic accident of history, it was externally fore-ordained as the “commune vexillum, thesaurus, gaudium et exemplum” for all those who would be saved, angels and men. In regard to this, Christ is revealed as the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world (Apoc. 13,8) for it was by means of his cross, “unique Redeemer and Reconciler,” that grace was merited for the angels to preserve them from sinning, and redemption from sin and death achieved for man. Therefore, far from being an accident, the cross of Christ was at the centre of the mystery of God’s plan of salvation to the greater glory of God and of his Anointed (cf. Rom.5,20)

Jesus, predestined as Saviour from eternity, fulfilled this mission on the cross and in the glorification of his humanity became the mediator of salvation for all. This is the perspective adopted by Bernardine in his sermons on the passion and death of Christ. The mystery of his passion and death is the supreme manifestation of God’s love for his creation; meditation on this mystery of love is the most effective way of turning to a selfless love of God from a life of sin. It is in this way that the Christian acquires that mind of Christ Jesus which led Him to lay down His life in a spirit of humble obedience (Phil.2,5ff).   The Christian must become one with Christ’s sentiments so that through love for Christ he is gradually transformed into him (cf. Gal.2,20). Living members of Christ should be at one with their head in everything.

From this standpoint of profound compassion for Christ in the mystery of His humble suffering, Bernardine describes in detail but with sobriety and balance, and inspired by the Gospel narratives, the physical sufferings of Christ, his mental sufferings, the deep humiliations to which he willingly submitted Himself and, above all, that which gave meaning to the many-sided sufferings and humiliation, His consuming love of the Father and of sinful men. It was this love of Christ which carried Him through his sufferings and death in His response to His Father who so loved the world he had created that He delivered up His only Son to save it (Jn.3,16). Such love was the inspiration of Christ’s entire life on earth in His life-long search for the one stray sheep, erring humanity; that search was intensified and manifested in the climax of His last days on earth. His heart was then crushed and torn between love for His Father and His brethren and an inexpressible sorrow for the heinousness of sin. This was most forcibly manifested in His agony in Gethsemane, during the labours of the Passion and especially as He uttered those seven phrases from the Cross.

The eternal love of God for man manifested in Christ was finally and fully revealed when the side of Christ was ‘opened’ by the lance.  The blood and water which flowed out signified both the price of man’s redemption (‘sanguis divinus’) and his cleansing from sin. As Eve was formed from the side of Adam so was the Church, the Bride of Christ, formed and cleansed at the same time from his pierced side. The Church thus recognises that she has been loved with an eternal love but had to be redeemed at a great price the tyranny of sin. Only thus does she come to a correct appreciation of her worth.  The many waters which signified unredeemed and degenerate nations (cf Apoc.17,Iff.) thus became water (in the singular) to signify the unity of the faithful people born from the side of Christ: it was that unity which St. Paul referred to so often (cf. 1 Cor.10,17; Eph.4,5). The side of Christ was said to be ‘opened’ to indicate that Christians may now enter in and become aware of the secret hidden from eternity viz. the mystery of God’s love for men in Christ.

Such then is the eminent dignity of man in Christ. Bernardine elaborates further on this in a sermon on the dignity and worth of the human soul.  Here he compares Christ on the Cross to the wide and ample net of the Father, the divine Fisherman, which, by means of the charity of Christ, draws to the shore of the paternal heart all those who are to be saved. As He commended His spirit to his Father, Christ also commended to Him all those who would become one spirit with him through ardent love (cf. 1 Cor.6,17): those who would be the body of which He was the head. The love and wisdom of God are such that Christ did not hesitate to offer Himself in obedience unto death in order that man might come into his eternal inheritance. It is at this point only that man discovers his true dignity and worth in the eyes of God (cf.1 Pet. 1, 18-19; 1 Cor.6,20).

This dignity is established not only by the historical fact of Christ’s blessed passion and death but more profoundly, by God’s eternal love which ‘chose us out in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in his sight’ (Eph.1,4) for all eternity.

For this reason God has made man the goal of visible creation: everything is ordered towards man and man to God.  In Christ, he is destined for the ‘empyrean heaven’, the abode of God himself, above and outside the created world, beyond the created spheres of this world where he would enjoy eternal glory with God’s Son, the Spouse of humanity.  It was for this reason that man was made in the image and likeness of God: God is love and man was created by Him to love Him above all.   Such is the eminent dignity of man that the Word of God was eternally predestined to become man in the fullness of time so that He would be the Mediator of all creation and particularly of all rational creatures. Christ was destined to recapitulate all in Himself so that through Him God, the author of all salvation, might eventually be all in all.


To conclude we would like to treat briefly of Bernardine’s contribution to the balancing of perspectives in pastoral life and popular piety by means of his Christocentric preaching. One of the greatest abuses he had to correct was the fearful dualism which had taken hold of popular piety.   God had become a distant and awesome being and His power and providence were being questioned because of the widespread suffering and wanton destruction so frequently witnessed during those years. The influence of Satan was thought to be omnipresent and in the ascendancy. This dualism was an inheritance of the earlier dualistic heresies of the Albigensians, Cathars and others.

While feeling for these popular sentiments and thus countering them on their own ground, Bernardine sought to restore the truly Christian perspective which centres the message of salvation on God, the author of all, in His only Son the Mediator, Jesus Christ. Whatever the misgivings of some intellectuals and the misunderstandings of others who were, as Hofer says, mostly jealous of the success of Bernardine and the Observants with the common people, it can be said that his employment of the Holy Name tablet as a pastoral technique to centre the message on Jesus was singularly adapted to the needs and circumstances of his hearers. Naturally enough, he conceded a certain amount to the spirit of the times in the working out of the technique but as he said of the word of God which he likened to a fishing hook: ‘if the fish cannot grasp it they are not caught.’

Inspiring this particular pastoral vivification of the mystery of Christ and giving it solid doctrinal support was Bernardine’s clear and unhesitating affirmation of the universal and absolute primacy of Jesus Christ. It was this conviction which gave a marvellous unity to his message of conversion. Jesus Christ was not merely someone sent by God to repair the damage done to God’s plan by Adam’s sin nor someone sent merely to rescue man from the all-powerful attacks of Satan. He was not the servant of an order conceived independently of Him. Neither was His incarnation a divine after-thought conceived in order to wrest from Satan his lordship over creation. The order of Adam which Satan vitiated and thus associated with his own fall was already, even before Satan’s rebellion, the order of Christ which the Crucified restored as His own. Following St. Paul (Rom.5,20), Bernardine would insist that God only permitted sin so that the power and the glory of divine grace might be more abundantly manifested.

Bernardine integrated into, and subordinated to, the Christ-event on which everything in creation depends, his understanding of the respective roles of the angels and demons in salvation. By doing this he showed clearly that man stands in the midst of a wider than human society of salvation and damnation and also that the angels share one supernatural saving history with man which has its first exemplar and final goal in Christ. The devil and his fallen angels are treated in terms of salvation history; they form a kingdom in opposition but subservient to the kingdom of God. They were expelled from the kingdom of the blessed in heaven and sent down to earth where they seek to lead man astray and thus build up a kingdom of evil among those who like themselves will not submit to the Creator and His Anointed.

Such is the dualism of good evil which Bernardine sought to bring out in its true, Christian dimensions by insisting on the supreme saving power of the Name of Jesus over Man’s enemies: Satan, sin and the self-centred world. Since he was very much a man of his time he often used what we could call his theological imagination to pin-point this contrast. When we consider, however, the era in which he lived his balance and sound sense are remarkable.

The proclamation of Jesus as Saviour was the nerve-centre of Bernardine’s missionary preaching. However much he preached about the evils of the times, the wickedness of men, the nature of sins and virtues, the religious obligations of his hearers and even the threat of divine punishment, it was the event of Christ, the Kingdom of God realised in Him, the new creation which issues from Christ’s death and resurrection – all of which Bernardine summed up in the mystery of the Holy Name – that dominated and got primary place in his preaching.