The Excellent Knowledge of Jesus Christ

Light is a medium of knowledge. By it, we see things, perceive things, know things. Advent marks the time of darkness before the coming of the light of Christ. Christmas, foreshadowed by the Jewish “Festival of Lights,” commemorates the entrance of that same Divine Light into the world. These two Christmastide scriptural passages speak to us of divine illumination:

“Wherefore he saith: Rise thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead: and Christ shall enlighten thee.” (Eph. 5:14).

“The Orient from on high hath visited us: To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79).

But what is it that Christ’s light illuminates? What does it enlighten us see? And why?

Christ’s light illumines divine truth so that we might know it, and thus be saved. Specifically, we must know the Trinity and the Man-God, else we will not have the beatitude of the saints.

Jesus Himself equated knowledge of His Father and Himself with salvation: “Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Surveying the different interpretations of this passage by the Fathers and other Catholic commentators, we find that some (e.g., St. Thomas) interpret the passage as speaking of the Beatific Vision (meaning, “this is eternal life, to know God as He is by a direct vision of His glory in heavenly beatitude”), while others (e.g., St. Cyril, St. Ambrose) say it applies to the way to salvation (meaning, “this is eternal life: to know God here on earth by a faith that works by charity, so that this knowledge can be consummated in the Beatific Vision”). Still others, like St. Augustine, combine the meanings, identifying this knowledge of God as both the end (the Beatific Vision) and the path to that end (the life of faith that works by charity in via).

St. Thomas teaches that grace is nothing else than a beginning of glory in us. This means that the life of grace in via is the seed and the prelude of the life of glory in patria. So, too, the knowledge of God we have here by faith gives way to a direct vision of the Trinity. As St. Paul put it, “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known” (I Cor. 13:12).

The reader will see that this is more than an apologia for the necessity of the Catholic faith for salvation. Various proofs of the necessity of faith are found here and here, but my plan is to go beyond that, and invite the faithful to grow in their knowledge of God. We can always advance in our faith, and must continue to sanctify ourselves in it, as St. John says: “he that is just, let him be justified still: and he that is holy, let him be sanctified still” (Apoc. 22:11). And Truth Himself prayed to His Father for us, saying “Sanctify them in truth. Thy word is truth” (John 17:17).

Knowledge of God, and of created things in light of the supernatural, are so important that we have one theological virtue (faith) and four gifts of the Holy Ghost (wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge) that perfect our intellect in this knowledge. This divine treasury is not willed to us by Almighty God that we may rest content in a life of spiritual mediocrity. God gives us these talents that we may make good use of them so that they increase.

Spiritual writers insist on the importance of two kinds of knowledge: of God, and of self. Those, for example, who make the thirty-three day preparation for Total Consecration according to the method of St. Louis de Montfort are required to spend a week each on knowledge of self and knowledge of God (specifically, knowledge of the God-Man: Christ). It’s obvious from reading St. Louis Marie that the kind of knowledge he would have us cultivate is not the dry, academic sort. It is a loving knowledge, corresponding to St. Paul’s “faith that worketh by charity” (Gal. 5:6). A survey of what St. Louis Marie has us meditating on will affirm this:

What is to be studied in Christ? First, the Man-God, His grace and glory; then His rights to sovereign dominion over us; since, after having renounced Satan and the world, we have taken Jesus Christ for our “Lord.” What next shall be the object of our study? His exterior actions and also His interior life; namely, the virtues and acts of His Sacred Heart; His association with Mary in the mysteries of the Annunciation and Incarnation, during His infancy and hidden life, at the feast of Cana and on Calvary.

I have used the term “loving knowledge.” This is not a mere verbal artifice. The Biblical use of the word “to know” often goes beyond a simple knowledge of facts. When applied to persons, it often implies an intimate, friendly, or loving knowledge. When “Adam knew Eve,” she conceived a child (hence, St. Matthew says that St. Joseph “knew not” Mary). When the new Pharaoh “knew not Joseph,” it was not because he was ignorant of this great figure, who, after all, saved Egypt in time of famine — but because he didn’t like Joseph or his race. (For a scholarly study of the Hebrew Old Testament that will back up these assertions, see “Knowledge in the Bible.”) With this background, certain New Testament passages take on richer meaning, like this, from St. Paul: “I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord.” (Philippians 3:8) The enormity of St. Peter’s denial also comes into greater relief: “I know not the man” (Mat. 26:72). And the terrible words of Our Lord at the judgment of the wicked are even more stinging: “I know you not, whence you are: depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity” (Luke 13:27).

The virtue of faith is tried and perfected in the saints. Those who ascend to the greatest intimacy with God have come to the unitive way of the perfect. To do this, they must pass through the harrowing “dark night of the soul,” during which the theological virtues are purified of all alloy in the searing furnace of divine charity. Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., gives a somewhat frightful explanation of how faith is perfected during this trial. Reading this section of his work, and the larger chapter of which it is a part, will give the reader some very unsentimental insights into the sufferings of the saints. The point is this: Our knowledge of God must progress, be purified of mere human motives and helps, and stripped naked to its essential motives. If we do not undergo this painful purgation on earth, where we can merit, we must be purified in the fires of Purgatory, where there is no merit.

In fine, the loving knowledge of God that we’ve considered is necessary for salvation, that is, for being holy here and hereafter. Far from remaining static, however, it must grow. To be a saint in the essential meaning of that word, we must, by God’s grace, have not just knowledge, but “the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

How do we cultivate this excellent knowledge? That is a question I propose to answer in a subsequent Ad Rem. Until then, I wish all my readers a grace-filled and merry (Marian) Christ-Mass!

“To know Jesus Christ, Eternal Wisdom, is to know enough; to know everything and not to know him, is to know nothing.” (St. Louis Marie de Montfort, Love of Eternal Wisdom)