One of the traditional depictions of Christ on the cross includes tiny angels adorning the bars of cross. In one version, by Gustave Dore, the cross is crowded with angels clinging to it. One medieval painting shows a crowd clustered at the foot of the cross while busy angels dart to and from the cross of Christ and those of the thieves.
These images illustrate a profound truth: we never really encounter Christ alone. This, I believe, is the fundamental error at the root of the Protestant Reformation’s cry of solus Christus.
One explanation of solus Christus is that it is primarily about salvation (the doctrine of justification). The argument is that we need Christ alone — no interference or assistance from the saints, priests, popes, or Mary. But the practical effect of this false teaching is that devotion to the saints and Mary and obedience to priests and popes is eliminated from the life of the Christian.
This is at odds with a fundamental reality of the gospels: Christ is always with other people. Rarely does someone meet with Christ alone. Indeed, one strains to think of when Christ is ever alone. Rather, from the very beginning Christ relates to the world through other persons, through a community.
Consider the Incarnation itself: Christ did not ‘descend’ from heaven but instead was ‘born.’ He certainly could have appeared from the heavens, already fully human while fully divine. That might seem odd to us only because the Christmas story is so intimately familiar. But really it is strange that a being from another world should enter ours in such a manner. There is no counterpart in the modern myths of our culture, nor even in the ancient world, in which there were accounts of divine births but they always involved some element of violence and the prior descent of some other deity. Nor is there precedent in the Old Testament.
But Christ first appeared on this earth as a member of humanity’s primordial community, the family. When the three wise men and the shepherds venerated him, they did so in the presence of St. Joseph and Mary. It was Mary who first introduced Christ to John the Baptist and Mary who first publicly presented him at the temple.
This pattern continues in the ministry of Jesus. What does Jesus do first? Stand in the ancient town square and start proclaiming the good news? No—He first meets someone else who was drawing large crowds to himself, John the Baptist. And what does Jesus then do? Does He then take John the Baptist’s place? No, He presents himself as one of the crowd. And as they did, so He also submits to baptism by John.
Even after this, Jesus does not start preaching alone. Instead, He recruits disciples to first follow Him. Only then, with this company, does Jesus set out to preach and heal. Preaching, by its very nature, is a public act. In our society, healing tends to be the opposite: it is intimate and private. But that’s not how it is in the gospels. Most accounts of Jesus’ healings always seem to involve the presence of other people—from the hemorrhaging woman who snuck through the crowd to the deaf man who was presented to Jesus by a crowd (Mark 7).
In the crucifixion too, Jesus was not alone. John and Mary were at his feet. Even in the moment in which He parts with His mother and experiences the agony of divine abandonment, Jesus was not alone: two others were crucified with Him. This continues in His death. The descent to hell today is sometimes described as a solitary event but in traditional depictions it’s a crowded scene: usually Jesus is seen pulling Adam and Eve out of their graves by their wrists, surrounded by many other Old Testament saints.
The one obvious exception to this in the gospels is those moments when Jesus retires to pray. But this exception explains the pattern we otherwise see: even during these times Jesus is not truly alone because He is praying to God the Father. So Jesus can never be alone: the Trinity, the divine community is always with Him. “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus said in John 14:10.
This is why Jesus normally appears with others in the gospels. His very manner of appearing reveals a fundamental truth about God. God is not a lonely God. He is not like Adam, in paradise yet lacking for a partner. He is a community. (Yet He is not a plurality of individual beings. He is one because He is perfect.)
Because God is a community held in love, when we encounter God through community we are brought closer to Him. Just as loving others draws us to God, as Pope Benedict XVI, explains in Deus Caritas Est: “[I]f in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties,’ then my relationship with God will also grow arid. … Love grows through love.”
The special community which introduces us to God by mirroring his very being is the Church. As Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm put it, the Church is meant to be “the community of saints reflecting the Most Holy Trinity” (This was in an interview with me for a news story.) Pope Benedict XVI elaborates on this point in Caritas in Veritate:
The Trinity is absolute unity insofar as the three divine Persons are pure relationality. The reciprocal transparency among the divine Persons is total and the bond between each of them complete, since they constitute a unique and absolute unity. God desires to incorporate us into this reality of communion as well: ‘that they may be one even as we are one’ (Jn. 17:22). The Church is a sign and instrument of this unity.