By Alan Fimister
Almost immediately after the passing of our late Queen, one question regarding the reign of her son and successor was settled. His Majesty, following the precedent set in 1952, took his baptismal as his regnal name.
Our Lord and Saviour allowed eight days to elapse from His birth until He assumed the name Jesus at His circumcision. As 1 January has been the first day of the calendar since Friday 15 October 1582, this means that the era Anno Domini now (retrospectively) begins with the Lord’s assumption of His own regnal name.
There is something tremendously appropriate about this. As Pius XI explains in his great encyclical on the kingship of Christ, Quas Primas, the kingship of Our Lord has a twofold character: “Christ is our King by acquired, as well as by natural right.”
In The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien has Elessar II (Aragorn) restore New Year’s Day to 25 March (as it was at various points during the Middle Ages). Presumably Tolkien was irritated at Gregory XIII’s decision to reset the year to 1 January. Certainly it is odd for the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months to have names which mean literally “seventh-month”, “eighth-month”, “ninth-month” and “tenth-month”! More theologically, however, it seems odd to date our era from the Incarnation and then begin the calendar nine months and eight days after the incarnation. 25 March also has the advantage that, according to ancient tradition, it is not only the day of the Incarnation but also of the Passion, and so it commemorates both the Lord’s acquired kingship accomplished by His sufferings but also His natural right established through the hypostatic union.
But 1 January also has this double character that it is not only the Octave Day of the Nativity but also the day on which our Saviour shed His blood for the first time.
When it still seemed as if there might be some prospect of Martin Luther remaining within the Church, the Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan, outgoing Master General of the Order of Preachers and the foremost scholastic theologian of the early sixteenth century, to interview the heresiarch and see if there was any way in which he might be brought to see the error of his ways and remain within the one fold of the Redeemer. The approach Cajetan took was unexpected but brilliant. He placed before Luther the Bull Unigenitus Dei Filius issued by Pope Clement VI on 27 January 1343. This was a Bull of Jubilee and Clement VI had taken the opportunity of proclaiming the Holy Year of 1350 in order to explain the doctrine of the treasury of merits underlying the theology of indulgences.
The teaching of Clement VI was both apposite, in that it touched upon the very question which had provoked Luther’s rebellion, and highly targeted, as it struck at the misconception regarding the atonement which lies at the centre of what would become Protestantism.
In his seminal work on the reason behind Our Lord’s Incarnation as man, Cur Deus Homo, St Anselm explains that there are only two possible remedies for sin: punishment and satisfaction. God, whom sin offends, is infinite in dignity and our debt to Him for creating us from nothing and elevating us to participate in His own nature is infinite again twice over and yet we have transgressed His law. This debt can never be repaid by a created person. Therefore an eternity of punishment stretches before the human race not only for the original offence and all subsequent offences but for the continued orientation of the will away from our Creator: an orientation which we cannot undo without precisely the Divine assistance we have spurned. God the Father redeems His creatures by the incarnation of His Son, Who assumes human nature and offers His own perfect life as man, subject to the penal state of the sons of Adam, as an offering of infinite value to God the Father.
Luther, due to the imprisonment of his mind by the errors of nominalist philosophy which denies any objective criteria of good and evil, found this classical Catholic doctrine of the atonement (the “at-one-ment” of God and man) incomprehensible. The whole concept of satisfaction was for him a metaphysical impossibility. There was only punishment. Thus, for Luther and the sects that have grown from his teachings, Christ does not satisfy for our sins but is punished in our place. In human affairs, to reward someone who undergoes suffering in order to do us honour is seen as the right and proper response of a good ruler. For a ruler, in contrast, to punish one person for the sins of another is considered not an act of justice but of tyranny. Calvin, following through the logic of this “penal substitution”, would even go so far as blasphemously to claim that Christ suffered the torments of the damned.
The difference is crystallised in the dogma that a single drop of Christ’s blood would have sufficed to redeem the world. This beautiful truth is the exact opposite of the blasphemy that would transform the triumphant Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday into a dark negation of the teachings of the councils of Nicaea and Ephesus. That this one drop alone sufficed is true only because the blood shed on that very first New Year’s Day was the blood of a Divine Person.
Now, as St Thomas teaches us, God did not need to become man and suffer for us in order to redeem the world; he did so because this was the most fitting way to save His fallen creatures. He could have forgiven man’s sins without satisfaction or left the sons of Adam to their terrible fate. He chose to show us the depths of His love and His justice by satisfying both upon the Cross. And yet it remains true that, already on the day of his circumcision, the Lord had at the very moment He took the name Jesus — “the Lord saves” — redeemed the world. What then did He accomplish, what did He merit, by the remainder of His sufferings?
Clement VI explains:
“The only begotten Son of God ‘made unto us from God, wisdom, justice, sanctification and redemption’ (1 Cor 1:30), ‘neither by the blood of goats or of calves, but by His own blood entered once into the holies having obtained eternal redemption’ (Heb 9:12). ‘For not with corruptible things as gold or silver, but with the precious blood of His very (Son) as of a lamb unspotted and unstained He has redeemed us’ (cf. 1 Pet 1:18–19), who innocent, immolated on the altar of the Cross is known to have poured out not a little drop of blood, which however on account of union with the Word would have been sufficient for the redemption of the whole human race, but copiously as a kind of flowing stream, so that ‘from the soles of His feet even to the top of His Head no soundness was found in Him’ (Is 1:6). Therefore, how great a treasure did the good Father acquire from this for the Church militant, so that the mercy of so great an effusion was not rendered useless, vain or superfluous, wishing to lay up treasures for His sons, so that thus the Church is an infinite treasure to men, so that they who use it, become the friends of God (Wis 7:14).
“Indeed this treasure … through blessed Peter, the keeper of the keys of Heaven and his successors, his vicars on earth, He has committed to be dispensed for the good of the faithful, both from proper and reasonable causes, now for the whole, now for partial remission of temporal punishment due to sins, in general as in particular (according as they know to be expedient with God), to be applied mercifully to those who truly repentant have confessed.
“Indeed, to the mass of this treasure the merits of the Blessed Mother of God and of all the elect from the first just even to the last, are known to give their help; concerning the consumption or the diminution of this there should be no fear at any time, because of the infinite merits of Christ (as was mentioned before) as well as for the reason that the more are brought to justification by its application, the greater is the increase of the merits themselves.”
Christ merited our merits on the Cross. He won for us the grace by which we, cleansed of sin and made sharers in the Divine Nature, are able to suffer and merit with Him. Christ reigned from the Tree and from that Tree He made us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9; cf. Exodus 19:6), “a kingdom of priests to His God and Father” (Rev 1:6). Thus, St Augustine and the Council of Trent proclaim that when God crowns our merits He is crowning his own gifts. This participation in His kingship and His priesthood begins at the moment that the Lord took His regnal name and is consummated at the moment of His death.
“And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. And he said to me: Write, for these words are most faithful and true. And he said to me: It is done. I am Alpha and Omega; the beginning and the end. To him that thirsteth, I will give of the fountain of the water of life, freely.” (Revelation 21:5–6)
Jesus created the New Heaven and the New Earth as He hung upon the Cross. He fed the multitude with loaf he broke open that day. As Our Lord told His disciples on the eve of His death:
“Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you: because I go to prepare a place for you. And if I shall go, and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will take you to myself; that where I am, you also may be.” (John 14:1–3)
The people of the United Kingdom are blessed to possess not only a monarchy but a monarchy in which some semblance of the ancient rite of coronation persists. It is easy to say that Christ alone is our king and priest, but without visible priests the true nature of sacrifice is soon forgotten, and likewise, without a visible king the majesty and prerogatives of Our Lord and Saviour are easily set aside. But the orb, the sceptre and the crown are surmounted by a cross and only in that sign shall we conquer.