Dying With Christ

A Mystery Begun in Baptism and Perfected in Death

“What is essentially new about Christian death” — declares the Catechism — “is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already ‘died with Christ’ sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ’s grace, physical death completes this ‘dying with Christ’ and so completes our incorporation into Him in His redeeming act.”1 The somber tone of a funeral appears at stark contrast to our jubilation over a newly baptized brother, but the beginning and end of a Christian’s earthly life are deeply linked. As we celebrate the new life of the baptized, we know that theirs is a risen life — a life consequent upon a death to sin, a sacramental dying with Christ. As we mourn the passing of our loved ones, we look forward in hope to their fuller life enjoying the direct vision of the Trinity, and ultimately to the resurrection of their newly glorified bodies. Christian death is imbued with the hope of the resurrection and, indeed, with the joy of Baptism, for physical death is meant to complete what Baptism began: our incorporation into Christ’s redemptive dying, that we might also rise with our Savior in glory.

Dying with Christ in Baptism

St. Thomas Aquinas, following St. Augustine, tells us that Christ’s “one death” “destroyed our two deaths,” of soul and of body.2 The transformation of both of our deaths reaches us through Baptism — the spiritual regeneration of our soul is granted immediately, and the transformation of our physical death and our bodily resurrection come to fruition in their own time. Baptism is the first means by which the fruits of Christ’s death and resurrection are applied to us.

Jesus’s Passion was more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole human race. But for any individual to be cleansed of his sin, it is necessary that the effect of the Lord’s saving act be applied to him.3 The power of the cross must reach each of us, and it reaches us first of all through Baptism. It is by Baptism that we become members of Christ’s mystical Body, and He becomes our Head. And it is Christ’s role as our Head that renders His Paschal Mystery efficacious for each of us.

St. Thomas illustrates with the example that a man “by the good industry of his hands” might “redeem himself from a sin committed with his feet” because the various members comprise one natural body. Similarly, the Lord’s act of supreme love and obedience can redeem all of His members from sin because “the whole Church, Christ’s mystic body, is reckoned as one person with its head, which is Christ.”4 Therefore Thomas can make the bold and surprising claim: “hence it is clear that the Passion of Christ is communicated to every baptized person, so that he is healed just as if he himself had suffered and died.”5 So profound is our incorporation into the body of Christ that we are, in some sense, identified with Him — and the effects of His Passion are applied to us as completely as if we ourselves had merited them.

St. Thomas Aquinas explains that Jesus’s death and resurrection are the cause of our salvation in two key ways: first, as its efficient cause, or as the events which God works through to bring about our salvation; and second, as its exemplar cause, or as the model to which we are likened when we are saved and sanctified. It is Christ’s Paschal Mystery as a whole — death and resurrection — that is the is efficient cause which brings about our salvation in all its fullness. However, Christ’s Passion and Resurrection are distinguished as exemplar causes of their various saving effects.

In other words, some of the gifts that flow to us from the Lord’s Paschal Mystery make us more closely resemble Christ in His Passion, and some liken us to Christ in His Resurrection.6 For example, the forgiveness of sin and the gift of participating in the Trinity’s own life are both brought about by the Paschal Mystery as a whole, but Christ’s Passion is the exemplar cause of the forgiveness of guilt, “by which forgiveness we die unto sin,” and Christ’s Resurrection is the exemplar cause of the newness of life that we receive through grace.7

In terms of exemplarity, our configuration to Christ’s death and Resurrection also results from our incorporation into Christ through Baptism. Dominic Langevin comments on the unique character of this extraordinary exemplarity. In contrast to ordinary cases of exemplar causes, the exemplar in question is not an idea in the mind of the artist, nor is it a static external model. The Passion and the Resurrection are events, or, “perhaps better said,” they are Christ acting in a certain way at a given moment in time. They are mysteries in which Jesus accomplished our salvation through the instrumentally of His human nature by acting in a particular way, namely, by dying and by rising. Their exemplarity is therefore more dynamic than might initially be supposed.8

Langevin points out, with Jean-Pierre Torrell, that St. Thomas usually does not speak of our configuration to Christ’s death and Resurrection, but rather to Christ dying and to Christ rising: we are “conformed to the suffering and dying Christ,”9 we are “likened unto Christ suffering,”10 and “even in our souls we must be conformed with the rising Christ.”11 Baptism’s grace, therefore, conforms us to Christ and to the mysteries of His life — or, rather, Baptismal grace conforms us to Christ in Himself and to Christ acting in the events through which our salvation was accomplished.12 Our participation in Christ’s dying and rising is therefore a result of our incorporation into and configuration to Christ, for “human beings are to be conformed to Christ not just in general or in stasis, but precisely in his suffering and rising.”13

Taymans d’Eypernon puts it similarly: “In this assimilation of the Christian to the dying and the risen Christ we must not lose sight of what is its most fundamental aspect. It is an assimilation of persons, a conformity between two persons, between the Eternal Son and the adopted son of God.”14 The grace of Baptism makes us Christians — it renders us one mystical person with Christ and makes us “other Christs,” conformed to His likeness. Some fruits of this grace are granted in their fullness immediately, such as the full remission of our sins just as if we ourselves had suffered His death. But because it is an assimilation of persons, some fruits of Baptism’s grace are progressively deepened as they are lived. The baptized are called to a life of ever-growing likeness to Christ dying — and a key way that this is lived is through the Baptismal character.

The Baptismal Character and Our Participation in Christ’s Priesthood

In addition to configuring us to Jesus dying and rising, Baptism also conforms us to the Lord as priest through the bestowal of the baptismal character. Sacramental character is an instrumental power — it is a change in the soul fitting it to be an instrument of Christ’s priesthood; it prepares the soul to be that through which Christ Himself acts when He exercises His priestly role today.15

The supreme act of the Lord’s priesthood, of course, is His sacrifice on the cross, and He continues to exercise His priesthood today principally through the celebration of the Eucharist. In each Mass, through the instrumentality of the priest who has been marked by the character of Holy Orders, Jesus offers in a sacramental and unbloody manner the same sacrifice that He offered under its natural species on the cross. As the Council of Trent assures us, Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice is not multiplied, but re-presented sacramentally: for “the same now offers himself through the ministry of priests who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.”16

If the character of Orders is that by which Christ sacramentally perpetuates His offering through the ministry of the ordained priest, the characters of Baptism and Confirmation are that by which He makes His offering through the lay faithful. “Incorporated in the Church through Baptism,” says Lumen Gentium, “the faithful are destined by the baptismal character for the worship of the Christian religion.”17 The baptismal character is a passive power that fits the believer to receive the graces given in the other sacraments of the Church, but it is also an active power that enables the layman to participate in Christian worship in a way that a non-baptized person cannot.

The center and summit of “the worship of the Christian religion” is Christ’s self-offering to the Father and our participation in it. The faithful — whose priesthood differs from that of the ordained minister “in essence and not only in degree”18 — join in the offering of the Eucharist by uniting their prayers and intentions “with the prayers or intention of the priest, even of the High Priest himself.”19

Through the beatific vision, Jesus was able to see, and atone for, every sin of every sinner throughout the ages in its particularity. He was also able to see, and offer to the Father, every prayer, good deed, and act of love given by all men throughout the ages. Thus, the Lord’s offering of Himself on the cross included the self-offerings that each of the faithful make with Him at each Mass — and at every moment of the day, when we unite our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings to the sacrifice of the Mass offered throughout the world.20 As Pius XII tells us, Jesus “offers to the heavenly Father not only himself as Head of the Church, but in himself his mystical members also, since he holds them all, even those who are weak and ailing, in his most loving Heart.”21

The faithful participate in Christ’s offering to the Father, therefore, both by consenting to the offering of Christ Himself to the Father, and by joining their own selves to the offering, “so that in one and the same offering of the victim and according to a visible sacerdotal rite, they may be presented to God the Father.”22 In this way, the whole Christ, the Head in Himself and the Head acting through His members, both offer as priest and are offered as victim.

Physical Death as a Completion of Baptism

St. Thomas Aquinas lists three reasons why Jesus’s offering of Himself to the Father was superabundant — more than what was “required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race.”

  • First, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered
  • Second, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man;
  • Third, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured.23

In all three of these ways — depth of charity, dignity of what is offered, and greatness of grief endured — our self-offerings will never remotely compare to His. We might as well compare a dewdrop to the ocean. Nevertheless, I suggest the same three reasons can serve as reasons why our own death may be our opportunity for the greatest offering that we ourselves can make to the Trinity. First, if we have spent a lifetime growing in the life of charity, then by grace we can hope that our offering of ourselves to God in death may be the act that we accomplish with the greatest charity of our lives. Second, the gift of our very selves, the totality of our lives, is the gift we are called to offer — in a more perfect and unreserved manner than ever before.

Finally, not all of us will die in suffering, but for some, the process of dying will be the greatest suffering endured in our earthly life. For all of us, the separation of the soul from the body will be the greatest natural evil that we will suffer. Since “human suffering itself has been redeemed” through Christ’s redemptive suffering, the very suffering of death makes it a privileged opportunity to participate in Christ’s redemptive work.24 Redemptive suffering is, in fact, another privilege of our Baptism. Baptism cleanses us of all sin and the punishment due to sin, but it does not immediately remove all the consequences of sin that belong to this life, such as susceptibility to suffering.25

This is not due to any defect in the sacrament, but rather to the close configuration to Christ which it grants. It is fitting, St. Thomas writes, that what took place in the Head should take place in the member. The soul of Jesus was perfected with the fullness of grace from the moment of His conception, but for the sake of His mission, His body retained the capacity to suffer until it was glorified at His Resurrection. Likewise, the Christian’s soul receives grace at Baptism, but he retains a passible body, that he might suffer for Christ and so enjoy the dignity of cooperating in the Savior’s redemptive work.26 Our bodily likeness to Christ rising is delayed to allow time for a more perfect likeness to Christ dying — we are granted the chance to suffer like Him, that we may have the dignity of participating in our own redemption.

While death itself is an evil, and a penalty of sin, the self-offering of death is a fitting culmination of a sacramental life begun in Baptism and nourished on the Eucharist. The life of the Christian begins with a configuration to Christ dying, continues with an ever-fuller uniting of ourselves to His priestly self-offering, and ends with a commending of ourselves to the Father in union with Christ’s redemptive death. The grace of Baptism is “progressively appropriated,”27 and comes to full flowering at various points throughout the Christian’s life — and especially in his death.

I have said that our offerings of ourselves in death cannot hope to compare to Christ’s. That is true, but it is only part of the story. Certainly, the offering of myself, my charity, and my sufferings greatly pales in comparison to the offering of Jesus in dignity of person offered, depth of charity, and depth of grief endured. However, we have also said that Jesus incorporates us into His body such that we are rendered one person with Him. His merits belong to us just as if we ourselves had won them. Therefore, whether our sufferings be large or small, it is in the depths of His great suffering that they have a share. The great charity of His human heart has been given to us, belonging to us so truly that we, too, can offer it to the Father. And we can join our intentions to His and offer to the Eternal Father His own beloved Son — in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.28

Thus we offer not only ourselves, but ourselves as united to Jesus. As our High Priest offered to the Father the whole Christ, both Head and members, so do His priestly people. Thus our generous Lord grants us both the dignity of participating in such an offering and the privilege of having the most worthy gift to offer.

It is Baptism that incorporates us into Christ’s mystical body and conforms us to Christ dying and offering, that we may share in these priestly privileges. Our physical death can be the culmination of a life so offered in union with the Lord. And as the sacramental death of Baptism led to spiritual resurrection, such a bodily death is the gateway to bodily resurrection. In the glorification of the bodies of the blessed, the body, in its own time, comes to partake in its way in the divine life that has revivified the soul since Baptism. We have seen that the gifts of the glorified body, such as impassibility and immortality, are delayed to allow time for a fuller configuration to Christ dying. But when these gifts are granted, these, too, are gifts given by the power of Baptism, whose effects, we have seen, do not all come to full flowering immediately.29 A life and a death lived in conformity to Christ dying will give way to an eternal life in conformity with Christ rising — and this is the hopeful, joyous meaning of physical death which is the birthright of the baptized.

  1. CCC 1010. This essay is dedicated to my grandmother, Betty Ridenbaugh, whose dying with Christ was completed while it was being prepared for publication.
  2. Summa Theologica, 5 vols. trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1981), III, q. 53, a. 2. Hereafter ST.
  3. ST III, q. 49, a. 1 ad 4.
  4. ST III, q. 49, a. 1.
  5. ST III, q. 69, a. 2. Emphasis added.
  6. ST III, q. 56, a. 1 ad 3 & 4, ST III, q. 56, a. 2 corp. & ad 4; Dominic Langevin, From Passion to Paschal Mystery: A Recent Magisterial Development Concerning the Christological Foundation of the Sacraments, Studia Friburgensia (Fribourg, Switzerland: Fribourg Academic Press, 2015): 261–262. Christ’s Passion is also a meritorious cause of our salvation, and this does not apply to the Resurrection.
  7. ST III, q. 56, a. 2 ad 4.
  8.  Langevin, From Passion to Paschal Mystery, 324–325.
  9. ST III, q. 56, a. 1 ad 1.
  10. ST III, q. 49, a. 3 ad 2.
  11. ST III, q. 56, a. 2. Langevin, From Passion to Paschal Mystery, 325; Jean-Pierre Torrell, “La causalité salvifique de la résurrection du Christ selon saint Thomas,” Revue Thomiste 96 (1996), 199–201.
  12.  Langevin, From Passion to Paschal Mystery, 315.
  13. Langevin, From Passion to Paschal Mystery, 325.
  14. Taymans d’Eypernon, The Blessed Trinity and the Sacraments (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1961), 41.
  15. See ST III, q. 63, a. 3.
  16. “In this divine sacrifice that is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. Therefore, the holy council teaches that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory . . . For, the victim is one and the same: the same now offers himself through the ministry of priests who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” Council of Trent, Session 23, Ch. 2; DS 1743.
  17. Lumen Gentium 11.
  18. Lumen Gentium 10.
  19. Mediator Dei 93.
  20. Traditional Morning Offering: “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father. Amen.”
  21. Mystici Corporis Christi 82.
  22. Mediator Dei 93.
  23. ST III, q. 48, a. 2.
  24. Salvifici Doloris 19.
  25. ST III, q. 69 a. 2–3.
  26. ST III, q. 69, a. 3; Col. 1:24.
  27. Langevin, From Passion to Paschal Mystery, 206.
  28. From the Chaplet of Divine Mercy: “Eternal Father, I offer You the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, in atonement for my sins, and those of the whole world.”
  29. ST III, q. 69, a. 3. Langevin, From Passion to Paschal Mystery, 206.
Dr. Katie Froula About Dr. Katie Froula

Katie Froula received her doctorate in systematic theology from Ave Maria University. She currently resides in Menlo Park, California, with her husband Jeff and three sons.