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Jesus Christ in John of the Cross

Written by Regis Jordan, O.C.D.

Implicitly, at least, all the works of St. John of the Cross speak to us of Jesus Christ. John was passionately in love with Jesus Christ, the center, the focal point, of his life. He writes in the "Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love":

You will not take from me, my God, what you once gave me in your only Son, Jesus Christ, in whom you gave me all I desire.

Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me. (Sayings of Light and Love, 26 & 27)

"Because Christ is mine" this is what John believed. Christ was his, given him by the Fat her. Christ is the Father's ultimate gift, to John and to all of us. John's firm belief that in Christ he was gifted with all that the Father could give him is essential for understanding his message.

Everything John teaches concerning the journey of the human person toward union with God in love, everything he asks of those who begin this journey, is based on the fact that "God so loves us that he gave us his only Son" (see Jn 3:16). He gave us his Son to be to be our possession. Christ now belongs to John, to us.

The Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery

But how and when was this ultimate gift of God given to us? John directs our attention especially to two moments of Christ's life: his Incarnation and his death.

The Incarnation

The moment the Word became flesh and dwelt among us he became God's gift to us, our possession. At this instant, the Father gave us all that he could, and now has nothing more to give us. Jesus, the "God-man," the Word made flesh, is the outpouring of the Father's love for us. John viewed the Incarnation as the triumphal entrance of Christ into the world, and as the uplifting of all creation. He writes in the commentary on the Spiritual Canticle:

Not only by looking at [creatures] did [God] communicate natural being and graces , but also, with this image of his Son alone, he clothed them in beauty by imparting to them supernatural being. This he did when he took on our human nature and elevated it in the beauty of God, and consequently all creatures, since in human nature he was united with them all. Accordingly, the Son of God proclaimed: Si ego exaltatus a terra fuero omnia traham ad me ipsum (If I be lifted up from the earth, I will elevate all things to myself) [Jn 12:32]. And in this elevation of all things through the Incarnation of his Son and through the glory of his resurrection according to the flesh, not only did the Father beauti fy creatures partially, but he clothed them entirely in beauty and dignity. (C, 5, 4)

Clearly, John considers the Incarnation (and the Resurrection) the means by which all things are clothed with beauty and dignity.

Again, in stanza 37 of the Spiritual Canticle John adds that: One of the main reasons for the desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ [Phil 1:23] is to see him face to face and thoroughly understand the profound and eternal mysteries of his Incarnation, which is by no means the lesser part of beatitude. The first thing the soul desires on coming to the vision of God is to know and enjoy the deep secrets and myste ries of the Incarnation and the ancient ways of God dependent on it. (C, 37, 1)

In John's teaching, the mystery of the Incarnation is one of the most important reasons for the soul to undertake the long, difficult ascent to the mount of perfection.

One reason urging the soul most to enter this thicket of God's wisdom and to know its beauty from further within is her wish to unite her intellect with God in the knowledge of the mysteries of the Incarnation, in which is contained the highest and most savory wis dom of all his works. (C, 37, 2)

It is in her knowledge of the Incarnation that the soul will come to know all the beauty and wisdom of things, including her own beauty. In eternity, when the soul's union with its Beloved will be complete, when she will see Christ face to face, the soul will delight in coming to know and enjoy the deep secrets and mysteries of the Incarnation. It will be an eternity of exploring the deep, unfathomable caverns of this mystery.

The Paschal Mystery

Within the totality of the Paschal Mystery, John places special emphasis on the cross (as one would expect from his religious subtitle). He bases his approach to the theme of abso lute negation one of the key elements in his doctrine (see Daniel Chowning's essay in this volume) on the death of Christ. Christ's death is the motive and model for own death. This accounts for John's radical teaching on the so-called negative way: the death, the self-abasement of the soul in the sensual and spiritual nights must correspond to the death of Christ, so that the soul may be united to him and, through him, with the Trinity. (We will see this more clearly in a moment, when we consider Christ as the Way.)

The mystery of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery, therefore, are the two key Chri stological touchstones in the doctrine of St. John of the Cross. They are the mysteries be fore which John stood in awe and wonder. The divine love revealed in Christ's Incarnation and Passion overwhelmed him, and was the source of his love for God, for Christ. It is almost as if we can hear John saying: "My God, what have you done? Do I dare believe what you have done for me? Can it be true that you have sent, not just any messenger, but your only Son? Can you love me so much, my God, that this could be so?" We can almost see him trembling with wonderment and joy, as the implications of these mysteries flowed over him.

Christ the Way, the Truth and the Life

What implications did John draw from meditating and reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation? What specific role does the Word-made-flesh, the God-man, Jesus Christ, play in John's spiritual doctrine? How is he involved in the various phases of our spiritual journey?

John considers Christ's role in the Ascent. Turning to Scripture, as usual, he writes: "A person makes progress only by imitating Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one goes to the Father but through him, as he states himself in St. John [Jn. 14:6]" (A, 2, 7, 8).

For John, then, Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Christ, and Christ alone, is the one chosen by the Father through whom we can come to the union of love with God.

Taking our lead from the passage just cited, let us consider John's teaching on the role of Christ in the spiritual journey, by reflecting on Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Christ the Way

John talks about Christ as the Way in terms of our call to imitate him. He writes: "I would not consider any spirituality worthwhile that wants to walk in sweetness and ease and run from the imitation of Christ" (A, 2, 7, 8). When giving counsels on how to conquer one's appetites upon entering the night of sense, or as one begins the journey, John advises: have a habitual desire to imitate Christ in all your deeds by bringing your life into confor mity with his. You must then study his life to know how to imitate him and behave in all events as he would. (A 1, 13, 3).

The imitation of Christ is, for John, the way to make progress on the journey toward lo ving union with God.

There are three things worth noting in the last quotation. First, one has to have a desire to imitate Christ. Second, the goal is to bring of one's life into conformity with his. Third, the means to this goal is study of the life of Christ.


The first thing St. John of the Cross says we need for imitating Christ is the desire to do so. Without this desire, we will make no headway. We know this from our own experience in other areas of life. If we want to achieve something worthwhile in any field we have to be motivated. If we do not really desire it, we know that, no matter how good the goal might be, we will not invest the necessary effort. How many times have we said to oursel ves and others that we want something, only to find out later that we really didn't desire it, at least not enough to do what was necessary to get it? Often the difference between success and failure is not our lack of talent, intelligence, or physical strength, but our lack of desire, our unwillingness to pay the price necessary to achieve the goal. John of the Cross, keen observer of human nature, knew that the same dynamic applies to the spiritual journey. If we believe that Christ is truly the Way, then we must desire with all our being to imitate him. The first requirement, then, is the desire to imitate Christ in all our deeds.


For John, studying Christ's life does not mean merely acquiring an intellectual knowledge of him. Rather, it involves a reflective, "prayerful" pondering. It is not enough for us sim ply to read the New Testament or some life of Christ occasionally. It means that we must constantly read and reread Sacred Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testa ment. We must make every effort, according to our abilities, to understand everything we can about Christ, his times, his society and its various institutions (such as Judaism as it was practiced then, who the Pharisees and Sadducees were, and whatever else will give us insight into his life situation). Christ did not live in a vacuum. He was a Jew, living under the Roman domination of his homeland, and schooled in the Judaism of a certain historical period. All of these things can give us insights into the attitudes he brought to the various situations in his life.

Included in study, of course, is need for constant meditation on what we learn about Jesus' life, desires and attitudes not simply speculative theorizing, but prayerful reflection on our own life in the light of Christ's, analyzing and comparing our desires and attitudes with his, asking constantly whether or not our our desires and attitudes are in conformity with Christ's, and if not, why they differ, and what we must do to make Christ's desires and attitudes our own. Our prayer is one of surrender to the will of God, as his Spirit reveals to us the deeper desires and attitudes of Christ that he wants us to make our own.

Conformity with Christ's Life

What does this imitation of Christ involve? For John, it consists in bringing our life into conformity with Christ's, "behaving in all events as he would" (ibid.).

As we have seen, this means, first of all, that we must make the desires and attitudes of Christ our own. We must rid ourselves of our own disordered desires and attitudes, the effects of our sinfulness and selfishness. Whether the desire or attitude has to do with ma terial or spiritual things, it must be brought into conformity with Christ. Some of the ob vious desires of Christ as found in the New Testament are: to announce and help establish the reign of God; to do the will of the Father in all things; and to unite all people into one in himself. The attitudes he displayed in his life include: a radical openness to others, especially the outcasts of his society, those considered sinners, sick, and downtrodden; a spirit of forgiveness, not seven times but seventy times seven; his simple and direct ap proach to prayer; his attitude of total availability to others, even to giving up his own life for their sake. These, of course, are just some of the more obvious attitudes of Christ that we must make our own.

For John, bringing one's life into conformity with Christ's goes even deeper. He notes: "Because Christ is the way and this way is a death to our natural selves in the sensory and spiritual parts of the soul, this death is patterned on Christ's, for he is our model and light" (A, 2, 7, 9).

Thus, imitation of Christ involves renunciation, annihilation, self-emptying, dying to our natural selves; it is the way of the cross. In a very powerful passage, John sums up his teaching on Christ the Way: David says of [Christ]: Ad nihilum redactus sum et nescivi (I was brought to nothing and did not understand) [Ps 73:22], that those who are truly spiritual might understand the my stery of the door and the way (which is Christ) leading to union with God, and that they might realize that their union with God and the greatness of the work they accomplish will be measured by their annihilation of themselves for God in the sensory and spiritual parts of the soul. When they are reduced to nothing, the highest degree of humility, the spiritual union between their souls and God will be an accomplished fact. The journey, then, does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior. (A, 2, 7, 11)

This is the way, because it was the way Christ walked. Christ himself calls us to this when he says: "If any one wishes to follow my way, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For he who would save his soul shall lose it, and he who loses life for me and for the gospel shall gain it" (Mk 8:34-35). This is how Jesus himself did the will of his heavenly Father, giving him honor and glory. To imitate Christ, to conform one's life to his life, to pattern one's life on Christ's is to follow this same way, the way of the cross. "He is our model and light."

Christ the Truth

That Jesus is the Truth for John is clearly seen in chapter 22 of the Ascent. There he shows how, with the coming of Christ, it is no longer permissible to petition God for furt her revelations through supernatural means, that is, through visions, locutions, extraordina ry messages, etc. In section 5, John imagines a dialogue between God and a person desi ring a vision or an extraordinary revelation. To such a person: God could answer as follows: If I have already told you all things in my Word, my Son, and if I have no other word, what answer or revelation can I now make that would surpass this? Fasten your eyes on him alone because in him I have spoken and revealed all and in him you will discover even more than you ask for and desire. For he is my entire locution and response, vision and revelation, which I have already spoken, answered, manifested, and revealed to you by giving him to you as a brother, companion, master, ransom, and reward. (A, 2, 22, 5)

In other words, God has already revealed all in Christ, and has no other word or revela tion. In the following section, John continues: If you desire me to answer with a word of comfort, behold my Son subject to me and to others out of love for me, and afflicted, and you will see how much he answers you. If you desire me to declare some secret truths or events to you, fix your eyes only on him and you will discern hidden in him the most secret mysteries, and wisdom, and wonders of God. (A, 2, 22, 6)

John repeatedly tells us to fix our eyes on Christ. He is the complete revelation of the Fat her. He has been given to us as "brother, companion, master, ransom, and reward." By fixing our eyes on Christ, by imitating Him in all we do, we "will discern hidden in him the most secret mysteries, and wisdom, and wonders of God." We will possess the Truth.

How does Christ, as Truth, exercise his role in today's world? John goes on to say, in sec tions 7 and 9 of the same chapter, that: We must be guided humanly and visibly in all by the law of Christ, who is human, and that of his Church and of his ministers. Any departure from this road is not only curiosity but extraordinary boldness. One should not believe anything coming in a supernatural way, but believe only the teaching of Christ, who is human, as I say, and of his ministers who are human.

God is so pleased that the rule and direction of humans be through other humans and that a person be governed by natural reason that he definitely does not want us to bestow entire credence on his supernatural communications, or be confirmed in their strength and securi ty, until they pass through this human channel of the mouth of another human person. (A, 2, 22, 7 & 9)

The Truth is to be found in "Christ, who is human". Note how the Incarnation again co mes into John's thought. "We must be guided by the law of Christ, who is human. One should believe only the teaching of Christ, who is human."

Then John, the mystic, says something we might not expect: Because God revealed ever ything to us in Christ, who is human, he wants "the rule and direction of humans to be through other humans." All spiritual experiences, ordinary and extraordinary, must be con firmed "through the mouth of another human person." Christ, the Word-made-flesh, conti nues his role through the ministers of the church. Here we find echoed the great truth that Christ remains with his people, the church, in each of its members. Christ continues to exercise his salvific work in and through other men and women. To find Christ, to be sure that we have his truth, we simply have to turn to one another with the eyes of faith. It is in one another that we will find Christ, through one another that Christ speaks to us.

Christ the Life

Throughout the Gospel Christ affirms that he is the source of eternal life. Talking to the Samaritan woman, Christ tells her that anyone drinking the water that he will give will never thirst again, that this water will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life (Jn 4:13ff). Elsewhere the Gospel of John says: "Jesus answered them: Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you" (Jn 6:27). Or again: "I am the bread of life. I have come down from heaven, not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6: 35ff.).

Taking his cue from such Scriptural passages, St. John of the Cross speaks of Christ as the Life throughout his works. All the various aspects of the journey he describes i.e., mortifi cation, detachment, the dark nights of sense and spirit, annihilation have one purpose, the transformation of one's life into the divine life of Christ. This is the union of love to which John is guiding us. Commenting in stanza 12 of the Spiritual Canticle on the line "Which I bear sketched deep within my heart," John writes: When there is union of love, it is true to say that the Beloved lives in the lover and the lover in the Beloved. Love produces such likeness in this transformation of lovers that one can say each is the other and both are one. Thus each one lives in the other and is the other, and both are one in the transformation of love. (C, 12, 7)

In the union of love, the Beloved (Christ) and the lover (the soul) are so transformed into one another that now there is only one life. John, commenting St. Paul's statement in Ga latians 2:20 "I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me" notes in this same stanza: In saying, "I live, now not I," he meant that even though he had life it was not his because he was transformed in Christ, and it was divine more than human. He consequently asserts that he does not live but that Christ lives in him. In accord with this likeness and trans formation, we can say that his life and Christ's were one life through union of love. (C, 12, 8)

At every level the transformation is so complete that the life of the person is more divine than human. As John writes in the Living Flame of Love: In this new life that the soul lives when it has arrived at the perfect union with God , all the inclinations and activity of the appetites and faculties of their own the operation of death and the privation of the spiritual life become divine. (F, 2, 33)

The Beloved and the lover now live in each other; both are one in the union of love. Even a person's most basic operations have their source in the life of the Beloved, in the life now shared with the Bridegroom, with Christ.


John of the Cross speaks to us from the summit of the mountain, as one who has experien ced the most intimate union of love with God possible in this life. He himself has tasted and come to the knowledge of the mysteries of God, especially those of Christ's Incarna tion and Passion. He has explored the deep caverns of Christ described in the Spiritual Canticle. The infinite mysteries of Christ have been revealed to him from within the life of the Trinity itself. He sees all things now, not from a merely human point of view, but from God's own point of view. He comes to see that in the divine plan, Christ is, indeed, the only way to the Father. Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

In speaking of Christ the Way, John speaks in terms of imitation. We are to imitate Christ in all things, but especially in emptying ourselves as he did. As Christ accepted the Fat her's will that the way to life was through the cross, through annihilation and death, so too must we imitate Christ in this, the surest and safest way to union with God in this life and the next.

Christ is the Truth, because in him the Father has spoken his unique Word, his only begot ten Son. Out of love he has sent his Son to reveal everything he, the Father, desires us to know, everything that we need know to come to him. We have no need for any other ex traordinary revelations. In Christ, the Father has given us the Truth.

By uniting ourselves to Christ, through imitation, through listening and accepting his reve lation, his truth, we already possess divine Life. This life, which we now possess through grace and adhere to in faith, will be the same life we will enjoy when we see God face-to- face. And one of the greatest joys of this face-to-face encounter with God will be the satis faction of knowing and experiencing the deep mysteries of the Incarnation and Passion.

We see, therefore, that the entire doctrine of St. John of the Cross rests on Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh. Whatever John asks of us, as we journey toward union, no matter how difficult, has but one purpose: to bring us to this union of love with God through Je sus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.1


1. For further material on John's doctrine in general, and his Christology in particular, see: Norbert Cummins, An Introduction to St. John of the Cross (Darlington Carmel, 1986); E. W. Trueman Dicken, The Crucible of Love: A Study of the Mysticism of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross (New York, NY: Sheed & Ward, 1983); Thomas Dubay, Fire Within:St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel On Prayer (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1989); Marie-Eugene, I Want to See God (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1978); Idem, I Am a Daughter of the Church (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1978); Florencio Garcia Muñoz, Cristologia de San Juan de la Cruz: Sistematica y Mistica (Madrid: Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca y Fundacion Universitaria Española, 1982); Federico Ruiz, St. John of the Cross: The Saint and His Teaching (Darlington Carmel, 1988); Tomas de la Cruz (Alvarez), "The Carmelite School: St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross," in Jesus in Christian Devotion and Contemplation, trans. Paul J. Oligny (St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1974).

© Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, Inc.1992


Regis Jordan is publisher of ICS Publications, chair of the Institute of Carmelite Studies, and superior of the community of Discalced Carmelites in Washington, DC.

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