The Heart of the Teaching
Where do we find the “heart” of Pope Benedict’s teaching? In his Wednesday General Audience catechesis on December 5, Benedict gave us an astonishing glimpse into that heart, into the mystical heart of his understanding of all reality. The mystical heart of Benedict’s teaching is… Christ.
Benedict’s understanding of reality is Christo-centric. Centered on Christ. Christ is at the heart of it.
And yet… having said that… there is still more to say. And the Pope says it.
Essentially, Benedict says that there is not just Christ in the story of our world, our universe… not just Christ, but many other beings, and things, and especially, persons, ourselves… who really do exist, who have really been called into “being”… into existing… and who are all part of a drama, a story, which draws each of us toward the heart and fullness of reality: Christ.
And so Christ is at the heart, and there is also the journey toward Christ, which Benedict wishes all of us to begin.
And the fact that this journey can actually occur, that man can move toward Christ, draw near to Christ, leads the Pope to begin with a “prayer of blessing”… a “hymn of praise”… In essence, Benedict is saying: “Praise God, for He has made a beautiful plan for our lives, for our existence,” a plan we can view with “wonder and gratitude.”
So Benedict begins this way: “At the beginning of his letter to the Christians of Ephesus (cf. 1, 3-14), the apostle Paul raises a prayer of blessing to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – a prayer that we have just heard – that introduces us to live the season of Advent, in the context of the faith. The theme of this hymn of praise is God’s plan for man, defined in terms full of joy, wonder and gratitude, as a ‘benevolent plan’ (see 9), mercy and love.”
But because Benedict is reflecting on the letter to the Ephesians, and because St. Paul in Ephesians is thinking “cosmically” of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection within the total reality of the universe, the Pope’s reflection quickly turns to… the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.
Do our lives have meaning? This question about meaning is important because meaning — searching for meaning (logos), finding meaning (logos), contemplating meaning (logos) — is the very essence of any conscious person, of any being with “personhood” — like us.
The Pope is persuaded that our lives do have meaning. He is persuaded that the origin of all being, and especially of our being, the being of persons, the deep root of our lives, is in God who, from eternity, planned to bring all of us into being in time — some at the time of Abraham, some at the time of Christ, some at the time of St. Francis, some at the time of St. Maximilian Kolbe, some today, some tomorrow — so each life is intentional, each life is desired, God willed each one. And because God is, as it were, meaning itself, pure meaning, pure significance (expressed most spectacularly and awesomely in His holiness, which is why we pray and chant the thrice-holy: “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,” “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of the universe”), each of our lives has meaning.
St. Paul and the Pope are persuaded that this is the deep mystical truth of things — that through and in God’s meaning-filled will, we have meaning. That we are because we are meant to be, because we originate from meaning itself (or, more correctly, Himself).
So the Pope begins by asking: “Why does the Apostle raise this blessing to God, from the depths of his heart? Because he looks at his work in the history of salvation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, and he contemplates how the Heavenly Father has chosen us even before the creation of the world, to be his sons in his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8:14 s.; Gal 4:4 f.). Therefore we exist from eternity in God, in a major project that God has kept within himself and decided to implement and to reveal in ‘the fullness of time’ (cf. Eph 1:10).
“St. Paul helps us to understand, then, how all creation and, in particular, man and woman, are not the result of chance, but a loving plan to respond to the eternal reason of God with the creative and redemptive power of his Word which creates the world.”
This phrase “not the result of chance” is common in Benedict’s writings. One could almost say it is one of his “signature phrases” — that the universe, and human beings, are not the product of a blind “Big Bang” and then an almost interminable evolution (as modern evolutionary science teaches) but of “a loving plan.” So this phrase is, implicitly, a criticism of modern evolutionary theory.
In this passage, the Pope teaches that creation, the origin of all things — all the stars, animals, human beings — is a “response to the eternal reason of God” by “the creative and redemptive power of his Word” which “creates the world.” The Pope is saying that God created (and, it would seem, though this is not entirely clear, creates) the universe through Christ, his Word.
Benedict then goes deeper. What is the real meaning of our existence? Is it just to live out our lives here, eating and drinking and breathing? No…
“This first statement reminds us that our vocation is not simply to exist in the world, being inserted in history, or even just being a creature of God. It is something greater: it is being chosen by God, even before the creation of the world, in the Son, Jesus Christ. In Him we exist, so to speak, already. God contemplates us in Christ, as adopted children.”
These are, in a certain way, daring words. Benedict is here teaching that each human person is a “Chosen Person” (much as Catholic teaching holds that the Jewish people is the “Chosen People”). In other words, there is the finger of God, the will of God, behind and before the coming into being of every human being.
And he is saying that this occurs, from God’s perspective, from all eternity, that is, that it occurs “even before the creation of the world.”
This is theologically daring, because it contains a suggestion that we “exist” before we exist. This would be a logical contradiction (we cannot exist before we exist). And this is why the Pope uses the phrase “so to speak.” He is saying that human words fail him, and us, in this situation — that it would be logically wrong to say “we exist already in Him” but the fact that we are chosen by God is so real and important that it could almost cause us to say that we exist (“so to speak”) even before the creation of the world, in Christ, as adopted brothers and sisters of Christ. The stress is on God’s will, His choice, not on our existence.
The Pope then uses a key word: “mystery.” We should embrace this word, not fear or be irritated by it. For a “mystery” is not contrary to reason, but something that transcends reason as we now experience it. We can accept that it is something true, although we do not comprehend how it can be true, due to the present limitation of our reasoning faculty, not to some lack in the truth of the “mystery.”
Benedict writes: “The ‘benevolent plan’ of God, which is qualified by the Apostle as a ‘loving plan’ (Eph 1:5), is called ‘the mystery’ of divine will (v. 9), hidden and now revealed in the Person and work of Christ. The divine initiative precedes any human response: it is a free gift of His love that surrounds us and transforms us.”
What can we take from these lines? We can take from them that we are close here to the very mind of God, to contemplating the very will of God. It is a mind, a will, which had been “hidden” and is “now revealed in the Person and work of Christ.” So we can grasp that, in Christ, if we look upon Christ, if we contemplate Christ, we have a certain glimpse into God’s mind and will, into His ultimate plan. Christ is revealing God’s hidden plan.
And we can take from these lines that this is all grace, that it isn’t anything human beings toil to build, or do experiments to discover, or gather a thousand geniuses to labor for 50 years with supercomputers to unveil — no, it is something freely given by God to the world, to the universe… But what is this “it”? “It” is the ultimate goal of God’s eternal plan. Benedict writes:
“But what is the ultimate goal of this mysterious plan? What is the center of God’s will? It is – Saint Paul tells us – to ‘bring all things back to Christ, the only head’ (v. 10).
“In this expression we find one of the central formulations of the New Testament that make us understand the plan of God, his plan of love for humanity — a formulation which in the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons placed at the core of his Christology: ‘to restore’ all reality in Christ. Perhaps some of you remember the formula used by Pope St. Pius X for the consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: ‘Instaurare omnia in Christo,’ a formula that refers to this Pauline expression, and that was also the motto of this holy Pontiff.
“The Apostle, however, speaks more specifically of restoring the universe in Christ, and this means that in the great design of creation and history, Christ stands as the center of the entire journey of the world, the central pillar, that attracts the whole of reality to itself, to overcome dispersion and limitation and lead everything to the fullness desired by God (cf. Eph 1:23).”
The plan is quite simple: to save the universe. To save the whole of reality. These are staggering thoughts. And we wonder why Christianity is “totalizing,” why it grips some men and women with a power that persuades them willingly to give up their entire lives to help, in whatever way they can, to bring about this salvation. To be a Christian is to be a partner in a plan to save the universe.
And is this the end of the audacity of Benedict’s thought in this teaching? No. There is more. For he is about to reveal how the universe will be saved — how it has already been saved, if we would but believe it…
The Pope is clear here: it is not by the giving of certain laws, or by the communication of a “set of truths” that the universe is saved — but by the communication of the very life and self of the divine source of all, the Holy One, the Son of God… Benedict writes:
“This ‘benevolent plan’ has not been kept, so to speak, in the silence of God in the height of his heaven, but He has made it known by engaging with man, to whom He has not only revealed something, but His very self. He has not simply communicated a set of truths, but He communicated Himself to us, to the point of becoming one of us, to being incarnate.
“The Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum affirms: ‘In His goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal Himself (here the Pope added: non solo qualcosa di se, se stesso, ‘not only something about himself, but himself’ [at 25:15 of the Vatican Radio recording]) — and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature’ (n. 2).”
As if to emphasize the point and drive it home, Benedict repeats: “God not only says something, He communicates with us, draws us into the divine nature, so that we are involved in the divine nature, deified.”
Deified. This too is a daring choice of words. Daring because it could be misconstrued by unwise, or unprepared, hearers as the assertion that human beings, you and I, will actually become divine, become God. (One danger from this teaching might be the temptation to grasp for this status out of pride and desire, when the entire point of the life and death of Christ was to show us that the “way up” is the “way down,” that only through humility can we begin to prepare ourselves to receive the gift, that the only communion that leads to our divinization is the communion of the via crucis, the rejection of this world and of all the pride of this world.)
But there is no doubt that these words of Benedict’s can make us gasp with the grandeur of the vision they open up before us. For in this vision, the “communion” we share with Christ, far from being a notional thing, a memory, a myth, a fairy-tale, is rather an ontological fact, that is, there is a true communication of life, of being, from Him to each one of us.
At the risk of misspeaking, I venture to say that this is like a transfer of nature, a flow of essential energy, from Him to us. And the essential nature of this energy is holiness. Sanctity. Sanctity is what is divinizing, and divine. And that, through Christ, is our destiny, in God’s loving plan. To become holy is to be saved, from sin, from death. To be holy is to live. (And this is why holiness is the source of healing miracles, and why some of the bodies of the saints are not corrupt.)
And then Benedict returns again to his theme of “gift,” that this plan of God’s is a pure gift, gratuitous, not something we had to earn, or could have earned. Benedict writes:
“God reveals His great plan of love engaging with man, approaching him to the point of becoming himself a man. The Council continues: ‘The invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself’ (ibid.). By his intelligence and abilities alone man could not have reached this illuminating revelation — (here the Pope added off the cuff: cosi luminosa [“so resplendent”]) — of God’s love, it is God who has opened up His heaven and lowered himself to lead man into the abyss of his love.”
“To lead man into the abyss of his love” — perhaps these words are the most beautiful Benedict has ever spoken…
And then Benedict quickly cites several authors — St. Paul, St. John Chrysostom, St. Bonaventure, Blessed Pope John Paul II — who also speak beautifully about this mystical, “divinized” (holy) destiny of fallen man, saved in Christ… Benedict writes:
“As St. Paul writes to the Christians of Corinth: ‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him, this God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God’ (2:9-10).
“And St. John Chrysostom, in a famous comment on the beginning of the Letter to the Ephesians, invites us to enjoy all the beauty of this ‘benevolent plan’ of God revealed in Christ, and St. John Chrysostom says: ‘What are you lacking? You have become immortal, you have become free, you have become a child, you have become righteous, you are a brother, you have become a joint heir, to reign with Christ, with Christ you are glorified. Everything is given to us, and – as it is written – ‘how will he not also give us everything else along with him?’ (Rom 8:32). Your firstfruits (cf. 1 Cor 15:20.23) is adored by angels […]: what do you miss?’ (PG 62.11).
“This communion in Christ through the Holy Spirit, offered by God to all men with the light of Revelation, is not something that covers over our humanity, but it is the fulfilment of the deepest human longings, of the desire for infinity and fullness that dwells in the depths of the human being, and opens it up not to a temporary and limited happiness, but eternal.
“St. Bonaventure, referring to God who reveals Himself and speaks to us through Scripture to lead us to Him, says this: ‘Sacred Scripture is […] the book in which the words of eternal life are written so that not only we believe, but may also possess eternal life, in which we shall see, we shall love and all our wishes shall be realized’ (Breviloquium, Ext., Opera Omnia V, 201S.).
“And finally, Blessed Pope John Paul II recalled also that – and I quote – ‘Revelation has set within history a point of reference which cannot be ignored if the mystery of human life is to be known. Yet this knowledge refers back constantly to the mystery of God which the human mind cannot exhaust but can only receive and embrace in faith’ (Encyclical Fides et Ratio, 14).”
Benedict then turns to the question of faith — faith that this is all really true, faith that this is all really God’s plan. And he says that our job, or task, is to “allow ourselves to be grasped by the truth that is God.”
Citing Vatican II, Benedict says that our duty is to submit our “intellect and will” to God, who has revealed this plan to save us, and believe it.
Then the Pope, speaking extemporaneously, added that this did not mean that we must obey, that we are obliged to obey, as if there were a tyrant standing over us, God the hard task-master, but rather that we should “let go” and “surrender” to “the ocean of God’s goodness.”
So Benedict was truly at pains to make clear that God does not demand our assent with harshness, but proposes it with tenderness — with love. This is the great theme that one can discern in this and other writings of Pope Benedict. That God is not a God of fear, but of love… Benedict writes:
“In this perspective, what is, then, the act of faith? It is man’s response to God’s Revelation, which is made known, which shows His loving plan for humanity, and is, to use an expression of St. Augustine, allowing ourselves be grasped by the truth that is God, a truth that is love.
“This is why St. Paul emphasizes that we owe God, who has revealed His mystery, ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26; see 1.5, 2 Cor 10:5-6), the attitude with which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him” (Dei Verbum, 5).
“Obedience is not an act of coercion, it is letting go, surrendering to the ocean of God’s goodness.”
And once one surrenders to this love, and “embraces” faith, then what?
Then everything, Benedict says:
“All this leads to a fundamental change in the way we deal with the whole of reality, everything appears in a new light, it is therefore a true ‘conversion,’ faith is a ‘change of mentality’ because the God who has revealed Himself in Christ, and has made known His plan, seizes us, draws us to Himself, becomes the meaning that supports life, the rock on which it can find stability.
“In the Old Testament we find an intense expression on faith, which God entrusts the prophet Isaiah to communicate to the king of Judah, Ahaz. God says: ‘Unless your faith is firm you shall not be firm’ (Is 7:9 b). There is therefore a link between being and understanding that expresses how faith is a welcoming into our lives God’s vision of reality, letting God guide us through His Word and sacraments to understand what we must do, the path we must take, how to live. At the same time, however, it is precisely understanding according to God, seeing with His eyes, that makes our lives more solid, which allows us to ‘stand,’ not to fall.”
Benedict’s teaching was complete, and he gave one more passage as a summary:
“Dear friends, Advent, the liturgical season that we have just begun and that prepares us for Christmas, places us before the luminous mystery of the coming of the Son of God, the great ‘Benevolent Plan’ with which he wants to draw us to Himself, to help us live in full communion of joy and peace with Him. Advent invites us once again, in the midst of many difficulties, to renew our awareness that God is present: He came into the world, becoming a man like us, to bring His plan of love to fullness. And God asks that we become a sign of his action in the world. Through our faith, our hope, our love, He wants to enter the world again and again. He wants again and again to shine His light in our night.”