Thursday, February 07, 2008

Lent 2008

Benedict’s Message: Give alms. And the alms that you must give are yourself. The rector principle contradicting sensible perception but ensconced in human experience as spousal love reads: “You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.”[1] The metaphysics of relation obtains here where “to be” is precisely “to-be-in-relation.” The difficulty, of course, is that we cannot “see” through visual perception that “being-is-to-in-relation” because that is the way sensations are received by us, and also the way we abstract-immaterialize reality into signs/symbols we call concepts. Therefore, reality appears, and is conceived by us, as “being-in-self,” which Hellenistic thought has bequeathed to us under the rubric of “substance.” Reality so perceived is certainly real being, but is it the way we perceive it experientially through the senses?

There is another way that we experience the real: the experience and consciousness of the self in the moral act. This is rightly called an “experience” since the self is rightly a being and not simply consciousness. Benedict has called the phenomenon “conscience” the consciousness or “anamnesis” that has resulted from the “ontological tendency” that is the self yearning in the direction of the absolute, which is the revelation of the Word.

In classic simple form, and grounding himself in Scripture, Benedict XVI offered the Church and the world the example of Bartholomew’s meeting with Jesus Christ as a paradigm of these two levels of experience and consciousness, the one objectifying, the other subjectifying:

“Philip told this Nathanael that he had found "him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (Jn 1: 45). As we know, Nathanael's retort was rather strongly prejudiced: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Jn 1: 46). In its own way, this form of protestation is important for us. Indeed, it makes us see that according to Judaic expectations the Messiah could not come from such an obscure village as, precisely, Nazareth (see also Jn 7: 42).

But at the same time Nathanael's protest highlights God's freedom, which baffles our expectations by causing him to be found in the very place where we least expect him [the ordinary commonplace: the secular]. Moreover, we actually know that Jesus was not exclusively "from Nazareth" but was born in Bethlehem (cf. Mt 2: 1; Lk 2: 4) and came ultimately from Heaven, from the Father who is in Heaven.

Nathanael's reaction suggests another thought to us: in our relationship with Jesus we must not be satisfied with words alone. In his answer, Philip offers Nathanael a meaningful invitation: "Come and see!" (Jn 1: 46). Our knowledge of Jesus needs above all a first-hand experience: someone else's testimony is of course important, for normally the whole of our Christian life begins with the proclamation handed down to us by one or more witnesses.
However, we ourselves must then be personally involved in a close and deep relationship with Jesus; in a similar way, when the Samaritans had heard the testimony of their fellow citizen whom Jesus had met at Jacob's well, they wanted to talk to him directly, and after this conversation they told the woman: "It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world" (Jn 4: 42).

Returning to the scene of Nathanael's vocation, the Evangelist tells us that when Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, he exclaims: "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!" (Jn 1: 47). This is praise reminiscent of the text of a Psalm: "Blessed is the man... in whose spirit there is no deceit" (32[31]: 2), but provokes the curiosity of Nathanael who answers in amazement: "How do you know me?" (Jn 1: 48).

Jesus' reply cannot immediately be understood. He says: "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you" (Jn 1: 48). We do not know what had happened under this fig tree. It is obvious that it had to do with a decisive moment in Nathanael's life.
His heart is moved by Jesus' words, he feels understood and he understands: "This man knows everything about me, he knows and is familiar with the road of life; I can truly trust this man". And so he answers with a clear and beautiful confession of faith: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (Jn 1: 49). In this confession is conveyed a first important step in the journey of attachment to Jesus.

Nathanael's words shed light on a twofold, complementary aspect of Jesus' identity: he is recognized both in his special relationship with God the Father, of whom he is the Only-begotten Son, and in his relationship with the People of Israel, of whom he is the declared King, precisely the description of the awaited Messiah. We must never lose sight of either of these two elements because if we only proclaim Jesus' heavenly dimension, we risk making him an ethereal and evanescent being; and if, on the contrary, we recognize only his concrete place in history, we end by neglecting the divine dimension that properly qualifies him.

I offer this example of the ability of Bartholomew to perceive Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus the Christ of God as the offer of Benedict XVI to us during this Lent. The goal is to be able to perceive God in His Godliness, i.e. in His Subjectivity as “I Am.” Recall that “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” And recall that the Kingdom of Heaven is the Kingdom of God, and that the Kingdom of God is the Person of Jesus of Nazareth Who is Jesus the Christ.

Only if we give away all we have, having nothing for ourselves, nothing superfluous, not complaining if we lack the necessary, choosing the worst for ourselves, and being magnanimous with regard to the cult of the Blessed Sacrament, will we be profoundly pleasing to God and capable of recognizing His Face.
Consider the apodictic statement of John Paul II concerning the need for radical poverty in the midst of the secular world. He effectively affirms that according to Christian anthropology no one can own anything after having owned everything. In Laborem Exercens #14, he says: “property is acquired first of all through work in order that it may serve work. This concerns in a special way ownership of the means of production. Isolating these means as a separate property in order to set it up in the form of ‘capital’ [for me] in opposition to ‘labor’ – and even to practice exploitation of labor – is contrary to the very nature of these means and their possession. They cannot be possessed against labor, they cannot even by possessed for possession’s sake, because the only legitimate title to their possession – whether in the form of private ownership or in the form of public or collective ownership – is that they should serve labor, and thus, by serving labor, that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely, the universal destination of goods, and the right to common use of them.”

Poverty Means the Dispossession of Self as Subject


The Epistemology of Subject-Object


“It is part of our situation that we are inevitably and inseparably inside the knowledge relation, from the start to the end, and so cannot step outside of ourselves to an indifferent standpoint from which to view and adjust the relations of thought and being. Thought and being are together from the beginning. All discrimination of the contribution of the one side of the relation to the other is an analysis of a concrete togetherness of thought and being in a particular department of existence. Since, moreover, all possible Objects of thought come before the mind in a relation of Subject and Object – the wildest chimeras, the grossest illusions, as well as the soberest ‘matter of fact’ – any discussion of the contribution of Subject to Object, of Object to Subject, of the proportions of subjectivity to objectivity in a particular topic, must have in view some particular sphere of actual concrete existence in which the Subject is more than the logical presupposition of knowledge in general, and the Object is viewed in relation to some actual concrete interest or pre-occupation on the part of the Subject.”[2]

Since God is the only Being that presents itself to us as a Subject (everything else is perceived as “objectified” by sense perception and the immaterial signs of concepts), the receiving subject must activate itself as subject in order to be “like” Him in order to “know” Him (since knowing is ultimately to be one in being with another).

“Throughout the whole history of modern science since the end of the sixteenth century there has been a steady critique of subjectivity, and an insistence… upon the primacy of objectivity. Scientific thinking involves a methodological abstraction from all subjective factors in its concern for strict impartiality and disinterestedness. However, when this rigorous scientific method came to be applied beyond the realms of mathematics and physics, e.g. to history by Dilthey, it soon became evident that there is no such thing as impartial science… although methodological impartiality retained its place. The really great change has come about in our own day through the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, when it became evident that the development of classical science had reached the point when there had to take place a considerable change in the whole structure of scientific consciousness. Einstein had to wrestle for some twenty years with Newtonian and Kantian conceptions of space and time before the theory of relativity could be formulated, whereas the advances in nuclear physics through the work of Maxwell and Rutherford forced physicists like Bohr through the a change in the whole structure of knowledge as it lay embedded in classical physics and mechanics. These changes revealed that modern science, far more than it ever realized, had been operating uncritically with a subjective structure of the understanding which had ineveitably limited the range of its observation and discovery. All this meant that real advances in knowledge involve fundamental changes in the structure of the mind and profound changes in the meaning of basic concepts. These facts are still having seismic effects in various branches of knowledge.

Critique of Abstract Objectivism: “Abstract objectivism comes under severe criticism, for it conceals a static subjectivity in the uncritical acceptance of fundamental categories of the understanding, which is all the more powerful in its influence upon the course of scientific development just because it is concealed. Thus, for example, A. Eddington, M. Polanyi, and von Weizsacker in their different ways, have successfully shown how the personal factor inevitably enters into scientific knowledge for the very fact of our knowing explicitly enters into what we know. It is therefore unscientific to pretend that the subjective element is eliminated when it cannot be. Scientific thinking must operate with a severely self-critical and controlled subjectivity, for we can only advance to new knowledge by rigorous re-interpretation…”

Heisenberg remarks: “Every experiment is an act of violence which we impose upon nature. It must react to the violence, and the law of this reaction can be stated in formulae. Thus experimental science may be described as a planned and guided give-and-take between man and nature with a view to knowledge and power. It cannot be said to be concerned with purely objective states or merely with realities in themselves. ‘Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature, it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves, it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning.”

God as Subject: God presents Himself to us as Subject in the Person of Jesus Christ. We could say that God “objectifies” Himself to us as “I Am in the Subject, Jesus Christ. We cannot know God as object unless we receive Him as Subject, i.e. to convert ourselves into Him subjectively so as to be one Being in Him.

That is the task of Lent, the conversion, the giving of alms, which is ultimately, the giving of the self. “Nowhere more than in Christian theology does knowledge involve such a profound change in the attitude of man, or such a radical break in the structure of his natural mind, or such a complete reorientation in his life. That is to say theological knowledge takes place only through a critical reconstruction of subjectivity in accordance with the nature of the object.”
[5] And since the “object” is the “Subject,” if man does not become objectively Christ by the radical gift of himself, say, in alms and service to others in this Lent, he cannot know the Subject God.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Benedict XVI’s Lenten Message 2008:
"Christ made Himself poor for you" (2 Cor 8,9)

Dear Brothers and Sisters!
1. Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters. In the Lenten period, the Church makes it her duty to propose some specific tasks that accompany the faithful concretely in this process of interior renewal: these are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For this year's Lenten Message, I wish to spend some time reflecting on the practice of almsgiving, which represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods. The force of attraction to material riches and just how categorical our decision must be not to make of them an idol, Jesus confirms in a resolute way: "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Lk 16,13). Almsgiving helps us to overcome this constant temptation, teaching us to respond to our neighbor's needs and to share with others whatever we possess through divine goodness. This is the aim of the special collections in favor of the poor, which are promoted during Lent in many parts of the world. In this way, inward cleansing is accompanied by a gesture of ecclesial communion, mirroring what already took place in the early Church. In his Letters, Saint Paul speaks of this in regard to the collection for the Jerusalem community (cf. 2 Cor 8-9; Rm 15, 25-27).
2. According to the teaching of the Gospel, we are not owners but rather administrators of the goods we possess: these, then, are not to be considered as our exclusive possession, but means through which the Lord calls each one of us to act as a steward of His providence for our neighbor. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, material goods bear a social value, according to the principle of their universal destination (cf. n. 2404)
In the Gospel, Jesus explicitly admonishes the one who possesses and uses earthly riches only for self. In the face of the multitudes, who, lacking everything, suffer hunger, the words of Saint John acquire the tone of a ringing rebuke: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" (1 Jn 3,17). In those countries whose population is majority Christian, the call to share is even more urgent, since their responsibility toward the many who suffer poverty and abandonment is even greater. To come to their aid is a duty of justice even prior to being an act of charity.
3. The Gospel highlights a typical feature of Christian almsgiving: it must be hidden: "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," Jesus asserts, "so that your alms may be done in secret" (Mt 6,3-4). Just a short while before, He said not to boast of one's own good works so as not to risk being deprived of the heavenly reward (cf. Mt 6,1-2). The disciple is to be concerned with God's greater glory. Jesus warns: "In this way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Mt 5,16). Everything, then, must be done for God's glory and not our own. This understanding, dear brothers and sisters, must accompany every gesture of help to our neighbor, avoiding that it becomes a means to make ourselves the center of attention. If, in accomplishing a good deed, we do not have as our goal God's glory and the real well being of our brothers and sisters, looking rather for a return of personal interest or simply of applause, we place ourselves outside of the Gospel vision. In today's world of images, attentive vigilance is required, since this temptation is great. Almsgiving, according to the Gospel, is not mere philanthropy: rather it is a concrete expression of charity, a theological virtue that demands interior conversion to love of God and neighbor, in imitation of Jesus Christ, who, dying on the cross, gave His entire self for us. How could we not thank God for the many people who silently, far from the gaze of the media world, fulfill, with this spirit, generous actions in support of one's neighbor in difficulty? There is little use in giving one's personal goods to others if it leads to a heart puffed up in vainglory: for this reason, the one, who knows that God "sees in secret" and in secret will reward, does not seek human recognition for works of mercy.
4. In inviting us to consider almsgiving with a more profound gaze that transcends the purely material dimension, Scripture teaches us that there is more joy in giving than in receiving (cf. Acts 20,35). When we do things out of love, we express the truth of our being; indeed, we have been created not for ourselves but for God and our brothers and sisters (cf. 2 Cor 5,15). Every time when, for love of God, we share our goods with our neighbor in need, we discover that the fullness of life comes from love and all is returned to us as a blessing in the form of peace, inner satisfaction and joy. Our Father in heaven rewards our almsgiving with His joy. What is more: Saint Peter includes among the spiritual fruits of almsgiving the forgiveness of sins: "Charity," he writes, "covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pt 4,8). As the Lenten liturgy frequently repeats, God offers to us sinners the possibility of being forgiven. The fact of sharing with the poor what we possess disposes us to receive such a gift. In this moment, my thought turns to those who realize the weight of the evil they have committed and, precisely for this reason, feel far from God, fearful and almost incapable of turning to Him. By drawing close to others through almsgiving, we draw close to God; it can become an instrument for authentic conversion and reconciliation with Him and our brothers.
5. Almsgiving teaches us the generosity of love. Saint Joseph Benedict Cottolengo forthrightly recommends: "Never keep an account of the coins you give, since this is what I always say: if, in giving alms, the left hand is not to know what the right hand is doing, then the right hand, too, should not know what it does itself" (Detti e pensieri, Edilibri, n. 201). In this regard, all the more significant is the Gospel story of the widow who, out of her poverty, cast into the Temple treasury "all she had to live on" (Mk 12,44). Her tiny and insignificant coin becomes an eloquent symbol: this widow gives to God not out of her abundance, not so much what she has, but what she is. Her entire self.
We find this moving passage inserted in the description of the days that immediately precede Jesus' passion and death, who, as Saint Paul writes, made Himself poor to enrich us out of His poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8,9); He gave His entire self for us. Lent, also through the practice of almsgiving, inspires us to follow His example. In His school, we can learn to make of our lives a total gift; imitating Him, we are able to make ourselves available, not so much in giving a part of what we possess, but our very selves. Cannot the entire Gospel be summarized perhaps in the one commandment of love? The Lenten practice of almsgiving thus becomes a means to deepen our Christian vocation. In gratuitously offering himself, the Christian bears witness that it is love and not material richness that determines the laws of his existence. Love, then, gives almsgiving its value; it inspires various forms of giving, according to the possibilities and conditions of each person.
6. Dear brothers and sisters, Lent invites us to "train ourselves" spiritually, also through the practice of almsgiving, in order to grow in charity and recognize in the poor Christ Himself. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that the Apostle Peter said to the cripple who was begging alms at the Temple gate: "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, walk" (Acts 3,6). In giving alms, we offer something material, a sign of the greater gift that we can impart to others through the announcement and witness of Christ, in whose name is found true life. Let this time, then, be marked by a personal and community effort of attachment to Christ in order that we may be witnesses of His love. May Mary, Mother and faithful Servant of the Lord, help believers to enter the "spiritual battle" of Lent, armed with prayer, fasting and the practice of almsgiving, so as to arrive at the celebration of the Easter Feasts, renewed in spirit. With these wishes, I willingly impart to all my Apostolic Blessing.
From the Vatican, 30 October 2007

[1] St. Peter Crysologus, Sermon, 43: PL 52, 320. 322.
[2] James Brown, “Subject and Object in Modern Theology,” Croall Lectures for 1953, 170 seq.
[3] Thomas F. Torrance, “Theological Science,” Oxford University Press (1978) 92-93
[4] W. Heisenberg, “Physics and Philosophy,” 80.
[5] Ibid 98.

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