Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Church: Space for the Subsistent "I" of Christ

The “Space” in which the Spirit Engenders “Other Christs”

Sinai and the Upper Room

Homily of Benedict XVI on Pentecost 2008:

“The account of the event of Pentecost that we heard in the first reading is placed by St. Luke at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. The second chapter is introduced with these words: "When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together" (Acts 2:1). These words refer to the previous chapter in which Luke described the little group of disciples that assiduously gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension into heaven (cf. Acts 1:12-14). It is a description that is rich in details: The place "where they lived" -- the cenacle -- is an environment "in the upper room"; the 11 apostles are listed by name, and the first three are Peter, John and James, the "pillars" of the community, already integrated into this new family, no longer based on family bonds but on faith in Christ.

“The total number of persons, which was "about 120," a multiple of the 12 of the apostolic college, clearly alludes to this "new Israel." The group constitutes an authentic "qāhāl," an assembly on the model of the first covenant, the community convoked to hear the voice of the Lord and to walk in his ways. The Book of Acts emphasizes that "all of them devoted themselves with one accord to prayer" (1:14). Prayer, therefore, is the principal activity of the nascent Church. It is through prayer that she receives her unity from the Lord and allows herself to be guided by his will, as the decision to cast lots for the one to take Judas' place shows (cf. Acts 2:25).

“This community found itself gathered together again in the same place, the cenacle, on the morning of the Jewish feast of Pentecost, a feast of the covenant, in which there was commemorated the event on Sinai where, through Moses, God proposed that Israel be his property among all the nations, to be a sign of his holiness (cf. Exodus 19). According to the Book of Exodus, that ancient covenant was accompanied by a terrifying sign of power on the part of the Lord: "Mount Sinai," one reads there, "was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently" (Exodus 19:18).

“We find the elements of wind and fire again at the Pentecost of the New Testament but without the resonances of fear. In particular the fire takes the form of tongues that come to rest upon all the disciples, "who were all full of the Holy Spirit" and on account of that outpouring, "began to speak in other languages" (Acts 2:4). We have here the community's true "baptism" with fire, a kind of new creation. At Pentecost the Church is not constituted by a human will, but by the power of the Spirit of God. And it immediately appears how this Spirit gives life to a community that is at the same time one and universal, thus overcoming the curse of Babel (cf. John 11:7-9). Only the Spirit, in fact, which creates unity in love and in the reciprocal acceptance of diversity, can liberate humanity from the constant tension of an earthly will-to-power that wants to dominate and make everything uniform.

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1) “Ecclesia” is the Greek word for the “convocation” – the calling together of the Jews – to enter into the original covenant with God on Mt. Sinai. The Rabbinic Judaism commemorated through khag shavuot the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, because, according to Exodus 19:1, this event took place on the fiftieth day after the departure from Egypt. One can see the parallel between the convocation of the Jews at the base of Mt. Sinai with Moses at the summit of the mountain wreathed in fire, and the 120 persons present in Jerusalem together with the 11 apostles upon whom the fire of the Spirit descends. Both scenes are the loci of the respective covenants of the old law and the new.

As the people of God is established on Mt. Sinai, the new people of God is established in the upper room; the one on the fiftieth day after the liberation from Egypt, the other on the fiftieth day after the liberation from sin and death.

The Church of Jesus Christ: “Fulfillment” and “Renewal” of the Old Testament, Not “Replacement”

The Unity of the Old and New Testaments: Benedict makes an important clarification here. The covenant of the New Testament does not annul and abrogate the Old Testament but prolongs it. Judaism persists as a way of salvation. He says: “With regard to the issue of the nature of the covenant, it is important to note that the Last Super sees itself as making a covenant: it is the prolongation of the Sinai covenant, which is not abrogated, but renewed. Here renewal of the covenant, which from the earliest times doubtless an essential element in Israel’s liturgy, attains its highest form possible. In this perspective we should see the Last Supper as one further renewal of the covenant, but one in which what heretofore was performed ritually is now given a depth and density – by the sovereign power of Jesus – which could not possibly have been envisaged.”[1] That is, it is the covenant in His Body and Blood.

The term between the two covenants must be “fulfillment” and “renewal.” Ratzinger says: “However much Jesus found himself in an entirely special relationship with God [He says: “My Father ;” we say “Our Father”], he clearly did not abandon the basic model… of the necessity of a community founded on the authority of Revelation which is handed down within that community as the place and condition for religious life. He lived his religious life in the framework of the faith and the tradition of God’s people, Israel. His unceasing dialogue with the God of the Patriarchs, his Father, was also a communion with Moses and Elijah (cf. Mk. 9, 4). In this dialogue he went beyond the letter of the Old Testament and bared the spirit, to reveal the Father ‘in the Spirit.’ This victory of the letter of the Old Testament did not destroy the letter, that is the common religious tradition of Israel, but brought it to its fullness, ‘fulfilled’ it. Therefore neither did this dialogue constitute a diminution of the reality of ‘God’s people,’ but its true renewal. Breaking down the wall of the ‘letter’ opened to the people the entrance into the spirit of the tradition and thus access to the God of the Patriarchs, the God of Jesus Christ. For tradition to become universal is its highest confirmation, not the end of it nor its replacement by another. This should be understood here, for in fact it becomes clear that Jesus had no need to found a people of God (the ‘Church’). It was there already. What Jesus had to do was only to renew that people by deepening their relationship with God and to make it accessible to the whole of human kind.

“In consequence the question whether Jesus had wanted to found a Church is not the right question, because it does not correspond to the real historical problem. The exact grounding of the question can only be whether Jesus had wanted to abolish the people of God already existing, or to renew it. The reply to this precise query is clear. Jesus renewed the ancient people of God, making it become a new people by inserting all those who believe in him into his own community (his ‘body’). He did this in the moment when he transformed his death into an act of prayer, an act of love, thus making himself communicable. It could also consequently be said that Jesus, his message and his whole person, became part of Israel – God’s people – subject to the already existing tradition, and thereby rendered possible communion with that act which intimately characterized his own existence: dialogue with the Father. This is what is most profound in his method of teaching his disciples to say ‘Our Father.’

“This being so, then communion with the life of Jesus and the consequent knowledge of Jesus presuppose communication with the living subject of the tradition to which all this is ordained, communication with the Church. Jesus’ message could never otherwise live nor communicate life save by this participation. The New Testament also presupposes the Church as it subject. It grew out of the Church and in the Church; it finds it unity only in the faith of the Church, faith which draws diverse elements into unity. This bond of tradition, knowledge, and communion of life, appears in all the New Testament writings. In order to express this, John, in his Gospel and in his Letters, coined the figurative ecclesial ‘we.’

As the Spirit Assumes the Individual Humanity, Jesus of Nazareth, into the Divine Logos, Jesus the Christ, So the Spirit Assumes Us into Jesus the Christ – “I Am” - by Baptism. The Church is the “Space” for all of us as “Other Christs.”

Speaking in Toronto in 1986, Benedict XVI remarked: “St. Paul says, ‘I live, no longer I, but Christ lives within me’ (Gal. 2, 20)…. (I)n a single sentence, as clear as a lightning bolt, the inner event that took place during al of this, and is the ground of it all, is made clear. This inner event is at once personal and objective. It is the most personal of experiences and at the same time indicates what is the objective essence of Christianity for each one of us. It would be a weak oversimplification to put it this way: becoming and being a Christian depend on conversion. But that would be headed in the right direction. Yet conversion according to Paul is something much more radical than a mere revision of a few opinions or attitudes. It is a death event. In other words it is the replacement of the subject – of the ‘I.’ The ‘I’ ceases to be independent and to be a subject existing in itself. It is torn from itself and inserted into a new subject. The ‘I’ does not perish, but must let itself diminish completely, in effect, in order to be received within a larger ‘I’ and, together with that ‘I,’ to be conceived anew.

“The basic notion that conversion is thje abandonment of the old, isolated subjectivity of the ‘I,’ and the finding of oneself within a new and subjective unity in which the limitations of the former ‘I’ have been surpassed, makes it possible to come into contact with the basis of all truth. This fundamental thought is something we find again, but with new accents, in another passage from Galatians… Here, Ppaul vigorously asserts that the promise is made only to an individual. It apples not to a number of isolated individuals, but only to an individual – ‘the seed of Abraham’ in the singular (Gal 3, 16). The promise has been made to one person only, and outside this one person sits the confused world of self-realization in which people compete against one another and want to compete with God…

“But how can the promise be a hope if it can apply only to one person? Paul’s answer is this: ‘You have been baptized in Christ and have clothed yourselves in Christ. There are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus. But if you belong to Christ, you are the seed of Abraham and heirs to the promise.’ (Gal. 3, 28).

“It is essential to note that Paul does not say ‘You are a single mass,’ in some collectivist sense, but ‘You are one.’ You have become a new subject, unique in Christ, and thus, by means of the fusion of the subject, you are not within the realm of the Promise.”[2]

Later in the same talk, Benedict refers to Paul’s 1 Cor. 12, 12 where he comments: “Paul does not say ‘as in an organism there are many members working in harmony, so too in the Church’, as if he were proposing a purely sociological model of the Church, but at the very moment when he leaves behind the ancient simile, he shifts the idea to an entirely different level. He affirms, in fact, that, just as there is one body but many members, ‘so it is with Christ’… The term of the comparison is not the Church, since according to Paul, the Church is in no wise as separate subject endowed with it own subsistence. The new subject is much rather ‘Christ’ himself, and the Church is nothing but the space of this new unitary subject, which is, therefore, much more than mere social interaction. It is an application of the same Christological singular found in the Letter to the Galatians. Here, too, it has a sacramental reference, through this time it points to the Eucharist, whose essence Paul defines two chapters before in the bold assertion: ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body’ (10, 17). ‘One body:’ in accordance with the biblical significance of soma, this may be translated as ‘one subject,’ provided we are sensitive to the connotations of bodiliness and historicity belonging to this word” (underline mine).

(Benedict XVI’s Homily of Pentecost 2008 Continued)

“"Societas Spiritus," society of the Spirit: This is what St. Augustine calls the Church in one of his sermons (71, 19, 32: PL 38, 462). But already before him, St. Irenaeus formulated a truth that I would like to recall here: "Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every grace, and the Spirit is truth; to distance yourself from the Church is to reject the Spirit" and thus "to exclude yourself from life" (Adv. Haer. III, 24, 1). Beginning with the event of Pentecost, this connubium or "marriage" is manifested between the Spirit of Christ and his mystical body, that is, the Church.

“I would like to reflect on a particular aspect of the Holy Spirit, on the intertwining of multiplicity and unity. The second reading speaks about this, treating of the harmony of the different charisms in the communion of the same Spirit. But already in the passage from Acts that we have listened to, this intertwining reveals itself with extraordinary evidence. In the event of Pentecost it is made clear that multiple languages and different cultures belong to the Church; they can understand and make each other fruitful. St. Luke clearly wants to convey a fundamental idea, namely, in the act itself of her birth the Church is already "catholic," universal. She speaks all languages from the very beginning, because the Gospel that is entrusted to her is destined for all peoples, according to the will and the mandate of the risen Christ (cf. Matthew 28:19). The Church that is born at Pentecost is not above all a particular community -- the Church of Jerusalem -- but the universal Church, that speaks the language of all peoples. From her, other communities in every corner of the world will be born, particular Churches that are all and always actualizations of the one and only Church of Christ. The Catholic Church is therefore not a federation of churches, but a single reality: The universal Church has ontological priority. A community that is not catholic in this sense would not even be a Church.

“In this regard it is necessary to add another aspect: that of the theological vision of the Acts of the Apostles in respect of the journey of the Church from Jerusalem to Rome. Luke notes that among the peoples represented in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost there are also "foreigners from Rome" (Acts 2:10). At that time Rome was still distant, "foreign" for the nascent Church: It was a symbol of the pagan world in general. But the power of the Holy Spirit will guide the steps of the witnesses "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), to Rome. The Acts of the Apostles ends precisely when Paul, by providential design, arrives at the empire's capital and proclaims the Gospel there (cf. Acts 28:30-31). Thus the journey of God's Word, begun in Jerusalem, arrives at its goal, because Rome represents the whole world and thus incarnates the Lucan idea of catholicity. The universal Church is realized, the catholic Church, which is the continuation of the chosen people and makes its history and mission her own.
“At this point, and to conclude, John's Gospel offers us a word, which accords very well with the mystery of the Church created by the Spirit. The word spoken twice by the risen Jesus when he appears in the midst of the disciples in the Cenacle on Easter evening: "Shalom -- Peace to you!" (John 20:19, 21). The expression "shalom" is not a simple greeting; it is much more: It is the gift of the promised peace (cf. John 14:27) and is won by Jesus with the price of his blood, it is the fruit of this victory and his struggle against the spirit of evil. It is thus a peace "not as given by the world" but as God alone can give it.

“On this feast of the Spirit of the Church we would like to thank God for having given to his people, chosen and formed from all nations, the inestimable gift of peace, of his peace! At the same time we renew the awareness of the responsibility connected with this gift: the Church's responsibility to constitutionally be a sign and an instrument of the peace of God for all peoples. I tried to be a conveyor of this message when I recently went to the headquarters of the U.N. to speak to the representatives of the nations. But one must not only think of these "summits." The Church realizes her service to the peace of Christ above all in her ordinary presence and action among men, with the preaching of the Gospel and with the signs of love and mercy that accompany it (cf. Matthew 16:20).

“Among these signs, the sacrament of reconciliation must naturally be emphasized, the sacrament that the risen Christ instituted at the same time that he gave his disciples the gift of his peace and his Spirit. As we heard in the passage from the Gospel, Jesus breathed upon his disciples and said: "Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you forgive are forgiven them and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20:21-23). How important and, unfortunately, how insufficiently understood is the gift of reconciliation that brings peace to hearts! Christ's peace spreads only through the renewed hearts of men and women who have been reconciled and made themselves servants of justice, ready to spread peace in the world only with the force of truth, without compromising with the mentality of the world, because the world cannot give Christ's peace: This is how the Church can be a ferment of that reconciliation that comes from God. She can do this only if she remains docile to the Spirit and bears witness to the Gospel, only if she carries the cross like Jesus and with Jesus. This is precisely what the saints of every age testify to!
“In light of this word of life, dear brothers and sisters, may the prayer that today we address to God in spiritual union with the Virgin Mary become ever more fervent and intense. May the Virgin who listens, the Mother of the Church, obtain for our community and for all Christians a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit the Paraclete. "Emitte Spiritum tuum et creabuntur, et renovabis faciem terrae -- Send forth your Spirit and everything will be recreated and you will renew the face of the earth." Amen!

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Many Religions – One Covenant,” Ignatius (1999) 64.
[2] J. Ratzinger, “The Church as an Essential Dimension of Theology,” The Nature and Mission of Theology Ignatius (1995) 51-52.

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