Thursday, August 07, 2008

Transfiguration - August 6, 2008


The “Scandal” of the Hiddenness of God

There is a connection between today’s feast, Benedict’s calling for a year of St. Paul, the Damascus experience, and the crisis of the eclipse of God that the Pope keeps pointing to. The crisis is that God is not being experienced. The anthropological solution that turns around the epistemology is personal conversion that enables one “to see” the face of Christ.

What does this personal conversion do so that one can know God? Or better, who does one have to be to experience God?

In Brazil last May, Benedict pronounced a stunning apodictic declaration. Asking “who knows God,” he answered, “only God knows God.” I copy the text:

“(W)ho knows God? How can we know him... For a Christian, the nucleus of the reply is simple: only God knows God, only his Son who is God from God, true God, knows him. And he "who is nearest to the Father’s heart has made him known" (John 1:18). Hence the unique and irreplaceable importance of Christ for us, for humanity. If we do not know God in and with Christ, all of reality is transformed into an indecipherable enigma; there is no way, and without a way, there is neither life nor truth.

“God is the foundational reality, not a God who is merely imagined or hypothetical, but God with a human face; he is God-with-us, the God who loves even to the Cross. When the disciple arrives at an understanding of this love of Christ "to the end", he cannot fail to respond to this love with a similar love: "I will follow you wherever you go" (Luke 9:57).

The build-up to the point is significant: a culture that is turned back on itself with the priority of possessions and control over people and things via technology has lost the sensitivity necessary to “see” presence of the Kingdom of God – the Person of the God-man - that was and continues to be among us.

“In the face of the priority of faith in Christ and of life "in him", formulated in the title of this Fifth Conference, a further question could arise: could this priority not perhaps be a flight towards emotionalism, towards religious individualism, an abandonment of the urgent reality of the great economic, social and political problems of Latin America and the world, and a flight from reality towards a spiritual world?
“As a first step, we can respond to this question with another: what is this "reality"? What is real? Are only material goods, social, economic and political problems "reality"? This was precisely the great error of the dominant tendencies of the last century, a most destructive error, as we can see from the results of both Marxist and capitalist systems. They falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality which is God. Anyone who excludes God from his horizons falsifies the notion of "reality" and, in consequence, can only end up in blind alleys or with recipes for destruction."

Why is God invisible and cannot be known by the external senses? Because God is Three Persons who are pure Relations. To be a pure relation is to be in a different dimension of being. That dimension is available to us because of our constitution as images of the divine Persons, and we experience it whenever we love as the supreme human relational act. We particularly experience it in the radical call to self gift which is the spousal gift which embraces both matrimony and celibacy.

Transfiguration: Prayer Event as Love and Relational Experience of the Relational God

Prayer as the activity and exercise of self-gift is the enfleshed reality of the very Person of the Son of the Father. The rector thesis of Joseph Ratzinger’s theology of revelation and faith is the dynamic of self-transcendence in the dialogic of speaking and hearing.[2] In a word, the Person of Jesus is “performative” [3] as eternal Word from and to the Father, so also the reception of this “performative” Persona into oneself such that we “know” Him by “becoming” Him is the meaning of “faith.” The veil of my insouciance and spiritual acedia where I collapse into myself and take up my abode there must be removed before there can be re-vel-ation. We must “hear” the Word as a deed that we must perform in order to “know” Him. In his “Behold the Pierced One,” the first thesis reads: “According to the testimony of Holy Scripture, the center of the life and person of Jesus is his constant communication with the Father.”[4] That communication was witnessed by the Church which perceived it as the activity of “Son.” The primitive Church was presented with a multitude of titles for Jesus: “Prophet, Priest, Paraclete, Angel, Lord, son of God, Son.” “In the end only three titles remain as the community’s valid adumbration of the mystery of Jesus: Christ, Lord and Son (of God). Since the title Christ (Messiah) became more and more associated with the name Jesus and had little clear meaning outside a Jewish milieu; and since ‘Lord,’ too, was not as clear as ‘Son,’ a further concentration took place: the title ‘Son’ comes in the end to be the only, comprehensive designation for Jesus. It both comprises and interprets everything else. So, finally, the Church’s confession of faith can be satisfied with this title. We find it in its ultimate form in Matthew, in Peter’s confession: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Mt. 16, 16).”[5]

We have seen before in Luke 9, 18 how Christ was found to be in prayer to the Father, and the apostles entered into His prayer and prayed with Him (like Him). This produced an ontologic change in Simon whereby he achieved the relational state that he tended toward because of his creation in the image and likeness of the divine Person of the Son. Christ changes his name from Simon to Peter, Rock, as Christ Himself is the “cornerstone.”[6] The point is that only by entering into prayer as the act of transcending self (or trying to) does one “know” Him who is total self-transcendence. Like is known by like.

Now in the Transfiguration, the same dynamic obtains. Peter, James, John and Jesus climb the mountain. Let us let Benedict explain: “Luke is the only one of the Evangelists who begins his account by indicating the purpose of Jesus’ ascent: He ‘went up on the mountain to pray’ (Lk. 9, 28). It is in the context of Jesus’ prayer that he now explains the event that the three disciples are to witness: ‘And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white (Lk. 9, 29). The Transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with this Father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light. In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself ‘light from light.’ The reality that he is in the deepest core of his being, which Peter tried to express in his confession – that reality becomes perceptible to the senses at this moment: Jesus’ being in the light of God, his own being-light as Son.”[7]

Benedict then compares Jesus’ radiation of light with that of Moses’s. He makes the point with Jesus, the light “shines from within; he does not simply receive light, but he himself is light from light.”[8] So also with us. “The garments of the elect are white because they have washed them n the blood of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 7, 14); this means that through Baptism they have been untied with Jesus’ Passion…Through Baptism we are clothed with Jesus in light and we ourselves become light. "[9]

Historical Event: The Vocation to be “Ipse Christus”

Josemaria Escriva celebrated Mass on a side altar in a church in Madrid on August 7, 1931, feast of the Transfiguration. The feast had been moved from the 6th to the 7th because the 6th was Sunday, thus liturgically trumping the feast. At the elevation of the Host, “without losing proper recollection, without being distracted… there came to my mind, with extraordinary force and clarity, the phrase of Scripture ‘et si exaltatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad me ipsum’ [And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself] (Jn. 12, 32). Immediately following that, Escriva hears: And the precise concept: it is not in the sense in which Scripture says it; I say it to you in the sense that you put me at the summit of all human activities, so that in all the places of the world, there may be Christians with a personal and most free dedication, that they be other Christs.”[10] Two months later on October 16, 1931, he hears in the middle of the street: “You are my son, you are Christ.” And I only knew how to repeat: Abba, Pater!, Abba, Pater! Abba!, Abba!, Abba!"[11]

The Damascus Event Was an Experience of Christ: For All the Baptized

Saul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus was existential experience. Jesus of Nazareth is but 10 years older than Saul. They must have been contemporaries in every sense of the term. Fernando Prat S.J. writes that “he [Saul] might easily have passed in the streets of Jerusalem or under the porticoes of the Temple; he was also a compatriot, if it be true, as St. Jerome believes, that Saul’s family was of Galilean origin.”[12] Prat’s point concerns the experience that must have taken place on the road to Damascus. “The way in which the converted Pharisee speaks of the lately crucified religious reformer Jesus of Nazareth, whose work and name he but yesterday thought it a glory and a duty to annihilate and abolish, is a strange phenomenon which seems to contradict all the laws of psychology and all the analogies of history. Paul, that proud genius, so conscious of his dignity, so disdainful of the idols of flesh and blood, is in ecstasy and adoration before his Master. He wishes to be his liege-man, his slave; and also the slave of his brethren for love of him. He allows no one to put him on a level with any created thing. Higher than the heavens, vaster than the universe, more powerful than death, sole victor over sin, the only mediator of grace and the one redeemer of the human race, Christ effaces all else by his splendour, fills everything with his plenitude, and is antecedent to the ages. Therefore every knee is to bend before him, in heaven, on earth, and in hell, for the most perfect of the celestial spirits recognize in him their Chief, their Creator, and their God. Such is the picture of Jesus which the Apostle, soon after the passion, sets before the witnesses of his life and death and even before his persecutors and executioners.”[13]

What happened on that road? Christ appeared to him and spoke to him. It was the beginning of prayer. Benedict XVI said: “St. Paul expressed the fundamental content of his conversion, the new direction his life took as a result of his encounter with the Risen Christ. Before his conversion, Paul had not been a man distant from God and from his Law… In the light of the encounter with Christ, however, he understood that with this he had sought to build up himself and his own justice, and that with all this justice he had lived for himself. He realized that a new approach in his life was absolutely essential. And we find this new approach expressed in his words: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2, 20).”[14]

That “new approach” was to be radical. It involved a death-event and a re-emergence as “another Christ,” “Christ himself.” Josemaria Escriva was firmly convinced of this point. The present Vicar of Opus Dei said recently: “By struggling to behave like this, we clear the way to being contemplatives in the middle of the world. This conviction will lead us always to concern ourselves with others for love of God, and not to think of ourselves. And so, at the end of the day, a day lived in the midst of ordinary affairs in our home, n our professions or job, we will be able to say as we do our examination of conscience, ‘Lord, I don’t know what to tell you about myself; I have only thought about others, for you!’ Using the words of St. Paul, we could translate this as: vivo autem, iam non ego; vivit vero in me Christus!” [Gal 2, 20].

The great point is to be in Christ. Benedict says: “This mutual interpenetration between Christ and the Christian, characteristic of Paul’s teaching, completes his d]iscourse on faith. IN fact, although faith unites us closely to Christ, it emphasizes the distinction between us and him; but according to Paul, Christian life also has an element that we might describe as ‘mystitrical,’ since it entails an identification of ourselves with Christ and of Christ with us.”

Finally, St. Josemaria remarks in gratitude for this doctrine: “Those who did not like him said that he was small of body, slow of tongue, and cross-eyed… and he considered himself great! With those invisible wounds, he considered himself to be alter Christus, ipse Christus. Yes, Paul, the great Paul! Thank you for this doctrine that you have left to us, because the Holy Spirit inspired it in you! You are Christ! Paul, rejoice that Christians love you, that they thank you for this treasure of doctrine!”

[1] Benedict XVI, Opening session of the 5th General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM), APARECIDA, Brazil, MAY 13, 2007.
[2] Recall his presentation in “Milestones…:” (108): “‘revelation’ is always a concept denoting an act [my emphasis. The “act” is Self-gift]. The word refers to the act [my emphasis] in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act [my emphasis]. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of ‘revelation’ [my underline]. Where there is no one to perceive ‘revelation,’ no re-vel-ation has occurred, because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it…. [Thus] revelation precedes Scripture and becomes deposited in Scripture but is not simply identical with it. This in turn means that revelation is always something greater than what is merely written down. And this again means that here can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura… because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition is already given.”

[3] Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi #2: “Christianity was not only “good news”—the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: the Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative”. That means: the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. Also: At the Sixth European Symposium of University Professors: “Christianity, as I recalled in the Encyclical Spe Salvi is not only "informative", but "performative" (cf. n. 2). This means that from the beginning Christian faith cannot be enclosed within an abstract world of theories, but it must descend into the concrete historic experience that reaches humanity in the most profound truth of his existence.”

[4] J. Ratzinger, “Behold the Pierced One,” Ignatius (1986) 15-22.
[5] Ibid 16.
[6] Acts 4, 11: “This is ‘The stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the corner stone.’ “
[7] Benedict XVI, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Doubleday (2007) 309-310.
[8] Ibid 310.
[9] Ibid310-311.
[10] John Coverdale “Uncommon Faith,” Scepter (2002) 89-90.
[11] ) Ibid 93.
[12] F. Prat, S.J. “The Theology of St. Paul,” Burns and Oates (1934) 112.
[13] Ibid 111.
[14] Benedict XVI Address to a general audience, November 8, 2006.
[15] Ibid

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