Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Clarifications of a Homily: December 8, 2008

As an antidote to possible misunderstandings of the homily last night (Monday, December 8, 2008 at Our Lady of Peace in New Providence), I offer the following.

The intent was to show the realism of the historical background into which the Incarnation of the Son of God took place. God did not drop as a meteor into human history and redeem it by an act outside of that very history. The Incarnation and the Redemption took place inside of human history by the Son of God taking a real human nature genealogically descending from Abraham (Matthew 1, 1-17) and ascending back to Adam (Luke 3, 23-38).

Concerning Matthew’s genealogy, Benedict XVI wrote: “St. Matthew the Evangelist begins his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ with the words: ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ He searches out the human ancestors of this man Jesus and attempts to locate him in relation to the history of the race. He shows the human origins of this life which did not drop straight from heaven but grew on a tree with a long history and ultimately sprang from the two great roots named Abraham and David. Matthew is presenting Jesus the man, and for this reason his symbol as evangelist is the Son of Man.

“The New Testament begins with man, just as the Old Testament had begun with the incalculably mysterious soliloquy of the Creator: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ A man stands at the beginning of the New Testament…but as one who emerges from the history of mankind. In his genealogy Matthew carefully plots the transition from the long and bewildering history set down in the Old Testament to the new reality that has begun with Jesus Christ.”

Concerning Luke’s genealogy, the pope wrote: “He [Luke] thus makes it clear that the community Jesus has established is not simply a new Israel, a people whom God gathers for himself in this world, but that the mission of Jesus embraces instead the whole of the human race. His mission is not aimed at salvation for one group, one set of people alone, but is directed to the whole race, the entire world. In Jesus Christ the creation of man first attains its true goal; in him the Creator’s conception of man finds its full expression; in him the beast that lurks in all of us is overcome for the first time, and the human in its fullness comes on the stage of history, for, as the second reading for the Dawn Mass of Christmas says: in Jesus ‘the loving kindness (philanthropia: love for mankind) of God our Savior appeared’ (Ti, 4).

“The face of Jesus Christ shows us clearly what God is, and it also makes visible what man is.”[2]

With the purpose of showing this historical realism, I presented and highlighted the sordid elements in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. I mentioned – perhaps too strenuously in trying to make the point – the presence of unjust favoritism (Judah over Joseph), cheating (Jacob over Esau), prostitution (Tamar, Rahab), adultery (King David), etc. The reason for making this point strenuously was to highlight Christ’s real humanity as taken from within that history. My ultimate purpose was to contrast this sinful darkness with the radical break from it that is the Immaculate Conception of our Lady. By a supernatural intervention in the sordidness of this historical ancestry, the mother of Jesus is without sin. The flesh comes to Jesus from within the genealogy, but not the sin. It stopped at our Lady who engendered Him by an act of love: fiat. Benedict XVI’s point is that man does not reach God by his own efforts but by God’s coming to man.

That supernatural intervention which was the break in the sinfulness of the genealogy was what I was after, but fear I did not get it across. Let me quote Benedict XVI who did get it across:

“The history of which Jesus becomes a part is a very ordinary history, marked by all the scandals and infamies to be found among human beings, all the advances and good beginnings, but also all the sinfulness and vileness – an utterly human history!

“The only four women named in the genealogy [Matthew] are all four of them witnesses to human sinfulness: Among them is Rahab the harlot who delivered Jericho into the hands of the migrating Israelites. Among them, too, is the wife of Uriah, the woman whom David got for himself through adultery and murder. Nor are the males in the genealogy any different. Neither Abraham nor Isaac or Jacob is an ideal human being; David certainly is not, nor is Solomon; and Manasseh, whose thrones are sticky with the blood of innocent victims. It is a somber history that leads to Jesus; it is not without its moments of light, its hopes, and advances, but on the whole it is a history of shabbiness, sin, and failure.

“We are tempted to ask: Is that the context into which the Son of God could be born? And the scriptures answer: Yes. But all this is a sign for us. It tells us that the incarnation of God does not result from an ascent on the part of the human race but from the descent of God. The ascent of man, the attempt to bring forth God by his own efforts and to attain the status of superman – this attempt failed wretchedly back in Paradise. The person who tries to become God by his own efforts, who highhandedly reaches for the stars, always ends up by destroying himself. Thus the wretched course of Israelite history is a sign for us: a sign that it is not through arrogance and self-exaltation that human beings are delivered, but through humility, self-surrender, and service.”

The point that Benedict wants to make is that we do not rise to God by our efforts alone, but rather God must make the first steps to stoop down to us and raise us up. The point is the radical necessity of the supernatural. He goes on to say (here and elsewhere) that “in Christianity the focus is not on great religious figures; Christianity represents rather the dethronement of religious figures. The thing that counts in Christianity is obedience, humility in the face of God’s word. ‘An infant, or an overdriven laborer, given faith, can take precedence before heroes of asceticism,’
[3] because salvation does not come from man’s greatness but from God’s gracious mercy. This sign of God’s descent, the saving sign that is his self-humbling, should imprint this passage of the Gospel deep in our hearts once again. It should once again convert us into persons who do not shun a similar descent; persons who know that precisely in their descent and in the little services life asks of them they are on the way to Jesus Christ.”[4]

Consider what is at stake in the very meaning of God, man and religion here. Ratzinger has presented in his “Truth and Tolerance” that there are three basic forms of religion: Mysticism, Monotheism and Enlightenment. Mysticism is the experience of the self as absolute (Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu): “God” is passive/unhistorical; Monotheism (the Prophet) is the call of God to belief, i.e. to go out of self: God is active/historical; Enlightenment is rational knowledge as absolute.

In the monotheistic experience of receptivity in an active, Self-revealing God who speaks the Word that is Himself, there are no great religious figures. Their greatness depends on their humility and obedience to the intervention of the supernatural. Only God can engender God. In Judeo-christianity, there tend not to be great religious figures. Ratzinger notes that “If we set the principal actors in the convenant-event of Israel against the religious personalities of Asia, then first of all we feel remarkably uncomfortable. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, with all their wiles and tricks, with their ill-temper and their inclination to violence, seem at least quite mediocre and pathetic next to someone like Buddha, Confucius or Lao-tzu, but even such great prophetic characters as Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are not entirely persuasive in such a comparison.”

The point to be made is that history, as existential reality, is the context of the active revelation of God. God is the active One. His action is what we call “the supernatural.” We are capable of it only if He has acted first to empower us. This gives a clue to the nature of the human person. Man must be loved and affirmed (grace) before he is a subject capable of mastering self and self-possessive in order to make the gift of self that is the reception of the Word of the one God. This active reception is what we understand to be “faith.” Ratzinger says:
“God seeks out man in the midst of his worldly and earthly connections and relationships: God, whom no one, not even the purest of men, can discover for himself, comes to man of his own volition and enters into relationship with him…. It is not primarily the discovery of some truth; rather, it the activity of God himself making history. Its meaning is, not that divine reality becomes visible to man, but that it makes the person who receives the revelation into an actor in divine history. For here, in contrast to mysticism, God is the one who acts, and it is he who brings salvation to man.”[6]

Ratzinger then quotes Danielou appositely and at length:

Those who are saved are the inward-looking souls, whatever the religion they profess. For Christianity, they are the believers, whatever level of inwardness they may have achieved. A little child, an overworked workman, if they believe, stand at a higher level than the greatest ascetics. ‘We are not great religious personalities,’ Guardini once said; ‘we are servants of the Word.’ Christ himself had said that Saint John the Baptist might well be ‘the greatest among the children of men,’ but that ‘the least among the sons of the kingdom is greater than he’ (see Lk. 7, 28). It is possible for there to be great religious personalities in the world even outside of Christianity; it is indeed very possible for the greatest religious personalities to be found outside Christianity; but that means nothing; what counts is obedience to the Word of Christ.”[7]

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” Franciscan Herald Press (1985) 19.
[2] Ibid 22-23.
[3] Jean Danielou, “The Lord of History: Reflection on the Inner Meaning of History,” tr. By N. Abercrombie (Chicago, 1958) p. 113 – in full in footnote 7 below.
[4] J. Ratzinger, op. cit 21-22.
[5] J. Ratzinger, “Truth and Tolerance,” Ignatius (2004) 40-41.
[6] Ibid. 42.
[7] J. Ratzinger, op. cit 43.

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