Thursday, December 14, 2006

Advent 2006

The meaning of “Parousia:”

“`Advent’ does not, for example, mean `expectation,’ as some may think. It is a translation of the Greek word parousia which means `presence’ or, more accurately, `arrival,’ i.e., the beginning of a presence. In antiquity the word was a technical term for the presence of a king or ruler and also of the god being worshipped, who bestows his parousia on his devotees for a time. `Advent,’ then, means a presence begun, the presence being that of God.

“Advent reminds us, therefore, of two things: first, that God’s presence in the world has already begun, that he is present though in a hidden manner; second, that his presence has only begun and is not yet full and complete, that it is in a state of development, of becoming and progressing toward its full form. His presence has already begun, and we, the faithful, are the ones thorugh whom he wishes to be present in the world.”

The Figure of John the Baptist

Two Texts:

The Humility of John who knew Christ: “The next day John saw Jesus coming to him and he said, `Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, `After me there comes one who has been set above me, because he was before me.’ And I did not know him. But that he may be known to Israel, for this reason have I come baptizing with water.
“And John bore witness, saying, `I beheld the Spirit descending as a dove from heaven, and it abode upon him. And I did not know him. But he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He upon whom thou wilt see the Spirit descending, and abiding upon him, he it is who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God;”
(John 1, 29-34).

1) John Fulminates Anticipating a Theocracy of the Messiah: “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the desert of Judea, and saying, `Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of through Isaias the prophet, when he said, `The voice of one crying in the desert, `Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ But John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins, and his food was locusts and wild honey….
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees, coming to his baptism, he said to them, `Brood of vipers! Who has shown you how to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit befitting repentance, and do not think to say within yourselves, `We have Abraham for our father;’ for I say to you that God is able out of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that is not bringing forth good fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water, for repentance. But he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to bear. He will thoroughly clean out his threshing floor, and will gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire’”
(Matt. 3, 1-12).

2) After charging Herod that he is not permitted to take his brother Philip’s wife for himself, Herod casts John into prison. However, while John is in prison, he hears of none of the things that he had prophesied about the ax being laid to the root of the trees. Then- Josef Ratzinger wrote: “In words of burning power John had prophesied the coming of the judge and had painted in fiery colors the great day of the Lord. He had portrayed the Messiah as the judge with the winnowing fan in his hand that would separate the chaff from the grain and throw the chaff once and for all into eternal fire. He had portrayed him as one who would case out this adulterous generation and, if need be, raise up children of Abraham from the very stones to replace the faithless people who called themselves the children of Abraham. Above all, amid the fearful ambivalence of this world where we are constantly waiting and hoping in darkness, John had expected and proclaimed a clear message: that the day would finally come when the hopeless darkness would be dispelled in which human beings wander to and fro and know hot where they are going. The ambiguity would disappear, and men would no longer have to grope their way in the endless mist but would know for certain that this and no other is God’s unequivocal claim on them, that this and no other is their situation in relation to God.”

The Trial of John’s Faith

Ratzinger then suggests John’s temptations of faith: “Meanwhile, at God’s command, John’s prophetic finger was pointing out a man. `Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (Jn. 1, 29). God’s presence had begun… but what a difference from what John had imagined! No fire fell from heaven to consume sinners and bear definitive witness to the just; in fact, nothing changed at all in the present world. Jesus went about preaching and doing good in the land, but the ambiguity remained. Human life continued to be a dark mystery to which people had to entrust themselves with faith and hope amid the world’s darkness.

“Clearly, it was this utterly different personality of Jesus that most tormented John during the long nights in prison: The eclipse of God continued, and the imperturbable advance of a history that was so often a slap in the face to believers. In his distress John sent messengers to the Lord: `Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ (Mt. 11, 3). It is a question all of us were ready to ask during the nighttime bombings of the Second World War, and are inclined to ask over and over again in all the distresses of our own lives: `Are you really he the Redeemer of the world? Are you really here now as the Redeemer? Was that really all that God had to say to us?’”

The Same Trial for Our Faith

Benedict has been affirming the two tiers of Christian faith since his “habilitation” thesis in Germany in 1956. The core of his thesis consisted in disabusing the modern mind that Sacred Scripture was “revelation.” He wrote: “Such an identification [that Scripture = Revelation] would have been unthinkable in the language of the High Middle Ages. Here, `revelation’ is always a concept denoting an act. The word refers to the act in which God shows himself, not to the objectified result of this act. And because this is so, the receiving subject is always also a part of the concept of `revelation.’ 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. These insights, gained through my reading of Bonaventure, were later on very important for me at the time of the conciliar discussion on revelation, Scripture, and tradition. Because, if Bonaventure is right, then revelation precedes Scripiture 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 there can be no such thing as pure sola scriptura (`by Scripture alone’), because an essential element of Scripture is the Church as understanding subject, and with this the fundamental sense of tradition is already given.”[3]

Michael Schmaus, Ratzinger’s thesis director, and whom he had not consulted in his work on this mediaeval theme, saw in this thesis “a not at all faithful rendering of Bonaventure’s thought (however, to this day I still affirm the contrary) but a dangerous modernism that had to lead to the subjectivization of the concept of revelation.”[4]

In his great work “Introduction to Christianity” originally published in 1968 (after the Council), he explained in like manner: “(Credo) means that man does not regard seeing, hearing and touching as the totality of what concerns him, that he does not see the area of his world as marked off by what he can see and touch, but seeks a second mode of access to reality, a mode which he calls in fact belief, and in such a way that he finds in it the decisive enlargement of his whole view of the world. If this is so, then the little word `Credo’ contains a basic option vis-à-vis reality as such; is signifies not the observation of this or that fact but a fundamental mode of behaviour towards being, towards existence, towards one’s own sector of reality and towards reality as a whole. It signifies the deliberate view that what cannot be seen, what can in no wise move into the field of vision, is not unreal; that on the contrary what cannot be seen in fact represents true reality, the element that supports and makes possible all the rest of reality. And it signifies the view that this element which makes reality as a whole possible is also what grants man a truly human existence, what makes him possible as a human being existing in a human way. In other words, belief signifies the decision that at the very core of human existence there is a point which cannot be nourished and supported on the visible and tangible, which encounters and comes into contact with what cannot be seen and finds that it is a necessity for its own existence.

“Such an attitude is certainly to be attained only by what the language of the Bible calls `reversal,’ `con-version.’ Man’s natural center of gravity draws him to the visible, to what he can take in his hand and hold as his own. He has to turn round inwardly in order to see how badly he is neglecting his own interests by letting himself be drawn along in this way by his natural center of gravity. He must turn round to recognize how blind he is if he trusts only what he sees with his eyes. Without this change of direction, without this resistance to the natural center of gravity, there can be no belief. Indeed belief is the con-version in which man discovers that he is following an illusion if he devotes himself only to the tangible. This is at the same time the fundamental reason why belief is not demonstrable: it is an about-turn; only he who turns about is receptive to it; and because our center of gravity does ot cease to incline us in another direction it remains a turn that is new every day; only in a life-long conversion can we become aware of that it means to `I believe.’”

The Trial: John’s and Ours

After John had sent the messengers with the question “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” because he had been scandalized by the presence of the Absolute and all powerful God in the world, and nothing had changed. In a sermon preached between December 13-15 of 1964, Ratzinger remarked: “What really torments us today, what bothers us much more is the inefficacy of Christianity: after two thousand years of Christian history, we can see nothing that might be a new reality in the world; rather, we find it sunk in the same old horrors, the same despair, and the same hopes as ever. And in our own lives, too, we inevitably experience time and again how Christian reality is powerless against all the other forces that influence us and make demands on us. And if, after all our labor and efforts to live on the basis of what is Christian, we draw up the final balance sheet, then often enough the feeling comes over us that the reality has been taken away from us, dissolved, and all that remains in the end is just an appeal to the feeble light of our goodwill. And then in moments of discouragement like that, when we look back on the path we have traveled, the question forces its way into our minds: What is all this array of dogma and worship antichurch, if at the end of it all we are still thrown back onto our own poor resources? That in turn brings us back again, in the end, to the question about the gospel of the Lord: What did he actually proclaim and bring among men? We will recall that, according to Saint Mark’s account, Christ’s message can be summed up in one saying: `The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel’ (Mk. 1, 15).”

Ratzinger then explains that theology, to render some account of the discrepancy between expectation and fulfillment, “in the course of time turned the kingdom of God into a kingdom of heaven that is beyond this mortal life; the well-being of men became a salvation of souls, which again comes to pass beyond this life, after death.”
“But,” says Ratzinger, “theology did not thereby provide an answer. For what is sublime in this message is precisely that the Lord was talking not just about another life, not just about men’s souls, but was addressing the body, the whole man, in his embodied form, with his involvement in history and society; that he promised the kingdom of God to the man who lives bodily with other men in this history. As marvelous as the knowledge is that has been opened up for us by biblical scholarship in our century (that is, that Christ was not just looking forward to another life, but was talking about real people), it can also disappoint and unsettle us when we look at real history, which is in truth no kingdom of God.”

The Kingdom of God is Present But Hidden

Christ answers John: “Go and tell John what it is that you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me!” (Lk. 7, 22-23)

John Paul II commented: “Especially through His lifestyle and through His actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live – an effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice and poverty – in contact with the whole historical `human condition,’ which is various ways manifests man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral. It is precisely the mode and sphere in which love manifests itself that in biblical language is called `mercy.’
“Christ, then, reveals God who is Father, who is `love,’ as St. John will express it in his first letter; Christ reveals God as `rich in mercy,’ as we read in St. Paul. This truth is not just the subject of a teaching: it is a reality made present to us by Christ. Making the Father present as love and mercy is, in Christ’s own consciousness, the fundamental touchstone of His mission as the Messiah; this is confirmed by the words that He uttered first in the synagogue at Nazareth and later in the presence of His disciples and of John the Baptist’s messengers.”

In the 1964 homily, Ratzinger said: “Our century is making us learn anew the truth of Advent: that is, the truth that it has always been Advent and yet also still is Advent. That all mankind is one before God’s face. That al mankind stands in darkness, but, on the other hand, that all mankind is illuminated by God’s light. Yet if this is the way it is, that it has always been Advent and still is Advent, then this also means that there is no period of history of which God would be just the past, which already lies behind us and in which everything has already been done. On the contrary, for al of us God is the origin from which we come and yet still also the future toward which we are going….We cannot find God except in this exodus, in going out from the coziness of our present situation into what is hidden: the brightness of God that is coming. The image of Moses, who had to climb up the mountain and go into the cloud to find God, remains valid for all ages. God cannot be found – even in the Church – except by our climbing the mountain and entering in to the cloud of the incognito of God, who in this world is the hidden One.”

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” Franciscan Herald Press (1985) 71-72.
[2] Ibid, 75-76.
[3] J. Ratzinger, “Milestones - Memoirs 1927-1977,” Ignatius (1998) 108-109.
[4] Ibid. 109.
[5] J. Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity,” Ignatius (1990) 24-25.
[6] John Paul II, “Dives in Misericordia,” #3.
[7] J. Ratzinger, “What It Means to Be a Christian,” Ignatius (1965-2005) 36.

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