Monday, December 03, 2007

Advent 2007

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 through whom he wishes to be present in the world.”[1]

The Trial of Faith: John’s and Ours

John had sent messengers with the question “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” He had intuited before birth and audibly at the baptism that this Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the beloved Son of the Father. He had preached “words of burning power … and 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 cast out this adulterous generation and, if need by, 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 not where t hey are going. The ambiguity would disappear, and men would no longer have to grope their way in the endless mist abut 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.”

John was to point out Jesus as the Son of God: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1, 29). And this is the key for Ratzinger and for us: “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 ot he just; in fact, nothing changed at all in the present world. Jesus went about preacing 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.”[1]

In a sermon preached between December 13-15 of 1964, Ratzinger remarked: “I believe the real temptation for someone who is a Christian, as we experience it today, does not just consist in the theoretical question of whether God exists; or even the question of whether he is three or one; or even the question of whether Christ is God and man in one person. 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).”[2]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.”

This is a most profound piece of writing. If we try to translate it, we could say that theology has been working with a metaphysic that is an abstraction, and consequently faith has been habitually delivered in disembodied abstractions that are the gilded ornamentation of dogma but having nothing to do with the daily picayune detailed life that is the fare of every day. So, what we are left with is the experience of sensible reality that is the contingent history of a Jesus of Nazareth but without any experience of the absolute reality of the divinity of the Person Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Hence, Ratzinger the theologian-philosopher moved, from the epistemological horizon of person as substance that is “in-itself” with accidents like intellect and will, to the horizon that is experience of the person in the moral act of total self gift that is faith (as described in Vatican II’s “Dei Verbum” #5). Faith, Hope and Charity are different facets of the one reality of the person transcending self on the way to Jesus Christ. Evidence of this is to be found in Benedict’s encyclicals on Love and Hope. It might be said that Vatican II and the Magisterium of John Paul II and Benedict XVI are employing a purified anthropology of the Enlightenment that reached its zenith in Hegel as synthesizer of Kantian autonomy/freedom and Herder’s expressionism. A perusal of Charles Taylor’s work on Hegel would be most enlightening as to the usefulness of this anthropology as a lived Christology for the achievement of holiness and secularity in ordinary life.

In order to bring about this experience of the “I,” the key is the understanding of faith as conversion of the whole self which involves self-mastery, self-possession and self-gift. In the light of this, consider the gospel account of a second conversion for St. John the Baptist which Ratzinger offered as the prime account for Advent. The point to be made is that Jesus of Nazareth is present as the Christ, but He is invisible to the eye. One must go through a conversion to see Him – even John.

John, having been cast in prison by Herod, sent messengers to Christ to ask Him: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Lk. 7, 19).

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.”[6]

The import of the response is the following: “I am creative love invisibly present in the world: the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the dead rise, the poor have the gospel preached to them. You experience this through the senses, but you do not recognize me as “Divine Love” (Agape). You will have to become Love yourself in order to re-cognize Me and my Face.” The epistemology is: Like is known by like. You must experience, and therefore, cognize Love in order to re-cognize Love outside of you.

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 all 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.”[7]

The New Encyclical (Spe Salvi): God is Present, Experience Him.

The “Fullness of faith” is connected to “the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews, 10, 23). In a word, faith is hope because it is the same one person who believes by making the gift of self to the revealing Self of the Word. To make the gift of self is to activate the being of the self that creates joy because it is the fulfillment of who one is as image of the divine Person of the Son. Hope is the experience of joy in being who one really is.
When one enters into self-transcendence, he becomes joyful, which is the subjective dimension of hope. In a word, hope is the state of being “good.” If one acts in accord with being (and therefore is “true”), and that being is imaging a divine Person Who is pure relation to the Father, then to relate (faith) to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, is to be “good” because that action is who one is. And to be “good,” then, one is joyful because he is exercising a greater fullness of being, and can therefore claim to hope. Hope then comes from the presence of the absolute in time and space in the flesh.

Benedict is insisting in this new encyclical on the meaning of Advent. It is not simply awaiting the coming of Christ, but the encounter with Him now, but not yet fully. He writes: “Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives ius something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’ The fact that his future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future.”[3]

The opposite of hope is acedia that is the deep laziness of turning back on self that is sin. Acedia is the cause of sadness and depression. It is to consign everything to the world of abstraction and avoid the experience of personal exertion that is the Cross of self-transcendence, especially in the little things of daily life.
[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.

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” Franciscan Herald Press (1985) 74-75.
[2] J. Ratzinger, “What It Means to Be a Christian,” Ignatius (2006) 25-26.
[3] Benedict XVI, “Spe Salvi,” #7.

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