Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Priestly Soul and Correct Exegesis

The problem of the exegesis that consists in either the extrinsicism of abstractive-conceptual philosophy, or the historicism of contingent facts, finds it resolution in the consciousness of experiencing the Person of Christ as an intelligible absolute taken from historical facticity. And this resolution depends on the meaning of Catholic priesthood.

What is emerging clearer and clearer for me is the connection between the exercise of the so-called “priestly soul” and the way exegesis is performed. In its simplest form, Benedict XVI’s presentation of the recognition of the Person of Jesus Christ by the apostle Bartholomew (Nathanael) is most revealing. It works on two levels of experience: sense (hearing) and coming and seeing (self-giving).

Having only hearsay of Christ from his fellow apostle Philip, Bartholomew (Nathanael) asks if anything good can come from Nazareth. Philip replies: “Come and see.” When Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, he exclaims: ‘Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him’ (John 1:47). It was praise that recalls the text of a psalm: ‘Happy those to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no deceit’ (Psalm 32:2), but which arouses Nathanael's curiosity, who, surprised, replies: ‘How do you know me?’ (John 1:48a). Jesus' answer at first is not understood. He said to him: ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree’ (John 1:48b). In John's narration there then comes the confession of faith that Nathanael professes at the end in a limpid way: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!" (John 1:49). Joseph Ratzinger comments: “Although it does not reach the intensity of Thomas' confession with which John's Gospel ends: "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28), Nathanael's confession has the function to open the terrain to the fourth Gospel. In the latter a first and important step is taken on the path of adherence to Christ. Nathanael's words present a double and complementary aspect of Jesus' identity: He is recognized both by his special relationship with God the Father, of whom he is the only-begotten Son, as well as by his relationship with the people of Israel, of whom he is called King, an attribution proper of the awaited Messiah. We must never lose sight of either of these two elements, since if we only proclaim the heavenly dimension of Jesus we run the risk of making him an ethereal and evanescent being, while if we only recognize his concrete role in history, we run the risk of neglecting his divine dimension, which is his proper description.”[1]

These two levels of experience – the one sensible and historical, the other personal, subjective and ontological as “going and seeing” (as in going out of one’s comfort zone and habitual conceptual furnishings) yields a full penetration into the reality of the Absolute of the divine Person present in the historical figure before one Who is the man Jesus of Nazareth. In a word, in order to find Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, one must go out of self in order to study the texts of Scripture and live the life of the liturgy for 24 hours of daily ordinary work.

Ratzinger connects this double way of knowing that alone is adequate to the figure of the God-man to the two dimensions of Catholic priesthood. The one dimension is the “social-functional view (that) defines priesthood in terms of ‘service,’”[2] a service that is principally the ministry of the Word (“for this… I have come” [Mk. 1, 39]). The other, “the sacramental-ontological view, without denying the aspect of service, sees priesthood as rooted in the minister’s being itself, and this being, in turn, as determined through a gift bestowed by the Lord through the Church, known as a sacrament.”[3]

The major difficulty with these two notions of Catholic priesthood is not that they are irreconcilable, but that secularization and the cultural loss of the sacred have weakened the understanding of the sacramental-ontological view and its exercise as self-gift. That once weakened, the experience and the consciousness that accrues to it all but disappear and the noetic field is co-opted and overgrown with the hegemony of the conceptual, the analytic, the objectified, the reduced, the ideological and the rationalistic, in a word, the positivism of the bad Modernism that was condemned by Pius X. The objective and the subjective, the contemplative and the conceptual, are now at odds with each other instead of being complementary. As Ratzinger says it: “Such views derived from modern exegesis somehow presuppose hermeneutical decisions developed in the period of the Protestant Reformation and endow them with new force. A basic key in the new reading of Scripture which has been born in these times [secularized] must be found in the opposition between Law and Gospel which was deduced from Pauline theology. The Law which has been abolished is opposed to the Gospel. Priesthood and cult (sacrifice) would seem to belong to the category of law: the Gospel is said to express itself in the figure of the prophets and in the preaching of the Word. For this reason the categories law-priesthood-sacrifice-cult acquire a negative connotation because they lead man to the letter that kills and to works which cannot justify. The essence of the Gospel, on the contrary, would consist in the hearing of the Word and in faith, which alone can render a man just. Thus the figures of the prophet and of preaching are alone congruent with the Gospel, while priesthood would pertain to the Law and should be thoroughly excluded from the Church of the New Testament.”[4]

If I am portraying the situation correctly, the experiential way of living the one priesthood of Christ that is radical self-giving for all the baptized and ordained, is the hermeneutical key to the comprehension of Scripture as the “result” of Revelation – the Person of Christ being the Revelation itself. That is, Scripture must not only be preached, read and studied, but also experienced in the self-gift of prayer.

How do Word and Cult fit together?

Ratzinger’s major insight that runs through all his works is that Christ as Person-Gift is His own Word and Act. He says: “Jesus does not convey a knowledge that is independent form his own person, as any teacher or storyteller would do. He is something different from, and more than, a Rabbi. As his preaching unfolds, it becomes ever clearer that his parables refer to himself, that the ‘Kingdom’ and his person belong together, that the Kingdom comes in his person. The decision that he demands is a decision about how one stands toward him, as with Peter, who said, ‘You are the Christ’ (Mark 8, 29). Ultimately, the message of his preaching about the Kingdom of God turns out to be quite clearly Jesus’ own Paschal mystery, his destiny of death and resurrection…. We can now understand that Jesus’ preaching can be called ‘sacramental’ in a deeper sense than we could have seen before. His word contains in itself the reality of the incarnation and the theme of the Cross and the Resurrection. It is ‘deed/word’ in this very profound sense, instructing the Church in the mutual dependence of preaching and the Eucharist, and in the mutual dependence, as well, of preaching and an authentic, living witness.”[5]

The preaching of the Word of God – evangelization - is the first mission of priesthood. But since that Word is the Person of Christ Himself as self-gift, preaching itself must be self-gift. But self-gift is the sacrifice of the Cross. In a word, they are one and the same.

Conversely, to penetrate to the Person of Christ in Sacred Scripture, the priesthood of self-gift that is total dedication to the critical-historical method which works on the level of the sensible and the analytic, must be complemented by the prayer life of contemplative self-giving – which is the very Person of Christ as relation to the Father, and to us.

It was not evident from the beginning that priesthood was sacramental-ontological. It was understood to be functional.
The reason for this is the experiential nature of Catholic priesthood. Non-Catholic ministry which would be functional and not ontological would not intrinsically experience the Person of Christ from within. It would deal with Him on the level of sense experience and description.

[1] Benedict XVI, September 6, 2006.
[2] J. Ratzinger, “The Ministry and Life of Priests,” October 24, 1995. A lecture given during the International Symposium organized by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of Presbyterorum Ordinis.
[3] J. Ratzinger, “The Ministry and Life of Priests,” ibid.
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid.

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