During Advent, I have been re-reading some of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s works, and have discovered some valuable insights regarding the coming of Christ into the world (and thus also some implications for his Return). In a previous post, I drew attention to the link Pope Benedict makes between the Incarnation and the Atonement; that a large part of the ‘good news’ that the Son of God is born into the world as one of us, is so that He can thereby effect our salvation – His birth is inseparably linked with His mission on earth, which culminates in His salvific suffering and death.
Another reason that the Incarnation is good news is that by God’s assuming our human nature and uniting it to His, we can really and truly know God. All the glimpses and intuitions that man has had over the centuries regarding what God might be like are confirmed, rejected and expanded in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – His very being speaks of who God is in His essence. No longer do we need to rely on the educated guesses of natural religion – we can know the heart of the Father through the Son. Benedict XVI makes the centrality of this aspect of Jesus’ teaching clear in the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy:
‘Jesus’ teaching is not the product of human learning, of whatever kind. It originates from immediate contact with the Father, from “face-to-face” dialogue – from the vision of the one who rests close to the Father’s heart. It is the Son’s word. Without this inner grounding, his teaching would be pure presumption…
…He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little.’
taken from Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (2008), pp.7 and 44, Bloomsbury.
In being able to know God then, we are able to enter into a personal relationship with Him – it is therefore fundamentally un-Christian to consider God to be an abstract impersonal deity, simply the conclusion of a series of proofs. We must go further and seek to know God through Jesus Christ, even to become His friends. Friendship with Christ is in fact a recurrent theme in Benedict’s writing and preaching, and was something he mentioned in a homily delivered to the College of Cardinals before he was elected to the papacy:
‘…the Lord calls us friends, he makes us his friends, he gives us his friendship. The Lord gives friendship a dual definition. There are no secrets between friends: Christ tells us all that he hears from the Father; he gives us his full trust and with trust, also knowledge. He reveals his face and his heart to us. He shows us the tenderness he feels for us, his passionate love that goes even as far as the folly of the Cross. He entrusts himself to us, he gives us the power to speak in his name: “this is my body…”, “I forgive you…”. He entrusts his Body, the Church, to us.
To our weak minds, to our weak hands, he entrusts his truth – the mystery of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the mystery of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3: 16). He made us his friends – and how do we respond?’
taken from a homily given to the College of Cardinals at the Mass for the Election of the Supreme Pontiff, 18th April 2005.
Less than a week later, after having been elected, Benedict XVI chose to return to this theme of friendship at his inaugural mass, developing the issue of our response to this offer of friendship hinted at in the previous address:
‘We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world…
…Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.’
taken from the homily at the Inaugural Mass of Pope Benedict XVI, 24th April 2005.
Here Pope Benedict examines the underlying reason that we do not give ourselves to Christ completely, do not return this offer of friendship with Him – we are afraid of what we might lose, what we might have to give up and let go of. But Benedict emphasises (and does so on the basis of personal experience) that all the promises of the gospel really are true – everything good, beautiful and true in life we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, there are things we will have to let go of, but these are attachments which, once we open ourselves up to Christ in faith, we will realise were hindrances to fullness of life, and in actual fact were the real causes of our anxieties and despair. It is the degree to which we give ourselves to Christ in loving trust, and begin the process of developing an intimate friendship with Him, that we free ourselves from these attachments of the self
This does not mean that life will become easy of course – in many ways, it may become more demanding. But becoming friends with Jesus means learning to love the things He loves and seeing the world through His eyes, through the eyes of love. Love does not eliminate pain and suffering, but it can and does transfigure them. Again, what I think Benedict is saying in this homily is that the more we hold back for ourselves, the less this will be true for us; unless we give ourselves to Jesus completely, this transformation of perspective will be limited in its scope, and sometimes lead to conflict with our ‘natural’ selves.
Here I see a connection in Pope Benedict’s thought between the saving mission of Christ and His offer of friendship. Jesus came into the world to live, teach, suffer and eventually die for us. The centrality and salvific power of His death on the Cross is the foundation of Catholic faith. However, He also knew that we would not be able to know Him as the apostles did, and so founded a Church to be His arms, eyes and voice through future ages. His saving grace is thus continued in and through this Church, His Body, which dispenses all the fullness of that grace through its sacraments, its preaching and teaching, and so enables its members to grow into a deeper relationship, a deeper friendship with Jesus.
The point is that, contrary to Protestant thinking, Catholics believe salvation to be an ongoing process wherein we are actually transformed by divine grace, not a once-saved-always-saved imputation of righteousness. It is therefore in this process of growing closer to Christ through the sacraments, etc, by developing that nearness to Him which Pope Benedict rightly called friendship, that our salvation is effected and made real. The unrepeatable and definitive work of salvation achieved on the Cross is applied and opened up to individuals throughout the course of time, as they make use of the Church’s treasures to grow closer to Jesus and let his graces flow into them and transform them. It is by becoming friends with Jesus then, that we truly know God and become drawn ever deeper into His life, so that we may (now only in part) become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). To summarise this point, I shall conclude with a final quote from Benedict XVI, this time in his first encyclical, which wonderfully illustrates the profound union with God in Christ that is both the means and end of our salvation:
‘Love of neighbour is thus shown to be possible in the way proclaimed by the Bible, by Jesus. It consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern. This I can offer them not only through the organizations intended for such purposes, accepting it perhaps as a political necessity. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.’
Deus Caritas Est, Section 18.