Monday, July 4, 2011

The Radical “Newness” of Jesus Christ As Explained by Pope Benedict XVI

“Jesus represents the whole of his saving ministry in one symbolic act. He divests himself of his divine splendor; he, as it were, kneels down before us; he washes and dries our soiled feet, in order to make us fit to sit at table for God’s wedding feast”. (Chapter 3: “The Washing of the Feet”)

This Part Two is full of surprises, which some have even taken to be unsound ones. Right from the beginning Pope Benedict, in the Foreword to his book, has specified his intention to have taken “a significant step” in the “direction” of a “hermeneutics” (interpretation) fully in accordance with “the methodological principles formulated by the Second Vatican Council”, as opposed to a common “historical-critical exegesis” that is “positivistic” and that has neglected the “theological” aspect (pp. xiv-xv):

One thing is clear to me: in two hundred years of exegetical work, historical-critical exegesis has already yielded its essential fruit. If scholarly exegesis is not to exhaust itself in constantly new hypotheses, becoming theologically irrelevant, it must take a methodological step forward and see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character. It must learn that the positivistic hermeneutic on which it has been based does not constitute the only valid and definitively evolved rational approach; rather, it constitutes a specific and historically conditioned form of rationality that is both open to correction and completion and in need of it. It must recognize that a properly developed faith-hermeneutic is appropriate to the text and can be combined with a historical hermeneutic, aware of its limits, so as to form a methodological whole.

Naturally, this combination of two quite different types of hermeneutic is an art that needs to be constantly remastered. But it can be achieved, and as a result the great insights of patristic [the Church Fathers] exegesis will be able to yield their fruit once more in a new context, as [Marius] Reiser’s bookBibelkritik und Auslegung der Heiligen Schrift, 2007 demonstrates. I would not presume to claim that this combination of the two hermeneutics is already fully accomplished in my book.

But I hope to have taken a significant step in that direction. Fundamentally this is a matter of finally putting into practice the methodological principles formulated for exegesis by the Second Vatican council (in Dei Verbum 12), a task that unfortunately has scarcely been attempted thus far.

In this way the Pope is showing himself to be an original thinker, one who will really stretch the minds of his readers. A reading of this book, therefore, requires real effort and attentiveness. A superficial and careless reading of the text might lead one to the conclusion, in places, that the author has departed from a traditional base. But that is never the case. Like Jesus Christ, whom the Pope had called ‘a living Torah’ in Part One, whose transformation of the old, without annihilating it, was a constant source of puzzlement to his disciples, the Pope, while pre-supposing Church doctrine, will significantly develop it. P. 81: “The “newness” of the figure of Jesus Christ – made visible in the outward discontinuity with theTempleand its sacrifices – nevertheless maintains a deep inner unity with the salvation history of the Old Covenant”.

For his hermeneutical boldness, the Pope has received strong criticism in conservative quarters. A reader has e-mailed us an article, “Modernism Resurrected: Benedict XVI on the Resurrection” by the Most Rev. Donald J. Sanborn, in the April 2011 edition of the Most Holy Trinity Seminary Newsletter (Brooksville, Florida), in which the author castigates the Pope for his ‘so many errors’, his being ‘so difficult to understand’, and ‘just like all the Modernists, he is seldom clear about what he is saying’, his book being ‘loaded with ... [heresy] luring statements’. This is especially in regard to his, admittedly challenging, Chapter 9 on the Resurrection. In Sanborn’s opinion, the Pope does not build upon the traditional Catholic foundations regarding this doctrine, and he ignores the clear teachings of former Popes. He is not a Thomist at all. This evolutionary-minded pontiff, he points out, has even couched the great event of the Resurrection in evolutionary terms, “an ‘evolutionary leap’.”

Actually, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the one true case of an evolutionary leap - unlike the fictional leap of primate to man - to a higher form of existence, a very “metamor­phosis of being”, as the Pope will say, “of remolding the whole of being”.

Our original purpose with this review had in fact been to focus upon the Pope’s discussion of Christ’s Resurrection. However, one finds that there is so much choice fruit to be picked from his earlier chapters - and here we must limit ourselves only to a few selections based around the concept of Jesus’ self-giving servanthood concept of Messianism, perhaps as contrasted with his contemporaries’ prevailing expectation of the Messiah as a political liberator - that we shall have to reserve our discussion of the Resurrection to the next MATRIX. So this article will be merely Part One.

Regarding those choice fruits, consider, for instance, Pope Benedict’s wonderful discussion on Jesus as (as mentioned above) the ‘new Temple’, a common theme throughout his book, and of the ‘deepened spiritual understanding of the priesthood’, ‘the new worship’, and the key importance of Isaiah 53 about the “Suffering Servant”, which however becomes only truly fulfilled in Jesus himself (pp. 80-81):

With the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus transforms his cruel death into “word”, into the radical expression of his love, his self-giving to the point of death. So he himself becomes the “Temple”. Insofar as the high-priestly prayer forms the consummation of Jesus’ self-gift, it represents the new worship and has a deeper inner connection with the Eucharist ....

Before we consider the individual themes contained in Jesus’ high-priestly prayer, one further Old Testament allusion should be mentioned, one that has again been studied by André Feuillet. He shows that the renewed and deepened spiritual understanding of the priesthood found in John 17 is already prefigured in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant Songs, especially in Isaiah 53. The Suffering Servant, who has the guilt of all laid upon him (53:6), giving up his life as a sin-offering (53:10) and bearing the sins of many (53:12), thereby carries out the ministry of the high priest, fulfilling the figure of the priesthood from deep within. He is both priest and victim, and in this way he achieves reconciliation. Thus the Suffering Servant Songs continue along the whole path of exploring the deeper meaning of the priesthood and worship, in harmony with the prophetic tradition ....

Pope Benedict, contrasting Jesus’ attitude of “otherness” against the pride of Adam, with reference to “The Washing of the Feet” (Chapter 3, a key chapter in the book), writes (p. 56):

What the Letter to the Philippians says in its great Christological hymn – namely, that unlike Adam, who had tried to grasp divinity for himself, Christ moves in the opposite direction, coming down from his divinity into humanity, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient even to death on a cross (cf. 2:7-8) – all this is rendered visible in a single gesture. Jesus represents the whole of his saving ministry in one symbolic act. He divests himself of his divine splendor; he, as it were, kneels down before us; he washes and dries our soiled feet, in order to make us fit to sit at table for God’s wedding feast.

Marvellous too, and still in the context of the self-effacing act of washing his disciples’ feet, is this inspiring account of Jesus’ salvific action, his “totality of self-giving”, his “love to the end” (pp. 54-55):

The hour of Jesus

With the Last Supper, Jesus' "hour" has arrived, the goal to which his ministry has been directed from the beginning ([John] 2:4). The essence of this hour is described by John with two key words: it is the hour of his "departing" (metabaínein / metábasis); it is the hour of the love that reaches to the end (agápê).

The two concepts shed light on one another and are inseparable. Love is the very process of passing over, of transformation, of stepping outside the limitations of fallen humanity - in which we are all separated from one another and ultimately impenetrable to one another - into an infinite otherness. "Love to the end" is what brings about the seemingly impossible metábasis: stepping outside the limits of one's closed individuality, which is what agápê is - breaking through into the divine.

The "hour" of Jesus is the hour of the great stepping-beyond, the hour of transformation, and this metamor­phosis of being is brought about through agápê. It is agápê “to the end" - and here John anticipates the final word of the dying Jesus: tetélestai – “it is finished" (19:30). This end (télos), this totality of self-giving, of remolding the whole of being - this is what it means to give oneself even unto death.

Consider also the Pope’s explanation of St. John’s superior notion of creation, revealing “what God is really like”, by comparison with the view of the Plotinian philosophy (pp. 55-56):

When Jesus speaks ... in John's Gospel ... of having come from the Father and of returning to him, one is perhaps reminded of the ancient model of exitus and reditus, of exit and return, such as we find in the philosophy of Plotinus in particular. Nevertheless, the going out and returning that John describes is something quite different from what is meant in the philosophical model. For Plotinus and his successors, the “going out” which was their equivalent of the divine act of creation, is a descent that ultimately leads to a fall: from the height of the "one" down into ever lower regions of being. The return then consists in purification from the material sphere, in a gradual ascent, and in purifications that strip away again what is base and ultimately lead back to the unity of the divine.

Jesus' going out, on the other hand, presupposes that creation is not a fall, but a positive act of God's will. It is thus a movement of love, which in the process of descending demonstrates its true nature - motivated by love for the creature, love for the lost sheep - and so in descending it reveals what God is really like. On returning, Jesus does not strip away his humanity again as if it were a source of impurity. The goal of his descent was the addition and assumption of all mankind, and his homecoming with all men is the homecoming of "all flesh".

Something new happens in this return: Jesus does not return alone. He does not strip away the flesh, but draws all to himself (cf. Jn 12:32).The metábasis applies to all. If in the Prologue of John's Gospel we read that "his own” (ídioi) did not accept him (cf. 1:11), we now hear that he loves "his own" to the end (cf. 13:1). In descending he reassembled "his own"- the great family of God - from strangers he has made them "his own".

Let us listen to the evangelist as he continues: Jesus “rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and tied a towel around himself Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him" (Jn 13:4-5). Jesus performs for his disciples the service of a slave, he "emptied himself" (Phil 2:7).

This is all in total contrast to the notion of Messiah that the Jews were expecting, hence Peter’s initial unwillingness to be thus served (p. 70). It is also quite the antithesis, too, of the Islamic view of a prophet (re recent ad., ‘Jesus as Islam Prophet’). The Pope - who will shortly discuss ‘The mystery of the betrayer [Judas]’ (pp. 65-69) - but presently leading to his important explanation of the meaning of the “new commandment” of Jesus - bids us now “to be very attentive” (p. 63):

After an interlude devoted to Judas' betrayal, Jesus returns to his instruction to the dis­ciples to wash one another's feet, and he applies it more widely (13:34-35). What is new about the new command­ment? Since this question ultimately concerns the "new­ness" of the New Testament, that is to say, the "essence of Christianity", it is important to be very attentive. ….

Saint Peter is just the sort of impulsive human character who elicits comment. And the Pope has sketched him well; and, too, more tragically, Judas the betrayer, who “shows us the wrong type of remorse: the type that is unable to hope, that sees only its own darkness, the type that is destructive and in no way authentic” (p. 69). By contrast (pp. 69-72):

In Peter we encounter another danger, that of a fall which is not definitive which can therefore be healed through conversion.

John 13 recounts two exchanges between Jesus and Peter, in which two aspects of this danger become visible. Initially, Peter does not want to have his feet washed by Jesus. This goes against his understanding of the relationship between master and disciple and against his image of the Messiah, whom he recognizes in Jesus. His resistance to the foot-washing has ultimately the same meaning as his protest against Jesus' prophecy of the Passion after the great confession at Caesarea Philippi: "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you" was how he put it on that occasion (Mt 16:22).

Now, from a similar standpoint, he says: "You shall never wash my feet" (Jn 13:8). It is the response to Jesus that we find throughout history: You are the victor. You are the strong one - you must not lower yourself or practice humility! Again and again Jesus has to help us recognize anew that God's power is different, that the Messiah must pass through suffering into glory and must lead others along the same path.

In the second exchange, which comes after Judas' departure and the teaching on the new commandment, the theme is martyrdom. It is expressed in terms of "going away", "going across" (hypágô). Jesus had spoken on two occasions in John's Gospel about "going away" to a place where the Jews could not come (7:34-36; 8:21-22). ….

During the washing of the feet, in the atmosphere of farewell that pervades the scene, Peter asks his master quite openly: "Lord, where are you going?" And again he receives a cryptic answer: "Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you shall follow afterward" (13:36). Peter understands that Jesus is speaking of his imminent death, and he now wants to emphasize his radical fidel­ity even unto death: “Why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you” (13:37). Indeed, shortly afterward on the Mount of Olives, he rushes in with his sword, ready to put his intention into effect. But he must learn that even martyrdom is no heroic achievement: rather, it is a grace to be able to suffer for Jesus. He must bid farewell to the heroism of personal deeds and learn the humility of the disciple. His desire to rush in -his heroism - leads to his denial. In order to secure his place by the fire in the forecourt of the high priest's palace, and in order to keep abreast of every development in Jesus' destiny as it happens, he claims not to know him. His heroism falls to pieces in a small-minded tactic. He must learn how to wait, how to persevere. He must learn the way of the disciple in order to be led, when his hour comes, to the place where he does not want to go (cf. Jn 21:18) and to receive the grace of martyrdom.

One might wonder just how much influence his association with Pope John Paul II - especially in his later years of suffering - may have had upon the formation of our present Pope’s thinking as regards suffering servanthood. Leaving aside his book for a moment, it was interesting (and most relevant to our discussion) to read in an article what the following author considered to constitute the greatness of Pope John Paul II. That he showed us how to carry the Cross.

April 25, 2011

By Russell Shaw

Strange as it may seem at first, I find the key to the sanctity of Pope John Paul II in the closing words of an American novel published in 1988 — a book the Pope most likely never read.

In brief, the heart of John Paul’s practice of “heroic charity” resides in the fact that he showed the world how to carry the cross.

…. John Paul was human, and he made mistakes. He was slow to come to grips with the sex abuse problem, and not all his choices for bishop turned out well.

But among the conspicuous elements of his greatness were his key role in the fall of communism, which he helped bring about by his powerful support for the Polish people’s deeply spiritual rebellion against their communist overlords; his remarkable body of encyclicals and other teaching documents positioning Catholics to engage contemporary secular culture; and his dramatic, globe-circling travels that captured the imaginations and moved the hearts of people throughout the world.

Important as all this was, however, to me the heart of his sanctity resides somewhere else. I find the idea expressed at the end of J.F. Powers’s second novel and last book, Wheat That Springeth Green.

Powers, a serious Catholic, was not a prolific writer — he published just three books of short stories and two novels — but he was a subtle and insightful one as well as a careful craftsman.

Wheat That Springeth Green tells the story of an American priest named Joe, a would-be wearer of a hairshirt during his seminary years, who as a pastor in the post-Vatican II Church learns what everyday penitential suffering really means.

In an incident that recalls an episode in the life of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, Joe deserts his post and runs away. But, also like the Cure d’Ars, he soon relents and turns back. Not long after that, friends give Father Joe a birthday party. After it’s over, he’s heading to his car when another priest, Lefty by name, calls after him about a chair he’s offered to give Joe and Joe has declined: “Sure you don’t want that chair?” “Joe shook his head and kept going, calling back, ‘Yes,’ and when Dave called after him, ‘Where is it you’re stationed now — Holy…Faith?’ Joe shook his head and kept going, calling back, ‘Cross.’”

What does that have to do with John Paul II? Just this. In his declining years — old, sick, increasingly incapacitated by Parkinsonism — he soldiered on, demonstrating how a son of God accepts the Father’s will, takes up his cross, and goes to meet his death.

Other public men have hidden their weakness and disability — among American presidents, think of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy.
Popes have sometimes done the same.

John Paul handled it differently, carrying on his ministry as pastor of the universal Church as well as his failing strength allowed and allowing the world to witness his weakness in a display of uncommon heroism.

No doubt there are many reasons why he deserves to be called “Blessed” and some day “Saint.” This one seems central to me. ….

{End of quote}

We must let ourselves be immersed ­in the Lord's mercy,

then our "hearts", too, will discover the right path”.

Pope Benedict had bade us “to be very attentive” regarding the “new commandment”. Here is his ontological and Thomistically-grounded explanation of it (pp. 63-64):

It has been argued that the new element - moving beyond the earlier commandment to love one's neigh­bor - is revealed in the saying "love as I have loved you", in other words, loving to the point of readiness to lay down one's life for the other. If this were the specific and exclusive content of the "new commandment", then Christianity could after all be defined as a form of extreme moral effort. This is how many commentators explain the Sermon on the Mount: in contrast to the old way of the Ten Commandments - the way of the average man, one might say - Christianity, through the Sermon on the Mount, opens up the high way that is radical in its demands, revealing a new level of humanity to which men can aspire.

And yet who could possibly claim to have risen above the "average" way of the Ten Commandments, to have left them behind as self-evident, so to speak, and now to walk along the exalted paths of the "new law"? No, the newness of the new commandment cannot consist in the highest moral attainment. Here, too, the essential point is not the call to supreme achievement, but the new founda­tion of being that is given to us. The newness can come only from the gift of being-with and being-in Christ.

Saint Augustine actually began his exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount - his first cycle of homilies after priestly ordination - with the idea of a higher ethos, loft­ier and purer norms. But in the course of the homilies, the center of gravity shifts more and more. In a number of places he has to acknowledge that the older morality was already marked by a genuine completeness. With increas­ing clarity, preparation of the heart comes to replace the idea of the higher demand (cf. De Serm. Dom. in Monte I. 19, 59); the "pure heart" (cf. Mt 5:8) becomes more and more the focus of the exegesis. …. the connection with the wash­ing of the feet becomes visible in a surprising way: only by letting ourselves be repeatedly cleansed, "made pure'', by the Lord himself can we learn to act as he did, in union with him.

It all depends on our "I" being absorbed into his ("it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" - Gal 2:20). This is why the second constantly recurring key-­word in Augustine's exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount ­ismisericordia - mercy. We must let ourselves be immersed ­in the Lord's mercy, then our "hearts", too, will discover the right path. The "new commandment" is not simply a new and higher demand: it is linked to the newness of Christ - to growing immersion in him.

Taking this line of argument farther, Thomas Aquinas observed: "The new law is the grace of the Holy Spirit" (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 106, a. 1) - not a new norm, but the new interiority granted by the Spirit of God himself­. This spiritual experience of the truly new element in Christianity was what Augustine succinctly expressed in the famous formula: "Da quod iubes et iube quod vis" (give what you command and command what you will; Conf. X, 29, 40). The gift - the sacramentum - becomes an exemplum, an example, while always remaining a gift. To be a Christian is primarily a gift, which then unfolds in the dynamic of living and acting in and around the gift.

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