Monday, February 18, 2013
The thought of Pope Benedict XVI
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI one week ago today certainly came as a shock. He was in the middle of the Year of Faith and suddenly everything abruptly came to a screeching halt. Regradless the reason for his resignation, the world and the church will miss his teaching. I will miss his teaching. His writings have deepened my faith and helped me to better understand the liturgy. Conider the following passage from Robert Moynihans work The Spiritual Vision of Pope Benedict XVI-Let God's light shine forth."This is ultimately Benedict's great message: that the world is a sacrament-an "outward sign" of the "inward reality" of God's love, and that man will only be happy when he recognizes the primacy of God in his own life and in the entire world. Benedict's conviction that creation is joyful insofar as it is oriented toward God began in his childhood in Bavaria, where Catholicism and everyday life were interwoven. The root of that conviction is seen in his early and deep appreciation for the liturgy, the ritual symbolism of everday life-water, eine, bread, light and darkness." Wow! There is a lot in those two sentences. Scott Hahn, who once said that he was "bored" by the sacraments as a seminarian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, now notes in his work Swear to God-the promise and power of the sacraments:" I wouldn't be surprised, today, to learn that more than a few Catholics feel what I felt, so long ago, as a Calvinist. They find sacraments boring, but only because they haven't learned (or perhaps theyv'e forgotten) the splendor and the drama of Christ's saving doctrine. Theyv'e stopped noticing how the sacraments have borne them up till now and promise to bear them to heaven." A quick review of what the Catholic Church understanding of sacrament is helpful here. Hahn notes: "The Baltimore Catechism summed it up for American parishes a generation ago: 'A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace...The sacraments receive their power to give grace from God, through the merits of Jesus Christ.' There's a lot packed into those few words, but by themselves they're not enough to bear a Calvinist, or even a Catholic, out of his boredom with sacramental rituals....The Catechism of the Catholic Church reaches into the Scriptures to assemble a more engaging definition: 'Sacraments are powers that come forth from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in His Body, the Church. They are the Masterworks of God in the new and everlasting covenant.'" Hahn helps us understand these definitions by giving practical examples. If we can understand what the Baltimore Catechism meant by sign then we can understand how Benedict can view the world as a "sacrament." Hahn: "Why did Jesus choose to communicate His salvation through signs? Because this is the way humans express themselves. A sign is something used to represent something else. All words are signs, but words are not the only signs. A flag, for example, represents a country. Our respect for the flag does not arise from the value of the cloth. The honor we show the flag symbolizes our respect for the country. When protesters want to show their disrespect for a country, they sometimes will deface or destroy a flag. A sign is a visible symbol of something that's invisible at the moment. We can see a flag, but we cannot see the entire country, much less the ideals embodied by the nation's government. The flag is the symbol of the country, its people, and its principles. A sign reveals something about the object it represents. A United States flag shows, by its fifty stars, that there are fifty states in the union; the red stripes memorialize those who died in serving their country; the white stripes stand for purity; and blue symbolizes heaven. Yet a sign also conceals much about the object it represents. For signs and things remain distinct. A flag is not a country; and even though we may spend years studying the flag, the nation itself will elude definition. The nation, in a sense, is a mysterious reality-a mystery. A sacrament is like other signs, but also unlike them." To maybe better understand what is being said-Sacrament is the outward sign, Mystery is the inward reality. Hahn makes a very important point in his third chapter of the book: "As I said in the first chapter of this book, God has a certain characteristic way of dealing with his people. It is not wrapped up in words so much as signs. It is sacramental. This was true from the first moment of creation, and it is just as true today. It is evident throughout the Old Testament, where God's chosen people spoke of all creation in profoundly sacramental terms: The heavens are telling the glory of God;and the firmament proclaims His handiwork...There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth (PS 19:1-4). God tends not to work in abstractions. His word is not mere words; it is creative, living, and active. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it well: 'God speaks to man through the visible creation. The material cosmos is so presented to man's intelligence that he can read there traces of its Creator. Light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolize both His greatness and His nearness.' God created the physical universe; He made it good; and He did not hesitate to use its most commonplace items to manifest His glory. Sometimes, too, God would even elevate those commonplace items for uncommon purposes, as channels of divine power. The early Christians saw this clearly. In the yr AD 383 St Gregory of Nyssa preached a sermon in which he cited many sacramental uses of nature in the Old Testament: 'Moses' rod was a hazel switch-common wood that any hands might cut and carry and use as they please before tossing it into the fire. But God wanted to work miracles through that rod-great miracles, beyond the power of words to express....Likewise, the mantle of one of the prophets, a simple goatskin, made Elish famous throughout the whole world (2Kings2:8)...A bramble bush showed the presence of God to Moses (Ex2). The remains of Elisha raised a dead man to life (2Kings 13:21) St John of Damascus added: 'I do not worship matter: I worship the creator of matter Who became matter for my sake, Who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!... God has filled it with His grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me.' Creation, then could serve as a natural sacrament. Nature itself was a sign, but God showed it capable of conveying supernatural power as well." Hahn and Benedict XVI are both on the same page. Hahn's illustrations and examples help to "unpack" the meaning of Benedict's words. Where is the world most a sacrament? The liturgy. Benedict XVI clearly felt that the problems of the world were liturgical problems. Listen to his response to Peter Seewald in the book Light of the world. Benedict is asked: "What is real renewal, the right kind of renewal?" Here is the pontiff's response: " The Church becomes visible for people in many ways, in charitable activity or in missionary projects, but the place where the Church is actually experienced most of all as Church is the liturgy. And that is also as it should be. At the end of the day, the point of the Church is to turn us toward God and to enable God to enter the world. The liturgy is the act in which we believes that He enters our lives and that we touch him. It is the act in which what is really essential takes place: we come into contact with God. He comes to us-and we are illumined by him. The liturgy gives us strength and guidance in two forms. On the one hand, we hear his Word, which means that we really hear him speaking and receive his instruction about the path we should follow. On the other hand he gives himself back to us in the transformed bread. Of course, the words can always differ, the bodily attitudes can differ. The Eastern Church, for instance, uses certain signs that differ from the ones familiar to us. In India, the same gestures that they share with us have a partly differenct significance. The essential point is that the Word of God and the reality of the Sacrament really occup center stage; that we don't bury God underneath our words and our ideas and that the liturgy doesn't turn into an occasion to display ourselves." Then, in a stunning and concise manner the Pope shows how the liturgy, the Mass is a gift: "Liturgy is precisely not a show, a piece of theater, a spectacle. Rather, it gets its life from the Other. This has to become evident, too. This is why the fact that the ecclesial form has been given in advance is so important. It can be reformed in maaters of detail, but it cannot be reinvented every time by the community. It is not a question, as I said, of self-production. The point is to go out of and beyond ourselves, to give ourselves to him, and to let ourselves be touched by him." Scott Hahn has been a good tour guide. I will let Pope Benedict conclude with words that summarize all we have been trying to say: " I am convinced that the ecclesial crisis in which we find ourselves today depends in great part upon the collapse of the liturgy, which at times is actually being conceived etsi Deus non daretur: as though in the liturgy it did not matter anymore whether God exists and whether he speaks to us and listens to us. But if in the liturgy the communion of faith no longer appears, nor the universal unity of the church and of her history, nor the mystery of the living Christ, where is it that the Church still appears in her spiritual strength?" Hopefully these words will inspire you as they have inspired me. Sacraments are definitely not boring-they are channels of divine communication and thanks to Pope Benedict XVI and his vision we can now approach the world as "Sacrament" and have a greater appreciation for the liturgy.