I’ve just finished reading What It Means to Be a Christian by Joseph Ratzinger, who is now known as Pope Benedict XVI. This is a book of 3 sermons he gave one Advent season a few decades ago. The beauty of this book, in my opinion (formed by reading some of his other writings though far from all of his writings), is the applicability to all of us. While many might struggle with some of his other work (I like to think I’m an intelligent human being but sometimes the level of his intelligence and insight makes me feel like an uneducated child), this book is straightforward, simple to read and easy to internalize and contemplate. What better matter to internalize and contemplate than the meaning of being a Christian? Anyway, I had so many page corners folded over so that I could go back and reread passages and think them over properly that I couldn’t pass up the temptation to blog some of my thoughts. This may take a while…
p. 19 (regarding the evils in the world; all that seems as if it shouldn’t occur in a supposedly redeemed world) – “we quite often run a particular risk: that of not wanting to see these things. We live with shades down over our windows, so to speak, because we are afraid that our faith could not stand the full, glaring light of the facts… But a faith that will not account for half of the facts or even more is actually, in essence, a kind of refusal of faith, or, at least, a very profound form of scepticism that fears faith will not be big enough to cope with reality… In contrast to that, true believing means looking the whole of reality in the face, unafraid and with an open heart, even if it goes against the picture of faith that, for whatever reason, we make for ourselves.”
- This was the first passage to jump from the page and into my thoughts for hours afterward. It is true that I often live this way, keeping the blinders on or downplaying the evils that exist and that I even personally encounter. I succumb to it often. My faith is strong, I might claim. My faith is steady. But does it maintain its strength and steadiness because I do not expose it to such tests as the world makes readily available to me, or because that faith has faced – openly, fervently, confidently – all that contradicts it?
- The author doesn’t bring it up, but I think also of the pitfall of living in a constant test of faith. There are those who are consumed by all that isn’t well, all that ‘ought’ to be different. Their faith becomes desperate; never at rest in God’s peace, never reassured by hope. Though it may compel them to work for the common good and combat evil, they might not be able to slow down and explain to themselves or others why they are doing any of it. They might not trust in the surpassing power of grace and love that is our cause for hope.
- I am also reminded of the words of John Paul II when he stated that teachers of the faith are called to teach Christianity “in all its rigor and vigor.” Whole, without fear, not balking at the risk of rejection or challenge.
pp. 35-37 – “Advent is a reality, even for the Church. God has not divided history into a light half and a dark one… There is only one, indivisible history, and it is characterized as a whole by the weakness and wretchedness of man, and as a whole it stands beneath the merciful love of God, who constantly surrounds and supports this history… for all of us God is the origin from which we come and yet still also the future toward which we are going. And that means, furthermore, that for all of us God cannot be found except by going to meet him as the One who is coming, who is waiting for us to make a start and demanding that we do so. 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.”
- This is part of the chapter entitled “The Hidden God”. Talk about perspective! All of time is an Advent season. I suppose I’ve already learned this, but I don’t think of it outside of the weeks preceding Christmas. To consider all of our days as Advent days, days of preparing and moving out from ourselves and toward God, is an enlightened understanding of history. The question of why there are such evils, such atrocities in a world that has been visited by Christ, a ‘redeemed’ world as we wish to categorize it, becomes a null question. Yes, this world has received Christ, has access to His grace and divine life, but we cannot forget that we are still not at our destination. Every generation, whether before or after Christ’s Incarnation and Paschal Mystery, is a generation of individuals beckoned to move toward a hidden God – individuals who have to choose.
- The chapter goes on to speak of this hiddenness. In all His ways, God has remained hidden. Not entirely so, for do we not have Divine Revelation and above all, the Incarnation? Yet even in those events, speaking by human hands and voices, coming in human form; so humble, so veiled in His great glory. I demand signs and answers to prayers and declarations of His will; I wonder why He doesn’t make Himself more obvious. Who am I, though, to demand that He act differently for me than He has always acted toward humanity? And who am I to suppose I could handle Him without the veil of mystery?! He does come; He does reveal. I must seek Him in the hiddenness He employs.
pp. 39-40 “God’s incognito is intended to lead us onward into this ‘nothing’ of truth and love, which is nevertheless in reality the true, single, and all-embracing absolute, and that is why in this world he is the hidden One and cannot be found anywhere else but in hiddenness.”
- This passage follows Ratzinger’s summary of Pascal’s teaching that there are 3 orders that exist – the quantitative order that is the object of all science, that is inexhaustible; the order of the mind, which doesn’t seem like much compared to all that exists in the quantitative order but is truly greater than that order because it is by the mind that we are able to “measure the entire cosmos”; thirdly, the order of love, of which he says “a single motion of love is infinitely greater than the entire order of mind, because only that represents what is a truly creative, life-giving, and saving power.”
- God’s hiddenness compels us to move forward in faith, to dive into the reality of His love and mercy which cannot be fit into any of the categorical, measurable parameters a human mind is capable of using and understanding. We have to humble ourselves and seek Him in His veil of mystery, in His subtlty.
pp. 53-55 (regarding the “breakthrough” moment in the history of creation when Creator and creature meet, when God becomes man and enters human history) – “it becomes apparent that what seems at first to be perhaps just some speculation or other about the world and things in general includes a quite personal program for us ourselves. For man’s awesome alternative is either to align himself with this movement [toward God and toward becoming like God], thus obtaining for himself a share in the meaning of the whole, or to refuse to take this direction, thereby directing his life into meaninglessness… Becoming a Christian is not at all something given to us so that we, each individual for himself, can pocket it and keep our distance from those others who are going off empty-handed. No: in a certain sense, one does not become a Christian for oneself at all; rather, one does so for the sake of the whole, for others, for everyone… It should be enough for us to know in faith that we, by becoming Christians, are making ourselves available for a service to the whole… it means moving out of that selfishness which only knows about itself and only refers to itself and passing into the new form of existence of someone who lives for others.”
The great paradox of Christian life, of knowing God’s love and offer of salvation for you personally while realizing He does not offer it for your sake alone but for the sake of the whole of humanity. Is it not incredible that by becoming a Christian we are made able to serve God in whatever way He chooses?
Ratzinger mentions that it is not always for us to understand how God is using us or why He asked a service of us at a particular time or in a particular way. I see in this the reality that by faith we actually become enveloped by God’s hiddenness. Our lives are given an aspect of mystery, of ‘incognito,’ like God! It is a thrilling prospect.
p. 74-75 – “For what faith basically means is just that this shortfall that we all have in our love is made up by the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf. He simply tells us that God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of his love and has thus made good in advance all our deficiency. Ultimately faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift… [this reception of the gift] is grasping at nothing unless there is someone who can fill our hands with the grace of forgiveness. And thus once again everything would have to end in idle waste, in meaninglessness, if the answser to this, namely, Christ, did not exist.”
I am unsure how to comment on this. The starkness of this truth hits me hard enough. The prospect of nothingness, of meaninglessness, is dark; it is terrible. Consider that every moment for us is a pivot point. There is always a turning, always a movement: toward Him to receive Him and follow Him, or away from Him into meaninglessness. But faith, oh that great, great gift of faith! Faith places into our hands the truth, the reality of Christ, which lends all meaning to all of life.