Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Benedict's Words at the Synod

Pope Benedict addressed the Bishops gathered for the Synod discussing the role of Scripture in the life of the Church. In particular, he talked about the need to build a bridge between exegesis and theology.

Here's what he said:
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Dear Brothers in the Episcopate, dear brothers and sisters!
At the start of our Synod, the Liturgy of the Hours offers us a passage from the great Psalm 118 [Psalm 119 in modern numbering] on the Word of God: a eulogy of his Word, expression of Israel's joy at being able to know it, and in it, to know his will and his face.
I would like to meditate with you on some verses of this excerpt from the Psalm.
It starts this way: "In aeternum, Domine, verbum tuum constitutum est in caelo... firmasti terram, et permanet". (Your word, LORD, stands forever; it is firm as the heavens...your truth endures; fixed to stand firm like the earth".)
It speaks of the solidity of the Word. It is solid, it is the true reality on which to base one's life. Let us recall the words of Jesus who continues these words of the Psalm: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words never will".
Humanly speaking, the word, our human word, is almost a nothing in reality, a whiff of breath. No sooner said, it vanishes. It seems to be nothing. And yet the human word has an incredible power. They are words that make history, they give shape to our thoughts, thoughts which give rise to words. Words shape history and reality.
But much more so is the Word of God which is the basis of everything - it is the true reality. And to be realists, we must depend on this reality. We should change our idea that material things, those that are solid, that can be touched, are the most solid and sure realities.
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord tells us the two possibilities of constructing the house of our own life: on sand or on rock. He who builds only on visible and tangible things, on success, on career, on money, builds on sand. These seem to be the realities.
Only the Word of God is the foundation of all reality - it is as stable as heaven, and more than heaven. It is reality. So we must change our concept of realism.
The realist is he who recognizes in the Word of God - this reality which can appear to be so weak - the foundation of everything. The realist is he who builds his life on this foundation which will stay permanently.
Thus these first verses of the Psalm invite us to discover what is reality and in this way, to find the foundation of our life, how to build our life.
The next verse says: "Omnia serviunt tibi" (All things are your servants). All things come from the Word, they are a product of the Word.
"In the beginning was the Word". In the beginning, heaven spoke. And so, reality is born from the Word, it is 'creatura Verbi', a creature of the Word. Everything is created from the Word, and everything is called on to serve the Word.
This means that all of creation, ultimately, was ideated to create the place of encounter between God and his creatures, a place where the love of the creature responds to divine love, a place where the love story between God and his creatures takes place. "Omnia serviunt tibi".
The story of salvation is not a small event, in a poor planet lost in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing that is happening by chance in an out-of-the-way planet.
It is the mover of everything, the aim of creation. Everything was created so that this story would take place - the encounter between God and his creature. In this sense, the story of salvation, the covenant with God, preceded creation.
In the Hellenistic period, Judaism developed the idea that the Torah (the Jewish book of laws) had preceded the creation of the material world. This material world was created only to provide the setting for the Torah, to the Word of God which creates a response and becomes a story of love.
Already, the mystery of Christ shines through. It is what we are told in the Letters to the Ephesians and to the Corinthians: Christ is the protòtypos, the firstborn of Creation, the idea for which the universe was conceived. He embraces everything. We enter into the movement of the universe by uniting ourselves to Christ.
We might say that while material creation is the condition for the story of salvation, the story of the covenant is the true reason for the cosmos. We come to the roots of being by arriving at the mystery of Christ, to his living Word which is the purpose of all creation.
"Omnia serviunt tibi". Serving the Lord, we realize the purpose of being, the purpose of our own existence.
Let us jump forward. "Mandata tua exquisivi" (I shall consider your commands with care). We are always in search of the Word of God. It is not just present in us. If we stop at the letter of the Word, we have not necessarily understood the Word of God. There is the danger that we only see the human words and fail to find within the true actor, the Holy Spirit. We do not find the Word in words.
St. Augustine, in this context, reminds us of the scribes and Pharisees consulted by Herod when the Magi arrived. Herod wanted to know where the Savior of the world would be born. They knew it, and gave him the correct answer; Bethlehem. They were great experts, who knew everything. And yet, they did not see reality, they did not recognize the Savior.
St. Augustine says - they showed the way for others, but they themselves did not move. This is a great danger,too, in our reading of Scripture: we stop at the words, human words from the past, a history of the past, and we do not discover the present in the past, the Holy Spirit which speaks to us today in words from the past.
And so we fail to enter into the interior movement of the Word, which hides in human words and opens the divine words. That is why there is always need for 'considering with care'. We should be in search of the Word within words.
Therefore, exegesis, the true reading of Sacred Scripture, is not simply a literary phenomenon, it is not limited to reading the text. It is the movement of my own existence. It is moving towards the Word of God in human words.
Only by conforming to the mystery of God, to the Lord who is the Word, can we enter into the Word, only then can we truly find the Word of God in human words.
Let us pray to the Lord that he may help us to search not only with the intellect, but with all our existence, to find his Word.
In the end: "Omni consummationi vidi finem, latum praeceptum tuum nimis" (I have seen the limits of all perfection, but your command is without bounds). All human things, all the things we could invent or create, are finite.
Even all the human religious experiences are finite, they show an aspect of reality, because our being is finite and always understands only a part, some elements. "Latum praeceptum tuum nimis": Your command is without bounds.
Only God is infinite. And so even his Word is universal and does not not recognize any limits. And so in entering the Word of God, we are truly entering into the divine universe. We leave the limitations of our experiences and enter into that reality which is truly universal.
Entering into communion with the Word of God, we enter into the communion of the Church that lives the Word of God. We are not entering a small group, into the order of a small group , but we go beyond our personal limits. And we go towards largeness. the true largeness of the only truth, the great truth of God. We are really into the universal, into the communion of all our brothers and sisters, of all mankind, because in our heart is hidden that desire for the Word of God which is one.
That is why even evangelization, the announcement of the Gospel, mission - these are not a kind of ecclesial colonialism with which we want to bring others into our group. It is leaving the limits of single cultures towards the universality that links everyone, unites everyone, makes us all brothers.
Let us pray too that the Lord may help us enter truly into the 'largeness' of his Word and thus open ourselves to the universal horizon of mankind, that which unites us despite all our differences.
Let us turn back to a preceding verse: "Tuus sum ego: salvum me fac" (I am yours; save me) (v. 94). it is translated into Italian as 'I am yours'. The Word of God is like a ladder which we can climb, and with Christ, descend as well into the depths of his love. It is a way to get to the Word within words. Because this Word has a face - it is a person, Christ. Before we can say "I am yours", he has already told us "I am yours'.
The Letter to the Hebrews, citing Psalm 39, says: "A body you have prepared for me... And so I said, Here I am, I am coming". The Lord prepared himself a body to come to. With his Incarnation, he said, "I am yours". And in Baptism, he tells me: "I am yours". In the Sacred Eucharist, he says the same thing anew, "I am yours", so that we may respond, "Lord, I am yours".
In the journey towards the Word, entering into the mystery of his Incarnation, of his 'being with us', we wish to appropriate his being to ourselves, we want to expropriate ourselves of our existence, giving ourselves to him who gave himself to us.
"I am yours". Let us pray to the Lord to be able to learn with our whole existence to say these words. Thus we will be in the heart of the Word. And thus we shall be saved.

5 comments:

Sister Mary Agnes said...

It sounds like Pope Benedict is expanding what you are teaching your sophomores in Theology class right now! Couldn't be more timely . . .

Charles Sommer said...

The more I read from our Pope, the more I thank God that he has given us this mind and pen/mouth.

I know I've only started reading his writings, but all I can say is WOW!

Brant Pitre said...

Hey Charles,

Hope all is well!
I had the same experience when I started reading his writing. He was the first modern Catholic theologian I read who was really doing biblical Theology. My favorite by far, if you haven't read it, is his Spirit of the Liturgy. A stunning masterpiece that repays rereading over and over again.

Will I see you at SBL this year?

David Cox said...

Michael
Is the necessity of a bridge between theology and exegesis a recent development? I don't suppose that the Fathers found them (theology and exegesis) to be mutually exclusive.

Michael Barber said...

David--

You're right--it has really only been up until recent times that the two have really been separated. In fact, go ahead and look at academic programs today and you'll discover something shocking--biblical studies and theology are usually seen as two different fields!

This is the kind of separation the Pope has been warning against for years. To quote him: "The normative theologians are the authors of Holy Scripture" (Principles of Catholic Theology, 321).