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In his letter for Advent, Eichstätt’s Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke delves into the Incarnation, and specifically how the Incarnation of the Son of God also shows the way to our own incarnation. In other words, how we can become fully human according the plan of the Creator.
“Dear sisters and brothers!
Anticipation for the birth
A married couple expecting a child prepares for the event. The pregnant woman takes medical advice and denies herself a number of things. Long before the due date, the hospital bag is packed. Everything is guided by joy. Family and friends are also full of expectation. With the first Sunday of Advent, this week, a time of joyful expectation begins also for us. We prepare ourselves for the feast of the birth of the Lord. God becomes man in Jesus Christ!
The incarnation of God is a permanent invitation
The incarnation of God is not simply history, but a permanent invitation from God to us, here and now, to start on His way of becoming human. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church in the World, explains the meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God for our humanity: “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. […] The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”
Humanity as personhood in crisis
A look at the Son of God become man and His way as a man shows a need for a way of becoming man. It seems as if man of today has become a question himself, as if his recognition as human, as a person with value, is in crisis.
Worldwide crisis of humanity
Despite progress, the accumulation of knowledge and growing global awareness of the unity of humanity, the dignity of people is trampled in many parts of the world. Economic and political power interests, or even fanatical religion will be their own end. Man in his dignity is left behind. At present we experience this dramatically in conflicts and hostilities. Millions of people are on the run, minorities are threatened. We think first of all of Syria and Iraq, where our Christian sisters and brothers suffer the hardships of persecution.
But the crisis of humanity is also visible around us:
Crisis of human dignity: debates on assisted suicide
We are in the middle of the debates about assisted suicide. Here the fear for unbearable suffering, the financial burden on relatives and loneliness are used as arguments to legalise assisted suicide. Even someone who is “religiously unatuned” and is not able to understand the inviolability of human life, which is rooted in the image of God, can see the danger in that. The legality of euthanasia can lead to sick people being subtly or openly forced to finally die. This trend is already clearly visible when it is indicated, always outright, how high the costs of caring for the dying is. In reality palliative care has already advanced so much that it can respond to existing fears without assisting in suicide: even in severe cases, doctors can provide a painless .
Identity crisis of people: Theory of gender
In another area the crisis of humanity is also visible. The ideas of “gender” are in opposition to a Biblical-Christian image of humanity. This constructed theory postulates that being man and woman is interchangeable in all areas of life. Upbringing and cultural conditions primarily shape the gender roles of man and woman. These are considered to be cultural stereotypes that need to be overcome. Under the gentle-sounding term of gender diversity many claim that there aren’t any objective genders like men and women. Instead they propagate a gender diversity with many gender-identities. The individual can choose his gender himself.
This view of humanity is surprising in a time in which many are concerned with protecting creation. They advocate preserving the ecological balance, which can only be lauded. They are convinced that the structured order of creation serves the whole.
On the other hand many on society suffer from disorientation and confusion when the nature of man and the meaning of the human person is at stake.
God created humanity as man and woman
At the beginning of Holy Scripture we read, “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. […] God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen. 1: 27,31).
Let us, as baptised, not be discouraged in our witness to humanity. Let us make the Word of the God and the guidance of the Church our own. The holy Pope John Paul II has left us a valuable legacy in the form of the message of the beauty of humanity, which the Creator desired as maleness and femaleness. In his catechesis which became known as the”Theology of the Body” he explains the order of Creation as an expression of the love of the Creator, for man is desired and loved by God for his own sake.
Their physical difference already shows that man and woman are ordered towards one another. This mutual orderedness once again reveals that, in order to be fully human, we need unity with a personal opposite. The highest form of this personal union is the mutual gift, the reciprocal giving of man and woman in the loving bond of marriage . This mutual giving is at the same time, of course, also a reciprocal receiving and accepting of the other. As each partner is accepted for his own sake, he will find himself through his self-giving. From this discovery of himself he is once again able to give himself anew and more deeply: this self-giving becomes a new source of life .
From the manger shines the light of true humanity
Dear sisters and brothers, Christmas touches many people, also today. The deepest reason is that God confirms and renews this order of love through the incarnation of the Son. From the manger and through the life of Christ shines the light of true humanity. The many people who are no longer deeply rooted in religious practice obviously also feel this.
Let us allow Christ to invite us to His way of becoming man, in order to become man ourselves. We, the baptised, can then give witness of how fulfilling the way of becoming man according to God’s order of creation and in the Spirit of Jesus is.
Encounter as the key to incarnation
The key to our own incarnation lies in encounter. Only in my opposite do I recognise myself and can I become the man according to God’s plan. In the reaction of the other I see my own “I” reflected, which I would not have been able to see otherwise. Encounter is therefore essential.
Three manifestations of human encounter can play a special role on the road to our incarnation. In a certain way they can also be understood as answers to the three symptoms of the crisis of humanity outlined above.
Incarnation in hospitality
Conversation with family members and friends, when I take them time for it, is one such encounter which can contribute to the formation of my own “I”, my own incarnation. Because of the reciprocity of encounter the same is of course also true for those who encounter me. There where we express hospitality and accept the stranger in Christian charity, an additional aspect is added. In the encounter with the stranger elements can be revealed which remain hidden in an exchange with people I already know. The hospitality towards refugees as a step in my own incarnation can then also be a first answer to the inhumanity in the world, which is shown in persecution and repression.
Incarnation in friendship
A second way of personal encounter is friendship. The essential characteristic of friendship as a human encounter is the personal attachment to one person. Precisely the friendship with Christ gives us the strength for such a deep personal connection. In friendship we learn to exceed ourselves and go beyond our urge for self-realisation. The acceptance of a friend for his own sake is the essence of friendship. True and lasting friendships are also a remedy for the desire for legalised suicide, which is in essence nothing but a cry of desperation.
Incarnation in marriage
The mutual acceptance of the other for his own sake finds its highest form in marriage. The personal bond of friendship is in the marriage between a man and a woman once more exclusively directed at one single partner. Through their reciprocal commitment and simultaneous acceptance of the other for their own sake, the partners encourage each other in their self-discovery and incarnation.
The marriage partners living in mutual love and commitment strengthen each other not only mutually, but also give direction to people who are still looking for the fullness of humanity in the spreading identity crisis.
All of you, who are travelling from the manger as roadside communities, as families, circles of friends, communities, parishes and organisations, the Triune God blesses, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Eichstätt, on the feast of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia, 19 november 2014.
Gregor Maria Hanke OSB
Bishop of Eichstätt”
(1) Gaudium et Spes, 22.
(2) Cf. Gisela Klinkhammer, Mit großer Sorgfalt und klinischer Erfahrung, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt 111 (38) , 19 September 2014, 1552f.
(3) Cf. Theology of the Body (TOB) 14,4; quoted in: John Paul II, Human Love in God’s Plan of Salvation. A Theology of the Body (republished by Norbert und Renate Martin), second revised edition, Kisslegg 2008, 161.
(4) Cf. TOB 17,6.
A good question for today, and one I was asked yesterday, is why Christianity sometimes seems to be so focussed on death?
It’s true, sometimes we read and hear a lot about death, but also about the life that comes after. On the Cross, after all, Jesus Christ saved us, for all time, from eternal death, so to ignore it in our faith would be rather foolish. But does that mean that our life here on earth is nothing but a prelude to what comes later, a time of preparation and not a life of positives an negatives in its own rights? Certainly not.
We currently (assuming that my entire readership consists of people here on earth, of course…) live in God’s creation. This is where our earthly life takes place, and God created it because he desired to do so, and He intends us to life in it. To not life that life to the fullest in the Creation that God has given us responsibility for (Gen. 1:28), would be negligence.
God also went to great lengths to assure that life would endure, that His creation would not be left empty. An example is the story of Noah (Gen. 6:9 – 8:22).
In Jesus Christ, God desired to grant man the fullness of life (Matt. 4:4). Throughout the Gospels we find reports of how Jesus restored people to the fullness of their lives, in the miracles He performed. And, as I wrote before, Christ died and rose again to be victorious over death (Rom 6:10).
So to say that our life here on earth only matters as a time of preparation for what is to come is not true. But that is not the same as saying that the time to come does not matter, or that we should not prepare for it.
Death is a reality. Some day our life here on earth will end, and after a shorter or longer time we will enter into the eternal life with God. In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, we read much cryptic language about the end times, but we may be assured from this text that death no longer has any power of those belonging to Christ. That is us. But our earthly life will end, and we will meet the Lord face to face afterwards. It is good, even necessary to prepare for that. As Christians, it is good to have some preoccupation with death, although it should not be a singular preoccupation, because we also have a duty in life.
Today is All Souls’ Day, on which we remember all who have died; those who are with the Lord, those who are not, and those who someday will be. We all belong to the second or third category. A prayer for the dead is also a prayer for ourselves.
Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen
Art credit: ‘The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs’, by Fra Angelico (1423-4) © The National Gallery, London
The Creed is the faith that we confess at every Mass, and it is therefore a summary of what we believe, the truths we hold as such – truths. These truths not only identify what we believe in, but also who we are. They form our Catholic identity.
On the road towards the Year Of Faith, I want to take a look at the Nicene Creed, line by line, to see what it tells us about the truth of being Catholic Christians.
Through him all things were made.
A short line, but one with far-reaching consequences when it comes to our understanding of Jesus Christ. In the first book of the Bible we read that God created everything through the act of speaking: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). And now we find that God created made all things through Christ. Christ and the act of speaking, the word or logos, are then the same: Christ is the Word of God.
This tells us something fundamental about Him. Not only did everything come to be through Him, even before we know Him, He continues to be creative. Our relationship with Jesus is a creative relationship, it makes us into new people.
Entering into a relationship with Christ is then not without consequences. We need to get to know Him and be willing to be changed by Him, for that is the essence of His Person: He is the creative Word of God made flesh.
And words need to be spoken. Time and again, the Gospels show us the importance of speaking. Christ heals by speaking out that someone is cured, for example. We too, are called to express our relationship with Jesus, by speaking the Word of God to others.
They may conjure up images of medieval witch trials and whatnot, but heresies are really nothing to get into a fuzz about. Well, the specific heresies may be, but the fact that the Church calls certain beliefs and opinion heretical should not. A heresy is nothing more complicated than a teaching that undermines the faith in a grave enough manner that supporting, promoting or following it has a serious penalty as a consequence. And that because such a heresy endangers the souls of the faithful.
One such heresy that I came across today* has several names, but most people who know it, will know it as modalism or Sabellianism. A short definition would be that modalism holds that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely three ways, or modes, in which God has revealed Himself to people.
Why is this a heresy? Why can’t the Father, Son and Holy Spirit not be three forms in which God interacts with us? Well, for starters, it would make His own existence, as we have come to know it, a fake. Countless times do we read in the Gospels how Jesus prays to His Father. If both were just roles played by the one God, why would He do that? In the Prologue of the Gospel of John we read that the Word was God and was with God. The Word of God is Jesus, the Son, but why, if the Son and the Father are the same, would John tell us that the one was with the other? In Genesis, we read about the spirit of God hovering over the deep. Not God, but His Spirit. Why would God play a role before an empty deep?
There is one God in three Persons. These three Persons are not the same. They are separate and unique, but they are all equally God. This is a mystery of our faith, which means that it is something that goes beyond our understanding. It is good that some things are beyond our ken, because God is not limited to the understanding of his creatures. If He were, He would be limited. A two-dimensional creature has no way of understanding three or even four dimensions. We have no way of understanding or even imagining the five, six or more dimension that scientists say exist. And we have no way of grasping the Trinity, but that has no bearing on its reality.
Is the Trinity unlikely? Perhaps. But it is what God has taught us, through Jesus’ prayers, and through the work of the Holy Spirit.
In articles 253 to 255, the Catechism of the Catholic Church delves into the Trinity. It has this to say [emphasis mine, notes removed for ease of reading]:
253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.” In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”
254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. “God is one but not solitary.” “Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit” are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: “He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.” They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The divine Unity is Triune.
255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: “In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance.” Indeed “everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship.” “Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.”
But who’s to say that what the Church teaches through the Catechism is right? That belief, that trust in the dogmatic teachings of the Church flows directly from th words of Jesus and the belief in the Holy Spirit who guides us. If we express faith in His words to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and in the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, we must als have faith in the Church that Christ established upon Peter, and the faith that she safeguards and communicates.
God is Triune: one Being in three Persons. This we know through Scripture, the Word of God, and the teachings of the Church of Christ. To say otherwise is a denial of God as He is. God does not pretend. He is who He says He is. He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are all true Persons, not phantasms or roles He plays before us. Because He takes us seriously, He reveals Himself to us as He is.
*The source linked to above is a Dutch text, a reflection given by lay Dominican Leo de Jong on Trinity Sunday, at the nominally Catholic church ‘Het Steiger’ in Rotterdam. In this reflection, Mr. de Jong denounces our understanding of the Trinity as three separate divine Persons as nonsense. Instead, he says, these persons are three forms in which Gods allows Himself to be known. This misleading teaching, presented as profound knowledge, is in reality a centuries-old heresy.
For a further Biblical explanation of the Trinity, go here.
Art credit:  Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1737-1738.
“Instead of a vaccine that numbs, we must be a medicine that heals.”
Words from Archbishop André Dupuy, Apostolic Nuncio to the Netherlands, at the Mass he concelebrated at our cathedral on Pentecost Sunday. The nuncio made the closing remarks in rather decent Dutch, considering that he has only been here since December. I imagine it’s due to his being part of the Holy See’s diplomatic mission here before.
The Mass itself was the main closing event of the week which marked the 125th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral church of the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden. As such, the nuncio, concelebrated not only with our current bishop, Msgr. Gerard de Korte, who also gave the homily, but also with cathedral administrator, Father Rolf Wagenaar and Father Marius Kuipers, who works in the parish as emeritus priest.
In his homoiy, Bishop de Korte looked back on the events of the week, ads ahead to the future. He outlined some of his wishes for the church to be a learning and teaching community, where the faith is lived and communicated, not only in the liturgy (for which he explicitly noted Fr. Wagenaar’s contributions over the past thirteen years), but also in our service to the world beyond the cathedral walls.
After the Mass, the bishop and the cathedral administrator returned to the sanctuary to receive the first copies of the memorial book about the cathedral. Titled Van Volkskerk tot Kathedraal, de St.-Jozefkerk in Groningen (From people’s church to cathedral, the St. Joseph’s church in Groningen), the book looks chiefly at the building and everything in it. As Fr. Wagenaar writes in his foreword:
“Several studies have already appeared about this church, but never a true monograph, and this church does deserve one, because she provides such a complete program of what a Catholic church wants to be. A church is a meeting place […] but a Catholic church means so much more. “Awe-inspiring is this place, abode of God, the gate of heaven,” the introit of the Holy Mass of dedication of a church says, taken from the book of Genesis 28:17.”
The book, the end product of two years of work by a team of historians, looks in detail at several aspects of the Gothic Revival church: history, construction, architecture, furnishings, symbolism, vestments and liturgical vessels, organs, clocks and the liturgical disposition. For me as a parishioner it offers a new look at things I’ve often looked at – providing a sense of history and context beyond the building and into the larger community of faithful that is the Church.
The cathedral has known its ups and downs, as the book makes clear. From the threat of closure and demolition in the early 80s, it is now the home of a faith community with members of all ages, with an adequate liturgy and catechesis, and a large team of volunteers. With the bishop, I sincerely hope that the future is one of growth and development and these and other aspects.
Yesterday I was able to attend the showing of a movie about the story of the creation as we find in it in chapter 1 of Genesis. With a voice over reading the various verses from that story, we were treated to all kinds of footage illustrating what we heard. Some lovely scenes of nature and the world wrapped in about an hour. Perhaps it dragged a bit here and there, but in the end there was little to complain about. But there was also nothing remarkable either – we see much the same footage daily on Discovery Channel, for example, albeit without the Biblical narration.
Before the showing of the movie, titled ‘De Schepping – de aarde is getuige’ (Creation – the world is a witness), we were treated to a taped presentation in German by South African Professor Walter Veith. Professor Veith – a highly dubious person, as a quick Google search reveals – spoke about how faith and evolution were in conflict, how anyone who professed faith in God had no business taking the theory of evolution seriously. His was a rather rambling talk without much focus, and therefore hard to follow, but the gist of it was what I outlined above. Professor Veith showed a rather dubious grasp of such sciences as genetics and biology (something my girlfriend, who happens to be a biologist, confirmed) and most significantly failed to communicate what the theory of evolution is actually about. For someone who claims to be a scientist, these are serious mistakes. His unspoken but very clear argument that all evolutionist are basically clones of Richard Dawkins didn’t help either.
Sadly, his words were lapped up by the 1,400 spectators. Not barred by much scientific knowledge, as some overheard conversations revealed, many happily denounced anything approaching science in favour of a faith in something that I would like to call a magician God.
The creationist agenda, which was obviously heavily pushed last night, creates, if you’ll pardon a pun, a conflict where none exists. It treats science as the great enemy, which is out to establish a world without God or any religious faith. The theory of evolution, which obviously plays a major part in this argument, is presented as a life philosophy, a faith if you will. Evolution, creationists say, is out to destroy the world that God created, since it has no focus on an ultimate destination. This, Professor Veith says, is because Charles Darwin had an unhealthy focus on death. That is obviously hogwash as any reading of Darwin’s letters and books will show. The fact that he struggled to understand the existence of the death and decay he saw on his travels in the light of loving and benevolent God is not the same as being obsessed with death. Darwin’s writings instead show a man with a keen interest in the natural world and a desire of understanding it, coupled with a great admiration of its workings.
Like other scientific theories, whether they be well-established or only recently formulated, the theory of evolution describes processes and visible phenomena. Over the course of more than 150 years, it has come up with a very good description of how and why organisms develop the way they do. The survival of the fittest and adaptation to the environment are key elements in that, and later the science of genetics played a major part in that. The fact that creatures change and different genes work at different times in an organism’s life is obviously not in conflict with those organisms being the result of a creative action by God.
The Bible tells us two different creation stories, but none of these are to be taken as literal accounts.We can’t take both literally, not least because they contradict each other. What we can take from the stories in Genesis is the knowledge that God created this earth and all the organisms in it, that each being has its place in it, that man has a special role of responsibility for creation, and that we are created in God’s likeness. Genesis does not tell us exactly how God did all this and how much time He took. The seven days mentioned must be read within the strong numerological tradition of the Jewish author(s), where the number seven indicates the special truth and completeness of the statements made.
Faith and science are not in conflict as truth and truth are not in conflict. Science lets us understand the world that we live in and, through the theory of evolution and the sciences of geology and paleontology we can find out much about the processes of the past, in organisms and the planet, that led to the world we see around us today. This, for me at least, is not in conflict with a Creator God who has a purpose with this world. To pretend otherwise is irresponsible.
“It happened some time later that God put Abraham to the test. ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ he called. ‘Here I am,’ he replied. God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, your beloved Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, where you are to offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall point out to you.’
When they arrived at the place which God had indicated to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven. ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ he said. ‘Here I am,’ he replied. ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy,’ the angel said. ‘Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God. You have not refused me your own beloved son.’ Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son.
The angel of Yahweh called Abraham a second time from heaven. ‘I swear by my own self, Yahweh declares, that because you have done this, because you have not refused me your own beloved son, I will shower blessings on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies. All nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command.'”
Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18
This is a difficult text, which at first glance understandably prompts people to marvel at the harshness of the Old Testament God. Why put a man through the horror of having to sacrifice his only son, only to tell him at the last moment that he doesn’t need to? Surely it can’t the purpose of this first reading from today’s Mass, to present God to us a cruel God who demands sacrifice?
Indeed, that can’t be the purpose, especially since it doesn’t gel at all with the God we have come to know in our own lives.
I recall once reading a story in which a Jewish scholar, at the end of a lifetime of study, came to the conclusion that this story was not so much about Abraham displaying his willingness to do whatever God demanded of him, but about God having to earn the right to be our God. By showing Abraham, who is our father in faith and therefore represents us all, that He does not demand unreasonable sacrifices and is not a fickle deity, God shows us that He is a God who takes His people seriously, who doesn’t see them as pawns in His games.
In the journey towards Easter especially, another important aspect of this story presents itself: what God stopped Abraham from doing,He did instead Himself. He sacrificed His own Son for our sake.
What does this say about God? In the first place, that He is not like the other gods that people in past and present worshipped. His first and primary characteristic is love. Secondly, that He values man for who He has created him to be: a being who deserves to be taken seriously. Thirdly, God is not above doing the dirty work; while He did not want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God sacrifices His own Son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of all mankind. If that is not an indication of how high His esteem for us is…
Art credit: ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’, attributed to Caravaggio
Our first motivation to observe Lent is simply because Jesus did it before us. It’s very simple, but w should consider Jesus to be our teacher in everything He did. There are numerous examples in the Gospels of Jesus praying and giving alms, but He also fasted. The best known example of that is of course the forty days He spent in the desert, just before He began His public life.
In the Gospel reading from today’s Mass, St. Mark spends very few words on this undoubtedly important event in Jesus’ life.
“And at once the Spirit drove him into the desert and he remained there for forty days, and was put to the test by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels looked after him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the gospel from God saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.'”
Mark 1: 12-15
Four sentences to describe a number of very significant elements. St. Mark is nothing if not succinct. Let’s take a look at some of the elements in this text.
- “And at once the Spirit drove him into the desert and he remained there for forty days”. The Holy Spirit plays a part here. He caused Jesus to go into the desert. We don know if Jesus went willingly or not, but we can conclude that He was inspired to do so. The Holy Spirit inspires us as well, sometimes to do very concrete things. It is because of Him that we have faith, and we sometimes can’t adequately explain the things we do because of faith, although we do know they are the right things to do. And why the desert for forty days. It’s not difficult to be alone and to fast in the desert, and the number forty would indicate a lengthy time, comparable to the forty years that the Jews, led by Moses, wandered the desert. Fasting has no meaning if it is not just for a day and is hard to keep up if you are faced with distraction after distraction.
- “and was put to the test by Satan”. St. Mark does not elaborate here, and without referring to the other Gospels, which do tell us more, we may say that Jesus was tempted by evil. That is certainly not alien to us, and therefore it shouldn’t be for Jesus either. “For the high priest we have is not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us, but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves, apart from sin” (Heb 4:15). Jesus is a man just like us. He knows us, our strengths, but certainly also our weaknesses. We are put to the test by Satan, so He needed to have been as well in order to take our trespasses on His own shoulders.
- “He was with the wild animals, and the angels looked after him”. Jesus is God, so it makes sense that all creation, here on earth and in heaven, serves Him. But there’s also an interesting comparison to Adam, who was master of the animals in the garden (cf. Gen. 2:19). Jesus is the new Adam, who came to correct the sin of the first man.
- “Repent, and believe the gospel”. This, in fact, is what Lent is about. If we return to the Gospel, get to know it again, take it seriously and continuously apply it to our own lives, we will be following Christ to the salvation which He brought us. The topic of knowing and understanding the Gospel is a whole topic by itself, so I won’t be discussing that any further here.
Art credit: ’40 Days of Temptation; Jesus Alone’, by Daniel Bonnell
In today’s Office of Readings we find a sermon by Pope Saint Leo the Great about some elements of Lent: the forgiveness of sins and the giving of alms:
At every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvellous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of its gratitude. But with the return of that season marked out in a special way by the mystery of our redemption, and of the days that lead up to the paschal feast, we are summoned more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of spirit.
The special note of the paschal feast is this: the whole Church rejoices in the forgiveness of sins. It rejoices in the forgiveness not only of those who are then reborn in holy baptism but also of those who are already numbered among God’s adopted children. Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of baptism. Yet there still is required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life.
Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.
There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not. The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.
The works of mercy are innumerable. Their very variety brings this advantage to those who are true Christians, that in the matter of almsgiving not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts.
St. Leo the Great was pope from 440 to 461, but his words still have meaning for us today. And why would they not, after all? There are two points especially which we should also take to heart in our own practice of Lent; First, the saintly pope speaks of sins that need to be forgiven. He points out that, despite our sins having been forgiven out our baptism, we still need to seek forgiveness ” to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature”. Mortality and our personal shortcomings are here linked, and the reason for that is easily found: both have their origin in the Fall of Man. In Genesis we read God’s warning to Adam: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die” (2:17). In the following chapter we find that man did not heed this warning, with death as a result. Here we have our mortality. Our broken nature as a consequence of the Fall explains our tendency to sin. We are mortal, and the reason for our mortality requires us to be watchful for our sins and search out God’s forgiveness whenever required. Since Lent is a time of purification and converting, or returning to face Christ (to borrow a quote from a recently heard homily), asking for forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession is an inherent element of this time.
The second point in the above sermon concerns the giving of alms. St. Leo rightly points out that none of us are limited in this, because the word ‘almsgiving’ covers a wide variety of activities. “Not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts”, he writes. And that’s important to realise. Don’t have the means to donate money to a charity? Don’t worry. You are able to give alms in other ways. “The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace”. Be creative this Lent, you are not limited, because the love of God is not limited.
Lastly, I want to end this reflection by focussing on one sentence from Pope St. Leo the Great’s sermon (emphasis mine). It’s worth reminding ourselves of frequently:
Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.
This Christmas’ Urbi et Orbi message to city and world has a very fitting, if totally unplanned link with the overriding theme of this blog in the week leading up to Christmas. From the last O antiphon, Pope Benedict XVI takes the call Veni ad salvandum nos! to underline our innate need for help in overcoming the difficulties and dangers of our lives.
Heralding in the new year, as his Christmas message to the Roman Curia looked back on the year past, the Holy Father calls our attention to the Child of Bethlehem as our Saviour, the one who “was sent by God the Father to save us above all from the evil deeply rooted in man and in history: the evil of separation from God, the prideful presumption of being self-sufficient, of trying to compete with God and to take his place, to decide what is good and evil, to be the master of life and death (cf. Gen 3:1-7). This is the great evil, the great sin, from which we human beings cannot save ourselves unless we rely on God’s help, unless we cry out to him: “Veni ad salvandum nos! – Come to save us!””
My translation is here.
Photo credit: AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano