God Is Near Us

God Is Near Us
The Eucharist, the Heart of Life
by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, translated by Henry Taylor
(Ignatius Press, 2003)

This collection of Ratzinger’s sermons enlightens us about the Eucharist and explains how the Eucharist essentially means that God is not just near us but also with us – Emmanuel.

God comes to us and dwells with us
“… the immeasurable Word, the entire fullness of Holy Scripture, has contracted itself…”

God came “from eternity into time”, to dwell as man among men. How much nearer could He be? Thus, when we receive Holy Communion, we receive our God who “puts himself into our hands”, and so the result of this awesome direct contact should be a reverent and submissive spirit, and a heart open to His coming.

God’s Presence is real and abiding
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you… My flesh is food indeed.” (John 6:53, 55)

At the moment of Incarnation, Mother Mary gave Jesus His first earthly dwelling place. The overshadowing Holy Spirit created the new “place of meeting” between God and man, the Annunciation scene echoing the holy cloud resting over the Tent of Meeting, and our God who “cannot be contained within the world” came to “dwell in his entirety in one person”, as a real person. Jesus, as man, became the Paschal Lamb Who fulfilled what the Temple of Jerusalem stood for and henceforth dwells among man.

Thus, whenever and wherever we celebrate the Eucharist, we come together to worship God in the “holy tent”, with the Holy Spirit overshadowing us, and Jesus is truly and wholly there.

He Himself said in no uncertain terms that He is the Bread that we eat. When He explained that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood, He did not attempt to appease the agitated listeners by saying that His flesh merely “signifies” food. Instead, He said that His body is “food indeed”.

Adoration, then, becomes a natural and essential response to the Eucharist because “it is the majesty of the living God that comes to us with him”. The fourth century records of Cyril of Jerusalem tell us that candidates for baptism were taught to make a “throne” with their hands to receive Communion. The monks of Cluny (around 1000 AD) took off their shoes when they received Communion – because they were coming face to face with the “burning bush”, “the mystery before which Moses, in the desert, sank to his knees”.

Jesus gives Himself
“Jesus died praying, and in the abyss of death he upheld the First Commandment and held on to the presence of God. Out of such a death springs this sacrament, the Eucharist.”

The Eucharist arose out of Jesus’ giving of Himself in His actions from the Last Supper to the Resurrection – His sacrifice, death and saving work.

In washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus performed the work of the slave who washed the master’s or guests’ feet so that they would be ready to sit down for a meal together. At their shared meal after the washing of feet, He continued to give of Himself, not just in the words that after that come to us as the words of consecration but the entire sequence which we now celebrate as the Triduum, culminating in the Resurrection, is what the Eucharist means.

Thus, the Eucharist is “the act of self-sharing love” and “the presentation of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross”. By this, Jesus becomes “both the giver and the gift”, giving Himself to us “that we may give in turn”. Learning from His sacrificial attitude, we understand that “the sacrifice pleasing to God is a man pleasing to God.”

The Eucharist and the other sacraments
“… all sacramental acts have their origin in the Paschal Mystery of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection.”

Jesus’ words at the Last Supper move us towards His death, and it is His word + death + Resurrection, the “mystery of Easter”, that completes the institution of the Eucharist, and also becomes the root of the sacrament of Baptism and gives birth to the Church.

The Eucharist is also closely related to the sacrament of reconciliation, which it “presupposes”. The early Church was keenly sensitive of the need for a person to to repent and confess before receiving Communion. In the 2nd century celebration of the Eucharist, the priest would say before Holy Communion, “Whoever is holy, let him approach – whoever is not, let him do penance.”

From Passover to Eucharistic celebration
“He gave himself to enter into the “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands”… It is the royal privilege of the Christian to share in paschal fellowship with the Lord, in the Paschal Mystery.”

The Mass grew out of the “heart” of Jewish worship, the Passover meal that intimately remembered, in the family setting, God’s saving action. Jesus transformed the Passover as the “true Paschal Lamb”. The Eucharistic celebration took shape from His final earthly Passover, following His command and centred on His redeeming sacrifice. Thus, His words are the “heart” of the Eucharist and the Mass is His gift to the whole Church for all time.

The Eucharist in the context of Church
“The celebration of the Eucharist is not just a meeting of heaven and earth; rather it is also a meeting of the Church then and now, a meeting of the Church here and there.”

The priest celebrates Mass not from a personal perspective but “represents the whole Church.” Thus, the Mass is not a private celebration for a priest or a particular group or congregation but at every Mass, it is the whole Church that celebrates and prays together. This is underlined by the specific naming of the bishop and Pope in the Eucharistic Prayer, showing that we celebrate the “one Eucharist of Jesus Christ, which we can receive only in the one Church”.

The entire Church lives because of the Eucharist, and this life must carry on outside of the Mass. Being in communion with the Lord requires us to be in communion with each other as well.

The Eucharist and our mission as Christians
“The Lord gives himself to us in bodily form. That is why we must likewise respond to him bodily. That means above all that the Eucharist must reach out beyond the limits of the church itself in the manifold forms of service to men and to the world.”

Receiving Christ, we have to carry Him in our daily lives and service to others. Holy Communion is a personal and spiritual communion with the Lord, and the words of the Liturgy change from “we” to “I” accordingly, yet we receive Him Who by His life and Resurrection leads us out into the world to “transform” it with our lives and actions. In Him we have the food that gives us strength to live our lives for others.

Daily, we move towards heaven, and we will get there if we remain with Him and walk “with Him Who came among us as bread and Word”.

♫ Makes me think of  O Bread of Heaven

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Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives

infancy-narratives

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
by Joseph Ratzinger, translated by Philip J. Whitmore
(Bloomsbury, 2012)

 This book follows Ratzinger’s two earlier Jesus of Nazareth works, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration and Holy Week: From the Entrance in Jerusalem to the Resurrection. In it, he explains the theological, contextual and historical significance of the infancy narratives from the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.

Here is a selection of the points discussed.

“Where are you from?”
Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies end with Joseph. Mary marks the point of the “new beginning”, carrying Jesus, Whose origin is no man but Who is a “new creation”. Through Him, we have a new genealogy that we can trace back to God.

The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus
Zechariah, an ageing priest, hears the angel’s message during the Temple liturgy, while Mary, a young almost-nobody, receives her message in a personal setting in a small town. The contrast of the circumstances of the two annunciations begins the different missions of John the Baptist and Jesus.

Annunciation and Birth of John
John’s story begins in the Old Testament world, with his parents both from priestly families. As a representative of the Old Covenant priesthood, John points the way to Jesus.

Annunciation to Mary
“Rejoice, full of grace!” The angel’s greeting does not begin with the expected Hebrew shalom (“peace be with you”) but the Greek chaire (“rejoice”, “hail”). This is the same “rejoice” that appears in Luke 2:10 (“I bring you good news of a great joy”); John 16:22 (“I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you”); and John 20:20 (“The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord”).

In Greek, “joy” and “grace” share the same root, highlighting this combination in Mary as well as the joy-cum-grace that is to come through her – Jesus and His message.

The Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem
Luke situates Jesus in a concrete place and time: the “eternal logos”, our true God, truly became man.

Jesus’ birth
Historically, this is during the reign of Augustus Caesar. An inscription indicates that Augustus (Greek: “worthy of adoration”) was expected to be the one to bring about “universal peace”. He was called “saviour” and “redeemer”, titles that belonged to gods like Zeus. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these terms refer exclusively to God.

By his decree for “all the world” to be registered, Augustus Caesar indirectly sets in motion the fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy that the “shepherd of Israel” would be born in Bethlehem (5:1-3). Unknown to him, this is the “fullness of time”, the time for the appearance of the true Saviour and Redeemer of all peoples, and so Augustus’ reign ushers in the period of peace foretold by the Old Testament prophets, but brought about not by him but by the Son of God.

Ratzinger writes:
“God, who is the God of Israel and of all peoples, shows himself to be the true guiding force behind all history.”

nativity

From the historical and political context, we then look at Jesus’ birth in humble circumstances.

There is “no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6), and significantly, 33 years later, he is “crucified outside the city” (Hebrew 13:12). From the time He is born, Jesus is excluded from what would be considered “important and powerful”, but it is He who is the “truly powerful one”.

The exact spot of Jesus’ birth is still debated today but early Christians living in Palestine were able to point out the cave (one of many in Bethlehem that were used as stables) in which Jesus was traditionally believed to have been born. When the Romans overran Israel, they took this story seriously and turned the cave into a shrine for Tammuz-Adonis.

What we do know from Luke is that Jesus is placed in a manger. St. Augustine explains how the manger, the place where animals had their food, was turned into the “table of God”. Thus, from His lowly birth, Jesus brings about our redemption.

In addition, the first ones to hear of His birth are shepherds in the area, representing the “lowly” and also known for their “watchfulness”. In humility, silence and waiting, the Lord comes to us.

Presentation
The Law required mothers to be “purified” 40 days after the birth, and first-born sons to be dedicated to God. Mary brought into the world the One who would purify it but she and Joseph still obey the Law. Families were not required to go to the Temple for the sacrificial offerings but Jesus makes a first public appearance in the Temple, with this event marking His dedication to God as well as Simeon’s and Anna’s recognition that hope had come. Their prophecies draw the “light” of hope that Jesus brings together with the way of the Cross.

The Wise Men from the East and the Flight into Egypt
The Magi show how the really wise are the ones who “search for truth, and for the true God”. A later Magi, mentioned in Acts 13:10, represents the result of resisting Jesus and His witnesses.

The Magi are outsiders, and they ask for the “king of the Jews”, using a Gentile form of reference; this is the same term that is used in Pilate’s inscription (the Jewish people would have used the term “king of Israel”). This is an early reference to the universality of Jesus’ kingship and a link to the Cross as well.

Although their arrival troubled “all of Jerusalem”, even Herod’s experts do not appear moved to respond to the new king, and it is the Magi, the Gentiles, who go on to search for Him and to pay homage. Hence, we have the coming of the King of all the universe, as indicated by the Magi’s gifts, who is rejected by the people among whom He appears.

Once the wise men find and adore Jesus, the star disappears. It was not the star that defined or determined His life – it is He who “directs the star”.

Flight to Egypt and Return to the Land of Israel
There has been some debate about whether the killing of the innocents actually took place. It is known that Herod executed three of his own sons, so it was not out of character for him to have ordered the murder of boys two years and under.

This put Jesus on the road to Galilee. Joseph is instructed to go there when they return from Egypt, and the fact that Jesus was from Galilee later becomes “proof” that people would cite when they argue that He could not possibly be the Messiah.

The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple
Jesus’ parents went on the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, as part of the “great pilgrim community”.

The three days during which Jesus is missing and His parents keenly experience His absence anticipate the three days from His death on the Cross to His resurrection. From the human perspective, His wandering off from the family party could be seen as an act of “disobedience or inappropriate freedom” but in essence, this was Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will and the work that the Father had set out for Him, work that He “must” do. Here, it is the same “must” that is used when the Gospels refer to Jesus’ “readiness to submit to God’s will”, for example, that He “must suffer greatly, be rejected, be killed and rise again” (Mk 8:3).

Nevertheless, He does return with His parents and “was obedient to them”, and grew in “wisdom” and “stature” in His family and community setting.

In contrast to Jesus’ focused actions to follow the will of the Father, Mary and Joseph do not understand clearly His words or behaviour. Mary’s response is to “ponder” and “(keep) all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:50-51), which she does earlier (Luke 2:19) as well, a useful pointer for all believers in their response to hearing the word of God.

In summary, the book explains what at Jesus’ birth was already clear about His identity, His fulfilment of the promise of hope and salvation for all mankind, and the Cross and resurrection that were to come.  God is with us.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Great Christian Thinkers

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Great Christian Thinkers
From the Early Church through the Middle Ages
by Pope Benedict XVI
(Fortress Press, 2011)

It began when my non-Catholic friend said that she had learnt quite a bit from the writings of the Church Fathers. “Church Fathers?” I scanned my mind for something to say to that but could not find a thing that was useful. I could only think “St. Augustine”. How I have kicked myself for not having been able to engage with her on this topic. When I saw this book, I knew that I needed it.

This is a collection of Pope Benedict XVI’s sermons on our Church’s very important thinkers, delivered at his public audiences at St. Peter’s Square between 2007 and 2010. He covers the historical background, activities and theological contributions of these great men and women, some of whom I had never heard of before, such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Rabanus Maurus and Marguerite d’Oingt.

The thinkers are classified as:
Heirs of the Apostles (such as Origen and Tertullian)

• ŸGreat Teachers of the Ancient Church (such as Sts. Basil, Jerome and Augustine and other Church Fathers)

Ÿ• Monks and Missionaries (such as Bede the Venerable, Sts. Boniface, Cyril and Methodius)

Mystics, Mendicants and Scholastics (such as Sts. Anselm, Hildegard, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena).

It makes for interesting reading when their feast days come round. However, many but not all of them are saints so we can’t just use feast days to get to know more about the movers and shakers of our history. Well, any time of the year is a good a time to learn something from these great Christian thinkers.

fides et ratio

Today is the memorial of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who not long after his death was already proclaimed “the pillar of the Church”. Why was this the case?

He was, Pope Benedict explains, the “most important and tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy”. As a deacon and secretary to the Alexandrian bishop at the time, Athanasius was part of the Council of Nicaea, at which the belief in the “full divinity” of Jesus Christ was enshrined in the creed.

In 328, Athanasius became bishop but the Arian heresy came back to the fore and he had to leave Alexandria a number of times. However, these years of “exile” brought the opportunity to spread the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed as well as the “ideals of monasticism”. One of the results was the growth of monasticism in Egypt, among hermits such as St. Anthony Abbot. Eventually, Athanasius returned as bishop of Alexandria, and worked towards “religious pacification” and the “reorganisation of Christian communities”.

His most famous doctrinal work was De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation of the Word), from which we have the well-known quotation that the Word of God “was man so that we might be made God; and he manifested himself through a body so that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality”. His other important works include teachings on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Easter preparations, meditational texts on the Psalms and the biography of St. Anthony Abbot.

♫ Makes me think of Take and Receive