Sunday, November 21, 2010

Verbum Domini — "The God Who Speaks" (6-14)

This is the second installment of my commentary on Pope Benedict's post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Verbum Domini (which you can download here). This covers Part One, Section One (Verbum Dei: The God Who Speaks, paragraphs 6-21); this particular post addresses paragraphs 6-14.

The God of the Universe is a God Who speaks: He does not simply place some clues scattered throughout time and space, He actively speaks in — and to — His creation. He reveals Himself to His people through His Word, the Logos, Who is uncreated, God from God. This revelation is a dialogue within God, Who is a Trinity of Persons, as well as a dialogue with humanity. "God makes himself known to us as a mystery of infinite love in which the Father eternally utters his Word in the Holy Spirit. Consequently the Word, who from the beginning is with God and is God, reveals God himself in the dialogue of love between the divine persons, and invites us to share in that love." (VD 6)

The expression "the word of God" can be understood in many ways; I quote paragraph 7 in its entirety (with my own emphases).
The analogy of the word of God

In the light of these considerations, born of meditation on the Christian mystery expressed in the Prologue of John, we now need to consider what the Synod Fathers affirmed about the different ways in which we speak of "the word of God". They rightly referred to a symphony of the word, to a single word expressed in multiple ways: "a polyphonic hymn". The Synod Fathers pointed out that human language operates analogically in speaking of the word of God. In effect, this expression, while referring to God's self-communication, also takes on a number of different meanings which need to be carefully considered and related among themselves, from the standpoint both of theological reflection and pastoral practice. As the Prologue of John clearly shows us, the Logos refers in the first place to the eternal Word, the only Son, begotten of the Father before all ages and consubstantial with him: the word was with God, and the word was God. But this same Word, Saint John tells us, "became flesh" ( Jn 1:14); hence Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, is truly the Word of God who has become consubstantial with us. Thus the expression "word of God" here refers to the person of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, made man.

While the Christ event is at the heart of divine revelation, we also need to realize that creation itself, the liber naturae, is an essential part of this symphony of many voices in which the one word is spoken. We also profess our faith that God has spoken his word in salvation history; he has made his voice heard; by the power of his Spirit "he has spoken through the prophets". God's word is thus spoken throughout the history of salvation, and most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. Then too, the word of God is that word preached by the Apostles in obedience to the command of the Risen Jesus: "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation" (Mk 16:15). The word of God is thus handed on in the Church's living Tradition. Finally, the word of God, attested and divinely inspired, is sacred Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. All this helps us to see that, while in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a "religion of the book": Christianity is the "religion of the word of God", not of "a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word". Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, received and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable.

As the Synod Fathers stated, the expression "word of God" is used analogically, and we should be aware of this. The faithful need to be better helped to grasp the different meanings of the expression, but also to understand its unitary sense. From the theological standpoint too, there is a need for further study of how the different meanings of this expression are interrelated, so that the unity of God's plan and, within it, the centrality of the person of Christ, may shine forth more clearly.
There is a great deal to meditate upon when we consider the ways in which that Word has been communicated to mankind throughout history. However, we must caution against considering all religions as genuine receptions and interpretations of that Word.

Because "[c]reation is born of the Logos" it "indelibly bears the mark of the creative Reason which orders and directs it." (VD 8) Thus the cosmos is an echo of the Word of God; as St. Bonaventure says, "every creature is a word of God, since it proclaims God." (VD 8) This relationship between creation and the Word centers on the creation of man: "Contemplating the cosmos from the perspective of salvation history, we come to realize the unique and singular position occupied by man in creation." (VD 9) Or, to put it more astonishingly: "human salvation is the reason underlying everything." (VD 9) One consequence of this is that the Word of God has been made present in the "natural law" written on the human heart: "Listening to the word of God leads us first and foremost to value the need to live in accordance with this law 'written on human hearts' (cf. Rom 2:15; 7:23). Jesus Christ then gives mankind the new law, the law of the Gospel, which takes up and eminently fulfils the natural law, setting us free from the law of sin..." (VD 9)

[At this point, I think it's worthwhile to comment on the sheer number of scriptural references made in this document, more than in any other document I can recall reading. There are over 240!]

For the one who recognizes the presence of the Word of God in creation, each creature is seen as a precious creation of God: "Those who know God's word also know fully the significance of each creature." (VD 10) At the same time, we are called to recognize that creatures are just that: creatures, not the Creator. "[T]he realist is the one who recognizes in the word of God the foundation of all things. This realism is particularly needed in our own time, when many things in which we trust for building our lives, things in which we are tempted to put our hopes, prove ephemeral." (VD 10) Thus these creations, because they are less than their Creator, are "incapable of fulfilling the deepest yearnings of the human heart." (VD 10)

Having looked at the Word in creation, and then specifically in the creation of Man, we now consider the Word in its Christological context. Paragraph 11 begins by quoting the opening of the letter to the Hebrews: "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world." (Heb. 1:1-2) It is affirmed, then, that "the entire Old Testament already appears to us as a history in which God communicates his word." (VD 11) This communication from God is seamless from the Old to the New Testament, because the Word becomes flesh in Jesus Christ, whose "unique and singular history is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity." (VD 11)

[Here, Pope Benedict quotes Deus Caritas Est 1, that "Being Christian is [the result of] the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction," just as I had in my previous post. I quoted DCE without having read this far in the document, so it's a small delight to me to able to draw a connection that the Holy Father drew as well!]

The faith of the apostles teaches us that "the eternal Word became one of us. The divine Word is truly expressed in human words." (VD 11) In the patristic and medieval tradition, this act of condescension was called the "abbrevation" of the Word, a rather clever play on words... pun intended! Benedict quotes from his homily of December 24, 2006:
"The Fathers of the Church found in their Greek translation of the Old Testament a passage from the prophet Isaiah that Saint Paul also quotes in order to show how God's new ways had already been foretold in the Old Testament. There we read: 'The Lord made his word short, he abbreviated it.' (Is 10:23; Rom 9:28) ... The Son himself is the Word, the Logos: the eternal word became small – small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the word could be grasped by us." (VD 12)
In Jesus, the Word was expressed in "perfect humanity" and perfect obedience to the will of the Father. (VD 12) This Word goes to the extreme of becoming "muted" in the crucifixion: "Jesus' mission is ultimately fulfilled in the paschal mystery: here we find ourselves before the 'word of the cross' (1 Cor 1:18). The word is muted; it becomes mortal silence, for it has 'spoken' exhaustively, holding back nothing of what it had to tell us." (VD 12) This silencing of the Word is then given its "authentic and definitive meaning" in the "most luminous mystery of the resurrection." (VD 12) So it is in the Paschal mystery that "the unity of the divine plan" is made clear: the New Testament repeatedly asserts that the Paschal mystery is accomplished "in accordance with the Scriptures." (VD 13)

Because Jesus is the Word incarnate, He is "the culmination of revelation [and] the fulfilment of God's promises." (VD 14) This means that "the Christian dispensation, since it is the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." (VD 14, quoting Dei Verbum 4) Benedict quotes the same passage from St. John of the Cross that Fr. Corapi quotes often as well: "Since he has given us his Son, his only word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything at once in this sole word – and he has no more to say... because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has spoken all at once by giving us this All who is his Son." (VD 14)

Pope Benedict then provides some helpful guidelines for the reception and application of private revelation, which I quote in full with my emphases:
Consequently the Synod pointed to the need to "help the faithful to distinguish the word of God from private revelations" whose role "is not to 'complete' Christ's definitive revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history". The value of private revelations is essentially different from that of the one public revelation: the latter demands faith; in it God himself speaks to us through human words and the mediation of the living community of the Church. The criterion for judging the truth of a private revelation is its orientation to Christ himself. If it leads us away from him, then it certainly does not come from the Holy Spirit, who guides us more deeply into the Gospel, and not away from it. Private revelation is an aid to this faith, and it demonstrates its credibility precisely because it refers back to the one public revelation. Ecclesiastical approval of a private revelation essentially means that its message contains nothing contrary to faith and morals; it is licit to make it public and the faithful are authorized to give to it their prudent adhesion. A private revelation can introduce new emphases, give rise to new forms of piety, or deepen older ones. It can have a certain prophetic character (cf. 1 Th 5:19-21) and can be a valuable aid for better understanding and living the Gospel at a certain time; consequently it should not be treated lightly. It is a help which is proffered, but its use is not obligatory. In any event, it must be a matter of nourishing faith, hope and love, which are for everyone the permanent path of salvation. (VD 14)
The next post in this series will complete looking at "The God Who Speaks", paragraphs 15-22.

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