It is relatively easy to believe in something great and divine ... It is more difficult if you have to say: ‘Here he is! It’s him!’
“There is one among you whom you do not recognize.” This is the sad cry of John the Baptist heard in the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Advent that we would like to let resonate in this last meeting before Christmas.
In his memorable Urbi et orbi message on March 27th in Saint Peter’s Square, after reading the Gospel about Jesus calming the storm, the Holy Father wandered what Jesus meant when he reproached his disciples for their ‘little faith’ and he explained:
They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (Mk 4, 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us.
We can glimpse another nuance in Jesus’ reproach, They had not understood who it was who was with them on the boat; they had not understood that, since he was on board, the boat could not sink because God cannot perish. We too, the disciples of our times, would make the same mistake as the apostles and would deserve the same reproach from Jesus if in the violent storm that has hit the world with the pandemic we were to forget that we are not alone on the boat at the mercy of the waves.
The feast of Christmas allows us to broaden the horizon: from the sea of Galilee to the whole world, from the apostles to us: ‘And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (Jn 1:14). The Greek verb, in the aorist tense, eskenosen (literally, ‘he pitched his tent’), conveys the idea of an accomplished irreversible action. The Son of Man came down on earth and God cannot perish. A Christian is more entitled than the author of the Psalm to proclaim:
God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken and mountains quake to the depths of the sea, Though its waters rage and foam and mountains totter at its surging. (Ps 46:2-4).
‘God is with us,’ namely on man’s side, as a friend and an ally against the forces of evil. We need to rediscover the primeval and simple meaning of the incarnation of the Word, beyond all the theological explanations and dogmas built on it. God made his dwelling among us! He wanted to turn this event into his own name: Emmanuel, God-with-us. What Isaiah had prophesied: ‘the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.’ (Is 7:14) became accomplished fact.
As I said, we need to go back to the first of all the Christological controversies of the fifth century – before the Councils of Ephesus and of Chalcedon – to rediscover the paradox and the scandal contained in the claim: ‘The Word made his dwelling among us.’ It is worth reading the reaction of an educated second-century pagan, after learning about this claim by Christians. The philosopher Celsius was horrified and cried out: ‘Son of God – a man who lived just a few years ago?’ The eternal Logos – one who was around “yesterday or the day before yesterday”?’, a man who was ‘born of a poor spinner, in a village of Judea?’
Quite understandable: the perfect union between divinity and humanity in the person of Christ was the greatest of all possible novelties, “the only new thing under the sun”, as St. John of Damascus defines it.
The first great battle that the faith in Christ had to face was not about his divinity, but about his humanity and about the truth of the incarnation. At the root of that refusal was Plato’s own dogma, stating that ‘no God ever mixes with man.’ From personal experience St Augustine discovered that the ultimate root of the difficulty he felt in believing in the incarnation was a lack of humility. As he writes in his Confessions, ‘failing to be humble I could not understand God’s own humility.’
St Augustine’s experience can help us to understand the ultimate root of modern atheism and shows us the only possible way of overcoming it. The historical truth of the Gospel and the divinity of Christ have been attacked ever since the times of Hermann Samuel Reimarus, in the 18th century. Jesus said: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14:6). Once it was said that this only way to God was shut, it was easy to shift first to deism and then to atheism.
Augustine’s experience – as I said – points to the way of overcoming that obstacle, namely by giving up pride and accepting God’s own humility. ‘I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike’ (Mt 11:25): the entire history of human disbelief is explained by these words of Christ. Humility provides the key to understanding the incarnation. It takes little power to show off; on the other hand, it takes a lot of power to step aside and to efface yourself. God is this infinite power of self-effacement: ‘He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:7-8).
God is love and hence humility! Love creates dependence on the person you love, and that kind of dependence does not humiliate but uplifts. The two claims ‘God is love’ and ‘God is humility’ are like two sides of the same coin. However, what does the word humility mean, if it is applied to God and in what sense can Jesus say: ‘learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.’ (Mt 11:29)? The key is that, in essence, humility is not about ‘being little (one can be little and insignificant without being humble); nor is it about considering yourself little (that can depend on a negative self-image); or about claiming to be little (you can say that without actually believing it); rather, it is about making yourself little and about doing that out of love, to let other people emerge. In that sense only God is truly humble. Indeed,
Who is like the Lord our God, enthroned on high, looking down on heaven and earth? He raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor from the ash heap (Ps 113: 5-7).
Without much of an education, Francis of Assisi had got that. In his Praises to God the Most High, at some point he addresses God himself saying: ‘You are humility!” and in his Letter to the whole Order he cries out: ‘My brethren, look at God’s humility.’ As he writes in the first of his Admonitions: ‘He humbles himself, just as he did when he descended into the Virgin’s womb.’
Christmas is the feast of God’s humility. To celebrate it in spirit and in truth we need to become like children, as you need to lower your head to go through the little narrow door into the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
“There is one among you whom you do not recognize!”
Yet, let us go back to the heart of that mystery: ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ God is with us for good, and that is irreversible. From now on that is the central focus of Christian prophecy. Zechariah greets the Precursor calling him ‘prophet of the Most High’ (Lk 1:76) and Jesus says of him that he is ‘more than a prophet’ (Mt 11:9). But in what sense is John the Baptist a prophet? Where does the element of prophecy lie in his case?
The Old Testament prophets proclaimed a future salvation; John the Baptist does not proclaim a future salvation; rather, he points to one who is present there before him. The early prophets helped the people of Israel to cross the barrier of time; John the Baptist helps them to cross the even thicker barriers of what looks the opposite of what it is. Would the long-awaited Messiah – awaited by the patriarchs, proclaimed by the prophets, praised by the Psalms – then be that man who looks so humble and ordinary, about whom we know everything including the village he is from?
It is relatively easy to believe in something great and divine, if it is envisaged in an indefinite future: ‘in those days,’ ‘in the latter days,’ within a cosmic framework, with the heavens dripping sweetness and the earth opening and salvation budding forth (cf. Is 45:8). It is more difficult if you have to say: ‘Here he is! It’s him!’. It is so human to be tempted to say immediately afterwards: ‘Is that all?’. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ (Jn 1:46); ‘we know where he is from’ (Jn 7:27).
That was a prophetic task beyond human limits and that is why the Precursor is defined as ‘more than a prophet.’ He is the one that points to a person and utters a decisive “Ecce! Here he is’. ‘Here is the Lamb of God!’ (Jn 1:29). Can you imagine what shiver must have run through the first people who received that revelation? The power of the Holy Spirit resounded in the words of the Precursor as he revealed that truth to well-disposed hearts. Past and future, a long wait and accomplishment converged and touched each other. The voltaic arc of the history of salvation was closed.
I believe that John the Baptist left us his very own prophetic task, which is to keep crying: ‘There is one among you whom you do not recognize!’ (Jn 1:26). He started the new prophecy. As I said, that prophecy is not about proclaiming a future salvation, but it is about revealing Christ’s presence in history: ‘I am with you always, until the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20). Christ is not present just because people continuously speak and write about him, but because he is risen and he lives according to the Spirit. It is not only an intention, but a reality. Evangelization starts there.
At the time of the Baptist, the main stumbling block was Jesus’s physical body, his flesh, which was so much like ours, except for sin. Nowadays the main stumbling block is his mystical body, the Church. The latter is so much like the rest of humanity, including sin as well! As the Precursor made it possible for his own contemporaries to recognize Christ in his humble flesh, so nowadays does he also need to be recognized in the poverty and misery of his Church and in the poverty and misery of our own lives.
What Paul adds to John
However, we need to add something to what we have said so far. It is not enough to be aware that God was made man, but we also need to know what kind of man God was made. I think it is significant to see how John and Paul differ and complement each other in the way each of them describes the incarnation. For John it consists in the fact that the Word who was God was made flesh (cf. Jn 1:1-14); for Paul, it consists in the fact that ‘Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (cf. Phil 2:5ff.). For John, the Word, being God, was made man; for Paul ‘Christ…became poor although he was rich’ (cf. 2Cor:8-9).
The distinction between the fact of the incarnation and the way it was accomplished, between its ontological dimension and the existential one, concerns us because it sheds a special light on the current issue of poverty and on how Christians respond to it. It is helpful to provide a Biblical and theological foundation on the preferential choice for the poor, as proclaimed in the Second Vatican Council. As Jean Guitton, a layman who attended the Second Vatican Council as an observer, wrote: ‘The Council Fathers have rediscovered the sacrament of poverty, that is the presence of Christ under the species of those who suffer.’
The ‘sacrament’ of poverty! These are strong words, but they are well-founded. If indeed, by the fact of the incarnation, the Word has, in a certain way, taken upon himself every man (as some Greek fathers claimed), as for the way it was enacted, he took upon himself the poor, the humble, the suffering. The “institution” of this sign by Jesus matched his institution of the Eucharist. He who said on the bread: ‘This is my body’ used the same words about the poor as well. He did so when he was speaking about what people did – or failed to do – for those who were hungry, or thirsty, or in prison, or naked or strangers, by solemnly adding: ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ and ‘what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me’ (Mt 25:31ff.).
Let us draw the consequence of this at an ecclesiological level. Saint John XXIII, at the Second Vatican Council itself, coined the phrase ‘the Church of the poor.’ Its meaning goes well beyond the usual interpretation. The Church of the poor does not consist only of the poor within the Church itself! In a certain sense, all the poor of the world belong to it, whether they are baptized or not. Some object: ‘How come? They have not received the faith or received Baptism!” That is true, but neither had the Holy Innocents whom we celebrate after Christmas. In God’s eyes, their poverty and suffering, if it is free from guilt, is their own baptism of blood. God has many more ways of saving than those we imagine, even though all these ways, without exception and ‘in a way that is known to God alone,’ pass through Christ.
The poor belong ‘to Christ,’ not because they themselves claim to belong to him, but because he declared they belonged to himself, he declared them his own body. This does not mean that it is enough to be poor in this world to automatically enter God’s final kingdom. The words: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father,’ (Mt 25:34) are addressed to those who took care of the poor, not necessarily to the poor themselves simply because they were materially poor in their lives.
Therefore, Christ’s own Church is far bigger than numbers and statistics say. This is not a platitude or a triumphalist statement, which would be inconvenient, especially in these times. No-one but Jesus has ever proclaimed: ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Mt 25:40), where ‘these least brothers’ are not only the people believing in Christ, but every human being.
Hence the Pope – along with every pastor in the Church – is truly the ‘father of the poor.’ We all rejoice and feel encouraged by seeing how seriously this role has been taken by recent Popes and especially by the pastor who is currently sitting on the chair of Peter. He is the strongest advocate of the poor in a world that is only familiar with selection and rejection. He has certainly not ‘forgotten the poor’! In Scripture we find a special blessing for those who are concerned for the poor:
Blessed the one concerned for the poor… The Lord keeps and preserves him, makes him blessed in the land, and does not betray him to the enemies. (Ps 41:2-3).
In the Gospel we read of Mary and Joseph that ‘there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). Nowadays, there is no room for the poor in the inn of the world, but history has shown on which side God was and on which side the Church is meant to be. To go to the poor is to imitate God’s humility. It is making oneself small out of love, to raise those who are below.
But let’s not delude ourselves: this is something that can be easier said than done. An ancient Father of the desert, Isaac of Nineveh, gave this advice to those forced by duty to speak of spiritual things to which they have not yet reached with life: “Speak of it as one who belongs to the class of disciples and not with authority, after having humiliated your soul and made yourself smaller than any of your listeners » . And that’s how I dared talk about it.
‘We will come to him and make our dwelling with him’
‘The Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ Before closing, we need to shift from the plural to the singular. The Word did not come into the world indistinctly, but personally into each believing soul. Jesus said: ‘Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him’ (Jn 14: 23). Christ, therefore, is not only present on the boat of the world or of the Church; it is present on the small boat of my life.
What a thought! If only we could really believe in it! Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity discovered that the secret of her holiness lay there. As she wrote to a friend: ‘I seem to have found my own heaven on earth, because heaven is God and God is in my soul. The day I understood this, everything was filled with light.’
With the restrictions to public worship and to church attendance it has caused, the pandemic may be an opportunity for many of us to discover that we do not meet God only by going to church, but that we can worship God ‘in spirit and in truth’ and converse with Jesus even locked in our homes, or even in our rooms. A Christians will never be able to do without the Eucharist and the community, but when this is prevented by force majeure, they should not think that Christian life is interrupted. If you have never met Christ in your heart before, you will never meet him – in the strong sense of this word – anywhere else.
There is a bold statement about Christmas that has bounced across times in the mouths of the great doctors and spiritual masters of the Church: Origen, saint Augustine, saint Bernard. Angelus Silesius and many more. Basically, it goes like this: ‘What use is that for me, that Christ was born of Mary once in Bethlehem, if he is not born of faith in my heart too?”
‘Where else is Christ born, in the deepest sense, other than in your heart and in your soul?’, as saint Ambrose wrote. Saint Maximus the Confessor echoes that: ‘The Word of God wishes to repeat the mystery of his incarnation in all men and women.’ As you can see, it is a truly ecumenical truth.
Echoing the same tradition, St John XXIII, in his Christmas message of 1962, raised this burning prayer: ‘O Eternal Word of the Father, Son of God and of Mary, renew once again today, in the secret of our soul, the wondrous prodigy of your birth’. Let us make this prayer our own, but, in the dramatic situation we are experiencing, let us also add the burning plea of the Christmas liturgy: “O King of the nations, the ruler they long for, the cornerstone uniting all people: Come and save us all, whom You formed out of clay.” Come and raise mankind, exhausted by the long trial of the present pandemic!
Translated from Italian by Paolo Zanna
1.In Origen, Against Celsus, I,26.28; VI,10.
2.De fide orthodoxa, 45,
3.Plato, Symposium, 203°; cf. Apuleius, De deo Socratis, 4: “Nullus deus miscetur hominibus”.
4.Confessions, VII, 18.24).
5.J. Guitton, cit. da R. Gil, Presencia de los pobres en el concilio, in “Proyección” 48, 1966, p.30.
6.In AAS 54, 1962, p. 682.
7.Gaudium et spes, 22.
8.Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetic Discourses 4 ,
9.Letter 107 of 1902 to Countess De Sourdon.
10.Cf. Origen, Homilies on Luke 22,3 (SCh 87, p. 302); Angelus Silesius, The Cherubinic Wanderer, I, 61: “Wird Christus tausendmal zu Bethlehem geborn / und nicht in dir: du bleibst noch ewiglich verlorn“.
11.St Ambrose, In Lucam, 11,38.
12.St Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua (PG 91,1084).
14.Antiphon to Evening Prayer of 22nd December.