Sermon 6: “…and became man”

“All I wish to do is to look for a little theological lane, so that we can learn to grasp that which is great and far away on the basis of that which is near at hand and simple, something that touches our own lives” (2nd edition: p. 79 [1st edition: p. 69])

I comment on this line in depth in the introduction to the second edition of The God of Jesus Christ. This line is, in some way, a key to the whole approach of the book and to Ratzinger’s work as a catechetical theologian. Please see the Introduction.

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“As a child, Jesus came not only from God but from other human beings. He received life from another human being” (p. 80 [p. 70])

This entire section on the “childhood of Jesus” leads us to expand our understanding of Jesus as child from what we have already considered. Between the brackets of this opening reflection in Ratzinger’s own words and the stunning reflections he quotes at length from Hans Urs von Balthasar and Stylianos Harkianakis, respectively, at the end of the section (84–85), we are moved to contemplate the wondrous mystery of Christ’s humanity, which, once assumed, is never left behind. In a sense, Ratzinger ushers us from a sustained reflection on John 1 in the previous homilies where we more squarely contemplated Jesus as the Son of God into the region of Matthew 1—beginning with Matthew’s genealogy—where Jesus emerges from the history of Israel, a son of Abraham, a son (in love if not in flesh) of Joseph, and most decisively the son of Mary. The startling fact is that the Word of God, in whom all things are created, receives his humanity from his mother. The humility of divine love is so great that, in Jesus, the Word of God has put himself in the position of saying “thank you” to us for giving him the home of our flesh. This “thank you” goes to Mary, and through her to all who share in her son’s redemption. That flesh is not mere matter, but rather a whole history—the history of Israel—along with all the customs and rituals, memories, and language that a child learns in the arms of his mother and the household of his family. In assuming all of this, Jesus is assuming everything back along the path from Mary and Joseph to Abraham.

The number of generations present in Matthew’s genealogy that connects Jesus to Abraham is not without significance. There are three sets of 14 generations, with 42 generations in total (Jesus is 42, Abraham is 1). As Origen of Alexandria observes in his homily on the Book of Numbers, the number of stages of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is also 42 (see Num 33).[1] Each of those stages is for Israel a step of progress in learning how to be the obedient elder son of God (see Exod. 4:22), learning to love the Lord for the Lord’s sake and trusting him first of all. Jesus, who as we have already noted several times, begins as the eternal Son of the Father and shares equality with the Father, learns this same obedience through what he suffers (Phil 2). The difference between Israel’s journey across the desert and the Son of God’s journey across the generations is that Israel progresses from disobedience to obedience while Jesus begins and remains in obedience to the Father while progressively gathering into himself all those stages of trial and temptation that are not properly his own. As the Son of Mary, Jesus assumes that history; he takes unto himself the history of sin. His Immaculate Mother gives him a fitting and hospitable home from which he may begin his journey back across the desert into the land of sin. As the younger son, he goes to that far off country (see Luke 15:13) so that no place remains outside the range of the mercy of God, which Jesus himself is. From his mother—as Balthasar recognizes (85)—he learns how to say “yes” with the entirety of his humanity: a “yes” that goes to the final horizon.

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“…if being a child remained so precious in Jesus’ eyes and he saw this as the purest mode of human existence, then he must have had very happy memories of his own childhood days…” (p. 81 [p. 71])

In a way to similar to the impoverishment of the concept of “Father” through our collective experience of the widespread failure of fatherhood in modern life, we might take this opportunity to think about how the concept of “child” has itself been impoverished. Just as God the Father reveals what true fatherhood is and sets his own criterion, so Jesus the Son reveals what true childhood is and secures its permanent relevance.

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“The orientation of his life, the root from which it sprang, and the goal that marked it—all this bears the name Abba, ‘dear Father’” (p. 82 [p. 72])

To read the whole sweep of Jesus’ life—from conception to grave and, ultimately, in the upswing of the resurrection—his words, deeds, and prayer say one thing: “dear Father”. His life is addressed to God the Father, whose own will was that he, the Son, become the whole of the divine address to creation in the language of human flesh.

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“‘Being poor’ lets us see something about what ‘being a child’ means” (p. 83 [p. 73])

What is common to the poor and to the child is, of course, the condition of being in need. To be poor and to be a child is to be predisposed to dependency, some way or other. This does not mean that every person who is poor will in fact embrace the conditions of dependency, just like not every child rests in his or her natural dependency but rather asserts independence in terms of disobedience, but the point here is something else. The point is that the poor and children happen to inhabit conditions that make more apparent what is fundamentally true of every created person—namely, that we are first given, we first receive, we never graduate from the position of creature and therefore we are always dependent. When one grasps some form of “power” or holds as their own some “possessions”, then the illusion of non-dependence begins to swirl. Those who know they have no power or possessions are closer to recognizing the truth of creatureliness.

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“[T]he astonishment in man must not wither away, this capacity for astonishment and for listening that does not merely inquire into the usefulness of things, but hears the harmony of the spheres and rejoices precisely at that which does not serve the practical purposes of man” (p. 84 [p. 74])

This is a simple nod to a pedagogy of wonder. If we recall the beast first introduced in the homily God has names (see 23), we will remember that the logic of the beast is obsessed with rendering all things according to function, number, and efficiency. The beast can never just let something be, and enjoy it for what it is. The logic of the beast always asks, “What can this be used for?” Or, “How can this advance my agenda?” In a world where work and productivity become everything, where “progress” is the only rule, humanity becomes a task rather than a gift. From the opening chapter of Genesis, though, the guard against this dehumanizing destiny was set in place as part of the created order, and that guard is of course the Sabbath, the seventh day. Reading creation aright means reading it towards its fulfillment in Sabbath rest. The Sabbath is a day without functional purpose: it is the end itself. You cannot turn a profit from it, you cannot leverage it to some private gain, and you cannot claim it as your own. You can only wonder at it, and enjoy it. That is the gift of a God who gives names and who has names. The eschatological Sabbath—now opened up in the Resurrection of Christ—is freedom from the obsession with productivity and with making meaning. Sabbath is the meaning that is given, in the end. To keep astonishment alive, to tend to the capacity for wonder, necessitates the observance of this natural order—namely, that leisure is humanizing; it is right and just.[2]

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“In ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’, Jesus grew up as a Jew. … And does all this say nothing to us, in an age in which most Christians are obliged to live in a ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’?” (p. 86–87 [p. 76–77])

From Mary to Nazareth, Jesus was not reared as a separate individual but was formed in a particular culture. His mother is his first and most intimate culture: she gives him a home and surrounds him with a way of being, alongside Joseph. As if moving out in concentric circles, Nazareth was itself this home and way of being, which is all the more pronounced since in it a Jewish culture was practiced in the midst of a larger Gentile culture. In the obscurity of Nazareth we come across the astounding mystery that the Son of God was formed by men. The humility of God is without end.

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“‘You really understand what a piece of bread is when you know from your own experience how much hard work it takes to produce it” (p. 88 [p. 78])

From these words of Charles de Foucauld, a eucharistic insight beckons: If we take what Ratzinger has been leading us to recognize about the gathering up of human history—particularly Israel’s history—in the flesh that the Word of God assumes and we allow ourselves to perceive the absoluteness of divine humility that is worked into this one complete action, then perhaps we can see again what the sacrifice of that singular life means. In other words, we see in Jesus “how much hard work it takes to produce” the bread he offers: himself.

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“At the end comes the lonely hour of fear on the Mount of Olives, when the disciples sleep: in his innermost core, he remains misunderstood. … on the basis of his being alone with God” (p. 89 [p. 79])

Yet another form of humility: from well atop the heights to which the psalmist ascends in Psalm 139, the Logos—who is wisdom itself—descends all the way into the depths of being unknown, considered unwise, misunderstood. Who doesn’t know this fear, this perpetual even if understated anxiety?—that, in the end, I myself will be alone, misidentified, and nonsense to others. Jesus has been there, too. And yet his aloneness is never removed from his dialogue of communion with his Father. Even when he hears no response, he listens and he speaks; in fact, even his silence speaks his obedient love to the Father. Because he keeps his solitude open to communion, all who fall into the silence of isolation and misunderstanding may find communion in him.

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“…the Church is, as it were, the object of the conversation between the Father and the Son and is thereby anchored in theology” (p. 90 [p. 80])

In John’s Gospel, we hear this object of dialogue explicitly pronounced throughout the 17th chapter, in which Jesus offers his eucharistic prayer to the Father on behalf of those given to him: that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be one in us (John 17:21, RSV).

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“While he was alone, the disciples were with him… The public activity of Jesus has its center in this hiddenness, in which it embraces the public dimension of the whole world. It is from this hiddenness that he comes to men and that he is with them; and it is in this hiddenness that men gain access to him” (p. 92 [p. 82])

Ratzinger draws our attention to these three texts from Luke to unravel the hidden mystery of Jesus’ solitude: his solitude is always filled with his Father’s will and the Son’s corresponding obedience. What does he hear from his Father but the cries and condition of all those in need of mercy, to whom from the dawn of creation the love of God has hastened? He sees what his Father sees, he loves who his Father loves, and so the scattered children of Eve are made whole in his prayer. The prayer of Jesus is itself a culture—at “atmosphere” like Nazareth (87), a “garden” like Mary (85)—replete with customs, ways of being, and a distinctive language: “a total dialogue of love” (92). While clinging to his Father, he clings to all those given to him, whose flesh he shares—this is what Ratzinger is indicating when he says that “this corresponds completely to the formula of Chalcedon” (92), of the hypostatic union. His prayer is his body and his body is his prayer, and therein the union of God and humanity takes place (see again 77–78).

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“Thus it is only the Resurrection that discloses the final, decisive point in the article of the Creed: ‘He became man.’ … God loves us in such a way that his Word became flesh and remains flesh” (p. 94 [p. 84])

The Resurrection answers the question about how much and to what end does the Word of God assume human flesh: all the way to its furthest limit and in order to draw it into the life of divine communion. There is, in every possible respect, a permanent significance to the humanity of Christ, and by his flesh all flesh is made new. As Irenaeus puts it, “Vain indeed are those who allege that he appeared in mere seeming.”[3] With a view to all that has preceded the close of this sermon, we may come to marvel at the obedience of Jesus as meeting the demands of love between the Father and Mary: he never lets go of one for the sake of the other; he stretches himself. He does not leave his home in his Father’s love as he assumes the full measure of the flesh he received from Mary. He is Son.


endNotes to Commentary on Sermon 6

[1] Origen, “Homily 26,” in Homilies on Numbers, ed. Christopher A. Hall, trans. Thomas P. Scheck (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[2] For one of the most profound meditations on the subject in modern philosophy, see Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009).

[3] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, V.I.2.527/555.

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