Sermon 5: “Descendit de Caelis”

“The bridge to the earthly figure of Jesus…” (2nd edition: p. 69 [1st edition: p. 59])

The Incarnation is itself the path by which we who are not God move towards union with God, going from what we are now to what we shall be in him. The Word of God “came down” so we might “go up”. The Incarnation is indeed preaching par excellence. Everything Ratzinger attempts to do in these homilies responds to the pattern initiated in Christ Jesus.

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“We, however, prefer to thrust down the might on our own, without the descending God” (p. 70 [p. 60])

What masquerades as nobility, courage, and even grit in the desire to do the truly necessary work of the world ourselves, on our own terms, as if beginning from a position of equality with the hope of securing equality for ever more, when considered more fully on the basis of what Ratzinger has already preached, is really a matter of pride. We do not want help. We want to be “self-made”. And yet, not only is this not possible, it is also self-contradictory. We do not make ourselves; we receive before we create. To receive the “descending God” is proper to what it means to be human. Human creativity begins only in response to this descent, and therefore every part of true creativity is a way of saying “thank you”.

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“…if God has descended and is now below, then the ‘below’ has also become an ‘above’, and the old division into ‘above’ and ‘below’ has been shattered ” (p. 70–71 [p. 60–61])

It is helpful here to recall the juxtaposition of Psalm 139 and the lamentations of Job from the previous homily. With those two, Ratzinger was helping to show the range of Christ, who moves from above the highest heights (equality with God) to below the lowest lows (the point of death [Phil 2:6, 8]). In Christ, nothing in creation is above or below God’s reach and therefore no one is outside the range of Christ’s mercy. In the words of the psalmist addressed to God, If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (see Psalm 139 on p. 18 of this volume). For more on the descent of God and the “range” of Christ, see Eschatology 80–93 and Dogma and Preaching 247–51.[1]

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“The ‘above’—God—exists: the second article of the Creed (which speaks of the Son) does not abolish the first (which speaks of the Father)” (p. 71 [p. 61])

This speaks to the necessary discipline of doctrine: we must hold to the poles of the paradoxes of the Christian mysteries. Even though the Word of God was made flesh, God does not cease to be God. Rather, because of God’s action, the horizons of creaturely life have been infinitely expanded: the final horizon is now the life of God. A “god” who becomes subject to or a part of creation is no god at all. To use some rough imagery to illustrate this point: God does not fall into creation but rather stretches himself to creation in the person of Jesus Christ.

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“…one can grasp something of the depths of what is meant by the word ‘descent’ only when one follows the long history of this word through the writings of the Old and New Testaments” (p. 72 [p. 62])

Reading Scripture attentive to God’s “descent” means seeing the divine drama of salvation unfolding in time and through history. God’s makes one move and that move is decisive for all of creation.

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“Jesus, the Son of God, comes among the beasts as a man. In the weakness of a man, he establishes the sovereignty of God. Precisely through the sign of the weakness that takes its stand against brutality, he embodies the sovereignty of God. He comes among the beasts without himself becoming an animal, without adopting their methods” (p. 75 [p. 65]).

See again the note for the homily “Job’s question”, which deals with the line “Man is the image of God…” (64). To wit, rather than playing the game of domination and subjugation that the beasts play, the Son of God exerts the power to suffer the consequences of this game for love of those he redeems. That is the true sovereignty of God: the sovereignty to establish his own criterion. The sovereignty of God is at once the (divine) freedom from any outside influence and the (divine) freedom for the completeness of the will to love, to save. God is true to himself; God is consistent. As Hans Urs von Balthasar helpfully summarizes: “There can be no pathos in God if by this we mean some involuntary influence from the outside. Or, to put it positively, God (and this applies to the Incarnate One also) can only be ‘passive’, subject to passio, if this accords with some prior, ‘active’, free decision.[2]

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“God wants, not things, but the ears of man, his hearing, his obedience, and therein man himself” (p. 77 [p. 67])

It is helpful to recall what we said earlier about the Shema, which begins with “listening” or “hearing” (see note #3 for the homily God is three and God is one, which deals with the line “Has idolatry really ceased in our day?” [37]). Ratzinger is building towards an emphasis on “obedience” that flows from the obedience of the Son to the Father.

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“Obedience becomes incarnate. In its highest fulfillment, it is no longer a mere act of hearing: it becomes flesh. The theology of the Word becomes the theology of the Incarnation” (p. 77 [p. 67])

Unlike a tyrant, God does not command what he does not first of all make possible. Even more, in the eternal union of the Son with the Father, the obedience that God seeks in his creature is always first of all present “within the Godhead” (77). Israel, who is called to be the firstborn of the Lord God (see Exod. 4:22), is made complete and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who offers his entire life as an address to the Father (a point on which Ratzinger meditates in the next homily, see 82). The identity of Jesus, as Son of God, is absolutely simple and totally coherent: he is always the Son of the Father, he is never otherwise, and so the entirety of his person—his “body”—is an act of obedience. He “hears” the Father and the totality of that “hearing” is his response of love. In the following homily—…and he became man—Ratzinger will meditate on the shape and quality of the obedience of Jesus, which will lead us to consider Jesus as both the Son of God and the Son of Mary. For now, Ratzinger is fixing Jesus’ identity in his obedience, with his obedience being his unbroken prayer to the Father, in which he reveals “what sonship means” (82). To put it another way, the power of Jesus’ identity is not in any kind of autonomous separateness as we might otherwise imagine according to common preferences for independence, but rather in his total harmony with the will of the Father. The Son depends on the Father, while the Father receives the gift of the Son’s obedience. Ratzinger muses on this mystery with considerable elegance in Introduction to Christianity:

The Son as Son, and insofar as he is Son, does not proceed in any way from himself and so is completely one with the Father; since he is nothing beside him, claims no special position of his own, confronts the Father with nothing belonging only to him, makes no reservations for what is specifically his own, therefore he is completely equal to the Father.[3]

This power of identity in relation to the Father—and this anticipates the Consubstantial with the Father homily to follow—is inseparable from the Son’s mission to give everything he assumes back to the Father as a eucharistic offering (see 72). And the power of that mission is founded in the poverty of the Son, who never claims anything for himself not belonging to the Father—no wish, no plan, no possession—and so places himself without fail in the position of child, who is dependent (see 73). In the mystery of Jesus’ identity, mission, and poverty, we come to see that the true pattern of creaturely life—to always first receive, to always first listen, to always be in harmony with the one who creates you—finds its archetype in the one who was not a creature but joined in the condition of the creature in the Incarnation. Jesus’ life is the rule of all life.

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“When the Son is translated into creation…” (pp. 77–78 [pp. 67–68])

The odd formulation—“the Son is translated”—is a precise manner of speech through which Ratzinger observes the fact that God does not cease to be God even as the Word of God shares in the condition of the creature. God reveals himself as Trinity in and through the life of the Son, but God does not become God in this way. As Ratzinger has repeated over and over again, “God is”. What we see in the dramatic action of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the revelation of the equality of the Son with the Father when that equality moves from divine terms to creaturely terms. Obedience is the form love takes in creaturely terms and we see just how unfathomably strong the Son’s listening and response to the Father is when we see Jesus enter into death. The greatest possible distance we could imagine in creaturely terms is the distance between godliness and god-forsakenness—i.e., death, where no life or communication occurs. By entering into death, the one who was in the form of God has taken union with the Father to that extreme distance. There is no distance beyond the range of Son’s work of redemption; no condition is beyond hope.[4]

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“...receiving ourselves from him every day and giving ourselves back every day…” (p. 78 [p. 68])

The Christian seeks conformity with this rhythm of dependence and thanksgiving in the Lord’s prayer: give us this day our daily bread. It is “the Lord’s prayer” not only because Jesus gave it to his disciples as their prayer, but also and first of all because that prayer brings his disciples into who he himself is as Lord—i.e., the one who never stops saying “Dear Father” (see 82). Again, this dependence and thanksgiving is never just commanded because, in the Incarnate Word, that which has been commanded is first of all performed in the one who “came down from heaven”, according to the Father’s will.


endNotes to Commentary on Sermon 5

[1] Ratzinger, Eschatology, 80–93; Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life, ed. Michael Miller, trans. Michael Miller and Matthew O’Connell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 247–51.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Volume V: The Last Act, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 222.

[3] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 185.

[4] For an extended theological meditation on this mystery of union, obedience, and the “translation” of divine to human terms in the life of Jesus, see Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. Aidan Nichols (Ignatius Press, 2000), 162–63, 165, 251; and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Volume III: The Dramatis Personae: The Person in Christ, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 508–9.

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