UNO SGUARDO MISSIONARIO SUL MONDO E LA CHIESA Missionari Comboniani – Formazione Permanente – Comboni Missionaries – Ongoing Formation
After having meditated last time on the place Christ occupies in the cosmos, I would like to dedicate this second reflection to the place Christ occupies in human history: after first considering his presence in space, we will now consider his presence in time.
At Mass on Christmas Eve in St Peter’s Basilica, the ancient chant of the Kalends drawn from the Roman Martyrology has been reinstated since Vatican II. In it the birth of Christ is placed at the end of a series of dates that situate it in time. Here are some of its statements:
When ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world…,
in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt,
around the thousandth year since David was anointed King. . . ,
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad,
in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome,
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,
the whole world being at peace, JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since his conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man.
This relative approach to calculating time, starting with a beginning and referring to different events, was bound to change radically with Christ’s coming, even though that did not happen immediately or all at once. Oscar Cullman, in his famous study Christ and Time, explained in a very clear way what this change in the human way of calculating time meant.
We no longer begin with a starting point (the creation of the world, the exodus from Egypt, the founding of Rome, etc.) followed by a numbering that goes forward into an unlimited future. We now start with a central point, the birth of Christ, and calculate the time before it in descending order—five centuries, four centuries, one century before Christ—and in an ascending order for the time that follows: one century, two centuries, or two millennia after Christ. In a few days we will celebrate the 2017th anniversary of that event.
This way of calculating time, as I said, did not come about immediately or in the same way. Starting with Dionysius Exiguus (Dionysius the Humble) in 525, people began to calculate years starting from the birth of Christ instead of the founding of Rome. However, only in the seventeenth century (it seems with the theologian Denis Pétau called Petavius) was the custom established of counting the time prior to Christ according to the years that preceded his coming. We now have the general custom in English of using the formula “Before Christ” (abbreviated as B.C.) and “Anno Domini” (“the year of the Lord,” abbreviated as A.D.), meaning “after Christ.” Whatever abbreviations are used in different languages, dates now represent “before Christ” and “after Christ.”
For some time now the custom has spread, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world and in international relations, of avoiding this wording that is no longer acceptable, for understandable reasons, to people belonging to other religions or to no religion. Instead of speaking of “the Christian era” or “the year of the Lord,” people prefer to speak of the “Current Era” or the “the Common Era.” “Before Christ was born” (B.C.) has now been substituted by “Before the Common Era” (BCE), and “the year of the Lord” (A.D) has been substituted by “the Common Era” (CE). The wording has changed but not the essence since the manner of calculating the years and time has stayed the same.
Oscar Cullman has clarified the innovation of this new chronology introduced by Christianity. Time does not proceed in cycles that are repeated, as in the thinking of Greek philosophy and, among the moderns, of Friedrich Nietzsche. Rather, it moves forward in a linear fashion, starting from an unspecified moment (that we are unable to date precisely), namely, the creation of the world, toward a point that is equally unspecified and unforeseeable, which is the parousia. Christ is at the center of the line, the One to whom all things before him point and to whom all things point backward after him. Defining himself as “the Alpha and the Omega” of history (Rev 21:6), the Risen One assures us that not only will he gather together into himself the beginning and the end but also that he himself is that unspecified beginning and unforeseeable end, the author of creation and its consummation.
At the time, Cullman’s position met with a strong, hostile reaction from representatives of the dialectical theology that was dominant then: Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and their disciples. Their theology tended to de-historicize the Kerygma, reducing it to an existentialist “summons to decision.” Consequently they showed a marked lack of interest for the “Jesus of history” in favor of the so-called “Christ of faith.” However, the revived interest in “salvation history” in theology after the Council and the rekindled interest in the Jesus of history in biblical scholarship (the so-called “new quest for the historical Jesus”)have confirmed the validity of Cullman’s insight.
One achievement of dialectical theology has remained intact: God is completely other with respect to the world, history, and time. There is an “infinite and irreducible qualitative difference” between them. When it comes to Christ, however, alongside the certainty of an infinite difference, there must always be the affirmation of an equally great “infinite” similarity. This is the core of the definition of Chalcedon, expressed by the two adverbs “inconfuse, indivise,” without confusion and without separation. We must say of Christ in an eminent way that he is “in the world” but not “of it.” He is in history and time, but he transcends history and time.
Let us now attempt to give more precise content to the assertion of Christ’s omnipresence in history and time. It is not an abstract and uniform presence. It occurs in a differentiated way in the different phases of salvation history. Christ “is the same yesterday and today and for ever”(Heb 13: 8), but not in the same modality. He is present in the Old Testament as figure, he is present in the New Testament as event, and he is present in the age of the Church as sacrament. The figure announces, anticipates, and prepares for the event, while the sacrament celebrates it, makes it present, actualizes it, and in a certain sense continues it. This is the sense in which the liturgy has us say at Christmas, “Hodie Christus natus est, hodie Salvator apparuit” (“Today Christ is born; today the Savior has appeared”).
St. Paul consistently asserts that in the Old Testament all things—events and personages—refer to Christ: everything is a “type,” a prophecy, or an “allegory” of him. But that conviction goes back to the Jesus of the Gospels who applies to himself so many words and events of the Old Testament. According to Luke, the Risen One on the way to Emmaus with the two disciples does exactly that: “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). Christian tradition has coined some brief formulas to express this truth of faith, for example, that the law was “pregnant” with Christ. The liturgy of the Church lives by this conviction in practice and reads every page of the Old Testament in reference to Christ.
To say, secondly, that Christ is present in the New Testament as “event” means affirming the unique and unrepeatable character of the historical events concerning the Person of Jesus and in particular the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. The event is that which occurs semel, “once for all” (Heb 9:26-28), and as such is not repeatable since it is enclosed in space and time.
Finally, to say that Christ is present in the Church as “sacrament” is an affirmation that the salvation he accomplished becomes operative in history through the signs he instituted. The word “sacrament” is understood here in its fuller meaning to include the seven sacraments but also the Word of God and in fact the whole Church as a “universal sacrament of salvation.” Thanks to the sacraments, the semel becomes quotiescunque, the “one single time” becomes “as often as,” as Paul asserts at the Lord’s Supper: “For as often as [quotiescunque] you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26)
When we speak of Christ’s presence in salvation history as figure, event, and sacrament, we need to avoid the error of Joachim of Fiore (or at least the error attributed to him) of dividing all of human history into three ages: the age of the Father, which would be the Old Testament; the age of the Son, which would be the New Testament; and the age of the Holy Spirit, which would be the Church age. Not only would this be contrary to the doctrine of the Trinity (who always act jointly in their works ad extra) but also contrary to christological doctrine. Christ as event is not one of the three moments or phases of history but the center of history, the One to whom the time before him points and from whom the meaning of time after him derives. He is the hinge that both unites and distinguishes the two time periods. This is the truth expressed in the new chronology that divides time into “before Christ” and “after Christ.”
And now, as usual, we will go from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from universal history to personal history, that is, from theology to life. The observation that Christ, even in the universal custom of dating events, is recognized as the center and the linchpin of time, the barycenter of history, should not be a reason for pride and triumphalism for a Christian but an occasion for a sober examination of conscience.
The question to start with is simple: Is Christ also the center of my life, of my small personal history? Of my time? Does he occupy in it a central place only in theory or also in fact? In the lives of the majority of people, there is an event that divides life in two and creates a “before” and an “after.” For married people this is usually marriage, and they divide their lives into “before I was married” and “after I was married.” For priests it is their ordination: before ordination and after ordination; for religious it is their religious profession.
St. Paul also divides his life into two parts, but the dividing line is neither marriage nor ordination. He writes to the Philippians, “I was . . . I was . . . ,” and what follows is a list of all his claims and guarantees of holiness (circumcision, being a Jew, observing the law, being blameless). But all of a sudden, all of this goes from being a gain to being a loss for him; his claims for boasting become rubbish (see Phil 3:5-7). Why? “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). His dramatic encounter with Christ created in the apostle’s life a personal kind of “before Christ” and “after Christ.”
For most of us, this dividing line is more difficult to specify: everything is fluid, watered down in time, and marked by so-called “rites of passage”: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders or Marriage, and so many others events. Fortunately for us, such an event is not a fruit that is exclusive to sacraments; in fact the sacraments may very well not represent any true “passage” from the existential point of view. The personal encounter with Christ is an event that can take place at any moment in life. In this regard the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium says,
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment [!], to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” (n. 3)
In an anonymous Easter homily from the fourth century, in the year 387 to be exact, the bishop makes a surprisingly modern affirmation—almost an existentialist affirmation before the word existed. He says,
For every man, the beginning of life is when Christ was immolated for him. However, Christ is immolated for him at the moment he recognizes the grace and becomes conscious of the life procured for him by that immolation.”
As we approach Christmas we can apply to Christ’s birth what this author says about his death.
“For every man, the beginning of life is when Christ was born for him. However, Christ is born for him at the moment he recognizes thet grace and becomes conscious of the life procured for him by that birth.”
This is an idea that has run through, one could say, the whole history of Christian spirituality beginning with Origen and including St. Augustine, St. Bernard, Luther, and others. The question is this: “What good does it do me if Christ was born at one time in Bethlehem if he is not born in my heart again by faith?” In this sense every Christmas, including the one for this year, could be the first real Christmas of our lives.
An atheistic philosopher described in a famous passage the moment in which a person discovers the existence of things, that they exist in reality and not just in his mind:
I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. . . . Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green, that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was “an existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. . . . And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself.
Something analogous happens when someone who has repeated the name of Jesus innumerable times, knows almost everything about him, and has celebrated numerous Masses discovers one day that Jesus is not a liturgical and sacramental memory from the past; he is not a collection of doctrines and dogmas and a topic for study. He is not, in brief, a personage but a living, existing person, even if he invisible to the eye. Suddenly, Christ is born in him; a qualitative leap forward in his relationship with Christ has occurred.
This is what the great converts experience at the moment in which—through an encounter, a word, a revelation from on high—a great light is unexpectedly turned on inside of them. They too are “left breathless” and have exclaimed, “So God exists after all! It’s really true!” This happened, for example, to Paul Claudel when he entered the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris out of curiosity on Christmas day in 1886. Hearing the Magnificat being sung, he had “the heart-rending experience of innocence, of the eternal infancy of God,” and exclaimed, ‘Yes, it’s true, it’s really true! God exists. He is here. He is someone, a personal being like I am! He loves me. He is calling me.” He later wrote about this event, “In an instant my heart was touched and I believed.”
Let us take a step forward. Christ, as we have seen, is not only the center or the barycenter of human history, the one who, with his coming, creates a “before” and an “after” in the passage of time; he is also the one who fills every instant of that time. He is “the fullness,” the pleroma (Col 1:19) in the active sense that he also fills salvation history with himself: first as figure, then as event, and now as sacrament.
What does all of this mean when carried over to the personal level? It means that Christ should fill my time as well. We should fill as many moments of our life with Jesus as we can. It is not an impossible plan. It does not mean thinking about Jesus all of the time but “noticing” his presence, abandoning ourselves to his will, telling him quickly, “I love you!” every time we have the opportunity (or better the inspiration!) to recollect ourselves.
Modern technology offers us an analogy that can help us understand what all this means: connecting to the Internet. When I am traveling and far from home for a long time, I have experienced what it means to fiddle for a long time trying to connect to the Internet, whether using cables or wireless, and then finally, as I was about to give up, suddenly the liberating Google display appears on my screen. Before that I felt cut off from the outside world and unable to receive email, to search for some information, or to communicate with the people in my community, and now suddenly the whole world is open wide to me. I am connected.
But what is this connection in comparison to what happens when one is “connected” in faith to the risen and living Jesus? In the first case the poor, tragic world of human beings is open before you; in the second case the world of God opens before you because Christ is the door; he is the way that leads into the Trinity and into the infinite.
The reflection on “Christ and Time” that I have tried to present can bring about an important inner healing for the majority of us: a healing from the unfruitful regret about our lost “blissful youth,” a liberation from that ingrained mentality that leads us to see old age only as a loss and a disease but not also as a grace. In front of God the best time of life is not the time that is the most full of possibility and activity but the time that is most full of Christ because this time belongs already to eternity.
The coming year will see youth as the focus of the Church’s attention with the Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” in preparation for World Youth Day. Let us help them fill their youth with Christ, and we will have given them the most beautiful gift.
We end by recalling how the event of eternity entering time is proclaimed in a simple yet magnificent way at the Midnight Mass at Christmas:
In the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace, JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, . . . was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man.
Around the feast of Christmas of the year 1308, addressing her spiritual sons gathered around her deathbed, the great mystic Angela of Foligno exclaimed, “The Word was made flesh!” And, after a long delay, as if coming from another world, she added, “Oh, every creature is found wanting! Oh, the intelligence of the angels is likewise not enough!” They asked her: “How are creatures found wanting, and for what is the intelligence of angels not enough?” She responded: “To comprehend!” And she was right.
Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, Merry Christmas to all of you!