Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, ofmcap
First Advent Sermon, 2015
“CHRIST, THE LIGHT TO THE NATIONS”
A Christological Reading of Lumen gentium
1. A Christological Ecclesiology
The fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council prompted in me the idea of dedicating the three Advent meditations to revisiting the principal topics of the Council. Concretely, I would like to develop reflections on each of the four main documents of the Council: the constitutions on the Church (Lumen gentium), on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), on the Word of God (Dei Verbum), and on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).
One observation has given me the courage, in the short time I have, to deal with themes that are so vast and have already been so debated. There has been non-stop writing and discussion about the Council, but it has almost always concerned its doctrinal and pastoral applications; it has focused very few times on its spiritual content strictly speaking. I would like, then, to concentrate on that content by trying to see what the Council documents, as texts of spirituality, still have to tell us that is useful for the building up of faith.
We will begin by dedicating these three Advent meditations to Lumen gentium, saving the rest for the Lent coming up, God willing. The three themes in this constitution I want to reflect on are the Church as the body and bride of Christ, the universal call to holiness, and the doctrine on the Blessed Virgin.
The idea for this first meditation on the Church came to me in a rereading, by chance, of the beginning of the constitution in its Latin text, which says, “Lumen gentium cum sit Christus,” “Christ is the light of the nations.” I must say, to my embarrassment, that I had never paid attention to the enormous implications contained in this beginning. Because the title of the constitution has only the first part of the sentence (Lumen gentium), I thought (and I do not think I am the only one) that the title “light of the nations” referred to the Church while, as we see, it actually refers to Christ. It is the title with which the elderly Simeon greeted the infant Messiah when he was taken to the temple by Mary and Joseph: “a light to the nations and the glory of his people Israel” (see Luke 2:32).
This initial statement is the key to interpreting the whole ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. It is a christological ecclesiology and is therefore spiritual and mystical before being social and institutional. It is necessary to bring this christological dimension of the Council’s ecclesiology back to the forefront also in view of a more effective evangelization. People do not accept Christ because of love for the Church but they accept the Church because of love for Christ, even a Church disfigured by the sin of its many representatives.
I have to say immediately that I am certainly not the first one to highlight this essentially christological dimension of the Second Vatican Council’s ecclesiology. Rereading the numerous writings of the former Cardinal Ratzinger on the Church, I became aware of the persistence with which he had tried to keep this dimension of the doctrine on the Church in Lumen gentium alive. His reminder to us of the doctrinal implications of the first sentence—“Lumen gentium cum sit Christus,” “Christ is the light of the nations”—can be found in his writings followed by the affirmation, “If you want to understand Vatican II correctly, you must begin again and again with this first sentence.”
We need to immediately qualify this to avoid any misunderstanding: no one has ever denied this inner spiritual vision of the Church. However, as often happens in human affairs, the new risks overshadowing the old, the present makes us lose sight of the eternal, and the urgent takes precedence over the important. This explains how the concept of ecclesial communion and of the people of God was often developed only in its horizontal and sociological sense, that is, in the context of the contrast between koinonia and hierarchy, and was thus focused more on the communion of the Church’s members with each other than on the communion of all its members with Christ.
It was a priority for that particular time, and as such St. John Paul II welcomed and promoted it in his apostolic letter, Novo millennio ineunte. But fifty years after the end of the Council, it is perhaps useful to try to reestablish the balance between this vision of the Church, shaped by the debates of that time, and the spiritual and mystic vision found in the New Testament and in the Fathers of the Church. The fundamental question is not “What is the Church?” but “Who is the Church?” That is the question that will guide me in this current meditation.
2. The Church as the Body and the Spouse of Christ
The heart and the christological content of Lumen gentium emerge particularly in the first chapter where the Church is presented as the spouse of Christ and the body of Christ. Let us listen to some of its statements:
The church, which is called “that Jerusalem which is above,” and “our mother” (Gal 4:26; see Apoc 12:17) is described as the spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb [see Apoc 19:7, 21:2 and 9; 22:17], whom Christ “loved . . . and for whom he delivered himself up that he might sanctify her” (Eph 5:25-26). It is the church which he unites to himself by an unbreakable alliance, and which he constantly “nourishes and cherishes” (Eph 5:29). It is the church which, once purified, he willed to be joined to himself, subject in love and fidelity (see Eph 5:24).
This is what it says about being the spouse, and concerning the “body of Christ” it says,
In the human nature united to himself, the Son of God, by overcoming death through his own death and resurrection, redeemed humanity and changed it into a new creation (see Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17). For by communicating his Spirit, Christ mystically constituted as his body his brothers and sisters who are called together from every nation. . . . Really sharing in the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with him and with one another. “Because the bread is one, we, though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17).
It was the former Cardinal Ratzinger who also deserves credit for highlighting the intrinsic relationship between these two images of the Church: the Church is the body of Christ because she is the spouse of Christ! In other words, the Pauline image of the Church as the body of Christ is not primarily based on the metaphor of the harmony of the human body’s parts (even though he applies it at times this way as in Romans 12:4ff and 1 Corinthians 12:12ff), but rather on the spousal idea of the one flesh that a man and a woman form when they join themselves in marriage (see Eph 5:29-32) and even more so on the eucharistic idea of the one body that is formed by those who partake of the same bread: “Because the bread is one, we, though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17).
We hardly need to mention that this was at the heart of the Augustinian concept of the Church, to such an extent that he at times gave the impression of identifying the body of Christ, which is the Church, purely and simply with the body of Christ, which is the Eucharist. This is demonstrated by the evolution of the expression “mystical body” of Christ. From initially indicating the Eucharist, it slowly moved to mean, as it does today, the Church.This, as we know, is also a perspective that brings Catholic ecclesiology closer to the eucharistic ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church. Without the Church and without the Eucharist, Christ would not have a “body” in the world.
3. Going from the Church to the Soul
A principle that is often repeated and applied by the Fathers of the Church is “Ecclesia vel anima,” “the church or the soul.” It means that what is said about the Church in generalcan be applied, after the necessary distinctions, to each person in particular in the Church. An assertion attributed to St. Ambrose says, “It is within [its] souls that the Church is beautiful.” Wanting to be faithful to the intention I stated for these meditations to focus on the more directly “edifying” aspects of the Council’s ecclesiology, we can ask ourselves, “What does it mean for the spiritual life of a Christian to live out and achieve this idea of the Church as the body and spouse of Christ?”
If the Church in its innermost and truest meaning is the body of Christ, then I actualize the Church in myself, I am an “ecclesial being,” to the extent that I allow Christ to make me his body, not just in theory but also in practice. What counts is not the position I occupy in the Church but the position that Christ occupies in my heart!
This occurs objectively through the sacraments, and especially two of them: baptism and the Eucharist. We receive baptism only once, but we can receive the Eucharist every day. This is why it is important to celebrate it and receive it in such a way that we can carry out the task of making ourselves the Church. The famous maxim by Henri de Lubac that “the Eucharist makes the Church” applies not only on the community level but also on the personal level. The Eucharist makes each of us a body of Christ, that is, the Church. Here too I would like to quote the profound words of the former Cardinal Ratzinger:
Communion means that the seemingly uncrossable frontier of my “I” is left wide open. . . . [It] means the fusion of two existences; just as in the taking of nourishment the body assimilates foreign matter to itself, and is thereby enabled to live, in the same way my “I” is assimilated to that of Jesus, it is made similar to him in an exchange that increasingly breaks through the lines of division.
Two lives, mine and Christ’s, become one “without confusion and without division,” not hypostatically as in the Incarnation but mystically and really. From two “I’s” there ends up being only one: not my insignificant “I” as a creature but that of Christ, to the point that after receiving the Eucharist each of us can dare to say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Nicholas Cabasilas writes that through the Eucharist,
Christ infuses Himself into us and mingles Himself with us. He changes and transforms us into Himself, as a small drop of water is changed by being poured into an immense sea of ointment.
The image of the Church as body of Christ is intrinsically linked, as we said, to that of the Church as the spouse of Christ, and this too can be a great help for us to experience the Eucharist in a profoundly mystagogical way. The Letter to the Ephesians says that marriage is a symbol of the union of Christ and the Church: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church!” (Eph 5:31-32). According to St. Paul, the immediate consequence of marriage is that the body of the husband now belongs to the wife and, conversely, the body of the wife belongs to the husband (see 1 Cor 7:4).
When applied to the Eucharist, this means that the incorruptible flesh of the incarnate Word that gives life becomes “mine,” but it also means that my flesh, my humanity, becomes Christ’s and belongs to him. In the Eucharist we receive the body and blood of Christ, but Christ also “receives” our body and blood! St. Hilary of Poitiers writes that Jesus assumes the flesh only of the person who assumes his. Christ says to us, “Take this; it is my body,” but we too can say to him, “Take this; it is my body.”
In the collection of eucharistic poetry called The Place Within, the future pope Karol Wojtyla called this new person whose life is made of Christ “the eucharistic I”:
Then a miracle will be,
You will become me,
There is nothing in my life that does not belong to Christ. No one should say, “Oh, Jesus does not know what it means to be married, to be a woman, to have lost a son, to be sick, to be elderly, or to be a person of color!” If you experience something, he experiences it too, thanks to you and through you. Whatever Christ himself was not able to experience “in the flesh”—since his earthly existence, like everyone else’s, was limited to certain experiences—is now lived and “experienced ” by the Risen One “in the Spirit” thanks to the spousal communion at Mass. He experiences what it is like to be a woman in women, what it is like to be elderly in the elderly, what it is like to be sick in a sick person. All that was “lacking” in the complete “incarnation” of the Word is now accomplished through the Eucharist.
The Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote in a letter to her mother: “The Bride belongs to the bridegroom; mine has taken me; he wants me to be an extended humanity for him.” It is as if Jesus is saying to us, “I hunger for you, I want to live in you, so I need to live in all your thoughts, in all your affection; I need to live through your flesh, through your blood, through your daily weariness; I need to feed off you the way you feed off me!”
What an inexhaustible reason for amazement and comfort at the thought that our humanity becomes Christ’s humanity! However, what responsibility comes along with all this! If my eyes have become Christ’s eyes and my mouth has become Christ’s mouth, what a reason not to allow my gaze to indulge in lustful images, or allow my tongue to speak against a brother, or allow my body to serve as an instrument of sin! The apostle asks, “Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” (1 Cor 6:15). These words apply to every baptized person. But then what can be said about consecrated people, the ministers of God who should be “examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:3)? One can only shudder at the thought of the terrible damage that is done to the body of Christ that is the Church.
4. A Personal Encounter with Jesus
Up to this point I have spoken of the objective or sacramental benefits to our becoming the Church, the body of Christ. However, there is also a subjective and existential dimension that consists in what Pope Francis defined in Evangelii gaudium as a “personal encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.” Let us hear his words again:
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.
Perhaps we need to take a step forward here even with respect to the Council’s ecclesiology. In Catholic language, “a personal encounter with Jesus” has never been a very familiar concept. Instead of a “personal” encounter people prefer the idea of an ecclesial encounter that occurs through the Church’s sacraments. The phrase had a vaguely Protestant resonance to our Catholic ears. What is being proposed here is clearly not a personal encounter with Christ that substitutes for the sacramental encounter but one that makes the sacramental encounter a freely chosen and welcomed encounter rather than a purely nominal, legal, or habitually routine one. If the Church is the body of Christ, a free and personal adherence to Christ is the only way to enter it and be part of it from the existential point of view.
To understand what having a personal encounter with Jesus means, we need to take a brief look at history. How did people become members of the Church in the first three centuries? Despite the differences from individual to individual and from place to place, they became members after a long initiation, the catechumenate; it was the result of a personal decision, and a risky one as well because of the possibility of martyrdom.
Things changed when Christianity became, first, a tolerated religion and then, in a short time, the preferred religion and at times even directly imposed. In this situation, the focus was no longer on the precise moment and the way in which a person became a Christian, that is, how he or she came to faith, but on the moral requirements of the faith itself, on the change in a person’s habits—in other words, on morality.
The situation, despite everything, was less negative than it might seem to us today because even with all the inconsistencies that we are aware of, the family, education, culture, and little by little even society helped people to absorb faith almost naturally. In addition to this, new ways of life emerged from the beginning of this new state of affairs, like monastic life and then the life in various religious orders, in which baptism was radically lived out and Christian life was the result of a personal decision that was often heroically courageous.
This so called “regime of Christianity” has now radically changed. Therefore, there is an urgency for a new evangelization that takes the new situation into account. On the practical level, it means creating opportunities for people today that allow them, in a new context, to make that free, personal, and mature decision that Christians initially used to make when they received baptism and that made them true Christians rather than just nominal ones.
Since 1972 the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” has offered a kind of catechumenal path for the baptism of adults. In some countries where many people come to baptism as adults, this program has proven to be very effective. But what are we going to do for the massive number of Christians already baptized who live like Christians just in name only, and not in actual fact, and are not at all involved in the Church and sacramental life?
One answer to this problem has been the numerous ecclesial movements, lay associations and renewed parish communities, which appeared after the Council. The common contribution of these groups—which vary greatly in style and in membership numbers—is that they provide the context and the means that allow so many adults to make a personal choice for Christ, to take their baptism seriously, and to become active participants in the Church.
But I will not linger on the pastoral aspects of this issue. What I want to underscore at the end of this meditation is once again the spiritual and existential aspect that concerns us individually. What does it mean to have a personal encounter with Jesus? It means saying, “Jesus is Lord!”, the way that Paul and the early Christians said it, which determines a person’s whole life forever because of it.
When this happens Jesus is no longer a personage but a person. He is no longer someone who is only talked about but someone to whom and with whom we can speak because he is risen and alive; he is no longer just a memory, although alive and operative liturgically, but an actual presence. It also means not making any important decisions without having submitted them to him in prayer.
I said at the beginning that people do not accept Christ out of love for the Church but they accept the Church out of love for Christ. Let us seek to love Christ and to make him loved, and we will have rendered our best service to the Church. If the Church is the spouse of Christ, then like every spouse she will generate new children only in uniting herself to her Spouse through love. The fruitfulness of the Church depends on her love for Christ. The best service anyone of us can do for the Church is therefore to love Jesus and grow in intimacy with him.
Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson