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Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
Weekly General Audience January 7, 2009
his general audience on Jan. 7, Pope Benedict XVI discussed St. Paul’s concept
of “true worship” as highlighted in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. By uniting us
to himself, Christ, a temple “not made with hands,” has made us a “living
sacrifice,” and Paul exhorts us to offer our own “bodies” — that is, our entire
selves — as a “spiritual worship” through the concrete activities of our daily
life. By joining us to his body, Christ has the power to unite all people into
a “cosmic liturgy” in which the world becomes the glory of God.
Dear brothers and sisters,
During this first general audience
of 2009, I would like to express my best wishes to all of you at the beginning
of the new year. May we enkindle within us our commitment to open our hearts
and minds to Christ in order to truly be and live as his friends.
His companionship will assure that
our journey through this year, in spite of its inevitable difficulties, will be
full of joy and peace. Indeed, if we remain united to Jesus, the new year will
be a good and happy one.
St. Paul offers us a good example of
this commitment to union with Christ. Continuing the series of catecheses
dedicated to St. Paul, today we will reflect on one of the most important
aspects of his thinking — the worship that Christians are called to exercise.
In the past, people liked to talk
about Paul’s somewhat “anti-worship” tendencies and about his “spiritualization”
of the idea of worship. Today, we are in a better position to understand that
Paul saw in the cross of Christ a historic turning point that radically
transformed and renewed the real nature of worship.
There are, above all, three passages
in his Letter to the Romans where this new vision of worship emerges.
In Romans 3:25, after speaking about
“the redemption in Christ Jesus,” Paul uses a word that is mysterious to us,
telling us about “an expiation, through faith, by his blood,” which God set
By using the rather unusual
expression “expiation,” Paul is alluding to the so-called “mercy seat” of the
ancient Temple, that is, the cover over the Ark of the Covenant, which was
considered the point of contact between God and man, the point of his
mysterious presence in the world of man.
On Yom Kippur,
the great feast of atonement, this “mercy seat” was sprinkled with the blood of
sacrificed animals. This blood symbolically brought the sins of the past year
in contact with God.
this way, these sins were hurled into the abyss of God’s goodness — absorbed,
overcome and forgiven through God’s power. Life began anew.
St. Paul refers to this rite, saying
that it was the expression of a true desire to hurl all our sins into the abyss
of God’s mercy to make them vanish. However, this process could not take place
through the blood of animals.
A more genuine contact between human
sin and divine love was needed. This contact took place through the cross of
Christ. Christ, the Son of God who truly became man, has taken all of our sins
He himself is the place where
contact between human misery and divine mercy occurs; in his heart, the sad
multitude of evil carried out by mankind is undone and life is renewed.
Revealing this change, St. Paul
tells us that through the cross of Christ — the supreme act whereby divine love
became human love — the worship of old, with the sacrifice of animals in the
Temple of Jerusalem, has come to an end.
This symbolic worship, a worship of desire,
has now been replaced by real worship — the love of God incarnated in Christ
and brought to fulfillment through his death on the cross.
Therefore, this is not mere
spiritualization of real worship. On the contrary, this is the real worship,
the true divine-human love, which replaces a worship that was symbolic and
The cross of Christ, his love
through flesh and blood, is the real worship that corresponds to the reality of
God and man.
For Paul, the era of the Temple,
with its worship, had come to an end well before the outward destruction of the
In this regard, Paul is in perfect
harmony with the words of Jesus, who had announced the end of the Temple and
proclaimed another temple “not made with hands” — the temple of his risen body
(see Mark 14:58; John 2:19ff). This is the first passage.
A Living Sacrifice
The second passage about which I
would like to speak today is found in the first verse of Chapter 12 of the
Letter to the Romans. We have heard it before, but I repeat it once again: “I
urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a
living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
These words reveal an apparent
As a rule, sacrifice requires the death
of the victim; on the other hand, Paul speaks about it in relationship to the life
of a Christian. The expression “present your bodies,” due to the subsequent
concept of sacrifice, takes on worship overtones of “giving as a sacrifice and
of offering.” The exhortation to “offer your bodies” refers to the whole
In fact, Paul extends an invitation
to “present yourselves to God” in Romans 6:13. This explicit reference to a
Christian’s physical dimension coincides with the invitation to “glorify God in
your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Thus, it is a question of concretely
honoring God in daily life in ways that are visibly perceptible and to which we
Paul describes this type of behavior
as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.” It is here where we
encounter the word “sacrifice.”
According to the usage prevalent at
the time, this expression was part of a sacred context and was used to describe
the splitting of the throat of an animal, one part of which would be burned in
honor of the gods and the other part of which would be consumed in a banquet by
those who made the offering.
Instead, Paul applies this
expression to the life of the Christian. Indeed, he describes this sacrifice
using three adjectives. The first — “living” — expresses vitality. The second —
“holy” — recalls Paul’s concept of a holiness that is not associated with
places or things but to the very person of the Christian.
The third — “pleasing to God” —
refers, perhaps, to the common biblical expression of a “sweet-smelling”
sacrifice (see Leviticus 1:13, 17; 23:18; 26:31, etc.).
Immediately afterward, Paul describes
this new way of living as “your spiritual worship.” Commentators of this text
are well aware that the Greek expression “tçn logikçn latreían”
is not easy to translate. The Latin Bible translates it as rationabile
obsequium. The word “rationabile” appears
in the first Eucharistic prayer (Roman Canon). There we pray that God will
accept this offering as “rationabile.”
The traditional Italian translation,
“spiritual worship,” (“an offering in spirit” in English), does not reflect all
the nuances of the Greek text, nor even those of the Latin text.
In any case, it is not a question of
a worship that is anything less than real worship or even of a worship that is
merely metaphorical, but of worship that is more concrete and realistic, a
worship in which man himself with his total being, a being gifted with reason,
becomes adoration and glorification of the living God.
Paul’s formula, which appears once
again in the Roman Eucharistic prayer, is the fruit of a long development of
the religious experience in the centuries preceding Christ.
Theological developments of the Old
Testament and currents of Greek thought are found in this experience. I would
like to at least point out some elements of this development.
The Development of Worship
The prophets, as well as many of the
Psalms, strongly criticize the bloody sacrifices of the Temple.
For example, Psalm 50, in which God
is speaking, says, “Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for mine is the world
and all that fills it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?
Offer praise as your sacrifice to God” (verses 12-14).
Along the same lines, the Psalm that
follows it, Psalm 51, says, “For you do not desire sacrifice; a burnt offering
you would not accept. My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; God, do not spurn
a broken, humbled heart” (verse 18-19).
the Book of Daniel, when the Hellenistic regime was again destroying the Temple
during the second century B.C., we find another step in this direction. In
midst of the fire — that is, in the midst of persecution and suffering —
Azariah prays in these words: “We have in our day no prince, prophet or leader,
no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation or incense, no place to offer first fruits,
to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit, let us be
received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks … So let our
sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly” (Daniel
the destruction of the sanctuary and worship, in a situation where every sign
of the presence of God has been stripped away, the believer offers as a true
holocaust a contrite heart — his desire for God.
We see a development that is
important and beautiful yet with a danger. Worship is spiritualized and
moralized. Worship becomes merely something in the heart and in the spirit.
However, the body is lacking; community is lacking.
Thus, in spite of its criticism of
worship, we understand, for example, that both Psalm 51 and the Book of Daniel
express a desire for the return of the time of sacrifices — albeit a time of
renewal, a renewed sacrifice, a synthesis that still was unforeseeable, that
could not yet be conceived.
Let us return to St. Paul. He is the
heir to this development, of the desire for true worship, in which man himself
becomes the glory of God, a living adoration with all his being. In this sense,
he says to the Romans, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice … your
spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).
Paul is repeating what he had
already pointed out in Chapter 3: The time of the sacrifice of animals —
sacrifices of substitution — has come to an end. The time of true worship has
arrived. But here, too, there is a danger of misunderstanding. This new worship
can easily be interpreted in a moralistic sense: By offering our lives, we
ourselves make the true worship.
In this way, worship with animals is
substituted by a moralism in which man does everything himself through his own
moral strength. This certainly was not St. Paul’s intention.
Union With Christ
But the question still remains: How,
then, should we interpret this “spiritual, reasonable worship?” Paul always
assumes that we have become “one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), that we
have died in baptism (see Romans 1) and that we now live with Christ, through
Christ and in Christ.
In this union — and only in this way
— we can be in him and with him a “living sacrifice” and offer the “true
worship.” The sacrificed animals should have been a replacement for man, man’s
gift of self, yet they could not do so.
Jesus Christ, by giving himself up
to the Father and to us, does not replace us with himself, but carries our
being within himself — our sins and our desire. He truly represents us and
takes us up into himself.
Despite all our shortcomings, we become
a living sacrifice through communion with Christ, which is achieved through
faith and through the sacraments. “True worship” becomes a reality.
This synthesis is the backdrop of
the Roman Canon, in which we pray that this offering may be “rationabile,”
so that spiritual worship may become a reality.
The Church knows that in the holy
Eucharist, Christ’s gift of himself, his true sacrifice, is made present. Yet,
the Church prays that the community, gathered in celebration, may be truly
united to Christ and may be transformed.
The Church prays that we ourselves
may become all that we cannot be through our own efforts: a “rationabile”
offering that is pleasing to God. In this way, the Eucharistic prayer
accurately interprets St. Paul’s words.
St. Augustine clarified all of this
in a marvelous way in the 10th book of his City of God. I will
cite only two sentences: “This is the sacrifice of Christians: Though being
many, we are only one body in Christ” and “All of the redeemed community (civitas),
that is, the congregation and the society of the saints, is offered to God
through the High Priest who has given himself up” (10,6: CCL 47,27ff).
The Nature of Missionary Work
Finally, I want to speak briefly
about the third passage from the Letter to the Romans referring to this new
worship. In Chapter 15, St. Paul speaks about “the grace given me by God to be
a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service (hierourgein)
of the Gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be
acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:15-16).
I would like to highlight only two
aspects of this marvelous text and say a word about some terminology that is
unique to Paul’s letters.
Above all else, St. Paul describes
his missionary work among the peoples of the world to construct the universal
Church as a priestly activity. Proclaiming the Gospel in order to unite people
in a communion with the risen Christ is a “priestly” activity.
Apostle of the Gospel is a true priest and does what is at the heart of the
priesthood: He prepares the true sacrifice.
second aspect is as follows: The goal of missionary activity is, we could say,
the cosmic liturgy, wherein people, united in Christ, the world, become as such
the glory of God, “an acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”
dynamic aspect appears here, the aspect of hope in Paul’s concept of worship:
Christ’s gift of himself implies the tendency to attract everyone to communion
of his body, to unite the world. Only in communion with Christ, the model man,
one with God, can the world become as all of us would desire it — a mirror of
dynamism is ever present in the Eucharist; this dynamism must inspire and shape
our lives. With this dynamism we begin the new year.