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Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly general audience.
BY The Editors
Weekly General Audience October 22, 2008
his general audience Oct. 22, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St.
Paul, focusing on St. Paul’s teaching on the central role of the risen Christ
in the mystery of salvation. Christ is the “one mediator between God and man,”
the firstborn of all creation and head of the Church.
Dear brothers and sisters,
During our catecheses of the last
few weeks, we have reflected on St. Paul’s “conversion,” the fruit of a
personal encounter with Jesus who was crucified and has risen. We have also
looked at how the Apostle to the Gentiles related to Jesus’ earthly life.
Today, I would like to speak about
St. Paul’s teaching on the central role of the risen Christ in the mystery of
salvation — about his Christology.
Truly, Jesus Christ, who has risen
and is “exalted above every name,” is at the center of all Paul’s thought.
For this apostle, Jesus Christ is
the standard for evaluating events and things, the purpose behind all his
efforts to proclaim the Gospel, as well as the great passion that sustains each
step of his journeys. Christ is alive and is concrete.
He is the Christ, Paul says, “who
has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). This person who
loves me, with whom I can speak, who listens and responds to me is truly the
principle for understanding the world and finding the path on our ongoing
St. Paul’s Christology
Anyone who has read the writings of
St. Paul knows very well that he is not concerned with narrating each
individual event in Jesus’ life.
We can assume that he recounted much
more in his teachings about Jesus’ pre-Easter life than he wrote in his
letters, which were admonitions for specific situations. His pastoral and
theological endeavors were so directed toward building up nascent communities
that it was natural for him to concentrate on the proclamation of Jesus Christ
as “Lord,” living and present now among his people.
Here we have that essential
characteristic of Paul’s Christology, which develops the depths of this mystery
with a single, constant and clear concern in mind: to proclaim the living
Jesus, to proclaim his teaching, and to proclaim, above all, the central
reality of his death and resurrection as the culmination of his life here on
earth and the root for the subsequent development of the entire Christian
faith, of the entire reality that is the Church.
For Paul, the Resurrection was not
an isolated event separate from the death. The risen Christ was always the one
who was, first of all, crucified. Even after he had risen, he still bore his
wounds: The Passion is present within him and, we might say, like [Blaise]
Pascal, that he continues to suffer until the end of the world, even though he
is the risen Christ who is living with us and for us.
Paul perceived this identification
of the risen Christ with the crucified Christ during that encounter on the road
to Damascus. At that moment, it was clearly revealed to him that the crucified
Christ is the risen Christ and that the risen Christ is the crucified Christ
who asked Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
Paul was persecuting Christ in the
Church, and at that moment, he understood that the cross is “God’s curse”
(Deuteronomy 21:23), yet a sacrifice for our redemption.
Christ, the Wisdom of God
Paul contemplates with fascination
the secret hidden in Christ who was crucified and who has risen and, through
the suffering Christ experienced in his humanity (earthly dimension), is led
back to that eternal existence in which Christ is one with the Father
(pretemporal dimension): “But when the fullness of time had come,” he writes,
“God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to ransom those under
the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
These two dimensions — the eternal
preexistence with the Father and the Lord’s descent in the Incarnation
— were already proclaimed in the Old Testament, in the figure of wisdom.
In the wisdom literature of the Old
Testament, we find some texts that exalt the role of wisdom, which was
preexistent to the creation of the world. Passages such as this one from Psalm
90 can be read with this meaning in mind: “Before the mountains were born, the
earth and the world brought forth, from eternity to eternity you are God”
Or passages such as this one that
speaks about wisdom as a creative force: “The Lord begot me, the firstborn of
his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago; from of old I was poured
forth, at the first, before the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23).
The praise for wisdom that is
contained in the book by that name is also very thought-provoking: “Indeed, she
reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well” (Wisdom 8:1).
The same wisdom texts that speak
about the eternal preexistence of wisdom also speak about its descent, of
wisdom that emptied itself and pitched its tent among men. Thus, we can already
hear the resonance of those words from the Gospel of John that speak of the
tent of the flesh of the Lord.
A tent was created in the Old
Testament — signifying the Temple and worship according to the Torah. But from
the New Testament’s point of view, we can see that this was only a
prefiguration of a tent that was much more real and significant: the tent of
Moreover, we see in the books of the
Old Testament that wisdom’s descent into flesh, its humbling of itself, also
implies the possibility of its rejection.
St. Paul, developing his
Christology, adopts the perspective of this wisdom theme. He recognizes Jesus
as the eternal wisdom that has existed from all time, the wisdom that comes
down and creates a tent among us.
Thus, he was able to describe Christ
as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” He was able to say that Christ has
become for us “wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification and
redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30).
Likewise, Paul clarifies that
Christ, like wisdom, can be rejected, especially by the rulers of this world
(see 1 Corinthians 2:6-9), so that in God’s plans a paradoxical situation can
be created: the cross, which will radically be transformed into the path of
salvation for the entire human race.
True God and True Man
A later development in this wisdom
cycle, where wisdom humbles itself so as to later be exalted despite its
rejection, is found in the famous hymn in the Letter to the Philippians (see
It is one of the loftiest texts of
the New Testament. The vast majority of exegetes (Scripture scholars) now
concur that this hymn is taken from a composition that predated the text of the
Letter to the Philippians. This is an important piece of information because it
means that Judeo-Christianity before St. Paul believed in Jesus’ divinity.
In other words, faith in the
divinity of Jesus was not some Hellenistic invention that arose long after
Jesus’ earthly life — an invention that had made him a deity by ignoring his
In reality, we see that early
Judeo-Christianity believed in the divinity of Jesus. Moreover, we can say that
the apostles themselves, during those great moments of the Master’s life,
understood that he was the Son of God, as St. Peter says at Caesarea Philippi:
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
But let us return to the hymn from
the Letter to the Philippians. The structure of this text can be divided into
three stanzas, which illustrate the principal moments of Christ’s journey.
His preexistence is expressed by the
words “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped” (verse 6).
Then follows the Son’s voluntary
self-abasement in the second stanza: “he emptied himself, taking the form of a
slave” (verse 7), and he even “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross” (verse 8).
The third stanza of the hymn
announces the Father’s response to his Son’s act of humility: “Because of this,
God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name”
What is striking is the contrast
between his radical act of humility and his resulting glorification in the
glory of God. It is evident that the second stanza is in stark contrast with
Adam’s attempt to want to become God by himself and is in stark contrast as
well with the gesture of those who built the Tower of Babel, because they
wanted to construct for themselves a bridge to heaven, thereby becoming divine
But this prideful initiative ended
up in self-destruction. This is not the way to heaven, to true happiness or to
The gesture of the Son of God is
exactly the opposite of pride; it is a gesture of humility, which is love made
real, and love is divine.
This initiative of self-abasement,
of Christ’s radical humility, which is in stark contrast with human pride, is
truly the expression of God’s love, and it is followed by that elevation to
heaven to which God draws us with his love.
Besides the Letter to the
Philippians, there are other places in Paul’s literature where the themes of
the preexistence and the descent of the Son of God to earth are interconnected.
A reaffirmation of the assimilation
between wisdom and Christ, with all its interconnected cosmic and
anthropological consequences, is found in the First Letter to Timothy: “[He]
was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the spirit, seen by angels,
proclaimed to the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in
Based, above all, on these premises,
Christ’s role as the only mediator can be better defined within the framework
of the one and only God of the Old Testament (see 1 Timothy 2:5 in relation to
Isaiah 43:10-11; 44:6). Christ is the true bridge who leads us to heaven, to
communion with God.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Finally, I would like briefly
mention some later developments in St. Paul’s Christology in his Letters to the
Colossians and to the Ephesians.
In his Letter to the Colossians,
Christ is described as the “firstborn of all creation” (1:15-20).
This word, “firstborn,” implies that
the first among many children — the first among many brothers and sisters — he
lowered himself in order to draw us to himself and make us his brothers and
In the Letter to the Ephesians, we
find a beautiful exposition of God’s plan of salvation when Paul tells us that
in Christ God wanted to fill all things in every way (see Ephesians 1:23).
Christ fills all things in every
way: He takes up everything and guides us to God. Thus, he involves us in a
movement of descent and ascent, inviting us to participate in his humility;
that is, in his love for our neighbor, so that we, too, may partake of his
glorification, becoming with him sons and daughters in the Son.
Let us ask the Lord to help us to
conform ourselves to his humility, to his love, and, in this way, to become
sharers in his divine nature.