Weekly General Audience October 22, 2008
During 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 history.
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” (verse 2).
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 Christ’s flesh.
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 2:6-11).
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 humanity.
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” (verse 9).
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 themselves.
But this prideful initiative ended up in self-destruction. This is not the way to heaven, to true happiness or to God.
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 glory” (3:16).
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 sisters.
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.