The Paradox of Christianity
Vatican Prepares New Document on Interreligious Dialogue
BUENOS AIRES — The Holy See is preparing a new document on the spiritual dimension of interreligious dialogue.
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, revealed the news Nov. 19 in Argentina, where he was giving a series of talks on ecumenism, Islam and relations with Judaism.
Dialogue with believers of other religions “is not a hobby or an extra activity but a duty within the mission of the Church,” he said.
“The problem that arises is how to reconcile dialogue as part of the mission of the Church with Jesus' mandate to go out and preach,” the archbishop said when greeting representatives from the communities of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Anglicans, Methodists, evangelical Baptists, Waldensians and others at the headquarters of the Argentine Catholic bishops' conference.
“The Church must dialogue and proclaim, two tasks that are different but not opposed,” the British archbishop said. “We must discover what the Spirit wants from that dialogue.”
Archbishop Fitzgerald revealed that the finishing touches are being given to the new document on the spiritual dimension of dialogue. He said the text would address the reasons for engaging in and maintaining dialogue.
Pope John Paul II met with several thousand pilgrims in the Paul VI Hall for his general audience Nov. 19 as he continued his series of teachings on the psalms and canticles from evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. His teaching was devoted to a canticle found in Philippians 2:6-11, which is recited every Sunday during vespers.
John Paul pointed out that the canticle is an ancient liturgical hymn that has been passed down to us in Scripture. “The canticle displays two vertical movements — first a descending movement and then an ascending one,” he noted.
First of all, he said, it recalls Christ's descent among us as man, his obedience to the will of the Father and his death on the cross. “He did not cling to his ‘equality with God,’ which belongs to him by nature and not by appropriation, as though it were a reward … Instead, Christ ‘emptied’ himself, ‘humbled’ himself and appeared poor, weak and destined to an infamous death by crucifixion,” the Holy Father said.
The ascending movement in the canticle celebrates Christ's exaltation at the Father's right hand as the Lord of all creation. “The Father restores Christ to the splendor of his divinity,” the Pope noted. Having humbled himself to share our human experience of suffering and death, the risen Christ now invites us to share in his divine glory.
The Holy Father concluded his meditation with some words from St. Ambrose that illustrate the consequences of this paradox: “God descended, and man was raised; the Word became flesh so that the flesh could claim for itself the throne of the Word at the right hand of God.”
In addition to the psalms, evening prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours also includes some canticles from the Bible. The canticle that we just heard is certainly one of the more significant canticles and one of great theological wealth. This is a hymn that is found in the second chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Christians of Philippi, the Greek city that was the first stage of the apostle's missionary journey in Europe. The canticle has retained some phrases from the early Christian liturgy, and it is a joy for our generation to be able to join in this prayer of the apostolic Church some 2,000 years later.
A Twofold Movement
The canticle displays two vertical movements — first a descending movement and then an ascending one. On one hand, the Son of God actually descends from above when, out of love for man, he becomes man through the Incarnation. He plunges into a kenosis — into an “emptying” of his divine glory — that leads to his death on the cross, a punishment reserved for slaves, which made him the least among men, thereby transforming him into a true brother of a humanity that is suffering, is sinful and has been rejected.
On the other hand, we behold the triumphal ascent that takes place on Easter when the Father restores Christ to the splendor of his divinity and when the whole universe and all mankind, which has now been redeemed, extol him as Lord. We have before us a magnificent restatement of the mystery of Christ, especially the paschal mystery. Besides proclaiming his resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-5), St. Paul also describes Christ's passover as “exaltation,” “raising up” and “glorification.”
He Emptied Himself
Thus, from the shining horizon of his divine transcendence, the Son of God has crossed the infinite distance that lies between the Creator and the creature. He did not cling to his “equality with God,” which belongs to him by nature and not by appropriation, as though it were a reward: He did not wish to jealously guard this prerogative as a treasure or to use it for his own advantage. Instead, Christ “emptied” himself, “humbled” himself and appeared poor, weak and destined to an infamous death by crucifixion. Truly the great movement of ascent described in the second part of St. Paul's hymn (see Philippians 2:9-11) stems from this extreme humiliation.
God Exalts His Son
God now “exalts” his Son by conferring on him a glorious “name,” which, in biblical language, signifies the person himself and his dignity. This “name” is Kyrios, or “Lord,” which is God's sacred name in the Bible that is now applied to the risen Christ. This places the universe — described according to the three-part division of heaven, earth and hell — in an attitude of adoration.
Therefore, Christ, in his glory, appears at the end of the hymn as the Pantocrator, the omnipotent Lord, who reigns triumphantly in the apses of the early Christian and Byzantine basilicas. He still bears the signs of his Passion, that is, of his true humanity, but he now reveals himself in the splendor of his divinity. Close to us in suffering and in death, Christ now draws us to himself in his glory by blessing us and making us participants in his eternity.
Let us conclude our reflection on St. Paul's hymn with some words from St. Ambrose, who often takes up the image of Christ who “emptied himself” and humbled himself, in a sense abasing himself (exinanivit semetipsum) through his incarnation and the sacrifice of himself on the cross.
In particular, this bishop from Milan expresses the following words in his Commentary on Psalm 118: “Christ, hanging from the tree of the cross … was pierced by the lance and there gushed forth blood and water sweeter than any salve, a victim pleasing to God, spreading
throughout the world the sweet fragrance of sanctification. … Then, Jesus, pierced, spread the sweet fragrance of the forgiveness of sins and of the redemption. Indeed, as the Word who became man, he had been very limited, and, though he was rich, he became poor so that by his poverty we might become rich (see 2 Corinthians 8:9); he was powerful, but he appeared as one who is miserable, so much so that Herod scorned and derided him; he could shake the earth, yet he remained attached to that tree; he could cover the sky with darkness and crucify the world, yet he was crucified; he bowed his head, and yet the Word came forth from him; he was abased, yet he filled every thing. God descended, and man was raised; the Word became flesh so that the flesh could claim for itself the throne of the Word at the right hand of God; he was one big wound, yet a salve flowed from him; he seemed ignoble, and yet he was God” (III, 8 Saemo IX, Milan-Rome, 1987, p. 131.133).