Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Why the Word
All Christians know the standard, chronological
way we tell the story of human salvation. The basic time sequence
is this: 1) Creation, 2) the fall of the human race and 3) the coming
of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
In looking at the life of St. Paul, we
find that at the beginning of his conversion, he accepts that same
chronological sequence. Later on in his life, however, Paul gives
a revolutionary twist to this sequence as he comes to a deeper understanding
of the Incarnation and of Jesus' identity. But it will take a while
for his thought to blossom.
Paul's first experience of Jesus Christ,
the Savior, of course was on the road to Damascus. Paul was so overwhelmed
by this encounter with the risen Christ and his sudden conversion
that he was really not able, at that point, to completely fathom
the identity of Christ or the mystery of the Incarnation. He would
try to do that later.
Paul's ongoing conversion
In days and early years after his conversion,
Paul's view of Jesus was like that of anyone who has just been rescued
from disaster. He was overpowered with a feeling of blessed relief
and gratitude for the one "who gave himself for our sins to set
us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our
God and Father" (Gal 1:4).
Paul's experience was something like
this: If you were drowning and someone attempted to save you, you
would not pause and ask your rescuer for credentials: Who are you?
Are you qualified to save me? What is your background and purpose?
If you were drowning and put a halt to the rescue attempt with such
questionssorry, my friendthe next step would probably
be the notification of your next of kin!
So it was with Paul. He could only raise
those more profound questions about his encounter with Jesus after
he found sufficient time for reflection. Paul eventually found that
leisure time when he was behind bars.
From prison in Rome he writes to the
Philippians, for example, about his struggle to grow spirituallyto
replace a lesser spirituality with a greater. Early on, Paul had
self-consciously sought spiritual perfection by a meticulous obedience
to rules and commandments. Eventually he was able to let go of his
preoccupation with details of the law and turn his full attention
to knowing Christ and Christ's love.
As he confided to the Philippians, "Yet
whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because
of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of
the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil 3:7-8).
Paul uses the word know not like
a historian who wants to have facts and figures and biographical
details at his fingertips. Paul wants to know the inner reality
of Jesus. What makes him tick? Paul is not so much interested in
the date of Jesus' coming, for example, as in the deepest meaning
and purpose of his coming.
And that meaning did not result from
a better understanding of dates according to standard, human, chronological
reckoning. The deeper meaning came more from Paul's searching into
God's way of looking at things. And Paul is convinced that God gave
him, "the least of all the saints," the amazing grace "to make everyone
see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created
all things" (Eph 3:8-9).
For Paul, therefore, imprisonment was
not an occasion for feeling sorry that his travels for Jesus were
interrupted. Rather it was in jail that the light came. There he
was given the opportunity to deepen his understanding of the true
role and identity of Jesus in the eternal plan of the Father, and
to share that vision by letter with the Churches.
Ephesus was one of these Churches. And
one of the truths Paul shared with them was that creation was not
really the first step in the story of our salvation. Something very
important came before that in God's plan. Paul writes that God "chose
us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless
before him in love" (Eph 1:4).
This is the focal point of the mystery
hidden from all eternity: Before creation, before our first parents,
before sin, even before Abraham, our father in faith, the Word made
Flesh takes first place in God's plan. He is not simply an afterthought
or last-minute rescue plan in God's mind because Adam and Eve sinned.
Rather, Christ is the focal point, the center of gravity, the heart
of the Father's plan from all eternity.
The Second Vatican Council advises us
to think the same way: "The Lord is the goal of human history, the
focal point of the longings of history and civilization, the center
of the human race, the joy of every heart, and the answer to all
its yearnings" (The Church Today, #45).
That is incredible, but what boggles
the mind even more is that before the Father decided to create
the world, he thought of you and of me, and our relationship to
his Son, Jesus. We did not just happen. God chose us and we have
been given a place in his plan, that we may be "holy and blameless"
in Jesus (Eph 1:4).
Jesus: The first and the last
How is it that Jesus who was first in God's
mind showed up last in the familiar timeline of salvation: creation,
fall, Incarnation? The concept is really not that hard to understand.
The plan or blueprint of something always comes first, even though
its realization comes last.
For example, if you are planning a trip
to the Holy Land, the first thing on your mind is the Holy Land.
But the last step in the process is the sameyour arrival in
the Holy Land. After deciding on that destination, you get a guide
book, contact a travel agent, pack your bags, get to the airport,
board the plane and finally, at the end of the process, achieve
the first thing that was on your mind: your visit of the Holy Land.
The first thing envisioned is the last thing accomplished.
And so it was with Jesus: He was first
in the plan of the Father but only enters history at its final stagethe
fullness of time. We refer to this vision of Christ as the absolute
primacy and predestination of Christ. In other words, Christ holds
first place (primacy) in the mind of God and is the predestined
goal of creation.
Paul's ideas reinforced today
Vatican II echoes Paul's theme in the passage
cited above, calling Christ the focal point of human history in
The Church Today. The very first line of Pope John Paul's
first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, reads: "The Redeemer
of Man, Jesus Christ is the center of the universe and of history."
Going back a few decades, Cardinal Pacelli,
later Pius XII, wrote: "God, before all things, cast his eyes upon
him who was to be their head and king. Eternally, the material world
appeared to him as the palace of Christ, our head...."
Such views are certainly more in tune
with Paul's vision than with the chronological view that Christ
who came after Adam came because of Adam. In Paul's
mature theology in Ephesians and Colossians, he doesn't give the
impression that Jesus Christ, the God-Man, arrived upon the scene
because of Adam. Jesus, not Adam, is the focal point of the plan
of God. We do not thank Adam for the coming of Jesus, for the Incarnation
already was primary and central to the plan of God. God predestined
Jesus from all eternity. That is the absolute primacy and predestination
This theological view has been the consistent
view of Franciscans since the Middle Ages, championed especially
by John Duns Scotus (1266-1308). In Scotus's view, the Word of God
did not become flesh because Adam and Eve sinned, but because from
all eternity God wanted Christ to be creation's most perfect work,
the model and crown of creation and humanitythe glorious destination
toward which all creation is straining. In his view, the divine
Word would have been incarnated in Christ even if the first man
and woman had never sinned.
Another point made by Scotus and the
Franciscans is this: It was not Adam who was the pattern or blueprint
that God used in shaping Christ. It was the other way around. Christ
was the model in God's mind from which Adam and Eve and the whole
human race were created.
Many of the Fathers, particularly of
the Eastern Church, as well as brilliant theologians like the Spanish
Jesuit Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), and the Bishop of Geneva, St.
Francis de Sales (1567-1622), and closer to our own time, Karl Rahner,
S.J., all built their theology and spirituality on a similar way
of thinking. Rahner states it succinctly: "God's design for the
incarnation of the Logos is an absolute one, and made by him prior
to any human, free decision [like that of Adam and Eve] which could
have been the motive."
Restoring all things in Christ
In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he speaks
about God's "plan for the fullness of time" in which God wants "to
gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on
earth." The phrase, "to gather up all things in [Christ]," is a
rather free translation of Paul's Greek, which means to bring to
a head again, to put something back where it belongs, to restore
(see Ephesians 1:7-10).
When we restore a piece of furniture, we
put it back in the condition it was in when it left the hands of
its maker. We return it to the way he wanted it to beto the
original blueprint, so to speak. Paul intentionally chose this word,
, knowing that the way God intended things to be, centered in Christ,
had gone awry and needed to be restored.
Christ would have come under any conditions,
but given the sin of Adam, the way he actually came was as the redeemer
of the universea universe that was made for himself. Just
as the rebellion of our first parents had its repercussions on all
of creation, so does the coming of Jesus initiate the process of
restoration not only of humanity, but of all of creation to himself.
The various and far-flung parts of creation
only make sense when they come together in Christ. It helps to look
at all created things as if they are scattered pieces of a beautiful
picture puzzle. It's only when the pieces are put back in their
proper places that they form the original image of Christ, thus
displaying their true beauty and meaning.
Lord of all
St. Paul seems to be dealing with a similar
point in his Letter to the Colossians when he speaks of Christ as
"the image of the invisible God," teaching that "in him all things
in heaven and on earth were created, things visible or invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powersall things
have been created through him and for him. He himself is before
all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col 1:15-17).
You may be one of the many people who wonder:
What is all this talk about thrones, dominions, rulers and powers?
To understand these strange beings or forces, we need to pause for
a moment and remember that the communities of Ephesus and Colossae
in Asia Minor did not come to Christianity from a religious vacuum.
The inhabitants of this region shared very strong beliefs about
who was in charge of this world. It was the age of specialization,
and they believed that between themselves and the divinity there
were all sorts of intermediaries called thrones, dominions, rulers
or powers. Each of these spiritual powers had its own proper area
of expertise and sphere of influence.
The role of religion, in the view of
the local people, was to recognize this system, and to keep each
celestial being happy, satisfied and off their backs. When Paul
introduced the gospel to this region and taught that Jesus is our
mediator with the Father, the people accepted that as good news.
But they wanted to know just where Christ fit into their system.
Just what was Jesus' area of specialization?
With a magnificent proclamation of the
role of Christ, Paul lets them know just what Jesus is in charge
of. He is Lord of all things. Everything! The cosmos! The universe!
The past! The future! Every person, place or thing, real or imagined!
Jesus does not fit into their system, he is the system! "In him
all things hold together!" (v.17).
According to Paul, there never was, is,
or will be any reality that was not created for the sake of Jesus
Christ. St. Francis de Sales in his Treatise on the Love of God
spells out this vision quite beautifully: "Almighty God, in his
eternal plan and design for all that he would create, first of all
intended and willed that which he loved the most: our Savior. And
then he planned for the creation of other creatures in the proper
order for which they were necessary for the service, honor and glory
of that beloved Son, Jesus Christ."
In Paul's view of creation, therefore,
there is nothing in this world that makes sense apart from Jesus
Christ. Every creature in some way points to Christ. Indeed, if
the singing of the birds and the humming of the insects could be
formed into a chorus and if the rustling breeze and tinkling rain
could have a voice and the roar of the ocean could be put into words,
they would all have one thing to say: "We were made for the sake
of Jesus Christ."
Francis of Assisi and the Incarnation
Francis of Assisi shared a similar vision.
He saw the whole family of creation somehow profoundly related to
Christ. And when the Word of God entered history at the Incarnation
and dwelt among us, St. Francis saw this as a cause for celebration
among all creatures.
Francis' sense that all creatures are
somehow interconnected in Christ is the reason he could rhapsodize
about "Brother Sun and Sister Moon." His Canticle of the Creatures,
in which he praised the Creator through Brother Sun and Sister Moon
and all the creatures, is not poetic overstatement. It is the practical
expression of his theological and spiritual vision. It is no coincidence
that Francis is the patron saint of ecology. He who perceived this
world as Mother Earth recognized that it is the home of him whom
he loved: Jesus Christ. Care and concern for creation is care and
concern for Jesus' own home.
Next: : Lent, Day by Day (By Karen