Archive for June, 2007
ROME, MAY 4, 2007 (Zenit.org).
A New Commandment
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 14:20b-26; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a
The word “new” belongs to that restricted number of magic words that always and only evokes positive feelings. “Brand new,” “new clothes,” “new life,” “new year,” “new day.” The new makes news. They are synonymous. The Gospel is called “good news” precisely because it contains the new — par excellence.
Why do we like the new so much? It is not only because the new, the unused (a car, for example), generally works better. If this were the only reason, why do we welcome the New Year and a new day with such joy? The deepest reason is that the new, that which is still unknown, inexperienced, leaves more room for expectation, surprise, hope, dreams. And happiness is the child of these. If we were sure that the New Year would bring exactly the same things as the past year, no more and no less, we would not be very pleased about it.
The new is not opposed to the “ancient” but to the “old.” “Antique,” “antiquity,” “antique dealer,” are positive terms. What is the difference? The old is that which with the passing of time gets worse and loses its value; an antique is that which gets better and acquires value with the passing of time. That is why today Italian-speaking theologians try to avoid the expression “Vecchio Testamento” (“Old Testament”) and prefer to speak of the “Antico Testamento” (“Ancient Testament”).
Now, with these premises, let us draw near to the word of the Gospel. A question arises immediately: Why is a commandment that was already known in the Old Testament (cf. Leviticus 19:18) called “new”? Here the distinction between “ancient” and “old” proves useful. In this case “new” is not opposed to “ancient,” but to “old.”
The same Evangelist, John, writes in another place: “Dear ones, I do not propose to you a new commandment, but an ancient one. … Nevertheless it is a new commandment about which I write to you” (1 John 2:7-8). Is it a new commandment or an ancient one? Both.
Literally speaking, it is an ancient one because it was promulgated some time ago; but according to the Spirit it is new, because only in Christ is the strength to put it into practice also given. As I said, new is not opposed here to the ancient but to the old. The commandment to love one’s neighbor “as yourself” had become an old commandment, that is, weak and worn, on account of its being transgressed since the law imposed the obligation to love but did not give the strength to do so.
For this, grace is necessary. And in fact it was not when Jesus formulated the commandment of love during his life that it became a new commandment but when, dying on the cross and giving us the Holy Spirit, he makes us able to love each other by infusing in us the love he has for everyone.
Jesus’ commandment is new in an active and dynamic sense, because it “renews,” makes new, transforms everything. “And this love renews us, rendering us new persons, heirs of the New Testament, singers of a new song” (St. Augustine). If love could speak, it could make the words that God speaks in today’s second reading its own: “Behold, I make all things new.”
ROME, APRIL 27, 2007 (Zenit.org).-
I am the Good Shepherd
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelations 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30
In all three liturgical cycles the Fourth Sunday of Easter presents a passage from John’s Gospel about the good shepherd. After having led us among the fishermen last Sunday, this Sunday the Gospel takes us among the shepherds. These are two categories of equal importance in the Gospels. From the one comes the designation “fishers of men,” from the other “shepherd of souls.” Both are applied to the apostles.
The larger part of Judea was a plateau with inhospitable and rocky soil, more adapted to livestock than to agriculture. Grass was scarce and the flock had to continually travel from one spot to another; there were no walls for protection and because of this the shepherd always had to be with the flock. A traveler of the last century has left us a portrait of the shepherd of Palestine: “When you see him in a high pasture, sleepless, a gaze that searches in the distance, weather-beaten, leaning on his staff, ever attentive to the movements of the flock, you understand why the shepherd acquired such importance in the history of Israel that they gave this title to their kings and Christ assumed it as an emblem of self-sacrifice.”
In the Old Testament, God himself is represented as the shepherd of his people. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm (23:1). “He is our God and we are his people whom he shepherds” (Psalm 95:7). The future Messiah is also described with the image of the shepherd: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (Isaiah 40:11). This ideal image of the shepherd finds its complete realization in Christ. He is the good shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep; he feels compassion for the people because he sees them “as sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36); he calls his disciples “the little flock” (Luke 12:32). Peter calls Jesus “the shepherd of our souls” (1 Peter 2:25) and the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of him as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20).
This Sunday’s Gospel passage highlights some of the characteristics of Jesus the good shepherd. The first has to do with the reciprocal knowledge that the sheep and shepherd have: “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.” In certain countries of Europe sheep are raised principally for their meat; in Israel they were raised above all for wool and milk. For this reason they remained for many years in the company of the shepherd who knew the character of each one and gave them affectionate names.
What Jesus wants to say with these images is clear. He knows his disciples (and, as God, all men), he knows them “by name,” which for the Bible means their innermost essence. He loves them with a personal love that treats each as if they were the only one who existed for him. Christ only knows how to count to one, and that one is each of us.
The Gospel passage tells us something else about the good shepherd. He gives his life to his sheep and for his sheep, and no one can take them out of his hand. Wild animals — wolves and hyenas — and bandits were a nightmare for the shepherds of Israel. In such isolated places they were a constant threat. This was the moment in which is revealed the difference between the true shepherd — the one who shepherds the family’s flock, who does this for his life’s work — and the hired hand, who works only for the pay he receives, who does not love, and indeed often hates, the sheep.
Confronted with danger, the mercenary flees and leaves the sheep at the mercy of the wolf or bandits; the true shepherd courageously faces the danger to save the flock. This explains why the liturgy proposes the passage about the good shepherd to us during the time of Easter — the moment in which Christ showed that he is the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep.
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Equal and Different
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Proverbs 8:22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
The Gospel for the solemnity, drawn from Jesus’ farewell discourses, deals with three mysterious subjects which are inextricably united, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into the whole truth. … All that the Father has is mine” — the Son! Reflecting on these and similar texts the Church arrived at its faith in the Trinitarian God.
Many ask: But what is this puzzle of three who are one and one who are three? Would it not be easier to believe in a God who is just one, as the Muslims do? The answer is simple. The Church believes in the Trinity, not because it likes to complicate things, but because this truth has been revealed by Christ. The difficulty of understanding the mystery of the Trinity is an argument in favor of, and not against, its truth. No man left to himself would have ever come up with this mystery.
After the mystery has been revealed to us, we intuit that, if God exists, it can be no other way: one and three at the same time. There can only be love between two or more persons; if therefore “God is love,” there must be in God one who loves, one who is loved, and the love that unites them.
Christians are monotheists; they believe in a God who is one, but not solitary. Who would God love if he were absolutely alone? Perhaps himself? But then his love would not be really love, but rather egoism or narcissism.
I would like to consider the great and formidable teaching about life that comes to us from the Trinity. This mystery is the maximum affirmation that there can be both equality and diversity: equal in dignity but different in characteristics. And is this not the most important thing that we must learn if we are going to live well in this world? That we can be, that is, different by the color of our skin, because of culture, sex, race and religion, and yet enjoy equal dignity as human persons?
This teaching has its first and most natural field of application in the family. The family must be an earthly reflection of the Trinity. It is made up of persons of different sex (man and woman) and age (parents and children) with all the consequences that derive from these differences: different sentiments, different attitudes and tastes. The success of a marriage and a family depends on the measure by which this diversity knows how to tend toward a higher unity: unity of love, intentions and collaboration.
It is not true that a man and a woman must have the same temperament and gifts; that for them to agree, they must both be either cheerful, vivacious, extroverted and instinctive, or both introverted, quiet and reflective. Indeed we know what negative consequences can follow, even at the physical level, from marriage between relatives within a restricted circle.
Husband and wife do not have each to be the “better half” of the other in the sense of two halves perfectly equal, as an apple cut in two, but in the sense that one is the missing half of the other and the complement of the other. This was God’s intention when he said: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a help similar to him” (Genesis 2:18). This all presupposes the strength to accept the difference of the other, which is the most difficult thing for us to do and in which only the most mature marriages succeed.
From this we also see how erroneous it is to consider the Trinity a mystery that is remote from our lives, one to be left to the speculation of theologians. On the contrary, it is a mystery that is very close to us. The reason is very simple: We were created in the image of the Trinitarian God, we bear this imprint and we are called to realize the same sublime synthesis of unity and diversity.