On St. Paul and the Sacraments

«No One Makes Himself a Christian. We Become Christians»

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 12, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Wednesday at the general audience, held in Paul VI Hall.

Because the Holy Father improvised portions of the address, the complete text was transcribed and published Thursday by the Vatican press office.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Following St. Paul, we saw two things in last Wednesday’s catechesis. The first is that our human history is contaminated from the beginning by the abuse of created freedom, which attempts to emancipate itself from the Divine Will. And true freedom is not found like this, but is opposed to truth and, consequently, falsifies our human realities. Above all it falsifies fundamental relationships: the relationship with God, the relationship between man and woman, and the relationship between man and the earth. We have said that this contamination of our history is spread throughout its fabric, and that this inherited defect has increased and is now visible everywhere. This is the first thing. The second is this: from St. Paul we have learned that there is a new beginning in history and of history in Jesus Christ, he who is man and God. With Jesus, who comes from God, a new history begins formed by his «yes» to the Father, and because of this, no longer founded on the pride of a false emancipation, but on love and truth.

However, the question now arises: How can we enter into this new beginning, into this new history? How does this history touch me? With the first contaminated history we are inevitably united by our biological descent, all of us belonging to the one body of humanity. But how is communion with Jesus, the new birth to become part of the new humanity, realized? How does Jesus come into my life, my being? St. Paul’s fundamental response, and that of the whole New Testament, is: He comes by the power of the Holy Spirit. If the first history got under way, so to speak, with biology, the second does so in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Christ. In Pentecost, this Spirit created the beginning of a new humanity, of the new community, the Church, the Body of Christ.

However, we must be even more concrete: How can this Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, become my Spirit? The answer is that this happens in three ways, profoundly connected with one another. The first is this: The Spirit of Christ calls at the door of my heart, touches me interiorly. However, given that the new humanity must be a real body, given that the Spirit must bring us together and truly create a community, given that the characteristic of the new beginning is the overcoming of divisions and the creation of the aggregation of those who are dispersed, this Spirit of Christ makes use of two visible elements of aggregation: the Word and the sacraments, particularly baptism and the Eucharist. In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says: «If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved» (10:9), thus you will enter into the new history of life and not of death. Then St. Paul continues: «But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?» (Romans 10:14-15). In a subsequent verse he says again: «faith comes from preaching» (Romans 10:17). Faith is not a product of our thought, our reflection; it is something new that we cannot invent but only receive as a gift, as a novelty brought about by God. And faith does not come from reading, but from hearing. It is not something that is only interior, but a relationship with Someone. It implies an encounter with the proclamation, it implies the existence of the other that proclaims and creates communion.

And finally the proclamation: He who proclaims does not speak on his own, but as someone sent. He is within a structure of mission that begins with Jesus sent by the Father, passes to the Apostles — the word «apostle» means «sent» — and continues in the ministry, in the missions transmitted by the Apostles. The new fabric of history appears in this structure of the missions, in which we hear, in ultimate term, God himself speak, his personal word, the Son who speaks with us, comes to us. The Word has been made flesh, Jesus, to really create a new humanity. Because of this the word of proclamation becomes the sacrament of baptism, which is a rebirth by water and the Spirit, as St. John will say. In the sixth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks in a very profound way of baptism. We have heard the text, but perhaps it would be useful to repeat it: «Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life» (6:3-4).

In this catechesis, of course, I cannot go into a detailed interpretation of this difficult text. I would like to point out briefly only three things. The first: «We have been baptized» is passive. No one can baptize himself, he needs the other. No one can become a Christian by himself. To be Christian is a passive process. We can only become Christians through another. And this «other» that makes us Christians, that gives us the gift of faith, is in the first instance the community of believers, the Church. We receive the faith, the baptism of the Church. If we do not let ourselves be formed by this community we cannot be Christians. An autonomous Christianity, self-produced, is a contradiction in itself. In the first instance, this «other» is the community of believers, the Church, but in the second instance, neither does this community act by itself, according to its own ideas or desires. The community also lives in the same passive sense: Only Christ can constitute the Church. Christ is the real giver of the sacraments. This is the first point: No one baptizes himself, no one makes himself a Christian. We become Christians.

The second is this: Baptism is more than a cleansing. It is death and resurrection. Paul himself, speaking in the Letter to the Galatians of the change in his life through the encounter with the Risen Christ, describes it thus: I have died. He really begins, at this moment, a new life. To be a Christian is more than and aesthetic operation, which would add something nice to an existence that is more or less complete. It is a new beginning, it is a rebirth: death and resurrection. Obviously, in the resurrection what was good in the previous existence re-emerges.

The third element is this: Matter forms part of the sacrament. Christianity is not a purely spiritual reality. It involves the body. It involves the cosmos. It extends to the new earth and the new heavens. Let us return to the last word of St. Paul’s text: In this way, he says, we can «live a new life.» Element of an examination of conscience for all of us: to live a new life. This through baptism.

We now turn to the sacrament of the Eucharist. I have already shown in other catecheses with what profound respect St. Paul transmits verbally the tradition on the Eucharist received from the witnesses themselves of the last night. He transmits these words with a precious treasure entrusted to his fidelity. And so we really hear in these words the witnesses of the last night. We hear the words of the Apostle: «For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me» (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). It is an inexhaustible text. Also here, in this catechesis, I will only make two brief observations. Paul transmits the Lord’s words on the chalice thus: this chalice is «the new covenant in my blood.» Hidden in these words is a reference
to two fundamental texts of the Old Testament. The first reference is to the promise of a new covenant in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jesus says to the disciples and says to us: now, in this hour, with me and with my death the new covenant is realized; with my blood this new history of humanity begins in the world. However, present in these words also is a reference to the moment of the covenant on Sinai, where Moses said: «Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words» (Exodus 24:8). There it was a question of the blood of animals. The blood of animals could only be expression of a desire, the hope of the new sacrifice, of true worship. With the gift of the chalice the Lord gives us the true sacrifice. The only true sacrifice is the love of the Son. With the gift of this love, eternal love, the Word enters into the new covenant. To celebrate the Eucharist means that Christ gives himself to us, his love, to conform us to himself and thus create the new world.

The second important aspect of the doctrine on the Eucharist appears in the same first Letter to the Corinthians, where Saint Paul says: «The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? Because there is one bread , we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.» (10:16-17). In these words the personal and social character of the Eucharist also appears. Christ unites himself personally to each one of us, one with the other. We receive Christ in communion, but Christ unites himself also in my neighbor. Christ and neighbor are inseparable in the Eucharist. And thus we are only one bread, only one body. A Eucharist without solidarity with others is an abuse of the Eucharist. And here we are at the root and at the same time at the center of the doctrine of the Church as Body of Christ, of the Risen Christ.

We also see all the realism of this doctrine. Christ gives us his body in the Eucharist, he gives himself in his body and so makes us his body, he unites us to his risen body. If man eats normal bread, this bread in the process of digestion becomes part of his body, transformed in substance of human life. But in Holy Communion the inverse process takes place. Christ, the Lord, assimilates us to himself, introduces us into his glorious Body and so all together we become his Body. Those who read only Chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians and Chapter 12 of the Letter to the Romans might think that the word on the Body of Christ as organism of the charisms is only a kind of sociological-theological parable. In fact, in Roman political science this word of the body with the different members that form a unity was used by the state itself, to say that the state is an organism in which each one has his function, the multiplicity and diversity of the functions form a body and each one has its place. Reading only Chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians one might think that Paul limited himself to transfer this to the Church, that this was only a sociology of the Church. But keeping this 10th chapter in mind we see that the realism of the Church is very different, much more profound and true than that of a state-organism. Because Christ really gives us his body and makes us his body. We are really united with the risen body of Christ, so we are united to one another. The Church is not just a corporation as the state; it is a body. It is not simply an organization but a real organism.

Finally, I will only address a very brief word on the sacrament of marriage. In the Letter to the Corinthians there are only some notes, while in the Letter to the Ephesians a profound theology of marriage has been developed. Here Paul describes marriage as a «great mystery.» He says so «in reference to Christ and to his Church» (5:32). Highlighted in this passage is a reciprocity that is configured in a vertical dimension. The mutual submission must adopt the language of love, which has its model in the love of Christ for his Church. This Christ-Church relation makes the theological aspect of marital love primary, it exalts the affective relation between spouses. A genuine marriage will be well lived if in the constant human and affective growth there is an effort to remain connected with the efficacy of the Word and the meaning of baptism. Christ has sanctified the Church, purifying it through the cleansing of water, accompanied by the Word. Participation in the body and blood of the Lord does no more than cement, in addition to making visible, an indissoluble union by grace.

And finally we hear St. Paul’s word to the Philippians: «The Lord is at hand» (Philippians 4:5). I think we have understood that, through the Word and the sacraments, in all our life the Lord is at hand. Let us ask him that we might be increasingly touched in our innermost being by his closeness, so that joy will be born — that joy that is born when Jesus is really close.

[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

As we continue our catechesis on the writings of Saint Paul, I wish today to consider some of the ways in which this great Apostle contributes to our understanding of the Church’s sacramental life. Baptism, he explains, is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ. We die to sin, and we rise with Christ to a new life of mystical union with him. Washed clean in the purifying waters, we emerge sanctified and justified, and we «put on» Christ. Through Baptism, the believer becomes a «new creature», renewed in the Holy Spirit, and incorporated through the same Spirit into the one body of Christ. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the life of the Church is nourished and built up. Following the teaching handed down by the Apostles, the Christian community does what Jesus did at the Last Supper, when he took bread and wine, blessed them, and gave them to his disciples to eat and drink. In this way, the memory of the Passion is recalled and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet is given to God’s people as they await his coming again. The Eucharist seals the union between Christ and his bride, the Church – and in the course of a reflection on this mystical relationship, Saint Paul develops his understanding of Christian marriage. By pondering the teaching of this great Apostle, may we grow daily in our love for the Church and draw deeply from the wells of living water that she opens up for us.

I am pleased to welcome the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors here today, including groups from Australia and the United States. I greet especially the newly professed Missionaries of Charity from various countries. Upon all of you, and upon your families and loved ones, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

© Copyright 2008 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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