Benedict XVI to Former Students

«The Law, as Word of Love, Is Not a Contradiction to Freedom»

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CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 14, 2009 ( Here is a translation of Benedict XVI’s homily during the Mass he celebrated Aug. 30 for a group of his former students. The text was published today by the Vatican press office.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

In the Gospel, we come across one of the essential topics of humanity’s religious history: the issue of man’s purity before God. Turning his gaze to God, man realizes he is «contaminated» and in a condition that impedes his access to the Holy One. The question thus arises as to how man can be pure, and free himself from the «filth» that separates him from God. Therefore, in various religions, purifying rites have arisen — interior and exterior ways of purification. We find in today’s Gospel rites of purification that are rooted in the tradition of the Old Testament, but which are administered in a very unilateral way. Consequently, they no longer serve as an opening of man to God, they are no longer ways of purification and salvation, but have become elements of an autonomous system of performances that, to be truly fulfilled in plenitude, also calls for specialists. Man’s heart is no longer reached. Man, who moves within this system, either feels enslaved or falls into the arrogance of being able to justify himself.

Liberal exegesis states that in this Gospel is revealed the fact that Jesus substituted worship with morality — that he put worship aside with all its useless practices. The relationship between man and God would now be based solely on morality. If that were true, it would mean that Christianity, in its essence, is morality, that is, that we ourselves make ourselves pure and good through our moral actions. If we reflect deeply on this opinion, it is obvious that this cannot be Jesus’ complete answer to the question of purity. If we wish to hear and understand fully the Lord’s message, then we must also listen fully, we cannot be content with a detail, but must pay attention to his whole message. In other words, we must read the Gospel entirely, all the New Testament and the Old together with it.

Today’s first reading, taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, gives us an important aspect of an answer and makes us take a step forward. Here we hear something that is perhaps surprising to us, that is, that Israel itself is invited by God to be grateful to him and to feel a humble pride in the fact of knowing the will of God and of thus being wise. In fact, in that period of humanity, both the Greek as well as the Semitic world sought wisdom: They sought to understand what matters. Science tells us many things and is useful to us in many aspects, but wisdom is knowledge of the essential — knowledge of the reason of our existence and of how we must live so that life is lived in the right way. The reading taken from Deuteronomy points out the fact that wisdom, in the end, is identical to the Torah — to the Word of God that reveals to us what is essential, for whose end and in whose way we must live. Hence the Law does not appear as slavery, but is — similar to what Psalm 119 says — cause of great joy: We do not grope in darkness, we do not wander in vain in search of what might be right, we are not like sheep without a shepherd that do not know the right way. God has manifested himself. He, himself, shows us the way. We know his will and with it the truth that matters in our life. God says two things to us: On one hand, that he has manifested himself and shows us the right way; on the other, that God is a God who listens, who is close to us, who answers us and guides us. With this we also touch the subject of purity: His will purifies us, his closeness guides us.

I think it is worthwhile to reflect a moment on Israel’s joy over the fact of knowing the will of God and of having thus received the gift of wisdom that heals us and that we cannot find on our own. Is there among us, in the Church today, a similar feeling of joy over God’s closeness and the gift of his Word? Anyone who might wish to show such a feeling would be immediately accused of triumphalism. However, it is not, in fact, our ability which indicates to us the real will of God. It is an unmerited gift that makes us at the same time humble and happy. If we reflect on the perplexity of the world in face of the great issues of the present and future, then there should also arise in us again the joy over the fact that God has freely shown us his face, his will, himself. If this joy arises in us, it will also touch the heart of non-believers. Without this joy, we are not convincing. However, where this joy is present it has, though not wishing it, a missionary force. In fact, it arouses in men this question: Is the way not, in fact, here — does this joy not in fact lead effectively to the traces of God himself?

All this is treated further in the passage taken from the Letter of James, which the Church proposes to us today. I love the Letter of James above all because, thanks to it, we can have an idea of the devotion of Jesus’ family. It was a religious family. Religious in the sense that it lived the Deuteronomical joy because of God’s closeness, which is given to us in his Word and his commandment. It is a kind of observance that is completely different from the one we find in the Pharisees of the Gospel, who had made of it an exteriorized and enslaving system. It is also a kind of observance different from that of Paul, as rabbi, who had learned: That was — as we see in his letters — the observance by a specialist who knew everything; who was proud of his knowledge and justice and who, however, suffered under the weight of the prescriptions, so that the Law no longer seemed to be the joyful guide to God, but rather an exigency that, in the last analysis, could not be fulfilled.

In the Letter of James we find this observance that does not look at itself, but that turns joyfully to the close God, who gives us his closeness and shows us the right way. Hence the Letter of James speaks of the perfect Law of freedom and means by that a new and deeper understanding of the Law that the Lord has given us. For James the Law is not an exigency that asks too much of us, that is before us from outside and that can never be satisfied. He refers to the point of view we find in a phrase in Jesus’ farewell addresses: «No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you» (John 15:15). 

He to whom everything has been revealed belongs to the family; he is no longer a servant, but free because, in fact, he himself forms part of the house. A similar initial introduction in the thought of God himself happened to Israel on Mount Sinai. It happened in a great and definitive way in the Cenacle and, in general, through the work, life, passion and resurrection of Jesus; in him, God has given us everything, he has manifested himself completely. We are no longer servants, but friends. The Law is no longer a prescription for persons who are not free, but is contact with the love of God — being introduced to form part of the family, act that makes us free and «perfect.» It is in this sense that James tells us, in today’s reading, that the Lord has engendered us through his Word, that he has planted his Word in our interior as force of life. Here there is also talk of «pure religion» which consists in love of neighbor — particularly of orphans and widows, of those who are in greatest need of us — and in freedom from the fashions of this world, which contaminate us. 

The Law, as word of love, is not a contradiction to freedom, but a renewal from within through friendship with God. Something similar is manifested when Jesus, in his address about the vine, says to his disciples: «You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you» (John 15:3). And the same appears again later in the priestly prayer: You are sanctified in the
truth (cf. John 17:17-19). Thus we now find the right structure of the process of purification and of purity: We are not the ones who create what is good — this would be a simple moralism — instead, it is Truth that comes to meet us. He himself is the Truth, the Truth in person. Purity is a dialogic event. It begins with the fact that he comes to meet us — he, who is Truth and Love — takes us by the hand, and is fused with our being. In the measure in which we allow ourselves to be touched by him, in which the encounter becomes friendship and love, we are, stemming from his purity, pure persons and then persons who love with his love, persons who introduce others in his purity and his love.

Augustine summarized all this process in this beautiful expression: «Da quod iubes et iube quod vis» — grant what you command and then command what you will. 

We now wish to take this petition to the Lord and to pray: Yes, purify us in the truth. You be the Truth that purifies us. Through our friendship with you, may we come to be free and thus truly children of God, make us capable of sitting at your table and of spreading in this world the light of your purity and goodness. Amen.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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