December 2008 – January 2009
Vol. XIV, No. 9
Message to the People of God
XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops
The Synod of Bishops on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church was held October 5-26, 2008. During the twenty-first General Congregation, held Friday, October 24, 2008, the Synod Fathers approved the Message to the People of God. The message appears below, as published on the Vatican web site in an unofficial English translation.
Brothers and sisters, “May God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ grant peace, love and faith to all the brothers. May grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ, in life imperishable”. With this intense and passionate greeting, Saint Paul concluded his letter to the Christians of Ephesus (6:23-24). With these same words we, the Synod Fathers, gathered in Rome for the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, under the guidance of the Holy Father Benedict XVI, open our message addressed to the vast horizon of all those who, in the various regions of the world, follow Christ as disciples, and continue to love Him with an imperishable love.
We will again propose to them the voice and the light of the word of God, repeating the ancient call: “the word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to put into practice” (Deuteronomy 30:14). And God Himself will say to each one: “Son of man, take to heart everything I say to you, listen carefully” (Ezekiel 3:10). We are about to propose a spiritual journey consisting of four phases and that will carry us from all eternity and the infinite nature of God to our homes and the streets of our cities.
I. THE VOICE OF THE WORD: REVELATION
1. “Then the Lord spoke to you from the heart of the fire; you heard the sound of words but saw no shape; there was only a voice!” (Dt 4:12). It is Moses who speaks, evoking the experience lived by Israel in the bitter solitude of the Sinai desert. The Lord presented Himself not as an image or an effigy or a statue similar to a golden calf, but with “a voice of words”. It is a voice which entered the scene at the very beginning of creation, when it tore through the silence of nothingness: “In the beginning … God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light…. In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God…. Through Him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through Him” (Genesis 1:1-3; John 1:1-3).
Creation is not born of a battle of divinities, as taught by ancient Mesopotamian myths, but of a word which defeats nothingness and creates being. The Psalmist sings: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, by the breath of His mouth all their array … for, the moment He spoke, it was so, no sooner had He commanded, than there it stood” (Psalms 33:6-9). And Saint Paul will repeat: God “brings the dead to life and calls into existence what does not yet exist” (Romans 4:17). Thus, a first “cosmic” revelation is found which makes creation similar to an immense page opened up before all of humanity, in which a message from the Creator can be read: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the vault of heaven proclaims His handiwork, day unto day makes known His message; night unto night hands on the knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their message goes out into all the earth” (Ps 19:2-5).
2. The divine word is, however, also at the origin of human history. Man and woman, whom God created “in His own image” (Gen 1:27), and who bear within themselves the divine imprint, can enter into dialogue with their Creator or can wander far from Him and reject Him away by sinning. The word of God, then, saves and judges, penetrating the woven fabric of history with its tales and events: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying…. I am well aware of their sufferings. And I have come down to rescue them from the clutches of the Egyptians and bring them up out of that country, to a country rich and broad” (Exodus 3:7-8). The divine is therefore present in human events which, through the action of the Lord of history, are inserted in the greater plan of salvation for “everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4).
3. Consequently, the effective, creative and salvific divine word is source of being and of history, of creation and redemption. The Lord encounters humanity declaring: “I, the Lord, have spoken and done this” (Ezk 37:14). The voice of God then passes into the written word, the Graphé or the Graphaí [Greek = sacred writings], the Sacred Scriptures, as it is said in the New Testament. Moses had already descended from the mount of Sinai, “with the two tablets of the commandments in his hands, tablets inscribed on both sides, inscribed on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing on them was God’s writing” (Ex 32:15-16). Moses himself obliged Israel to preserve and rewrite these “tablets of the commandments”: “On these stones you must write all the words of this Law very plainly” (Dt 27:8).
The Sacred Scriptures “bear witness” to the divine word in written form. They memorialize the creative and saving event of revelation by way of canonical, historical and literary means. Therefore, the word of God precedes and goes beyond the Bible which itself is “inspired by God” and contains the efficacious divine word (cf. II Tm 3:16). This is why our faith is not only centered on a book, but on a history of salvation and, as we will see, on a person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, man and history. Precisely because the capacity of the divine word embraces and extends beyond the Scripture, the constant presence of the Holy Spirit that “will lead you to the complete truth” (Jn 16:13) is necessary for those who read the Bible. This is the great Tradition: the effective presence of the “Spirit of truth” in the Church, guardian of Sacred Scripture, which are authentically interpreted by the Church’s Magisterium. This Tradition enables the Church to understand, interpret, communicate and bear witness to the word of God. Saint Paul himself, proclaiming the first Christian creed, will recognize the need to “transmit” what he “had received” from Tradition (I Corinthians 15:3-5).
II. THE FACE OF THE WORD: JESUS CHRIST
4. In the original Greek, there are only three fundamental words: Lógos sarx eghéneto, “the Word was made flesh”. And yet, this is the summit not only of that poetic and theological jewel which is the prologue to John’s Gospel (Jn 1:14), but it is the actual heart of the Christian faith. The eternal and divine Word enters into space and time and takes on a human face and identity, so much so that it is possible to approach Him directly asking, as did the group of Greeks present in Jerusalem: “We should like to see Jesus” (Jn 12:20-21). Words without a face are not perfect, they do not fully complete the encounter, as Job recalled, reaching the end of his dramatic itinerary of searching: “Before, I knew you only by hearsay but now” … I have “seen you with my own eyes” (Jb 42:5).
Christ is “the Word [that] was with God and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). “He is the image of the unseen God, the first-born of all creation” (Colossians 1:15); but He is also Jesus of Nazareth who walks the roads of a marginal province of the Roman Empire, who speaks the local language, who reveals the traits of a people, the Jews, and its culture. Therefore the real Jesus Christ is fragile and mortal flesh; He is history and humanity, but He is also glory, divinity, mystery: He who revealed God to us, the God no one has ever seen (cf. Jn 1:18). The Son of God continues to be so even in the dead body placed in the sepulcher and the resurrection is the living and clear proof to this fact.
5. Christian tradition has often placed the Divine Word made flesh on a parallel with the same word made book. This is what emerges already in the creed when one professes that the Son of God “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”, but also a profession of faith in the same “Holy Spirit, who spoke through the Prophets”. The Second Vatican Council gathers this ancient tradition according to which “the body of the Son is the Scripture transmitted to us” — as Saint Ambrose affirms (In Lucam VI, 33) — and clearly declares: “For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (Dei Verbum 13).
Indeed, the Bible is also “flesh”, “letter”; it expresses itself in particular languages, in literary and historical forms, in concepts tied to an ancient culture, it preserves the memories of events, often tragic; its pages not infrequently are marked by blood and violence, within it resounds the laughter of humanity and the flowing tears, as well as the cry of the distressed and the joy of those in love. For this, its “bodily” dimension requires an historical and literary analysis, which occurs through various methods and approaches offered by Biblical exegesis. Every reader of Sacred Scripture, even the most simple, must have a proportionate knowledge of the sacred text, recalling that the word is enveloped in concrete words, which is shaped and adapted to make it heard and understood by all of humanity.
This is a necessary commitment. If it is excluded, one could fall into fundamentalism which in practice denies the Incarnation of the divine Word in history, does not recognize that this word expresses itself in the Bible according to a human language, that must be decoded, studied and understood. Such an attitude ignores that divine inspiration did not erase the historical identities and personalities of its human authors. The Bible, however, is also the eternal and divine Word and for this reason requires another understanding, given by the Holy Spirit who unveils the transcendent dimension of the divine word, present in human words.
6. Here, thus, lies the necessity of the “living Tradition of all the Church” (DV 12) and of the faith to understand Sacred Scripture in a full and unified way. Should one focus only on the “letter”, the Bible is only a solemn document of the past, a noble, ethical and cultural witness. If, however, the Incarnation is excluded, it could fall into a fundamentalist equivocation or a vague spiritualism or pop-psychology. Exegetical knowledge must, therefore, weave itself indissolubly with spiritual and theological tradition so that the divine and human unity of Jesus Christ and Scripture is not broken.
In this rediscovered harmony, the face of Christ will shine in its fullness and will help us to discover another unity, that profound and intimate unity of Sacred Scriptures. There are, indeed, 73 books, but they form only one “Canon”, in one dialogue between God and humanity, in one plan of salvation. “At many moments in the past and by many means, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our time, the final days, He has spoken to us in the person of His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Christ thus retrospectively sheds His light on the entire development of salvation history and reveals its coherence, meaning, and direction. He is the seal, “the Alpha and the Omega” (Revelation 1:8) of a dialogue between God and His creatures distributed over time and attested to in the Bible. It is in the light of this final seal that the words of Moses and the prophets acquire their “full sense”. Jesus Himself had indicated this on that spring afternoon, while He made His way from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus, dialoguing with Cleopas and his friend, explaining “to them the passages in the Scriptures that were about Himself” (Luke 24:27).
That the divine Word has put on a face is at the center of Revelation. That is precisely why the ultimate finality of biblical knowledge is “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus caritas est 1).
III. THE HOUSE OF THE WORD: THE CHURCH
Just as divine wisdom in the Old Testament made her house in the cities of men and women, supporting it with seven pillars (cf. Proverbs 9:1), thus also the word of God made its house in the New Testament. The Church has as her model the mother community of Jerusalem. The Church is founded on Peter and the apostles and today, through the bishops in communion with the Successor of Peter, continues to keep, announce and interpret the word of God (cf. Lumen Gentium 13). In the Acts of the Apostles (2:42), Luke traces its architecture based on four ideal pillars: “These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers”.
7. Here, first of all, is the apostolic didaché, that is to say the preaching of the word of God. The Apostle Paul, in fact, warns us that “faith comes from hearing, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). The voice of the herald comes from the Church, which proposes kérygma, that is to say, the primary and fundamental announcement that Jesus Himself had proclaimed at the beginning of His public ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The apostles, proclaiming the death and resurrection of Christ, announce the unveiling of the kingdom of God, that is to say, the decisive divine intervention in the history of man: “Only in Him is there salvation; for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12). The Christian bears witness to this hope “with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience”, ready, however, to be involved and, perhaps, to be overwhelmed by the storms of refusal and persecution, knowing that “it is better to suffer doing right than for doing wrong” (I Peter 3:16-17).
Catechesis, then, resounds in the Church: this is destined to deepen in the Christian “the understanding of the mystery of Christ in the light of God’s word, so that the whole of a person’s humanity is impregnated by that word” in Christianity (John Paul II, Catechesi tradendae, 20). But the high point of preaching is in the homily which, for many Christians, is still today the central moment of encounter with the word of God. In this act, the minister should be transformed into a prophet as well. He, in fact, with a clear, incisive and substantial language must not only proclaim with authority “God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation” (SC 35) — offered first by a clear and vivid reading of the biblical text proposed in the liturgy — but he must also act upon it in the times and moments lived by the hearers and make the question of conversion and vital commitment blossom in their hearts: “What are we to do, brothers?” (Acts 2:37).
Preaching, catechesis and the homily therefore presuppose a reading and understanding, an explaining and interpreting, an involvement of the mind and of the heart. Thus in preaching a dual movement is achieved. With the first, one goes back to the roots of the sacred texts, the events, the first words of the history of salvation, to understand them in their meaning and in their message. With the second movement, one returns to the present, to the today lived by those who hear and read, always with Christ in mind, who is the guiding light destined to unite the Scriptures. This is what Jesus Himself did — as has already been said — in His journey to Jerusalem in Emmaus with two of His disciples. This is what the deacon Philip would do on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza, when he spoke this emblematic dialogue with the Ethiopian official: “Do you understand what you are reading?… How could I, unless I have someone to guide me?” (Acts 8:30-31). And the finality will be the full encounter with Christ in the sacrament. This is how the second pillar that supports the Church, the house of the divine word, presents itself.
8. It is the breaking of the bread. The scene at Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35) is once again exemplary, and reproduces what happens every day in our churches: the homily by Jesus about Moses and the prophets gives way to the breaking of the Eucharistic Bread at the table. This is the moment of God’s intimate dialogue with His people. It is the act of the new covenant sealed in the blood of Christ (cf. Lk 22:20). It is the supreme work of the Word who offers Himself as food in His immolated body, it is the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church. The Gospel account of the Last Supper, the memorial of Christ’s sacrifice, when proclaimed in the Eucharistic celebration, through the invocation of the Holy Spirit, becomes event and sacrament. This is why the Second Vatican Council, in a very intense passage, declared: “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body” (DV 21). Therefore, we must place at the center of Christian life “the liturgy of the word and the Eucharistic liturgy, [which] are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 56).
9. The third pillar of the spiritual building of the Church, the house of the word, is made up of prayers, woven from — as recalled by Saint Paul — “psalms and hymns and inspired songs” (Col 3:16). A privileged place is naturally taken by the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the Church par excellence, destined to give rhythm to the days and times of the Christian year, offering, above all with the Psalmody, the daily spiritual food of the faithful. Alongside this and the community celebrations of the word, tradition has introduced the practice of Lectio divina, the prayerful reading in the Holy Spirit that is able to open to the faithful the treasure of the word of God, and also to create the encounter with Christ, the living divine Word.
This begins with the reading (lectio) of the text, which provokes the question of true knowledge of its real content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Then follows meditation (meditatio) where the question is: what does the Biblical text say to us? In this manner, one arrives at prayer (oratio), which presupposes this other question: what do we say to the Lord in answer to His word? And one ends with contemplation (contemplatio) during which we assume, as God’s gift, the same gaze in judging reality and ask ourselves: what conversion of the mind, the heart and life does the Lord ask of us?
Before the prayerful reader of the word of God rises ideally the figure of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, who “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2:19; cf. 2:51), that is — as the original Greek says — finding the profound knot that unites apparently distinct events, acts and things in the great divine plan. The attitude of Mary, the sister of Martha, can also be proposed to the faithful, when they read the Bible, because she sits at the feet of the Lord listening to His word, not allowing external concerns to absorb her soul completely, allowing even the free time for “the better part” which must not be taken away (cf. Lk 10:38-42).
10. Finally, we reach the last pillar that supports the Church, the house of the word: the koinonía, brotherly love, another name for the agápe, that is to say, Christian love. As Jesus mentioned, to become His brothers and His sisters one must be like “those who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (Lk 8:21). Authentic hearing is obeying and acting. It means making justice and love blossom in life. It is offering, in life and in society, a witness like the call of the prophets, which continuously united the word of God and life, faith and rectitude, worship and social commitment. This is what Jesus stated many times, beginning with the famous warning in the Sermon on the Mount: “It is not anyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, who will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). This phrase seems to echo the divine word proposed by Isaiah: “this people approaches me only in words, honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me” (29:13). These warnings also concern the churches when they are not faithful to the obedient hearing of the word of God.
Therefore this must already be visible and legible on the face and in the hands of the faithful, as suggested by Saint Gregory the Great who saw in Saint Benedict, and in other great men of God, witnesses of communion with God and with the sisters and brothers, the word of God come to life. The just and faithful man not only “explains” the Scriptures, but also “unfolds” them before all as a living and practiced reality. This is why viva lectio, vita bonorum, the life of the good is a living lecture/lesson of the word of God. Saint John Chrysostom had already observed that the apostles came down from the mount in Galilee, where they had met the risen Lord, without any written stone tablets as Moses had: their lives would become the living gospel, from that moment on.
In the house of the word we also encounter brothers and sisters from other Churches and ecclesial communities who, even with the still-existing separations, find themselves with us in the veneration and love for the word of God, the principle and source of a first and real unity, even if not a full unity. This bond must always be reinforced through the common biblical translations, the spreading of the sacred text, ecumenical biblical prayer, exegetical dialogue, the study and the comparison between the various interpretations of the Holy Scriptures, the exchange of values inherent in the various spiritual traditions and the announcement and the common witness of the word of God in a secularized world.
IV. THE ROADS OF THE WORD: MISSION
“For the Law will go forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (Is 2:3). The embodied Word of God “issues from” His house, the temple, and walks along the roads of the world to encounter the great pilgrimage that the people of earth have taken up in search of truth, justice and peace. In fact, even in the modern secularized city, in its squares and in its streets — where disbelief and indifference seem to reign, where evil seems to prevail over good, creating the impression of a victory of Babylon over Jerusalem — one can find a hidden yearning, a germinating hope, a quiver of expectation. As can be read in the book of the prophet Amos, “The days are coming, declares the Lord God, when I shall send a famine on the country: not hunger for food, not thirst for water, but famine for hearing the word of the Lord” (8:11). The evangelizing mission of the Church wants to answer this hunger.
Even the risen Christ makes an appeal to the hesitant apostles, to go forth from their protected horizon: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations … and teach them to observe the commands I gave you” (Mt 28:19-20). The Bible is fraught with appeals “not to be silent”, to “speak out”, to “proclaim the word at the right and at the wrong time”, to be the sentinels that tear away the silence of indifference. The roads that open before us are not only the ones upon which Saint Paul and the first evangelizers traveled but are also the ones of all the missionaries who, after them, go towards the people in faraway lands.
11. Communication now casts a network that envelops the entire globe and the call of Christ gains a new meaning: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight, what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops” (Mt 10:27). Of course, the sacred word must have its primary transparency and diffusion through the printed text, with translations made according to the multiplicity of languages on our planet. But the voice of the Divine Word must echo even through the radio, the information highway of the internet, the channels of “online” virtual circulation, CDs, DVDs, podcasts, etc. It must appear on all television and movie screens, in the press, and in cultural and social events.
This new communication, in relationship to the traditional one, has created its own specific and expressive grammar and, therefore, makes it necessary not only to be technically prepared, but also culturally prepared for this task. In an age of images particularly provided by the dominating means of communication, such as television, the privileged model of Christ is still meaningful and evocative today. He would turn to the sign, the story, the example, the daily experience, the parable: “He told them many things in parables … indeed, He would never speak to them except in parables” (Mt 13:3, 34). In proclaiming the kingdom of God, Jesus never spoke over the heads of the people with a vague, abstract or ethereal language. Rather, He would conquer them by starting there where their feet were placed, in order to lead them, through daily events, to the revelation of the kingdom of heaven. Thus, the scene evoked by John becomes significant: “Some wanted to arrest Him, but no one actually laid a hand on Him. The guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees who said to them, ‘Why haven’t you brought Him?’ The guards replied, ‘No one has ever spoken like this man’” (7:44-46).
12. Christ proceeds along the streets of our cities and stops at the doorstep of our homes: “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side” (Rev 3:20). The family, enclosed between the domestic walls with its joys and sufferings, is a fundamental space where the word of God is to be allowed to enter. The Bible is full of small and great family stories, and the Psalmist depicts with liveliness the serene picture of a father sitting at the table, surrounded by his wife, like a fruitful vine, and by his children, “shoots of an olive tree” (Ps 128). In the same way, Christianity itself, from its origins, celebrated the liturgy in the daily home life, just as Israel entrusted the Passover celebration to the family (cf. Ex 12:21-27). The spreading of the word of God is passed on through the generations so that parents become “the first preachers of the faith” (LG 11). Once more the Psalmist recalled that: “What we have heard and know, what our ancestors have told us, we shall not conceal from their descendants, but will tell to a generation still to come: the praises of the Lord, His power, the wonderful deeds He has done…. They should be sure to tell their own children” (Ps 78:3-4, 6).
Therefore, every home should have its own Bible and safeguard it in a visible and dignified way, to read it and to pray with it, while, at the same time, the family should propose forms and models of a prayerful, catechetical and didactic education on how to use the Scriptures, so that “young men and women, old people and children together” (Ps 148:12) may hear, understand, glorify and live the word of God. In particular, the new generations, children and youth, should be receiving an appropriate and specific pedagogy that leads them to experience the fascination of the figure of Christ opening the doors of their minds and their hearts; as well as through the encounter with and authentic witness of adults, the positive influence of friends and the great company of the ecclesial community.
13. Jesus, in His parable of the sower, reminds us that there are arid lands, full of rocks, choked by thorns (cf. Mt 13:3-7). He who goes forth into the streets of the world also discovers the slums where suffering and poverty, humiliation and oppression, marginalization and misery, physical and psychological ills and loneliness can be found. Often the stones on the road are bloody because of wars and violence; in the palaces of power, corruption meets injustice. The voices of the persecuted rise on behalf of faithfulness to their conscience and fidelity to their faith. One can be swept away by the crises of life, or a soul can be devoid of any meaning that would give sense and value to life itself. Like “phantoms who go their way, mere vapor their pursuits” (Ps 39:7), many feel the silence of God, His apparent absence and indifference, hanging over them: “How long, Lord, will you forget me? For ever? How long will you turn away your face from me?” (Ps 13:1). And, in the end, there arises for everyone, the mystery of death.
This immense sigh of suffering that rises from the earth to heaven is continuously represented by the Bible, which proposes an historical and incarnated faith. It is enough to think only of the pages marked by violence and oppression, of the harsh and continuous cry of Job, of the vehement pleas of the Psalms, of the subtle internal crisis that passes through the soul of Qoheleth, of the vigorous prophetic denunciations against social injustice. The sentence of the radical sin that appears in all its devastating force, from the beginning of humanity in a fundamental text of Genesis (chapter 3), is unconditional. In fact, the “mystery of iniquity” is present and acts in history, but it is revealed by the word of God that assures the victory of good over evil, in Christ.
But above all in the Scriptures, the figure of Christ, who begins His public ministry with a proclamation of hope for the last persons of the earth, dominates: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). He repeatedly places His hands on ill and diseased flesh. His words proclaim justice, instill courage to the disheartened and offer forgiveness to sinners. Finally, He Himself approaches the lowest level, “He emptied Himself” of His glory, “taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
In this way Christ feels the fear of death (“‘Father’, He said, ‘if you are willing, take this cup away from me’”), He experiences loneliness because of the abandonment and betrayal by friends, He penetrates the darkness of the cruelest physical pain through His crucifixion and even the darkness of the Father’s silence (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) (Mk 15:34) and reaches the last abyss of any man, that of death (“He gave a loud cry and breathed His last”). To Him, the definition that Isaiah gave to the servant of the Lord truly can be applied: “the lowest of men, a man of sorrows” (53:3).
Even so, even in that extreme moment, He does not cease being the Son of God: in His solidarity of love and with the sacrifice of Himself, He sows a seed of divinity in the finiteness and evil of humanity, in other words, a principle of freedom and salvation. With His offering of Himself to us He pours out redemption on pain and death, assumed and lived by Him, and also opens to us the dawn of resurrection. Therefore the Christian has the mission to announce this divine word of hope, by sharing with the poor and the suffering, through the witness of His faith in the kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, of love and peace, through the loving closeness that neither judges nor condemns, but that sustains, illuminates, comforts and forgives, following the words of Christ: “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
14. Along the roads of the world, the divine word generates for us Christians an equally intense encounter with the Jewish people, who are intimately bound through the common recognition and love for the Scripture of the Old Testament and because from Israel “so far as physical descent is concerned, came Christ” (Rom 9:5). Every page of the Jewish Scriptures enlightens the mystery of God and of man. They are treasures of reflection and morality, an outline of the long itinerary of the history of salvation to its integral fulfillment, and illustrate with vigor the incarnation of the divine word in human events. They allow us to fully understand the figure of Christ, who declared “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). These are a way of dialogue with the chosen people, “who were adopted as children, the glory was theirs and the covenants; to them were given the Law and the worship of God and the promises” (Rom 9:4), and they allow us to enrich our interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures with the fruitful resources of the Hebrew exegetical tradition.
“Blessed be my people Egypt, Assyria my creation, and Israel my heritage” (Is 19:25). The Lord, then, spreads the protective mantle of His blessing all over the peoples of the earth: “He wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth” (I Tim 2:4). We, also as Christians are invited, along the roads of the world — without falling into a syncretism that confuses and humiliates our own spiritual identity, to enter into dialogue with respect towards men and women of the other religions, who faithfully hear and practice the directives of their sacred books, starting with Islam, which welcomes many biblical figures, symbols and themes in its tradition, and which offers the witness of sincere faith in the One, compassionate and merciful God, the Creator of all beings and Judge of humanity.
The Christian also finds common harmony with the great religious traditions of the Orient that teach us, in their holy writings, respect for life, contemplation, silence, simplicity, renunciation, as occurs in Buddhism. Or, as in Hinduism, they exalt the sense of the sacred, sacrifice, pilgrimage, fasting, and sacred symbols. Or, as in Confucianism, they teach wisdom and family and social values. Even to the traditional religions with their spiritual values expressed in the rites and oral cultures, we would like to pay our cordial attention and engage in a respectful dialogue with them. Also to those who do not believe in God but who endeavor to “do what is right, to love goodness and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8), we must work with them for a more just and peaceful world, and offer in dialogue our genuine witness to the Word of God that can reveal to them new and higher horizons of truth and love.
15. In his Letter to Artists (1999), John Paul II recalled that “Sacred Scripture has thus become a sort of ‘immense vocabulary’ (Paul Claudel) and ‘iconographic atlas’ (Marc Chagall), from which both Christian culture and art have drawn” (No. 5). Goethe was convinced that the Gospel was the “mother tongue of Europe”. The Bible, as it is commonly said, is “the great code” of universal culture: artists imaginatively dipped their paintbrush in that alphabet colored by stories, symbols, and figures which are the biblical pages. Musicians composed their harmonies around the sacred texts, especially the Psalms. For centuries authors went back to those old stories that became existential parables; poets asked themselves about the mystery of the spirit, infinity, evil, love, death and life, frequently acquiring the poetical impulses that enlivened the biblical pages. Thinkers, men of learning and society itself frequently used the spiritual and ethical concepts (for example the Decalogue) of the word of God as a reference, even if merely in contrast. Even when the figure or the idea present in the Scriptures was deformed, it was recognized as being an essential and constitutive element of our civilization.
Because of this, the Bible — which teaches us also the via pulchritudinis, that is to say, the path of beauty to understand and reach God (as Ps 47:7 invites us: “learn the music, let it sound for God!”) — is necessary not only for the believer, but for all to rediscover the authentic meanings of various cultural expressions and above all to find our historical, civil, human and spiritual identity once again. This is the origin of our greatness and through it we can present ourselves with our noble heritage to other civilizations and cultures, without any inferiority complex. The Bible should, therefore, be known and studied by all, under this extraordinary profile of beauty and human and cultural fruitfulness.
Nevertheless, the word of God — using a meaningful Pauline image — “cannot be chained up” (II Tim 2:9) to a culture; on the contrary, it aspires to cross borders and the Apostle himself was an exceptional craftsman of inculturation of the biblical message into new cultural references. This is what the Church is called upon to perform even today through a delicate but necessary process, which received a strong impulse from the Magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI. She should make the word of God penetrate into the many cultures and express it according to their languages, their concepts, their symbols and their religious traditions. But she should always be able to maintain the genuine substance of its contents, watching over and controlling the risks of degeneration.
Therefore the Church must make the values that the word of God offers to all cultures shine, so they may be purified and fruitful. As John Paul II said to the Bishops of Kenya during his trip to Africa in 1980, “inculturation will truly be a reflection of the Incarnation of the Word, when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought”.
“Then I heard the voice I had heard from heaven speaking to me again. ‘Go’, it said, ‘and take that open scroll from the hand of the angel standing on sea and land’. I went to the angel and asked him to give me the small scroll, and he said, ‘Take it and eat it; it will turn your stomach sour, but it will taste as sweet as honey’. So I took it out of the angel’s hand, and I ate it and it tasted sweet as honey, but when I had eaten it my stomach turned sour” (Rev 10:8-11).
Brothers and sisters of the whole world, let us receive this invitation; let us approach the table of the word of God, so as to be nourished and live “not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Dt 8:3; Mt 4:4). Sacred Scripture — as affirmed by a great figure of the Christian culture — “has provided passages of consolation and of warning for all conditions” (B. Pascal, Pensées, no. 532 ed. Brunschvicg).
The word of God, in fact, is “sweeter than honey, that drips from the comb” (Ps 19:10), “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Ps 119:105), but is also: “like fire, says the Lord, like a hammer shattering a rock” (Jeremiah 23:29). It is like the rain that irrigates the earth, fertilizes it and makes it spring forth, and in doing this He makes the aridity of our spiritual deserts flourish (cf. Is 55:10-11). But it is also: “something alive and active: it cuts more incisively than any two-edged sword: it can seek out the place where soul is divided from spirit, or joints from marrow; it can pass judgment on secret emotions and thoughts” (Heb 4:12).
Our gaze is turned lovingly towards all those engaged in study, catechists and the other servants of the word of God to express our most intense and cordial gratitude for their precious and important ministry. We also address our persecuted brothers and sisters or those who are put to death because of the word of God and because of the witness they render to the Lord Jesus (cf. Rev 6:9): as witnesses and martyrs they tell us of “the power of the word” (Rom 1:16), origin of their faith, of their hope and of their love for God and for men.
Let us now remain silent, to hear the word of God with effectiveness and let us maintain this silence after hearing, so that it may continue to dwell in us, to live in us, and to speak to us. Let it resonate at the beginning of our day so that God has the first word and let it echo in us in the evening so that God has the last word.
Dear brothers and sisters, “All those who are with me send their greetings. Greetings to those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all!” (Titus 3:15).