Incarnation: Eternity in Time

Author: Fr Georges Cottier, O.P.


Fr Georges Cottier, O.P.

Reflections on the Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter ‘Novo Millennio ineunte’ – 6

A hymn of praise to the Trinity: the response is fitting at the end of the Great Jubilee. NovoMillennio ineunte recalls, first of all, the dimension of praise, an essential component of Christian prayer and of our contemplative vocation. The subject will be developed later on: to contemplate the face of Christ constitutes our primary commitment and the source of the new mission to which we are called.

God's Interventions in history

Every response of faith to divine revelation must start with praise, because Christianity is grace and because God continuously surprises us with the greatness of his gifts. God, who has spoken a number of times and in different ways "by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Heb 1, 1-2). The beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews is the occasion for a meditation on the Christian meaning of time. "In these last days!": "Two thousand years of history have passed without diminishing the freshness of that 'today', when the angels proclaimed to the shepherds the marvellous event of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (cf. Lk 2,11)"(Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 4). It is echoed in the 'today' with which Jesus, when applying to himself the prophecy of Isaiah, announces his mission (cf. Lk 4,21). And we who are sinners still experience that "today of salvation" which on the cross opened the gates of the Kingdom of God to the repentant thief: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23,43).

Our hymn of praise derives from the awareness of that today and its perennial newness.

Christ's eternity in events in time

But immediately afterwards an objection is raised: how can we find a foundation in the today, seeing that if taken in its limited form, which is the present instant, it is a fleeting and evanescent reality? Should we not agree with the spiritualities that seduce so many of our contemporaries, teaching them how to flee from the illusion of time?

The answer to this objection is given to us by the mystery of the Incarnation. Without any confusion, and in a marvellous communion, the divine eternity affects time, because the "Today" of God gives our days and hours an intensity that they do not have in themselves.

This divine paradox of the meeting of eternity/time is at the root of the Christian concept of history. Because "Christianity is a religion rooted in history" (ibid., n. 5), it is the history of salvation. Since he wanted to establish an alliance with Israel, the Father prepared the birth of his Son from the womb of Mary in the "fullness of time" (Gal 4,4). The fullness of time explains in what sense "those days" are the last: Christ, grasped in his divine and human mystery, is the foundation and the centre of history, he is its meaning and ultimate goal. One of the greatest needs of our age is to elaborate a clear idea of history and of the centrality of Christ. In fact, on the basis of the idea, of biblical and Christian origin, that history has a meaning, conceptions have developed that are in contrast with revelation. Such conceptions suppose that history finds its conclusion and fulfilment in its own immanence. Even if Marxist Messianism has experienced a definitive decline, the idea persists that history is like an ascending path and that man, with the progress of science and technology, will create his own salvation, an earthly salvation that would inevitably regard the species rather than the individual. On the other hand, some, affected by dizziness before the space-temporal immensity of the universe, are tempted to see in the human adventure just a fleeting episode. Here again, the dignity of the person and of his transcendent destiny is at stake. Others, lastly, before the horrors of the last century, consider that history was a chaos of absurdity and cruelty.

History receives its meaning from the transcendent realities. We discover this meaning by contemplating Christ. NovoMillennio ineunte in fact asserts that it is by going back to the source that things become clearer for us: by contemplating Christ, as the Book of Revelation presents him to us, "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (cf. Apoc 22,13), "we have also adored the Father and the Spirit, the one and undivided Trinity, the ineffable mystery in which everything has its origin and its fulfilment" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 5).

The Christian view of history finds light in the today of Christ, present in his Church in different ways: with the gift of theSpirit, with the Word, with the sacraments, with living Tradition. The Spirit has given the Church the possibility of being stronger than the wear and tear of time and of walking through the centuries as a unique subject.

Prayer for pardon of sins

The prayer for pardon is inscribed in the horizon of the communio sanctorum,by virtue of which we are united with earlier generations. The liturgy of 12 March 2000 was an important moment in the Jubilee Year. The Successor of Peter became the voice of the Church asking pardon for the sins committed by her children during the course of history, "which have cast a Shadow over her countenance as the Bride of Christ" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 6). He also spoke in the same way of "forms of counter-witness and scandal" (Tertio Millennio adveniente, n. 33). Notice how much this act of repentance led to deeper understanding of the mystery of the Church. In fact, theological reflection was invited to grasp the meaning of the relationship that unites the holy Church to her sinful children (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 48).

Perhaps we should state that the request for pardon meant that historians could pinpoint real sins. The Church asked God to pardon real sins, not random accusations coming from ideological conceptions.

The "purification of memory" bound up with the request for pardon was an ecclesial initiative, which had to give true and fair judgements, in conformity with the Gospel, on morally reprehensible past behaviour.

These judgements free the conscience. They also have a warning value because they enunciate ethical requirements to which future actions will have to correspond.

The request for pardon is inscribed in the perspective of evangelical requirements. But the approach to the history of the Church can also instruct the relations between human societies: acknowledgement of past faults, request for forgiveness, pardon offered, this type of behaviour should also find its place in the political field. Through such a process, all are acknowledged in their legitimate human dignity. This would be a considerable cultural gain.

Ecumenical witnesses to faith

The lively sense of repentance did not prevent us from giving glory to the Lord "for what he has done in every century, and in particular during the century that we have just left behind, by granting his Church a great host of saints and martyrs" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 7). There is a close bond between the liturgy of 12 March and that of 7 May, dedicated to the commemoration of the Witnesses to the Faith in the 20th century. The request for forgiveness of the serious counter-witnesses and the "precious memories of the witnesses to the faith" (ibid.)must be kept together.

Representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial communities were present at this commemoration. In fact, the witness, lived to the end of their lives, by the disciples of Christ, has an ecumenical meaning of great importance. The unity of Christians becomes an experienced reality in total fidelity to Christ, even to the gift of one's own life. This precious inheritance is also a source of praise and it spurs us on to imitate them.

We had got used to considering martyrs as belonging to the first Christian centuries or to distant lands. They are present in our today. "Holiness ... has emerged more clearly as the dimension that expresses best the mystery of the Church. Holiness, a message that convinces without the need for words, is the living reflection of the face of Christ" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 7).

We find ourselves with a renewed vision of the history of the Church. As St Augustine says, the Church goes through time "between the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God". The flow of the groups to St Peter, in particular during the gatherings of persons of the different categories, gave a living image of this pilgrim Church. Certainly the work of conversion—the interior, essential pilgrimage—escapes our gaze. Through the mysterious action of God, especially in human hearts, we offer a hymn of praise.

(Orig. Ital. in O. R. 25-26 May 200 1, n. 5)

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 September 2001, page 4

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