Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household or Vatican Homilist, explores how the Church is borne as well as bears the Word of God. In addition he gives us precious advice on how we should act as “Servants of the Word.”
St. Ephrem the Syrian likens the Word of God to a fountain continuously throwing up water; whoever goes to this fountain draws a little water, enough to quench his or her thirst, and then goes away. But the fountain goes on welling up perpetually, and much more remains than anyone can manage to carry away.
The Lord has hidden all his treasures in his Word, so that each of us should find something rich in what we contemplate. . . Having acquired something rich ourselves, we do not suppose there can be nothing else in the Word of God besides what we ourselves have found. On the contrary, we realize we have only been able to discover one thing among many others. Having been enriched by the Word, we do not imagine the Word has been impoverished thereby; unable to exhaust its riches, we give thanks for its immensity. So rejoice that you have been filled, but do not grieve over the fact that the riches of the Word are more than you can absorb.
This image describes our own situation. We have traced the history of the Word, starting from its focal center, which is Christ, and going back from him to the prophets, and flowing forward to the Church. Having ceased as event, the Word today exists as sacrament; Scripture, in other words, exists in the Church. This is precisely the fountain where we come henceforth to draw water. St. Ephrem has explained to us that we must abandon any pretensions to exhausting this fountain, taking in every aspect of the Word of God. Instead, we must enter into the state of mind of thirsty pilgrims who go to the fountain, drink what at that moment flows from the fountain, and come away happy in the knowledge that we can always return and always find other water to quench our thirst.
The Church Is Borne By The Word
From the spring of Scripture we hear that “All mankind is grass. . . . The grass withers, the flower wilts . . . but the word of our God endures forever” (cf. Isa 40:6-8). According to the First Epistle of Peter, “the word” spoken of in that passage “is the word of the Gospel” (cf. 1 Peter 1:25). And indeed Jesus himself was to say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (cf. Matthew 24:35). In accordance with a transformation of which we are now well aware, the “word of God” has now become “the word of Christ.”
But let us see what is entailed in this Word, this solemn dabar of God. In Deutero-Isaiah (whose “call” the text cited above describes), we constantly find the conviction that “Israel depends in all things and for all things on the Word of God” (G. von Rad). The same idea is expressed in Deuteronomy when Moses says to the people, “This word is your life” (cf. Deuteronomy 32:47). Israel feels itself as it were “borne” by the Word of God; when all resources fail during the Exile, the Word appears as the unique support, as the power “eternally resisting” amid the fluctuations of human affairs, as the rock on which Israel’s house is built.
Today all this is true for the new Israel, the Church, which has her foundations in the Word of Jesus: “This Son . . . sustains all things by his mighty word” (or “by the power of his word”) says the passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews on which we have already commented (Hebrews 1:3). The Church is truly “the house built on the rock” (cf. Matthew 7:25), and the rock is the Word. The Word, here, means something more than the entire sum of the words of God; it is a creative power acting in history and opposing the fleeting powers of human beings that “will pass away.” It is a living reality; it is presented as such in the Acts of the Apostles, where it is said that “the Word grew,” “continued to spread,” “gained influence and power” (cf. Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20); and St. Paul depicts it in the same way when he writes that it “sounds forth” like a mighty shout through all Macedonia and Achaia (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:8).
When the New Testament states that Christians have been “born anew through the living and abiding Word of God” (cf. 1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18), this means they have begun living in contact with this mysterious force, which is the Word. “And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.” This way of thinking about the Word, in its dimension of life-giving mystery, is close to that of the Fathers: “The Word of God,” says St. Ambrose, “is the vital sustenance of the soul; it feeds it, pastures it, and guides it; nothing can keep the human soul alive except the Word of God.”‘
In ancient times, in the back part of the tent or holy of holies (called debir), were the “ten Words” (debarim), kept in the ark; these constituted the deepest secret in the history of the chosen people. Now, in the new Israel, this deep secret, this nucleus from which all sprouts, this center of expansion hidden in the Church’s heart, is the Word and the Eucharist together, the Word made Bread which yet is forever the Word.
The Church Bears The Word
And this is exactly where we discover the other face of the mystery: the Church is borne by the Word, but also bears the Word. The Church is the new ark of the covenant, keeping “the words” safe. And, once again, the Church imitates Mary, who after the incarnation bore the Word in her womb and was borne by the Word.
Speaking of the Church as bearing the Word means speaking about Tradition, the entrusting (traditio) that Christ made to the Church when, ascending into heaven, he said to the apostles, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). St. Paul justifies his preaching on these very grounds: “The gospel preached by me . . . I received from Jesus Christ” (cf. Galatians 1:l l f.). Before being the Tradition that the apostles transmitted to the Church (Tradition in the active sense), the apostolic Tradition was the Tradition the apostles received from Christ (Tradition in the passive sense). In this first passing — from Jesus to the apostles — lies the true nature of Tradition; it is not a second source of revelation containing things different from and additional to Scripture; at its deepest, it is no other than Scripture itself as understood and taught in the Church and by the Church.
A conciliar text says that “sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God.”‘ The apostolic Tradition — as Irenaeus, Origen and other great figures of the past have conceived it — is “the understanding, or meaning, attached to the Scriptures by the Church.” The bread of life (i.e., the Word of God), says one Father, comes to us as if it were already chopped up and chewed by the teeth of the apostolic Tradition.’
So Tradition is not something static and dead, but something very much alive. A living reality, such as the Word of God, cannot be kept alive in dead surroundings. St. Irenaeus writes that revealed truth, “like a precious liquor contained in a costly vessel, by the activity of the Spirit of God is forever renewed and likewise renews the vessel that contains it,” which is the Church’s proclamation and the apostolic tradition.’ Outside the living environment of Tradition, the Scriptures would be a dead body, a book like any other, however sublime, to be studied with all the rigor of the historico-philological method and nothing more (as indeed is the case today where they are studied in environments in which the Church’s faith exerts no influence).
But keeping the Word of God alive is not a mere right or privilege of the Church; above all, it is a duty, a responsibility. Like St. Paul, the Church must say, “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! . . . I have been entrusted with a stewardship” (1Corinthians 9:16-17).
One of Charles Peguy’s characters, personifying Mother Church, speaks as follows to a little girl representing the average Christian:
Jesus did not give us dead words
for us to salt away in little tins
(or big ones),
for us to preserve in rancid oil.
Jesus Christ, my girl,
did not give us word-pickles
No, he gave us living words
to feed. . . .
The words of life,
the living words can only be preserved alive. . . .
On us, weak creatures of flesh, it depends
to keep these words uttered alive in time alive,
to feed them and keep them alive in time.
Mystery of mysteries,
we have been given this privilege,
this excessive, unbelievable privilege,
of preserving the words of life alive. . . .
We are called to feed the word of the Son of God.
Oh penury, oh calamity,
it falls to our lot,
our duty it is, on us it depends
to make it heard forever and ever,
to make it ring out. . . .
Charles Peguy, Le Porche Du Mystere De La Deuxieme Vertu
It isn’t hard to guess what is meant by salting the words away “in little tins,” keeping them “in rancid oil,” or “letting them go moldy,” since, alas, we are familiar with such things from experience. They are what happens when the Word is denied the opportunity of moving about and circulating, of breaking off and crying out, of tearing down and building up — as is in its nature — but is kept as it were under a glass dome, in an antiseptic environment, under strict control, sliced up, as often as not, into so many little phrases or disconnected quotations; for in this way it can be tamed, its dangerous strength canalized into theological theses or practical decisions, where it is used more or less as an excipient or as a straitjacket.
Servants Of The Word
The apostles taught the Church once and for all how to obviate this risk by declaring themselves and their successors to be “servants of the Word” (cf. Luke 1:2; Acts 6:4; Romans 1:1). This title has first and foremost a dogmatic bearing; it means, as Dei Verbum explains, that
the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully.
Dei Verbum 10
But “the service of the Word” also has an ascetic and spiritual dimension: it postulates certain concrete spiritual attitudes in those who are to proclaim the Word. The first of these attitudes is consistency between the Word proclaimed and the life of the proclaimer. This is the first and fundamental way of serving the Word: being at its service, obeying it in one’s own life. “Servants of the Word” means people who obey the Word! We find two kinds of preachers described in the New Testament. To the first belong the scribes and Pharisees, of whom Jesus says, “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Matthew23:3-4).
To the second kind of preacher belongs, in pride of place, that same Jesus who can in all truth say, “Learn from me . . .” (Matthew 11:29). “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). To it also belongs the apostle Paul who can say to his hearers, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1; cf. Philemon 3:17).
Preachers who hold out a fine ideal of life yet live the very opposite themselves, who recommend “the narrow way” to others but follow a broader way themselves, are like marine architects who have built a magnificent ship but, when the time comes to launch her and venture out onto the open sea, choose not to go aboard but follow at a distance in a lifeboat. People won’t be easily persuaded to take passage in that ship!
People have learned to mistrust mere words, since they have so often been deceived by them, or have deceived others with them. When, however, they encounter individuals utterly committed to what they preach, suffering or actually dying for it, this makes a big impression; from experience everyone knows people are only prepared to suffer for things they really believe in. This being so, “the lived Word” has uniquely, irreplaceably persuasive force. It convinces! It also convinces because the word we have already experienced and suffered in our own life and in our own prayer-life issues from our lips with a quite special passion and vehemence. In it there is a particle of the proclaimer’s own soul, and this seizes on the soul of the listener. Existential, not merely conceptual, communication occurs.
Preaching is easy enough; practicing is the hard part. A saint very dear to the Russian people, St. Serafim of Sarov, used to say that preaching is as easy as throwing stones from the top of a church-tower, whereas putting into practice is as hard as carrying stones to the top of the tower on your back. Ideally we should only throw those stones we have manhandled up the tower in the first place, or in other words, preach only what we have already put into practice. But such perfect consistency between the Word and life is pretty rare; what is more, those who possess it are the last to perceive it.
Meanwhile, the Word of God cannot wait. So what is to be done? Should one keep quiet? St. Paul’s words cheer us on: “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5). The Word is true, not for the life of the preacher but for the life of Christ, who has fulfilled every word of the gospel. We ought to sink into the dust for shame at the distance that separates us from the Word, but even so we cannot keep silent about the Word, and there lies our punishment and humiliation.
Where, then, this consistency of life is not to be found, humility must take its place. This is the second attitude of spirit needed for being “servants of the Word”: to disappear in the presence of the Word, to renounce one’s own glory. The true “servant of the Word” is the one who thinks, like John the Baptist: “I am the voice of someone crying” (cf. John 1:23). What, St. Augustine wonders, is the task of the voice? It is, so to speak, that of taking the word or the thought that is in my heart and of conveying it on the wave of a breath through the air to the ear of the brother standing before me. Once this task has been completed, the voice has finished its job; it must fall silent, die away, while the word makes its regal entry into my brother’s heart to take up its dwelling there and bear fruit. The “voice” says: “This, the Word, must increase whereas I must decrease” (cf. John 3:30); the preacher says, “He, Jesus, must grow and I must vanish.”
The Church does precisely this when, drawing the Word from her “bosom” where it is kept, she cries it on the housetops so that it may reach the ears and hearts of all people and all may believe and be saved. For the hierarchy of the Church, to be “the servant of the Word” means not to want to be the Word, but only the voice of the Word. It means, as St. Paul appositely observes, not preaching oneself but Christ Jesus as Lord.
But The Word Of God Is Not Chained!”
To bear the Word therefore, the Church must at once be consistent and humble. But she also has to be simple and poor. The apostle Paul exhorted the Christians of Thessalonica to pray, so that the Word of the Lord might be able “to run its course to the end” (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1; this is the literal translation of the Greek). The image suggests a sort of race of the Word, from Jerusalem to Rome, and thereafter from the center of the Church out into the world. To be able to complete such a race, the Word should not find too many obstacles in its path; it should be free and naked, like an athlete.
At this point I can’t help thinking of a story by Kafka which strikes me as a perfect parable for the Church. It is common knowledge that this author’s stories are often religiously inspired and powerfully symbolic, and this story is certainly an example of this. It is short enough to quote in its entirety:
The emperor, they say, has sent you a message; yes, you personally, miserable subject, insignificant shadow cowering from the imperial sun at the back of beyond; the emperor from his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He made the messenger kneel down beside the bed and whispered the message in his ear; he set so much store by the contents that he made the messenger whisper it back to him.
With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the words. And before those who were present at his death — all obstructing walls have been dismantled; on broad and lofty staircases, the grandees of the empire stand round — in the presence of all he dismissed the messenger. The messenger set out at once: a vigorous, tireless man. Swinging now one arm, now the other, he opens a path through the crowd; if he encounters resistance, he points to his chest which displays the device of the sun; and so he goes forward, as easily as you please.
But the crowd is immense, its lodgings vast. How easily he would fly if he had free passage! Very soon you would hear the glorious hammering of his fists on your door. Instead, he strives in vain; he goes on forcing his way through the rooms of the inner palace, from which he will never emerge. But even if he did, it wouldn’t be any use: he would have to struggle down the steps. And even if he managed to do that, he still wouldn’t have achieved anything: he would still have to cross the courtyards; and after the courtyards, the second circle of palaces; and more flights of steps and courtyards, another palace and so on, for thousands of years.
Eventually he manages to rush out through the final gate — but this can never, never happen — and lo, before him lies the imperial city, the centre of the world, piled high with mountains of its own rubbish. There, through that, no one can make headway, not even with a dead man’s message. You meanwhile sit at your window and dream about that message, as evening falls.
Franz Kafka, An Imperial Message
What things are evoked by those “mountains of rubbish” in the midst of the city of the king! From his deathbed, on the cross, our King entrusted a message to his Church, and every day, in the Eucharistic sacrifice, he whispers it to us again: “Tell the world that I love it and am dying for its sins! Tell the world that joy is possible!” There are still so many people, far away, who, standing at the window, dream of a message such as this. It is essential that the Church never become that complicated, suffocating castle from which the message can no longer get out but that, as it was in the beginning, at the moment the King was dying, “all obstructing walls be dismantled.”
St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “I am suffering, even to the point of chains, . . . but the Word of God is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9). He meant that the important thing is that the Word of God should not be chained; nothing else matters. The Church may be chained by persecution, by suffering, by her own weakness. There is no particular impediment in this; such things often make proclamation run the faster. It is other things that put the brakes on the race of the Word, such as an excess of human resources and of reliance on human resources, the too many jackets and too many knapsacks that weigh down the messenger, to use Jesus’ own words (cf. Luke 10:4); the quest for one’s own glory is the most pernicious of riches. Other impediments may be an excess of bureaucracy; a clericalism that takes the bite out of the Word and makes it seem remote from life; and a plethora of abstruse, incomprehensible lingo. All of these are unduly prudent, self-defensive attitudes that make us keep our portcullises [vocab: A grating of iron or wooden bars or slats, suspended in the gateway of a fortified place and lowered to block passage.] lowered. To this situation, too, can the words of the psalm be applied: “Lift up, O gates, your lintels; reach up, you ancient portals . . .” (Psalms 24:7). Let the world throw wide its gates to let Christ in, and the Church throw hers wide to let Christ out!
What we read in Manzoni’s great novel, The Betrothed, about Perpetua’s secret comes to mind. This lady knows about something amazing that has happened in the district. All circumstances concur that the news should be kept hidden but, however hard she tries, she cannot manage it. “A great big secret like that in the poor woman’s heart was like very new wine in an old, badly hooped cask, fermenting and gurgling and bubbling up, just not blowing out the cork, but swishing round inside, and coming frothing or seeping out between the staves, or dribbling out in sufficient quantities here and there for people to taste it and tell more or less what wine it was.” The good news of the kingdom should be, in the Church and in the heart of the individual Christian, exactly like new wine in the wineskin or the cask and like that secret in the woman’s heart: so impelling and so lovely that it cannot be kept hidden but trickles out, as it were, from every pore. “What you hear whispered,” says Jesus, “proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:27).