Panel 21 on “The Scriptures in Monotheistic Religions” at the “Dialogue of Faith and Culture”
Saint Egidio Congress, Kraków 6-8 September 2009
“A Christian Point of View ”
by His Beatitude Gregorios III
“The Word became flesh”
We find this expression in the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel; he speaks of the Word which was in the beginning, in eternity with God, in God, and of his very nature. Saint John , in this expression, goes from first things, from eternity, into time, summing up, in an extraordinarily succinct and almost astonishing way, the entry of eternal God into human time, into the history of all humanity. He does not limit himself to the history of the period in which the Word became flesh, but speaks in absolute terms, both with regard to time and to humanity. “The Word became flesh.” He became man, everyman, inclusive of every time, place, gender, ethnicity and color.
In these few words, we find a unique passage about the relation of man with God and God with man. Though this phrase appears to refer essentially to an event in time, the relationship described is not limited to one historical episode. For the Word becomes flesh with all flesh, at every moment in the history of everyman. He both enters into absolute time and, at one and the same moment, into absolute man. He enters also into the limited time of each limited person. Thus the limitless becomes limited indeed.
In becoming a human being, the Word also became civilization, language, culture and knowledge in order to change everything earthly into something heavenly, or rather, to give to terrestrial things a spiritual meaning and to reunite earthly things with those of heaven.
Going through Holy Scripture, we realize that the word written in the books of the Old and New Testaments, though conveying revelation to man, is not itself that divine revelation of God. God is not limited to this divine revelation, but continually speaks with people through Holy Scripture, with each and every one of them. So he is in dialogue with human beings, with everyone, through the Word. “The Word became flesh,” means that the revelation of God has come to us, not only by his becoming incarnate and taking flesh as the Word of God, Jesus Christ himself, but also through the Word of God, that is, the teachings of Jesus Christ, the divine Word, as recounted by the holy apostles writing the holy Gospels with human words, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which also inspired the Epistles of Saint Paul and several other apostles.
It is also vital to insist on the importance of incarnating the Word of God, so that it becomes near to people, beautiful, attractive, luminous and illuminating, lovely and pleasant and so that we bring to people’s hearts the beauty of the Word, its fascination, radiance, dazzling beauty and the strength of conviction that lies within it.
It is also important to experience by ourselves and in our daily lives how much the words of Holy Scripture are addressed to me personally and that I shall really find the answer there to all my questions, suitable to all conditions and circumstances of my personal, family, professional, social, scientific and existential life and in my relations with other people of my religion or of other confessions, concerning different problems, moral and behavioral matters, dialogue and other issues.
Indeed, that is what we find in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables and miracles of Jesus: we see how he behaved with other people, sinners, outcasts, sick, doubters, women, the proud, isolated and remote, the handicapped, the paralyzed, the Pharisees, Sadducees, pagans, Greeks, Romans, governors, evil-doers, poor, rich, merchants, bankers, businessmen and tax-collectors.
We see also how we should behave with regard to values, opportunities for prayer, fasting, alms-giving, faith, trust, love, charity, hope, service, self-giving, co-operation, fellowship, excellence, perfection, food, drink, marriage, virginity, suffering, illness, death, hatred, calumny, trust in divine providence, brotherly love, disputes, tribunals, parents, relatives, vengeance, tolerance, forgiveness and love of enemies.
We also learn about behavior towards nature: flowers, fruit, harvest, sowing, trees, grapes, olives, water, fire, light, figs, wine and oil.
There is also teaching about personal meditation, behavior towards others, with adversaries, the righteous and with those in government: the list is long, exhaustive and really complete. We have a verse from the Word of God for all occasions.
The experience of the Word of God should enable us to make these discoveries for ourselves through continual reading of Holy Scripture and commentaries. We should meditate on the Scriptures, to discover how the Word became flesh, a real body. The Word is for me, as he took a body like my body, becoming incarnate, in the flesh. He knows what is in man, in his thought, in his heart. He knows his concerns, preoccupations, needs, weaknesses, longings, hopes, visions and feelings. He loves mankind, venerates and respects us, esteems and understands us, wants our good, freedom, progress, success, perfection, happiness and joy. “Jesus, having loved his own, loved them unto the end.” (John 13:1) We repeat in our prayers that God is good, merciful, the Father of mercies and lover of mankind. Christ is our brother, friend, savior, healer who raises us from the dead.
Pentecost was a prodigious event: the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire to indicate the importance of speech, pronunciation, language and words in bearing the message of Jesus. “Their voice is gone out into all the earth and their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 18 (19): 4, LXX)
As Saint Luke tells us, when the apostles spoke to the surrounding pilgrims, each one heard them in his own native language. So the Word of God is one, though for all people, reaching all, each in his own civilization, with its language, culture and characteristics.
The great challenge, for preaching with conviction, for pastoral writing and in all documents issued by church authorities, is how to make the Word of God understood and bring it to people in such a way that it remains really his Word (without trickery, confusion or alteration) while meeting with people’s words and with their understanding, mindset and way of thinking.
Yet it must elevate their thoughts and change their mentality, so that their own words really enter into harmony and contact with the Word of God. Then may be realized what Saint Paul said, “We have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16)
So the Word is not for me, but belongs to him that sent me. It is not my property, but it is the Word that has come to me. So it must be pronounced and preached, not as if it came from me, but as Jesus said, “The Word that I give you is a word of truth. Go and preach the Word.” (cf. John 14:24 and II Timothy 4:2)
The Word of God is directed towards and addressed to us all. It has however, need of an epiclesis, so that it may become the Word for others, for society and for the world. The Holy Spirit changes everything. The epiclesis is truly the mystery of Christianity.
The Council of Vatican II gave us the golden rule for inter-religious dialogue, by showing us the importance of discovering the good things or the wealth of others. Here is what the Second Vatican Council said in Nostra Aetate (1965) on the subject of the Muslim and Jewish religions:
Relationship with Islam
- The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth[VC1], who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the Day of Judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting…Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
Relationship with Judaism
- As the sacred synod searches into the mystery of the Church, it remembers the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock…. Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.
There is the Word that we have in common, it is clear: let us maintain a dialogue of our beautiful faith, for the word that was given to me by God in my Christian faith is truly mine, but not only for me; it is for my society, for my fellow-men and I must bring it to them as a light of love and as a call to love, a sign of hope for the other person, that he may grow in his religion and beliefs and deepen them, not so that I may despise him or he may despise his own religion.
It is of very great importance for people to love their religion and the Word of God for mankind, and know it in ever greater depth, preserving and defending it. But one must be open to the other person, to his convictions and faith. If not, we fall into relativism, which is the greatest enemy of faith.
Jesus calls us to preach that faith, saying, “Go ye into all the world” (Mark 16:15) and “teach all nations.” (Matthew 28:19) And Saint Paul exhorts us, speaking to his disciple Timothy, saying, “Preach the word…in season, out of season.” (II Timothy 4:2)
There is no monopoly on the Word of God. It is just as much the other person’s as it is mine. Our Muslim world is afraid of our preaching, but does not cease preaching Islam. That is an unreasonable position. We require our Muslim fellow-citizens to acknowledge our freedom to bring the good news to others, with love and respect for their faith, but we do not require anyone else to embrace our faith. It is enough if people can find out about it and come to esteem and love it. Conversion is the work of God. Do not attempt to convert a friend, or loved one. God converts whom he will.
Our zeal for the Word of God should be a means of sanctification for us and for deepening our faith. We must not allow our zeal for the Word to become a weapon to exploit others, judging, persecuting and compelling them to embrace our faith, any more than we can allow the Word of God to become the cause of conflicts, disputes and confrontations between our faithful and those holding different religious convictions. Nor should it become an instrument of terrorism and a pretext for one group to claim superiority over another. The Word of God (not we ourselves) is the true judge between us and those who are not of our faith.
Muhammad was not afraid of a Christian or Jewish presence, but combated paganism. Today all of us Christians and Muslims are called to fight against today’s new paganisms: incredulity and unbelief.
The challenge to us all is, how can Christmas become a feast for me, a reality in my life? How can the Word of God become incarnate in my soul, my understanding, my consciousness and thought, in my manners and life?
That is, how can the Word of God be realised and embodied in my life, becoming flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones? How can the incarnate Word of God become part of my personal, existential convictions? Similarly: how can I become an incarnate word in my society, a spiritual word for other people, a word of salvation, consolation, friendship, love, redemption, bread, food? How can I become a cause of salvation for my brother or sister?
How can we make incarnate for other people the words of God in our holy books, theology, dogmas, Creed and popular devotions, so that they are not misunderstood or misrepresented by others?
It is a big effort for each believer to explain his faith and present it to others, to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, those on the fringes of the Church, who criticise it and criticise its teachings, sacraments and symbols.
How can we express the hope that is in us (cf. I Peter 3:15), so that it becomes a hope for others, knowing that communicating our faith to others strengthens our faith, bringing security and serenity.
That is true charity or love to the other person: that we love his spiritual welfare and want him to progress in the love of God, in faith, hope and charity, in spiritual life and virtue.
What matters is to know how we can share together in the Word of God in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. How can we feed each other by the Word of God? How can the Word of God become an essential food? As we say in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily (epiousion) bread.” The Our Father is really a call to share together in the Word of God.
Let us not be afraid to love the Word of God in our brothers and sisters. Let us not be afraid of verses from the Qur’an and let them not be afraid of verses from the Gospel or from the Torah. These are the Word of God for us all, every one according to his own calling. I would like to tell our Muslim brethren not to fear our faith. Let us all rather be afraid of using words of vengeance, criticism, pride and haughtiness. The Word of God does not despise anyone. The Word of God despises no-one. Let us so act that our human words be changed into words divine.
Translation from the French: V. Chamberlain