“Christ descended into ‘Hell’ and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well-nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen–the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil becoming unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering–without ceasing to be suffering–becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.” (Benedict XI, Spes Salvi)
Benedict XVI is giving a series of teachings on the Creed. Here is a teaser from his first one:
Faith leads Abraham to tread a paradoxical path. He will be blessed, but without the visible signs of blessing: he receives the promise to become a great nation, but with a life marked by the barrenness of his wife Sarah; he is brought to a new homeland but he will have to live there as a foreigner, and the only possession of the land that will be granted him will be that of a plot to bury Sarah (cf. Gen23:1-20). Abraham was blessed because, in faith, he knows how to discern the divine blessing by going beyond appearances, trusting in God’s presence even when his ways seem mysterious to him.
A lot to think about there. If you’d like to read his whole address, you can go here.
“The God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end . . . “:
“[W]e need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spes Salvi 31)
“We are in the liturgical season of Advent, which prepares us for Christmas. As we all know, the word ‘Advent’ means ‘coming’, ‘presence’, and originally meant specifically the arrival of the king or emperor to a particular province. For us Christians it means a wonderful and overwhelming reality: God himself has crossed his Heavens and stooped down to man; he has forged an alliance with him entering into the history of a people; He is the king who descended into this poor province that is Earth, and has made a gift to us of his visitation by taking on our flesh, becoming man like us. Advent invites us to follow the path of this presence and reminds us again and again that God has not withdrawn from the world, he is not absent, he has not abandoned us to ourselves, but comes to us in different ways, which we need to learn to discern. And we, too, with our faith, our hope and our charity, are called every day to see and bear witness to this presence, in a world often superficial and distracted, to make shine in our lives the light that illuminated the cave of Bethlehem.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 12/12/12)
Last week, in his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict spoke of St. Paul and his ability to find the strength of God in his weakness. Commenting on Paul’s petition to be delivered from the thorn in his flesh, Pope Benedict said:
Let us reflect a moment more on this event, which occurred during the years when St. Paul lived in silence and contemplation before commencing his journeys across the West to proclaim Christ, for this attitude of profound humility and trust before God’s self-revelation is also fundamental for our prayer and for our lives, for the way we relate to God and to our own weakness.
First, what is the weakness of which St. Paul speaks? What is this “thorn” in his flesh? We don’t know, and he doesn’t say, but his attitude makes us understand that all the difficulties we meet in following Christ and witnessing to his Gospel can be overcome by opening ourselves in faith to the Lord’s action. St. Paul is well aware of being a “useless servant” (2 Corinthians 4:7) in whom God places the riches and power of his grace. In this moment of intense contemplative prayer, St. Paul understands clearly how to face and live every event, especially suffering, difficulty and persecution: when he experiences his own weakness, the power of God is manifested, which neither abandons us nor leaves us alone but which becomes our support and strength.
Certainly, Paul would have preferred to be delivered from this “thorn”, from this suffering; but God says: “No, this is necessary for you. You shall have grace sufficient to resist and to do what must be done”. This is true also for us. The Lord may not deliver us from evil, but he helps us to mature through suffering, difficulty and persecution. Faith, then, tells us that if we remain in God, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (cf. Verse 16). The Apostle communicates to the Christians of Corinth and also to us that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (Verse 17). In reality, humanly speaking, the weight of difficulty was not light, it was exceedingly heavy; but compared with God’s love, with the grandeur of being loved by God, it seemed light in knowing that the weight of glory will be without measure.
Therefore, as our union with the Lord grows and our prayer intensifies, we too come to focus on the essential, and we understand that it is not through the power of our resources, our virtue, or our abilities that the Kingdom of God shall come; rather, it is God who works marvels precisely through our weakness, through our inadequacy for the task at hand. We must therefore have the humility not to trust in ourselves alone but to work — with the Lord’s help — in the Lord’s vineyard, entrusting ourselves to Him as fragile “earthen vessels”.
These are words for us all and should give us each hope. You can read his entire address here.
We are not alone. In the selection below, Pope Benedict encourages us to recognize that the Lord has given us Mary as our travel companion in life. What a gift. When we are needed to go to places that we are uncomfortable going to, when we are called to do things beyond our confidence, or even beyond our competence, remember she is with us, and where she is, so is her Son.
“Mary’s is an authentic missionary journey. It is a journey that takes her far from home, drives her to the world, to places that are foreign to her daily customs, makes her reach, in a certain sense, the limits of what she could reach. Herein lies, also for us, the secret of our life as men and women and as Christians. As had already happened to Abraham, we are asked to come out of ourselves, of the places of our security, to go to others, to different places and realms. It is the lord who asks this of us: ‘But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses . . . to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1.8).
“And it is always the Lord, who on this journey, places us next to Mary as travel companion and solicitous mother. She gives us security, because she reminds us that her Son Jesus is always with us, according to what he promised: ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Mt 28.20).”
In his weekly audience last week, Pope Benedict spoke some very encouraging words to those of us who struggle in prayer:
In the Letter to the Romans [Paul] writes: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (8:26). And we know how true the Apostle’s saying is: “We do not know how to pray as we ought”. We want to pray, but God is far off, we do not have the words, the language, to speak with God, nor even the thought to do so. We can only open ourselves, place our time at God’s disposition, wait for Him to help us to enter into true dialogue. The Apostle says: this very lack of words, this absence of words, yet this desire to enter into contact with God, is prayer that the Holy Spirit not only understands, but brings and interprets before God. This very weakness of ours becomes — through the Holy Spirit — true prayer, true contact with God. The Holy Spirit is, as it were, the interpreter who makes us, and God, understand what it is we wish to say.
In prayer we experience — more than in other aspects of life — our weakness, our poverty, our being creatures, for we are placed before the omnipotence and transcendence of God. And the more we advance in listening and in dialogue with God, so that prayer becomes the daily breath of our souls, the more we also perceive the measure of our limitations, not only in the face of the concrete situations of everyday life, but also in our relationship with the Lord. The need to trust, to rely increasingly upon Him then grows in us; we come to understand that “we do not know … how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26).
And it is the Holy Spirit who helps our inability, who enlightens our minds and warms our hearts, guiding us as we turn to God. For St. Paul, prayer is above all the work of the Holy Spirit in our humanity, to take our weakness and to transform us from men bound to material realities into spiritual men. In the First Letter to the Corinthians he says: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths in spiritual terms” (2:12-13). By means of His abiding in our fragile humanity, the Holy Spirit changes us; He intercedes for us; He leads us toward the heights of God (cf. Romans 8:26).
You can read his whole address here.
[A repost from the past]
This is the day when everything is silent. We can go about the day not giving much of a thought to it–just seeing it as the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yet monumental things were happening in the spiritual realm. Christ descended to hell to set captives free.
This still has meaning for us. So often we think nothing is happening in our own spiritual lives, yet God is about monumental things. Have hope in the Unseen.
Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well-nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen–the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil becoming unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering–without ceasing to be suffering–becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise. (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi)
And for those of you who feel that you are living “in darkness and in the shadow of death”, take heart, for you are exactly who he desires to visit. From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday:
Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives . . .