Church Communion and Evangelisation
Jesus Forsaken and the Church
In a letter dated 14 February 2001 to bishop friends of the Focolare Movement, John Paul II re-affirmed the essential link that exists between the mystery of Jesus Crucified and Forsaken and the Church as communion. This short article written by a member of the Focolare Movement’s interdisciplinary study centre, the Abba School, is a reflection on this point, already implicit in Novo Millennio Ineunte. What does it mean to look at the Church from the perspective of Jesus Crucified and Forsaken? And what does it mean for her life and the carrying out of her mission?
I will try to reply to this question with a few points that I’ll base on a note of Chiara Lubich’s that goes back to a period of particular light in the early life of the Focolare Movement in 1949. In this note she focuses on that wholly interior wound of Jesus, his abandonment on the cross, and she perceives in it the focal centre of the whole Christian mystery:
“Jesus is the Saviour, the Redeemer and he redeems when he pours out the Divine upon humanity through the wound of abandonment that is the pupil of God’s eye onto the world: an Infinite Emptiness through which God looks at us: the window of God thrown open onto the world and the window of humanity through which we see God”.
As the infinite emptiness through which God looks at us and we can look at God, the abandonment of Jesus, the “pupil of God’s eye”, is at the same time the open passageway through which the life of the Trinity is communicated to humanity and humanity can enter into God.
This suggestive image presents to us, almost visually, on the one hand God-Trinity and on the other hand humanity and the wound of the abandoned Christ as the meeting point of both. I would like to outline three points on the basis of this.
1. Through Jesus Forsaken, humanity enters into the Trinity: the Church as communion of saints, as the One gathered in the bosom of the Father.
2. Through Jesus Forsaken the Trinity “goes out” as it were from itself and reaches the whole of humanity: the Church as universal plan of salvation.
3. In Jesus Forsaken the people of God finds its decisive form and key for realising its mission: the Church as the instrument of unity of humanity with God and among themselves.
Jesus Crucified and Forsaken is above all the origin of the Church in her deep reality of sharing in the life of the Trinity. With regard to this I would like to cite another text from Chiara, again from 1949, where she forcefully expresses the moment of Jesus’ abandonment as follows: ‘When Jesus Forsaken suffers, he takes Love from himself and gives it to humanity, making them children of God…Jesus made himself nothing; he gave all and this all was not lost because it went into the soul of humankind.’
Going right down into the extreme depths of distance from God, Jesus “takes” from himself, that is, he apparently “loses” that Love – the Spirit – who links him from all eternity with the Father. But it is precisely in this way that he communicates the Spirit to us human beings, making us children in the Son and introducing us therefore into the circuit of the Trinitarian life.
Here we can think immediately of the fourth Gospel that concludes its account of Jesus’ death with the words “paredoken to pneuma – he gave up his Spirit” (cf. Jn 19:30). It is from Jesus’ extreme offering on the cross – as the Evangelist brings us to understand – that the gift of the Spirit is unleashed, that Spirit who will draw the disciples into the communion between the Father and the Son and realise the promise of Jesus: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20).
We find a similar dynamism expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews, this time expressed in a metaphor that goes back to the Judaic-Christian context. With his supreme offering, Jesus, as mediator of the new covenant, opened once and for all access to the heavenly Sanctuary. And we now find ourselves introduced to the realm of the Trinitarian life, without any veil whatsoever anymore.
Here I would like to touch briefly on the response humanity needed for the deepest mystery of the Church to be realised. To receive the gift of the Easter Christ in faith and in baptism means, according to Paul, dying with and rising with Jesus (cf. Rom 6). And this means living with him in love; in a love that has as its model his gift right to the point of abandonment, a love that – as 1 Cor 13 tells us – is not exhausted in giving up your body to the flames or in distributing your goods to the poor, but rather a love that means losing oneself totally in God and in others, so as to form one body with them (cf. 1 Cor 12) and indeed to become one, one Person in Christ (cf. Gal 3).
This is the first perspective. Jesus who, in the moment of abandonment, unleashes the Spirit from himself, gathers the many into one, makes them his “body” and brings them in this way into the intimacy of the life of the Blessed Trinity, to the point that they can cry out in the Spirit “Abba Father” (cf. Gal 4:6; Rom 8:6). Jesus Forsaken is therefore the origin of the Church as the One gathered in the bosom of the Father, as the communion of saints.
In the night of abandonment, Jesus united himself to every human being no matter how distant they were from God. The apostle Paul never tires of reflecting on this mystery. “He made himself accursed for us” (Gal 3:13). In other words, in Christ Crucified, God has dwelt among sinners. If, on the one hand, he gathers humanity in the bosom of the Father, on the other hand, in him, Trinitarian love goes out, as it were, from itself and reaches all of humanity, including where it is still divided from God.
What follows from this is overwhelming – there is no longer any line of demarcation between the sacred and the profane. Thanks to this universal embrace of the Paschal Christ, all places, all situations becomes a place of encounter with the Trinitarian Love. In the abandonment and death of Christ, God has poured out his Spirit upon the whole of humanity. The response, humanity’s full response is still lacking, but the gift is already there.
And this is the perspective offered in Lumen Gentium which, in its second chapter, portrays all of humanity as incorporated or at least ordered to the Body of Christ (cf. ns. 14-16). The footnotes refer to a text from St. Thomas that begins with the words “Christ is head of all human beings” and then continues “but according to different grades”. The key to understanding this statement is the universal embrace of Christ Crucified. Notice that in this passage, Thomas quotes 1 Jn 2:2: “and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”.
As the Bride of Christ, the Church cannot but have this same breadth. Not only that, but in launching out towards the whole of humanity, the Church knows she is gathering the inheritance of her Spouse: the treasures of grace and love sown by him in every human heart. There is no one or no situation extraneous to the Bridegroom. There can be no one nor any situation extraneous to the Bride.
I would like to cite a text from Chiara in this regard: ‘My “I” is humanity with all the men and women who were, are and will be. I feel and live this reality: because I feel in my soul both the joy of heaven and the anguish of humanity which is one big Jesus Forsaken. And I want to live all this Jesus Forsaken’.
In reality, this is the “I” of the Church, the “I” of those who have burst open the horizons of their soul to the full dimension of the Church as it is conceived in the plan of the Father.
Made one with Jesus Forsaken, the Church is an instrument of salvation. The Church is not only brought by the Paschal Christ into the bosom of the Father. She is not only called to measure the range of her very being and action against the measure of the universal embrace of the Crucified Christ. As Bride and as his Spouse, she is totally one with Christ. With him and in him she is called to be an instrument of salvation.
Right from the very first lines of Lumen Gentium the Second Vatican Council speaks of this: “The Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament – sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all humankind” (LG, 1). And at n. 8 it indicates how this means travelling the same way that Jesus travelled: “Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and oppression, so the Church is called to follow the same path if she is to communicate the fruits of salvation to men and women. Christ Jesus ‘though he was by nature God…emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave’ (Phil 2:6,7), and ‘being rich, became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9) for our sake”.
In union with Jesus Forsaken and in conforming ourselves to him, the Church is called to follow the way of the fullest gift of oneself, she is called to empty herself, out of love, of all wealth, not only externior but also interior, in order to be, in the bosom of humanity, “the pupil of the eye of God”, an emptiness full of love, of the Holy Spirit, through which God can pour out his life of love upon humanity and through which humanity can “see” God and enter into him.
Von Balthasar writes that if after Christ “there is only one priesthood, his priesthood, then this ecclesial participation must be set into his form”, it must be an ecclesial-social form of the presence of Christ humbled among his own. “Is there anything surprising, then, in the fact that the whole care of the Lord, when he is equipping his apostles for their office, and especially when he is equipping Peter who is to be the Rock, should aim at humiliation?”. In other words, kenosis, so that they might be only love. There is a great relevancy in this perspective for our time too. If it is undoubtedly true that the sacraments of the Church transmit salvation ex opere operato, the question arises, however, about how can we reach that part of humanity – the majority – that is ignorant of the existence of or at least the meaning of the sacraments? And about all those Christians who no longer come to the sacraments?
For them the Church with her very being and her coherent witness must be “sacrament”, “pupil of the eye of God”. And here again we have to place ourselves at the foot of the Cross. It is perhaps not by chance that, as the Fourth Gospel tells us, the Crucified Christ entrusted John, and in him the Church, to Mary, to her who with her second “fiat” lost what was most precious to her – “her” Son, God, and in this way received for us all the fruit of redemption and transmitted it to us. We can learn from her what it means to be “in Christ, a sacrament – sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all humankind”.
I would like to cite another text from Chiara that seems to me be the full of light for the carrying out of the Church’s mission for today: ‘Also each of us has to be “wounded” in order to be love. Just as through the Wound of Jesus Forsaken all the love of the Father was poured out upon humanity, so through our wound the love of the Father is poured out upon the humanity entrusted to us’.
Looking at the Church from the perspective of Jesus Forsaken, the four features of the Church found in the Creed stand out: One and holy: it is Jesus Forsaken who, with the gift of the Spirit, gathers into one the children of God and introduces them into the heart of the life of the Trinity, transforming them and sanctifying them.
Catholic: It is the universal embrace of Jesus on the cross who in the night of abandonment united himself to every human being, in order to impress the Church with the fullest catholicity.
Apostolic: It is by uniting ourselves and conforming ourselves again and again to Christ Crucified and Forsaken, that the Church can transmit the truth and gifts of salvation from generation to generation, with utter fidelity to her origins.
1 Text cited with commentary by H. Blaumeiser, “Un mediatore che è nulla”, Nuova Umanità 20 (1998), pp. 405-406.
2 St. Th. III, q. 8, a.3c.
3 Text cited with commentary by H. Blaumeiser, “Attraverso la trasparenza del nostro nulla: Riflessioni sulla mediazione ecclesiale” Nuova Umanità 20 (1998), p. 680.
4 “Priestly Existence” in Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991), pp. 384-385.
5 “Attraverso la trasparenza”, p. 681.
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