Christian faith, by its own nature, lives, expresses, and communicates itself within a culture. I said “by its nature” because this is its nature, the logic of the event of the Incarnation. God decided to become man in a time, in a place, in a people, in a culture, in a language, and indicated that in this way, a permanent law of relationship with Him was made. This does not mean that Jesus assumed, in everything and for everything, in his thought and in his action, the culture of the people where was born and grew up. Throughout his life we see two movements. On the one hand, he entered profoundly in the language, in the customs, in the law of the people to which he belonged, even in those customs and laws that he criticized or that which would be diminished because of his teachings. At the same time, he had the freedom to be detached, even decisively, from those customs that the people were rooted in, sensing that they contradicted the mission that the Father gave him. This logic of critical assumption remains a permanent axis of the Christian faith and of the history of the Church.
Already during his life, Jesus not merely encountered and clashed with his people, who among themselves were also divided in various ways and therefore did not form a unified culture, but he entered into contact with other people with other traditions. For example, he spoke with the Samaritans who represented a heretical group within the Jewish tradition, and also with many pagans. Towards the end of his life, he encountered some Jews whose origin was Greek and pagan but who was interested in who he was, therefore inaugurating the Church of the Gentiles that, together with the Church that comes from the synagogue, formed two streams to form one river which is the Church.
There has never existed a monolithic culture unity in which the faith was incarnated, but already in the life of Jesus there was a movement of assuming a culture of his people and openness towards new cultures. The same Jesus who went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, who let himself be baptized in the Jordan, who prayed together with his people and said that not a single thing of the old law would be abolished, together with a critical attitude towards the Pharisees and the Samaritans, opened himself to new expressions of his mission because of his new encounters with others. He who thought at first that his being sent was only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, little by little reveals a universalist vision of his being sent.
If one does not understand this, then there is the risk of erroneously thinking that St. Paul was the founder of Christianity, he who from nothing invented a religion of Christ with linguistic categories and Hellenistic thought.
Under the Cross an important representative of the roman soldiers converted to the faith. In the Acts of the Apostles and in the letter of St. Paul, we see, already from the first century of the new era—ten, twenty, thirty years after the resurrection of Christ—a process of the new faith seeking to express itself not simply using the Aramaic sayings of Jesus or the Hebrew of the Liturgy of his time, but through Greek words of Luke and Paul. In this way philosophy and Greek history enter into the new faith, words that were welcome, sometimes rejected, but other times given new meaning.
I cannot go into all of what has happened in the history of the Church. I would like to simply refer to the present moment, seeing what the two greatest risks that can oppose this dynamic of the Incarnation and suggest some ways that can help us live this dynamic today.
The first enemy of the Incarnation and its authentic cultural expression of the faith is spiritualism. What do I mean by spiritualism? It is the reduction of Christianity to a personal relationship with God in the sense that what counts is the link between the soul of the believer and an invisible person but present in the creator and savior. With this I do not want to deny that the heart of Christianity is a true relationship between the faithful with his Lord, but we cannot banish history from this relationship.
In this kind of vision, history, past and present, is far away, sometimes seen as an enemy, as something that we need to escape from to find a shelter in a relationship with God. If it is true that God constitutes a refuge and help for the believer in difficult moments and anxiety, it is also true that this refuge, in Christianity, never represents an exile from the world. Even in its more acute forms which is expressed in the saying contemptus mundi, the contempt of the world or the flight of the world, there is always the awareness that it is lived for the good of all the Church and therefore as a sign that purifies and indicates a future destiny of that endeavor of the Incarnation that comes in time. Especially in the relationship between eternity and time one risks everything that expresses the culture of the faith. The heavenly Jerusalem, in fact, is not simply a future Jerusalem, but a city already begun in the present moment: the Church is already the seed of the kingdom that will be fulfilled beyond time.
Along the two thousand years of the history of the Church, there were two alternating and opposing views: that which, in the name of the drama of history, saw Jerusalem only in heaven (the Protestant temptation) and that which reduced Christianity to a messianic history with the risk of identifying it in a political revolutionary theory.
Even today there is a lot of confusion on this. I think that we must never forget that the Council of Vatican 2 says that the Church is the sign and instrument of the unity of all of humankind. The definitive kingdom has truly begun in the Church, as a seed planted in the earth, but is still blooming. Just as the yeast is put in the flour that is already fermenting, visible signs of this transformation in history already appears. There is, therefore, no discontinuity between the Jerusalem that started in time and that which is beyond, but it is merely a fulfillment that we cannot yet see in its dimensions and profundity.
Spiritualism is dangerous because it inaugurates a radical form of life of dualism. If faith tells us merely to hope for what is beyond, the profound reasons of what is here and now, in the end, is found in ideologies, especially the most fashionable. I think that it has been illuminating for us the words of Don Giussani, for example, from a meeting in 1997 (cf. Luigi Giussani, L’uomo e il suo destino. In cammino, pg. 133) when he spoke of the impossibility of separating God from Christ and Christ from the Church.
Even Joseph Ratzinger—Benedict XVI—in his preface of his book Jesus of Nazareth has very interesting remarks that criticizes this division between the Church and the Kingdom.
Spiritualism is the temptation of our age because it is very comfortable to those who have power in the world, leaving the Christian only to his private space of devotion to his God, but demands from him, in fact, an obedience to the logic of the world. Christianity loses in this way its strength of regeneration and of contestation against antihuman currents that we see in act in the history of man.
The other temptation of our age is represented by traditionalism. Opposite of spiritualism, traditionalists have a strong sense of the Incarnation. They know that one can never give an experience of the faith if not within time, but they identify the reality of the faith with a particular expression that it had in a determinate time in history. It is paradoxical: if one looks at it with attention, one sees that even traditionalism is born from a fear of history, just like spiritualism. One identifies faith with the past history because one is afraid of the present history. The phobia of history represents, therefore, one of the most dangerous drifts for those who wants to live the Christian life.
Even we can run the risk of traditionalism when we think to simply repeat what has been given to us instead of reliving them in new contexts that we find ourselves in in our mission. To relive, one needs to understand what is transitory in what has been given and what is permanent. This is a work that a single person absolutely cannot do, but must be in union with all of the community, guided by authority, and with all of the Church.
In this last part of my talk, I would like to look to express some fundamental frameworks in our Christian life that is called to renew continually what has been received within the time that we find ourselves in.
Christianity is born as an event of freedom, the interpellation that God addresses, through his Son Jesus Christ in the Spirit, to every person that comes to be. We can never cancel this wellspring moment of the Christian event. Everything that we propose, to the young and to the adults, from the liturgy to our lessons, our living together, must always be an event of freedom, a retrieval of the freedom of the person. It must show the attractiveness of the Christian event, its correspondence to the questions and most profound needs of the heart of man, that it is in the encounter with Christ that these questions and needs come into the surface and the response that the Spirit Himself generates in man through the progressive change of his life in his following of Christ. In this way Christianity is always an event of the person. It is born from his “yes”, provoked by the Spirit, and matures by a continuous and profound renewal in his different stages of life.
Christianity is a communal event. The person that adheres with his “yes” to the voice of Christ becomes part of his people, adhering to a small or big Eucharistic community that constitutes the closeness of the body of Christ in his life. In this community, gathered around authority, around the Word of God and the Eucharist, the person brings everything of himself: his expectations, his questions, his work, his culture, his affective life, his joys, hopes, his sufferings, his difficulties.
In this way, through personal stories, the cultures of these people, that is, their vision of life, their experiences, their ways of relating with things and others, enters in the life of the community to be assumed and guided by the person of Christ.
It is this way that a people is formed within its own language, its own music, its forms of life, with its hopes and expectations, always animated by the question: “Does Christ concern me? Is he the one whom I refer my life to and the one whom my brothers refer to? Is he the one I talk about? Does he radiate in my life?”
A new culture is created within the communitarian event. Even if it is not macroscopically visible, these small communities are already in reality a response to the great themes of peace and war, of life and death, of the present and the future, of money and its use, of sickness and its meaning. Without being able to predict when these communities will be able to determine society as a whole (if anything this will be possible and always in a provisory way), the life of these communities already represents a concrete experience of transformation of the world and the works of hope brought by Christ.
Today we certainly live in an important turn in history, a rapid change, in which a deconstruction of man seems to give us the impression of the end of history. In reality, it is not so. There were such things in other moments in history. What disturbs us today is not being able to see or know what will happen next. In reality we need to ask God the eyes to see the signs of novelty that has already started and expresses itself.
All of these tentative works in the world, aroused by the Spirit of Christ, represents a network of which the twelve doors are the doors of Jerusalem as described in the Book of Revelation. Only faith can give us the eyes to see this. Only charity permits us to recognize, embrace, and value all of the experience that the humanity of Christ renews in the world. Only hope makes it possible the work that draws different experiences into a sketch of a new world.
All of the great voices of the 20th and 21st century that marked a history of the papacy, the great witnesses of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Pope Francis tell us that the Church is living in a great trial, but not a period of disillusionment. The hope of the world depends a lot on our hope. The growth of hope in our brothers depends a lot on our faith.