Wednesday, August 01, 2007

To be Christian is to believe in history

~by Archbishop Chaput found at the Denver Archdiocesan website

Last month Archbishop Chaput gave a series of talks at conferences in Australia. This column is the first of three excerpts taken from a talk given July 1 to the general public in Melbourne at a lecture sponsored by the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy.

I’d like to start with a proposition. Here it is: To be a Christian is to believe in history. To be a Christian means believing very definite things about history and about our own respective places in history.

We don’t just profess belief in the Incarnation. We say we believe that God took flesh at a precise moment in time, and in a definite place. That’s the reason for that odd detail in our creed. Think about it: We’re the only religion to remember our founder’s executioner by name every time we profess our faith. In fact, I don’t think there’s another profession of faith in any religion that mentions specific historical personages.

Pontius Pilate and Mary are mentioned by name in the creed. Why? The reference to Mary, his mother, guarantees Christ’s humanity. The reference to Pilate, who condemned him to death, guarantees his historicity. It ensures that we can never reduce the Incarnation to an abstract concept, a metaphor, a pretty idea. It ensures that we can never regard Jesus Christ as some kind of ideal archetype or mythical figure. He was truly a man and truly God. And once he had a place he called home on this earth.

Also, we believe that this historical event, which happened more than 2,000 years ago, represents a personal intervention by God “for us and for our salvation.” God entered history for you and me, for all humanity.

These are amazing claims. Again, all of them are unique to Christianity among the world religions. The four noble truths of Buddhism don’t have anything to do with history. The Muslim profession of faith, the shahada, testifies simply that there is no God but God and that Muhammad was his messenger. To the degree that Islam has a historical narrative, it was arguably borrowed from and built on the Jewish-Christian narrative that came before it.

That’s my first point today (editor’s note: the three main points of this talk are broken up into three columns). To be a Catholic is to be unique among the world’s believers. To be a Catholic means believing that you are a part of a vast historical project. And it’s not our project. It’s God’s. Being Catholic means believing that since the beginning of time God has been working out his own hidden purposes in the history of nations and in the biography of every person. He’s still unfolding his purposes today, and each of us here has a part to play in his divine plan.

“He chose us before the foundation of the world, to be holy. In love, he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ.” St. Paul wrote that to the first Christians. He meant those words for us, too. Before the foundation of the world, God had each of us in mind. He made us out of love. He made us for a reason. To be holy, to be his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ. To help him in his plan to share his love with the whole world.

In his first homily as pope, Benedict XVI said the same thing. He said: “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” This is a wonderful truth. Each of us is the result of an act of the creative imagination of God.

Again, no other religion makes anywhere near these kind of claims about the meaning of human life — and not just “human life” in general, but each and every human life. God willed each of us to be here. He loves us personally. But how can the pope say we are necessary? What does God need or want us to be doing? Let’s go back to the creed for a minute.

We believe the Incarnation was a real historical event. For our salvation, Jesus came down from heaven at that point in history when Pilate was Caesar’s man in Judea. And we believe that event changed everything. It’s the center and meaning of history. Everything before that was but a prologue and a prelude. But what about everything after that? Well, that’s where we come in.

The creed not only tells us about the past. It also speaks of the future. We believe Jesus Christ will come again in glory to usher in a kingdom that will have no end. We anticipate that kingdom in every Eucharist, when he comes to us in bread and wine. We live in joyful hope for the coming of the “end” of history — when “time no longer shall be,” as the Book of Revelation says.

Until that day, we live in the era of the Church. If the Incarnation represents the past and the second coming represents the future, the Church is always the “present” tense of God’s plan for history and for each of our lives.

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