29, 2023 – Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Zephaniah 2:3, 3:12-13
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s funeral was a foggy affair. I just so happened to be in Rome for it, enjoying the afterglow of a week-long pilgrimage with the seminarians of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. That morning, the sun kept trying to pierce through the chilly morning air, but “a thick cloud was on the mountain” (cf. Exodus 19:16), so much so that the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was completely invisible. It all felt a bit like Mount Sinai, with Benedict as our Moses, going up before us to climb the mountain of the Lord and see the face of God.
As he was carried into the basilica at the end of the liturgy, it was not the first time I had watched him slip off into the distance. By God’s providence, I had also been in Rome as a seminarian when he stepped down from his office as pope. At the end of that disorienting chapter, we stood on the roof of the North American College to watch his helicopter fly over us on its way from the Vatican to the town of Castel Gondolfo, where Benedict initially went to stay.
As the helicopter slowly turned into a little speck on the horizon, I remember being moved with gratitude for all that Pope Benedict had taught us, and praying that he would write from his retirement. As his casket disappeared into St. Peter’s, the same sense of gratitude overwhelmed me, as I could think only of how grateful I was for the clarity and depth of teaching Benedict had given us over the course of his life.
In “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration,” Benedict reflects on the Sermon on the Mount, which we begin in our Sunday liturgies this week. There, he notes how different the mountain is that Jesus ascends, compared to the mountain of Sinai climbed by Moses. The latter is covered in thick clouds, teeming with thunder and lightning, while the former is known for its lake waters, sky and sun, trees and meadows, teeming with “flowers and the sound of birdsong.” (Benedict, 67)
And yet, what happens on the two mountains is very much related. When Moses went to receive the Ten Commandments or “words” from God, it was a moment of new creation, set in parallel to the 10 times God “speaks” in Genesis 1 to create the heavens and the earth. Here, too, on the Mount of the Beatitudes, a new Eden is being brought about, not in a way that abrogates the 10 “words” of Sinai, but rather with Eight Beatitudes by which Jesus “recapitulates and gives added depth to the commandments of the second tablet.” (Benedict, 70)
The added depth of the beatitudes is both beautiful and terrifying, and so combines the revelations given to Moses and Elijah. As Benedict puts it, “The violence of the Revelation of Sinai so frightened the people that they said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20:19) Elijah, meanwhile, “was granted a transformed version of the Sinai experience: He experienced God passing by, not in the storm or in the fire or in the earthquake, but in the still small breeze.” (1 Kings 19:1-13) (Benedict, 67)
The transformation is completed on the Mount of the Beatitudes, where “God’s power is now revealed in his mildness, his greatness in his simplicity and closeness. And yet his power and greatness are no less profound. What formerly found expression in storm, fire and earthquake now takes on the form of the Cross, of the suffering God, who calls us to step into this mysterious fire, the fire of crucified love: ‘Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you.’” (Matthew 5:11) (Benedict, 67)
Crucified love. At once beautiful and terrifying. More stunning than any thunder or lightning. The image of the burning bush comes to mind — on fire, yet not consumed. “In fact,” Benedict continues, “the Israelites were quite right when they said they would die if God should speak with them. (Exodus 20:19) Without a ‘dying,’ without the demise of what is simply our own, there is no communion with God and no redemption.” (Benedict, 68)
Perhaps this mystery of crucified love lay at the heart of Benedict’s resignation. In some way, God spoke with him and invited him into a kind of “dying” — the demise of what was simply his own so that God’s communion and redemption could be brought about. Though the world may never know why exactly he stepped down from his office (perhaps it was as simple as his failing health), he was willing to risk being reviled by men for the sake of his bride, the Church. And so, blessed is he.
Clouds come and go in the Christian life. It can at times be difficult to see through the fog. But God’s Word always pierces through, even when the sun cannot. It is the blessedness of crucified love to which he invites us.