What Does It Mean To Actualize the Gospels?
To answer this question, I prefer to take a negative approach first: gospel comments that are not actualizations. There are, in my opinion, two approaches that are really not actualizations of the gospel.
A simple resumption of the gospel scene
It is good to take certain gestures or words from Jesus to highlight them, to better understand what they mean. For example, we could say something like this when reading the story of passion:
Jesus, of whom we already know that he is the Son of God, gives here the ultimate testimony of his total participation in our human condition. He did not shy away from our suffering and death. The Scriptures, he said, and the benevolent will of his Heavenly Father had to be fulfilled. In humility, patience, Jesus chooses to be perfectly faithful to the love of the Father that He has the mission to reveal to all. (Extract from French website Spiritualité 2000)
You cannot actualize the gospel if you do not understand what is written. But here, there is a trap to avoid: forgetting that we are facing a writing of an author who presents a catechesis to us, and not the report of a journalist telling what he saw and heard. It is therefore important to know well the theology of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, and in what context these gospels were written. For example, Mark probably wrote his gospel initially for Christians who were going through a dark period of great persecution, and then the evangelist emphasizes that one cannot understand Easter if one does not understand first suffering, opposition and death, so much so that his Jesus will experience great distress to the point of shouting Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?".
But if understanding the evangelical passage is the starting point for actualization, it is not enough: it lacks the contemporary situation that this passage can shed light on.
Use a gospel passage to support a theological point
It is typical of papal documents to embellish their assertion with scriptural quotes. Take for example Amoris Laetitia of Pope Francis.
The Gospel goes on to remind us that children are not the property of a family, but have their own lives to lead. Jesus is a model of obedience to his earthly parents, placing himself under their charge (cf. Lk 2:51), but he also shows that children's life decisions and their Christian vocation may demand a parting for the sake of the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt 10:34-37; Lk 9:59-62). Jesus himself, at twelve years of age, tells Mary and Joseph that he has a greater mission to accomplish apart from his earthly family (cf. Lk 2:48-50). (#18)
One uses the gospel not to actualize it, but to show that it is in agreement with the point that one intends to support, and which, at the beginning, does not come from the gospel. It's not bad, but it's not gospel actualization.
In this line, some go so far as to use specific words or phrases from the gospel to support personal ideas. Their starting point is a way of seeing a contemporary situation, and the gospel has no other interest for them than to support their point of view. A typical example concerns the question of divorce, where one will seek the sentence of Mt 19: 6: "What God has united, man must not separate", without trying to understand the meaning given to it by Matthew, the context in which this is said, and why the Christian community has introduced exceptions, ie the case of promiscuity (Matthew 19: 9), or when peace is no longer possible (1 Corinthians 7: 15).
Actualization of the Gospels
As the verb "actualize" suggests, there are two elements in actualization: what the gospel intends to say, and our contemporary situation. And the art of actualization is to bridge the two. And it is a difficult art, because on the one hand, you have to understand the point of view of the evangelist, and, on the other hand, you have to understand what is happening today and to interpret it well. In my opinion, there are two possible approaches.
- Start from the Gospel story and its symbols
This approach was favored by the biblical scholar Xavier-Léon Dufour in courses that I had the privilege of attending in Paris in 1982. First of all, one must understand the evangelist. That's why I apply the rigorous method of scientific exegesis,
- analyzing each word by comparing it to how it is used elsewhere, identifying what the author has borrowed from tradition,
- what he added of his own to impose his understanding of things (his typical vocabulary),
- how he structured his story (study of its structure),
- how he shed light to his story by the way he inserts it into his work (study of the near and far context),
- and finally, how it differs from other evangelists by taking up a similar tradition (study of parallels)
All this effort has one goal: to clarify the intention of the evangelist by writing this text.
Once we have a good understanding of what the evangelist meant, there remains a daunting task: how to bridge the gap with our modern era. Let's not forget: these are stories written over two thousand years ago, in a context different from ours, facing problems that were specific to them? And the solution is not to simply say, as some preachers do after reading the Gospel story: "Today the Lord tells us..."; or even: "The lesson of this story...". These preachers are not doing actualization, they are moralizing.
For example, I have the memory of a priest in the parish who thus concluded the story of the ten lepers, where only one of whom gave glory to God (Luke 17: 11-19): "In life, you must know how to say thank you". How can one imagine that an evangelist would simply give us a lesson in decency? Fortunately, the usual preaching goes deeper than that, as the following example shows:
From now on they will be for us winning values (the attitude of Jesus before his death), these very difficult moments of our life. We can see in it a life path, in the fruitfulness of a life of love, of a given life, an offered life that saves the world. Christ thus draws us to him in his extreme love. He takes us with him to the Father so that we too can live with him in the glory of the Father, in his house, forever (5th Sunday of Lent, year B: extract from the website Spiritualité 2000)
Even though this exhortation is very spiritual, it does not constitute actualization.
Pay attention to the language
Actualizing means shedding new light on a contemporary situation. First of all, it means that we are immersed in today's world, that we understand its language and its problems, that we are sensitive to the drama that is playing out there and that we understand the issues well. Because we cannot bridge the period between the first Christian communities and that of today if we do not speak the language of current culture. This is a stumbling block for many Christians: one is so marked by religious language that one is unable to name things differently.
I remember a conversation with Marie-Dominique Chenu, this Dominican who played an important role at Vatican Council II, in particular in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), who had composed a letter addressed to the world of today in the name of the Church, and who had seen this letter watered down by a bishop's commission; "These pigs of bishops," he told me, ulcerated, "they put my kid in holy water." We cannot actualize by confining ourselves to religious, pious or theological language.
Another conversation several years ago comes to my mind, that with my German teacher at the University of Munich, who was back from California where he joined a group of transcendental meditation: while this man was in search, tempted by esoteric writings and knowing my biblical training, he inquired about the inspiration for the holy books. Thinking well, I replied by speaking of the Holy Spirit; I was unable to get out of religious language. Dumbfounded, the man asked me what I was talking about.
The value of symbolic language
This is where symbolic language comes to the rescue: not only does it make the leap between the distant past and modern times, it also allows the use of universal language. Let us take the example of Matthew 23: 1-12 where Jesus curses the scribes and Pharisees, accuses them of overburdening people with obligations, and concludes by inviting people to avoid calling themselves "master", "father" or "leader", and rather to become a servant of each other. Several symbols appear in this passage:
- there is the symbol of "the expert" represented by the scribes and the Pharisees, and which echoes all the experts of the modern world (when one is an expert, one has unique knowledge that others trust)
- there is also the symbol of "obligations", which are not necessarily the same over the course of two thousand years of history (those which life naturally imposes on us as opposed to those which are particular to us, for instance the care of children)
- The "religious signs" represent powerful symbols, formerly in the Jewish world it could be phylacteries or fringes at the bottom of the garment, today it can be the crucifix or a church or a synagogue or mosque
- The "place of honor" also belongs to the world of important symbols. If in Jesus' time being able to sit in the first place at the synagogue or to be greeted in a public place constituted a place of honor, today to become mayor, or senator or minister or judge, to receive the Nobel Prize or the Pulitzer Price fall under the place of honor
- Conversely, the role of "servant" is also an evocative symbol which takes on different dimensions according to the times, situations and ages of life. Someone like Paul saw himself as a servant of the Word, just as "Doctors without borders" saw themselves as servants of humanity in distress zones, or as a mother considered herself a servant of her disabled child so that he can grow like the others
Thus, symbolic language makes it possible to take a leap of two thousand years. But beware! We must not forget what the evangelist intends to say when speaking, for example, of the expert, and start to display our own vision of the expert; our role is to translate into contemporary terms what the evangelist said to his own community. Two thousand years ago, in the Jewish world, the law could have become an end in itself, and the experts used it to assert or keep their privileges, and not to help people to live better and to grow. And today, we can identify similar situations, whether it be religious or civil laws. Until you have made this identification, you cannot actualize.
- Starting from what we live or from a contemporary situation
While doing the analytical work to understand what the evangelist meant, we can use, as a starting point for our reflection, a contemporary event, a situation that is close to us or that we have just experienced. Take again the example of Matthew 23: 1-12. As I reflected on this gospel, here are two events that caught my attention:
- Catalonia was preparing to hold a referendum on its independence, leading the central government to declare the move illegal, and to use the police to prevent it. This questioned me: in a situation like this, what is the value and wisdom of simply resorting to a law? Aren't there other, more productive ways? In such a context, what light does the Gospel of Matthew throw that speaks precisely of the role of the law, and when it can be destructive or productive?
- In the United States, several members of the Republican Party have been trying to find ways to reduce access to abortion. One of them, a member of Congress from Pennsylvania, an ardent promoter of Pro-Life, was caught asking his mistress to terminate her pregnancy after an extramarital affair. What does it mean that a law only applies to others, not to yourself? Why do you want a law that you don't apply to yourself? Paradoxically, is this not a law that is far from life, as evidenced by Matthew 23, 1-12.
A secular gospel?
Some may feel confused by my approach and speak of a secular gospel. It is to misunderstand the role of faith and the gospel. Let me once again quote Marie-Dominique Chenu o.p. who once said to me, "Christ did not come make the world sacred, but to sanctify it". This distinction is essential.
- In a world of sacred and profane, the religious dimension is in a way autonomous, with its own rules, its language, its rites, and in a parallel way, and the profane dimension has its own rules, its language and its rites; the two dimensions are independent. In such a world, the religious shows similarity with the political world: just as there is a party line to follow, there is a leader to please, there is a hierarchy to follow, and very clear criteria of success and a consequent recognition, so in the religious world there are things to do to be in good standing, there are gestures of piety to be made which strengthen the feeling of belonging and one's identity, there is a vision of the world centered on the afterlife, and there is the confidence to inherit the final promise.
- But to say that Christ came to sanctify the world is to refuse this dichotomy: just as in the scene of the burning bush where God said to Moses: "The place where you stand is holy ground" (Exodus 3: 5 ), so the place where we toil every day is a holy place, ie inhabited by the infinite mystery that is God; wherever we breathe, whatever we do, this environment is holy. According to biblical scholars, Jesus lived about 36 years, having been born around the year -6, two years before the death of Herod the Great in the year -4, and probably executed on April 7 of the year 30 , on the eve of the rare event where the Jewish Passover falls on Sabbath. Now, over 36 years of life, 33 and a half years have been spent in the humble hamlet of Nazareth, exercising the same profession as his father, called tektōn in Greek in the Gospels, translated as carpenter in most English translations; it is a manual worker who touches almost everything: lumber if he is involved in building construction, but more often in carving wood for objects of the everyday life or their repair; metal to make tools or objects related to the building, such as locks, or pieces of goldsmithery; stone for certain masonry work or engraving on steles or seals. So he was a handyman. Of course, one can imagine that he attended the synagogue and had to make his annual pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem, but the core of his life was to make or repair objects, and this life is holy, and it is where the human drama is played out. To separate the religious from the profane is to deny what Jesus was, it is to deny what is called in the Church the mystery of the incarnation.
Karl Barth is credited with this phrase: "You must read the gospel with one hand and the newspaper with the other." This is actualization. And it's not easy. One cannot be satisfied with beautiful pious sentences. On the one hand, we have to accept to be bitten by life, to be hurt sometimes by it, to dare to mourn our dead, to somehow experience Jesus on the cross: "My God, my God, why did you abandon me?"; we often resort too quickly to the morphine of religious consolation. On the other hand, we must go deep into the thought of the evangelist when he wrote to his community between the 70s and 90s, seeking to illuminate the drama of their community with the help of a tradition that seeks to transmit what Jesus did and said. This marriage of the two goes through the bridge of symbolic language. A gospel that does not shed light on our daily drama of the 21st century is irrelevant and deserves to be archived. It is possible that the universe is there to last for billions of years, not to say forever, even if the lifespan of our sun is five billion years, but it is my conviction that human history, to succeed and bear all its fruits, must pass by the same way as that of Jesus of Nazareth, if it wants experience Easter. Hence the relevance of the gospels.