The fourth and final section of sermon #1 in Benedict XVI’s What It Means to Be a Christian is titled, “The Hidden God.” In it, he returns to the image of Christianity as an Advent experience. Contextually, he is preaching these sermons, all three of them, during Advent 1964. So this is a timely illustration or controlling metaphor for the original hearers.
Although he does not use the phrase, what he talks about–the present nature of Advent as the Christian experience, the hiddenness of God–seems to relate with the concept of the “already and not yet” nature of the kingdom of God (“for all of us God is the origin from which we come and yet still the future toward which we are going”). Benedict rejects a notion of divided history–that there is unredeemed time (prior to Christ’s earthly life) and redeemed time (after his earthly life). This seems to be because he wants us to consider the extent to which we still await the “One who is coming”:
We cannot find God except in this exodus, in going out from the coziness of our present situation into what it hidden: the brightness of God that is coming. The image of Moses, who had to climb up the mountain and go into the cloud to find God, remains valid for all ages. God cannot be found–even in the Church–except by our climbing the mountain and entering into the cloud of the incognito of God, who in this world is the hidden One. (p. 37)
He links the hiddenness of God in the world to the unlikely places he has hidden himself in salvation history: “from the wretched people of Israel to the child at Bethlehem to the man who died on the Cross” (p. 38). Though God’s hiddenness makes painful and puzzling aspects of life difficult to explain in a neat system (“all our answers remain fragmentary”), this identification of the hiddenness of God with the unlikeliness of Israel or of a child from a backwater Galilean village or a crucified man, gets me thinking that God may be found even if all of our answers are not. I hesitate to say that this is what Benedict is saying as such, but it is the direction in which I am thinking based on listening to him here.
This relates well, it seems to me, with the picture we get from the Gospels. Jesus is hidden from many in his day because he gives himself to so many who are hidden from us–the poor, the outcast, the dejected and rejected; those who, in Henri Nouwen’s words, were/are “considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society” (In the Name of Jesus, p. 11, in reference to the mentally handicapped adults with which he was living and serving). In reading Benedict and Nouwen in conversation with one another on this point, I think we underscore the Gospel message that Jesus makes in Matthew 25:34-40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (v40).
Back to Benedict, now, as we read the final sentences of this sermon, in which he personalizes the message:
We shall begin to realize that the borderline between “before Christ” and “after Christ” does not run through historical time, in an outward sense, and cannot be drawn on any map; it runs through our own hearts. Insofar as we are living on a basis of selfishness, of egoism, then even today we are “before Christ.” But in this time of Advent, let us ask the Lord to grant that we may live less and less “before Christ,” and certainly not “after Christ,” but truly with Christ and in Christ: with him who is indeed Christ yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). Amen. (p. 40)
Prayer: Lord, I live too much “before Christ.” In your mercy, forgive me and draw me into the places you are hidden here on earth, that I may know what it is to be “truly with Christ and in Christ.” Amen.