e) We come now to the last dimension of the prophecies of the child-king in these chapters of the book of Isaiah. We spoke about the anointing of the king by the Holy Spirit, and now we see the fruit of his reign, a reign of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord, and delight in the fear of the Lord. And this fruit is harmony and unity in a creation that was before fractured and divided by sin:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious. In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart, and those who harass Judah shall be cut off; Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass Ephraim. But they shall swoop down upon the shoulder of the Philistines in the west, and together they shall plunder the people of the east. They shall put forth their hand against Edom and Moab, and the Ammonites shall obey them. And the LORD will utterly destroy the tongue of the sea of Egypt; and will wave his hand over the River with his scorching wind, and smite it into seven channels that men may cross dryshod. And there will be a highway from Assyria for the remnant which is left of his people, as there was for Israel when they came up from the land of Egypt. (Is 11:6-16)
God has “made peace by the blood of his cross,” as Paul so beautifully puts it! We see many marvelous things here. God is promising a new exodus, a new passage of his people from exile into unity, the gathering together of the scattered remnant of his people to his holy mountain. Indeed, not only will Israel come to harmony again after a time of division, but the entire earth itself shall come to know the Lord and participate in the unity of his life: the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as waters cover the sea. What a beautiful image. All thing shall be completely soaked in the knowledge of God, permeated with the intimate understanding of his presence and communion with him. Indeed, even the non-human world shall be pervaded by the peace of God, such that the violence inherent in nature due to sin shall be overcome, and all shall abide in perfect harmony. Here we have a insight into the core mystery of redemption, of the fruit of the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection: unification in truth and love. Knowing God so deeply and totally—a knowledge born of love and saturated in love—all divisions will pass away between human hearts, and the very natural world itself will manifest the harmony of the inner life of God, which it has always been meant to reflect and glorify. Gathered up into the hearts and lives of man and woman permeated by and surrendered to grace, the whole universe will be made new—in the union of Bridegroom and Bride, of Christ and the Church, of the entire Trinity and the whole of humanity.
Out of the many things that we can bring out of this text (and which shall be elucidated in different contexts in later reflections), let us speak of one thing in particular. It is a reality the misunderstanding of which is greatly hurting our contemporary world. To point out the wound, and the path to its healing, therefore, will perhaps open the way to a much deeper understanding and rejoicing in the ravishing beauty of the realities of which we speak. Let us start by saying the following. An essential dimension of authentic wonder, so often forgotten or rejected in our world, is the pursuit of the truth. This is so much the case that if one ceases to believe in objective truth, in a truth that is universal and valid for all persons, regardless of their culture or environment—a truth universal because born from the heart of the Creator of all, who is Eternal Truth—one loses the capacity to wonder in its full breadth and depth. This is because wonder is born from beauty, which is the voice of truth; it is born from contact with meaning, from a heart-contact with the intelligibility of reality as it gives itself to us, as mystery yes, but a mystery that is knowable, and wishes to be known.*
In our pluralistic society, the emphasis on dialogue over evangelization, on “working together” on common goals before seeking agreement in the fullness of the truth—as important, indeed, as dialogue and working together between cultures and religions is, as utterly necessary for a truly healthy global society and the peace that we so long for—the sad truth is that often this emphasis betrays a despair over finding the universal truth, or even a rejection of the existence of such truth. It is in fact commonly accepted today that all religions are of equal value—or of equal worthlessness—as paths to goodness, and that the important thing is that we all work together and stop fighting one another. It is as if belief in truth is the origin of intolerance, as if strong conviction leads to violence and hatred; but the fact of the matter is that true certainty of heart, and deep conviction, is the origin of authentic tolerance, of a gentle heart that accepts the other where they are and can dialogue with them without fear. Yes, the true origin of intolerance, of violence, of rejection of others (which is different than the recognition of one thing being true and another false)is fear. We should not be afraid to walk the path of profound dialogue between cultures and religions on the path of truth; but we should also not be afraid not disagree, to pursue the truth itself to where it leads, to a conviction that calls for a choice that limits our options, that commits us to one religion, one world-view.
As Pope Benedict XVI expressed in his book Jesus of Nazareth, a danger today is miscontruing the term “kingdom of God” from its original meaning (as we shall see more later in these reflections), from its rootedness in the coming of Jesus Christ who establishes, indeed who becomes, God’s reign in history, to being a mere common denominator of values that all can agree upon; and in this way the “kingdom of God” becomes a mock harmony that parodies the unity of the true kingdom of God, when God’s reign over human hearts is complete, his “will is done on earth as it is in heaven,” which shall reach its fullness only in the new creation. Benedict writes:
[A] secularist reinterpretation of the idea of the Kingdom has gained considerable ground, particularly, though not exclusively, in Catholic theology. This reinterpretation propounds a new view of Christianity, religions, and history in general, and it claims that such radical refashioning will enable people to reappropriate Jesus’ supposed message. It is claimed that in the pre-Vatican II period “ecclesiocentrism” was the dominant position: The Church was represented as the center of Christianity. Then there was a shift to Christocentrism, to the doctrine that Christ is the center of everything. But it is not only the Church that is divisive—so the argument continues—since Christ belongs exclusively to Christians. Hence the further step from Christocentrism to theocentrism. This has allegedly brought us closer to the community of religions, but our final goal continues to elude us, since even God can be a cause of division between religions and between people.
Therefore, it is claimed, we must now move toward “regnocentrism,” that is, towards the centrality of the Kingdom. This at last, we are told, is the heart of Jesus’ message, and it is also the right formula for finally harnessing mankind’s positive energies and directing them toward the world’s future. “Kingdom,” on this interpretation, is simply the name for a world governed by peace, justice, and the conservation of creation. It means no more than this. This “Kingdom” is said to be the goal of history that has to be attained. This is supposedly the real task of religions: to work together for the coming of the “Kingdom.” They are of course perfectly free to preserve their traditions and live according to their respective identities as well, but they must bring their different identities to bear on the common task of building the “Kingdom,” a world, in other words, where peace, justice, and respect for creation are dominant values.
This sounds good; it seems like a way of finally enabling the whole world to appropriate Jesus’ message, but without requiring missionary evangelization of other religions. It looks as if now, at long last, Jesus’ words have gained some practical content, because the establishment of the “Kingdom” has become a common task and is drawing nigh. On closer examination, though, it seems suspicious. Who is to say what justice is? What serves justice in particular situations? How do we create peace? On closer inspection, this whole project proves to be utopian dreaming without any real content, except insofar as it exponents tacitly presuppose some partisan doctrine as the content that all are required to accept.
But the main thing that leaps out it that God has disappeared; man is the only actor left on the stage. The respect for religious “traditions” claimed by this way of thinking is only apparent. The truth is that they are regarded as so many sets of customs, which people should be allowed to keep, even though they ultimately count for nothing. Faith and religions are now directed toward political goals. Only the organization of the world counts. Religion matters only insofar as it can serve that objective. This post-Christian vision of faith and religion is disturbingly close to Jesus’ third temptation [to worship the devil in order to receive “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory”].
Let us return, then, to the Gospel, to the real Jesus. Our main criticism of the secular-utopian idea of the Kingdom has been that it pushes God off the stage. He is no longer needed, or else he is a downright nuisance. But Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, not just any kind of kingdom. … There is another important linguistic observation: The underlying Hebrew word malkut “is a nomen actionis [an action word[ and means—as does the Greek word basileia [kingdom]—the regal function, the active lordship of the king” (Stuhlmacher, Bibliche Theologie, I, p. 67). What is meant is not an imminent or yet to be established “kingdom,” but God’s actual sovereignty over the world, which is becoming an event in history in a new way.
We can put it even more simply: When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is quite simply proclaiming God, and proclaiming him to be the living God, who is able to act concretely in the world and in history and is even now so acting. He is telling us: “God exists” and “God is really God,” which means that he holds in his hands the threads of the world.i
To return to the interrelationship between truth and dialogue, between conviction and intolerance. In fact, despite the sins of her children throughout history, and their intolerance, the fullness of Christianity is a religion that begets, simultaneously, both a profound conviction in the one truth and also a deep listening of heart (and thus dialogue) to wherever this truth may be found. (Think for example of the works of Thomas Aquinas in his dialogue with ancient thinkers like Aristotle as well as the Muslim philosophers of his day: dialogue and adherence to the known truth coexisting, two aspects of the same reverence and love for reality.) The Catholic Church has claimed, and will always claim, to be the God-ordained home of the fullness of the truth entrusted to us by Christ, and its humble custodian. She says this in fidelity to her Founder and Bridegroom, who said to the first pope: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). It is he, Christ himself, who entrusted to her all the elements that make up her concrete life in this world—her rich and yet simple teaching, her sacraments, her priesthood and hierarchy, her mission of evangelization, her burning heart of love and intimacy. And in claiming to be the one true Church willed by God, in claiming to be the custodian of the fullness of divine and evangelical truth in the world, she is only being faithful to the gift given to her by her Lord. God loves us so much that he wanted to give us a home in this world, a home that manifests and anticipates our home at the end of time, when the whole universe will be healed, liberated, and renewed to participate fully in the innermost life of God.
While this is certainly true, true with breathtaking beauty, it is also true that the visible confines of the Catholic Church do not delineate God’s activity in the world, as if he works only in her and never outside of her. The Church is both visible and invisible, and while these dimensions are inseparable, neither negating the other, it is true that the invisible Church in her full mystery is present in many places where the full, concrete, and visible institution and sacramental life of the Church has not yet reached. But it is important to recognize that this does not mean there are two churches; no, there is only one Church, only one, fully present in her concrete realization in the Catholic Church, fully “incarnate” as all God’s work seeks to be, but also present in varying degrees of fullness in other Christianity communities and indeed everywhere that God’s grace is active in the world. In other words, the Catholic Church is not the only place in which the truth is present and operative, nor even the sole space in which God’s redeeming grace touches and works in human hearts; but she is the space in which this truth comes forth into our world, and before our gaze, in its white-hot fullness, in the clarity of vision and harmony of unity intended by God, as well as in the sacramental, incarnate fullness that manifests God’s intentions for the lives of those who live by the grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit, transforming them already now to participate in the life of the Blessed Trinity for all eternity. The Church is, in its fullest visible and existential expression, the space of humanity redeemed by God and tasting the unity that awaits us at the end of time: unity in the truth, unity in the truth who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Second Vatican Council expressed all of this with such depth and tenderness:
Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which he communicated truth and grace to all. But, the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, are not to be considered as two realities, nor are the visible assembly and the spiritual community, nor the earthly Church and the Church enriched with heavenly things; rather they form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element. For this reason, by no weak analogy, it is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word. As the assumed nature inseparably united to him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, so, in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the body.(Cf. Eph 4:16) This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, which our Savior, after his Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which He erected for all ages as “the pillar and mainstay of the truth.” This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity. (Lumen Gentium, n. 8)
Finally, to bring these reflections on truth and dialogue, on the universality of the Church, one single organic and living Body, both visible and invisible, to a close, let us come full circle. We began with the anointing of the Savior with the Holy Spirit. This resting of the Holy Spirit upon the Christ, upon Jesus the God-man, is the sign of his redeeming significance for all of humanity, since it manifests, in fact, that he is, even in his concrete and singular humanity, the one and only eternally-begotten Son of the Father, united with with him in the single Spirit of Love whom they share. Thus, from the moment of his Incarnation in this world, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, becomes the wellspring of all grace in this world, such that wherever the Holy Spirit is operative in humanity, back to the very beginning of time and until its final consummation, this activity flows from and remains joined to the presence of Christ, the Redeemer of the world. Thus the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Jesus Christ are inseparable; they have one indivisible activity. This is how Saint Justin Martyr was able to speak of the insights of the pagans before Christ as semina Verbi, as seeds of the Word who was to come, as hints and intimations of his full presence in the Incarnation; indeed, anywhere truth and love may be found, Christ is there, with his Holy Spirit, bringing the presence of the Father into receptive human hearts. Just as the hidden work of God in human hearts never happens outside of or apart from the Church—the Catholic Church who is present in her fullness in the visible Church which we acknowledge as Catholic, but whose mystery also surpasses our vision as the mystery she bears bursts forth to inundate and flood the entire universe—so too God’s presence in the world is always also the presence of the Incarnate Son and his Holy Spirit. The Trinity’s activity is always one, and he never acts apart from his Bride and Body, which is the perpetuation and extension of his presence throughout time and space; yes, this Bride and Body is also his one beloved, composed of many persons and yet gathered together into indissoluble unity. She is humanity restored, by sheer grace, to the unity that was fractured at the beginning in the sin of Adam and Eve, and which, through the love of Christ and Mary in the Spirit, has, at the end of the ages, been restored, unto the glory and praise of the Father and the fullfillment of humanity in the intimacy of the Blessed Trinity.*
*An example of this is Edith Stein, who spent years ardently searching for the truth, and in a single night of abundant grace, found it. After staying up the entire night reading the Autobiography of Teresa of Avila, she exclaimed: “This is the truth!” The wonder she experienced at this discovery was only possible because, through the intense desire of her search, her heart had been made capable of receiving and rejoicing in the truth when it was found.
*The Church herself has made all of these points clear in the document Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, which John Paul II believed was of utmost importance and insisted on releasing, despite the fact that in our cultural situation it would not be well received.
iJoseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth:From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. Adrian J. Walker (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2007), 53-56.