Last Lent I tried to shed some light on the danger of living “etsi Christus non daretur,” that is, “as if Christ had never existed.” Continuing this line of thought, in this year’s Advent meditations I would like to call attention to another analogous danger: that of living “as if the Church were nothing more than” scandals, controversies, personality clashes, gossip, or at best, at least socially useful. In short, just human, like everything else in the course of history.

I would like to shed light on the inner splendor of the Church and the Christian life. We must not close our eyes to factual reality nor evade our responsibilities; at the same time, we need to face them from a correct perspective and not allow ourselves to be crushed by them. We cannot expect journalists and the media to take into account how the Church views itself, but the worst possible outcome would be if we, Church people and ministers of the Gospel, were likewise to end up losing sight of the mystery that dwells within the Church and resign ourselves to playing on someone else’s turf and always on the defensive.

Speaking about the proclamation of the Gospel, the Apostle wrote: “We carry this treasure in fragile clay jars” (2 Cor 4:7). It would be foolish to spend all of our time and energy focusing on the “fragile clay jars” while forgetting about “the treasure”. The Apostle gives us a reason to assert the positive that exists even in a situation like ours. He says that this is “so that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7).

The Church is like the stained glass windows of a cathedral. (I experienced this while visiting Chartres Cathedral.) If you look at the windows from the outside, from the street, all you see are pieces of dark glass held together by dark strips of lead. But if you go inside and look at those same windows with the light pouring in, what a splendid array of colors, stories, and meanings unfolds before your eyes! I am suggesting that we look at the Church from the inside, in the deepest meaning of the word, to see it in light of the mystery that it bears.

During Lent, the Chalcedonian Definition that Christ is truly human and truly divine in a single person guided our meditations. This season we will take our lead from one of the more typical Advent liturgical texts, Galatians 4:4-7, which reads:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. The proof that you are children is that God has sent into your hearts his Son’s Spirit which cries out: “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a child; and if a child, then also an heir, by God’s grace.

In its brevity, this passage is a synthesis of the entire Christian mystery. It encompasses the Trinity: God the Father, his Son, and the Holy Spirit; the incarnation: “God sent his Son;” and all of this, not as some abstract, out-of-time experience, but within the context of salvation history: “in the fullness of time.” Discretely, but no less essential, is the presence of Mary: “born of a woman.” And, finally, the upshot of all this: women and men are made children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.

Children of God!

In this initial meditation, I would like to reflect on the first part of the text: “God sent his Son so that we might receive adoption as God’s children.” The fatherhood of God is at the heart of Jesus’ preaching. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, God is seen as a father. The novelty here is that now God is seen not so much as the “father of his people Israel” in a collective sense, so to speak, but as the father of each human being in an individual and personal sense, of both the righteous and the sinner. God cares about each one as if that person were the only one; God knows the needs, the thoughts and counts the number of hairs on the head of each one.

The mistake of Liberal Theology, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (especially in its most renowned representative, Adolf von Harnack), was to view the fatherhood of God as the essence of the Gospel, leaving aside Christ’s divinity and the Paschal Mystery. Another error (which began with the heresy of Marcion in the 2nd century and was never completely eradicated) was to view the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as a just, holy, powerful, and thundering God, and the God of Jesus Christ as a tender, affable and merciful “daddy-figure” God.

The novelty brought by Christ does not consist in this. Rather, it consists in the fact that God, who remains as he was described in the Hebrew Testament, namely, thrice holy, just, and all-powerful, is now given to us as our papa! This is the image set in place by Jesus in the opening words of the Our Father and which expresses, in a nutshell, all that follows: “Our Father who art in heaven.” You are in heaven, that is, you are the Most High, the transcendent One, as high above us as the heavens are above the earth, but still, “our father” – or as the original puts it: “Abba!” – somewhat akin to saying our papa, my dad.

This is also the image of God that the Church places at the head of its Creed. “I believe in one God, the Father almighty”: father, but still almighty: almighty, but still father, This is, after all, what every child needs – a parent who bends down to them, who is tender, with whom they can play, but who, at the same time, is strong and can be relied on for protection, who instills in them courage and freedom.

In Jesus’ preaching, we get a glimpse of the real novelty that changes everything. God is not just a father in a metaphorical and moral sense in so far as he created and cares for his people. God is – first of all – a real father of a real son begotten “before the dawn,” meaning before time began, and it will be thanks to this only Son that people will also be able to become God’s children in a real sense and not just metaphorically. This novelty shines in the way Jesus addresses himself to the Father calling him Abbà, and also through his words: “No one knows the Father but the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt 11:27).

It must be noted, however, that in the preaching of the earthly Jesus the radical novelty that he brought about is not yet apparent. The scope of the title “father” lingers in a moral sense, that is, it describes how God acts towards humanity and the feeling that humans should nurture regarding God. The relationship is still of an existential type, not yet ontological and essential. For this to happen, the Paschal Mystery of his death and resurrection was needed.

Paul is a reflection of this post-Easter stage of faith. Thanks to the redemption brought about by Christ and imparted to us in Baptism, we are no longer God’s children in a moral sense alone, but also in a real, ontological sense. We have become “sons in the Son,” and Christ has become the “firstborn of many brothers and sisters” (Rom 8:29).

To express all this the Apostle uses the notion of adoption: “…that we might receive adoption as children” “God destined us for adoption as his children” (Eph 1:5). It is only an analogy, and as with any analogy, it cannot express the fullness of the mystery. In itself, human adoption is a legal fact. Adopted children may assume the surname, citizenship, and residence of the adoptive parent, but they do not share their blood or DNA. Conception, birthing pangs, and delivery were not involved. This is not the case with us. God not only imparts to us being called his children, but he also imparts to us his intimate life, his Spirit which is, so to speak, his DNA. By Baptism, the very life of God flows within us.

On this point, John is more daring than Paul. He does not speak in terms of adoption, but of real birthing, God giving us birth. Those who believed in Christ “were begotten by God” (Jn 1:13); in Baptism, we are “born of the Spirit;” one is “born again from above” (see Jn 3:5-6).

From faith to amazement

Thus far we have touched on the truths of our faith. It is not, however, on these that I would like to focus. These are things that we already know and that we can read about in any manual of biblical theology, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and books on spirituality. What, then, is the “different” aspect that we want to focus on in this reflection?

My starting point for discovering it is a sentence used by our Holy Father in his catechesis on the Letter to the Galatians at the General Audience of last September 8. After quoting our text on the adoption as children, he added: “We Christians often take for granted this reality of being children of God. We might live the great gift we have received with more awareness,—and it would be good for us—, if we were always to keep in mind the moment of our Baptism when we became one.”

We all face a mortal danger, namely taking for granted the most sublime truths of our faith, including that of being children of God, the Creator of the universe, the Almighty One, the Eternal One, the giver of life. St. John Paul II, in his letter on the Eucharist, written shortly before his death, spoke about the “Eucharistic amazement” that Christians ought to rediscover. The same should be said about our being children of the divine: we must pass from faith to amazement. I would go so far as to say from faith to unbelief! I speak of a very special type of unbelief: that of those who believe without being able to grasp what they believe because it is so immense and unthinkable.

Indeed, we hesitate to put into words the consequence of being children of God because it simply boggles the mind. Being such, the ontological gap that separates God from humans is smaller than the ontological gap that separates us from the rest of creation, because by grace we “share in the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).

An example might serve better than a host of arguments to understand what it means not to take for granted being children of God. Following her conversion, St. Margaret of Cortona went through a period of terrible anguish. God seemed to be angry with her and at times made her recall, one by one, all the sins she had committed down to the smallest detail, making her want to vanish from the face of the earth. One day, after communion, quite unexpectedly a voice within her said: “My daughter!” She had resisted a review of all her faults, but she could not resist the tenderness of this voice. She fell into an ecstasy and, during the ecstasy, witnesses present heard her franticly repeat in amazement:

I am his daughter; he said so. O infinite tenderness of my God! The word I craved! So insistently sought! Word whose sweetness surpasses all sweetness! What an ocean of joy! My daughter! My God said it! My daughter!

Well before St. Margaret, the Apostle John came to that same shocking realization. He wrote: “Witness the depth of love God has for us that we should be called God’s children. And that is what we truly are!” (1 Jn 3:1). This sentence is clearly intended to be read with an exclamation point.

Unleashing one’s Baptism

Why is it so important to move beyond faith to amazement, from beliefs (fides quae) to believing (fides qua)? Isn’t it enough just to believe? No, and for a very simple reason: because this – and only this – really changes your life!

Let take a look at the path that leads to this new level of faith. As we heard, the Holy Father invited us to return to our Baptism. To understand how a sacrament received many years ago –often at the beginning of our lives – can suddenly come back to life and release new spiritual energy, we need to keep in mind certain facets of sacramental theology.

Catholic theology acknowledges the idea of a sacrament that is both valid and licit, but “tethered” or “frozen”. Baptism is often a “tethered” sacrament. A sacrament is said to be “tethered” if its effects remain inhibited and hindered due to the lack of certain conditions that impede its effectiveness. An extreme example would be the sacrament of Matrimony or Holy Orders received in a state of mortal sin. In those circumstances, such sacraments cannot confer any grace on the individuals. However, once the obstacle of sin is removed through a good confession, it is said that the sacrament revives (reviviscit) without needing to repeat the sacramental rite, thanks to the fidelity and irrevocability of God’s gift.

As I mentioned, Matrimony and Holy Orders are extreme examples, but there could be other cases in which a sacrament, although not completely tethered, is also not completely unleashed, that is, free to work its effects. In the case of Baptism, what is it that could cause the effects of the sacrament to remain frozen? Sacraments are not magical rites that work mechanically without our knowing it or without some cooperation on our part. Their effectiveness is the result of synergy or collaboration between divine omnipotence (specifically, the grace of Christ of the Holy Spirit) and human freedom.

In the sacrament, everything that depends on the grace or will of Christ is referred to as “the work accomplished” (opus operatum); that is, the finished work, the objective and inevitable effects of the sacrament when validly administered. On the other hand, everything that depends on the recipient’s freedom and disposition is called “the work yet to be accomplished” (opus operantis), that is, what remains to be carried out, the human contribution.

What we receive from God – the so-called “grace of Baptism” – is multifaceted and very rich. It includes our becoming children of God, the remission of sins, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the planting of the seeds of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity into our souls. The human contribution consists essentially of faith! “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:16). When grace and freedom touch in perfect synchronism, like two poles, one positive and one negative, light and power are unleashed.

In the case of infant Baptism (and also in adult Baptism when deep conviction and participation are lacking), that synchronism is missing. I’m not suggesting that we abandon the practice of infant Baptism. The Church has always rightly practiced it and defended it on the basis that Baptism is a gift of God even prior to being the result of a human choice. Rather, we need to acknowledge what this practice involves, given the new historical situation in which we live.

In times past, when the entire environment was Christian and impregnated with faith, this faith could blossom, albeit gradually. The free and personal act of faith was “supplied by the Church” and expressed, as it were, through a third party, namely the parents and godparents. This is no longer the case. The environment in which a child grows up today is less conducive to helping faith blossom in the child. Often neither is the family, and even less so the school system, and least of all our society and culture.

This is why I spoke about Baptism as a “tethered” sacrament. It is like a very precious gift package that remains unopened, like a Christmas gift, misplaced somewhere and forgotten about, even before it was opened. Whoever has it has everything they need to carry out all the acts required in the life of a Christian, and also experiences some of its effects at least partially, but does not enjoy the fullness of the reality. In the language of St. Augustine, they experience the sacrament (sacramentum), but not – at least not fully – the reality of the sacrament (the res sacramenti).

The fact that we are here meditating on this already means that we have believed, that faith has been joined to the sacrament in us. What, then, are we still lacking? We lack faith-as-amazement, the wide-eyed Wow! of wonder and excitement as that you get when you open a gift and which is, to the gift-giver, the best reward of all. The Greek Fathers referred to Baptism as “enlightenment” (photismos). Has that type of enlightenment ever occurred in us?

We ask ourselves: is it possible, and is it even right, for us to aspire to this different level of faith in which we not only believe a truth but also experience and taste the truth that we believe? Christian spirituality has often been accompanied by reluctance and even (as in the case of the Reformers) by a negation of the experiential and mystical dimension of the Christian life as if it were somehow inferior and contrary to pure faith. But despite the abuses that have also occurred, the Christian tradition has never downplayed the wisdom tradition which holds that the apex of faith is in “savoring” the truth of what we believe and in “tasting” the truth, including the bitter taste of the truth of the cross.

In biblical language, to know does not mean having an idea of something that remains distinct and apart from me. It means entering into a relationship and experiencing it. (The term is used even about knowing your wife and knowing the loss of children!). The evangelist John exclaims: “We have known and believed the love God has towards us” (1 Jn 4:16), and again: “We have believed and known that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69). Why say “known and believed?” What does “known” add to “believed”? It adds a certain inner conviction that occurs when truth confronts the spirit and one is compelled to exclaim from deep within: “Yes, it’s true, there is no doubt, that’s it!” The truth that is believed becomes a reality that is lived. St. Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “Fides non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem,” that is, “Faith does not end in an utterance, but with reality.” We never cease discovering the practical consequences of this principle.

The role of God’s word

How can we make this qualitative leap from faith to the amazement of knowing we are God’s children? The first answer is the word of God! (There is an equally essential means, namely the Holy Spirit, but we will leave that for our next meditation). St. Gregory the Great compared the Word of God to flint, that is, to the stone once used to produce a spark that ignited a fire. He said it is necessary to do with the Word of God what is done with the flint: to strike it repeatedly until it produces a spark. Ponder it, repeat it, even out loud.

During your prayer time or adoration, with your whole heart, and without becoming bored, repeat within yourself: “A child of God! I am a son of God; I am a daughter of God. God is my father!” Or simply repeat for some time: “Our Father who art in heaven” without continuing the rest of the prayer. As you do so, it is more necessary than ever to remember the words of Jesus: “Knock and it will be opened to you” (Mt 7:7). Sooner or later, and perhaps when you least expect it, it will happen – the reality of those words, if only for a moment, will explode within you and will be enough for the rest of your life. And even if nothing sensational should happen, be assured that you have achieved what is essential. The rest will be given to you in heaven: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2)

We are All Brothers and Sisters!

One of the immediate effects of all this is that you will become aware of your dignity. On Christmas Eve, St. Leo the Great will exhort us: “Recognize, O Christian, your dignity. Once you have shared in the divine nature would you really want to return to the wretchedness of your past?” What dignity could be greater than being a child of God? The story is told of an arrogant mean daughter of the king of France who constantly scolded one of her maids. One day she shouted in her face, “Don’t you know that I’m the daughter of your king?” To which the maid replied, “And don’t you know that I am the daughter of your God?”

Another even more important by-product is that you become more aware of the dignity of other people who are also sons and daughters of God. For us Christians, human solidarity as brothers and sisters is ultimately rooted in the fact that God is the father of us all, and since we are all sons and daughters of God, we are all brothers and sisters to each other. There is no bond stronger than this, and for us Christians, there is no more urgent reason for promoting universal brother-/sisterhood. St. Cyprian wrote: “You cannot claim God as your father without owning the Church as your mother.” We should add: “You cannot claim God as your father without owning your neighbor as your brother or sister.”

There is one thing we should stop doing. Let us not say to God the Father, not even by implication: “Choose between me and my adversary; decide whose side you are on!” No parent should be put in the untenable position of having to choose between their children simply because the children can’t get along with each other. So let us not ask God to take our side against someone else.

When we have a conflict with someone else – our brother or sister –, even before we meet with them to discuss our point of view (which is not only right but also sometimes necessary), let us say to God: “Father, save that brother or sister of mine; save us both. I am not looking for me to be right and him or her to be wrong. I want that person to stand in the truth, or at least in good faith.” This mercy of one individual towards another is indispensable for living the life of the Spirit and community life in all of its forms. It is indispensable for the family and every human and religious community, including the Roman Curia. As St. Augustine said, we are all fragile clay jars: It doesn’t take much to hurt ourselves.

Earlier, we called to mind the excitement of St. Margaret of Cortona when she felt God interiorly calling her “my daughter”. “I am his daughter; he said so…What an ocean of joy! My daughter! My God said it! My daughter!” We could experience something very similar if we would listen to that same voice of God, not echoing in our minds (which can be fooled!), but appearing in black and white, written on the page of the Bible under our consideration: “You are no longer a slave, but a child. And if you are a child, you are an heir as well!”

As we’ll see the next time, God willing, the Holy Spirit is ready to help us in this undertaking.


Translated into English by Br. Patrick McSherry, ofmcap

1.John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 6.
2.Giunta Bevegnati, Vita e miracoli della Beata Margherita da Cortona, II, 6 (Italian version, Vicenza 1978, p. 19f).
3.See A. Michel, Reviviscence des sacrements, in DTC, XIII,2, Paris 1937, coll. 2618-2628.
4.Summa theologiæ, II-II, 1, 2, ad 2.
5.Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezechiel, I,2,1.
6.Leo the Great, Discourse 1 on Christmas, 3.
7.Cyprian, De unitate Ecclesiæ, 6.
8.Augustine, Discourses, 69 (PL 38, 440) (lutea vasa sibi invicem angustias facientes).