It has been a busy week for Catholic Christians.
Monday we were rocked by the Pope’s resignation and today, Ash Wednesday, we join fellow Christians around the world in celebrating the Season of Lent.
Lent is often portrayed as the time Christians “give up something” like chocolate, alcohol or, in this day and age, social media. And since the Pope’s announcement, many humorous memes have made this connection between Papal resignation and Lenten fasting. But humor aside, it strikes me as oddly appropriate Benedict XVI made his announcement on the eve of this liturgical season. Lent is a time, through fasting, service and prayer, we ask for the grace to follow Christ into our true humanity—in all of its frailty and vulnerability. Pope Benedict’s free surrender to the reality of his own limitations offers a powerful spiritual witness of what it means to embrace our human finitude.
Based on my read of the many recent newsfeeds, blogs and articles, many fine theologians and ecclesiologists already agree that Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation will be his papal legacy because it offers the church such a critical (and hopefully lasting) reminder that the Chair of Peter is an office, not a person. As Daily Theology’s own Brian Flanagan wrote on Tuesday:
“The papacy can now be clearly seen as a crucial office of the universal church, but one in which the pope remains an officeholder, rather than an irreplaceable, magical figure. I’d bet…that Benedict is doing this with a great deal of conscious awareness of the ecclesiological, and not just the practical, implications for future papacies. The precedent may well be his greatest gift to the church.”
And in yesterday’s “New York Times,” Fr. James Martin, SJ echoed Flanagan’s comments, writing:
“Paradoxically, Benedict might also be best remembered for how he left the papacy. In becoming the first pope to resign since 1415, he demonstrated immense spiritual freedom, putting the good of the institution, and of a billion Catholics, before power or status.”
Flanagan and Martin’s observations are just a sampling of the earliest reflections on Benedict’s resignation’s ecclesial significance. We can be sure that throughout the coming days and weeks, there will be much more spirited conversation regarding this unprecedented—at least in modern times–move. Commentators and historians will debate about both the successes and limitations of Pope Benedict’s papacy and we all will continue to wrestle with ecclesial questions regarding the role of the Papal office, canon law specifics, conclave procedures, conspiracy theories, etc. So perhaps on this Ash Wednesday, we may pause for a moment to reflect not just on the ecclesial gift, but also the spiritual witness of free surrender Benedict’s resignation offers.
Johannes Baptist Metz, another significant German theologian just a few months younger than Benedict, explores the paradox of human finitude in his pithy yet profound spiritual classic, Poverty of Spirit. According to Metz, our fundamental vocation is to “fully become what we are—a human being.” Becoming human, however, requires a counterintuitive turn towards that which frightens and confuses us the most: our vulnerability, frailty, finitude, and neediness for God and others, or what Metz calls our “innate poverty.” Aware that we too easily and dangerously associate this “innate poverty” with sinfulness, Metz reminds us that sin occurs precisely when we refuse to embrace our limitations and our inherent need for others and God. He writes:
“We can secretly betray the humanity entrusted to us, and we have done precisely this from the very beginning…We can try to run away from ourselves, from the burdens and difficulties of our lot…we can stifle the truth of our Being (cf. Rom. 1:18). In short, we can fail to obey this truth, thus aborting the work of becoming a human being.”
Metz then shows us how the Christian story sheds new light on what it means to be human. By immediately turning to Jesus, Metz helps us see our human poverty and finitude as blessing rather than brokenness. Through the Incarnation and his complete self-emptying, Jesus enters our humanity and shows us what it means to fully surrender to our need and love for God and others. Metz uses the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert as the lens through which we see Jesus freely surrender to this mission to enter the human experience. Each temptation shows us that Jesus’ radical “yes” requires repeatedly and emphatically saying “no” to other options and alternatives that threaten this yes from coming into full fruition. By refusing to give into social, political and economic power, Jesus accepts the mission to accompany us, time and again showing us what it means to love—and receive love–completely. Yet, as the story goes, the world of power refuses to understand this love, and Jesus’ radical yes eventually leads to his death on the Cross. But that is not the end of the Christian story. Jesus surrender to the love of God and love of humanity ultimately leads to Resurrection and our salvation.
Words like surrender and resignation can be tough words to swallow. We live in a culture that rewards workaholic tendencies, the ability to multitask, and having countless varieties of “life experiences”. The overwhelming pressure to do and know it all causes high levels of stress and anxiety. We overextend ourselves, inhibiting our ability to see those around in need. We risk our humanity by making ourselves the center of our universe. But as Metz shows, by following Jesus and entering the paradoxes of his Incarnation and the Cross, we come to embrace the gift of finitude, relaxing our desperate grasp for power and prestige. We begin to freely accept ourselves as limited, needy, interdependent, unfinished as well as beautiful, blessed, and loved unconditionally by our faithful God. Through gratefully embracing our inability to be everything to everyone, we enter into the freedom Christ offers us. Lent offers us a time to enter the mystery of Christ and relax our grasp on those things and habits that keep us from this freedom.
On Monday, the world watched as in an act of gracious humility, Pope Benedict XVI freely acknowledged his human finitude and resigned from the Papal office. As we enter this holy time for reflection, repentance and renewal, with eyes fixed on Calvary and hearts waiting in joyful hope for Resurrection, the Pope’s surprising announcement invites us to embrace our own human finitude and let go of our need to be in control. This surrender helps us find our own “spiritual freedom” and this freedom allows us to love God, others, and ourselves more attentively and intentionally. And as the Paschal Mystery reveals, this is how we live into the full humanity to which we are called.