Benedict XVI’s way of the cross

February 18, 2013

After almost a week of commentary and reporting on the historic decision of Pope Benedict to vacate his office as head of the Roman Catholic church, it is something of a challenge to find something to say that has not already been spoken or published. This is by no means meant to be original thinking. Instead, the intention here is to combine some good analysis and mix it in with some informed personal opinion.

Yes, Anglicans do care about the Papacy. If only we had a strong magisterium to crack down on liturgical foolishness, correct theological error and punish serious wrongdoing, we would probably be as foolish and human as the Church of Rome sometimes appears. We “conservative” Anglicans are beset with schism and bitter name calling, divisions over women bishops and prayer books, high ritual and low ritual, and a general lack of self-confidence. And then there are the Episcopalians. Benedict has faced conflict over the Vatican Bank, liberation theology, altar girls, mouthy nuns, pedophile priests, and the bishops that shield them from the proper judicial consequences of their unspeakable crimes. It looks like Jesus is right again. The wheat and the tares grow alongside each other and you may not forcibly separate them until the final harvest and God’s ultimate judgment.

The Anglican view includes the Roman Catholic Church in the household of God. The universal church, all orthodox denominations and all believing individuals, comprise something called “the body of Christ.” We are the active living presence of the Lord and Savior in the world today. Jesus Christ himself is the head of the body and each of the members (us) is essential. When one member is impaired, there is trouble in the entire body. This is part of the Father’s divine purpose established before the creation, back in a time when there was no time. The Almighty Father knew from the onset that we fallen humans would disfigure his vital living body on earth. Despite our inherent grave weaknesses, he trusted us with the job of spreading the gospel.

Like a good parent, God wants us to grow spiritually and to gain experience in serving one another, and all humanity. Our purpose is to become attuned to God’s character and to adjust our behavior and attitudes on a daily basis. That ongoing process is often called sanctification. By reading scripture, meditation, prayer, and making petitions to the throne of grace, we become more and more like the head of the body, Jesus Christ. This leads us to the abdication of Benedict XVI.

As we examine our own behavior and attitudes every single day, it is very obvious that there is a powerful tendency toward, self-promotion, and self-indulgence. There is an excessive love of possessions and money, along with a fierce longing for the pleasures of the flesh. Above all, there is a devotion to that which is prideful and ambitious. All of this is totally opposed by Jesus of Nazareth. There is no way on earth to square the inclination toward self-justification and egotism with the man who humbly washed his disciples feet and then allowed himself to be taken prisoner, cruelly mistreated, insulted, and executed in the most repulsive ritual of state domination.

Pope Benedict is letting go of his vast personal authority at a time when it was in his power to do otherwise. He could have put the church on auto-pilot and slept in till noon every day. As an absolute monarch, there is a large staff to attend to his needs and the small army of professional boot lickers that attend every great man. Yes, he could have remained, but this keenest of all minds is now led by the Spirit to humble himself and create a smooth transition for a healthier and more suited person. The decision was reached in an atmosphere is reflection and penetrating self-examination. This is the love we discover in the cross, a self-giving act that considers others of the highest value and makes the sacrificial lamb a mere lamb. There is, however, more to this story than the noble action of a pious individual, and please do not think that I am going soft on Rome. My opinion is contained in the 39 Articles. Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, is my brother. I would be a liar to suggest otherwise.

Tucked away in this great unfolding drama is a most important message for all Christian people. It is relevant for every bishop, pastor, minister, teacher, and member of every group of people who are devoted to following Christ. As Americans and as Protestants of various flavors, it is  typical to overlook the larger body of Christ. We deceive ourselves, and disregard scripture, to believe that whatever happens “over there” is of no local importance. One of the strongest and most important members of the body considered the other members. Would his continued service in a demanding and difficult position bring glory to Jesus Christ and build up the entire body? That is the subject of Benedict’s self-examination. One of the great mysteries of God is how he takes the things that are weak and makes them strong.

Yes, the Pope is in a strong position, but it is not his personal strength. All church authorities, no matter where they serve,  are using God’s power with a permission that comes from the heavenly places. The great leaders are absolutely nothing in the first place and it is a special gift of divine favor that places anybody as a steward in the household of God. Benedict is showing us how to do the hardest thing that anybody ever accomplishes. He is letting go of the current known situation and trusting God to be good on his word. Jesus promises to be with the church all the way and he does not depend on any mere mortals – even the most brilliant minds.

As the living expression of Christ in the world, the universal church is a mysterious thing. It is full of greed, ambition, perversion and every other human weakness. The analytical minds that reject the church and the gospel put too much emphasis on what is seen and known. They are, in fact, looking toward things they think they know and see. The catholic church (Anglicans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, the Eastern branches, independents of all shades that hold the historic doctrines) is not like any other institution on earth. It is led by unworldly invisible forces that allow human beings liberty to depart from God’s favor.

The Anglican Articles of Religion propose the nature of the church most properly. It is the congregation of God’s people where the word of God is preached and the sacraments are duly administered. It is the witness and keeper of scripture. God’s work in the church is not hindered by bad ministers. These are ancient and well-considered precepts of the Christian faith and not exclusive to Anglicanism. There is evil in the church because it is run by human beings who often forget the directions of its Head. The grave public failings of a few highly placed individuals remind every Christian of the personal tendency toward evil. Every Christian must confront the reality of our own personal weakness and seek the strength that must come from trusting God. “Thy will be done” is our prayer, but it is a risky thing to say those words without understanding. That is where strength becomes weakness and weakness becomes strength.

Pope Benedict embraced his weakness and gained strength to trust God with his well-being, and that of the church. Throughout the scriptures it is apparent that Almighty God favors the weak, the murderer, the stutterer, the youngest of the sons, the barren woman, the exile and the poor. God weeks all the glory for himself and he will not be placed in a subordinate role by some human being who thinks he is strong. Understanding this divine wisdom, the Pope is empowered to accept the infirmity of old age, trusting God to be with him on the way of the cross.

    Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
each one appears before God in Zion.
O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed!
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
the LORD bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
O LORD of hosts,
blessed is the one who trusts in you!
(Psalm 84:5-12 ESV)


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