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Posted April 26, 2005

Cardinal Ratzinger and the Principle of For

In his book Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) cites six major principles of Christianity. On The Principle of “For” he writes:

Because Christian faith demands the individual, but wants him for the whole and not for himself, the real basic law of Christian existence is expressed in the preposition “For”“ this is the final conclusion that necessarily emerges from what we have said so far. That is why in the chief Christian sacrament, which forms the center of Christian worship, the existence of Jesus Christ is explained as existence “for the many”, “for you”, as an open existence which makes possible and creates the communication of all between one another through communication in him. That is why Christ’s existence, as exemplary existence, is fulfilled and perfected, as we have seen, in his being opened on the cross. That is why he can say, announcing and expounding this death: “I go away, and I will come to you”: by going away the wall of my existence which now bounds me will be broken down, and thus this happening is my real coming, in which I make a reality of what I really am, he who draws all into the unity of his new being, he who is not boundary but unity.

This is how the Fathers interpreted the arms of the Lord outstretched on the cross. They saw in them first of all the primordial form of the Christian position of prayer, the attitude of the orantes so movingly portrayed in the pictures in the catacombs. The arms of the crucified Christ thus show him to be the worshiper, but at the same time they also add a new dimension of worship, a dimensions which forms the specifically Christian element in the glorification of God: These open arms are also the expression of worship precisely because they express complete devotion to men, because they are a gesture of embrace, of full and undivided brotherliness. On the cross the theology of the Fathers found symbolically depicted in the Christian gesture of prayer the coincidence of worship and brotherliness, the indivisibility of service for man and the glorification of God.

Being a Christian means essentially changing over from being for oneself to being for one another. This also explains what is really meant by the often rather odd-seeming concept of election (“predestination”). It does not mean a preference that leaves the individual undisturbed in himself and divides him from the others, but entrance on the common task of which we spoke of earlier. Accordingly the basis Christian decision signifies the assent to being a Christian, the abandonment of self-centeredness and accession to Jesus Christ’s existence with its concentration on the whole. The same thing is meant by the phrase “the way of the cross”, which does not indicate a private devotion at all but is in harmony with the basic idea that man, leaving behind the privateness and peace of his “I”, departs from himself in order by this frustration of his “I” to follow the crucified Christ and exist for others. All the great images of the history of salvation, which represent at the same time the great basic forms of the Christian religion, are expressions of this principle of “For”“ Think for example of the image of the exodus (“departure”), which from Abraham onwards and far beyond the classic Exodus of the history of salvation, the departure from Egypt, remains the basic idea governing the existence of the people of God and of him who belongs to it: he is called to the continual exodus of stepping outside himself. There is an echo of the same thing in the image of the Pasch, in which the Christian faith has crystallized the connection between the mystery of Jesus’ cross and resurrection and the exodus-idea of the Old Covenant.

John expressed the whole thing in an image borrowed from nature. With this horizon widens out beyond anthropology and the history of salvation to embrace the cosmic: what is here called the basic structure of Christian life already represents at bottom the stamp of the creation itself. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Even on the cosmic plane the law holds good that life comes only through death, through loss of self. What is thus hinted at in the creation is fulfilled in a man and finally in the man par excellence, Jesus Christ: by embracing the fate of the grain of wheat, by going through the process of being sacrificed, by letting himself be broken down and by losing himself he opens up access to true life. The findings of the history of religion, which precisely at this point approach very close to the testimony of the Bible, would also justify one in saying that the world lives on sacrifice. Those great myths which assert that the cosmos was built up out of an original sacrifice and that the cosmos only goes on existing through self-sacrifice, that it is dependent on sacrifice, are here confirmed as true and valid. Through this mythological imagery the Christian exodus-principle become visible: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

In conclusion, it must be stated that all man’s own efforts to step outside himself cn never suffice. He who only wants to give and is not ready to receive, he who only wants to exist for others and is unwilling to recognize that he for his part too lives on the unexpected, unprovokable gift of others’ “For”, fails to recognize the basic mode of human existence and is thus bound to destroy the true meaning of living “for one another.” To be fruitful, all analysis by the other who is truly “other” of all mankind and at the same time completely one with it: the God-man Jesus Christ.