Who will be best remembered – Pope Benedict XVI or Joseph Ratzinger? My question hasn't as much to do with the Holy Father's bold decision to resign, as with the remarkable scholarly writing of Joseph Ratzinger over more than half a century.
It is hard to know where to begin in reviewing the remarkable career of Pope Benedict as a theological writer. Most of us are aware of the warm reception that the three volumes of his book Jesus of Nazareth received from academics and ordinary people alike. But the theological writings that came before Joseph Ratzinger's election as pope could fill a bookshelf; and this week I took down two of his books from my shelf. One is a classic, written in 1999, called The Spirit of the Liturgy. The other is A New Song for the Lord, a collection of essays put together in 1996, dealing with the same topic but with a particular emphasis on music.
It's not rocket science to figure out that two things influenced my homily this week – the impending retirement of the Pope, and the presence of this wonderful choir from Redeemer Pacific College. But my thoughts came together around the Gospel be we hear this Sunday, the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
"It is good to be here." Even in such a dramatic moment as the appearance of Elijah and Moses on the mountain with Jesus—Jesus dazzlingly white—Peter's simple words resound.
Can we make St. Peter's words our own this morning? Can we say 'it is good to be here'—good to be gathered at the altar for this Eucharist?
To answer this question we might well ask three more questions: they are the opening words of The Spirit of the Liturgy. "What is the liturgy? What happens during the liturgy? What kind of reality do we encounter here?"
Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, spends the whole book answering these questions. But one of his insights connects to today's Gospel, where God teaches the three apostles about his Son by means of their senses, displaying his glory in a way they can see, and affirming his mission in a way they can hear.
The future Pope wrote "We can reach out toward God in our thinking and try to feel our way toward him. But real liturgy implies that God responds and reveals how we can worship him… [Liturgy] cannot spring from imagination, our own creativity—then it would remain just a cry in the dark or mere self-affirmation.
Peter got creative with his idea for tent-building. But God remains in charge of the conversation, and Peter's human response goes nowhere. And no wonder, for in A New Song for the Lord, Pope Benedict tells us that the flesh of Jesus is the true temple and the true "tent."
At the same time, we must admire Peter's eagerness to do something on that holy mountain. In the same book, the Pope reminds us that "God's incarnation was his entry into matter, the beginning of a momentous movement in which all matter is to become a vessel for the Word... As a consequence, Christians are now deriving pleasure from making faith visible, from constructing its symbol in the world of matter."
Another basic idea is connected to this: "the idea of glorification, the attempt to turn the earth into praise, right down to the stones themselves, and thus to anticipate the world to come. The buildings in which faith is expressed are, as it were, a visualized hope and a confident statement of what can come to be, projected into the present."
And if this can be said about church buildings, think about the liturgy itself, this very material expression of the spiritual and infinite. It is good for us to be here, because here the Lord manifests his glory to us—not in the same way as on the mount of Transfiguration, but in the manner he chose and revealed at the Last Supper.
It is good for us to be here, to stay awake and alert for the Word the Father speaks to us.
What does the liturgy call forth from us? Already we have noted as simple a thing as our desire to have a materially beautiful church. But we can never forget St. Peter's own words telling us that we are the living stones God is using to build a spiritual temple. (1 Peter 2:5) We not only witness God's glory: we do our part to make it seen by others.
The welcome presence of the Redeemer Pacific College choir at Mass this morning reminds us that music is a powerful, even necessary, element of good liturgy. It's surprising how much Pope Benedict has to say about music in his theological writings. He even refers in one place to "the musical imperative of the Bible."
This imperative, he writes, "is the concrete version of the call to worship and glorify God which is revealed in the Bible as the most profound vocation of human beings. This means that musical expression is part of the proper human response to God's self revelation, to his becoming open to a relationship with us. Mere speech, mere silence, mere action are not enough. That integral way of humanly expressing joy or sorrow, consent or complaint which occurs in singing is necessary for responding to God, who touches us precisely in the totality of our being."
These are deep thoughts, expressed in complex ways. But they are just echoes of Peter's exclamation "Master, it is good for us to be here."
It is good for us all to be here, for here we come as close to the glory of God as he wills us to, this side of Christ's return. It is good for this fine choir to be here, that human gifts may be used to draw us nearer to the place where we glimpse what God still has in store for us as his plan for Salvation unfolds in his Church and in our lives.