The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

L'Osservatore Romano  - 29 December, 2000

(Translated from the Italian by Murray Watson. Our thanks to SIDIC for making this available.) 

At Christmas, we exchange gifts, in order to bring joy to others, and to share in the joy which the choir of angels announced to the shepherds, calling to mind once more the gift par excellence which God made to humanity when he gave us his Son Jesus Christ. But God prepared for this gift over the course of a long history, during which, as St. Irenaeus says, God became accustomed to being with human beings, and human beings became accustomed to being in communion with God. 

Gratitude to our Jewish brothers

This story begins with the faith of Abraham, the father of those who believe, and also the father of our faith as Christians, one who, through faith, is also our father. The story continues with the blessings granted to the patriarchs, the revelation to Moses and Israel's exodus toward the Promised Land. A new stage opens up with the promise of an unending kingship the promise made to David and his descendants. The prophets in turn interpret this history, calling people to repentance and conversion, thus preparing the human hearts to receive the ultimate gift. 

Abraham, father of the people of Israel, father of faith, thus becomes the source of blessing, for in him "all the families of the earth shall call themselves blessed " (Genesis 12:3). The task of the Chosen People is, therefore, to make a gift of their God-- the one true God-- to every other people; in reality, as Christians we are the inheritors of their faith in the one God. Our gratitude, therefore, must be extended to our Jewish brothers and sisters who, despite the hardships of their own history, have held on to faith in this God right up to the present, and who witness to it in the sight of those peoples who, lacking knowledge of the one God, "dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death" (Luke 1:79).

Israel and the Church are inseparable

The God of the Jewish Bible (which, together with the New Testament, is also the Christian Bible)--a God at times infinitely tender, and at times so severe as to inspire fear--is also the God of Jesus Christ and of the Apostles. The Church of the second century had to resist the denial of this God by the Gnostics and, above all, by Marcion, who created a dichotomy between the New Testament God and the "inferior" Creator God who was the source of the Old Testament. The Church, however, has always maintained its faith in a single God, the Creator of the world, and the author of both Testaments. The awareness of God contained in the New Testament, which finds its summit in the Johannine definition that "God is love" (1 John 4:16), does not contradict the past, but rather serves as a summary of all of salvation history, which initially had Israel as its central figure. 

For this reason, the voices of Moses and the prophets have rung out in the Church's liturgy from its very beginnings until today; Israel's psalter is also the great book of the Church's prayer. As a result, the primitive Church did not pit itself against Israel, but in all simplicity believed itself to be the legitimate continuation of Israel. The splendid image of chapter 12 of the book of Revelation of a woman clothed with the sun, crowned with twelve stars, pregnant and suffering in the pangs of giving birth is Israel, which was "to rule over all nations with an iron scepter" (Psalm 2:9). Nonetheless, this woman is transformed into the new Israel, the mother of new peoples, and she is personified in Mary, the Mother of Jesus. The bringing-together of these three meanings-- Israel, Mary, the Church--shows how Israel and the Church were, and are, inseparable for the Christian faith.

A new vision of Israel-Church relations

We know that every act of giving birth is difficult. Certainly, from the very beginning, relations between the infant Church and Israel were often marked by conflict. The Church was considered by her own mother to be a degenerate daughter, while Christians considered their mother to be blind and obstinate. Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes, which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians. 

Perhaps it is precisely because of this latest tragedy that a new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel has been born: a sincere willingness to overcome every kind of anti-Judaism, and to initiate a constructive dialogue based on knowledge of each other, and on reconciliation. If such a dialogue is to be fruitful, it must begin with a prayer to our God, first of all that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people, the people of Israel, to whom belong "the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, he who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen" (Romans 9:4-5), and this not only in the past, but still today, "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). In the same way, let us pray that he may grant also to the children of Israel a deeper knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, who is their son, and the gift they have made to us. Since we are both awaiting the final redemption, let us pray that the paths we follow may converge.

Israel's faith - the foundation of our faith

It is evident that, as Christians, our dialogue with the Jews is situated on a different level than that in which we engage with other religions. The faith witnessed to by the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament for Christians) is not merely another religion to us, but is the foundation of our own faith. Therefore, Christians--and today increasingly in collaboration with their Jewish sisters and brothers--read and attentively study these books of Sacred Scripture, as a part of their common heritage. It is true that Islam also considers itself as one of Abraham's offspring, and has inherited from Jews and Christians this same God. Muslims, however, follow a different path, and so dialogue with them calls for different parameters.

To return to the exchange of Christmas gifts with which I began this meditation: we must first of all recognize that everything we have and do is a gift of God, which is gained only through humble, sincere prayer. It is a gift that must be shared between various ethnic groups, between religions who are seeking a better grasp of the divine mystery, between nations who seek peace, and between peoples who wish to build a society where justice and peace reign. This is the program sketched out by the Second Vatican Council for the Church of the future, and we Catholics ask the Lord to help us to persevere on that path.