Rorate Caeli

The Gospel in a Nutshell

 Dom Gérard Calvet OSB*

ONE DAY, as we were asking a Carmelite sister to tell us how she made her prayer, her heart to heart with the Lord, she responded that, for thirty-five years, one phrase of the Gospel was enough for her, and she returned to it without ceasing. It seemed to her that drawing on another source would be to be unfaithful to her particular vocation, or at least to the attraction which the Lord had given to her for her time of mental prayer. It is very true that the interior life, more than a response to passing impulses, is chiefly an effort to persevere in the direction of a continuous line flowing form the first grace.

The phrase that our Carmelite was taking in this way was drawn from the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). The whole doctrine of salvation is contained in these few words: the divine paternity, the redemptive Incarnation, the role of faith, the drama of reprobation and the perspective of eternal happiness. The ancients gave a name to this verse of the Gospel of Saint John: they called it Evangelium in nuce, the Gospel in a nutshell. Let’s read it slowly and lets pause over each word so that we draw out the sap. This is perhaps the surest way to approach the great mystery of the Incarnation, this essential mystery, source of all the others, by which God touches the world. Lets try!

God so loved the world… Everything flows from the Trinity. Everything that is divine, everything that comes down from God and leads man to God can only be an outflowing of the love of the Trinity: God so loved the world... There is a great consolation and sweetness in this profession of faith in divine charity. It is something that makes the fear and the news of the worst catastrophes [1] lose their strength, like smoke that is blown away by the wind. So is there bad news? Can it be as bad as renouncing Love?

One can say that the race of saints has for two thousand years been working and plowing this field and have only been drawing the consequences of this essential good news, invoked so often: Deus caritas est. God is love. But according to a logic which made the ancient Greeks mock, it was necessary, so that this love express itself, so that it pour itself out on man, that God send His Son. This is the second part of our phrase.

... that he gave His only Son...

Here is what the poor inhabitants of this earth couldn’t imagine or conceive. Neither did they even dream of it in their myths and fables: Heaven crossing the frontiers of this earth, the angels singing the glory of God above the stable, a world transfigured by the unspeakable presence of a Divine Person, One of the Trinity, Unus de Trinitate, will say the Fathers, who learns to walk, to read and to write, a God-Man who plays, who cries, who sings, living the same life as his human brothers and sisters, born of a woman, bent under the Law, working and suffering, dying as the offering of a propitiatory sacrifice. Unimaginable: rising from the dead and sharing with human beings the gift of the Spirit, making his brothers and sisters members of His Body, sanctifying though faith and the sacraments, and through living a new life. This is what we call the redemptive Incarnation and it makes faithful hearts sing a song of thanksgiving until the end of time. Nothing strikes us more insistently than Saint John speaking of this unfathomed mystery: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you” (1 Jn 1,1-3). It seems that the Apostle stays dazzled by the great miracle and that he never ceased to be amazed with joy and enthusiasm by remembering it.

... so that whoever believes in Him may not perish...  Here for us to see is the great virtue of Faith placed at the centre of this affirmation, between the proclamation of God who loves the human race and each one of us and the announcement of the promises of eternity. To believe, to invest in and build one’s life on the word of God, God whom we will never see here below: this is not just the price and pledge of salvation. It is already to enter into the life of God: The one who beleives in the Son of God has the testimony of God in him (I John 5:4). The believer carries inside an inner awareness which is the living sign of his or her belonging to God. The Holy Spirit gives testimony in our own spirits that we are sons of God (Rm 8:16). Maybe more than visible victories, this is the victory over the world: This is the victory over the world, our faith (I Jn 5:4). There are so many statements about the first of the theological virtues. No opinion, no merely human belief can overcome such a divine certitude. It helps and upholds the soul of a Carmelite during her two hours of daily mental prayer; it supports the patience of the persecuted and the courage of the martyrs faced with the great trial.

Pay attention to this brief expression of St. John: “...will not perish...” suggests the essential evil from which the faith delivers us, the terrible end which is damnation. In his brilliant Mémorial Blaise Pascal says of this: May I never be separated from from You! Only souls of prayer and meditation can begin to understand the idea of the cost of separation from God and from eternal life; they alone taste ahead of time the goods of eternity, because through the mist and fog of our exile, and the obscure night of faith, they mysteriously embrace, in advance, the One who contains in Himself the totality of all future joys. It is truly where our meditation reaches its conclusion.

...but have eternal life... What is eternal life? “This is eternal life, that they know You, and Him whom You have sent, Jesus Christ” (Jn 17:3). Eternal life means the soul in the state of grace, passing from the regime of faith to the regime of vision. It is the bird inside the egg in the state of a chick, and suddenly appearing free, in the fulness of Heaven. The soul which has entered into eternal life blossoms in Paradise. She is born of God. Mustn’t we sacrifice everything right now? Which of us wouldn’t want to have a foretaste of something of what God has promised in eternity? Ah! How much our poor hope would be revived! How we would find ourselves more fully grown, if a little of the light of glory which has been promised to us would light up our vision and transform us interiorly!

And that is exactly what Saint Paul peacefully explains to the Corinthians, when he describes to them this nobility and this new liberty which belongs to the Christian who lives by and according to the Holy Spirit, “because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty [2]. And all of us, with faces uncovered, reflect like a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are transformed in this same image, going from glory to glory [3], from and through the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor 3:17).

We know that this present life is eternal life already begun, but we don’t really believe it. We know that visible things are only for a time, and that the invisible are eternal, but we don’t live like that. How little preachers speak of the invisible and eternal realities! How rare are those who speak of the joys of paradise! And even so, through all the beauties and all the kindness of this earth, will we have a thirst for something else?

*Founder and First Abbot of Sainte Madeleine du Barroux. From an article first published in Itinéraires.

[Translated by Fr. Paul J. McDonald]

1.“The just man (who is inhabited and transformed by holy charity), has no fear of evil news.” Psalm 112, which goes on to say, “with a firm heart he trusts in the Lord. With a steadfast heart he will not fear...” Translator
2.“If the Son of man sets you free, you are free indeed.” Tr.
3. St. Paul is talking about the Christian life on this earth ! Tr.