The Good News

Fourth Sunday of Advent. Is 7:10-14; Ps 23:1-6; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24

St Paul in today's Second Reading begins his letter to the Romans by describing what he preaches as the “Good News that God promised.” The phrase ‘good news’ is so closely linked with Christianity that familiarity may prevent us from experiencing any sense of novelty. Yet the first Christians, two thousand years ago, clearly recognized the faith as ‘news’. The four great accounts of the Life of Jesus Christ in the Bible are all called ‘gospels’, which means ‘good news’. In addition, the words ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ appear many times throughout the specifically Christian scriptures known as the ‘New Testament’. As Christians we bear news to the world. But what, exactly, is the content of this news and why is it good for us?

Sometimes we may better be able to understand what we have as Christians by examining a contrast. There is a commonplace assumption in the contemporary Western world that all religions are essentially similar: they differ only in accidental details like the names of prophets or particular pious practices. This assumption is, however, demonstrably untrue: religions clearly differ in important fundamentals. In particular, they differ on the question of whether there is ‘good news’, or indeed any ‘news’ at all. This might seem strange, but let me give a example. In September last year, Pope Benedict XVI gave a famous speech at the University of Regensburg in which he cited the words of a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor. While his city was under siege, the emperor engaged in dialogue with an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam. During the course of the dialogue, the emperor interrupted with a startling statement, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Although the Holy Father noted that we find such brusque language unacceptable today, he nevertheless used this quotation to underline two key lessons: that spreading faith through violence is unreasonable, and that acting unreasonably is contrary to God's nature. The subsequent response of a hundred eminent Muslim scholars to this speech is, I believe, most helpful for understanding Christianity. In an open letter to the Holy Father, the Muslim scholars argued that Islam is compatible with reason. They also denied that Muslims are commanded to spread their faith by the sword. But what is most intriguing is the response they made to the first part of the quotation, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new.” Citing their holy book, the answer the scholars gave was ‘nothing’: Mohammed brought nothing new. This is perfectly true, for Mohammed explicitly statesin the Qur'an that, “I am no new thing.” (46:9) One might say that the ‘news’ of Islam is that there is no ‘gospel’ or  ‘good news’. Indeed, there is no news at all.

This contrast may, as I said, help us to understand what is unique about the good news of Christianity. In the broader context of history, Islam may perhaps be considered as a reversion to a common sensibility of the ancient world, the sense of the remoteness of God. One might call this the solitude of God. The great pagan philosophers of antiquity knew that there is a God, but they also had a strong sense of the utter separation of God and ourselves. Into this world of the remoteness of God, Christianity really brought news, something unique that had never been told before and which has never been repeated since. In the words of the Good News of Matthew, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” (Mt 4:16) In the words of the Good News of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5) Without compromising the essential distinction of the divine and human natures, a separation we cannot overcome by ourselves even in our imaginations, God himself has bridged that unthinkable gap. The Word of God, the light of the world, has been made flesh and is to be born of Mary. For Jesus Christ is true God and true man. Jesus Christ is God Himself come to save us. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. This is the good news of Christianity.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 23rd December 2007

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