So that you can count and record in memory (cf. Ex 10:2)
Life becomes history
I want to dedicate this year’s Message to the subject of storytelling, because I believe that in order not to get lost we need to breathe the truth of good stories: stories that they build, not destroy; stories that help re-find the roots and strength to move forward together. In the midst of the confusion of the voices and the messages around us, we need a human narrative, which tells us about ourselves and the beauty we possess. A narrative that can look at the world and events tenderly; to tell that we are part of a living fabric; that reveals the weeding of the threads with which we are united with each other.
1. Weaving stories
Man is a storyteller. Since childhood we’ve been hungry for stories like we’re hungry for food. Whether in the form of stories, novels, movies, songs, news…, stories influence our lives, even if we are not aware of it. We often decide what’s right or wrong to do based on the characters and stories we’ve assimilated. Stories teach us; they capture our convictions and our behaviors; can help us understand and say who we are.
Man is not only the only being who needs to dress to cover his vulnerability (cf. Gen 3:21), but he is also the only being who needs to “clothe himself” with stories to guard his own life. Let us not only weave clothes, but also stories: in fact, the human capacity to “weave” involves both fabrics and texts. The stories of each era have a common “loom”: the structure foresees “heroes”, also current, who to realize a dream face difficult situations, fight against evil pushed by a force that gives them courage, that of love. By immersing ourselves in the stories, we can find heroic motivations to face the challenges of life.
Man is a narrating being because he is a being in realization, which is discovered and enriched in the plots of his days. But from the beginning, our account is threatened: in history it meanders evil.
2. Not all stories are good
“The day you eat of it, […] you will be like God” (cf. Gen 3:5). The temptation of the snake introduces in the plot of history a knot difficult to undo. “If you possess, you will become, you will reach…”, whispers still today who is using so-called storytelling for instrumental purposes. How many stories narcotize us, convincing us that we continually need to have, possess, consume to be happy. We hardly realize how avid we become avid for gossip and gossip, how much violence and falsehood we consume. Often, in the looms of communication, rather than constructive stories, which are a binder of social ties and cultural fabric, destructive and provocative stories are fabricating, which wear and break the fragile threads of coexistence. Gathering unedified information, repeating trivial and falsely persuasive discourses, harassing with proclamations of hatred, does not weed human history, but strips man of dignity.
But while stories used for instrumental and power purposes have a short life, a good story is able to transcend the limits of space and time. At a distance of centuries it remains current, because it feeds life. At a time when counterfeiting is becoming more sophisticated and reaching exponential levels (deepfake), we need wisdom to receive and create beautiful, true, and good stories. We need courage to reject those who are false and evil. We need patience and discernment to rediscover stories that help us not to lose our thread among today’s many lacerations; stories that bring to light the truth of who we are, even in the ignored heroics of everyday life.
3. The History of Stories
Sacred Scripture is a history of stories. How many experiences, peoples, people presents us! He shows us from the beginning a God who is creator and narrator at the same time. Indeed, he utters his Word and things exist (cf. Gen 1). Through his narration God calls things to life and, as a colophon, creates man and woman as his free interlocutors, generators of history with Him. In a psalm, the creature tells the Creator, “You have created my entrails, woven me into the womb. I thank you because your works are admirable … you did not know my bones. When, in the occult, I was forming, and weaving deep in the earth” (139:13-15). We are not born made, but we constantly need to be “woven” and “embroidered”. Life was given to us to invite us to continue weaving that “admirable work” that we are.
In this sense, the Bible is the great love story between God and humanity. At the center is Jesus: his story brings to fulfillment God’s love for man and, at the same time, the story of man’s love for God. Man will thus be called, from generation to generation, to tell and record in his memory the most significant episodes of this story of stories, which can communicate the meaning of what happened.
The title of this Message is taken from the book of Exodus, a fundamental biblical account, in which God intervenes in the history of his people. Indeed, when the children of Israel were enslaved they cried out to God, He listened to them and recalled, “God remembered their covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the children of Israel and appeared to them” (Ex 2:24-25). From the memory of God springs the liberation of oppression, which takes place through signs and wonders. It is then that the Lord reveals to Moses the meaning of all these signs: “That you may count [and record in memory] your children and grandchildren . the signs I made in the midst of them. Thus ye shall know that I am the Lord” (Ex 10:2). The experience of exodus teaches us that the knowledge of God is transmitted above all by telling, from generation to generation, how He continues to become present. The God of life communicates by telling life.
Jesus himself spoke of God not with abstract discourses, but with parables, brief narratives, taken from daily life. Here life becomes history and then, for the one who listens to it, the story becomes life: that narrative enters the life of the one who listens to it and transforms it.
It is no coincidence that the Gospels are also stories. As we are informed about Jesus, we are “performed” jesus, they conform to Him: the Gospel asks the reader to participate in the same faith to share the same life. The Gospel of John tells us that the Narrator par excellence—the Word, the Word—was narrated: “The only Son, who is within the Father, He has told him” (cf. Jn 1:18). I used the term “counted” because the original exeghésato can be translated either as “revealed” than as “counted”. God has personally woven into our humanity, thus giving us a new way of weaving our stories.
4. A story that is renewed
The history of Christ is not a heritage of the past, it is our history, always current. It shows us that God cares so much about man, our flesh, our history, to the point of becoming man, flesh, and history. It also tells us that there are no insignificant or small human stories. After God became history, every human history is, in some way, divine history. In the history of every man, the Father again sees the story of his Son who came down to earth. Every human story has a dignity that cannot be suppressed. Humanity therefore deserves stories that are up to it, at that dizzying and fascinating height to which Jesus elevated it.
St Paul wrote: “You are Christ’s letter […] written not in ink, but with the Spirit of living God; not on stone boards, but on the tables of hearts of flesh” (2:3). The Holy Spirit, the love of God, writes in us. And, when he writes inside, he records in us good, reminds us. Re-cording effectively means carrying the heart, “writing” in the heart. By the work of the Holy Ghost every story, even the most forgotten, even the one that seems to be written with the most crooked lines, can become inspired, it can be reborn as a masterpiece, becoming an appendix to the gospel. Like Augustine’s Confessions. Like Ignatius’ The Pilgrim’s Story. Like the story of a soul of Teresita of the Child Jesus. Like The Bride and Groom, like The Karamazov Brothers. Like so many stories that have admirably staged the encounter between God’s freedom and that of man. Each of us knows different stories that smell of the gospel, which have testified to the Love that transforms life. These stories require them to be shared, told, and made to live in all ages, with all languages, and by all means.
5. A story that renews us
Ours comes into play in every great story. As we read Scripture, the stories of the saints, and also those texts that have been able to read man’s soul and bring to light his beauty, the Holy Spirit is free to write in our hearts, renewing in us the memory of who we are in the eyes of God. When we remember the love that created us and saved us, when we put love into our daily stories, when weed the plots of our day with mercy, then we turn the page. We are no longer attached to memories and sorrows, linked to a sick memory that imprisons our hearts, but by opening ourselves to others, we open ourselves to the narrator’s very vision. Telling God our story is never useless; although the chronicle of events remains unchanged, they change meaning and perspective. To tell the Lord is to enter into his gaze of compassionate love for us and for others. We can tell Him the stories we live in, take him to people, trust him with situations. With Him we can knot the fabric of life, patching up the broken and the shreds. How much we all need it!
With the gaze of the Narrator—the only one who has the final point of view—we then approach the protagonists, our brothers and sisters, actors alongside us in today’s story. Yes, because no one is an extra on the world stage and everyone’s story is open to the possibility of change. Even when we tell evil we can learn to make room for redemption, we can recognize in the midst of evil the dynamism of good and make room for it.
It is not, therefore, a question of following the logic of storytelling, nor of making or advertising, but of remembering who we are in the eyes of God, of bearing witness to what the Spirit writes in hearts, of revealing to each one that his history contains marvelous works. To this end, we entrust ourselves to a woman who woven God’s humanity into her bosom and,” the Gospel says, woven in everything that happened to her. The Virgin Mary kept everything, pondering it in her heart (cf. Lk 2:19). Let us ask for help from the one who knew how to undo the knots of life with the gentle force of love:
O Mary, woman and mother, you weaved in your bosom the divine Word, you narrated with your life the magnificent works of God. Listen to our stories, keep them in your heart and make those stories that no one wants to hear. Show us to recognize the good thread that guides history. Look at the cluster of knots our lives have become entangled in, paralyzing our memory. Your delicate hands can undo any knot. Woman of the Spirit, mother of trust, inspire us too. Help us build stories of peace, stories of the future. And show us the way to walk them together.
Rome, together with St. John lateran, 24 January 2020, feast of Saint Francis de Sales.
 Cf. Benedict XVI, Letter enc. Spe salvi, 2: “The Christian message was not only “informative”, but “performative”. This means that the gospel is not only a communication of things that can be known, but a communication that involves facts and changes life.”