Father Cantalamessa   Sermons for Advent Year A  (December 2007)


1st Sunday of Advent      Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44.
By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap (November 30)

This Gospel is characterized by its ample reporting of Jesus' teachings -- the famous sermons, such as the Sermon on the Mount -- and its attention to the relationship between the Law and Gospel (the Gospel is the "New Law"). It is also considered the most "ecclesiastical" Gospel because of its account of the primacy of Peter and because of its use of the term "Church," which is not encountered in the other Gospels.

The statement that stands out among all others in this Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent is "Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. […] So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." We ask ourselves why God would keep hidden something so important as the hour of his coming, which, for each of us, coincides with the hour of death.

The traditional answer is: "So that we will be vigilant, each one of us supposing that it will happen in his days" (St. Ephrem the Syrian). But the principal reason is that God knows us; he knows what terrible anxiety it would be for us to know beforehand the exact hour and to await its slow, inexorable coming. It is that which causes the most fear in regard to certain illnesses.

Today there are more people that die of unforeseen heart problems than those who die of incurable illnesses. But the latter cause more fear because they seem to take away the uncertainty that allows us to hope.

The uncertainty of the hour should not cause us to be careless but to be vigilant. If the liturgical year is at its start, the civil year is at its end. This is an optimal occasion for a sapiential reflection on the meaning of our existence. In autumn, nature itself invites us to reflect on time that passes. That which the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti said of the soldiers in the trenches on the Carso front in the First World War holds for all men: "They are on the trees as leaves in autumn." They are ready to fall at any moment. "Time passes," said our Dante Alighieri, "and man pays no attention."

An ancient philosopher expressed this fundamental experience with a celebrated phrase: "Everything is in flux." Life is like a television screen. The screen is a kind of palimpsest, one program follows and erases the previous one. The screen is the same but the images change. This is how it is with us: The world remains, but we come and go, one after the other. Of all the names, the faces, the news that fills the papers and television today -- of me, of you, of all of us -- what will remain in a few years or a decade? Nothing of nothing. Man is nothing but "a design created by a wave on the sand, which the next wave will wash away."

Let us see what faith has to tell us about this fact that everything passes. "Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever" (1 John 2:17). There is someone who does not pass, God, and there is also a way for us not to completely disappear: Do God's will, that is, believe and follow God. In this life we are like a raft carried along by the current of a roaring river headed for the open sea, from which there is no return.

At a certain point the raft comes near to the bank. It is now or never and you leap onto the shore. What a relief when you feel the rock under your feet! This is the sensation often felt by those who come to the faith. We might recall at the end of this reflection the words left by St. Teresa of Avila as a kind of spiritual testament: "Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you. All things are passing. God alone remains."

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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A Voice in the Desert
Gospel Commentary for 2nd Sunday of Advent

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

ROME, DEC. 9, 2007 - In the Gospel for the second Sunday of Advent Jesus does not speak directly to us but his precursor, John the Baptist. The heart of the baptist's preaching is contained in that phrase of Isaiah that he powerfully repeats to his contemporaries: "The voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight his paths!"

Isaiah, to tell the truth, said: "A voice cries out: in the desert prepare the way of the Lord" (Isaiah 40:3). It is not, therefore, a voice in the desert, but a way in the desert. The Evangelists, applying the text to the baptist who preached in the desert of Judaea, modified the punctuation, but without changing the message's meaning.

Jerusalem was a city surrounded by desert: In the East the road, as soon as it was traced out, was easily erased by the sand blown by the wind, while in the West it was lost in the rugged terrain that sloped downward to the sea. When a procession or an important person had to come to Jerusalem it was necessary to go out into the desert to make a less provisional road; brush was cut away, holes were filled, obstacles were flattened, bridges were repaired. This is what was done during Passover, for example, to receive the pilgrims from the Diaspora. This is what inspired John the Baptist. Someone who is greater than everyone is about to come, he cries, "he who must come," the desired of the nations: A road must be made for him in the desert so that he may arrive.

But here is the leap from metaphor to reality: This path is not made on land but in the heart of every man; it is not built in the desert but in one's life. To build it there is no need to engage in material labor but in conversion. "Straighten the pathways of the Lord!" -- this command presupposes a bitter reality: Man is as a city invaded by the desert; he is closed in on himself, in his egoism; he is like a castle with a moat and the drawbridges all raised.

Worse: Man has complicated his ways with sin and he remains all tied up inside as in a labyrinth. Isaiah and John the Baptist speak metaphorically of ravines, mountains, twisted roads and impervious places. We just need to call these things by their real names, which are pride, sloth, selfishness, violence, cupidity, falsehood, hypocrisy, impudence, superficiality, drunkenness of every sort. (You can be drunk not only on wine or drugs but also on your own beauty, intelligence or yourself, which is the worst drunkenness!) We immediately grasp that this discourse concerns us as well; God's salvation waits on and seeks out in this situation every man.

Straightening a path for the Lord, thus, has a very concrete meaning: It means reforming our lives, converting. In the moral sense the hills that must be made low and the obstacles that must be removed are the pride that leads us to ruthlessness and to be without love for others, the injustice that deceives our neighbor, perhaps adducing specious pretenses to mollify and compensate for silencing our conscience, to say nothing of rancor, revenge, betrayal of love. The valleys to be filled in are laziness, apathy, lack of self-control, every sin of omission.

The word of God does not burden us with duties without at the same time giving the assurance that he will do together with us what he commands us to do. God, says the prophet Baruch, "has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God" (5:7). God makes low, God fills up, God builds the road; our task is to assent to his action, remembering that, as Saint Augustine says, "he who made us without our help, will not save us without our help."

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12.

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Rejoice! The Lord Is Near
Gospel Commentary for 3rd Sunday of Advent
The readings for today are Isaiah 35:1-6a, 8a, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

ROME, DEC. 16, 2007 - Let us take the point of departure for our reflection from what Jesus says to the disciples of John to reassure them he is the Messiah: "Glad tidings are announced to the poor."

The Gospel is a message of joy: The liturgy proclaims this on the Third Sunday of Advent, which, from the words of St. Paul in the opening antiphon, has taken the name "Gaudete Sunday" -- Rejoice Sunday, the Sunday of joy. The first reading, taken from the prophet Isaiah, is a hymn to joy: "The desert and the wasteland rejoice ... They sing with joy and jubilation ... They will be crowned with everlasting happiness; they will meet with joy and felicity and sadness and mourning will flee."

Everyone wants to be happy. If we could represent the whole of humanity to ourselves, in its deepest movement, we would see an immense crowd about a fruit tree on the tips of its toes desperately stretching out its hands in the attempt to lay hold of a piece of fruit that constantly eludes it. Happiness, Dante said, is "quell dolce pome che per tanti rami / cercando va la cura de' tanti mortali" -- "that sweet fruit that mortals seek / and strive to find on many boughs."

But if all of us are searching for happiness, why are so few truly happy and even those who are happy are only happy for such a short time? I believe that the principal reason is that, in our climb to the summit of the mountain, we go up the wrong side, we decide to take the wrong way up. Revelation says: "God is love," but man has tried to reverse the phrase so that it says: "Love is God"! (That is what the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said.)

Revelation says: "God is happiness," but man again inverts the order and says "Happiness is God"! But what happens here? On earth we do not know pure happiness, just as we do not know absolute love; we only know bits and pieces of happiness, which often become mere passing stimulation of our senses. Thus, when we say, "Happiness is God," we divinize our little experiences; we call the works of our own hands or our own minds "God." We make happiness into an idol. This explains why he who seeks God always finds joy while he who seeks joy does not always find God. Man is reduced to looking for quantitative joy: chasing down ever more intense pleasures and emotions, or adding pleasure to pleasure -- just as the drug addict needs bigger and bigger doses to obtain the same level of pleasure.

Only God is happy and makes happy. This is why a psalm says: "Seek joy in the Lord, he will fulfill the desires of your heart" (Psalm 4). With him even the joys of the present life retain their sweet savor and do not change into anxiety. I am not only speaking of spiritual joys but all honest human joy: the joy of seeing your children grow, work brought happily to conclusion, friendship, health regained, creativity, art, leisure and contact with nature. Only God was able to draw from the lips of a saint the cry "Enough joy, Lord! My heart can hold no more!" In God is found all of that which man usually associates with the word "happiness" and infinitely more, since "eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has it entered the heart of man that which God has prepared for those who love him" (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9).

It is time to proclaim with greater courage the "glad tidings" that God is happiness, that happiness -- not suffering, deprivation, the cross -- will have the last word. Suffering only serves to remove obstacles to joy, to open the soul, so that one day we can receive the greatest possible measure.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher.

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4th Sunday of Advent           Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-17; Matthew 1:18-24.
This Is How the Birth of Jesus Christ Came About    Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 23, 2007- There is something that the three readings have in common this Sunday: In each one a birth is spoken of: "Behold the Virgin will conceive and will give birth to a son and he shall be called Emmanuel, God-with-us" (first reading); "Jesus Christ ... was born from the line of David according to the flesh" (second reading); "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about ..." (Gospel). We could call it the "Sunday of births!"

We cannot avoid immediately asking: Why are so few children born in Italy and other Western countries? The principal reason for the scarcity does not have to do with economic factors. From an economic point of view, the births should increase as we move up through the levels of society, or as we move from the global South to the global North; but we know that the contrary is true.

The reason is deeper: It is the lack of hope, and the lack of what hope brings with it, namely, confidence in the future, vital drive, creativity, poetry and joie de vivre. If you wed, it is always an act of faith; bringing a child into the world is always an act of hope. Nothing can be done in the world without hope. We need hope like we need oxygen to breathe. When someone is about to faint we say, "Give them something strong to help them breathe." Something similar should be done for a person who is about to let themselves go, to give up on life: "Give them a reason for hope!" When hope is reborn in a human situation, everything looks different, even if nothing in fact has changed. Hope is a primordial force. It literally works miracles.

The Gospel has something essential to offer our people in this moment of history: Hope with a capital "H," the theological virtue that has God himself as its author and guarantee. Earthly hopes -- home, employment, health, successful children, etc. -- even if they are realized, will inexorably delude us if there is not something deeper that supports them and keeps them going. Consider what goes into the making of a spider web. The spider web is a work of art. It is perfect in symmetry, elascticity, functionality. The threads that stretch out horizontally on all sides make it taut. But it is held upright in its center by a thread that comes down from above, the thread that the spider had spun to lower itself down. If one of the threads on the side breaks, then the spider repairs it. But if you break the thread that comes from above down to the center, everything is destroyed. The spider knows that there is nothing it can do and goes away. In our lives the theological virtue of Hope is the thread from above, that which sustains the whole plot of our lives.

In this moment in which we feel the need for hope so strongly, the feast of Christmas can be the occasion for us to change our tendencies. Let us recall what Jesus said one day: "He who welcomes a child in my name welcomes me." This also holds for whoever welcomes a poor and abandoned child, for whoever adopts and feeds a child of the Third World; but it holds above all for two Christian parents who, loving each other, in faith and hope, open themselves to a new life. Many couples who are lost in joy at the moment the pregnancy announces itself are certain to then make their own the words of Isaiah's Christmas prophecy: "You have spread joy, you have made happiness increase, because a child is born for us, a son is given us!"

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Father Cantalamessa's 1st Advent Meditation
Jesus of Nazareth: “One of the prophets?”

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 10, 2007.- Here is a translation of the first Advent sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.

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1. The Third Quest

"In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:1-3).

These first lines of the Letter to the Hebrews constitutes a great synthesis of the whole of salvation history. There are two successive periods: the period in which God spoke through the prophets and the period in which God speaks through his Son; the time in which he spoke through other persons and the time in which he speaks "in person." The Son in fact is "the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being," that is, as will be said later, he is "of the same substance as the Father."

There is both continuity and a qualitative leap. It is the same God who speaks, the same revelation; the novelty is that now the Revealer becomes the revelation, revelation and revealer coincide. The formula of introduction of the pronouncements is the best demonstration of this: it is no longer "Thus, says the Lord," but "I say to you."

In the light of this powerful word of God that is Hebrews 1:1-3, we will attempt in this Advent preaching to conduct a discernment of the opinions that today circulate about Jesus, inside and outside the Church, in such a way as to be able, at Christmas, to join our voice without reserve with that of the liturgy which proclaims its faith in the Son of God come into this world. We are again and again brought back to the conversation at Caesarea Philippi: Who is Jesus for me, "one of the prophets" or "the Son of the living God"? (cf. Matthew 16:14-16).

What is under way now in the field of historical studies of Jesus is the so-called third quest. This is what it has been called to distinguish it, on the one hand, from the "old historical quest" that was inspired by rationalism and liberalism and which dominated research from the end of the 18th century through the 19th century, and, on the other hand, from the so-called new historical quest that began about the middle of last century in reaction to the thesis of Bultmann who had proclaimed that the historical Jesus was inaccessible and, moreover, completely irrelevant to the Christian faith.

In what way does this third quest distinguish itself from the preceding ones? First of all it is driven by the conviction that, thanks to the available sources, we can know much more about the historical Jesus than was admitted in the past. But the third quest is above all distinguished by the criteria it uses for arriving at the historical truth about Jesus. If before it was thought that the basic criterion of verification of a deed or saying of Jesus was its being in contrast with the Jewish world of his time, now it is, on the contrary, the compatibility of the Gospel data with the Judaism of the time. If before the mark of authenticity of a saying or deed was its novelty and its "inexplicability" in regard to the environment, now it is, on the contrary, its explicability in the light of what we know about the Judaism and social situation of the Galilee of that period.

There are some obvious advantages to this new approach. The continuity of revelation is rediscovered. Jesus is situated in the Jewish world, in the line of the biblical prophets. One smiles at the time when it was believed that the whole of Christianity could be explained by recourse to the Hellenistic influences.

The trouble is that things have been pushed so far beyond this gain that it has become a loss. Jesus ends up completely dissolving into the Jewish world without distinguishing himself anymore than by some small detail or some special interpretations of the Torah. He is one of the Jewish prophets or, as one prefers to say, one of the "charismatic itinerants." The title of a famous book by J.D. Crossan is significant: "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant."

E.P. Sanders, who is in some ways the founder of the third quest and the most well-known of these authors, is in this line, although he does not go to these extremes. Rediscovering the continuity, the newness has been lost. The popularizing has done the rest, spreading the image of a Jesus who is a Jew among Jews, who did nothing new -- although it continues to be said (one knows not how) that "he changed the world."

We continue to criticize the generations of past scholars for creating an image of Jesus according to the fashions or tastes of the time and it is not recognized that we are continuing along the same way. This insistence on Jesus the Jew among Jews, in fact, follows, at least in part, from the desire to make up for the historical crimes committed against this people and to favor dialogue between Jews and Christians. This is a wonderful goal pursued however through mistaken means. What we have is a tendency that is only favorable to the Jews in appearance. In truth one ends up casting another burden upon the Jewish world: that of not recognizing one of their own, a man who's doctrine was perfectly compatible with what it believed.

2. Rabbi Neusner and Benedict XVI

An American Rabbi, Jacob Neusner, has brought to light the illusory character of this approach for the purpose of promoting the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. Those who have read the book of Pope Benedict XVI on Jesus of Nazareth already know a lot about the thought of this rabbi whom the Pope engages in dialogue in one of the most passionate chapters of the book. I will review the main lines here.

The famous Jewish scholar wrote a book entitled, "A Rabbi Talks with Jesus." In it he imagines being a contemporary of Jesus who one day joins the crowd who is following him and listens to the Sermon on the Mount. He explains why, despite his being fascinated with the doctrine and person of the Galilean, in the end he sadly comes to the realization that he cannot be his disciple and he decides to remain a disciple of Moses and follower of the Torah.

All of the reasons for his decision in the end come down to one: to accept what this man says, it is necessary to recognize in him the authority itself of God. He does not limit himself to "fulfilling" the Torah but replace the Torah. Returned from his meeting with Jesus, Neusner imagines a dialogue with a rabbi in a synagogue of the time:

"He: 'What did he leave out [of the Torah]?'
I: 'Nothing.'
He: 'Then what did he add?'
I: 'Himself'."

An interesting coincidence: this is exactly the same answer that Saint Irenaeus gave in the 2nd century to those who asked what new thing Jesus brought when he came into the world. "Bringing himself," Irenaeus wrote, "he brought every newness" -- " Omnem novitatem attulit semetipsum afferens."[1]

Neusner has brought to light the impossibility of making Jesus a "normal" Jew of his time or a Jew who departs from Judaism only on matters of secondary importance. There is another important merit of Neusner's work: he has shown the inanity of every attempt to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. He shows how criticism can take every title away from the Jesus of history: it can deny that Jesus or others attributed the title Messiah, Lord, or Son of God to him while he was alive. After the critics have taken away from him everything that they want, there still remains enough in the Gospel to demonstrate that he did not take himself to be a simple man. Just as a bit of hair, a drop of sweat or blood is sufficient to completely reconstruct a person's DNA, so also a saying taken almost at random from the Gospel is sufficient to demonstrate the consciousness Jesus had of acting with the authority itself of God.

As a good Jew, Neusner knows what it means to say: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath," because the Sabbath is the divine "institution" par excellence. He knows what it means to say: "If you want to be perfect, follow me": it means replacing the old paradigm of holiness that consists in imitating God ("Be holy because I your God am holy") with the new paradigm that consists in imitating Christ. He knows that only God can dispense from obeying the fourth commandment as Jesus does when he tells someone not to concern himself with burying his father. Commenting on these sayings of Jesus, Neusner exclaims: "It is the Christ of faith who is speaking here."[2]

In his book the Pope responds at length and, for a believer, in a convincing and illuminating way, to the difficulty of Rabbi Neusner. His response makes me think of the one that Jesus himself gave to the envoys sent by John the Baptist to ask: "Are you the one who must come or should we wait for another?" Jesus, in other words, did not only claim divine authority but he even gave signs and guarantees as his evidence: miracles, his teaching itself (which is not exhausted in the Sermon on the Mount), the fulfillment of prophecies, especially that of Moses about a prophet similar and superior to him; then his death, his resurrection and the community born from him that realizes the universality of salvation announced by the prophets.

3. "Encourage each other"

It would be necessary at this point to mention something: the problem of the relationship between Jesus and the prophets does not appear only in the context of the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, but also within Christian theology itself, where attempts to explain the personality of Christ with recourse to the category of prophet are not lacking. I am convinced of the radical insufficiency of a Christology that tries to isolate the title of prophet and reestablish the whole Christological edifice upon it.

First of all, this project is not at all new. It was proposed in antiquity by Paul of Samosata, Photinus and others in sometimes identical terms. Then, in a metaphysically oriented culture one spoke of the supreme prophet; today, in an historically oriented culture, one speaks of an eschatological prophet. But are eschatological and supreme so different? Can one be the supreme prophet without also being the definitive prophet, and can the definitive prophet not also be the supreme prophet?

A Christology that does not go beyond the category of "eschatological prophet" when it comes to Jesus does, indeed, as is the intention of those who propose it, represent an updating of an ancient teaching, not however a teaching defined by the councils, but rather one condemned by the councils.

But I do not insist on this problem, which I have treated in years past in this same place.[3] Instead I would like to immediately pass to a practical application of my reflections up to this point that will help us make Advent a time of conversion and spiritual reawakening.

The conclusion that the Letter to the Hebrews draws from the superiority of Christ over the prophets and Moses is not a triumphalist conclusion but a parenthetic one; it does not insist on the superiority of Christianity but on the greater responsibility of Christians before God. It says:

"Therefore, we must attend all the more to what we have heard, so that we may not be carried away. For if the word announced through angels proved firm, and every transgression and disobedience received its just recompense, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? [...] Encourage each other daily while it is still "today," so that none of you may grow hardened by the deceit of sin" (Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:13).

And Chapter 10 adds: "Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace?" (Hebrews 10:28-29).

Accepting the author of the Letter to the Hebrew's invitation, the word with which we would like to encourage each other is that which the liturgy spoke to us last Sunday and which sets the tone for the whole first week of Advent: "Be vigilant!" It is interesting to note something. When the apostolic catechesis takes up this word of Jesus after Easter we find that it is almost always dramatized: not only is it said to be vigilant but to wake up, arise from your sleep! From the state of being vigilant we pass to the act of waking up.

The basis of this is the realization that in this life there is the chronic danger of falling back asleep, that is, of sliding into a state of suspension of the faculties, of drowsiness and spiritual inertia. Material things work on the soul like a drug. Because of this Jesus says: "Be careful that your hearts do not grow weary in dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of life" (Luke 21:34).

Saint Augustine's description of this state of sleepiness in the "Confessions" can serve as a useful examination of conscience for us: "As one oppressed by sleep, so I was held down by the pleasant weight of this world; and the thoughts wherein I meditated on you were like the efforts of one who wishes to wake up but, overcome, falls back to sleep ... I was certain that it was better to give myself up to your charity, than to give myself over to my cupidity. Although I was pleased by and won over by the former, the latter bribed and mastered me. I did not know how to answer to your words: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light" (Ephesians 5:14). Convinced by the truth, I knew not how to answer you. You showed me on every side that what you said was true. All I could say were those dull and drowsy words, "Now, now, at this very moment, just leave me alone for a little while longer."[4]

We know how the saint finally found his way out of this state. He was in a garden in Milan, lacerated by this battle between the flesh and the spirit; he heard the words,"Tolle, lege, tolle, lege" -- "Take up and read, take up and read." He took them as a divine invitation; he had with him the book of Saint Paul's letters. He decided to take as the word of God the first passage that he came across. He lighted on the text that we heard last Sunday as the second reading of the Mass: "It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness (and) put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh" (Romans 13:11-14).

4. "Give me chastity and continence"

The scene from Augustine's "Confessions" brings me to introduce here something a little more recent. Last week RAI 1 broadcast a two hour show by the comedian and Oscar winner Roberto Benigni which drew many viewers. It was a lesson that at moments had marvelous religious elements from which we preachers might learn something. Benigni demonstrated an ability to give voice to the sense of the eternal in man, wonder before mystery, art, beauty and the simple fact of our existing; he stressed the importance of the "Yes" pronounced by Mary and the influence devotion to her had on the medieval idealized vision of the woman.

Unfortunately, on one point, perhaps not premeditated, the Begnini conveyed a message that could prove fatal for young people and which should be rectified. In support of his invitation to not be afraid of the passions, to experience the heights of love even in its carnal aspect, he cited the a line spoken by Augustine to God: "Give me chastity and continence but not yet."[5] As if it were first necessary to try everything and then, who knows, when we are old practice chastity, when it not longer demands effort.

Benigni did not say how much afterward Augustine regretted this prayer of his youth and how many tears it cost to tear himself away for the passion to which he had abandoned himself. He did not mention the prayer with which the saint replaced the earlier one once he had regained his freedom: "You command me to be chaste; give me what you ask of me and then ask of me what you will!"[6]

I do not think that the young people of today need to be encouraged to "give themselves over," to "experiment," to break down the barriers -- everything is pushing them headlong in this direction with the tragic consequences of which we are aware.

In the Canto from the Inferno of the "Divine Comedy" that Benigni admirably commented on, Dante furnishes one of these profound reasons which Benigni however passed over. Evil is the submission of reason to instinct rather than the submission of instinct to reason.

"I understood that unto such a torment
The carnal malefactors were condemned,
Who reason subjugate to appetite ."[7]

Instinct has its function if it is regulated by reason; in the contrary case it becomes the enemy, not the ally, of love, leading to the most barbarous crimes of which we are well-informed by the newspapers.

But let us come more directly to ourselves. The spiritual life is not of course reduced to chastity and purity alone but it is certain that without them every effort in other directions will be impossible. It is truly, as Paul says in the text we cited, "armor of light": a condition for the light of Christ to radiate about us and through us.

Today there is a tendency to oppose sins against purity and sins against our neighbor and it is the sin against our neighbor that is thought to be the real sin; sometimes scorn is cast upon the excessive homage that was paid in the past to the "beautiful virtue." This attitude is in part understandable; the morality of the past emphasized too unilaterally the sins of the flesh, to the point sometimes of creating real neuroses at the expense of attention to our neighbor and at the expense of the virtue of purity itself which was thus impoverished and reduced to an almost entirely negative virtue, the virtue of knowing how to say no.

Now, however, we have gone to the other extreme and there is a tendency to minimize sins against purity to the advantage (often only in theory) of attention to our neighbor. It is an illusion to believe that we can put authentic service to our brothers -- which always demands sacrifice, altruism, forgetfulness of self and generosity -- together with a disordered personal life, entirely directed toward gratifying ourselves and our own passions. We end up, inevitably, using our brothers, just as we use our own bodies and the other sex. He who does not know how to say no to himself does not know how to say yes to his brothers.

One of the "excuses" that contributes most to encourage the sin of impurity in the popular mindset is the discharging of any responsibility, the claim that it hurts no one, that it does not violate anyone's rights unless, it is said, we are talking about physical violence. But apart from the fact that it violates the basic right of God to give a law to his creatures, this "excuse" is false even in regard to our relations to our neighbor. It is not true that the sin of impurity ends with those who commit it.

In the Jewish Talmud there is an apologue that illustrates quite well the connection that exists between sin and the damage that every sin, even personal sin, does to others: "Some people found themselves on a boat. One of the passengers took a drill and began to make a hole beneath his seat. The others seeing this said to him: 'What are you doing?' He answered: 'What is it to you? Am I not making a hole under my seat?' But they replied: 'Yes, but water will come in and we will all drown!'" Is this not what is happening in our society? The Church too knows something of the evil that can be done to the whole body by personal mistakes of the clergy in this sphere.

In these last months one of the spiritual events that has gotten much press was the publishing of the "private writings" of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The title chosen for the book in which they are gathered is the words Jesus spoke to her when he called her to her new mission: "Come, be my light." These are words that Jesus addresses to each of us and that, with the help of the Most Blessed Virgin and the intercession of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, we would like to welcome with love and try to put into practice this Advent.

* * *

[1] St. Irenaeus, "Adversus Haereses," IV, 34, 1.
[2] Jacob Neusner, "A Rabbi Talks with Jesus," McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000, 84.

[3] See the Advent meditations of 1989 collected in the book "Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God," Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1992, chapter VII.
[4] St. Augustine, "Confessions," VIII, 5, 12.

[5] "Confessions," VIII, 6, 17.
[6] "Confessions," X, 29.
[7] Dante Alighieri, "The Divine Comedy," Inferno, Canto 5.

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Father Cantalamessa's 2nd Advent Sermon
John the Baptist: “More Than a Prophet”

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 14, 2007 - Here is a translation of the second Advent sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.

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Last time, basing myself on Hebrews 1:1-3, I attempted to sketch the image of Jesus that we get when we compare him to the prophets. But between the time of the prophets and that of Jesus there is a special, pivotal figure: John the Baptist. Nothing in the New Testament illuminates the newness of Christ better than comparison with the Baptist.

The theme of fulfillment, of an epochal turning point, clearly emerges in the texts in which Jesus himself speaks of his relationship to the precursor. Today scholars recognize that these sayings are not inventions of the post-Easter community, but derive their substance from the historical Jesus. Indeed, some of them are inexplicable if they are attributed to the subsequent Christian community.[1]

A reflection on Jesus and John the Baptist is also the best way to put us in tune with the Advent liturgy. In fact, the Gospels of the second and third Sunday of Advent have the figure and message of the precursor at their center. There is a progression in Advent: In the first week the voice that stands out is the prophet Isaiah's, who announces the Messiah from a distance; in the second and third weeks it is that of the Baptist who announces the Christ as present; in the last week the prophet and the precursor give way to the Mother, who carries him in her womb.
1. The great turning point

The most complete text in which Jesus reflects on his relationship to John the Baptist is the Gospel passage that the liturgy has us read next Sunday at Mass. John, in prison, sends his disciples to ask Jesus: "Are you the one who must come or should we wait for another?" (Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 7:19-23).

The preaching of the Rabbi of Nazareth whom he himself had baptized and presented to Israel seems to John to go in a very different direction from the fiery one that he had expected. More than the imminent judgment of God, he preaches the mercy that is present, offered to all, righteous and sinners.

The most significant part of the whole text is the praise that Jesus offers of John after he had answered the question posed by John's disciples: "Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet [...]. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear" (Matthew 11:11-15).

One thing is made plain by these words: Between the mission of John the Baptist and that of Jesus something so decisive has happened that it constitutes a parting of the waters, so to speak, between two epochs. The focus of history has shifted: That which is important is not in a more or less imminent future but "here and now," that kingdom that is already operative in Christ. Between John's preaching and the preaching of Jesus there is a qualitative leap: The littlest one of the new order is superior to the greatest one of the old order.

The occurrence of this epochal turning point is confirmed in many other contexts in the Gospel. We only need recall such words of Jesus as: "Behold, there is one here greater than Jonah. [...] Behold, there is one here greater than Solomon!" (Matthew 12:41-42). "Blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear. Truly I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and did not see it, and longed to hear what you hear and did not hear it!" (Matthew 13:16-17). All of the so-called parables of the kingdom -- one thinks of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price -- at bottom express the same idea, always in a new and different way: With Jesus, history's decisive hour has struck, in his presence the decision that determines salvation imposes itself.

It was this claim that brought Bultmann's disciples to break with the master. Bultmann included Jesus in Judaism, making him a premise of Christianity but not yet a Christian; he attributed the great turning point to the faith of the post-Easter community. Bornkamm and Conzelmann realized the impossibility of this thesis: The "epochal turning point" already happened in Jesus' preaching. John belonged to the premises and the preparation, but with Jesus we are already in the time of fulfillment.

In his book "Jesus of Nazareth," the Holy Father confirms this conclusion of the most serious and up-to-date exegesis. He writes: "For such a radical collision to occur, provoking the radical step of handing Jesus over to the Romans, something dramatic must have been said or done. The great and stirring events come right at the beginning; the nascent Church could only slowly come to appreciate their full significance, which she came to grasp as, in 'remembering' them, she gradually thought through and reflected on these events [...]. No, the greatness, the dramatic newness, comes directly from Jesus; within the faith and life of the community it is further developed, but not created. In fact, the 'community' would not have even emerged or survived at all unless some extraordinary reality had preceded it."[2]

In Luke's theology it is evident that Jesus occupies the "center of time." With his coming he divided history in two parts, creating an absolute "before" and "after." Today it is becoming common practice, especially in the secular media, to abandon the traditional way of dating events "before Christ" or "after Christ" ("ante Christum natum e post Christum natum") in favor of the more neutral formula of "before the common era" and "common era." It was a decision motivated by a desire not to offend the sensibilities of people and other religions who do not use Christian chronology; in that regard it should be respected, but for Christians there is no question of the decisive role that Christ's coming plays in the religious history of humanity.

2. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit

Now, as is our usual practice, we will pass from the exegetical and theological certainty that has been established to our life today.

The comparison of John the Baptist and Jesus crystallizes in the New Testament in the comparison of the baptism with water and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. "I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). "I did not know him," the precursor says in John's Gospel, "but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit'" (John 1:33). And Peter, in the house of Cornelius, says: "And I remembered the word of the Lord how, he said, 'John baptized with water but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 11:16).

What does it mean to say that Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit? The expression serves not only to distinguish Jesus' baptism from John's baptism; it serves to distinguish the entire person and work of Christ from that of the precursor. In other words, in all of his work Jesus is the the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. Baptism has a metaphorical meaning here; it means to inundate, to completely cover, as water does to bodies that are immersed in it.

Jesus "baptizes in the Holy Spirit" in the sense that he receives and gives the Spirit "without measure" (cf. John 3:34), he "pours out" his Spirit (Acts 2:33) on all of redeemed humanity. The expression refers more to the event of Pentecost than to the sacrament of baptism. "John baptized with water but before many days you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit" (Act 1:5), Jesus tells the disciples, obviously referring to Spirit's descent at Pentecost that would happen in a few days.

The expression "baptize with the Spirit" therefore defines the essential work of the Messiah, which already in the prophets of the Old Testament appears as oriented toward the regeneration of humanity through a great and universal outpouring of the Spirit of God (cf. Joel 3:1ff.). Applying all of this to the life and time of the Church, we must conclude that the risen Jesus baptizes in the Spirit not only in the sacrament of baptism, but, in a different way, also in other moments: in the Eucharist, in listening to the Word and, in general, through all the channels of grace.

If we want, and have enough faith, this very chapel in which we stand can be the cenacle into which the Risen Lord enters, [despite] closed doors, breathes on our faces and says almost begging us: "Receive the Holy Spirit."

St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "There is an invisible mission of the Spirit every time there is a progress in virtue or an augmentation of grace...; when someone moves to a new activity or a new state of grace."[3] The Church's liturgy itself inculcates this. All of its prayers and its hymns to the Holy Spirit begin with the cry, "Come!": "Come, O Creator Spirit!" "Come, Holy Spirit!" And those who pray this way have already at sometime received the Spirit. This means that the Spirit is something that we have received and that we must receive again and again.

3. Baptism in the Spirit

In this context, we must say something about the so-called baptism in the Spirit that for a century has become an experience lived by millions of believers in almost all of the Christian denominations. This is a rite made up of gestures of great simplicity, accompanied by dispositions of repentance and faith in the promise of Christ: "The Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him."

It is a renewal and an activation, not only of baptism and confirmation, but of all the events of grace of one's state in life: priestly ordination, religious profession, marriage. Besides making a good confession, those who are involved prepare by participating in catechism meetings in which they are put again in living and joyful contact with the principal truths and realities of the faith: the love of God, sin, salvation, new life, transformation in Christ, charisms, the fruits of the Spirit. Everything is characterized by a profound fraternal communion.

Sometimes, however, everything happens spontaneously, outside of all formal contexts and it is like being "surprised" by the Holy Spirit. A man gave this testimony: "I was on a plane and I was reading the last chapter of a book on the Holy Spirit. At a certain point it was as if the Holy Spirit came out of the pages of the book and entered into my body. Tears streamed from my eyes. I began to pray. I was overcome by a power quite beyond me."[4]

The most common effect of this grace is that the Holy Spirit passes from being a more or less abstract object of faith, to being a fact of experience. Karl Rahner wrote: "We cannot deny that here below man can have experiences of grace that give him a feeling of liberation, open totally new horizons to him, make a deep impression on him, transform him, shaping, even over a long period of time, his deepest Christian attitude. Nothing prohibits us from calling such experiences baptism in the Spirit."[5]

Precisely through that which is called "baptism in the Spirit," there is an experience of the anointing of the Holy Spirit in prayer, of his power in pastoral ministry, of his consolation in trials, of his guidance in decisions. Before his manifestation in charisms it is thus that he is experienced: as Spirit who interiorly transforms us, gives us a taste of the praise of God, opens our mind to the understanding of the Scriptures, teaches us to proclaim Jesus "Lord" and gives us the courage to assume new and difficult tasks in the service of God and neighbor. This year is the 40th anniversary of the retreat that gave birth, in 1967, to the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church, which is estimated to have touched no fewer than 80 million Catholics in a few decades. This is how one of the people who was present at that first retreat describes the effects of baptism in the Spirit on himself and on the group:

"Our faith has come alive, our believing has become a kind of knowing. Suddenly, the world of the supernatural has become more real than the natural. In brief, Jesus Christ is a real person to us, a real person who is Our Lord and who is active in our lives. [...] Prayer and the sacraments have become truly our daily bread instead of practices which we recognize as 'good for us.' A love of Scripture, a love of the Church I never thought possible, a transformation of our relationships with others, a need and a power of witness beyond all expectation, have all become part of our lives. The initial experience of the baptism in the Spirit was not at all emotional, but life has become suffused with calm, confidence, joy and peace. ... We sang the 'Veni Creator Spiritus' before each conference and meant it. We were not disappointed. We have also been showered with charismata. This also puts us in an ecumenical atmosphere at its best."[6]

We all see with clarity that these are precisely the things that the Church needs today to proclaim the Gospel to a world that has become wayward to the faith and the supernatural. We do not say that everyone is called to experience the grace of a new Pentecost in this way. However, we are all called not to remain outside this "current of grace" that flowed through the post-Conciliar Church. John XXIII spoke, in his time, of "a new Pentecost"; Paul VI went beyond this and spoke of "a perennial Pentecost," a continual Pentecost. It is worthwhile to listen again to the words he pronounced during a general audience:

"On several occasions we have asked about the greatest needs of the Church. [...] What do we feel is the first and last need of this blessed and beloved Church of ours? We must say it, almost trembling and praying, because as you know well, this is the Church's mystery and life: the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He it is who animates and sanctifies the Church. He is her divine breath, the wind in her sails, the principle of her unity, the inner source of her light and strength. He is her support and consoler, her source of charisms and songs, her peace and her joy, her pledge and prelude to blessed and eternal life. The Church needs her perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, prophecy in her outlook. [...] The Church needs to rediscover the eagerness, the taste and the certainty of the truth that is hers."[7]

The philosopher Heidegger concluded his analysis of society with the alarmed cry: "Only a god can save us." We Christians know this God who can save us, and who will save us: It is the Holy Spirit! Today something called "aroma therapy" is widely popular. It uses essential oils that emit a perfume to maintain health and as therapy for certain disturbances. The Internet is full of advertising about aroma therapy. There are perfumes for physical maladies, like stress; there are also "perfumes for the soul"; one of these is supposed to help us achieve "interior peace."

Physicians discourage this practice, which is not scientifically confirmed and which in fact, in some cases, provokes counter indications. But what I would like to say is that there is a sure, infallible aroma therapy that does not provoke counter indications: that one made up of a special aroma, the "sacred chrism of the soul" that is the Holy Spirit! St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote: "A perfumed ointment ('myron') was poured upon the Lord's head to breath incorruptibility on the Church!"[8] Only if we also receive this "aroma" can we be "the sweet odor of Christ" in the world (2 Corinthians 2:15).

The Holy Spirit is a specialist above all in healing the sicknesses of marriage and family. Marriage consists in giving oneself to another; it is the sacrament of making oneself a gift. Now, the Holy Spirit is the gift made person; he is the giving of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. Where he comes the ability to make oneself a gift is reborn and with it the joy and the beauty of living together for husband and wife. The love of God that he "pours out into our hearts" revives every other expression of love and that of conjugal love in the first place. The Holy Spirit can truly make the family "the principal agent of peace" as the Holy Father defines it in the message for the next World Day of Peace.

There are numerous examples of dead marriages resurrected to new life by the action of the Spirit. I recently received the moving testimony of a couple which I want to show on my television program on the Gospel for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord ...

Naturally, the Spirit also revives the life of consecrated persons, which consists in making one's life a gift and an oblation "of sweet odor" to God for our brothers (cf. Ephesians 5:2).

4. The new prophecy of John the Baptist

Returning to John the Baptist, he can show us how to carry out our prophetic task in today's world. Jesus defines the Baptist as "more than a prophet," but where is the prophecy in his case? The prophets announced a future salvation; John indicates one that is present. In what sense, then, can he be called a prophet? Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel helped the people to go beyond the barrier of time; John the Baptist helps the people to go beyond the more difficult barrier of contrary appearances, of scandal, of banality and poverty with which the fateful hour manifests itself.

It is easy to believe in something grandiose, divine, when you project into the indefinite future: "in those days," "in the last days," in a cosmic framework, with the heavens that distill sweetness and the earth that opens to allow the Savior to grow. It is more difficult when you have to say: "Look! It is he!" and that of a person about whom people know everything: where he is from, what used to be his job, who is his mother and father.

With the words: "There is one among you whom you do not know!" (John 1:26), John the Baptist has inaugurated the new prophecy, that of the time of the Church, which does not consist in proclaiming a future and distant salvation, but in revealing the hidden presence of Christ in the world. In taking away the veil from the eyes of the people, he upsets the indifference, repeating with Isaiah: "See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth. Do you not see it?" (cf. Isaiah 43:19).

It is true that 20 centuries have passed and we know many more things about Jesus than about John. But the scandal has not been removed. In John's time the scandal derived from the physical body of Jesus, from his flesh so similar to ours, except in sin. Even today it is his body that causes difficulties and scandalizes: his mystical body, so similar to the rest of humanity, included sin.

"Jesus' testimony," we read in the Book of Revelation, "is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelations 19:10), the spirit of prophecy is required to bear witness to Christ. Is this spirit of prophecy in the Church? Is it cultivated? Or do we believe, implicitly, that we can do without it, depending more on human expedients?

In 1992 there was a retreat for priests in Monterrey, Mexico, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the first evangelization of Latin America. There were 1,700 priests and about 70 bishops present. During the homily of the concluding Mass I spoke about the urgent need that the Church has for prophecy. After Communion there was prayer for a new Pentecost in small groups scattered throughout the great basilica. I remained in the presbytery. At a certain moment a young priest came up to me in silence, knelt down in front of me and with a look I will never forget said to me: "Bendígame, Padre, quiero ser profeta de Dios!" -- "Bless me, Father, I want to be a prophet for God!" A chill went down my spine because I saw that he was plainly moved by grace.

We can with humility make that priest's desire our own: "I want to be a prophet for God." Little, unknown to anyone, it does not matter, but one who, as Paul VI said, has fire in his heart, words on his lips, and prophecy in his outlook.

* * *

[1] Cf. J. D.G. Dunn, "Christianity in the Making, I: Jesus Remembered," Eerdmans, 2003, Part 3, Ch. 12.
[2] Benedict XVI, "Jesus of Nazareth," Doubleday, 2007, 324.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa theologiae," I, q. 43, a. 6, ad 2.
[4] In "New Covenant," June, 1984, 12.

[5] K. Rahner, "Erfahrung des Geistes: Meditation auf Pfingsten," Herder, 1977.
[6] Testimony as reported by P. Gallagher Mansfield, "As by a New Pentecost," Steubenville 1992, 25f.

[7] General audience of 29 November 1972 ("Insegnamenti di Paolo VI," Vatican, X, 1210f.).
[8] St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Letter to the Ephesians," 17.

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Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent Sermon
"Spe Gaudentes -- Joyful in Hope"

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 21, 2007- Here is a translation of the third Advent sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.

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1. Jesus the Son

In this third and last meditation, leaving the prophets and John the Baptist aside now, we will focus exclusively on the goal of everything: the "Son." From this point of view, the text of Hebrews suggests the parable of the treacherous tenants of the vineyard. There too God first sends his servants and then, at the end, he sends his Son, saying: "They will respect my Son" (Matthew 21:33-41).

In a chapter of his book on Jesus of Nazareth the Pope illustrates the profound difference between the title "Son of God" and that of "Son" without any added qualifications. The simple title of "Son," contrary to what one might think, is much more pregnant than that of "Son of God." The latter comes after a long list of attributions: This is what the people of Israel were called, and in a special way, their king; this is what the Pharaohs were called and the eastern sovereigns and also what the Roman emperor was to be called. By itself, then, this title would not be enough to distinguish the person of Christ from every other "son of God."

The case of the simple title "Son" is different. This appears in the Gospels as exclusive to Christ and it is with it that Jesus will express his profound identity. After the Gospels it is precisely the Letter to the Hebrews that powerfully testifies to this absolute use of the title "the Son." It appears five times in the letter.

The most significant text in which Jesus defines himself as "the Son" is Matthew 11:27. "Everything has been given to me by my Father; no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." The exegetes explain that the saying has a clear Aramaic origin and demonstrates that the later developments that we see in this regard in John's Gospel have their remote origin in Christ's consciousness itself.

A communion of knowledge so absolute between Father and Son, the Pope notes in his book, cannot be explained except by an ontological communion, a communion in being. The later formulations, culminating in the definition of Nicaea, of the Son as "begotten not made, of the same substance as the Father," are therefore daring but consonant with the Gospel datum.

The strongest proof of the consciousness that Jesus had of his identity as Son is in his prayer. In Jesus' prayer the sonship is not only declared but lived. The way and the frequency with which the exclamation "Abba" appears in Christ's prayer attests an intimacy and a familiarity with God that does not have an equal in the tradition of Israel. If the expression has been conserved in the original language and becomes the characteristic of Christian prayer (cf. Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) it is precisely because people were convinced that it was the typical form of Jesus' own prayer.[1]

2. A Jesus of the atheists?

This Gospel datum throws light on a particular contemporary debate about the person of Jesus. In the introduction to his book, the Pope cites the claim of R. Schnackenburg according to which "without the rootedness in God the person of Jesus remains fleeting, unreal and inexplicable." "This," the Pope says, "is the basis of this book of mine: considering Jesus from the point of view of his communion with the Father. This is the true center of his personality."[2]

In my opinion this brings to light the problematic nature of an historical investigation of Jesus that from the beginning not only prescinds from, but excludes, faith; in other words, it calls into question the historical plausibility of that which is sometimes called "the Jesus of the atheists." Here I am not talking about faith in Christ and his divinity, but about faith in the more common meaning of the term, of faith in God's existence. This has nothing to do with the idea that non-believers have no right to concern themselves with Jesus. What I want to show, taking my cue from the claim cited by the Pope, are the consequences that follow from such a point of departure, that is, how the "pre-comprehension" of the non-believer has a much greater impact on his historical research than does the believer's -- contrary to what atheist scholars think.

If one rejects or prescinds from faith in God, it is not only the divinity of Christ that is eliminated, or the so-called Christ of faith, but also the historical Jesus tout court -- his human credibility is lost. No one can deny on historical grounds that the Jesus of the Gospels lives and works in constant reference to the heavenly Father, that he prays and teaches to pray, that he bases everything on faith in God. If this dimension of the Jesus of the Gospels is eliminated, nothing remains.

If one begins with the tacit or declared presupposition that God does not exist, then Jesus is nothing more than one of the many deluded people who prayed, worshiped, and talked to his own shadow, or the projection of his own essence, as Feuerbach would have it. Jesus would be the most illustrious victim of what the militant atheist Richard Dawkins calls "the God delusion."[3] But how do we explain then that the life of this man "changed the world" and, after 2,000 years continues to intrigue us like no one else? If a delusion is able to do what Jesus did in history, Dawkins and others had better reconsider their concept of delusion.

There is only one way out of this difficulty, that which made some headway in the context of the "Jesus Seminar" at Berkeley in the United States. Jesus was not a Jewish believer; he was at bottom an itinerant philosopher after the fashion of the Cynics;[4] he did not preach a kingdom of God, nor a coming end of the world; he was only a purveyor of sapiential maxims in the style of a Zen master. His purpose was to reawaken self-consciousness in men, to convince them that they did not need him nor another god, because there was a divine spark in them.[5] But these are the things that the New Age has been preaching for decades! This is an image of Jesus constructed according to contemporary fashions. It is true: Without the rootedness in God, the figure of Jesus remains "fleeting, unreal and inexplicable."

3. Pre-existence of Christ in the Trinity

On this point too, as with the reduction of Jesus to a prophet, the problem comes up not only in discussion with atheist scholarship; it comes up, in a different manner and with a different spirit, in theological discussion within the Church. I will try to explain in what sense. In regard to the title "Son of God" we are witnessing a kind of climbing back up the mountain in the New Testament: In the beginning it is connected with Christ's resurrection (Romans 1:4); Mark takes a step back and connects it with his baptism in the Jordan (Mark 1:11); Matthew and Luke connect it with his birth (Luke 1:35). The Letter to the Hebrews makes the decisive leap, affirming that the Son did not begin to exist at the moment of his coming among us but existed from all eternity. "Through him," it says, "God made the world"; he is the "radiance of his glory and the image of his substance." Some 30 years later, John's Gospel will consecrate this conquest, beginning with the words: "In the beginning was the Word ..."

Now, in regard to the pre-existence of Christ as eternal Son of the Father some very problematic theses have been advanced in the ambit of the so-called new Christologies. In these, it is claimed that the pre-existence of Christ as eternal Son of the Father is a mythical concept taken over from Hellenistic thought. In modern terms, this would mean simply that "the relationship between God and Jesus did not develop only in a second moment and, causally, so to speak, but exists a priori and is founded in God himself."

In other words, Jesus pre-existed in an intentional way but not in a real way; in the sense that the Father, from all eternity, foresaw, chose and loved as a son the Jesus who would one day be born of Mary. He did not pre-exist, therefore, in a way that was different from each of us, from the moment that every man, as Scripture says, was "already chosen and predestined" by God as his son, before the creation of the world! (cf. Ephesians 1:4).

From this point of view, faith in the Trinity disappears together with Christ's pre-existence. This is reduced to something heterogenous (an eternal person, the Father, plus an historical person, Jesus, plus a divine energy, the Holy Spirit); something that, besides, does not exist ab aeterno but that comes to be in time.

I will limit myself to observing that this is not a new thesis. The idea of an intentional rather than a real pre-existence of the Son was advanced, discussed and rejected by ancient Christian thought. Just as it is not true, then, that this thesis is imposed by the new conceptions we have of God, conceptions that are no longer mythological, it is also not true that the contrary idea, of an eternal pre-existence, was the only conceivable solution in the ancient cultural context and that the Fathers, therefore, had no other choice.

Photinus, in the 4th century, already knew the idea of a pre-existence of Jesus "in the mode of prevision" or "in the mode of anticipation." Against him a synod declared: "If anyone says that the Son, before Mary, existed only according to prevision and that he was not begotten by the Father before the ages to be God and to make all things come into being through him, let him be anathema."[6] The intention of these theologians was laudable: to translate the ancient datum into language accessible to contemporary man. Unfortunately, however, once again, that which gets translated into modern language is not the datum defined by the councils, but that condemned by the councils.

Already St. Anthanasius made it clear that the idea of a Trinity composed of heterogenous realities compromised that divine unity that was to be safeguarded with it. If then it is admitted that God "comes to be" in time, no one guarantees us that his growth and coming to be are finished. He who has come to be will continue along the path of becoming.[7] How much time and trouble we would be saved by a less superficial knowledge of the Fathers!

I would like to conclude this doctrinal part of our meditation on a positive note, with something that, in my opinion, is of extraordinary importance. For almost a century, since Wilhelm Bousset wrote his famous book "Kyrios Christos" in 1913, the idea that the devotion to Christ as divine was to be looked for in the Hellenistic context, and therefore a good deal after the death of Christ, has dominated the sphere of critical studies.[8]

In the ambit of the so-called third quest for the historical Jesus, the question has been taken up again from the beginning by Larry Hurtado, professor of language, literature and theology of the New Testament at Edinburgh. Here is the conclusion that he reaches at the end of an investigation of over 700 pages:

"Devotion to Jesus as divine erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually and late, among first-century circles of followers. More specifically, the origins lie in Jewish Christian circles of the earliest years. Only a certain wishful thinking continues to attribute the reverence of Jesus as divine decisively to the influence of pagan religion and the influx of Gentile converts, characterizing it as developing late and incrementally. Furthermore, devotion to Jesus as the ‘Lord,' to whom cultic reverence and total obedience were the appropriate response, was widespread, not confined or attributable to particular circles, such as ‘Hellenists' or Gentile Christians of a supposed Syrian ‘Christ cult.' Amid the diversity of earliest Christianity, belief in Jesus' divine status was amazingly common."[9]

This rigorous historical conclusion should put an end to the opinion, which has been dominant up until now in a certain popularized form, that holds that the divine cult of Christ is supposed to be a later fruit of the faith (imposed by law by Constantine at Nicaea in 325, according to Dan Brown in his "DaVinci Code"!)

4. Hope, the little girl

Besides the book on Jesus of Nazareth, this year the Holy Father has also given us the gift of an encyclical on hope. The usefulness of a papal document, apart from its elevated content, is that it focuses the attention of all the faithful on one point, stimulating reflection on it. In this line, I would like to make a little spiritual and practical application of the encyclical's theological content, showing how the text of the Letter to the Hebrews that we have meditated on can contribute to nourishing our hope.

In hope -- the author of the letter writes, with a beautiful image destined to become a classic of Christian art -- "we have an anchor of our life, strong and secure, which penetrates beyond the veil of the sanctuary, where Jesus has entered as precursor for us" (Hebrews 6:17-20). The foundation of this hope is precisely the fact that "in these last times God has spoken to us through his Son." If he has given us the Son, says St. Paul, "will he not give us all things together with him?" (Romans 8:32). This is why "hope does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5): the gift of the Son is the pledge and the guarantee of all the rest and, in the first place, of eternal life. If the Son is "the heir to all things" ("heredem universorum") (Hebrews 1:2), we are his "co-heirs" (Romans 8:17).

The iniquitous tenants of the vineyard in the parable, seeing the Son arrive, say to each other: "He is the heir. Let us go and kill him and we will have the inheritance" (Matthew 21:38). In his all-powerful mercy, God the Father turned this criminal design into something good. Men did kill the Son and truly received the inheritance! Thanks to that death, they have become "heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ."

We human creatures need hope to live as we need oxygen to breathe. It is said that as long as there is life there is hope; but the reverse is likewise true: That as long as there is hope there is life. Hope has been for a long time and is still now the poor relation among the theological virtues. We speak often of faith, more often of love, but very little about hope.

The poet Charles Péguy is right when he compares the three theological virtues to three sisters: two grown-ups and a little girl. They walk along the street hand-in-hand (the three theological virtues are inseparable!), the two big ones on either side, the little girl in the middle. All who see them are convinced that the two big ones -- faith and love -- drag along the little girl hope in the middle. But they are mistaken: it is the little girl hope who drags the other two along; if she stops, everything stops.[10]

We see it at the human and social level too. In Italy hope has stopped and with it confidence, drive, growth, even in economic matters. The "decline" that is spoken of is born here. Fear of the future has taken the place of hope. The low birth rate is the clearest indicator. No country needs to meditate on the Pope's encyclical as much as Italy.

Theological hope is the "thread from above" that sustains all human hopes from the center. "The thread from above" is the title of a parable by the Danish writer Johannes Jorgensen. He speaks of a spider who lowers himself from the branch of a tree with a thread that he himself makes. Positioning himself on the hedge he weaves his web, a masterpiece of symmetry and functionality. It is supported on the sides by other threads but everything is sustained in the center by the thread that he used to descend from the tree. If one of the threads on the side breaks, the spider fixes it and everything is in order, but if the thread from above breaks (I wanted to verify this once and found out that it is true), everything droops down and the spider leaves, knowing that there is nothing to be done. This is an image of what happens when we break that thread from above that is theological hope. Only it can "anchor" human hopes in the hope "that does not disappoint."

In the Bible we see real leaps of hope. One of them is found in the third Lamentation: "I am a man," the prophet says, "who has known misery and suffering ... I said: My glory is gone, the hope that came to me from the Lord."

But here is the leap of hope that turns everything upside down. At a certain point the person praying says to himself: "But the Lord's mercy is not finite; therefore I want to hope in him! The Lord never rejects but if he afflicts, he will have pity. Perhaps there is still hope" (cf. Lamentations 3:1-29). From the moment that the prophet decides to return to hope, the tone of the discourse completely changes: Lamentation turns into confident supplication: "The Lord never rejects. But if he afflicts, he will also have pity according to his great mercy" (Lamentations 3:32).

We have more reason for this leap of hope: God has given us his Son: Will he not give us all things together with him? Sometimes it is worthwhile to say to ourselves: "But God does exist and that is enough!" The most precious service that the Church in Italy can perform at this moment for the country is to help it make a leap of hope. The Church in Italy is not the only one in need of this leap of hope; the Church in the United States needs it too after what it has gone through in last years.

Last time I talked about an "aroma therapy" based on the oil of joy that is the Holy Spirit. We need this therapy to be healed of the most pernicious of all maladies: desperation, discouragement, loss of confidence in self, in life and finally in the Church. "May the God of hope fill you with every joy and peace in the faith, so that you abound in hope and the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13). This is what the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans.

One cannot abound in hope without the power of the Holy Spirit. There is an African-American spiritual in which one just continually repeats these few words: "There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole ..." In the Old Testament, Gilead is famous for its perfumes and ointments (cf. Jeremiah 8:22). The song continues, saying: "Sometimes I feel discouraged / and think my work's in vain / But then the Holy Spirit / revives my soul again." For us, Gilead is the Church and the balm that heals is the Holy Spirit. He is the scent that Jesus has left behind, passing through this world.

Hope is miraculous: When it is reborn in a heart, everything is different even if nothing is changed. In Isaiah we read: "Even the young people toil and grow weary, the grown-ups stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord again receive strength and grow wings like eagles, they run without stopping and walk without tiring" (Isaiah 40:30-31).

Where hope is reborn, joy above all is reborn. The apostle says that the believers are "spe salvi," "saved in hope" (Romans 8:24) and for this reason should be "spe gaudentes" -- "joyous in hope" (Romans 12:12). They are not people who hope to be happy but people who are happy to hope; they are already happy now on account of the simple fact of hoping.

May this Christmas the God of hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the intercession of Mary "Mother of Hope," grant us to be joyous in hope and abound in it.

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[1] Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "Christianity in the Making, I: Jesus Remembered," Eerdmans, 2003, 746 ff.

[2] Benedict XVI, "Jesus of Nazareth," Doubleday, 2007.
[3] R. Dawkins, "God Delusion," Bantam Books, 2006.

[4] On the theory of Jesus as a Cynic cf. B. Griffin, "Was Jesus a Philosophical Cynic?" [http://www-oxford.op.org/allen/html/acts.htm].
[5] Cf. Harold Bloom's essay, "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings...", published as an appendix to Marvin Meyer's edition of the Gospel of Thomas, "The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus," Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

[6] Formula of the Synod of Sirmio of 351, in A. Hahn, "Bibliotek der Symbole und Glaubensregeln in der alten Kirche," Hildesheim, 1962, 197.
[7] Cf. Saint Athanasius, "Against the Arians," I, 17-18 (PG 26, 48).

[8] Wilhelm Bousset, "Kyrios Christos," 1913.
[9] L. Hurtado, "Lord Jesus Christ. Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity," Eerdmans, 2003, 650.
[10] Ch. Péguy, "Oeuvres poétiques complètes," Gallimard, 1975, 531 ff.

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The Virgin Without Sin
Gospel Commentary for Feast of Immaculate Conception

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

ROME, DEC. 6, 2007 ( Zenit.org).- With the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic Church affirms that Mary, on account of a singular privilege bestowed by God and in view of the merits of Christ's death, was preserved from contracting the stain of original sin and came into existence already completely holy.

Four years after being defined by Pope Pius IX, this truth was confirmed by the Madonna herself at Lourdes in an apparition to Bernadette with the words: "I am the Immaculate Conception."

The feast of Mary Immaculate reminds humanity that there is only one thing that truly lowers man -- sin. It is a very urgent message to repeat. The world has lost the sense of sin. We joke as if it were the most harmless thing in the world. The world presents its products and spectacles as sinful to make them more attractive. It talks about sin, even the gravest sins, in terms of endearment: peccadilloes, little vices, etc. The expression "original sin" is used in the advertising world to indicate something very different from the Bible: A sin that confers a bit of originality on the one who commits it!

The world is afraid of everything but sin. It is afraid of pollution, the obscure maladies of the body, nuclear war, terrorism; but it is not afraid of the war against God, who is the eternal; the all-powerful; love. Jesus says, however, not to be afraid of those who kill the body, but only of him who after he has killed has the power to cast into Gehenna (cf. Luke 12:4-5).

This way of thinking exercises a tremendous influence even on believers who want to live according to the Gospel. It produces a sleep of conscience in them, a kind of spiritual anesthesia. There is a drug that skews our understanding of sin. The Christian people no longer recognize its true enemy, the master that enslaves it; this is because what we have is a gilded slavery.

Many who speak of sin no longer have an entirely adequate idea of it. Sin becomes depersonalized and is projected only onto institutions; we end up identifying sin with the position of our own political and ideological adversaries. An investigation about what people think sin is would probably have frightening results.

Instead of liberation from sin, all efforts today are focused on liberation from regret over sin; instead of fighting against sin we fight against the idea of sin, replacing it with something very different, namely, "guilt feelings." We do precisely that which in every other sphere is considered the worst thing of all, that is, we deny the problem rather than resolve it, we push back and bury evil in the unconscious instead of removing it.

It is similar to believing that we can eliminate death by eliminating the thought of death, or worrying about bringing down the fever rather than curing the sickness when the fever is only a providential revelatory symptom of the sickness. St. John says that if we claim to be without sin, then we deceive ourselves and we make God a liar (cf. 1 John 1:8-10); God, in fact, says the contrary, he says that we have sinned.

Scripture says that Christ "died for our sins" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3). If you take away sin, then Christ's redemption itself is made futile, you have destroyed the meaning of his death. Christ would then have been tilting at windmills, he would have spilled his blood for nothing.

But the dogma of Mary Immaculate also tells us something very positive: God is stronger than sin and where sin abounds grace abounds even more (cf. Romans 5:20).

Mary is the sign and guarantee of this. The whole Church, after her, is called to become "glorious, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, that she might be holy and immaculate" (Ephesians 5:27). A text of the Second Vatican Council says: "But while in the Most Holy Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she is without spot or wrinkle, the followers of Christ still strive to increase in holiness by conquering sin. And so they turn their eyes to Mary who shines forth to the whole community of the elect as the model of virtues" ("Lumen Gentium," 65).

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Glory to God and Peace to Men
Gospel Commentary for Christmas Mass at Midnight

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

ROME, DEC. 24, 2007- An ancient custom for the feast of Christmas foresees three Masses, called respectively "at night," "at dawn," "during the day." In each Mass, through readings that vary, a different aspect of the mystery is presented, in such a way that we get, so to speak, a three-dimensional vision.

The Gospel of the Mass at night focuses on the event, on the historical fact. This is described with disconcerting simplicity, without any apparatus -- three or four lines of humble and familiar words to describe the absolutely most important event in the history of the world, the coming of God to earth.

The task of bringing to light the significance and importance of this event is given, by the Evangelist, to the song intoned by the angels, after having made proclamation to the shepherds: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." In the past this expression was translated differently, that is, as "Peace on earth to men of good will." In these words the expression entered into the Gloria and it became common in Christian language. After Vatican II this expression was used to indicate all the honest, who seek the true and the common good, whether or not they be believers.

But it is an inexact translation and for this reason it has been abandoned today. In the original biblical text it is a matter of men who are loved by God, who are the object of the divine good will, not that they themselves are gifted with good will. In this way the proclamation becomes more consoling. If peace were accorded to men on account of their good will, then it would be limited to a few, to those who merit it; but since it is accorded through God's good will, through grace, it is offered to all. Christmas is not an appeal to the good will of men but a radiant proclamation of the good will of God toward men.

The key word, then, for understanding the angelic proclamation is the last one, that which speaks of the "favor" of God toward men, as font and origin of all that which God began to accomplish at Christmas. He predestined us to be his adopted sons "in accord with the favor of his will," the apostle writes; he made known to us the mystery of his will, according to what he foreordained "in accord with his favor" (Ephesians 1:5,9). Christmas is the supreme epiphany of that which the Scripture calls God's philanthropy, that is, his love for men: "The goodness of God and his love for men are manifested" (Titus 3:4).

Only after having contemplated the "good will" of God toward us can we concern ourselves also with the "good will" of men, that is, with our response to the mystery of Christmas. This good will must be expressed through imitation of God's action. Imitating the mystery that we celebrate means abandoning every thought of justifying ourselves on our own, every remembrance of wrongs done to us, erasing from our hearts all resentment toward others, even justified resentment. It means not willingly allowing any hostile thought against anyone, whether against neighbors or those far away, the weak, the strong, the little, the great of the earth, or against any creature that exists in the world. This is what it means to honor the birth of the Lord, because God did not hold onto any rancor, he did not look at the wrong done to him, he did not wait for others to take the first step to him. If this is not always possible during the rest of the year, let us at least do it at Christmas. Thus Christmas will be truly the feast of goodness.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher. The readings for Christmas Mass at Midnight are Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14.

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