1st Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa
"May the Words of the Gospel Wash Our Sins Away"

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 22, 2008.- Here is a translation of the Lenten meditation delivered today by Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, titled "Jesus Began to Preach: The Word of God in the Life of Christ."

This is the first in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective."

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In view of the Synod of Bishops next October I thought that I would dedicate my Lenten preaching this year to the theme of the word of God. We will meditate, in succession, on the proclamation of the Gospel in the life of Christ, that is, on Jesus as the one “who preaches,” on proclamation in the mission of the Church, that is, on Christ as “preached,” on the word of God as a means of personal sanctification, the “lectio divina,” and on the relationship between the Spirit and the word, concretely speaking, the spiritual reading of the Bible.

We begin this preaching on the day in which the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, and this in not without significance for our theme. First of all it offers us an occasion to pay the homage of our affection and devotion to him who today sits in the Chair of Peter, the Holy Father Benedict XVI. We then recall what the Apostle Peter himself wrote in his Second Letter, namely, that “no prophetic scripture may be subjected to private explanation” (2 Peter 1:20) and that for this reason every interpretation of the word of God must be measured against the living tradition of the Church, whose authentic interpretation is entrusted to the apostolic teaching office and, in a singular way, to the Petrine teaching office.

It is beautiful, in such a circumstance as this, and in the contemporary context of ecumenical dialogue, to recall the famous text of St. Irenaeus: “Since, however, it would take too long to enumerate the successions of all the Churches in this volume, we take the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. [...] With this Church, by reason of its more excellent origin (‘propter potentiorem principalitatem’), every Church must be in agreement, that is, the faithful from everywhere, since in her the Tradition that comes from the apostles has always been preserved for all men.”[1]

In this spirit, not without fear and trembling, I ready myself to present my reflections on the vital theme of the word of God, in the presence of the successor of Peter, the Bishop of the Church of Rome.

1. Preaching in the Life of Jesus

After the account of Jesus’ baptism, the Evangelist Mark continues his narrative saying: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God and saying ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14). Matthew puts it more briefly: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). With these words the “Gospel” begins understood as the good news “of” Jesus -- that is, received from Jesus and of which Jesus is the subject, which is different from the good news “about” Jesus of the subsequent apostolic preaching, in which Jesus is the object.

We have here an event that occupies a very precise place in time and in space: It happened “in Galilee,” “after John was arrested.” The verb used by the evangelists, “he began to preach,” strongly emphasizes that it is a “beginning,” something new not only in the life of Jesus, but in salvation history itself. The Letter to the Hebrews expresses this novelty thus: “In many and sundry ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by the Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

A special time begins in salvation, a new “kairos,” which lasts for about 2 and a half years (from the autumn of 27 A.D., to the spring of 30 A.D.). Jesus attributed to this activity of his such an importance as to say that he had been sent by the Father and consecrated with an anointing of the Spirit for this, that is, “to announce the glad tidings” (Luke 4:18). On one occasion, while there were some who wanted to keep him, he tells the apostles that they must leave, saying to them: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for this in fact I have come” (Mark 1:38).

Preaching is part of the so-called “mysteries of the life of Christ” and it is as such that we will approach it. In this context the word “mystery” means an event of the life of Jesus that bears salvific significance, which is celebrated by the Church as such in her liturgy.[2] If there is not a special feast for the Jesus’ preaching it is because it is recalled in every liturgy of the Church. The “liturgy of the word” in the Mass is nothing other than the liturgical actualization of Jesus who preaches. A Second Vatican Council text says that Christ “is present in His word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church.”[3]

As, in history, after having preached the kingdom of God, Jesus went to Jerusalem to offer himself in sacrifice to the Father, so too, in the liturgy, after having again proclaimed his word, Jesus renews the offering of himself to the Father through the Eucharistic action. When, at the end of the preface, we say: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest,” we spiritually return to that moment when Jesus enters Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover there; there the time of preaching ends and the time of the passion begins.

Jesus’ preaching is therefore a “mystery” because it does not only contain the revelation of a doctrine, but it explains the mystery itself of the person of Christ; it is essential for understanding both that which comes before -- the mystery of the incarnation -- and that which comes after, the paschal mystery. Without the word of Jesus they would be mute events. Pope John Paul II’s idea was a happy one when he inserted the preaching of the kingdom among the “mysteries of light,” which he added to the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the rosary, along with the baptism of Christ, the marriage feast at Cana, the transfiguration and the institution of the Eucharist.

2. Christ’s Preaching Continues in the Church

The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote long after the death of Jesus, thus, a long time after Jesus had ceased to speak; and yet he says that God spoke through the Son “in these last days.” He considers the days in which he is living, therefore, as part of “Jesus’ days.” For this reason, a little further on in the letter, citing the words of the Psalm, “Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts,” he applies them to Christians, saying: “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart without faith leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’” (Hebrews 3:12-13). God speaks, then, today as well in the Church and he speaks “in the Son.”

But how and where can we hear this “voice” of his? Divine revelation is over; in a certain sense there are no longer any words of God. And here we find another affinity between word and Eucharist. The Eucharist is present in the whole of salvation history: in the Old Testament, as figure (the passover lamb, the sacrifice of Melchizedek, the manna in the desert), in the New Testament, as event (the death and resurrection of Christ), in the Church, as sacrament (in the Mass).

Christ’s sacrifice is finished and concluded on the cross; in a certain sense, therefore, there are no more sacrifices of Christ; and yet we know that there is still a sacrifice and it is the one sacrifice of the cross that is made present and effective in the Eucharistic sacrifice; the event continues in the sacrament, history in the liturgy. Something analogous happens with Christ’s word: It has ceased to exist as event, but it continues to exist as sacrament.

In the Bible, the word of God (“dabar”), especially in the particular form it assumes in the prophets, always constitutes an event; it is a word-event, that is a word that creates a situation, that always realizes something new in history. The recurrent expression, “the word of Yaweh came to,” could be translated as: “the word of Yaweh assumed a concrete form in” (in Ezekiel, in Haggai, in Zechariah, etc.).

This kind of word-event continues right up to John the Baptist; in Luke, in fact, we read: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar [...] the word of God came to (“factum est verbum Domini super”) John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1ff.). After this moment, this formula disappears completely from the Bible and in its place there appears another -- it is no longer “Factum est verbum Domini” but “Verbum caro factum est,” the word became flesh (John 1:14). The event is now a person! One never encounters the phrase, “the word of God came to Jesus,” because he is the Word. After the provisional realizations of the word of God in the prophets, there comes the full and definitive realization.

Giving us the Son, St. John of the Cross famously writes, God has said everything and had nothing left to reveal. God has become mute in a certain sense, not having anything else to say.[4] But this must be rightly understood: God has become silent in the sense that he does not say anything new in regard to what he has said in Jesus, but not in the sense that he no longer speaks; he is always saying again what he said in Jesus!

There are no longer word-events in the Church; the word of God will no longer come to someone, as it once did with Samuel, Jeremiah or John the Baptist; there are however word-sacraments. The word-sacraments are the words of God that “came” once and for all and are gathered in the Bible, that become “active reality” every time the Church proclaims with authority and the Spirit who inspired them returns to ignite them again in the heart of those who hear them. “He will take what is mine and declare it to you,” Jesus says of the Holy Spirit (John 16:14).

4. The Word-Sacrament That Is Heard

When one speaks of the word as “sacrament,” this term is not understood in the technical and restricted sense of the “seven sacraments,” but in the broader sense as when one speaks of Christ as the “primordial sacrament of the Father” and of the Church as the “universal sacrament of salvation.”[5] St. Augustine’s definition of sacrament as “a word that is seen” (“verbum visibile”),[6] used to be contrasted with the word as “a sacrament that is heard” (“sacramentum audibile”).

In every sacrament there is distinguished the visible sign and the invisible reality, which is grace. The word that we read in the Bible, in itself, is only a material sign (like wine and bread), an ensemble of dead syllables, or, at most, one word of human language among others; but faith intervening and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, through such a sign we mysteriously enter into contact with the living truth and will of God and we hear the voice itself of Christ.

“The body of Christ," Bossuet wrote, "is more truly present in the adorable sacrament than the truth of Christ is in the evangelical preaching. In the mystery of the Eucharist the species that you see are signs, but what is contained in them is the body itself of Christ; in Scripture, the words that you hear are signs, but the thought that is drawn from them is the truth itself of the Son of God.”

The sacramentality of the word of God is revealed in the fact that sometimes it plainly works beyond the person’s understanding, which can be limited and imperfect, it almost works by itself, “ex opera operata,” as one says in theology.

When the prophet Elisha told Naaman the Syrian, who had come to him to be cured of leprosy, to wash seven times in the Jordan, Naaman replied indignantly, “Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed” (2 Kings 5:12)? Naaman was right: The rivers of Syria were undoubtedly better, they had more water; and yet, washing in the Jordan he was healed and his flesh became like that of a little child, something that would not have happened if had bathed in the great rivers of his country.

This is how it is with the word of God contained in Scripture. Among the nations and also in the Church there have been and there will be better books than some of the books of the Bible, more refined from a literary standpoint and religiously more edifying (just think of the "Imitation of Christ"), but none of them work as well as the most modest of the inspired books. There is, in the words of Scripture, something that acts beyond every human explanation; there is an evident disproportion between the sign and the reality that it produces, that makes one think, precisely, of the action of the sacraments.

The “waters of Israel,” which are the divinely inspired Scriptures, continue even today to heal the leprosy of sin; once he has finished reading the Gospel passage at Mass, the Church invites the ordained minister to kiss the book and say: “May the words of the Gospel wash our sins away” (“Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta”). The healing power of the word of God is attested to by Scripture itself: “For indeed, neither herb nor application cured them, but your all-healing word, O Lord" (Wisdom 16:12).

Experience confirms it. I heard a person give witness in a television program that I took part in. He was an alcoholic in the final stage; he could not go for more than two hours without a drink; his family was on the brink of desperation. They invited him with his wife to a meeting on the word of God. There someone read a passage of Scripture. A verse went through him like a burning flame and he felt healed. After that, every time he felt tempted to drink he went to the Bible and opened it to that verse to reread it and he felt the strength return to him until he was completely healed. When he wanted to say what the verse was his voice broke with emotion. It was the word of the Song of Songs: “Your love is more delightful than wine” (Song of Songs 1:2). These simple words, apparently unrelated to his life, accomplished the miracle.

One reads of a similar episode in “The Way of a Pilgrim.” But the most celebrated instance is that of Augustine. Reading Paul’s words to the Romans, “Let us then throw off the works of darkness. […] Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness” (Romans 13:12-13), he felt “a light of serenity” shining in his heart and he understood that he was healed of the slavery of the flesh.[7]

5. The Liturgy of the Word

There is a place and a moment in the life of the Church in which Jesus speaks today in the most solemn and certain way and that is the liturgy of the word in the Mass. In the primitive Church the liturgy of the word was separated from the liturgy of the Eucharist. The disciples, the Acts of the Apostles reports, “went to the temple together every day”; there they listened to the reading of the Bible, they recited the psalms together with the other Jews; they did what is done in the liturgy of the word; then they gathered in their houses to “break bread,” that is, to celebrate the Eucharist (cf. Acts 2:43).

Quite early on this practice became impossible for them because of the hostility of the Jewish community toward them, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, because by this point that had acquired a new way of reading the Scriptures completely oriented to Christ. It was in this way that that the hearing of Scripture was also transferred from the temple and the synagogue to the Christian places of worship, becoming the present liturgy of the word that precedes the Eucharistic prayer.

St. Justin, in the second century, gives a description of the Eucharistic celebration in which there are already present all of the essential elements of the future Mass. Not only is the liturgy of the word an integral part of it, but alongside the readings of the Old Testament there are already those readings that the saint calls the “memoirs of the apostles,” that is, the Gospels and the letters, in concrete terms New Testament.

Heard in the liturgy, the biblical readings acquire a new and more powerful sense than when they are read in other contexts. They do not have so much the purpose of bringing about better knowledge of the Bible, as when one reads at home or in a school for biblical studies, as they have the purpose of recognizing him who makes himself present in the breaking of the bread, of every time illuminating a particular aspect of the mystery that is about to be received. This appears in an almost programmatic way in the episode with the two disciples traveling to Emmaus: It was in listening to an explanation of the Scriptures that the heart of the disciples began to open so that they were then able to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.

One example among many: the readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time of Cycle B. The first reading is the passage on the suffering servant who takes upon himself the people’s iniquity (Isaiah 53:2-11); the second reading speaks of Christ the high priest tried in every like us but sin; the Gospel passage speaks of the Son of Man who has come to give his life in ransom for many. Together these three passages bring to light a fundamental aspect of the mystery that is about to be celebrated and received in the Eucharistic liturgy.

In the Mass the words and episodes of the Bible are not only narrated, they are relived; memory becomes reality and presence. That which happened “in that time” happens “in this time,” “today” (“hodie”) as the liturgy loves to express it. We are not only hearers of the word, but also interlocutors and doers of it. It is to us, there present, that the word is addressed; we are called to take the place of the characters who are evoked.

Here too some examples will help one to understand. One reads, in the first reading, of the episode in which God speaks to Moses golden calf: We are, in the Mass, before the true golden calf. One reads of Isaiah upon whose lips the hot coal is pressed, to purify him for his mission: we are about to receive the true hot coal upon our lips. Ezekiel is invited to eat at the scroll of the prophetic oracles and we are about to eat him who is the word itself made flesh and made bread.

This thing becomes clearer if we pass from the Old Testament to the new, from the first reading to the Gospel passage. The woman who suffers from hemorrhages is certain of being healed if she is able to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment: What to say of us who are about to touch much more than the hem of his garment? Once I was listening to the Gospel episode about Zaccheus and was struck by its “relevance.” I was Zaccheus; the words were addressed to me. “Today I must come to your house.” It was about me that it could be said: “He went to stay with a sinner!” And it was about me, after having received him in communion, that Jesus said: “Today salvation has entered into this house.”

It is the same with every single episode in the Gospel. How can one not in the Mass identify himself with the paralytic to whom Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven you” and “Get up and go to your house,” with Simeon who holds the baby Jesus in his arms, with Thomas who, trembling, touches his wounds? In today’s celebration, Friday of the second week of Lent, the Gospel is about the murderous tenants of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-45): “Finally he sent his own son, saying, ‘They will respect my son!’” I remember the effect that these words had on me when I was listening to them once rather distractedly. That same Son was about to be given to me in communion: Was I prepared to receive him with the respect that the heavenly Father expected?

It is not only the deeds but also the words of the Gospel heard at Mass that acquire a new and more powerful sense. One summer day I found myself celebrating Mass in a small cloistered monastery. The Gospel passage was Matthew 12. I will never forget the impression that those words of Jesus made on me: “Behold, now there is one here greater than Jonah. [...] Behold, now there is one here greater than Solomon.” In that moment it was as if I had heard them for the first time. I understood that those to words “now” and “here” truly meant now and here, that is, in that moment and in that place, not only in the time that Jesus was on earth, many centuries ago. From that summer day, those words became dear and familiar to me in a new way. Often, at Mass, in the moment that I genuflect and stand up again after the consecration, I repeat to myself: “Behold, now there is one here greater than Jonah. [...] Behold, now there is one here greater than Solomon!”

“You who often partake in the divine mysteries,” Origen said to the Christians of his time, “when you receive the body of the Lord you treat it with great care and veneration so that not even a crumb will fall to the ground, so that nothing is lost of the consecrated gift. You are rightly convinced that that it is wrong to let a piece fall out of carelessness. If you are so careful in safeguarding his body -- and it is right that you are -- know that neglecting God’s word is not less wrong that neglecting his body.”[8]

Among the many words of God that we hear every day at Mass or in the Divine Office, there is almost always one that is especially destined for us. By itself it can fill our whole day and illumine our prayer. It must not be allowed to fall into the void. Various sculptures and bas-reliefs of the ancient East depict the scribe in the act of listening to the voice of the sovereign who dictates or speaks: He is all attention, his legs are crossed, he is upright, his eyes are wide open, his ears are pealed. This is the attitude that in Isaiah is attributed to the Servant of the Lord: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear” (Isaiah 50:4). This is how we must be when the word of God is proclaimed.

Let us understand the exhortation that one reads in the prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict as being addressed to us: “Let us open our eyes to the divine light, let us hear with ears that are attentive and full of stupor the divine voice that cries out to us daily, ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts’ (Psalm 95). And again, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Revelation 2:7).”[9]

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[1] St. Irenaeus, “Adversus Haereses,” III, 2.
[2] Cf. St. Augustine, Letters, 55, 1,2.

[3] “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” No. 7.
[4] Cf. St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” II, 22, 4-5.

[5] Cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 48.
[6] St. Augustine, “Tractates on the Gospel of John,” 80,3.

[7] St. Augustine, “Confessions,” VIII,12.
[8] Origen, “Homily on Exodus,” XIII, 3.
[9] “Rule of St. Benedict,” Prologue.

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2nd Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa 2008
"Keep Us From Pronouncing Useless Words When We Speak of You"

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 29, 2008 - Here is a translation of the Lenten meditation delivered today by Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, titled "'For Every Useless Word': Speaking 'as With Words of God.'"

This is the second in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective."

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1. From Jesus Who Preaches to Christ Preached

In the second letter to the Corinthians -- which is, par excellence, the letter dedicated to the office of preaching -- St. Paul writes these programmatic words: "We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus the Lord!" (2 Corinthians 4:5). In a previous letter to these same faithful in Corinth he wrote: "We preach Christ crucified!" (2 Corinthians 4:5). When the Apostle wants to embrace the content of Christian preaching with a single word, this word is always the person of Jesus Christ!

In these statements Jesus is no longer seen -- as in the Gospels -- in his quality as preacher, but as that which is preached. Similarly, we see that "Gospel of Jesus" acquires a new meaning, without, however, losing the old one; from the "glad tidings" in which Jesus is the subject, one passes to the "glad tidings" in which Jesus is the object.

This is the meaning that the word "gospel" acquires in the solemn beginning of the Letter to the Romans: "Paul, servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, chosen beforehand to proclaim the Gospel of God, which he promised in the sacred Scriptures, regarding his Son, born from the line of David according to the flesh, constituted Son of God with power according to the Spirit of sanctification through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord" (Romans 1:1-3).

In this second Lenten meditation we will focus on the Word of God in the mission of the Church. This is the theme that the third chapter of the "lineamenta" of next October's Synod of Bishops is concerned with. The following is an outline of the topics of that chapter:

The Church's Mission is to Proclaim Christ, the Word of God Made Man;

The Word of God is to be Accessible to All, in Every Age;

The Word of God: the Grace of Communion Among Christians;

The Word of God: A Light for Interreligious Dialogue:

(a) With the Jewish people

(b) With other religions

The Word of God: The Leaven in Modern Culture

The Word of God and Human History.

I will restrict myself to a particular, very limited point, which however, I believe influences the quality and effectiveness of the proclamation of the Church in all of its expressions.

2. "Useless" Words and "Effective" Words

In Matthew's Gospel, in the context of the sermon on the words that reveal the heart, a saying of Jesus is reported that has made readers of the Gospel tremble throughout history: "But I say to you that men will have to answer for every useless word on the day of judgment" (Matthew 12:36).

It has been difficult to explain what Jesus intended by "useless word." Some light is shed by another passage in Matthew's Gospel (7:15-20) that addresses the theme of the tree that is known by its fruit and where the whole discourse seems to be directed at false prophets: "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are rapacious wolves. You will know them by their fruit."

If Jesus' saying has some relationship with the saying about false prophets, then perhaps we can discover what the word "useless" means. The Greek term that is translated by "useless" is "argon," which means "without effect" (alpha privative, plus "ergos," which means "work"). Some modern translations, including that of the Italian bishops' conference, render the term with "baseless," and so with a passive value: a word without a basis, in other words, slander. It is an attempt to give a more reassuring sense to Jesus' threat. It is not at all particularly disturbing, in fact, if Jesus says that an answer has to be given to God for every slander!

But, on the contrary, the meaning of "argon" is active and signifies a word that does not establish anything, that produces nothing -- thus, empty, sterile, without effectiveness.[1] In this sense the Vulgate's ancient translation was more accurate: "verbum otiosum," an "otiose" word, useless, which is the understanding adopted today in the majority of translations.

It is not hard to understand what Jesus means if we compare this adjective with that which, in the Bible, always characterizes the word of God: the adjective "energes," effective, that which works, that is always followed by an effect ("ergos"). This is the same adjective from which energetic is derived. St. Paul, for example, writes to the Thessalonians that, having received the divine word of the Apostle's preaching, they had welcomed it not as the word of men, but, as it truly is, as "the word of God that works ("energeitai") in those who believe (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). The opposition between the word of God and the word of men is presented here, implicitly, as an opposition between the word "that works" and the word "that does not work," between the effective word and the ineffective and vain word.

We also find this concept of the effectiveness of the divine word in the letter to the Hebrews: "The word of God is living and effective ("energes") (4:12). But it is an ancient concept; in Isaiah, God declares that the word that has gone out from his mouth will never return to him "without effect," without having "done that for which it was sent" (cf. Isaiah 55:11).

The useless word, for which men will have to answer on the Day of Judgment, is not, therefore, every and any useless word; it is rather the useless, empty word pronounced by him who should instead pronounce the "energetic" words of God. It is, in sum, the word of the false prophet, who has not received the word of God, but nevertheless persuades others to believe his merely human words are the word of God. What happens is exactly the reverse of what St. Paul says: Having received a human word, it is not taken for what it is, but for what it is not, that is, a divine word. For every useless word about God, man will have to answer! This, then, is the meaning of Jesus' grave admonishment.

The useless word is the counterfeit of the word of God, it is a parasite of the word of God. It is recognized by the fruits that it does not produce, because, by definition, it is sterile, without effectiveness -- for the good, of course. God "keeps vigil over his word" (cf. Jeremiah 1:12), is jealous for it and cannot allow man to make use of the divine powers that it bears.

The prophet Jeremiah permits us to hear, as through a loudspeaker, what is concealed beneath that word of Jesus. With him it is now clear that it is the false prophets who are the targets: "Thus says the Lord of hosts: Listen not to the words of your prophets, who fill you with emptiness; visions of their own fancy they speak, not from the mouth of the Lord. Let the prophet who has a dream recount his dream; let him who has my word speak my word truthfully! What has straw to do with the wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, like a hammer shattering rocks? Therefore I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from each other. Yes, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who borrow speeches to pronounce oracles" (Jeremiah 23:16, 26-31).

3. Who Are the False Prophets?

But we are not here to give a disquisition on the false prophets in the Bible. As always, the Bible is speaking about us. That word of Jesus does not judge the world, but the Church; the world will not be judged over useless words -- all of its words are, in the sense described above, useless words! -- but it will be judged, if at all, for not having believed in Jesus (cf. John 16:9). The "men" who must answer for every useless word are the men of the Church; we are the preachers of the word of God.

The "false prophets" are not only those who from time to time disseminate heresies; they are also those who falsify the word of God. Paul is the one who uses this term, drawing it from the contemporary language; literally it means to water down the word, as do the fraudulent hosts when they dilute their wine with water (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). The false prophets are those who do not present the word of God in its purity, but they dilute and extenuate it with a thousand human words that come from out of their heart.

I too am the false prophet, every time that I do not entrust myself to the "weakness," "foolishness," "poverty" and "nakedness" of the word and I cover it up, and I esteem what I have clothed it in more than the word itself, and the time that I spend covering it up is more than that which I spend with the word, remaining before it in prayer, worshipping it and allowing it to live in me.

Jesus, at Cana in Galilee, transformed water into wine, that is, [transformed] the dead letter into the Spirit that gives life -- this is how the Fathers of the Church interpreted the episode; false prophets are those who do the exact opposite, and change the pure wine of the word of God into water that does not inebriate anyone, into a dead letter, into vain chatter. Deep down, they are ashamed of the Gospel (cf. Romans 1:16) and of Jesus' words, because they are "too hard" for the world, or too poor or naked for the intellectuals, and they then try to season them with what Jeremiah called "visions of their own fancy."

St. Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy: "Be eager to present yourself as acceptable to God […] imparting the word of truth without deviation. Avoid profane, idle talk, for such people will become more and more godless" (2 Timothy 2:15-16). Profane chatter is that talk that is not relevant to God's design, which does not have anything to do with the mission of the Church. Too many human words, too many useless words, too many speeches, too many documents. In the era of mass communication the Church too runs the risk of falling into the "straw" of useless words, speaking just to say something, writing just because there are journals and newspapers to be filled.

In this way we offer to the world an optimal pretext resting content in its unbelief and its sin. When they have heard the authentic word of God, it would not be easy for unbelievers to go off saying -- as they often do after listening to our preaching: "Words, words, words!" St. Paul calls the words of God "the weapons for our battle" and says that they alone "destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Humanity is sick from noise, the philosopher [Soren] Kierkegaard said; it is necessary to fast, but a fasting from words; someone needs to cry out, as Moses did one day: "Be silent and listen Israel!" (Deuteronomy 27:9). The Holy Father reminded us of the necessity of this fast from words in his Lenten meeting with the pastors of Rome and I believe, as is his wont, his invitation was not first directed to the world but to the Church.

4. Jesus did not Come to Speak to us of Frivolities

These words of Péguy have always struck me:

"Jesus, my child,"

-- it is the Church speaking to her children --

"did not come to speak to us of frivolities

He did not make the trip to descend to the earth,

to come to tell us riddles and jokes.

There is no time for entertaining ourselves.

He did not give his life,

to come to tell us fables."[2]

The concern to keep the word of God distinct from every other word is such that, sending his apostles out on mission, Jesus commands them not to greet anyone on the way (cf. Luke 10:4). I experienced at my own expense that sometimes this commandment must be obeyed to the letter. Stopping to greet people and exchange pleasantries as one is about to begin preaching inevitably disturbs concentration on the word that is to be announced and causes this word to lose its alterity in regard to all human discourse. The same exigency is experienced -- or should be experienced -- when one is vesting to celebrate Mass.

The exigency is even greater when it is a matter of the content itself of preaching. In Mark's Gospel Jesus cites the words of Isaiah: "In vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines that are human precepts" (Isaiah 29:13); then he adds, turning to the Pharisees and scribes: "Neglecting the commandment of God, you follow human traditions ... and in this way you nullify the word of God with traditions that you yourselves have handed down" (Mark 7:7-13).

When one never succeeds in proposing the simple and naked word of God, without making it pass through the filter of a thousand distinctions and precisions and additions and explanations, which in themselves are even right, but extenuating the word of God, one is doing precisely what Jesus reproved the Pharisees and scribes for that day: one "nullifies the word of God"; one dilutes it, causing it to lose the greater part of its power of penetration in the heart of men.

The word of God cannot be used for other ends or to clothe already existing human discourses with the mantle of divine authority. In times that are still near to us, one saw where such a tendency led. The Gospel was used to support every type of human project from class struggle to the death of God.

When a listener is so predetermined by psychological, factional, political or impulsive conditions, to make it impossible, from the outset, not to say what he expects and not to make him completely right about everything; when there is no hope of being able to lead the listeners to that point in which it is possible to say to them: "Convert and believe!" then it is well not to proclaim the word of God so that is not be used for party goals and, therefore, betrayed. It is better, in other words, to renounce a real proclamation, limiting oneself -- if one pursues the matter at all -- to listening, and trying to understand and taking part in the people's anxieties and sufferings, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom rather by presence and charity. Jesus, in the Gospel, shows himself to be very careful about not letting himself be used for the political ends of a party.

Obviously, the reality of experience, and thus the human word, is not excluded from the Church's preaching, but it has to be subordinated to the word of God, to the service of this word. As, in the Eucharist, the body of Christ assimilates those who consume it, and not vice-versa, so also in proclamation the word of God must be the more vital and stronger principle, to subjugate and assimilate the human word, and not the contrary. It is necessary, because of this, to have the courage more often to begin, in treating the doctrinal and disciplinary problems of the Church, from the word of God, especially that of the New Testament, and to remain thus linked to it, bound by it, certain that in this way one will more surely discover, in every question, what the will of God is.

One sees this same need in religious communities. There is a danger that in the formation given to young people and novices, in spiritual exercises and everything else in the community's life, more time is spent on the writings of the founder of the community -- often very poor in content -- than on the word of God.

5. Speak as With Words of God

I realize that a grave objection can be raised to what I am saying. Should the Church's preaching, then, reduce itself to a sequence -- or a barrage -- of biblical citations, with so many indications of chapter and verse, in a manner reminiscent of the Jehovah's Witnesses and other fundamentalist groups? Certainly not. We are the heirs of a different tradition. I will explain what I mean by being bound to the word of God.

We turn again to the second letter to the Corinthians, where St. Paul writes: "For we are not like the many who trade [literally: "water down," "falsify"] on the word of God; but as out of sincerity, indeed as from God and in the presence of God, we speak in Christ" (2 Corinthians 2:17); and Saint Peter, in his first letter exhorts Christians saying: "Whoever preaches, let it be as with the words of God" (1 Peter 4:11). What does it mean to "speak in Christ," or to speak "as with the words of God"? It certainly does not mean to repeat materially and only the words pronounced by Christ and by God in Scripture. It means that the fundamental inspiration, the thought that "informs" and rules everything else, must come from God, not from man. The preacher must be "moved by God" and speak as in his presence.

There are two ways to prepare a sermon or any written or verbal proclamation of faith. I can sit down at the desk and choose for myself which word to proclaim and the theme to develop, basing myself on my knowledge, my preferences, etc., and then, once the discourse is prepared, get on my knees to hastily ask God to bless that which I have written and make my words effective. This is already something good but it is not the prophetic way. The contrary is what should be done. First, get on your knees and ask God what the word is that he wants to speak; then, sit at the desk and use your own knowledge to give a body to that word. This changes everything because it is not God who must make my word his, but it is I who make his word mine.

It is necessary to begin with the certainty of faith that, in every circumstance, the Risen Lord has a word in his heart that he wants to reach his people. It is that which changes things and it is that which must be discovered. And he will not fail to reveal it to his servant, if his servant asks for it humbly and insistently. In the beginning there is an almost imperceptible movement of the heart; a little light that begins to flicker in the mind, a word of the Bible that begins to draw attention to itself and that illuminates a situation.

Truly "the smallest of all seeds," but afterward you will see that everything was inside; there was a single note that felled the cedars of Lebanon. Then go to your desk, open your books, consult your notes, consult the Fathers of the Church, the masters, the poets. But it is already something else. It is no longer the Word of God at the service of your culture but your culture at the service of the Word of God.

Origen describes the process that leads to this discovery well. Before finding nourishment in Scripture, he said, it is necessary to endure a certain poverty of the senses; the soul is surrounded on all sides by darkness, one enters onto ways that have no exit; until, suddenly, after toilsome searching and prayer, the voice of the Word resounds and immediately something is illuminated; he whom the soul sought comes to meet her, "springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills" (Song of Songs 2:8), that is, disposing the mind to receive his powerful and luminous word.[3] Great is the joy that accompanies this moment. It caused Jeremiah to say, "When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart" (Jeremiah 15:16).

Typically God's answer comes in the form of a word of Scripture that, however, in that moment reveals its extraordinary relevance to the situation and the problem that is to be treated, as if it were written precisely for it. Sometimes it is not even necessary to cite or comment explicitly on any biblical word. It is enough that it be present in the mind of the one speaking and inform everything that he says. If this is the case, then de facto he speaks "as with the words of God." This method is always valid: for the great documents of the magisterium as for the lessons that the master gives to his novices, for a refined address as for a humble Sunday homily.

We have all experienced how much one word of God that is deeply believed and lived gives to the someone before he speaks it and sometimes this occurs without his knowing; often it must be recognized that among many words it was that one that touched the heart and led more than one hearer to the confessional.

After having indicated the conditions of Christian proclamation -- speaking of Christ with sincerity as moved by God and under his gaze -- the apostle asks: "And who is up to this task?" (2 Corinthians 2:16). It is plain that no one is up to it. We carry this treasure in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). We can, however, pray and say: Lord, have mercy on this poor clay pot that must carry the treasure of your word; keep us from pronouncing useless words when we speak of you; let us once taste your word so that we know how to distinguish it from all others and so that every other word will appear insipid to us. Spread hunger throughout the land, as you promised, "not a hunger for bread, or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord" (Amos 8:11).

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[1] Cf. M. Zerwick, Analysis philologica Novi Testamenti Graeci, Romae 1953, ad loc.
[2] Charles Péguy, "The Portal of the Mystery of the Second Virtue," in "Oeuvres poétiques complètes," Gallimard 1975, pp. 587 s.

[3] Cf. Origen, In Mt Ser. 38 (GCS, 1933, p. 7); In Cant. 3 (GCS, 1925, p. 202).

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

[Errors found in the English translation of last week's Lenten sermon have been corrected and the revised text can be found here: www.zenit.org/article-21860?l=english]

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3rd Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa
"Be Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 7, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Lenten meditation delivered today by Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, titled "Welcome the Word: The Word of God As a Way of Personal Sanctification."

This is the second in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective."

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1. "Lectio Divina"

In this meditation we will reflect on the word of God as a way of personal sanctification. In the "lineamenta" that have been prepared for the Synod of Bishops in October 2008, this theme is taken up in Chapter 2, “The Word of God in the Life of the Believer.”

It is a theme that is very dear to the spiritual tradition of the Church. “The word of God,” St. Ambrose said, “is the vital substance of our soul; it nourishes, feeds, and governs the soul; there is nothing else that could give life to man’s soul apart from the word of God.”[1] “[T]he force and power in the word of God,” adds “Dei Verbum,” “is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.”[2]

“It is especially necessary,” John Paul II wrote in “Novo millennio ineunte,” “that listening to the word of God should become a life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of ‘lectio divina,’ which draws from the biblical text the living word which questions, directs and shapes our lives.”[3] The Holy Father Benedict XVI has also expressed himself on this theme on the occasion of the International Congress Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church: “By assiduous reading, we listen to God who speaks and, in prayer, we respond to him with confident openness of heart.”[4]

With the reflections that follow I insert myself in this rich tradition, beginning with what the Scripture itself says on this point. We read in the letter of Saint James these lines on the word of God:

“He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. Know this, my dear brothers: Everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, [...] Therefore, put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:18-25).

2. Welcoming the Word

From James’ text we can draw out a schema of “lectio divina” that has three steps or successive actions: Welcoming the word, meditating on the word, putting the word into practice.

Thus the first step is listening to the word: “Welcome the word that has been planted in you.” This first step embraces all the forms and ways in which the Christian comes into contact with the word of God: Listening to the word in the liturgy, now facilitated by the use of the vernacular and by the wise choice of texts distributed throughout the year; then, Bible schools, written aids, and -- something that is irreplaceable -- personal reading of the Bible at home. For those who are called to teach others, to all of this there is added the systematic study of the Bible: exegesis, textual criticism, Biblical theology, study of the original languages.

In this phase it is necessary to beware of two dangers. The first is to stop at this first stage and to transform the personal reading of the word of God into an “impersonal” reading. This danger is quite real today, above all in academic institutions.

St. James compares the reading of the word of God with looking at oneself in the mirror; but for [Soren] Kierkegaard, those who limit themselves to studying the sources, the variants, the literary genres of the Bible, without doing anything else, is like someone who just looks at the mirror -- considering with exactness the form, the material, the style, the epoch -- without looking at oneself in the mirror. For Kierkegaard, the mirror does not perform its function on its own. The word of God has been given so that you put it into practice and not so that you exercise yourself in exegesis over its obscurities. There is a “hermeneutic inflation” and, what is worse, one believes that the most serious thing in regard to the Bible is hermeneutics, not practice.[5]

The critical study of the word of God is indispensible and one is never grateful enough to those who give their lives to smooth the way to an ever better understanding of the sacred text, but it does not by itself exhaust the meaning of the Scriptures; it is necessary but not sufficient.

The other danger is fundamentalism: Taking literally everything that one reads in the Bible, without any hermeneutic mediation. This second risk is much less innocuous than might seem to be the case at first glance and the current debate between creationism and evolutionism is the dramatic confirmation of this.

Those who defend the literal reading of Genesis -- the world was created some several thousand years ago, in six days, just as it is now -- cause immense damage to faith. "Young people brought up in homes and churches that insist on Creationism,” writes the scientist and Christian, Francis Collins, “sooner or later encounter the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of an ancient universe and the relatedness of all living things through the process of evolution and natural selection. What a terrible and unnecessary choice they face! To adhere to the faith of their childhood, they are required to reject a broad and rigorous body of scientific data, effectively committing intellectual suicide. Presented with no other alternative than Creationism, is it any wonder that many of these young people turn away from faith, concluding that they simply cannot believe in a God who would ask them to reject what science has so compellingly taught us about the natural world?"[6]

The two excesses -- hyper-criticism and fundamentalism -- are only apparently opposed: What they have in common is the fact that both stop at the letter, neglecting the Spirit.

3. Contemplating the Word

The second step suggested by St. James consists in “fixing one’s gaze” on the word, in standing for a long time before the mirror, in sum, in meditating and contemplating the Word. In this connection the Fathers used the images of chewing and ruminating. “Reading,” says the 12th century prior of the Grand Chartreuse, Guigo II, the theorist of the “lectio divina,” “offers substantial food to the mouth, meditation chews on it and breaks it up.”[7] “When one recalls to memory things heard and sweetly thinks on them again in his heart, he becomes like a ruminator,” Augustine says.[8]

The soul that looks into the mirror of the word learns to know “how he is,” he learns to know himself, he sees his deformities in the image of God and in the image of Christ. “I do not seek my own glory,” Jesus says (John 8:50): well, the mirror is in front of you and immediately you see how far you are from Jesus. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”: The mirror is again in front of you and immediately you see that you are full of attachments and full of superfluous things. “Charity is patient”: You realize how impatient, envious and self-interested you are.

More than “searching the Scriptures” (cf. John 5:39), it is a matter of letting oneself be searched by the Scriptures. The word of God, the Letter to the Hebrews says, “penetrates even to the point of division of the soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and is able to discern sentiments and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13). The best prayer for beginning the moment of contemplation is repeating with the Psalmist: “You search me, O God, and you know my hear, you probe me and know my thoughts: You see if I my way is crooked and you guide me along the way of life” (Psalm 139).

But in the mirror of the word, we do not only see ourselves; we see the face of God; better, we see the heart of God. Scripture, St. Gregory the Great says, is “is a letter of Almighty God to his creature; in it one learns to know the heart of God in the words of God.”[9] Jesus’ saying even holds for God: “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34); God has spoken to us, in Scripture, of that which fills his heart and that which fills his heart is love.

In this way the contemplation of the word procures the two pieces of knowledge that are the most important for advancing along the road of true wisdom: self-knowledge and knowledge of God. “That I might know myself and know you” -- “noverim me, noverim te” -- St. Augustine said to God. “That I might know myself to humble myself and that I might know you to love you.”

An extraordinary example of this twofold knowledge, of self and of God, that is obtained from the word of God is the letter to the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation, which is worth meditating on every now and again, especially in this time of Lent (cf. Revelation 3:14-20). The Risen Christ lays bare the real situation of the typical member of this community: "I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” The contrast between that which this person thinks about himself and that which God thinks of him is striking: “For you say, 'I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,' and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.”

A passage of unusual toughness, which, however, is immediately overturned by one of the most touching descriptions of the love of God: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” It is an image that reveals its realistic and not only metaphorical significance if it is read, as the text suggests, with the Eucharistic banquet in mind.

Besides serving to verify the personal state of our soul, this passage of Revelation can help us to uncover the spiritual situation of the great part of modern society before God. It is like one of those infrared photographs taken by a satellite that reveals a panorama completely different from the one we are used to, the one observed by natural light.

Even in this world of ours, powerful on account of its scientific and technological conquests -- like the Laodiceans, who were commercially prosperous -- one feels satisfied, rich, without need of anyone, not even God. It is necessary that someone show it the true diagnosis of its state: “You do not know that you are unhappy, miserable, impoverished, blind and naked.” It is necessary that some one cry out to it, like the child in the Andersen fable: “The king is naked!” But through love and with love, like the Risen Christ with the Laodiceans.

To every soul that desires it, the word of God assures fundamental, and in itself infallible, spiritual direction. There is a spiritual direction that is, so to speak, ordinary and everyday, which consists in the discovering what God wants in the situations in which man usually finds himself. Such spiritual direction is assured by meditation on the word of God accompanied by the interior anointing of the Spirit, who translates the word into good “inspirations” and the good inspirations into practical resolutions. This is what is expressed by the verse of the Psalm that is so dear to lovers of the word: “Your word is a lamp for my steps, light on my way” (Psalm 119:105).

I was once preaching a mission in Australia. On the last day a man came to see me, an Italian immigrant who worked there. He said to me: “Father, I have a serious problem: I have a son who is 11 years old and who is not yet baptized. The fact is that my wife became a Jehovah’s Witness and does not want to hear about baptism in the Catholic Church. If I baptize him, there will be a crisis. If I do not baptize him I will not be at ease because when we got married we were both Catholic and we promised to raise our children in the faith.”

The next day the man came to see me and was visibly happier and he said to me: “Father, I found the solution. Last night, after I got home, I prayed a little bit, then I opened the Bible randomly. I read the passage where Abraham takes his son Isaac to sacrifice him and I saw that when Abraham took his son Isaac to be sacrificed it does not say anything about his wife.” It was an exegetically perfect discernment. I baptized the boy myself and it was a moment of great joy for all.

This practice of opening the Bible randomly is a delicate thing, which must be done with discretion, in a climate of faith and not without having prayed for a long time. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that, with these conditions, it has often born marvellous fruit and it has been practiced by the saints. One reads of St. Francis of Assisi, from the various stories about his life, that he discovered the type of life to which God was calling him by opening the Book of the Gospels three times at random “after having prayed a long time” and being “disposed to follow the first bit of advice that they offered to him.”[10] Augustine interpreted the words “Tolle lege” (“Take and read”), which he heard coming from a nearby house, as a divine order to open the book of Paul’s letters and to read the verse that presented itself to his glance.”[11]

There have been souls who have become holy with the word of God as their sole spiritual director. “In the Gospel,” wrote St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “I find everything necessary for my poor soul. I always find new light in it, hidden and mysterious meanings. I understand and know from experience that ‘the kingdom of God is within us’ (cf. Luke 17:21). Jesus does not need books or teachers to instruct souls; he is the teacher of teachers, he teaches without the noise of words.”[12] It was through a word of God, reading, one after the other, chapters 12 and 13 of 1 Corinthians that Thérèse discovered her profound vocation and jubilantly exclaimed: “In the mystical body of Christ I will be the heart that loves!”

The Bible offers a concrete image that sums up everything that has been said about meditating on the word: that of the book that is eaten, which we read about in Ezekiel:

“It was then I saw a hand stretched out to me, in which was a written scroll, which he unrolled before me. It was covered with writing front and back, and written on it was: Lamentation and wailing and woe! He said to me: ‘Son of man, eat what is before you; eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat. Son of man, he then said to me, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll I am giving you. I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. He said: ‘Son of man, go now to the house of Israel, and speak my words to them’ (Ezekiel 2:9-3:3; cf. also Revelation 12:10).

There is an enormous difference between the book that is simply read or studied and the book that is swallowed. In the latter case, the word truly becomes, as St. Ambrose said, “the substance of our soul,” that which informs our thoughts, forms language, determines actions, creates the “spiritual” man. The word that is swallowed is a Word that is “assimilated” by man, even if it is a passive assimilation -- as is the case with the Eucharist -- that is of a “being assimilated” by the Word, subjugated and defeated by that which is the most powerful of life principles.

In the contemplation of the word we have the sweetest example in Mary: She stored up all these things -- literally: “these words” -- meditating on them in her heart (Luke 2:19). In her the metaphor of the book that is swallowed has become reality, even a physical reality. The word has literally “filled her stomach.”

4. Doing the Word

We thus arrive at the third step along the way proposed by the Apostle James, the step on which the apostle most insists: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, [...] for if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, [...] a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.” This is also what Jesus has most at heart: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). Without this “doing the word,” everything is but an illusion, something built on sand. One cannot even say to have understood the word because, as St. Gregory the Great writes, the word of God is only truly understood when one begins to practice it.[13]

This third step consists in, in practice, obeying the word. The Greek term that is used in the New Testament to designate obedience -- “hypakouein” -- literally translated means “listening to,” in the sense of carrying out what one has heard. “My people have not listened to my voice, Israel has not obeyed me,” is God’s lament in the Bible (Psalm 81:12).

As soon as one begins to look through the New Testament to see in what the duty of obedience consists, one makes a surprising discovery, and that is, that obedience is almost always seen as obedience to the word of God. St. Paul speaks of obedience to teaching (Romans 6:17), of obedience to the Gospel (Romans 10:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:8), of obedience to truth (Galatians 5:7), of obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). We also find the same language elsewhere: The Acts of the Apostles speaks of the obedience of faith (Acts 6:7), the first letter of Peter speaks of obedience to Christ (1 Peter 1:2) and of obedience to truth (1 Peter 1:22).

The obedience itself of Jesus is exercised above all through obedience to written words. In the episode of the temptations in the desert, Jesus’ obedience consists in recalling the words of God and of abiding by them: “It is written!”

His obedience is exercised, in a special way, to the words that are written of him and for him “in the law, the prophets, and the Psalms” and that he, as man, discovers progressively as he advances in the understanding and fulfilment of his mission.

When they want to prevent his being taken into custody, Jesus says: “But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?" (Matthew 26:54). Jesus’ life is as guided by a luminous wake that the others do not see and which is created by the words that were written for him; he gathers from the Scriptures the “it is necessary” -- “dei” in the Greek -- that governs his whole life.

The words of God, by the present action of the Spirit, become the expression of the living will of God for me in a given moment. A little example will help us to understand this. Once in community I discovered that someone had mistakenly taken something that I use. I was on my way to ask that it be returned when by chance -- or perhaps it was not really by chance -- I came up against the word of Jesus according to which you must “give to whoever asks of you; and whoever takes what is yours, do not ask for it back” (Luke 6:30). I understood that this word did not apply universally in all cases, but that certainly in that moment it did apply to me. It was a matter of obeying the word.

Obedience to the word of God is obedience we can always do. Obeying visible orders and authorities, is something that we do every so often, three or four times in a lifetime, if we are talking about serious obedience; but there can be obedience to God’s word in every moment. It is also the obedience that applies to all of us, inferiors and superiors, clerics and laity. The laity do not have a superior in the Church whom they must obey -- at least not in the sense that religious and clerics have a superior; but they do have, in compensation, a “Lord” to obey! They have his word!

Let us conclude this meditation of ours making our own the prayer that St. Augustine, in his “Confessions,” addresses to God to ask for the understanding of God’s word: “May your Scriptures be my chaste delight; may I not be deceived about them, nor deceive others with them. [...] Turn your gaze to my soul and hear the one who cries out from the depths. [...] Grant me time to meditate on the secrets of your law, do not close to the one who knocks. [...] Indeed, your voice is my joy, your voice is a pleasure superior to all others. Grant me what I love. [...] Do not abandon this parched blade of grass. [...] May the recesses of your word open to the one who knocks. [...] I beseech you through our Lord Jesus Christ, [...] in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). These treasures I seek in your books.”[14]

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[1] St. Ambrose, Exp. Ps. 118, 7,7 (PL 15, 1350).
[2] “Dei Verbum,” 21.
[3] John Paul II, "Novo Millennio Ineunte," 39.

[4] Benedict XVI, in AAS 97, 2005, p. 957.
[5] S. Kierkegaard, “Per l’esame di se stessi.” La Lattera di Giacomo, 1,22, in “Opere,” a cura di C. Fabro, Firenze 1972, pp. 909 ss.
[6] F. Collins, “The Language of God,” Free Press 2006, pp. 177 s.

[7] Guigo II, “Lettera sulla vita contemplativa” (Scala claustralium), 3, in Un itinerario di contemplazione. Antologia di autori certosini, Edizioni Paoline, 1986, p.22.
[8] St. Augustine, Enarr. in Ps. 46, 1 (CCL 38, 529).
[9] St. Gregory the Great, Registr. Epist. IV, 31 (PL 77, 706).

[10] Celano, "Vita Seconda," X, 15
[11] St. Augustine, “Confessions.” 8, 12.
[12] St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Manoscritto A, n. 236.

[13] St. Gregory the Great, Su Ezechiele, I, 10, 31 (CCL 142, p. 159).
[14] St. Augustine, “Confessions.” XI, 2, 3-4.

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Scripture Needs to Be Read Spiritually, Says Preacher 2008
Delivers Final Lenten Meditation for Pope and Curia

ROME, MARCH 14, 2008 - Scripture is not only inspired by God, but also "breathes forth God," that is, the Holy Spirit inhabits Scripture and animates it, says the preacher of the Pontifical Household.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said this today in the Lenten meditation he delivered to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

The sermon was the last in a series of meditations the preacher gave this Lent.

The series, titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective," reflects the theme of the next Synod of Bishops on the word of God, to be held in October.

Father Cantalamessa spoke about the two meanings implied by 2 Timothy 3:16 "all Scripture is inspired by God."

He explained that the more common meaning is the "passive" one, referring to the way that God directed the writers of the holy texts.

The second meaning, the preacher explained, is "active": Scripture, is not only "inspired by God" but also "spirates God." "After having dictated the Scripture, the Holy Spirit is in a way contained within it; he ceaselessly inhabits it and animates it with his divine breath."

Setting him free

Father Cantalamessa then asked, "How do we approach the Scriptures in a way that they truly 'free' the Spirit that they contain?"

He said that "in Scripture, the Spirit cannot be discovered if not by passing through the letter, that is, through the concrete human vesture that the word of God assumed in the different books and inspired authors. In them the divine meaning cannot be discovered, if not by beginning from the human meaning, the one intended by the human author, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Luke, Paul, etc. It is in this that we find the complete justification of the immense effort in study and research that surrounds the book of Scripture."

But, Father Cantalamessa affirmed, there is a "tendency to stop at the letter, considering the Bible an excellent book, the most excellent of human books, if you will, but only a human book. Unfortunately we run the risk of reducing Scripture to a single dimension."

The Pontifical Household preacher pointed to a sign of hope: "That the demand for a spiritual reading of Scripture and one guided by faith is now beginning to be felt by some eminent exegetes."

The Capuchin urged a furthering of this "spiritual reading."

He explained: "To speak of the 'spiritual' reading of the Bible is not to speak of an edifying, mystical, subjective, or worse still, imaginative, reading, in opposition to the scientific reading, which would be objective. On the contrary, it is the most objective reading that there is because it is based on the Spirit of God, not on the spirit of man.

"Spiritual reading is therefore something that is quite precise and objective; it is the reading that is done under the guidance of, or in the light of, the Holy Spirit that inspired Scripture. It is based on a historical event, namely, the redemptive act of Christ which, with his death and resurrection, accomplishes the plan of salvation and realizes all of the figures and the prophecies, it reveals all of the hidden mysteries and offers the true key for reading the Bible."

Toward all truth

Father Cantalamessa said that this "spiritual reading" of Scripture applies to both the Old and New Testaments.

"Reading the New Testament spiritually means reading it in the light of the Holy Spirit given to the Church at Pentecost to lead the Church to all truth, that is, to the complete understanding and actualization of the Gospel," he said.

The preacher affirmed that spiritual reading both integrates and surpassed scientific reading: "Scientific reading knows only one direction, which is that of history; it explains, in fact, that which comes after in light of that which comes before; it explains the New Testament in the light of the Old which precedes it, and it explains the Church in the light of the New Testament.

"Spiritual reading fully recognizes the validity of this direction of research, but it adds an inverse direction to it. This consists in explaining that which comes before in the light of that which comes after, prophecy in the light of its realization, the Old Testament in the light of the New and the New in the light of the tradition of the Church."

Father Cantalamessa contended, then, that "that which is necessary is not therefore a spiritual reading that would take the place of current scientific exegesis, with a mechanical return to the exegesis of the Fathers; it is rather a new spiritual reading corresponding to the enormous progress recorded by the study of 'letter.' It is a reading, in sum, that has the breath and faith of the Fathers and, at the same time, the consistency and seriousness of current biblical science.

The Pontifical Household preacher ended his reflection with a word of hope regarding a return to a spiritual reading like that of the Church fathers.

The Capuchin said "from the four winds the Spirit has begun unexpectedly to blow again" and we "witness the reappearance of the spiritual reading of the Bible and this too is a fruit -- one of the more exquisite -- of the Spirit."

"Participating in Bible and prayer groups, I am stupefied in hearing, at times, reflections on God's word that are analogous to those offered by Origen, Augustine or Gregory the Great in their time, even if it is in a more simple language," he said. "Let us conclude with a prayer that I once heard a woman pray after she was read the episode in which Elijah, ascending up to heaven, leaves Elisha two-thirds of his spirit.

"It is an example of spiritual reading in the sense I have just explained: 'Thank you, Jesus, that ascending to heaven, you do not only leave us two-thirds of your Spirit, but all of your Spirit! Thank you that you did not give your Spirit to just one disciple, but to all men!'"

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1st Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa  Lent 2007: 
                        "Blessed Are the Pure of Heart, for They Will See God"


VATICAN CITY, MARCH 11, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered it in the Mater Redemptoris Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

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1. From ritual purity to purity of heart

Continuing our reflection on the evangelical beatitudes that we began in Advent, in this first Lenten meditation we would like to reflect on the beatitude of the pure of heart.

Whoever today reads or hears proclaimed, "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God," instinctively thinks of the virtue of purity almost as if this beatitude is the positive equivalent of the Sixth Commandment, "Do not commit impure acts." This interpretation, sporadically advanced in the course of the history of Christian spirituality, became predominant beginning in the 19th century.

In reality, purity of heart does not indicate, in Christ's thinking, a particular virtue, but a quality that should go along with all the virtues, so that they are truly virtues and not rather "glittering vices." Its most direct contrary is not impurity, but hypocrisy. A little exegesis and history will help us to better understand.

What Jesus means by "purity of heart" is made clear by the context of the Sermon on the Mount. According to the Gospel, what determines the purity or impurity of an action -- whether it be almsgiving, fasting or prayer -- is the intention: Is the deed done to be seen by men or to please God?

"When you give alms sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you: They have already received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your alms may be secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:2-6).

Hypocrisy is the sin that is most powerfully denounced by God in the Bible and the reason for this is clear. With his hypocrisy, man demotes God, he puts him in second place, putting the creature, the public, in first place. "Man sees the appearance, the Lord sees the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7): Cultivating our appearance more than our heart means giving greater importance to man than to God.

Hypocrisy is thus essentially a lack of faith; but it is also a lack of charity for our neighbor in the sense that it tends to reduce persons to admirers. It does not recognize their proper dignity, but sees them only in function of one's own image.

Christ's judgment on hypocrisy is without appeal: "Receperunt mercedem suam" (They have already received their reward)! A reward that is, above all, illusory, even on a human level because we know that glory flees from those that seek it, and seeks those who flee from it.

Jesus' invectives against the scribes and the Pharisees also help us understand the meaning of purity of heart. Jesus' criticisms focus on the opposition between the "inside" and the "outside," the interior and the exterior of man.

"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and filth. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity" (Matthew 23:27-28).

The revolution which Jesus brings about here is of incalculable significance. Before him, except for some rare hint in the prophets and the Psalms -- "Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord? Those whose hands are innocent and whose hearts are pure" (Psalm 24:3) -- purity was understood in a ritual and cultural way; it consisted in keeping one's distance from things, animals, persons or places that were understood to contaminate one and separate one from God's holiness. Above all, these were things associated with birth, death, food and sexuality. In different forms and with different presuppositions, other religions outside the Bible shared these ideas.

Jesus makes a clean sweep of all these taboos and does so first of all by certain gestures: He eats with sinners, touches lepers, mixes with pagans. All of these were taken to be highly unsanitary things. He also sweeps away these taboos with his teachings. The solemnity with which he introduces his discourse on the pure and the impure makes apparent how conscious he was of the novelty of his doctrine.

"And he called the people to him again and said to them: 'Hear me all of you and understand; there is nothing outside a man that by going into him can defile him. It is the things that come out of a man that can defile him.... For from within, out of the heart of a man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man'" (Mark 7:14-17,21-23).

The Gospel writer, almost stupefied, notes: "Thus he declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19). Against the attempt of some Judaeo-Christians to reinstate the distinction between pure and impure in foods and other sectors of life, the apostolic Church forcefully repeats: "Everything is clean for those who are pure" -- "omnia munda mundis" -- (Titus 1:15; cf. Romans 14:20).

Purity, understood as continence and chastity, is not absent from the Gospel beatitude (Jesus also mentions fornication, adultery and licentiousness among those things that defile the heart); they occupy a limited and "secondary" place. They are one group among others in an area in which the "heart" has a decisive place, as when Jesus says: "Whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28).

In fact, the terms "pure" and "purity" ("katharos," "katharotes") are never used in the New Testament to indicate what we mean by them today, namely, the absence of sins of the flesh. For these things other terms are used: self-control ("enkrateia"), temperance ("sophrosune"), chastity ("hagneia").

From what has been said, it is clear that the one who is the pure of heart par excellence is Jesus himself. His enemies are constrained to say of him: "We know that you are true and care for no man" (Mark 12:14). Jesus could say of himself: "I do not seek my own glory" (John 8:50).

2. A look at history

Early on in the exegesis of the Fathers of the Church we see the three fundamental directions in which the beatitude of purity of heart will be received in the history of Christian spirituality delineate themselves: the moral, the mystical and the ascetic.

The moral interpretation emphasizes rectitude of intention, the mystical interpretation emphasizes the vision of God, and the ascetic interpretation emphasizes the struggle against the passions of the flesh. We see these interpretations exemplified in Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom, respectively.

Faithfully attending to the Gospel context, Augustine interprets the beatitude in a moral way, as a refusal "to display one's justice before men so as to be admired by them" (Matthew 6:1), and thus as simplicity and frankness, which are opposed to hypocrisy. Augustine writes: "Only he who has shrugged off human praise and in his life is concerned just to please God, who searches our conscience, has a simple, that is, pure, heart."[1]

Here the factor that determines purity of heart is one's intention. "All our actions are honest and pleasing in the presence of God if they are done with a sincere heart, that is, with love as their goal.... Thus, it is not so much the action that must be considered but the intention with which it is done."[2] This interpretive model, which focuses on intention, will be operative for the whole subsequent spiritual tradition, especially the Ignatian one.[3]

The mystical interpretation, which has its first proponent in Gregory of Nyssa, sees the beatitude in relation to contemplation. We must purify our hearts of every link to the world and to evil; in this way the heart of man will return to being that pure and limpid image of God which it was in the beginning when in our own soul, as in a mirror, we could "see God."

"If in the conduct of your life you are diligent and attentive, you will wipe away the ugliness that has been deposited in your heart and the divine beauty will shine forth in you.... Contemplating yourself you will see him who is the desire of your heart, and you will be blessed."[4]

Here all the weight is on the "apodosis," the fruit promised to beatitude; having a pure heart is the means; the goal is "to see God." Linguistically, the influence of the philosopher Plotinus is apparent, and this will become even more evident in St. Basil.[5]

This interpretive approach will also have a following in the subsequent history of Christian spirituality, passing through St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure and the Rhineland mystics.[6] In some monastic circles an interesting idea will be added: the idea of purity as an interior unification that is obtained by willing only one thing, when this "thing" is God. St. Bernard writes: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God. As if to say: Purify your heart, set yourself apart from everything, be a monk, that is, alone, seek just one thing from the Lord and follow it (cf. Psalm 27:4), freed from everything, you will see God (cf. Psalm 46:11)."[7]

The ascetic interpretation is fairly isolated in the Fathers and medieval authors. This interpretation focuses on chastity and will become predominant, as I said, beginning in the 19th century. Chrysostom is the clearest example of this approach.[8] The mystic Ruysbroeck, who distinguishes between chastity of spirit, chastity of the heart and chastity of the body, is in this same line. He links the Gospel beatitude to chastity of the heart. This chastity, he writes, "recollects and reinforces the external senses, while, within, it curbs and controls the animal instincts.... It closes the heart to earthly things and deceptive enticements and opens it to heavenly things and to the truth."[9]

With different degrees of fidelity, each of these orthodox interpretations remains within the new horizon of the revolution brought by Jesus, which leads every moral discourse back to the heart.

Paradoxically, those who have betrayed the Gospel beatitude of the pure ("katharoi") of heart are precisely those who have taken on its name: the Cathars, with all the similar movements that preceded and followed them in the history of Christianity. They fall into the category of those who take purity to consist in being separated, ritually and socially, from persons and things that are judged to be impure in themselves. This is a more external than internal purity. These groups are more the inheritors of the sectarian radicalism of the Pharisees and of the Essenes than of the Gospel of Christ.

3. Nonreligious hypocrisy

Often emphasis is given to the social and cultural significance of some beatitudes. It is not unusual to read "Blessed are the peacemakers" on the banners carried in demonstrations by pacifists. And the beatitude of the meek who will inherit the earth is rightly invoked in regard to the principle of nonviolence, to say nothing of the beatitude of the poor and the persecuted for justice's sake.

But the social relevance of the beatitude of the pure of heart is never spoken of and seems to be exclusively reserved for the personal sphere. I am convinced, however, that this beatitude could have a much needed critical function in our society.

We have seen that in Christ's thinking, purity of heart is not opposed primarily to impurity but to hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is perhaps the most widespread human vice, and the least confessed. There are individual and collective hypocrisies.

Man, Pascal wrote, has two lives: One is his true life and the other is his imaginary one that he lives in his own opinion or in that of other people. We work hard to embellish and conserve our imaginary being and we neglect our true being. If we have some virtue or merit, we are careful to make it known, in some way or other, so as to attach these virtues to that imaginary existence. We would rather separate them from ourselves to join them to it; and we would willingly be cowards in order to acquire the reputation of being brave.[10]

The tendency brought to light by Pascal has grown enormously in the present culture, dominated by the mass media, film, television and the entertainment industry in general. Descartes said: "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am); but today this tends to be substituted with "I appear therefore I am."

Originally the term hypocrisy was reserved for the theater. It simply meant to act, to represent in a scene. St. Augustine notes this in his commentary on the beatitude of the pure of heart. "The hypocrites," he writes, "are the creators of fiction in the sense that they present the personality of others in plays."[11]

The origin of the term puts us on the way toward discovering the nature of hypocrisy. It is making one's life a theater in which one acts for an audience; it is to put on a mask, to cease to be a person and become a character.

Somewhere I read this explanation of the two things: "The character is nothing else than the corruption of the person. The person is a face, the character is a mask. The person is radical nakedness, the character is only clothing. The person loves authenticity and essentiality, the character lives by fiction and artifice. The person obeys his own convictions, the character obeys a script. The person is humble and light, the character is heavy and cumbersome."

But the fiction of the theater is an innocent hypocrisy because it always maintains the distinction between the stage and life. No one who sees a performance of Agamemnon -- this is Augustine's example -- thinks that the actor is really Agamemnon. The new and disquieting development is that today there is a tendency even to annul this division, transforming life itself into a play. This is what the so-called reality shows are about that are now all over television.

According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who died just last week [March 6], it has now become difficult to distinguish real events -- the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Gulf War -- from their media portrayal. Reality and virtuality are confused.

The call back to interiority that characterizes our beatitude and the whole Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to not allow ourselves to be drawn into this tendency that tends to empty the person, reducing him to an image, or worse -- using a term dear to Baudrillard -- a "simulacra."

Kierkegaard drew our attention to the alienation that results from living in pure exteriority, always and only in the presence of other people, and never simply in the presence of God and our own "I."

A farmer, he observed, can be an "I" before his cows, if he is always living with them and has only them as his measure. A king can be an "I" before his subjects and he will feel like an important "I." The child grasps himself as an "I" in relation to his parents, a citizen before the state.

But it will always be an imperfect "I" because it lacks the proper measure. "But what an infinite reality my 'I' acquires when it becomes aware of existing before God, becoming a human 'I' whose measure is God.... What an infinite accent falls on the 'I' in the moment that God becomes my measure!"

It seems like a commentary on the saying of St. Francis of Assisi: "That which man is before God, that is what he is and nothing else."[12]

4. Religious hypocrisy

The worst thing that a hypocrite can do is to take himself as the standard by which to judge others, society, culture and the world. These are precisely the ones whom Jesus calls hypocrites: "Hypocrite, first take the plank from your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye" (Matthew 7:5).

As believers, we have to remember the saying of a Jewish rabbi who lived during the time of Christ, and according to whom, 90% of the hypocrisy of the world was found in Jerusalem.[13] Already the martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch felt the need to admonish his brothers in faith: "It is better to be Christians without saying so than to say so without being so."[14]

Hypocrisy seduces pious and religious persons above all, and the reason for this is simple: Where there is the strongest esteem of the values of the spirit, of piety and virtue (and of orthodoxy!), the temptation to affect these so as not to seem lacking in them is also the strongest. "Certain official positions in human society," writes Augustine, "must of necessity make us loved and honored by our fellows. On every side the enemy of our true happiness spreads his snares of 'Well done! Well done!' so that grabbing greedily at these praises we may be caught by surprise, and abandon our delight in your truth to look for it, instead in human flattery. So the affection and honor we receive come to be something we enjoy not for your sake, but in your place."[15]

The most pernicious hypocrisy would be to hide one's own hypocrisy. I have never found in any aid to an examination of conscience such questions as: Am I a hypocrite? Am I more concerned with how other people see me than with how God sees me? At a certain point in my life I had to introduce these questions into my examination of conscience myself, and rarely was I able to pass without a problem to the questions that followed these.

One day, listening to the parable of the talents read at Mass, I suddenly understood something. Between bearing fruit with what one is given and not bearing fruit, there is a third possibility: that of bearing fruit, not for the one who has given us what we have, but for our own glory or our own interest, and this is perhaps a graver sin than bearing no fruit at all. That day at Communion I had to do as certain thieves do when they are surprised in the act and, full of shame, empty their pockets and throw what they have stolen at the feet of the owner.

Jesus has left us a simple and unsurpassable means of rectifying our intentions at various times throughout the day, the first three questions of the Our Father: "Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done." These can be said as prayers but they can also be declarations of intention: All that I do, I want to do it so that your name will be sanctified, so that your kingdom will come and your will be done.

It would be a precious contribution to society and the Christian community if the beatitude of the pure of heart would help us to maintain alive in us the nostalgia for a world that is clean, true, without religious hypocrisy or nonreligious hypocrisy; a world in which actions corresponded to words, words to thoughts, and the thoughts of man to those of God. This will only fully happen in the heavenly Jerusalem, the city made of crystal, but we must at least strive for it.

An author of fables wrote a fable called "The Glass Town." In the story a young girl ends up by magic in a town made of glass: glass houses, glass birds, glass trees, people who move like graceful glass statues. But nothing in this town breaks because everyone has learned how to move about in it with care so as not to do any damage. Upon meeting each other, the people answer questions before they are even asked them because even thoughts are evident and transparent in this town; no one tries to lie, knowing that everyone can read what is on his mind.[16]

We shudder to think what would happen if this suddenly occurred here among us; but it is salutary to at least tend toward such an ideal. This is the road that will carry us to the beatitude that we have tried to comment on: "Blessed are the pure of heart for they will see God."

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[1] St. Augustine, "De sermone Domini in monte," II, 1, 1 (CC 35, p. 92).
[2] Ibid. II, 13, 45-46.
[3] Jean-François de Reims, "La vraie perfection de cette vie," Part 2, Paris 1651, Instr. 4, p. 160.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa, "De beatitudinibus," 6 (PG 44, p. 1272).
[5] St. Basil, "On the Holy Spirit," IX, 23; XXII, 53 (PG 32, 109,168).
[6] Cf. Michel Dupuy, "Pureté," in DSpir. 12, pp. 2637-2645.

[7] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "Sententiae," III, 2 (S. Bernardi Opera, ed. J. Leclerq and H. M. Rochais).
[8] St. John Chrysostom, "Homiliae in Mattheum," 15, 4.
[9] John Ruysbroeck, "Lo splendore delle nozze spirituali," Roma, Città Nuova 1992, pp.72 f.

[10] Cf. Blaise Pascal, "Pensées," 147 Br.
[11] St. Augustine, "De sermone Domini in monte," 2, 5 (CC 35, p. 95).
[12] St. Francis of Assisi, "Ammonizioni," 19 (Fonti Francescane, n.169).

[13] Cf. Strack-Billerbeck, I, 718.
[14] St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Ephesians" 15:1 ("It is better to say nothing and to be, than to chatter and not be") and "Magnesians," 4 ("It is necessary not only to call ourselves Christians but also to be Christians").

[15] Cf. St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 36, 59.
[16] Lauretta, "Il bosco dei lillà," Ancora, Milano, 2nd ed. 1994, pp. 90ff.

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Preacher Calls Curia to Meekness
Father Cantalamessa Continues Lenten Sermons

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The beatitudes are a self-portrait of Jesus, says Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa and thus, we should not only imitate them but also make them our own.

He said this today during a Lenten reflection in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel.

In faith we can "drink the meekness of Christ, as well as his purity of heart and any other virtue of his," the Capuchin said.

Father Cantalamessa said that we can pray for meekness, in the same way that St. Augustine prayed for chastity: "O God, you ask that I be meek; give me what you ask and ask me what you will."

His Lenten reflections have focused on the Eight Beatitudes; today's was: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

Humility and patience

The beatitudes are Jesus' self-portrait, Father Cantalamessa said: "He is the true poor one, meek, pure of heart, persecuted for righteousness' sake."

To understand the full meaning of meekness, the Pontifical Household preacher underlined two constant associations of the Bible and ancient Christian exhortations: meekness and humility, and meekness and patience.

"One shows the interior dispositions from which meekness springs; the other the attitudes one should have toward one's neighbor: affability, gentleness, courtesy," Father Cantalamessa said.

The Gospels "are the demonstration of Christ's meekness, in its dual aspect of humility and patience," he pointed out. "Highest proof of Christ's meekness was witnessed in his passion: … no gesture of anger, no threat; … but Jesus did much more than give us an example of meekness and heroic patience."

"He made of meekness and nonviolence the sign of true greatness," the priest said; so that the latter "no longer consists in raising oneself above others, above the masses, but in lowering oneself to serve and raise others."

Social relevance

The social relevance of the beatitudes is perhaps clearest in this call to meekness, the preacher said, referring to the extraordinary relevance of this beatitude "in the debate on religion and violence."

"The Gospel leaves no room for doubt. In it there are no exhortations to nonviolence mixed with contrary exhortations," he said.

Father Cantalamessa then directed his meditation to the theme of the heart, saying that meekness is rooted there.

Echoing Gospel teaching, he warned that it is from the heart that evil, violent explosions, wars and conflicts proceed, as well as violent thoughts.

However, he added, these thoughts can be blocked when they are not charitable: "Our mind has the capacity to prevent the development of a thought, to know, from the beginning, where it will end: either in forgiving or in condemning one's brother, either in one's own glory or in that of God."

Father Cantalamessa recalled the promise linked to the beatitude of the meek -- they shall inherit the earth, "which is realized on several planes, until the definitive promised land, which is eternal life."

"But," he added "certainly one of the planes is human: The earth is men's hearts. The meek win trust, they attract souls."

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2nd Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa
"Blessed Are the Meek, For They Shall Inherit the Land" (March 2007)

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered the reflection in the Mater Redemptoris Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

* * *

1. Who are the meek?

The beatitude on which we wish to meditate today lends itself to an important observation. It says: "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land." Now, in another passage of the same Gospel, Jesus exclaims: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew 11:29). We conclude from this that the beatitudes are not a nice ethical program traced by the master for his followers; they are a self-portrait of Jesus! Jesus is the one who is truly poor, meek, pure of heart, persecuted for the sake of justice.

Here is the limitation of Gandhi's interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, which he so much admired. For Gandhi the whole sermon might have just as well been considered apart from the historical person of Christ. "It does not matter to me," he once said, "if someone demonstrated that the man Jesus never lived and that what we read in the Gospels is nothing more than a production of the author's imagination. The Sermon on the Mount will always remain true in my eyes."[1]

On the contrary, it is the person and life of Christ that make of the beatitudes and the whole Sermon on the Mount something more than a beautiful ethical utopia; they make of them an historical reality, from which everyone can draw strength through mystical union with the person of the Savior. They do not merely belong to the order of duties but to the order of grace.

To see who the meek whom Jesus proclaims "blessed" are, it would be helpful to briefly review the various terms with which the word "meek" ("praeis") is rendered in modern translations: "meek" ("miti") and "mild" ("mansueti"). The latter is also the word used in the Spanish translations, "los mansos," the mild. In French the word is translated with "doux," literally "the sweet," those who have the virtue of sweetness. (There is no specific word in French for "meekness"; in the "Dictionnaire de spiritualité," this virtue is treated in the entry "douceur," that is, "sweetness.")

In German, different translations alternate. Luther translated the term with "Sanftmütigen," that is, "meek," "sweet"; in the ecumenical translation of the Bible, the "Einheits Bibel," the meek are those who do not act violently -- "die Keine Gewalt anwenden -- thus the non-violent; some authors accentuate the objective and sociological dimension and translate "praeis" with "machtlosen," "the weak," "those without power." English usually renders "praeis" with "the gentle," introducing the nuance of niceness and courtesy into the beatitude.

Each of these translations highlights a true but partial component of the beatitude. If we want to get an idea of the original richness of the Gospel term it is necessary to keep all the elements together and to not isolate any. Two regular associations, in the Bible and in ancient Christian exhortation, help us to grasp the "full meaning" of meekness: one is the linking of meekness and humility and the other is the linking of meekness and patience; the one highlights the interior dispositions from which meekness flows, the other the attitudes that meekness causes us to have toward our neighbor: affability, sweetness, kindness. These are the same traits that the Apostle emphasizes when speaking about charity: "Charity is patient, it is kind, it is not disrespectful, it is not angry." (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).

2. Jesus, the meek

If the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ, the first thing to do in commenting on them is to see how they were lived by him. The Gospels are from beginning to end a demonstration of the meekness of Christ in its dual aspect of humility and patience. Jesus himself, we pointed out, proposes himself as the model of meekness. Matthew applies to Jesus the saying of the Servant of God in Isaiah: "He will no wrangle or cry out, he will not break a bruised reed nor quench a smoldering wick" (cf. Mark 12:19-20). His entrance into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey is seen as an example of a "meek" king who refuses all ideas of violence and war (cf. Matthew 21:4).

The maximum proof of Christ's meekness is in his passion. There is no wrath, there are no threats: "When he was reviled he did not revile in return, when he suffered, he did not threaten" (1 Peter 2:23). This trait of the person of Christ was so stamped in the memory of his disciples that Paul, wanting to swear by something dear and sacred in his second letter to the Corinthians writes: "I entreat you by the meekness ("prautes") and the gentleness ("epiekeia") of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:1).

But Jesus did much more than give us an example of heroic meekness and patience; he made of meekness and nonviolence the true sign of greatness. This will no longer mean holding oneself alone above, above the crowd, but to humble oneself to serve and elevate others. On the cross, St. Augustine says, the true victory does not consist in making victims of others but in making oneself a victim: "Victor quia victima."[2]

Nietzsche, we know, was opposed to this vision, calling it "slave morality," suggested by a natural "resentment" of the weak toward the strong. According to him, in preaching humility and meekness, making oneself small, turning the other cheek, Christianity introduced a type of cancer into humanity which destroyed its élan and mortified life. In the introduction to "Thus Spake Zarathustra," Nietzsche's sister summarized the philosopher's thought in this way: "He believes that, on account of the resentment of a weak and falsified Christianity, all that was beautiful, strong, superior, powerful -- like the virtues that come from strength -- was proscribed and banned and thus the forces that promote and exalt life were diminished. But now a new table of values must be given to humanity, that is, the man who is strong, powerful, magnificent to excess, the 'superman,' which is presented to us with great passion as the goal of our life, our will, our hope."[3]

For some time we have been witnessing this attempt to absolve Nietzsche from every accusation, to domesticate and, in the end, Christianize him. It is said that at bottom he was not against Christ, but against Christians who made self-denial an end in itself, despising life and acting cruelly toward the body. Everyone has apparently betrayed Nietzsche's true thought, starting with Hitler. In reality, he would have been the prophet of a new era, the precursor of postmodernity.

One might say that there has been a lone voice to oppose himself to this tendency, the French thinker René Girard. According to him, all of these efforts have done an injustice, above all to Nietzsche himself. With a perspicacity unique for his time, Girard got to the heart of the matter. With Nietzsche we are faced with two absolute alternatives: paganism or Christianity.

Paganism exalts the sacrifice of the weak for the benefit of the strong and the advancement of life; Christianity exalts the sacrifice of the strong for the benefit of the weak. It is hard not to see an objective connection between Nietzsche's proposal and Hitler's program of eliminating whole groups of human beings for the advancement of civilization and the purity of the race.

Nietzsche does not just target Christianity, but Christ. "Dionysus against the Crucified: this is the antithesis," he exclaimed in one posthumous fragment.[4]

Girard shows that one of the greatest boasts of modern society -- concern for victims, taking the side of the weak and oppressed, the defense of the life that is threatened -- is in truth a direct product of the revolution brought by the Gospel. However, by a paradoxical play of imitative rivalries, these values have been claimed by other movements as their own achievement and this precisely in opposition to Christianity.[5]

In the previous meditation I spoke about the social relevance of the beatitudes. The beatitude of the meek is perhaps the clearest example, but what is said of it is valid for all the beatitudes. They are the manifesto of the new greatness, the way of Christ to self-realization, to happiness.

It is not true that the Gospel kills the desire to do great things and to esteem. Jesus says: "If someone wants to be first, he must become the least of all and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). The desire to be first is thus legitimate, indeed it is recommended; it is only that the way to first place has changed: It is not reached by raising ourselves up above others, squashing them perhaps if they are in our way, but by lowering ourselves to raise up others together with us.

3. Meekness and tolerance

The beatitude of the weak has come to be extraordinarily relevant in the debate about religion and violence that was ignited following the events of 9/11. It reminds us Christians, above all, that the Gospel leaves no room for doubt. There are no exhortations to nonviolence mixed with contrary exhortations. Christians may, at certain times, distance themselves from it, but the Gospel is clear and the Church can return to it always and be inspired, knowing that it will find nothing else there but moral perfection.

The Gospel says that "he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16), but condemned in heaven, not on earth, by God not by men. "When they persecute you in one city," Jesus says, "flee to another" (Matthew 10:23); he does not say: "Fight back." Once two of his disciples, James and John, who were not welcomed in a certain Samaritan village, said to Jesus: "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven upon them to consume them?" Jesus, it is written, "turned and reproved them." Many manuscripts also report the tenor of the reproof: "You do not know of which spirit you are. The Son of Man did not come to lose the souls of men but to save them" (cf. Luke 9:53-55).

The famous "compelle intrare," "constrain them to enter," with which St. Augustine, even if with a heavy heart [6], justifies his approval of the imperial laws against the Donatists, and which will be used afterward to justify the coercion of heretics, stems from an obvious forcing of the Gospel text, fruit of a mechanical literal reading of the Bible.

Jesus puts the line in the mouth of a man who had prepared a great feast and, faced with the refusal of those invited to come, he tells his servants to go out into the highways and hedges and "force the poor, the feeble, the blind, and the lame to come" (cf. Luke 14:15-24). It is clear from the context that "force" does not mean anything other than a friendly insistence. The poor and the feeble, as all the unfortunate, might feel embarrassed to come to the house: Wear down their resistance, says the master, and tell them to not be afraid to come. How often we ourselves have said in similar circumstances: "I was forced to accept," knowing that insistence in these cases is a sign of benevolence and not violence.

In a recent book on Jesus that has had a great deal of attention in Italy, the following statement is attributed to Jesus: "And those enemies of mine who did not want me to become their king, bring them here and kill them before me" (Luke 19:27) and it is concluded that it is to statements such as this that "supporters of 'holy war' have recourse."[7] Now it needs to be said that Luke does not attribute these words to Jesus, but to the king in the parable, and we know that all the details of the parable are not supposed to be transferred to reality, and in any case, they are to be transferred from the material to the spiritual level.

4. With meekness and respect

But let us leave aside these considerations of an apologetic sort and try to see what light the beatitude of the meek can shed on our Christian life. There is a pastoral application of the beatitude of the meek that is initiated by the first letter of Peter. It regards dialogue with the outside world: "Worship the Lord, Christ, in your hearts, always ready to answer whoever asks you the reason for the hope in you. But let this be done with meekness ("prautes") and respect" (1 Peter 3:15-16).

From ancient times there has been two types of apologetics, one that has its model in Tertullian, and the other that has its model in Justin; the one aims at winning, the other at convincing. Justin wrote a "Dialogue with Trypho the Jew," Tertullian (or his disciple) wrote "Against the Jews." Both of these styles have had their following in Christian writing (our Giovanni Papini was certainly closer to Tertullian than to Justin), but today the first style is preferred of course.

The martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch suggested to the Christians of his time, in relation to the outside world, this always relevant attitude: "Faced with their rage, be meek; faced with their arrogance, be humble."[8]

The promise linked to the beatitude of the meek -- "they will inherit the land" -- is realized on different levels; there is the definitive promised land of eternal life, but there is also the land which is the hearts of men. The meek win confidence, they attract souls. The saint of meekness and sweetness par excellence, St. Francis de Sales, often said: "Be as sweet as you can and remember that more flies are captured by a drop of honey than with a barrel of vinegar."

5. Learn from me

We could remain for a long time on these pastoral applications of the beatitude of the meek but let us pass to a more personal application. Jesus says: "Learn from me for I am meek." We might object: But Jesus himself was not always meek! He said, for example, not to oppose the evil doer and "to him who strikes you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other" (Matthew 5:39). However, when one the guards strikes him on the cheek during the trial before the Sanhedrin, it is not written that he gave him the other cheek, but that with calmness he replied: "If I said something wrong, show it to me; but if I spoke well, why do you strike me?" (John 18:23).

This means that not everything in the Sermon on the Mount should be understood mechanically in a literal way; Jesus, according to his style, uses hyperbole and images to better imprint the idea on the mind of his disciples. In the case of turning the other cheek, for example, what is important is not the gesture of turning the other cheek (which might sometimes serve more to provoke a person), but not responding to violence with violence, but to win with calm.

In this sense, his response to the guard is an example of divine meekness. To measure its range, it is enough to compare it to the reaction of his apostle Paul (who was himself a saint) in an analogous situation. When, during Paul's trial before the Sanhedrin, the high priest Ananias orders Paul to be struck on the mouth, he answers: "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!" (Acts 23:2-3).

Another matter should be clarified. In the same Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: "He who says to his brother: 'Idiot,' will be subject to the Sanhedrin; and he who says to him: 'Fool,' will suffer the fire of Gahenna" (Matthew 5:22). Now on many occasions in the Gospel Jesus turns to the scribes and the Pharisees, calling them "hypocrites," "fools" and "blind men" (cf. Matthew 23:17). Jesus also reproves the disciples, calling them "idiots" and "slow of heart" (cf. Luke 24:25).

Here the explanation is likewise simple. We need to distinguish between injury and correction. Jesus condemns the words said with anger and with the intention of offending the brother, not those that aim at making one aware of his error and at correcting. A father who says to his son that he is undisciplined, disobedient, does not intend to offend him but to correct him. Moses is called by Scripture "the most mild of all men on earth" (Numbers 12:3), and yet in Deuteronomy we hear him respond to the rebellious Israel: "Thus you repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people?" (Deuteronomy 12:3).

Let us take are guide here from St. Augustine. "Love and do what you will," he says. If you love, whether you correct or not, it will be from love. Love does no evil to one's neighbor. From the root of love, as from a good tree, only good fruit can grow.[9]

6. The meek of heart

Thus we arrive on the proper terrain of the beatitude of the meek, the heart. Jesus says: "Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart." True meekness is decided there. It is from the heart, he says, that murders, wickedness, calumny come (Mark 7:21-22), as from the boiling within a volcano come lava, ashes, and fiery stones. The greatest explosions of violence begin, says St. James, secretly in "the passions that are stirred up within man" (cf. James 4:1-2). Just as there is an adultery in the heart, there is also a murder in the heart: "Whoever hates his own brother," writes John, "is a murderer" (1 John 3:15).

There is not only the violence of hands, there is also that of thoughts. Inside of us, if we pay attention, there are almost always "trials behind closed doors" going on. An anonymous monk has written pages of great penetration on this theme. He speaks as a monk, but what he says is not just valid for monasteries; he considers the example of inferiors in a religious community, but it is plain that the problem occurs in another way also for superiors.

"Observe," he says, "even for just one day, the course of your thoughts: You will be surprised by the frequency and the vivacity of the internal criticisms made with imaginary interlocutors. What is their typical origin? It is this: The unhappiness with superiors who do not care for us, do not esteem us, do not understand us; they are severe, unjust, or too stingy with us or with other 'oppressed persons.' We are unhappy with our brothers, who are 'without understanding, hard-bitten, curt, confused, or injurious.… Thus in our spirit a tribunal is created in which we are the prosecutor, judge, and jury; we defend and justify ourselves; the absent accused is condemned. Perhaps we make plans for our vindication or revenge."[10]

The desert fathers, not having to fight against external enemies, made of this interior battle with thoughts (the famous "logismoi") the benchmark for all spiritual progress. They also worked out a method for their combat. Our mind, they said, has the capacity to anticipate the unfolding of a thought, to know, from the beginning, where it will go: To excuse or condemn a brother, toward our own glory or the glory of God. "It is the monk's task," said an older monk, "to see his thoughts from afar"[11] and to bar their way when they go against charity. The easiest way to do it is say a short prayer or to bless the person that we are tempted to judge. Afterward, with a calm mind, we can decide how we should act toward him.

7. Put on the meekness of Christ

One observation before concluding. By their nature the beatitudes are oriented toward practice; they call for imitation, they accentuate the work of man. There is the danger that we will become discouraged in experiencing an incapacity to put them to practice in our own lives, and by the great distance between the ideal and the practice.

We must recall to mind what was said at the beginning: The beatitudes are Jesus' self-portrait. He lived them all and did so in the highest degree; but -- and this is the good news -- he did not live them only for himself, but also for all of us. With the beatitudes we are called not only to imitation, but also to appropriation. In faith we can draw from the meekness of Christ, just as we can draw from his purity of heart and every other virtue. We can pray to have meekness as Augustine prayed to have chastity: "O God, you have commanded me to be meek; give to me that which you command and command me to do what you will."[12]

"As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on the sentiments of mercy, goodness, humility, mildness ("prautes"), and patience" (Colossians 3:12), writes the Apostle to the Colossians. Mildness and meekness are like a robe that Christ merited for us and which, in faith, we can put on, not to be dispensed from pursuing them but to help us in their practice. Meekness ("prautes") is placed by Paul among the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), that is, among the qualities that the believer manifests in his life when he receives the Spirit of Christ and makes an effort to correspond to the Spirit.

We can end reciting together with confidence the beautiful invocation of the litany of the Sacred Heart: "Jesus meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like yours" ("Jesu, mitis et humilis corde: fac cor nostrum secundum cor tutum").

* * *

[1] Gandhi, "Buddismo, Cristianesimo, Islamismo," Rome, Tascabili Newton Compton, 1993, p. 53.
[2] St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 43.

[3] Introduction to the 1919 edition of "Also sprach Zarathustra."
[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, "Complete Works," VIII, Frammenti postumi 1888-1889, Milan, Adelphi, 1974, p. 56.

[5] R. Girard, "Vedo Satana cadere come folgore," Milano, Adelphi, 2001, pp. 211-236.
[6] St. Augustine, Epistle 93, 5: "Before I was of the opinion that no one should be forced into the unity of Christ but that we should only act with words, fight through discussion, and convince with reason."

[7] Corrado Augias and Mauro Pesce, "Inchiesta su Gesù," Milan, Mondadori, 2006, p. 52.
[8] St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Letter to the Ephesians," 10, 2-3.

[9] St. Augustine, "Commentary on the First Letter of John," 7, 8 (PL 35, 2023).
[10] A monk, "Le porte del silenzio," Milan, Ancora, 1986, p. 17 (Originale: "Les porte du silence," Geneva, Libraire Claude Martigny).

[11] "Detti e fatti dei Padri del deserto," edited by C. Campo and P. Draghi, Milan, Rusconi, 1979, p. 66.
[12] Cf. St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 29.

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3rd Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa 2007
"Blessed Are You Who Hunger Now, for You Will Satisfied"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered the reflection in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

* * *

1. The beatitudes and the historical Jesus

The research on the historical Jesus, so in fashion today -- whether it be conducted by scholars who are believers or the radical research of nonbelievers -- hides a grave danger: It can lead one to believe that only what, for this new approach, can be verified of the earthly Jesus is "authentic" while all the rest would be nonhistorical and therefore "inauthentic." This would mean unjustifiably limiting God's means for revealing himself to history alone. It would mean tacitly abandoning such a truth of faith as biblical inspiration and therefore the revealed character of Scripture.

It appears that the attempt not to narrow New Testament research to the historical approach is beginning to gain momentum among various biblical scholars. In 2005 a consultation on "Canon Criticism and Theological Interpretation" was held at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome with the participation of eminent New Testament scholars. The consultation had the purpose of promoting the aspect of biblical interpretation that takes the canonical dimension of the Scriptures into account and integrates it with historical research and the theological dimension.

From all this we conclude that the "word of God," and therefore that which is normative for the believer, is not the hypothetical "original nucleus" variously reconstructed by historians, but that which is written in the Gospels. The results of historical research must be taken seriously because they even guide the understanding of the posterior developments of the tradition; but we will continue to pronounce the exclamation "The Word of God!" at the end of the of the reading of the Gospel text, not at the end of the reading of the latest book on the historical Jesus.

These observations are particularly helpful when we deal with the use we should make of the Gospel beatitudes. It has come to be known that the beatitudes have reached us in two different versions. Matthew has eight beatitudes, Luke only four, followed by corresponding contrary "woes"; in Matthew the discourse is indirect: "Blessed are the poor ... blessed are the hungry"; in Luke the discourse is direct: "Blessed are you who are poor ... blessed are you who hunger"; Luke has "poor" and "hungry," Matthew has poor "in spirit" and hungry for "justice."

After all the critical work done to distinguish that which, in the beatitudes, comes from the historical Jesus and that which comes from Matthew and Luke,[1] the task of the believer of today is not to choose one of the versions as authentic and leave the other aside. What needs to be done rather is to gather up the message contained in both versions and -- according to the contexts and necessities of today -- give precedence, from time to time, to one or the other perspective as the two Evangelists themselves did in their time.

2. Who are the hungry and the satiated?

Following this principle, let us reflect today on the beatitude of the hungry, taking Luke's version as our point of departure: "Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be satisfied." We will see later that Matthew's version, which speaks of "hunger for justice" is not opposed to Luke's version but confirms and reinforces it.

The hungry of Luke's beatitude are not in a different category from the poor mentioned in the first beatitude. They are the same poor people considered in their most dramatic condition: the lack of food. In a parallel way the "satiated" are the rich, who in their prosperity, can satisfy not only their needs but also their wants in regard to food. It is Jesus himself who is concerned to explain who the satiated and who the hungry are. He does this with the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). This parable also looks at poverty and prosperity under the aspect of lack of food and superabundance of food: the rich man "feasted sumptuously every day"; the poor man desired in vain "to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table."

The parable, however, explains not only who the hungry and the satiated are but also and above all why the former are called blessed and the latter are called unfortunate. "One day the poor man died and was carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried ... and was tormented in Hades." This reveals where the two roads lead: the narrow one of poverty and the broad and spacious one of thoughtlessness.

Prosperity and being satiated tend to enclose man in an earthly horizon because "where your treasure is, there is your heart" (Luke 12:34); gluttony and drunkenness weigh down the heart, suffocating the seed of the word (cf. Luke 21:34); they cause the rich man to forget that that very night he might be asked to give an account of his life (Luke 16:19-31); they make entering into the kingdom "more difficult than the passing of a camel through the eye of a needle" (Luke 18:25).

The rich man and the other rich people of the Gospel are not condemned just because they are rich but for the use they make or do not make of their riches. In the parable of the rich man Jesus makes it clear that there is a way out for the rich man: He could think of Lazarus at his door and share his sumptuous feast with him.

The remedy, in other words, is for the rich to make friends with the poor (cf. Luke 16:9); the unfaithful steward is praised for doing this but in the wrong way (Luke 16:1-8). Satiety, however, drains the spirit and makes it very difficult for one to follow the road to assisting the poor; the story of Zaccheus shows how it is possible but also how rare it is. Thus we can understand the reason for the "woe" directed to the rich and satiated; but it is a "woe" that is more of a "Look out!" than a "Be accursed!"

3. He has filled the hungry with good things

From this point of view the best commentary on the beatitudes of the hungry and the poor is that pronounced by Mary in the Magnificat.

"He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, he has exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, he has sent the rich away empty-handed" (Luke 1:51-53).

With a series of strong aorist verbs, Mary describes a reversal and a radical change of places among men: "He has cast down -- he has exalted"; "he has filled -- he has sent away empty-handed." Something has already happened or typically happens in God's acting. Looking at history, it does not seem that that there has been a social revolution in which the rich, by a stroke, have been impoverished and the hungry have had their fill. If therefore what we expected was a social and visible change, history suggests that a lie has been told.

The reversal has happened, but in faith! The kingdom of God has been revealed and this has provoked a silent but radical revolution. The rich man is like a person who has set aside a large sum of money; during the night there is a coup d'état and the value of the money has dropped 100%; the rich man wakes up the next morning but he does not know that he has been reduced to poverty. The poor and the hungry, on the contrary, have gained an advantage because they are better prepared to accept the new reality, they do not fear the change; they have a ready heart.

St. James, addressing the rich, said: "Weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted" (James 5:1-2). Even here there is no report from the time of St. James that the wealth of the rich rotted in the granaries. What the apostle is saying rather is that something has come which has made the wealth of the rich lose all its value; a new wealth has been revealed. "God," St. James writes, "chose the poor of the world to make them rich with faith and heirs of the kingdom" (James 2:5).

More than an "incitement to cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the lowly," as it has sometimes been written, the Magnificat is a salutary admonition addressed to the rich and powerful about the tremendous danger they are courting; it is just like the "woes" Jesus pronounces in the parable of the rich man.

4. A parable with contemporary relevance

It is not enough for a reflection on the beatitude of the hungry and the satiated to stop at an explanation of their exegetical significance; it must also help us to read the situation around us with evangelical eyes and to act in accord with the meaning of the beatitude.

The parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus repeats itself today in our midst on a global scale. The two characters stand precisely for two hemispheres: The rich man represents the Northern Hemisphere (Western Europe, America, Japan); Lazarus is, with a few exceptions, the Southern Hemisphere. Two characters, two worlds: the "First World" and the "Third World." Two worlds of unequal greatness: What we call the "Third World" in fact represents "Two Thirds of the World." (The usage of this new term is growing.)

Someone has compared the earth to a spaceship on a voyage through the cosmos. In the spaceship one of the three astronauts consumes 85% of the resources present and takes it upon himself to try to grab the remaining 15%. Waste is normal in the rich countries. Years ago research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that of 161 billion kilos (354.9 billion pounds) of food products, 43 billion -- that is, a fourth -- end up in the garbage. If we wanted to, we could easily recover about 2 billion kilos (4.4 billion pounds) of this food that has been thrown away, a quantity that would be sufficient to feed 4 million people for one year.

Indifference -- pretending not to see, "passing to the other side of the road" (cf. Luke 10:31) -- is perhaps the greatest sin committed against the poor and hungry. Ignoring the great multitude of hungry, beggars, homeless, those without medical care, and above all those without hope for a better future -- Pope John Paul II wrote in the encyclical "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis" -- "means becoming like the rich man who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus laying at his gate."[2]

We tend to put between ourselves and the poor double glass panes. Double panes -- much in use today -- prevent cold and noise from entering; whatever reaches us gets muffled and weakened. And in fact we see the poor move about, get upset, and cry out behind the television screen, on the pages of the newspaper and missionary magazines, but their cry reaches us from far away. It does not reach the heart or only touches it for a moment.

The first thing to do in regard to the poor, therefore, is to break the "double panes," overcome indifference and insensitivity, throw down the defenses, and allow ourselves to be invaded by a healthy unease on account of the frightening misery that there is in the world. We are called to share the sigh of Christ: "I feel compassion for this crowd that has nothing to eat": "Misereor super turba" (cf. Mark 8:2). When we have the occasion to see what misery and hunger is with our own eyes, visiting the villages in the rural interior or on the outskirts of great cities in certain African countries (this happened to me some months ago in Rwanda), we are choked up by compassion and left without words.

The elimination or reduction of the unjust and scandalous abyss that exists between the satiated and the hungry of the world is the most urgent and most enormous task that humanity has left undone as we enter the new millennium. It is a task in which the religions above all must distinguish themselves and cooperate beyond all rivalry. Such a momentous undertaking cannot be promoted by any political leader or power influenced by the interests of their own nation and often by powerful economic forces. The Holy Father Benedict XVI gave an example with the forceful appeal he directed to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See: "Among the key issues, how can we not think of the millions of people, especially women and children, who lack water, food, or shelter? The worsening scandal of hunger is unacceptable in a world which has the resources, the knowledge, and the means available to bring it to an end."[3]

6. "Blessed are they who hunger for justice"

I said at the beginning that the two versions of the beatitude of the hungry, that of Luke and that of Mark, do not pose alternatives but go together. Matthew does not speak of material hunger but of hunger and thirst for "justice." There have been two basic interpretations of these words.

One, in line with Lutheran theology, interprets Matthew's beatitude in light of what St. Paul will later say about justification through faith. To have hunger and thirst for justice means being aware of one's own need for justice and the impossibility of attaining it on one's own and therefore the need humbly to wait for it from God. The other interpretation sees in this justice "not that which God himself does or that which he grants but rather that which he demands from man";[4] in other words, the works of justice.

Following this interpretation, which has for quite some time been the more common and the more plausible exegetically, the material hunger of Luke and the spiritual hunger of Matthew are no longer unconnected. Helping the hungry and the poor is among the works of justice and, indeed, according to Matthew it will be the criterion for the separation of the just and the reprobate at the end (cf. Matthew 25).

All the justice that God asks of man is summarized in the double precept of love of God and neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:40). It is the love of neighbor that should move those who hunger for justice to concern themselves with those who hunger for bread. It is from this great principle that the Gospel acts in the social realm. Liberal theology understood this principle well.

"In no part of the Gospel," writes one of the most illustrious representatives of liberal theology, Adolph von Harnack, "do we find it taught that we should be indifferent to our brothers. Evangelical indifference (not worrying about food, clothing, the concerns of tomorrow) more than anything else expresses that which each soul should feel in regard to the world, in regard to its goods and enticements. However, when it is a question of our neighbor, the Gospel does not want to hear about indifference, but imposes love and piety. In other words, the Gospel considers the spiritual and temporal needs of our brothers as inseparable."[5]

The Gospel does not incite the hungry to seek justice on their own, to rise up. In the time of Jesus, unlike today, the poor had no theoretical or practical instrument to do this; so the Gospel does not ask of them the useless sacrifice of losing their lives following some zealot, some Spartacus. Jesus himself will confront the wrath and sarcasm of the rich with his "woes" (cf. Luke 16:14); he does not leave this job to the victims.

To try to find at all costs in the Gospel models and explicit invitations addressed to the poor and the hungry to rise up and change their situation on their own is foolish and anachronistic and loses sight of the true contribution that the Gospel can make to their cause. In this connection Rudolph Bultmann is right when he writes that "Christianity ignores every project for transforming the world and it does not have proposals to present for the reform of political and social conditions,"[6] even if this claim is in need of some qualification.

The way of the beatitudes is not the only way for confronting the problem of wealth and poverty, hunger and content; there are others, made possible by the progress of social consciousness, to which Christians rightly give their support and the Church guidance with its social teachings.

The great message of the beatitudes is that, regardless of what the rich and satiated do or do not do for them, even so, in the actual state of things, the situation of the poor and the hungry for justice is preferable to that of the former.

There are structures and aspects of reality that cannot be observed with the naked eye but only with the help of a special light, with infrared or ultraviolet rays. Much use is made of these in satellite photos. The image obtained with this light is very different and surprising for those who are used to seeing the same panorama in natural light. The beatitudes are like infrared rays: They give us a different image of reality, in fact the only true one because it shows what will remain after the "figure of this world" has passed.

7. Eucharist and sharing

Jesus has left us the perfect antithesis of the rich man's feast, namely, the Eucharist. It is the daily celebration of the great feast to which the master will invite "the poor, the deformed, the blind, and the lame" (Luke 16:21), that is, all the poor Lazaruses who are wandering about. In the Eucharist perfect "table fellowship" is realized: There is the same food and the same drink, and in the same amount for all, for the one who presides, for the one who arrives last, for the wealthiest and the poorest of the poor.

The link between material bread and spiritual bread was quite visible in the early Church, when the Lord's Supper, which was called "agape," took place in the context of a fraternal meal in which common bread and Eucharistic bread were shared.

To the Corinthians who were divided on this point St. Paul wrote: "When you meet together it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk" (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). This is a grave accusation; it intends to say: "Your gathering is no longer a Eucharist!"

Today the Eucharist is no longer celebrated in the context of a common meal, but the contrast between those who have more than enough and those who lack necessities has assumed a global dimension. If we project what Paul describes in the local church of Corinth onto the universal Church, we are disturbed by the realization that this (objectively but not always as a matter of guilt) is what is happening today. Among the millions of Christians on the various continents who will be participating in Mass next Sunday there will be those (such as ourselves) who will return to homes where they have every good from God at their disposition and there will be others who have nothing to give their children to eat.

The recent postsynodal exhortation on the Eucharist forcefully reminds us: "The food of truth demands that we denounce inhumane situations in which people starve to death because of injustice and exploitation, and it gives us renewed strength and courage to work tirelessly in the service of the civilization of love."[7]

The money which the Church designates for this purpose -- for the sustaining of the various national and diocesan charities, soup kitchens for the poor, initiatives for providing food in developing countries -- this is the best-spent money. One of the signs of the vitality of our traditional religious communities are the soup kitchens that exist in almost every city, which distribute thousands of meals every day in a respectful and hospitable climate. It is a drop in the ocean but even the ocean, Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, is made up of many small drops.

I would like to end with the prayer that we say every day before meals in my community: "Bless, O Lord, this food that from your bounty we are about to take, help us to provide also for those who have no food and grant that we may participate one day in your heavenly meal. Through Christ our Lord."

* * *

[1] Cf. J. Dupont, "Le beatitudini," 2 vol. Edizioni Paoline, 1992.
[2] John Paul II, "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis," No. 42.
[3] "Address of Benedict XVI delivered in the Vatican Apostolic Palace to members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See," Monday, January 8, 2007.

[4] Cf. Dupont, vol. 2, pp. 554 ff.
[5] A. von Harnack, "Il cristianesimo e la società," Mendrisio, Cultura Moderna, 1911, pp. 12 ff.
[6] R. Bultmann, "Il cristianesimo primitivo," Milano, Garzanti, 1964, p. 203.

[7] "Sacramentum Caritatis," No. 90.

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4th Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa 2007
"Let Us Call Even Those Who Hate Us 'Brother'"

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 1, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered this final Lenten reflection of the year in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

* * *

1. The mercy of Christ

The beatitude on which we would like to reflect in this last Lenten meditation is the fifth in the order of St. Matthew's Gospel: "Blessed are the merciful for they shall find mercy." As we have done in all our meditations this Lent, we will take as our point of departure the affirmation that the beatitudes are a self-portrait of Christ, and, following the procedure we have used in the past, we will ask how Jesus lived mercy. What does Jesus' life tell us about this beatitude?

In the Bible, the word "mercy" has two basic meanings: The first indicates the attitude of the stronger part (in the covenant, this would be God himself) toward the weaker part and it usually expresses itself in the forgiveness of infidelities and of faults; the second indicates the attitude toward the need of the other and it expresses itself in the so-called works of mercy. (In this second sense the term appears often in the Book of Tobit.) There is, so to say, a mercy of the heart and a mercy of the hands.

Both forms of mercy shine forth in Jesus' life. He reflects God's mercy toward sinners, but he is also moved by all human sufferings and needs; he gives the crowds to eat, heals the sick, frees the oppressed. The Evangelist says of him: "He has taken on our infirmities and borne our sicknesses" (Matthew 8:17).

In the beatitude we are considering, the prevalent sense is certainly the first one, that of forgiving and remitting sins. This is what we conclude from considering the beatitude and its reward: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy," that is, with God, who remits their sins. Jesus' admonition, "Be merciful as your Father is merciful," is immediately explained with "forgive and you will be forgiven" (Luke 6:36-37).

We know of Jesus' acceptance of sinners in the Gospel and the opposition this earns him from the defenders of the law, who accuse him of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34). One of Jesus' sayings which is best attested to historically is: "I have not come to call the just, but sinners" (Mark 2:17). Feeling accepted and not condemned by him, sinners listen to him gladly.

But who are the sinners in question? In line with the widespread tendency today to get the Pharisees of the Gospel entirely off the hook, attributing the negative image to a later doctoring by the Evangelists, someone has claimed that these "sinners" were only "the deliberate and impenitent transgressors of the law,"[1] in other words, the common delinquents of the time and those who had gone outside the law.

If this were so, then Jesus' adversaries would have been entirely right to be scandalized and see him as an irresponsible and socially dangerous person. It would be as if a priest today were to regularly frequent members of the mafia and criminals and accept their invitations to dinner with the pretext of speaking to them of God.

In reality, this is not how things are. The Pharisees had their vision of the law and of what conformed to it or was contrary, and they considered reprobate all those who did not follow their practices. Jesus does not deny that sin and sinners exist; he does not justify Zacchaeus' frauds or the deed of the woman caught in adultery. The fact that he calls them "sick" shows this.

What Jesus condemns is the relegating to oneself the determination of what true justice is and considering everyone else to be "thieves, unjust, adulterers," denying them the possibility of conversion. The way that Luke introduces the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is significant: "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others" (Luke 18:9). Jesus was more severe with those who condemned sinners with disdain than he was with sinners themselves.[2]

2. A God who prides himself on having mercy

Jesus justifies his behavior toward sinners saying that this is how the heavenly Father acts. He reminds his adversaries of God's word to the prophets: "It is mercy that I want and not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13). Mercy toward the people's infidelity, "hesed," is the most salient trait of the God of the covenant and it fills the Bible from one end to the other. A psalm speaks of it in the course of a litany, explaining all the events in the history of Israel: "For your mercy is eternal" (Psalm 136).

Being merciful appears in this way as an essential aspect to being "in the image and likeness of God." "Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36) is a paraphrase of the famous: "Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 6:36).

But the most surprising thing about God's mercy is that he feels joy in being merciful. Jesus ends the parable about the lost sheep saying: "There will be more joy in heaven over one converted sinner than for ninety-nine just people who have no need to convert" (Luke 15:7). The woman who finds her lost coin calls out to her friends: "Rejoice with me." In the parable of the prodigal son also the joy overflows and becomes a feast, a banquet.

We are not dealing with an isolated theme but one deeply rooted in the Bible. In Ezekiel God says: "I do not rejoice over the death of the wicked person but (I rejoice!) in his desisting from his wickedness and living" (Ezekiel 33:11). Micah says that God "takes pride in having mercy" (Micah 7:18), that is he takes pleasure in being merciful.

But why, we ask ourselves, must one sheep count more on the scales than all the others put together, and to count more it must be the one that went away and caused the most problems? I have found a convincing explanation in the poet Charles Péguy. Getting lost, that sheep, like the younger son, made God's heart tremble. God feared that he would lose him forever, that he would be forced to condemn him and deprive him eternally. This fear made hope blossom in God and this hope, once it was realized brought joy and celebration. "Each time a man repents, a hope of God is crowned."[3] This is figurative language, as is all our language about God, but it contains a truth.

The condition that makes this possible in us men is that we do not know the future and therefore we hope; in God, who knows the future, the condition is that he does not want (and, in a certain sense, cannot) realize what he wants without our consent. Human freedom explains the existence of hope in God.

What should we say about the ninety-nine prudent sheep and the older son? Is there no joy in heaven for them? Is it worthwhile to live one's entire life as a good Christian? Remember what the father said to his older son: "Son, you are with me always and all that I have is yours" (Luke 15:31). The older son's mistake is to have thought that staying always at home and sharing everything with the father was not an incredible privilege but a merit; he acts more like a mercenary than a son. (This should put all of us older brothers on guard!)

On this point reality is better than the parable. In reality, the older son -- the First Born of the Father, the Word -- did not remain in the Father's house; he went into "a far off land" to look for the younger son, that is, fallen humanity; he was the one that brought the younger son back home and procured the new clothes for him and a feast to which he can sit down at every Eucharist.

In one of his novels Dostoyevsky describes a scene that has the air of having been witnessed in reality. A woman holds a baby a few weeks old in her arms and -- for the first time, according to her -- he smiles at her. All contrite, she makes the sign of the cross on his forehead and to those who ask her the reason for this she says: "Just as a mother is happy when she sees the first smile of her child, God too rejoices every time a sinner gets on his knees and addresses a heartfelt prayer to him."[4]

3. Our mercy, cause or effect of God's mercy?

Jesus says: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will find mercy," and in the Our Father he has us pray: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." He also says: "If you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:15). These statements might make us think that God's mercy toward us is an effect of our mercy toward others and that it is proportionate to it.

If it were this way, then the relationship between grace and good works would be totally reversed, and the purely gratuitous character of divine mercy would be destroyed. God solemnly announced the gratuitous character of his grace to Moses: "I will give grace to whomever I wish, and will have mercy on whomever I choose to have mercy" (Exodus 33:19).

The parable of the two servants (Matthew 18:23ff) is the key for correctly interpreting the relationship between God's mercy and ours. There we see how it is the king who, in the first instance, without conditions, forgives an enormous debt to the servant (ten thousand talents!) and it is precisely his generosity that should have moved the servant to have pity on the other servant who owed him the tiny sum of one hundred denarii.

We must be merciful because we have received mercy, not in order to receive mercy; but we must be merciful, otherwise God's mercy will have no effect on us and will be taken back, just as the king in the parable took back the mercy he had shown to the pitiless servant. "Prevenient grace" is always what creates the duty: "As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive," St. Paul writes to the Colossians (Colossians 3:13).

If in the beatitudes God's mercy toward us seems to be the effect of our mercy toward our brothers it is because Jesus links it to the perspective if the last judgment ("they will find mercy," in the future!). "The judgment," writes St. James in fact, "will be without mercy for those who have not been merciful; yet mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13).

4. Experiencing divine mercy

If divine mercy is the beginning of everything and it demands mercy among men and makes it possible, then the most important thing for us is to have a renewed experience of God's mercy. We are drawing near to Easter and this is the Easter experience par excellence.

The author Franz Kafka wrote a novel called "The Trial." In it there is a man who is put under arrest without anyone knowing the reason why. The man continues his normal life and work but also carries out extensive research to find out the reasons, the court, the charges and the procedure. But no one knows what to tell him except that he really is on trial. In the end two men come to carry out the sentence, execution.

During the course of the story it comes to be known that there are three possibilities for this man: true absolution, apparent absolution, pardon. Apparent absolution and pardon would not resolve anything; with them the man would remain in mortal uncertainty all his life. In the true absolution "the trial procedures will be completed eliminated, the whole thing would disappear; not only the charge but also the trial and the sentence would be destroyed, all will be destroyed."

But it is not known whether there have ever been any of these true absolutions; there are only rumors about them, nothing more than "beautiful stories." The novel ends, as all the others of this author do: Something is glimpsed from far away; it is anxiously pursued like in a nightmare, but there is no possibility of reaching it.[5]

At Easter the Church's liturgy conveys the unbelievable news that true absolution exists for man; it is not just a legend, something beautiful but unattainable. Jesus has "canceled the bond that stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross" (Colossians 2:14). He has destroyed everything. "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," exclaims St. Paul (Romans 8:1). No condemnation! Nothing at all! For those who believe in Christ Jesus!

In Jerusalem there was a miraculous pool and the first one to climb into it when the waters were stirred up was healed (John 5:2ff). The reality, even here, is infinitely greater than the symbol. From the cross of Christ there flowed water and blood, and not just one but all who step into this fountain will leave it healed.

After baptism, this miraculous pool is the sacrament of reconciliation and this last meditation would like to serve as a preparation for a good Easter confession. A confession different from the usual ones, in which we truly allow the Paraclete to "convince us of sin." We could take as a mirror the beatitudes meditated on during Lent, beginning now and repeating the ancient expression, which is so beautiful: "Kyrie eleison!" "Lord have mercy!"

"Blessed are the pure of heart": Lord, I see all the impurity and hypocrisy that is in my heart, the double life I live before you and before others. … Kyrie eleison!

"Blessed are the meek": Lord, I ask your forgiveness for the hidden impatience and violence in me, for rash judgments, for the suffering I have caused those around me. … Kyrie eleison!

"Blessed are the hungry": Lord, forgive my indifference toward the poor and the hungry, my constant search for comfort, my bourgeoisie lifestyle. … Kyrie eleison!

"Blessed are the merciful": Lord, often I have asked for and quickly received your mercy, without reflecting on the price you paid for it! Often I have been the servant who was forgiven but who did not know how to forgive. … Kyrie eleison! Lord have mercy!

There is a particular grace when, not only the individual, but the entire community places itself before God in this penitential attitude. From this profound experience of God's mercy we leave renewed and full of hope: "God, rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, he made us alive again in Christ" (Ephesians 2:4-5).

5. A Church "rich in mercy"

In his message for Lent this year the Holy Father writes: "May Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of God's love given to us in Christ, love that every day we must, for our part, return to our neighbor." This is how it is with mercy, the form that God's love takes in relation to sinful man: After we have had an experience of it we must, for our part, show it to our brothers, and do this at the level of the ecclesial community and at a personal level.

Preaching from this same table during the retreat for the Roman Curia in the Jubilee Year 2000, Cardinal François Xavier Van Thuân, alluding to the rite of the opening of the Holy Door, said in a meditation: "I dream of a Church that is a 'Holy Door,' open, that welcomes all, full of compassion and understanding for the pain and suffering of humanity, completely ready to console it."[6]

The Church of the God who is "rich in mercy," "dives in misericordia," cannot itself fail to be "dives in misericordia." We can draw some criteria from the attitude of Christ toward sinners that we examined above. He does not make light of sin, but he finds the way to not alienate sinners but to draw them to himself. He does not see in them only what they are, but what they can become if reached by divine mercy in the depths of their misery and desperation. He does not wait for them to come to him; often it is he who goes in search of them.

Today, exegetes are fairly in agreement in admitting that Jesus did not have a hostile attitude toward the Mosaic law, which he himself scrupulously observed. What he opposed in the religious elite of his time was a certain rigid and sometimes inhuman manner of interpreting the law. "The Sabbath," he said, "is for man and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27), and what he says about the Sabbath rest, one of the most sacred laws of Israel, holds for every other law.

Jesus is firm and rigorous about principles but he knows when a principle must give way to the higher principle of God's mercy and man's salvation. How these criteria drawn from Christ's actions can be concretely applied to new problems in society depends on patient study and definitively on the discernment of the magisterium. Even in the life of the Church, as in Jesus' life, the mercy of the hands and of the heart must shine forth together with the works of mercy, which are the essence of mercy.

6. "Put on mercy"

The last word in regard to the beatitudes must always be the one that touches us personally and moves each of us to conversion and action. St. Paul exhorts the Colossians with these words:

"Put on, then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive" (Colossians 3:12-13).

"We human beings," said St. Augustine, "we are vessels of clay that are damaged by the slightest nick" ("lutea vasa quae faciunt invicem angustias").[7] We cannot live together in harmony, in the family and in any type of community, without the practice of reciprocal forgiveness and mercy. Mercy ("misericordia") is a word composed of "misereo" and "cor"; it means to be moved in your heart, to be moved to pity, in the face of suffering or by your brother's mistake. This is how God explains his mercy when he sees the people going astray: "My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred" (Hosea 11:8).

It is a question of responding not with condemnation but with forgiveness and, when it is possible, excusing. When we consider ourselves, this saying is correct: "He who excuses himself, God accuses. He who accuses himself, God excuses." When it is a matter of other people the contrary must be held: "He who excuses his brother, God excuses him. He who accuses his brother, God accuses him."

For a community, forgiveness is what oil is for a motor. If one drives a car without a drop of oil, after a few kilometers everything will go up in flames. Forgiveness that lets others go is like oil. There is a psalm that sings of the joy of living together as reconciled brothers; it says that this "is like perfumed oil on the head" that runs down into Aaron's beard and clothing to the very hem (cf. Psalm 133).

Our Aaron, our High Priest, the fathers of the Church would have said, is Christ; mercy and forgiveness is the oil that runs down from the "head" raised up on the cross, it runs down along the body of the Church to the edges of her robes to those who live on her margins. Where we live in this way, in reciprocal forgiveness and mercy, "the Lord gives his blessing and life forever."

Let us try to see where, in all our relationships, it seems necessary to let the oil of mercy and reconciliation run down. Let us pour it out silently, abundantly, this Easter. Let us unite ourselves with our Orthodox brothers who at Easter do not cease to sing:

"It is the day of the Resurrection!
Let us radiate joy through this feast,
embracing all.
Let us call even those who hate us 'brother,'
forgiving all for the love of the Resurrection."[8]

* * *

[1] Cf. E.P. Sanders, "Jesus and Judaism," London: SCM, 1985, p. 385.
[2] Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "Gli albori del cristianesimo," I, 2, Brescia: Paideia, 2006, pp. 567-572.
[3] Ch. Péguy, "Il portico del mistero della seconda virtù," in Oeuvres poétiques complètes, Paris: Gallimard, 975, pp. 571 ff.

[4] F. Dostoevskij, "L'Idiota," Milano, 1983, p. 272.
[5] F. Kafka, "Il processo," Garzanti, Milano, 1993, pp. 129 ff.
[6] F.X. Van Thuân, "Testimoni della speranza," Roma: Città Nuova, 2000, p.58.

[7] St. Augustine, Sermons, 69, 1 (PL 38, 440)
[8] Stichirà di Pasqua, testi citati in G. Gharib, Le icone festive della Chiesa Ortodossa, Milano 1985, pp. 174-182.


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Good Friday Sermon of Father Cantalamessa
"There Were Also Some Women"

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 6, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Good Friday sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa during the Celebration of the Lord's Passion in St. Peter's Basilica, and in the presence of Benedict XVI.

* * *

There were also some women

"Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25). Let us leave Mary his mother aside this time. Her presence on Calvary needs no explanation. She was his mother, and this by itself says everything; mothers do not abandon their children, not even one condemned to death. But why were the other women there? Who were they and how many were there?

The Gospels tell us the names of some of them: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, a certain Joanna and a certain Susanna (Luke 8:3). Having come with Jesus from Galilee, these women followed him, weeping, on the journey to Calvary (Luke 23:27-28). Now, on Golgotha, they watched "from a distance" (that is from the minimum distance permitted them), and from there, a little while later, they accompanied him in sorrow to the tomb, with Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:55).

This fact is too marked and too extraordinary to hastily pass over. We call them, with a certain masculine condescension, "the pious women," but they are much more than "pious women," they are "mothers of courage"! They defied the danger of openly showing themselves to be there on behalf of the one condemned to death. Jesus said: "Blessed is he who is not scandalized by me" (Luke 7:23). These women are the only ones who were not scandalized by him.

There has been animated discussion for quite some time about who it was that wanted Jesus' death: Was it the Jews or Pilate? One thing is certain in any case: It was men and not women. No woman was involved, not even indirectly, in his condemnation. Even the only pagan woman named in the accounts, Pilate's wife, dissociated herself from his condemnation (Matthew 27:19). Certainly Jesus died for the sins of women too, but historically they can say: "We are innocent of this man's blood" (Matthew 27:24).

* * *

This is one of the surest signs of the honesty and the historical reliability of the Gospels: The poor showing of the authors and inspirers of the Gospels and the marvelous figure cut by the women. Clearly the authors and inspirers of the Gospels saw the story they were telling as infinitely greater than their own miserableness and were thus drawn to be faithful to it. Otherwise, who would have allowed the ignominy of their own fear, flight, and denial -- which was made to look worse by the very different conduct of the women -- recorded for posterity.

It has always been asked why it was the "pious women" who were the first to see the Risen Christ and receive the task of announcing it to the apostles. This was the more certain way of making the Resurrection credible. The testimony of women had no weight and much less that of a woman, like Mary Magdalene, who had been possessed by demons (Mark 16:9). It is probably for this reason that no woman figures in Paul's long list of those who had seen the Risen Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8). The same apostles took the words of the women as "an idle tale," an entirely female thing, and did not believe them (Luke 24:11).

The ancient authors thought they knew the answer to this question. Romanos the Melode exhorts the apostles to not be offended by the precedence accorded to the women. They were the first to see the Risen Christ, he said, because a woman, Eve, was the first to sin![1] The real answer is different: The women were the first to see him because they were the last to leave him for dead after his death when they came to bring spices to his tomb to anoint him (Mark 16:1).

* * *

We must ask ourselves about this fact: Why were the women untroubled by the scandal of the cross? Why did they stay when everything seem finished, and when even his closest disciples had abandoned him and were secretly planning to go back home?

Jesus had already given the answer to this question when, replying to Simon, he said of the woman who had washed and kissed his feet: "She has loved much" (Luke 7:47)! The women had followed Jesus for himself, out of gratitude for the good they had received from him, not for the hope of getting some benefit from him or having a career from following him. "Twelve thrones" were not promised to them, nor had they asked to sit at his right hand in his kingdom. They followed him, it is written, "to serve him" (Luke 8:3; Matthew 27:55); they were the only ones, after Mary his mother, to have assimilated the spirit of the Gospel.

They followed the reasoning of the heart and this had not deceived him. In this there presence near to the crucified and risen Christ contains a vital teaching for today. Our civilization, dominated by technology, needs a heart to survive in it without being dehumanized. We have to give more room to the "reasons of the heart," if humanity is not to fail in this ice age.

In this, quite differently than in other areas, technology is of little help to us. For a long time now there has been work on a computer that "thinks" and many are convinced that there will be success. But (fortunately!) no one has yet proposed inventing a computer that "loves," that is moved, that meets man on the affective plane, facilitating love, as computers facilitate the calculation of the distance between the stars, the movement of atoms, and the memorizing of data.

The improvement of man's intelligence and capacity to know does not go forward at the same rate as improvement in his capacity to love. The latter does not seem to count for much and yet we know well that happiness or unhappiness on earth does not depend so much on knowing or not-knowing as much as it does on loving or not loving, on being loved or not being loved. It is not hard to understand why we are so anxious to increase our knowledge but not so worried about increasing our capacity to love: Knowledge automatically translates into power, love into service.

One of the modern idolatries is the "IQ" idolatry, of the "intelligence quotient." Numerous methods of measuring intelligence have been proposed, even if all have so far proved to be in large part unreliable. Who is concerned with the "quotient of the heart"? And yet what Paul said always remains true: "Knowledge puffs up, love builds up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Secular culture is no longer able to draw this truth from its religious source, in Paul, but perhaps it is ready to underwrite it when it returns in literary garments. Love alone redeems and saves, while science and the thirst for knowledge, by itself, is able to lead Faust and his imitators to damnation.

After so many ages had spoken of human beings by taking names from man -- "homo erectus," "homo faber," and today's "homo sapiens-sapiens" -- it is good for humanity that the age of woman is finally dawning: an era of the heart, of compassion, of peace, and this earth ceases to be "the threshing floor which makes us so fierce."[2]

* * *

From every part there emerges the exigency to give more room to women in society and in religion. We do not believe that "the eternal feminine will save us."[3] Everyday experience shows us that women can "lift us up," but they can also cast us down. She too needs to be saved, neither more nor less than man. But it is certain that once she is redeemed by Christ and "liberated" on the human level from ancient subjugations, woman can contribute to saving our society from some profound evils that threaten it: inhuman cruelty, will to power, spiritual dryness, disdain for life.

But we must avoid repeating the ancient gnostic mistake according to which woman, in order to save herself, must cease to be a woman and must become a man.[4] Pro-male prejudice is so deeply rooted in society that women themselves have ended up succumbing to it. To affirm their dignity, they have sometimes believed it necessary to minimize or deny the difference of the sexes, reducing it to a product of culture. "Women are not born, they become," as one of their illustrious representatives has said.[5]

This tendency seems to have been overcome. In postmodern thought the ideal is no longer indifference but equal dignity. Difference in general is beginning to be seen as creative, whether for men or for women. Each of the two sexes represents "the other" and stimulates openness and creativity, since what defines the human person is precisely his being in relation. "Man is prideful," writes the poet Claudel; "There was no other way to get him to understand his neighbor, to get inside his skin; there was no other way to get him to understand dependence, necessity, the need for another than himself, than through the law of being different [a man or a woman]."[6]

* * *

How grateful we must be to the "pious women"! Along the way to Calvary, their sobbing was the only friendly sound that reached the Savior's ears; while he hung on the cross, their gaze was the only one that fell upon him with love and compassion.

The Byzantine liturgy honored the pious women, dedicating a Sunday of the liturgical year to them, the second Sunday after Easter, which has the name "Sunday of the Ointment Bearing Women." Jesus is happy that in the Church the women who loved him and believed in him when he was alive are honored. Of one of them -- the woman who poured the perfumed oil on his head -- he made this prophecy that has come true over the centuries: "Wherever in the whole world this Gospel is preached what she has done will be told in memory of her" (Matthew 26:13).

The pious women must not only be admired and honored, but imitated. St. Leo the Great says that "Christ's passion is prolonged to the end of ages"[7] and Pascal wrote that "Christ will be in agony until the end of the world."[8] The passion is prolonged in members of the Body of Christ. The many religious and lay women are the heirs of the "pious women" who today are at the side of the poor, those sick with AIDS, prisoners, all those rejected by society. To them, believers and nonbelievers, Christ repeats: "You have done this for me" (Matthew 25:40).

* * *

The pious women are examples for Christian women today not only for the role they played in the Passion but also for the one they played in the Resurrection. From one end of the Bible to the other we meet the "Go!" of the missions ordered by God. It is the word addressed to Abraham and Moses ("Go, Moses, into the land of Egypt"), to the prophets, to the apostles: "Go out to all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature."

They are all "Go's!" addressed to men. There is only one "Go!" addressed to women, the one addressed to the ointment bearers the morning of the resurrection: "Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me'" (Matthew 28:10). With these words they were made the first witnesses of the resurrection.

It is a shame that, because of the later erroneous identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who washed Jesus' feet (Luke 7:37), she ended up giving rise to numerous ancient and modern legends and she has entered into the devotions and art in "penitent" garments, instead of as the first witness of the resurrection, the "apostolorum apostola" (apostle of the apostles), according to St. Thomas Aquinas' definition.[9]

"The women departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples" (Matthew 28:8). Christian women, continue to bring the successors of the apostles and to us priests, who are their collaborators, the good news: "The Master lives! He has risen! He precedes you into Galilee, that is, wherever you go!" Continue to give us courage, continue to defend life. Together with the other women of the world you are the hope of a more human world.

To the first among the "pious women," and their incomparable model, the mother of Jesus, we repeat this ancient prayer of the Church: "Holy Mary, succor of the miserable, support of the fearful, comfort of the weak: pray for the people, intervene for the clergy, intercede for the devoted female sex" (Ora pro populo, interveni pro clero, intercede pro devoto femineo sexu).[10]

* * *

[1] Romanos the Melode, "Hymns," 45, 6.
[2] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 22, v.151.
[3] W. Goethe, "Faust," finale, part II.

[4] Cf. Coptic Gospel of Thomas, 114; Excerpts of Theodotus, 21,3.
[5] Simone de Beauvoir, "The Second Sex," 1949.
[6] P. Claudel, "The Satin Slipper," act III, scene 8.

[7] St. Leo the Great, Sermon 70, 5 (PL 54, 383).
[8] B. Pascal, "Pens  ««±±es," n. 553 Br.
[9] St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, XX, 2519.
[10] Antiphon to the Magnificat, Common of Virgins.
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1st Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa 2006
"And Being in Agony He Prayed More Earnestly"  (March 17, 2006)

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 17, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered it in the Mater Redemptoris Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

* * *

"And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly" (Luke 22:44)

Jesus in Gethsemane

1. Baptized in his death

In the Advent meditations, I tried to bring to light the need we have at present to rediscover the "kerygma," that is, that original core of the Christian message in the presence of which the act of faith in God normally flowers. This core, the passion and death of Christ, represents its essential element.

From the objective point of view, or the point of view of faith, it is the resurrection, not the death of Christ, which is the qualifying element: "It is no great thing to believe that Jesus has died," writes St. Augustine, "pagans and reprobates also believe this; all believe it. But what is really great is to believe that he has risen. The faith of Christians is the resurrection of Christ."[1] But from the subjective point of view or the point of view of life, the Passion, not the Resurrection, is the most important element for us. "Of the three things that constitute the most sacred triduum -- crucifixion, burial and resurrection of the Lord -- we," St. Augustine also wrote, "realize in the present life the meaning of the crucifixion, while we hold by faith and hope what burial and resurrection mean."[2]

It has been written that the Gospels are "accounts of the Passion preceded by a long Introduction" (M. Kahler). But sadly the latter, which is the most important part of the Gospels, is also the least appreciated in the course of the liturgical year, as it is read only once a year, in Holy Week, when, because of the duration of the rites, it is moreover impossible to pause to comment and explain it. There was a time when preaching on the Passion occupied a place of honor in all popular missions. Today, when these occasions have become rare, many Christians reach the end of their lives without ever having experienced Calvary.

With our Lenten reflections we intend to fill, at least in some measure, this lacuna. We need to remain a while with Jesus in Gethsemane and on Calvary in order to be prepared for Easter. It is written that there was a miraculous pool in Jerusalem and that the first to plunge into it, when its waters were stirred, was cured. We must now throw ourselves, in spirit, into this pool, or into this ocean, which is the passion of Christ.

In baptism, we have been "baptized in his death," "buried with him" (Romans 6:3 ff.): That which happened once mystically in the sacrament, must be realized existentially in life. We must give ourselves a salutary bath in the Passion to be renewed, reinvigorated and transformed by it. "I buried myself in the passion of Christ, wrote Blessed Angela of Foligno, and I was given the hope that in it I would find my liberation."[3]

2. Gethsemane, a historical fact

Our journey through the Passion begins, as that of Jesus, from Gethsemane. Jesus' agony in the Garden of Olives is a fact affirmed in the Gospels on four foundations, that is, by the four evangelists. John, in fact, also speaks of it, in his own way, when he puts on Jesus' lips the words: "Now is my soul troubled (which remind us of the "my soul is sad" of the synoptic Gospels) and the words: "Father, save me from this hour!" (which reminds us of the "remove this cup from me" of the synoptic Gospels (John 12:27 ff.). There is also an echo of it, as we shall see, in the Letter to the Hebrews.

It is something altogether extraordinary that an event so minutely "apologetic" should have found such an outstanding place in tradition. Only one historical event, strongly affirmed, explains the relevance given to this moment of the life of Jesus. Each one of the evangelists gave the episode a different hue according to his own sensitivity and the needs of the community to which they wrote. But they did not add anything truly "foreign" to the event; rather each one brought to life some of the infinite spiritual implications of the event. They did not do, as we say today, "eis-egesis," but "ex-egesis."

Those which, according to the letter, are reciprocally contrasting and exclusive affirmations in the Gospels, are not so according to the Spirit. If an external and material coherence is absent, a profound concord, instead, is not lacking. The Gospels are four branches of a tree, separated on the top, but united in the trunk (the common oral tradition of the Church) and, through it, in the root, which is the historical Jesus. The inability of many scholars of the Bible to see things in this light depends, in my judgment, on ignorance in regard to what happens in spiritual and mystical phenomena. They are two worlds governed by different laws. It is as if someone wanted to explore the heavenly bodies with the instruments of submarine exploration.

An eminent Catholic exegete, Raymond Brown, who was able to combine scientific rigor and spiritual sensitivity in an exemplary way in the study of the Bible, summarizes as follows the content of the initial episode of the Passion: "Jesus who separates himself from the disciples, the agony of his soul when praying that the cup be removed from him, the loving response of the Father who sends an angel to support him, the solitude of the master who three times finds his disciples asleep instead of praying with him, the courage expressed in the final resolution to go out to meet the traitor: Taken from the different Gospels, this combination of human pain, divine support and solitary self-giving has contributed much to make believers in Christ love him, becoming the object of the art of meditation."[4]

The original core around which the whole scene of Gethsemane developed seems to have been that of the prayer of Jesus. The memory of the struggle of Jesus in prayer in face of the imminence of his Passion, finds its roots in a very ancient tradition, on which Mark, as well as the other sources, depend [5], and it is in this aspect on which we wish to reflect in the present meditation.

The gestures he makes are those of a person who struggles in mortal anguish: "He fell on the ground," he rises to go where his disciples are, he kneels again, then rises again …… he sweats drops of blood (Luke 22:44). From his lips comes the supplication: "Abba, Father! All things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me" (Mark 14:36). The "violence" of the prayer of Jesus in the imminence of his death is highlighted above all in the Letter to the Hebrews, which states that Christ "[i]n the days of his flesh, offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death" (Hebrews 5:7).

Jesus is alone, before the perspective of a great suffering that is about to befall him. The awaited and feared "hour" of the final combat with the forces of evil, of the great test (peirasmos), has arrived. But the cause of his agony is even more profound: He feels himself burdened with all the evil and indignities of the world. He has not committed this evil, but it is the same, because he has freely assumed it: "He bore our sins in his body" (1 Peter 2:24), that is (according to the meaning this word has in the Bible), in his own person, soul, body and heart at the same time. Jesus is the man "made to be sin," says St. Paul (2 Corinthians 5:21).

3. Two different ways of struggling with God

To remove every pretext of the Arian heresy, some ancient Fathers explained the episode of Gethsemane in a pedagogical vein with the idea of "concession" (dispensation): Jesus did not really experience anguish and dread; he only wanted to teach us with prayer how to overcome our human resistances. In Gethsemane, writes St. Hilary of Poitiers, "Christ is not sad for himself, and does not pray for himself, but for those whom he advises to pray with attention, so that the chalice of the Passion will not befall them" [6].

After Chalcedon and, especially, after surmounting the Monothelite heresy, the need is no longer felt to take recourse to this explanation. Jesus in Gethsemane does not pray only to exhort us to do so. He prays because, being true man, 'in everything like us, except sin,' he experiences our own struggle in the face of what human nature loathes [7].

But, although Gethsemane is not explained only with a pedagogic intention, it is true that such a concern was present in the mind of the evangelists who transmitted the episode to us, and it is important for us to take it up. In the Gospels, the account of an event cannot be separated from the call to imitation. "Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps," says the letter of Peter (1 Peter 2:21).

The word "agony" said of Jesus in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44) must be understood in the original sense of struggle, more than in the present one of agony. The time comes when prayer becomes combat, effort, agony. I am not speaking, at this moment, of the struggle against distractions, namely, the struggle with ourselves. I am speaking of the struggle with God. This occurs when God asks us to do something that our nature is not ready to give him, and when God's action becomes incomprehensible and disconcerting.

The Bible presents another case of struggle with God in prayer and it is very instructive to compare the two episodes. It is Jacob's struggle with God (Genesis 32:23-33). The setting is also very similar. Jacob's struggle takes place at night, on the other side of a ford -- that of Yabboq -- and, similarly, Jesus' takes place at night, on the other side of the torrent of Kidron. Jacob leaves behind his slaves, wives and children, to remain alone; Jesus also moves away from his last three disciples to pray.

But why does Jacob struggle with God? Here is the great lesson we must learn. "I will not let you go," he says, "until you have blessed me," that is, until you do what I have asked you. He even asks: "Tell me your name." He is convinced that, using the power given by knowing God's name, he will be able to prevail over his brother Laban, who follows him. God blesses him, but does not reveal his name to him.

Jacob struggles therefore to bend God's will to his. Jesus struggles to bend his human will to God's. He struggles because "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38). Spontaneously we wonder: Who are we like when we pray in difficult situations? Are we like Jacob if, like the man of the Old Testament when, in prayer, we struggle to induce God to change his decision, more than to change ourselves and accept his will; so that he will remove that cross, rather than to be able to carry it with him. We are like Jesus if, even amid groans and the flesh sweating blood, we seek to abandon ourselves to the will of the Father. The results of the two prayers are very different. God does not give his name to Jacob, but he gives Jesus the name which is above every name (Philippians 2:11).

At times, persevering in this kind of prayer, something strange happens that it is good for us to know in order to not miss out on a valuable moment. The roles are inverted. God becomes the one who prays and one becomes him to whom one prays. We begin to pray to ask God for something and, once in prayer, we realize little by little that it is He, God, who stretches his hand to us asking us for something. We have gone to ask him to take away that thorn of the flesh, that cross, that trial; that he free us from that function, that situation, the closeness of that person …… and behold, God asks us in fact to accept that cross, that situation, that function, that person.

A poem of Tagore helps us to understand what it is about. It is a beggar who speaks and recounts his experience. It goes more or less like this: I had been begging from door to door on the streets of the city, when in the distance a golden carriage appeared. It was that of the King's son. I thought: This is the occasion of my life; and I sat down opening wide my sack, hoping to receive alms without even having to ask for them; beyond that, that riches rain down to the ground around me. But what was my surprise when, reaching me, the carriage halted, the King's son got down and stretching out his hand said to me: "Can you give me something? What a gesture of your royalty, to stretch out your hand!" …… Confused and uncertain I took out a grain of rice from my sack, only one, the smallest, and gave it to him. But what sadness when, in the afternoon, searching in my sack, I found a grain of gold, only one, the smallest. I wept bitterly for not having had the courage to give all."[8]

The most sublime case of this inversion of roles is precisely the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. He prays that the Father remove the cup from him, and the Father asks him to drink it for the salvation of the world. Jesus gives not one, but all the drops of his blood, and the Father compensates him, constituting him Lord, also as man, so that "just one drop of that blood is enough to save the whole world" (una stilla salvum facere totum mundum quit ab omni scelere).

4. "Being in agony, he prayed more earnestly"

These words were written by the evangelist Luke (22:44), with a clear pastoral intention: To show the Church of his time, subjected already to situations of struggle and persecution, what the master taught in such hardships.

Human life is strewn with many little nights of Gethsemane. The causes can be very numerous and different: a threat to our health, a lack of appreciation of the environment, the indifference of someone close to us, the fear of the consequences of some error committed. But there can be more profound causes: the loss of the meaning of God, the overwhelming awareness of one's sin and unworthiness, the impression of having lost the faith. In short, what the saints have called "the dark night of the soul."

Jesus teaches the first thing to be done in these cases: to turn to God in prayer. We must not deceive ourselves: It is true that Jesus in Gethsemane also sought the company of his friends, but, why did he seek it? Not so that they would say good words to him, to be distracted or consoled. He asks that they support him in prayer, that they pray with him: "So you could not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray" (Matthew 26:40).

It is important to observe how the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane begins, in the oldest source, which is Mark: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee" (Mark 14:36). The philosopher Kierkegaard makes illuminating reflections in this respect. He says: "The decisive question is that for God all things are possible." Man falls into real despair only when he no longer has before him any possibility, any task; when, as one says, there is nothing to do.

"When one faints," continues Kierkegaard, "one goes in search of smelling salts; but when one despairs, one must say: 'Find an opportunity; find him an opportunity!' The opportunity is the only remedy; give him an opportunity and the one in despair regains his appetite, is reanimated, because if man remains without an opportunity, it is as if he was lacking air. Sometimes the inventiveness of human imagination can suffice to find an opportunity, but in the end, when it is a question of believing, only this serves: that for God all things are possible."[9]

This possibility, always within reach for a believer, is prayer: "to pray is like breathing."[10] And if one has already prayed without success? Pray again! Pray "prolixius," with greater earnestness. One might object that, however, Jesus was not heard, but the Letter to the Hebrews says exactly the opposite: "He was heard because of his piety." Luke expresses this interior help that Jesus received from the Father with the detail of the angel: "And there an angel appeared to him from heaven, who comforted him" (Luke 22:43). But it was a "prolepsis," an anticipation. The Father's great help was the resurrection.

God, St. Augustine observed, hears even when he does not hear, that is, when we do not get what we ask for. His delay in responding is also him listening, so that he can give to us more than we asked for.[11] If despite everything we continue praying, it is a sign that he is giving us his grace. If Jesus, at the end of the scene pronounces his resolute: "Rise, let us be going" (Matthew 26:46), it is because the Father has given him more than "twelve legions of angels" to defend him. "He has inspired him," St. Thomas says, "with the will to suffer for us, infusing love in him."[12]

The capacity to pray is our great resource. Many Christians, including truly committed ones, experience their powerlessness in face of temptations and the impossibility to adapt themselves to the very high exigencies of Gospel morality, and sometimes conclude that they can't, and that it is impossible, to fully live the Christian life.

In a certain sense, they are right. It is impossible, in fact, on their own, to avoid sin; grace is needed; but in addition -- we are taught -- grace is free and cannot be merited. What should we do then: despair, surrender? The Council of Trent says: "God, giving you the grace, commands you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot."[13]

The difference between the law and grace consists precisely in this: In the law, God says to man: "Do what I command you!"; in grace, man says to God: "Give me what you command me!" The law commands, and grace demands. Once he discovered this secret, St. Augustine, who until then had struggled in vain to be chaste, changed his methods; rather than struggling with his body he began to struggle with God. He said: "O God, you command me to be chaste; well then, give me what you command and command me what you will!"[14] And we know he obtained chastity!

Jesus gave his disciples ahead of time the means and words to unite themselves to him in trials -- the Our Father. There is no state of soul that is not reflected in the Our Father and that does not find in him the possibility of being translated into prayer: joy, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, repentance. But the Our Father is above all the prayer of the hour of trial. There is an obvious similarity between the prayer that Jesus left to his disciples and the one he himself raised to the Father in Gethsemane. In fact, he left us his prayer.

The prayer of Jesus begins as the Our Father, with the cry: "Abba, Father!" (Mark 14:36), or "My Father" (Matthew 26:39); he continues, as the Our Father, asking that his will be done; he asks that this chalice be removed from him, as in the Our Father we ask to be "delivered from evil"; he asks his disciples to pray so as not to fall into temptation and makes us end the Our Father with the words: "Lead us not into temptation."

What consolation in the hour of trial and darkness, to know that the Holy Spirit continues in us the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane, that the "unspeakable groans" with which the Spirit intercedes for us, in those moments, reach the Father mixed with the "prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears" which the Son raised to Him when "his hour" was upon him! (Hebrews 5:7).

5. In agony until the end of the world

We must take up one last teaching before taking leave of the Jesus of Gethsemane. St. Leo the Great says that "the Passion is prolonged until the end of time."[15] He is echoed by the philosopher Pascal in the famous meditation on the agony of Jesus:

"Christ will be in agony until the end of the world. During this time, we must not sleep.

"I was thinking of you in my agony: Those drops of blood I shed for you.

"Do you always want to cost me the blood of my humanity, without you shedding a tear?

"I am more of a friend to you than this or that one, because I have done more for you than they, and they would never suffer what I have suffered for you, they would never die for you in the moment of your infidelity and cruelties, as I have done and am willing to do in my chosen ones and in the Holy Sacrament."[16]

All this is not simply a way of speaking or a psychological constriction; it corresponds mysteriously to the truth. In the Spirit, Jesus is also now in Gethsemane, in the praetorium, on the cross. And not only in his Mystical Body -- in which he suffers, is apprehended or killed, but, in a way that we cannot explain, also in his person. This is true not "despite" his resurrection, but precisely "because" of the resurrection which has made the Crucified One "alive in the centuries." Revelation presents to us the Lamb in heaven "standing," that is, risen and alive, but with the signs of his immolation still visible (Revelation 5:6).

The privileged place where we can find this Jesus "in agony until the end of the world" is the Eucharist. Jesus instituted it immediately before going to the Garden of Olives so that his disciples would be able, in every age, to make themselves "contemporary" with his Passion. If the Spirit inspires in us the desire to be one hour at the side of Jesus in Gethsemane this Lent, the simplest way to achieve it is to spend, on Thursday afternoon, one hour before the Blessed Sacrament.

Obviously, this must not make us forget the other way in which Christ "is in agony until the end of the world," that is, in the members of his Mystical Body. More than that, if we wish to give solidity to our sentiments toward him, the obligatory way is precisely to do something for someone else that which we cannot do for him who is in glory.

The word Gethsemane has become a symbol of all moral pain. Jesus has not yet suffered in his flesh, his pain is altogether interior, and yet he only sweat drops of blood here, when it is his heart, and not yet his flesh, which is crushed. The world is very sensitive to bodily pains, it is easily moved by them; it is much less so in face of moral pains, which at times it even derides, interpreting them as hypersensitivity, autosuggestions and whims.

God takes the pain of the heart seriously and we should too. I think of those who have had their strongest bond in life broken and find themselves alone -- more often women; those who are betrayed in their affection, are anguished in face of something that threatens their lives or a loved one; in whom, unjustly or rightly -- there is not much difference from this point of view -- see themselves pointed out, from one day to the next, for public derision. How many hidden Gethsemanes there are in the world, perhaps under our own roof, next door, or in the next work desk! It is our task to single out someone this Lent and come close to the one who is there.

May Jesus not have to say among these, his members: "I look for compassion, but there was none, for comforters, but found none" (Psalm 68[69]:21). On the contrary, let it be that he is able to make us feel in our hearts the word that compensates all: "You did it to me."

--- --- ---


[1] St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 120, 6: CCL 40, p. 1791.

[2] St. Augustine, Cartas, 55, 14, 24 (CSEL 34,2, p. 195).

[3] Il libro della B. Angela da Foligno, Quaracchi, Grottaferrata 1985, p. 148.

[4] R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to the Grave. A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, I, Doubleday, New York, 1994, p. 216.

[5] Brown, p. 233.

[6] Cfr. St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, X, 37.

[7] Cfr. St. Maximus Confessor, In Mattheum 26,39 (PG 91, 68).

[8] Tagore, Gitanjali, 50 (trad. ital. Newton Compton, Roma 1985, p. 91).

[9] S. Kierkegaard, "La Malattia Mortale," Part I, C, in "Opere," edited by C. Fabro, pp. 639 ff.

[10] Ibid., p. 640

[11] St. Augustine, "On the First Letter of John," 6, 6-8 (PL 35, 2023 ff.).

[12] St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," III, q. 47, a. 3.

[13] Denzinger-Schonmetzer, "Enchiridion Symbolorum," No. 1536.

[14] St. Augustine, "Confessions," X, 29.

[15] St. Leo the Great, "Sermo," 70, 5: PL 54, 383.

[16] B. Pascal, "Penséées," n. 553 Br.

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Father Cantalamessa on Christ's Obedience
Second Lenten Sermon Given to Pontifical Household   (March 31, 2006)

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 31, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the second Lenten sermon preached this morning, before Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, at the Vatican.

* * *

1. Sacrifice or obedience?

One cannot take in the ocean, but one can do something better: allow oneself to be taken in by it, submerging oneself anywhere in its expanse. This is what occurs with Christ's passion. The mind cannot wholly take it in, nor can its depth be seen, but we can submerge ourselves in some moments of its occurrence. In this meditation, we would like to enter in through the door of obedience.

Christ's obedience is the most salient aspect in the apostolic catechesis. "Christ became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8); "by one man's obedience many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:8-9). Obedience appears as the key to the reading of the whole history of the passion, from where it takes its meaning and value.

To those who were scandalized that the Father could find satisfaction in the death on a cross of his Son Jesus, St. Bernard rightly responded: "It was not his death that satisfied him, but the spontaneous will of the one who was dying": "Non mors placuit sed voluntas sponte morientis."[1] Thus, it is not so much the death itself of Christ that has saved us, but his obedience unto death.

God wants obedience, not sacrifice, says Scripture (1 Samuel 15:22; Hebrews 10:5-7). It is true that in Christ's case, he also wanted sacrifice, and he wanted it likewise for us, but of the two one is the means, the other the end. God wants obedience for itself; he wants sacrifice only indirectly, as the condition that makes obedience possible and authentic. In this connection, the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christ "learned to obey through suffering." The passion was the proof and measure of his obedience.

Let us try to understand in what Christ's obedience consisted. As a child, Jesus obeyed his parents; as an adult he submitted himself to the Mosaic Law; during the passion he submitted himself to the Sanhedrin's and Pilate's sentence. However, the New Testament does not mention these obediences; it mentions Christ's obedience to the Father. St. Irenaeus interprets Jesus' obedience in the light of the Songs of the Servant, as an interior, absolute submission to God, carried out in a situation of extreme difficulty:

"That sin which had appeared thanks to the wood, was abolished thanks to obedience on the wood, as obeying God, the Son of Man was nailed on the wood, destroying the science of evil and introducing and having penetrate in the world the science of good. Disobedience to God is evil, as obedience to God is good. Therefore, in virtue of the obedience he rendered unto death, hanging from the wood, he eliminated the ancient disobedience that occurred in the wood."[2]

Jesus' obedience is exercised, in a particular way, in the words that are written about and for Him "in the law, in the prophets and in the psalms." When they want to oppose his capture, Jesus says: "But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" (Matthew 26:54).

2. Can God obey?

But how can Christ's obedience be reconciled with faith in his divinity? Obedience is an act of the person, not of nature, and the person of Christ, according to orthodox faith, is that of the very Son of God. Can God obey himself? Here we touch upon the most profound core of the Christological mystery. Let us try to understand in what this mystery consists.

In Gethsemane Jesus says to the Father: "yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt" (Mark 14:36). The whole problem consists in knowing who that "I" and who that "you" is; who says the "fiat" and to whom it is said. In antiquity, two quite different answers were given to this question, according to the underlying type of Christology.

For the Alexandrian School, the "I" speaking was the person of the Word that, as incarnate, says his "yes" to the divine will -- the "you" -- that he himself has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He who says "yes" and he to whom he says "yes" constitute the same will, but considered in two times or in two different states: in the state of the incarnate Word and in the state of the eternal Word. The drama, if one can speak of such, takes place more within God than between God and man, and this because the existence is not yet clearly recognized of a human and free will in Christ.

More valid on this point is the interpretation of the Antiochian School. The authors of this School say that for obedience to take place there must be a subject that obeys and a subject to obey: No one obeys himself! As moreover Christ's obedience is the antithesis of Adam's disobedience, it must be a question of the obedience of a man, the New Adam, capable as such to represent humanity. Herein, then, are those who are that "I" and that "you"; the "I" is the man Jesus; the "you" is God, whom he obeys!

However, this interpretation also has a serious lacuna. If Jesus' "fiat" in Gethsemane is essentially a man's "yes," even if he is indissolubly united to the Son of God -- the "homo assumptus" -- how can it have a universal value so as to be able to "constitute" all men "just"? Jesus seems more a sublime model of obedience than an intrinsic "cause of salvation" for all those who obey him (Hebrews 5:9).

The development of Christology filled this lacuna, above all thanks to the work of St. Maximus the Confessor and of the III Constantinopolitan Council. St. Maximus affirms: the "I" is not humanity that speaks to the divinity (Antiochians); neither is it God who, in so far as incarnate, speaks to himself in so far as eternal (Alexandrians). The "I" is the incarnate Word who speaks in the name of the free human will he has assumed; the "you" instead is the Trinitarian will that the Word has in common with the Father.

In Jesus the Word obeys the Father humanly! And yet the concept of obedience is not annulled nor does God, in this case, obey himself, because between the subject and the end of obedience is the whole breadth of a real humanity and a free human will.[3]

God obeyed humanly! One then understands the universal power of salvation contained in Jesus' "fiat": it is the human act of a God; it is a divine-human, "teandrico" act. That "fiat" is truly, to use the _expression of a psalm, "the rock of our salvation" (Psalm 95:1). It is because of this obedience that "all have been made just."

3. Obedience to God in Christian life

As always, let us try to extract some practical teaching for our life, remembering the invitation of the First Letter of Peter: "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." To reflect on obedience might contribute to create the appropriate spiritual climate in the Church and the Curia every time one faces the eventuality of changes of persons and functions.

As soon as one tries to find in the New Testament in what the duty of obedience consists, a surprising discovery is made, that is, that obedience is seen almost always as obedience to God. There is also talk, of course, of the other forms of obedience: to parents, employers, superiors, civil authorities, "to the whole human institution" (1 Peter 2:13), but much less often and in a much less solemn manner. The substantive "obedience" itself is used only and exclusively to indicate obedience to God or, in any case, to instances that are on the part of God, except in one passage of the Letter to Philemon, where it indicates obedience to the Apostle.

St. Paul speaks of obedience to the faith (Romans 10:16,26), of obedience to the doctrine (Romans 6:17), of obedience to the Gospel (Romans 10:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:8), of obedience to the truth (Galatians 5:7), of obedience to Christ (2 Colossians 10:5). We find the same languages in other places: the Acts of the Apostles speak of obedience to the faith (Acts 6:7), the First Letter of Peter speaks of obedience to Christ (1 Peter 1:2) and of obedience to the truth (1 Peter 1:22).

But is it possible and meaningful to speak today of obedience to God, after the new and living will of God, manifested in Christ, has been expressed and fully objectified in a whole series of laws and hierarchies? Is it licit to think that there still exists, after all this, "free" wills of God that must be accepted and obeyed?

Only if one believes in an actual and punctual "Lordship" of the Risen One in the Church, only if one is convinced in one's heart of hearts that also today -- as the Psalm says -- "The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks ... and does not keep silent" (Psalm 50:1), only then is one able to understand the need and the importance of obedience to God. It consists of listening to God who speaks, in the Church, through his Spirit, which illuminates the words of Jesus and of the whole Bible and confers authority on them, making them channels of the living and actual will of God for us.

But as in the Church institution and mystery they are not opposed, but united, so we must show that spiritual obedience to God does not dissuade from obedience to the visible and institutional authority; on the contrary, it renews it, strengthens and vivifies it to the point that obedience to men is the criteria to judge if obedience to God does or does not exist and if it is authentic.

Obedience to God is like the "thread from on high" that sustains the splendid spider web hanging from a fence. Lowering himself by the thread that it itself has made, the little animal makes its fabric, perfect and stretching out to every corner. However, that thread from on high, which has served to weave the fabric, does not break once the work is finished; what is more, it is what sustains the whole framework; without it everything loosens. If one of the lateral threads becomes detached, the spider works to rapidly repair its fabric, but if that thread from on high breaks, the spider moves away; it knows that there is nothing to do.

Something similar occurs with respect to the network of authorities and obediences in a society, in a religious order, in the Church. Obedience to God is the thread from on high: All has been built around it; but it cannot be forgotten not even after the construction has ended. Otherwise, everything enters in crisis, until proclaiming, as has occurred in not very distant years: "Obedience is no longer a virtue."

But, why is it so important to obey God? Why does God want so much to be obeyed? Certainly not because he likes to command and have subjects! It is important because by obeying we do the will of God, we want the same things God wants, and thus we fulfil our original vocation, which is to be "in his image and likeness." We are in the truth, in the light and as a consequence in peace, as the body that has reached its point of stillness. Dante Alighieri enclosed all this in a verse considered by many the most beautiful of the whole "Divine Comedy": "and in loving him we find our peace."[4]

4. Obedience and authority

Obedience to God is obedience we can always carry out. To obey orders and visible authorities happens only occasionally, three or four times in one's whole life -- I am speaking, of course, of those of a certain seriousness; however, to obey God is something that occurs very often. The more one obeys, the more God's orders multiply, because he knows that this is the most beautiful gift that he can give, the one he gave his favorite Son, Jesus.

When God finds a soul determined to obey, then he takes his life in his hands, as one takes the rudder of a boat, or as one takes the reins of a cart. He becomes in deed, and not only in theory, "Lord," who "rules," who "governs," it can be said, moment by moment the person's gestures and words, his way of using time, everything.

This "spiritual direction" is exercised through "good inspirations" and with greater frequency even in God's words in the Bible. One reads or hears passages of Scripture and behold a phrase, a word, is illuminated, it becomes, so to speak, radioactive. One feels it questions one, that it indicates what one must do. Here one decides whether or not to obey God. The Servant of Yahweh says thus in Isaiah: "Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught" (Isaiah 50:4). We, too, every morning in the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass, should listen with an attentive ear. In it there is almost always a word that God addresses to us personally and the Spirit does not fail to act so that it will be recognized among all.

I have mentioned that obedience to God is something that can always be done. I must add that it is also obedience that we can all do, both subjects as well as superiors. It is usually said that one must obey to be able to command. It is not just question of an empirical affirmation; there is a profound theological reason at its base, if by obedience we understand obedience to God.

When an order comes from a superior who makes an effort to live in the will of God, who has prayed before and has no personal interests to defend, but only the brother's good, then the authority of God itself is the buttress of such an order or decision. If protest arises, God says to his representative what he said one day to Jeremiah: "Behold, I make you this day a fortified city ... and bronze walls [...]. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you" (Jeremiah 1:18f.).
A famous English exegete gives an enlightening interpretation of the Gospel episode of the centurion: "I," says the centurion, "am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it" (Luke 7:8). By the fact of being subject, that is, obedient, to his superiors and ultimately, to the emperor, the centurion can give orders which are backed by the authority of the emperor in person; he is obeyed by his soldiers because, in turn, he obeys and is subject to his superior.

So -- he says -- it occurs with Jesus in regard to God. Given that he is in communion with God and obeys God, he has behind him the very authority of God and because of this can command his slave to be healed, and he will heal; he can command the sickness to leave him, and it will leave him.[4]

It is the force and simplicity of this argument which draws Jesus' admiration and makes him say that he has never found such faith in Israel. He has understood that Jesus' authority and his miracles stem from his perfect obedience to the Father, as Jesus himself, moreover, explains in John's Gospel: "He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him" (John 8:29).

Obedience to God adds authority to power, that is, a real and effective power, not only nominal or of duty; ontological, so to speak, not only juridical. St. Ignatius of Antioch gave this wonderful advice to a colleague of his in the episcopate: "May nothing be done without your consent, but may you not do anything without God's consent."[5]

This does not mean to attenuate the importance of the institution or the duty, or to make the subject's obedience depend only on the degree of spiritual power or of the superior's authority, which would manifestly be the end of all obedience. It only means that the one who exercises authority must lean as little as possible, or only as a last resort, on the task or duty he carries out, and lean the most possible on the union of his will with God's, that is, on his obedience; the subject on the other hand must not judge or pretend to know if the superior's decision is or is not in conformity with God's will. He must presume it is, unless it is an order that is manifestly against conscience, as occurs sometimes in the political realm, under totalitarian regimes.

It occurs as in the commandment of love. The first commandment is the "first" because the source and incentive of everything is the love of God; but the criterion to judge is the second commandment: "he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). The same can be said of obedience: if one does not obey God's visible representatives on earth, how can one say one obeys God who is in heaven?

5. Present Matters to God

This way of obedience to God does not have, of itself, anything of the mystical or extraordinary, but is open to all the baptized. It consists of "presenting affairs to God," according to the advice that Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, gave him one day (cf. Exodus 18:19). I can decide on my own to take an initiative, to go or not go on a trip, to take or not take a job, to make or not make a visit, to incur or not incur an expense and then, once decided, to pray to God for the success of the matter.
But if love of obedience to God is born in me, then I will act in a different way: I will first ask God, with the very simple means of prayer, if it is his will that I undertake that trip, job, visit, expense and then I do or do not do it, but then it will already be, in any case, an act of obedience to God, and no longer a free initiative on my part. In general it is clear that I will not hear, in my brief prayer, any voice, nor will I have an explicit answer about what to do, or at least it is not necessary that there be one so that what I do will be obedience.

Acting thus, in fact, I have submitted the matter to God, I have despoiled myself of my will, I have given up deciding on my own and I have given God a possibility to intervene, if he so wills, in my life. What I now decide to do, regulating myself with the ordinary criteria of discernment, will be obedience to God.

Just as the faithful servant never takes an initiative or responds to an order from strangers without saying: "I must first hear my employer," likewise the true servant of God does not undertake anything without saying to himself: "I must pray a little to know what my Lord wants me to do!" Thus one relinquishes the reins of one's life to God! Thus the will of God penetrates, in an ever more capillary way in the fabric of a life, embellishing it and making it a living, holy and agreeable sacrifice to God" (Romans 12:1). The whole of life becomes obedience to God and proclaims silently his sovereignty in the Church and the world.

God -- said St. Gregory the Great -- "sometimes warns us with words, sometimes, instead, with events," that is, with incidents and situations.[6] There is an obedience to God -- often among the most exacting -- which consists simply in obeying the situations. When one has seen that, despite all the efforts and prayers, there are difficulties, at times even absurd situations in our lives and -- in our opinion -- spiritually counterproductive, which do not change, it is necessary to stop "kicking against the goad" and to begin to see in them God's silent but determined will in us. Experience teaches that only after having pronounced a total "yes" from the depth of one's heart to the will of God, do such situations of suffering lose the anguishing power they have over us. We live them with greater peace.

A case of difficult obedience to situations is the one that befalls all with age, that is, the withdrawal from activity, the cessation of function, having to pass witness to others leaving perhaps incomplete and in suspense projects and initiatives underway. There are those who, jokingly, have said that the highest function is a cross, but that at times the most difficult thing is not so much to ascend it, as to descend from it, to be deprived of the cross!

Of course it is not a question of speaking ironically about a delicate situation, before which no one knows how to react until it touches him. The latter is one of the obediences that is most akin to Christ's in his Passion. Jesus suspended teaching, truncated all activity, did not let himself be held back by the thought of what would happen with his disciples; he was not concerned about what would happen to his word, entrusted, as it was, only to the poor memory of some fishermen. He did not even let himself be held back by the thought that he was leaving his mother alone. No lament, no attempt to bring about a change in the Father's decision: "I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go hence" (John 14:31).

6. Mary, the obedient one

Before ending our considerations on obedience, let us contemplate for a moment the living icon of obedience, she who not only imitated the obedience of the Servant, but lived it with Him. St. Irenaeus writes: "In a parallel manner" -- understood as referring to Christ, the new Adam -- "one finds that also the Virgin Mary is obedient, when she says: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word' (Luke 1:38). As Eve, by disobeying became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race, so Mary, by obeying, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race."[7] Mary appears to the theological reflection of the Church -- we are, in fact, in the presence of the first outline of Mariology -- through the title of obedient.

Mary also surely obeyed her parents, the law, Joseph. But it is not of these obediences that St. Irenaeus is thinking, but of her obedience to the Word of God. Her obedience is the exact antithesis of Eve's disobedience. But -- again -- whom did Eve disobey to be called the disobedient? Certainly not her parents, of which she was lacking; or her husband or some written law. She disobeyed the word of God! As Mary's "fiat" is situated in Luke's Gospel next to Jesus' "fiat" in Gethsemane (cf. Luke 22:42), so for St. Irenaeus, the obedience of the new Eve is placed next to the obedience of the new Adam.

No doubt, in her earthly life, Mary recited or heard the verse of the Psalm in which one says to God: "Teach me to do thy will" (Psalm 142:10). We address the same prayer to her: "Teach us, Mary, to do the will of God as you did!"

* * *

[1] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "De errore Abelardi," 8, 21 (PL 182, 1070).

[2] St. Irenaeus, "Dimostrazione della predicazione apostolica," 34.

[3] St. Maximus the Confessor, "In Matth.," 26, 39 (PG 91, 68).

[4] Dante Alighieri, "Paradiso," 3, 85.

[5] Cf. C.H. Dodd, "Il fondatore del cristianesimo, Leumann," 1975, p. 59 f.

[6] St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Lettera a Policarpo," 4, 1.

[7] St. Gregory the Great, "Omelie sui vangeli," 17, 1 (PL 76, 1139).

[8] St. Irenaeus, "Adv. Haer.," III, 22, 4.

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Father Cantalamessa on Christ's Suffering
3rd Lenten Sermon preached to Pope Benedict XVI and the Pontifical Household  (April 7, 2006)

"The Rocks Were Split"

1. The Passion and the Shroud

Christ's passion is the subject most addressed in Western art. Suffice it to think of the innumerable representations, in painting and sculpture, of Jesus in Gethsemane, the "Ecce Homo," the crucifixion, the famous depositions from the cross, called "pietà" and, in the German world, "Vesperbild." In our secularized world, art remains one of the forms of evangelization which even penetrates realms closed to all other forms of proclamation. I met a Japanese girl who converted and received baptism [after] studying art in Florence.

No artistic representation of the Passion, however, has exercised and still exercises a fascination like that of the shroud. It matters not, from our point of view, to know whether or not the shroud is "authentic," if the image was formed naturally or artificially, if it is only an icon or also a relic. What is certain is that it is the most solemn and sublime representation of death that the human eye has ever contemplated. If a God can die, this is the least inadequate way to represent his death to us.

The closed eyelids, the lips together, the composed features of the face: More than a dead person, it all makes one think of a man immersed in profound and silent meditation. It seems like the translation in images of the ancient antiphon of Holy Saturday: "Caro mea requiescet in spe," "my body too will rest secure." Even the former homily on Holy Saturday that is read in the office of readings acquires a particular force read before the shroud: "What happened? Today on earth, there is great silence, great silence and solitude. Great silence because the King sleeps.……"[1]

Theology tells us that at his death Christ's soul separated from his body as it does in every man who dies, but his divinity remained united both to his soul as well as to his body. The shroud is the most perfect representation of this Christological mystery. That body was separated from the soul, but not from the divinity. There is something divine that moves over the martyred face, full of majesty, of the Christ of the shroud.

To perceive it, suffice it to compare the shroud with other representations of the dead Christ made by the hand of human artists, for example Mantegna's dead Christ, and even more so that of Holbein the Younger, in the Museums of Basel, which represents the body of Christ in all the rigidity of death and the incipient decomposition of the members. Before this image, Dostoyevsky, who contemplated it at length on one of his trips, said that one can easily lose one's faith;[2] before the shroud, on the contrary, faith may be found, or found again if it has been lost.

Christ's face of the shroud is like a boundary, a wall that separates two worlds: the world of men full of agitation, violence and sin and the world of God inaccessible to evil. It is a shore on which all waves break. As if, in Christ, God says to the force of evil what the book of Job says to the ocean: "Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed" (Job 38:11).

Before the shroud we can pray like this: "Lord, make me your shroud. When, again descending from the cross, you come to me in the sacrament of your body and blood, may I wrap you with my faith and love as in a shroud, so that your features are imprinted on my soul and also leave on it an indelible trace. Lord, make of the coarse and crude cloth of my humanity our shroud!"

2. The Passion of the Savior's Soul

In this meditation, we go ideally to Calvary. The evangelists sum up the most overwhelming event of the history of the world in three words: "and they crucified him" (Mark and Matthew), "there they crucified him" (Luke), "to crucify him" (John). The readers they were addressing knew well what these words meant; we do not. We must deduce it from other sources. These also, however, are strangely reticent; the torture of the cross was considered so horrifying that it had to be kept far away, in Cicero's words, "not only from the eyes, but also from the ears of a Roman citizen."[3] It should not be spoken about by genteel people.

The condemned one could be bound by cords on the writs or fixed with nails to the cross. Mention of the wounds to the hands and feet of the risen one tells us that for Jesus the second way was adopted and one can easily imagine the torture that this entailed.

Several theories have been proposed about the immediate physical cause of Jesus' death: heart attack, suffocation; the most recent indicates dehydration and the loss of blood as the most plausible medical explanation of Christ's death.

But far more profound and painful than the passion of the body was that of Christ's soul. The latter had several causes. The first was solitude. The Gospels insist much on the progressive abandonment of Jesus in his passion: by the crowds, by the disciples and finally by the Father himself. "You will leave me alone" (John 16:32); "Then all the disciples forsook him and fled" (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14:50).

Christ's solitude is impressive above all in the episode of Gethsemane, when he seeks repeatedly and in vain for some one to be close to him. To express the anguish of this moment, Mark and Matthew use the verb "ademonein." In Greek we know that the letter "a" at the beginning of a word indicates absence, privation; "demonein" has the same root as demos, people, and of democracy. The underlying idea then is that of a man cut off from human society, prey to a kind of solitary terror, as some one who finds himself projected in a remote point of the universe where, if he cries out, his voice is lost in an icy void.

Solitude reaches its culmination on the cross when Jesus, in his humanity, feels abandoned even by the Father: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" This was not a cry of dejection or despair, as has sometimes been thought. If the evangelists thought this, they would not have made the Roman centurion's confession of faith depend on it: "Truly this was the Son of God!" (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39). Nothing however prevents one from thinking that the evangelists had interpreted Jesus' cry in the light of the quoted psalm, as _expression of the extreme solitude and abandonment that Jesus experienced at this moment in his humanity.[4]

That which the Apostle Paul assumes as the greatest renunciation and suffering possible to the world, "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race" (cf. Romans 9:1), Christ, in fact, experienced this with respect of God. He became the atheist, the one without God, so that men might return to God. There is, in fact, an active atheism, culpable, which consists in rejecting God, and there is a passive atheism, of punishment and expiation, which consists in being rejected or feeling rejected, by God. One must question the mystics who shared a small part of the dark night of Christ -- the last among them Mother Teresa of Calcutta -- to know how painful this form of atheism is.

Another aspect of the interior passion of Christ was humiliation and contempt. "He was despised and rejected by men. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth" (Isaiah 53:3-7). So predicted Isaiah, and so it happened. From the moment of the arrest until under the cross it was a crescendo of contempt, insults and mockery surrounding the person of Christ. "They clothed him in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him. And they began to salute him, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' And they struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and they knelt down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him" (Mark 15:17-20). Under the cross, "the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying: 'He saved others; he cannot save himself'" (Matthew 27:41ff.). Jesus is defeated. All the innumerable "defeated" of life have someone who can understand and help them.

But the passion of the Savior's soul has an even deeper cause than solitude and humiliation. In Gethsemane he prays that the cup be removed from him (cf. Mark 14:36). In the Bible, the image of the cup evokes almost always the idea of the wrath of God against sin (cf. Isaiah 51:22; Psalm 75:9; Revelation 14:10).

At the beginning of the letter, St. Paul establishes a fact which has the value of a universal principle: "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness" (Romans 1:18). Where there is sin, one cannot fail to note the judgment of God against it, otherwise God would compromise with sin and the distinction itself between good and evil would fail. God's wrath is the same thing as his holiness. Now, Jesus in Gethsemane is ungodliness, all the ungodliness of the world. He, writes the Apostle, is the man "made sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is against him that the wrath of God "is revealed." The infinite attraction that there is from eternity between the Father and the Son is now run through by an equally infinite repulsion between the holiness of God and the malice of sin and this is "to drink the cup."

3. "Is it I, Master?

Now is the moment to pass from contemplation of the passion to our response to it. I pointed out at the beginning the role played by art in addressing the passion of Christ. Next to painting and sculpture, with gratitude we must also remember music. For many people, within and outside of Christianity, Bach's "Passion according to St. Matthew" is the only means of knowledge of the passion of Christ. A means before which it is difficult to remain altogether neutral and detached. Alternated in the account of the facts (recitatives) is meditation (the arias) prayer (choral) the impulse of the heart; all that penetrates in the senses and the soul by the suggestion of a music which reaches here one of its most sublime heights.

In view of these meditations, I wanted to hear again Bach's "Passion" according to St. Matthew; it was a moment that moved me profoundly. At the announcement of the betrayal, all the apostles asked Jesus: "Is it I, Lord?" However, before having us hear Christ's response, annulling all distance between the event and its commemoration, the composer makes today's devout Christian intervene who cries out his confession: "Yes, it is I, I am the traitor!"

This interpretation is profoundly biblical. The kerygma, or announcement, of the Passion is always made up of two elements: a fact -- "suffered," "died"; the motivation of the event -- "for us," "for our trespasses." He was put to death, says the Apostle, "for our trespasses" (Romans 4:25); died "for the ungodly," he died "for us" (Romans 5:6-8). It is always like this.

The Passion inevitably remains extraneous to us, unless we enter into it through that little narrow door of the "for us." Only he truly knows the Passion who acknowledges that it is also his work. Without this, the rest is digression. I am Judas who betrays, Peter who denies, the crowd that shouts, "Barabbas not him!" Every time I have preferred my satisfaction, my convenience, my honor to Christ's this has occurred. In a memorable talk for Good Friday, Don Primo Mazzolari was not wrong to speak of "our brother Judas."

If Christ died "for me" and "for my trespasses," then it means -- simply returning the phrase to the active -- that I killed Jesus of Nazareth, that my trespasses crushed him. It is what Peter proclaims forcefully to the three thousand listeners, the day of Pentecost: "You killed Jesus of Nazareth!" "You denied the Holy and Righteous One!" (cf. Acts 2:23; 3:14).

Those three thousand were not all present on Calvary to hammer the nails or before Pilate to ask that he be crucified. They could have protested, instead, they accepted the accusation and said to the apostles: "Brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). The Holy Spirit had "convinced them of sin," making them engage in simple reasoning: If the Messiah is dead for the sins of his people and I have committed a sin, I have killed the Messiah.

It is written that at the moment of Christ's death "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" (Matthew 27:51ff.). An apocalyptic explanation -- symbolic language to describe the eschatological event -- is usually given of these signs, but they also have a parenthetic meaning: indicating what should occur in the heart of the one who reads and meditates on the passion of Christ. St. Leo the Great writes: "Human nature trembles before the Redeemer's torture, the rocks of unfaithful hearts are split and those that were closed in the sepulchers of their mortality emerge, lifting the stone that weighed down on them."[5]

We have arrived at the point in which we must gather the fruit of the whole of our meditation on the Passion. The Bible has explained the profound meaning of the word metanoia, conversion, as a change of heart: "Create in me, O God, a new heart," "rend your hearts and not your garments" (Joel 2:13). Also the conversion of the crowd that heard Peter's talk is expressed through the image of the heart: "They were cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37).

Every conversion implies a movement, a passing from one state to another, from one point of departure to a point of arrival. The point of departure, a state from which one must come out is for Scripture that of the hardness of heart. "I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels" (Psalm 80:13), "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives" (Matthew 19:8), "grieved at their hardness of heart" (Mark 3:5), "by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself" (Romans 2:5).

In the whole Bible, but especially in the New Testament, the heart indicates the seat of the interior life, as opposed to the outward appearance: "man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). The heart is man's most profound I, his very person, in particular, his intelligence and will. It is the center of the religious life, the point in which God addresses man and man decides his response to God.

One now understands what hardness of heart represents for Scripture: the refusal to submit to God, to love him with one's whole heart, to obey his law. The term "sclerocardia," invented by the Bible, is significant. A hard heart is a sclerosed heart, felted up, impermeable to any form of love that is not love of self. The images used by Scripture are those of the "heart of stone" (Ezekiel 36:26), of the "uncircumcized heart" (Jeremiah 9:26), and of stubbornness (Deuteronomy 31:27).

The term "ad quem," or the point of arrival of the conversion is described, coherently, with the images of the contrite, wounded, lacerated, circumcised heart, of the heart of flesh, of the new heart: "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51:19); "this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (Isaiah 66:2); "we may be heard with a contrite heart and a humbled spirit" (Deuteronomy 3:39).

4. "I stand at the door and knock"

Let us now attempt to understand how this change of heart is brought about.

We must distinguish two situations. When it is a question of the first conversion, from incredulity to faith, or from sin to grace, Christ is outside and knocks on the walls of the heart to enter, when it is a question of successive conversions, from one state of grace to a higher one, from lukewarmness to fervor, the opposite occurs: Christ is within and knocks on the walls of the heart to come out!

I will explain. In baptism we received the Spirit of Christ; that remains in us as in his temple (1 Corinthians 3:16), so long as he is not chased out by mortal sin. But it can happen that this Spirit ends up by being as though imprisoned and walled in by a heart of stone that is formed around it. It has no possibility to expand and permeate with himself the faculties, factions and sentiments of the person. When we read Christ's phrase in Revelation: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock" (Revelation 3:20), we should understand that he does not knock from outside, but from within; he does not wish to enter but to come out.

The Apostle says that Christ must be "formed" in us (Galatians 4:19), namely, develop and receive his full form; and this development is impeded by the heart of stone. Sometimes large trees are seen on the sides of the streets (in Rome they are generally pines), whose roots, imprisoned by the asphalt, struggle to expand, raising parts of the cement itself. This is how we should imagine the Kingdom of God within us: a seed destined to become a majestic tree on which the birds of heaven rest, but which makes it difficult to develop because of the resistance of our egoism.

There are obviously different degrees in this situation. In the majority of souls committed to a spiritual path, Christ is not imprisoned in a breastplate but, so to speak, in guarded freedom. He is free to move, but within very precise limits. This occurs when he is tacitly made to understand what he can and cannot ask of us. Prayer yes, but not so as to compromise our sleep, rest, healthy information; obedience yes, but he must not abuse our availability; chastity yes, but not to the point of depriving us of some relaxed show, though impudent. In sum, the use of half measures.

In the history of holiness, the most famous example of the first conversion, that from sin to grace, is St. Augustine; the most instructive example of the second conversion, that from lukewarmness to fervor, is St. Teresa of Avila. It might be that what she says of herself in her life is exaggerated and dictated by the delicacy of her conscience, but it might serve us for a useful examination of conscience.

"Well that is how I began, from pastime to pastime, from vanity to vanity, from occasion to occasion, to go so far on very great occasions and pervert my soul in many vanities. The things of God made me very content but I was bound by those of the world. It seems that I wished to reconcile these two opposites -- so inimical one to the other -- as are spiritual life and sensuous joys, tastes and pastimes."

The result of this state was a profound unhappiness, in which we might also recognize our own: "I spent almost twenty years in this tempestuous sea, with these falls and with raising myself up and badly -- as I would fall again -- and in a life so low in perfection, in which I paid virtually no attention to venial sins, and the mortal ones, though I feared them, but not as I should, as I did not remove myself from the dangers. I can say that it was one of the most painful lives that I believe one could imagine, because I neither enjoyed God nor brought happiness to the world. When I was in worldly joys, to remember what I owed God was painful for me; when I was with God, worldly pastimes disturbed me."[6]

It was, in fact, contemplation of the Passion that gave Teresa the decisive impulse to change. This is how the saint describes the moment of her "conversion": "It happened to me, entering the oratory one day, I saw an image that I had taken there to put away, which had been found for a celebration at home. It was of a very wounded Christ and so devout that, on looking at it, I was so distressed to see him like that, because it represented well what he went through for us. I felt so much how badly I had thanked him for those wounds, that I thought my heart was breaking and I threw myself next to Him with very great shedding of tears, begging him to strengthen me once and for all so as not to offend him. I told him I would not rise from there until he did what I implored him. I think it did me good, because I have improved much since then."[7] Today we know to what point she improved!

5, "Far be it from me to glory ..."

It is written that, on that day, the multitudes "when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts" (Luke 23:48). We want to do this also, returning to our work after being with Jesus on Calvary. Once we have passed through our little spiritual "earthquake," we see the sign of the cross and death of Christ change completely: from the chapter of accusation and reason for fear and sadness, to its transformation into a reason for joy and security. The "propter nos," because of us, is transformed into "pro nobis," in our favor. The cross now appears as honor and glory, that is, in Pauline language, as joyful security accompanied by overwhelming gratitude, to which man rises in faith and which is expressed in praise and thanksgiving.

We can open ourselves without fear to that joyful and pneumatic dimension in which the cross no longer appears as "folly and scandal," but, on the contrary, as "strength of God and wisdom of God." We can make of it our reason for unbreakable certainty, supreme proof of the love of God for us, inexhaustible topic of proclamation and, without any arrogance at all, but with profound humility, say with the Apostle: "But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!" (Galatians 6:14).

At a time when in several places pressure is being exerted to remove the crucifix from classrooms and public places, we, Christians, must fix it more than ever to the walls of our hearts. We began this meditation asking Jesus to make his shroud in our souls. We ask Mary to help us to fulfill this program with the words of the Stabat Mater: "Sancta Mater, istud agas, / crucifixi fige plagas / cordi meo valide": "O Holy Mother, make the wounds of the Crucified One be engraved in my heart."

[1] "Antica Omelia sul Sabato Santo" (PG 43, 439 f.).

[2] F. Dostoyevsky, "The Idiot," Part II, iv.

[3] Cf. Cicero, "Pro Rabirio" 5, 16.

[4] Cf. R. Brown, "The Death of the Messiah," II, p. 1051.

[5] St. Leo the Great, "Sermo" 66, 3(PL 54, 366).

[6] St. Teresa of Avila, "Life," chapters 7-8.

[7] Ibid., 9, 1-3.

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Father Cantalamessa's Good Friday Homily
"God Manifests His Love for Us"  (April 14?)

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 7, 2006 (ZENIT.org).- Here is a translation of the Good Friday sermon preached today in St. Peter's Basilica, before Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household.

* * *

"God Manifests His Love for Us"

1. Christians, be serious in taking action!

"The time is sure to come when people will not accept sound teaching, but their ears will be itching for anything new and they will collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and then they will shut their ears to the truth and will turn to myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

This word of Scripture -- and in a special way the reference to the itching for anything new -- is being realized in a new and impressive way in our days. While we celebrate here the memory of the passion and death of the Savior, millions of people are seduced by the clever rewriting of ancient legends to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was never crucified. In the United States a best-seller at present is an edition of The Gospel of Thomas, presented as the Gospel that "spares us the crucifixion, makes the resurrection unnecessary, and does not present us with a God named Jesus."[1]

Some years ago, Raymond Brown, the greatest biblical scholar of the Passion, wrote: "It is an embarrassing insight into human nature that the more fantastic the scenario, the more sensational is the promotion it receives and the more intense the faddish interest it attracts. People who would never bother reading a responsible analysis of the traditions about how Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead are fascinated by the report of some 'new insight' to the effect that he was not crucified or did not die, especially if the subsequent career involved running off with Mary Magdalene to India …… These theories demonstrate that in relation to the passion of Jesus, despite the popular maxim, fiction is stranger than fact, and often, intentionally or not, more profitable."[2]

There is much talk about Judas' betrayal, without realizing that it is being repeated. Christ is being sold again, no longer to the leaders of the Sanhedrin for thirty denarii, but to editors and booksellers for billions of denarii. No one will succeed in halting this speculative wave, which instead will flare up with the imminent release of a certain film, but being concerned for years with the history of Ancient Christianity, I feel the duty to call attention to a huge misunderstanding which is at the bottom of all this pseudo-historical literature.

The apocryphal gospels on which they lean are texts that have always been known, in whole or in part, but with which not even the most critical and hostile historians of Christianity ever thought, before today, that history could be made. It would be as if within two centuries an attempt were made to reconstruct a present-day history based on novels written in our age.

The huge misunderstanding is the fact that they use these writings to make them say exactly the opposite of what they intended. They are part of the gnostic literature of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The gnostic vision -- a mixture of Platonic dualism and Eastern doctrines, cloaked in biblical ideas -- holds that the material world is an illusion, the work of the God of the Old Testament, who is an evil god, or at least inferior; Christ did not die on the cross, because he never assumed, except in appearance, a human body, the latter being unworthy of God (Docetism).

If, according to The Gospel of Judas, of which there has been much talk in recent days, Jesus himself orders the apostle to betray him, it is because, by dying, the divine spirit which was in him would finally be able to liberate itself from involvement of the flesh and re-ascend to heaven. Marriage oriented to births is to be avoided; woman will be saved only if the "feminine principle" (thelus) personified by her, is transformed into the masculine principle, that is, if she ceases to be woman.[3]

The funny thing is that today there are those who believe they see in these writings the exaltation of the feminine principle, of sexuality, of the full and uninhibited enjoyment of this material world, contrary to the official Church which would always have frustrated all this! The same mistake is noted in regard to the doctrine of reincarnation. Present in the Eastern religions as a punishment due to previous faults and as something to which one longs to put an end with all one's might, it is accepted in the West as a wonderful possibility to live and enjoy this world indefinitely.

These are issues that would not merit being addressed in this place and on this day, but we cannot allow the silence of believers to be mistaken for embarrassment and that the good faith (or foolishness?) of millions of people be crassly manipulated by the media, without raising a cry of protest, not only in the name of the faith, but also of common sense and healthy reason. It is the moment, I believe, to hear again the admonishment of Dante Alighieri:

Christians, be serious in taking action:
Do not be like a feather to every wind,
Nor think that every water cleanses you.
You have the New and the Old Testament
And the Shepherd of the Church to guide you;
Let this be all you need for your salvation ……
Be men, do not be senseless sheep.[4]

2. The Passion Preceded the Incarnation!

But let us leave these fantasies to one side. They have a common explanation: We are in the age of the media and the media are more interested in novelty than in truth. Let us concentrate on the mystery that we are celebrating. The best way to reflect this year on the mystery of Good Friday would be to re-read the entire first part of the Pope's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," Not being able to do so here, I would like at least to comment on some passages that refer more directly to the mystery of this day. We read in the encyclical:

"To fix one's gaze on the pierced side of Christ, of which John speaks, helps to understand what has been the point of departure of this encyclical letter: 'God is love.' It is there, on the cross, where this truth can be contemplated. And, beginning from there, we must now define what love is. And, from that gaze, the Christian finds the orientation of his living and loving."[5]

Yes, God is love! It has been said that, if all the Bibles of the world were to be destroyed by some cataclysm or iconoclastic rage and only one copy remained; and if this copy was also so damaged that only one page was still whole, and likewise if this page was so wrinkled that only one line could still be read: if that line was the line of the First Letter of John where it is written that "God is love!" the whole Bible would have been saved, because the whole content is there.

I lived my childhood in a cottage only a few meters from a high-tension electrical wire, but we lived in darkness, or with the light of candles. Between us and the electrical wire was a railway, and with the war going on, nobody thought of overcoming the small obstacle. This is what happens with the love of God: It is there, within our grasp, capable of illuminating and warming everything in our life, but we live out our existence in darkness and cold. This is the only true reason for sadness in life.

God is love, and the cross of Christ is the supreme proof, the historical demonstration. There are two ways of manifesting one's love towards someone, said Nicholas Cabasilas, an author of the Byzantine East. The first consists of doing good to the person loved, of giving gifts; the second, much more demanding, consists of suffering for him. God has loved us in the first way, that is, with a munificent love, in creation, when he filled us with gifts, within and outside us; he has loved us with a suffering love in the redemption, when he invented his own annihilation, suffering for us the most terrible torments, for the purpose of convincing us of his love.[6] Therefore, it is on the cross that one must now contemplate the truth that "God is love."

The word "passion" has two meanings: It can indicate a vehement love, "passionate," or a mortal suffering. There is continuity between the two things and daily experience shows how easily one passes from one to the other. It was also like this, and first of all, in God. There is a passion, Origen wrote, that precedes the incarnation. This is "the passion of love" that God has always nourished towards the human race and that, in the fullness of time, led him to come on earth and suffer for us.[7]

3. Three Orders of Greatness

The encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" indicates a new way of engaging in the apologetics of the Christian faith, perhaps the only way possible today and certainly the most effective. It does not pit supernatural values against natural values, divine love against human love, eros against agape, but shows the original harmony, that must be continually discovered healed, due to human sin and frailty. The Gospel not only coincides with human ideals, but in the literal sense of realizing them, the Gospel restores, elevates and protects them. It does not exclude eros from life, but rather excludes the poison of egoism from eros.

There are three orders of greatness, Pascal said in his famous "Penséées."[8] The first is the material order or of bodies: in it excels one who has many properties, who is gifted with athletic strength or physical beauty. It is a value that should not be disparaged, but it is the lowest. Above it is the order of genius and intelligence in which thinkers, inventors, scientists, artists, and poets are distinguished. This is an order of a different quality. To be rich or poor, beautiful or ugly does not add or subtract anything from genius. The physical deformity attributed to their person, does not take anything away from the beauty of Socrates' thought or Leopardi's poetry.

The value of genius is certainly higher than the preceding, but it is not yet the highest. Above it is another order of greatness, and it is the order of love, of goodness. (Pascal calls it the order of holiness and grace). A drop of holiness, Gounod said, is worth more than an ocean of genius. To be beautiful or ugly, learned or illiterate does not add or take anything away from a saint. His greatness is of a different order.

Christianity belongs to this third level. In the novel Quo Vadis, a pagan asks the Apostle Peter who had just arrived in Rome: Athens has given us wisdom, Rome power, and what does your religion offer us? Peter responds: Love! Love is the most fragile thing that exists in the world; it is represented, and it is, as a child. It can be killed with very little, as we have seen with horror these days that very little is needed to kill a child. But what do power and wisdom become, that is strength and genius, without love and goodness? They become Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all the rest that we know well.

4. Forgiving love

"God's eros for man," continues the encyclical, "is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives" (no. 10).

This quality also shines in the highest degree in the mystery of the cross. "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," Jesus said in the Cenacle (John 15:13). One could exclaim: a love does exist, O Christ, which is greater than giving one's life for one's friends. Yours! You did not give your life for your friends, but for your enemies! Paul says "one will hardly die for the righteous man -- though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6-8).

However, it does not take long to discover that the contrast is only apparent. The word "friends" in the active sense indicates those who love you, but in the passive sense it indicates those who are loved by you. Jesus calls Judas "friend" (Matthew 26:50) not because Judas loved him, but because He loved Judas! There is no greater love than to give one's life for enemies, considering them friends: this is the meaning of Jesus' phrase. Men can be enemies of God, but God will never be able to be an enemy of man. It is the terrible advantage of children over fathers (and mothers).

We must reflect in what way, specifically, the love of Christ on the cross can help the man of today to find, as the encyclical says, "the orientation of his living and loving." It is a love of mercy, that excuses and forgives, which does not wish to destroy the enemy, but, if anything, enmity (cf. Ephesians 2:16). Jeremiah, the closest among men to the Christ of the Passion, prays to God saying: "let me see the vengeance upon them" (Jeremiah 11:20); Jesus dies saying: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

It is precisely this mercy and capacity for forgiveness of which we are in need today, so as not to slide ever more into the abyss of globalized violence. The Apostle wrote to the Colossians: "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (Colossians 3:12-13).

To have mercy means to be moved to pity (misereor) in the heart (cordis) in regard to one's enemy, to understand of what fabric we are all made and hence to forgive. What might happen if, by a miracle of history, in the Near East, the two peoples at war for decades, rather than blaming one another were to begin to think of the suffering of others, to be moved to pity for one another. A wall of division between them would no longer be necessary. The same thing must be said of so many other ongoing conflicts in the world, including those between the different religious confessions and Christian Churches.

How much truth there is in the verse of Pascoli: "Men, peace! In the prostrate earth, too great is the mystery."[10] A common fate of death looms over all. Humanity is enveloped in so much darkness and bowed under so much suffering that we must have some compassion and solidarity for one another.

5. The duty to love

There is another teaching that comes to us from the love of God manifested on the cross of Christ. God's love for man is faithful and eternal: "I have loved you with an everlasting love," says God to man in the prophets (Jeremiah 31:3); and again, "I will not be false to my faithfulness" (Psalm 89:34). God has bound himself to love forever; he has deprived himself of the freedom to turn back. This is the profound meaning of the Covenant that in Christ became "new and eternal."

Questioned ever more frequently in our society is what relationship there might exist between the love of two young people and the law of marriage; what need love has, which is impulsive and spontaneous, to be "bound." Ever more numerous therefore are those who refuse the institution of marriage and choose so-called free love or simple, de facto, living together.

Only if one discovers the profound and vital relationship that exists between law and love, decision and institution, can one respond correctly to those questions and give young people a convincing reason to be "bound" to love forever and not to be afraid to make love a "duty."

"Only when the duty to love exists," wrote the philosopher who, after Plato, has written the most beautiful things about love, "only then is love guaranteed for ever against any alteration; eternally liberated in blessed independence; assured in eternal blessedness against any desperation."[11] The meaning of these words is that the person who loves, the more intensely he loves, the more he perceives with anguish the danger his love runs. A danger that does not come from others, but from himself.

He knows well in fact that he is inconstant and that tomorrow, alas, he might get tired and no longer love or change the object of his love. And, now that he is in the light of love, he sees clearly what an irreparable loss this would entail, so he protects himself by "binding" himself to love with the bond of duty, thus anchoring in eternity his act of love in time.

Ulysses wanted to return to see his homeland and wife again, but he had to pass through the place of the Sirens that lured mariners with their singing and lead them to crash against the rocks. What did he do? He had himself tied to the vessel's mast, after having plugged the ears of companions with wax. Arriving at the spot, charmed, he cried out to be loosed to reach the Sirens, but his companions could not hear him and so he was able to see his homeland and embrace his wife and son again.[12] It is a myth, but it helps to understand the reason for "indissoluble" marriage and, on a different plane, for religious vows.

The duty to love protects love from "desperation" and renders it "blessed and independent" in the sense that it protects from the desperation of not being able to love forever. Show me some one who is really in love -- said the same thinker -- and he will tell you if, in love, there is opposition between pleasure and duty; if the thought of "having" to love for the whole of life brings fear and anguish to the lover, or, rather, supreme joy and happiness.

Appearing one day in Holy Week to Blessed Angela of Foligno, Christ said a word to her that has become famous: "I have not loved you for fun!"[13] Christ, indeed, has not loved us for fun. There is a gamesome and playful dimension in love, but it itself is not a game; it is the most serious thing and most charged with consequences that exists in the world; human life depends on it. Aeschylus compares love to a lion cub that is raised at home, "docile and tender at first even more than a child," with which one can even play but then growing up, is capable of slaughter and of staining the house with blood.[14]

These considerations are not enough to change the present culture that exalts the freedom to change and the spontaneity of the moment, the practice off "use and discard" applied even to love. (Life, unfortunately, will do so when at the end we find ourselves with ashes in hand and the sadness of not having built anything lasting with love). But that they at least serve to confirm the goodness and beauty of the choice of those who have decided to live love between man and woman according to God's plan and to attract many young people to make the same choice.

Nothing more remains for us but to intone with Paul the hymn to the victorious love of God. He invites us to attain with him a marvelous experience of interior healing. He thinks about all the negative things and critical moments of his life: tribulation, anguish, persecution, hunger, nakedness, danger and the sword. He contemplates them in the light of the certainty of the love of God and shouts: "But in all this we emerge triumphant thanks to him who loves us!"

Lift up your gaze; from your personal life move to consider the world that surrounds you and the universal human destination, and again the same joyous certainty: "I am convinced that neither death nor life...nor present things nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:37-39).

We reclaim his invitation, this Friday of the Passion, and we repeat his words for us while, before long, we adore the cross of Christ.

* * *

[1] H. Bloom, in the interpretative essay that accompanies M. Meyer's edition, The Gospel of Thomas, Harper, San Francisco, s.d., p. 125.
[2] R. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, II, New York, 1998, pp. 1092-1096
[3] See logion 114 in The Gospel of Thomas, ed, Mayer, p. 63); in the Gospel of the Egyptians, Jesus says: "I have come to destroy woman's work" (cf. Clemens of Al., Stromata, III, 63). This explains why The Gospel of Thomas became the gospel of the Manicheans, while it was severely combated by ecclesiastical authors (for example, by Hippolytus of Rome), who defended the goodness of marriage and of creation in general.
[4] Paradiso, V, 73-80.

[5] Benedict XVI, Enc. "Deus Caritas Est," 12.
[6] Cf. N. Cabasilas, Life in Christ, VI, 2 (PG 150, 645).[7] Cf. Origen, Homilies on Ezekiel, 6,6 (GCS, 1925, p. 384 f).
[8] Cf. B. Pascal, "Penséées," 793, ed. Brunschvicg.
[9] Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis, chapt. 33.

[10] Giovanni Pascoli, "I due fanciulli."
[11] S. Kierkegaard, Acts of Love, I, 2, 40, ed. by C. Fabro, Milan, 1983, p. 177 ff.
[12] Cf. Odyssey, XII.
[13] The Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno, Instructio 23 (ed. Quaracchi, Grottaferrata, 1985, p. 612).
[14] Aeschylus, Agamemnon, vv. 717 ff.