Archive for the ‘Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa’ Category


Go And Proclaim The Gospel, The Word of God in the Church by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa

July 4, 2011

The Vatican Homilist

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household or Vatican Homilist, explores how the Church is borne as well as bears the Word of God. In addition he gives us precious advice on how we should act as “Servants of the Word.” 

St. Ephrem the Syrian likens the Word of God to a fountain continuously throwing up water; whoever goes to this fountain draws a little water, enough to quench his or her thirst, and then goes away. But the fountain goes on welling up perpetually, and much more remains than anyone can manage to carry away.

The Lord has hidden all his treasures in his Word, so that each of us should find something rich in what we contemplate. . .  Having acquired something rich ourselves, we do not suppose there can be nothing else in the Word of God besides what we ourselves have found. On the contrary, we realize we have only been able to discover one thing among many others. Having been enriched by the Word, we do not imagine the Word has been impoverished thereby; unable to exhaust its riches, we give thanks for its immensity. So rejoice that you have been filled, but do not grieve over the fact that the riches of the Word are more than you can absorb.

This image describes our own situation. We have traced the history of the Word, starting from its focal center, which is Christ, and going back from him to the prophets, and flowing forward to the Church. Having ceased as event, the Word today exists as sacrament; Scripture, in other words, exists in the Church. This is precisely the fountain where we come henceforth to draw water. St. Ephrem has explained to us that we must abandon any pretensions to exhausting this fountain, taking in every aspect of the Word of God. Instead, we must enter into the state of mind of thirsty pilgrims who go to the fountain, drink what at that moment flows from the fountain, and come away happy in the knowledge that we can always return and always find other water to quench our thirst.

The Church Is Borne By The Word
From the spring of Scripture we hear that “All mankind is grass. . . . The grass withers, the flower wilts . . . but the word of our God endures forever” (cf. Isa 40:6-8). According to the First Epistle of Peter, “the word” spoken of in that passage “is the word of the Gospel” (cf. 1 Peter 1:25). And indeed Jesus himself was to say, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (cf. Matthew 24:35). In accordance with a transformation of which we are now well aware, the “word of God” has now become “the word of Christ.”

But let us see what is entailed in this Word, this solemn dabar of God. In Deutero-Isaiah (whose “call” the text cited above describes), we constantly find the conviction that “Israel depends in all things and for all things on the Word of God” (G. von Rad). The same idea is expressed in Deuteronomy when Moses says to the people, “This word is your life” (cf. Deuteronomy 32:47). Israel feels itself as it were “borne” by the Word of God; when all resources fail during the Exile, the Word appears as the unique support, as the power “eternally resisting” amid the fluctuations of human affairs, as the rock on which Israel’s house is built.

Today all this is true for the new Israel, the Church, which has her foundations in the Word of Jesus: “This Son . . . sustains all things by his mighty word” (or “by the power of his word”) says the passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews on which we have already commented (Hebrews 1:3). The Church is truly “the house built on the rock” (cf. Matthew 7:25), and the rock is the Word. The Word, here, means something more than the entire sum of the words of God; it is a creative power acting in history and opposing the fleeting powers of human beings that “will pass away.” It is a living reality; it is presented as such in the Acts of the Apostles, where it is said that “the Word grew,” “continued to spread,” “gained influence and power” (cf. Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20); and St. Paul depicts it in the same way when he writes that it “sounds forth” like a mighty shout through all Macedonia and Achaia (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:8).

When the New Testament states that Christians have been “born anew through the living and abiding Word of God” (cf. 1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18), this means they have begun living in contact with this mysterious force, which is the Word. “And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.” This way of thinking about the Word, in its dimension of life-giving mystery, is close to that of the Fathers: “The Word of God,” says St. Ambrose, “is the vital sustenance of the soul; it feeds it, pastures it, and guides it; nothing can keep the human soul alive except the Word of God.”‘

In ancient times, in the back part of the tent or holy of holies (called debir), were the “ten Words” (debarim), kept in the ark; these constituted the deepest secret in the history of the chosen people. Now, in the new Israel, this deep secret, this nucleus from which all sprouts, this center of expansion hidden in the Church’s heart, is the Word and the Eucharist together, the Word made Bread which yet is forever the Word.

The Church Bears The Word
And this is exactly where we discover the other face of the mystery: the Church is borne by the Word, but also bears the Word. The Church is the new ark of the covenant, keeping “the words” safe. And, once again, the Church imitates Mary, who after the incarnation bore the Word in her womb and was borne by the Word.

Speaking of the Church as bearing the Word means speaking about Tradition, the entrusting (traditio) that Christ made to the Church when, ascending into heaven, he said to the apostles, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). St. Paul justifies his preaching on these very grounds: “The gospel preached by me . . . I received from Jesus Christ” (cf. Galatians 1:l l f.). Before being the Tradition that the apostles transmitted to the Church (Tradition in the active sense), the apostolic Tradition was the Tradition the apostles received from Christ (Tradition in the passive sense). In this first passing — from Jesus to the apostles — lies the true nature of Tradition; it is not a second source of revelation containing things different from and additional to Scripture; at its deepest, it is no other than Scripture itself as understood and taught in the Church and by the Church.

A conciliar text says that “sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God.”‘ The apostolic Tradition — as Irenaeus, Origen and other great figures of the past have conceived it — is “the understanding, or meaning, attached to the Scriptures by the Church.” The bread of life (i.e., the Word of God), says one Father, comes to us as if it were already chopped up and chewed by the teeth of the apostolic Tradition.’

So Tradition is not something static and dead, but something very much alive. A living reality, such as the Word of God, cannot be kept alive in dead surroundings. St. Irenaeus writes that revealed truth, “like a precious liquor contained in a costly vessel, by the activity of the Spirit of God is forever renewed and likewise renews the vessel that contains it,” which is the Church’s proclamation and the apostolic tradition.’ Outside the living environment of Tradition, the Scriptures would be a dead body, a book like any other, however sublime, to be studied with all the rigor of the historico-philological method and nothing more (as indeed is the case today where they are studied in environments in which the Church’s faith exerts no influence).

But keeping the Word of God alive is not a mere right or privilege of the Church; above all, it is a duty, a responsibility. Like St. Paul, the Church must say, “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! . . . I have been entrusted with a stewardship” (1Corinthians 9:16-17).

One of Charles Peguy’s characters, personifying Mother Church, speaks as follows to a little girl representing the average Christian:

Jesus did not give us dead words
for us to salt away in little tins
(or big ones),
for us to preserve in rancid oil.
Jesus Christ, my girl,
did not give us word-pickles
to keep.
No, he gave us living words
to feed. . . .
The words of life,
the living words can only be preserved alive. . . .
On us, weak creatures of flesh, it depends
to keep these words uttered alive in time alive,
to feed them and keep them alive in time.
Mystery of mysteries,
we have been given this privilege,
this excessive, unbelievable privilege,
of preserving the words of life alive. . . .
We are called to feed the word of the Son of God.
Oh penury, oh calamity,
it falls to our lot,
our duty it is, on us it depends
to make it heard forever and ever,
to make it ring out. . . .
Charles Peguy, Le Porche Du Mystere De La Deuxieme Vertu

It isn’t hard to guess what is meant by salting the words away “in little tins,” keeping them “in rancid oil,” or “letting them go moldy,” since, alas, we are familiar with such things from experience. They are what happens when the Word is denied the opportunity of moving about and circulating, of breaking off and crying out, of tearing down and building up — as is in its nature — but is kept as it were under a glass dome, in an antiseptic environment, under strict control, sliced up, as often as not, into so many little phrases or disconnected quotations; for in this way it can be tamed, its dangerous strength canalized into theological theses or practical decisions, where it is used more or less as an excipient or as a straitjacket.

Servants Of The Word
The apostles taught the Church once and for all how to obviate this risk by declaring themselves and their successors to be “servants of the Word” (cf. Luke 1:2; Acts 6:4; Romans 1:1). This title has first and foremost a dogmatic bearing; it means, as Dei Verbum explains, that

the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully.
Dei Verbum 10

But “the service of the Word” also has an ascetic and spiritual dimension: it postulates certain concrete spiritual attitudes in those who are to proclaim the Word. The first of these attitudes is consistency between the Word proclaimed and the life of the proclaimer. This is the first and fundamental way of serving the Word: being at its service, obeying it in one’s own life. “Servants of the Word” means people who obey the Word! We find two kinds of preachers described in the New Testament. To the first belong the scribes and Pharisees, of whom Jesus says, “Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Matthew23:3-4).

To the second kind of preacher belongs, in pride of place, that same Jesus who can in all truth say, “Learn from me . . .” (Matthew 11:29). “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15). To it also belongs the apostle Paul who can say to his hearers, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1; cf. Philemon 3:17).

Preachers who hold out a fine ideal of life yet live the very opposite themselves, who recommend “the narrow way” to others but follow a broader way themselves, are like marine architects who have built a magnificent ship but, when the time comes to launch her and venture out onto the open sea, choose not to go aboard but follow at a distance in a lifeboat. People won’t be easily persuaded to take passage in that ship!

People have learned to mistrust mere words, since they have so often been deceived by them, or have deceived others with them. When, however, they encounter individuals utterly committed to what they preach, suffering or actually dying for it, this makes a big impression; from experience everyone knows people are only prepared to suffer for things they really believe in. This being so, “the lived Word” has uniquely, irreplaceably persuasive force. It convinces! It also convinces because the word we have already experienced and suffered in our own life and in our own prayer-life issues from our lips with a quite special passion and vehemence. In it there is a particle of the proclaimer’s own soul, and this seizes on the soul of the listener. Existential, not merely conceptual, communication occurs.

Preaching is easy enough; practicing is the hard part. A saint very dear to the Russian people, St. Serafim of Sarov, used to say that preaching is as easy as throwing stones from the top of a church-tower, whereas putting into practice is as hard as carrying stones to the top of the tower on your back. Ideally we should only throw those stones we have manhandled up the tower in the first place, or in other words, preach only what we have already put into practice. But such perfect consistency between the Word and life is pretty rare; what is more, those who possess it are the last to perceive it.

Meanwhile, the Word of God cannot wait. So what is to be done? Should one keep quiet? St. Paul’s words cheer us on: “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5). The Word is true, not for the life of the preacher but for the life of Christ, who has fulfilled every word of the gospel. We ought to sink into the dust for shame at the distance that separates us from the Word, but even so we cannot keep silent about the Word, and there lies our punishment and humiliation.

Where, then, this consistency of life is not to be found, humility must take its place. This is the second attitude of spirit needed for being “servants of the Word”: to disappear in the presence of the Word, to renounce one’s own glory. The true “servant of the Word” is the one who thinks, like John the Baptist: “I am the voice of someone crying” (cf. John 1:23). What, St. Augustine wonders, is the task of the voice? It is, so to speak, that of taking the word or the thought that is in my heart and of conveying it on the wave of a breath through the air to the ear of the brother standing before me. Once this task has been completed, the voice has finished its job; it must fall silent, die away, while the word makes its regal entry into my brother’s heart to take up its dwelling there and bear fruit. The “voice” says: “This, the Word, must increase whereas I must decrease” (cf. John 3:30); the preacher says, “He, Jesus, must grow and I must vanish.”

The Church does precisely this when, drawing the Word from her “bosom” where it is kept, she cries it on the housetops so that it may reach the ears and hearts of all people and all may believe and be saved. For the hierarchy of the Church, to be “the servant of the Word” means not to want to be the Word, but only the voice of the Word. It means, as St. Paul appositely observes, not preaching oneself but Christ Jesus as Lord.

But The Word Of God Is Not Chained!”
To bear the Word therefore, the Church must at once be consistent and humble. But she also has to be simple and poor. The apostle Paul exhorted the Christians of Thessalonica to pray, so that the Word of the Lord might be able “to run its course to the end” (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1; this is the literal translation of the Greek). The image suggests a sort of race of the Word, from Jerusalem to Rome, and thereafter from the center of the Church out into the world. To be able to complete such a race, the Word should not find too many obstacles in its path; it should be free and naked, like an athlete.

At this point I can’t help thinking of a story by Kafka which strikes me as a perfect parable for the Church. It is common knowledge that this author’s stories are often religiously inspired and powerfully symbolic, and this story is certainly an example of this. It is short enough to quote in its entirety:

The emperor, they say, has sent you a message; yes, you personally, miserable subject, insignificant shadow cowering from the imperial sun at the back of beyond; the emperor from his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He made the messenger kneel down beside the bed and whispered the message in his ear; he set so much store by the contents that he made the messenger whisper it back to him.

With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the words. And before those who were present at his death — all obstructing walls have been dismantled; on broad and lofty staircases, the grandees of the empire stand round — in the presence of all he dismissed the messenger. The messenger set out at once: a vigorous, tireless man. Swinging now one arm, now the other, he opens a path through the crowd; if he encounters resistance, he points to his chest which displays the device of the sun; and so he goes forward, as easily as you please.

But the crowd is immense, its lodgings vast. How easily he would fly if he had free passage! Very soon you would hear the glorious hammering of his fists on your door. Instead, he strives in vain; he goes on forcing his way through the rooms of the inner palace, from which he will never emerge. But even if he did, it wouldn’t be any use: he would have to struggle down the steps. And even if he managed to do that, he still wouldn’t have achieved anything: he would still have to cross the courtyards; and after the courtyards, the second circle of palaces; and more flights of steps and courtyards, another palace and so on, for thousands of years.

Eventually he manages to rush out through the final gate — but this can never, never happen — and lo, before him lies the imperial city, the centre of the world, piled high with mountains of its own rubbish. There, through that, no one can make headway, not even with a dead man’s message. You meanwhile sit at your window and dream about that message, as evening falls.
Franz Kafka, An Imperial Message

What things are evoked by those “mountains of rubbish” in the midst of the city of the king! From his deathbed, on the cross, our King entrusted a message to his Church, and every day, in the Eucharistic sacrifice, he whispers it to us again: “Tell the world that I love it and am dying for its sins! Tell the world that joy is possible!” There are still so many people, far away, who, standing at the window, dream of a message such as this. It is essential that the Church never become that complicated, suffocating castle from which the message can no longer get out but that, as it was in the beginning, at the moment the King was dying, “all obstructing walls be dismantled.”

St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “I am suffering, even to the point of chains, . . . but the Word of God is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9). He meant that the important thing is that the Word of God should not be chained; nothing else matters. The Church may be chained by persecution, by suffering, by her own weakness. There is no particular impediment in this; such things often make proclamation run the faster. It is other things that put the brakes on the race of the Word, such as an excess of human resources and of reliance on human resources, the too many jackets and too many knapsacks that weigh down the messenger, to use Jesus’ own words (cf. Luke 10:4); the quest for one’s own glory is the most pernicious of riches. Other impediments may be an excess of bureaucracy; a clericalism that takes the bite out of the Word and makes it seem remote from life; and a plethora of abstruse, incomprehensible lingo. All of these are unduly prudent, self-defensive attitudes that make us keep our portcullises [vocab: A grating of iron or wooden bars or slats, suspended in the gateway of a fortified place and lowered to block passage.] lowered. To this situation, too, can the words of the psalm be applied: “Lift up, O gates, your lintels; reach up, you ancient portals . . .” (Psalms 24:7). Let the world throw wide its gates to let Christ in, and the Church throw hers wide to let Christ out!

What we read in Manzoni’s great novel, The Betrothed, about Perpetua’s secret comes to mind. This lady knows about something amazing that has happened in the district. All circumstances concur that the news should be kept hidden but, however hard she tries, she cannot manage it. “A great big secret like that in the poor woman’s heart was like very new wine in an old, badly hooped cask, fermenting and gurgling and bubbling up, just not blowing out the cork, but swishing round inside, and coming frothing or seeping out between the staves, or dribbling out in sufficient quantities here and there for people to taste it and tell more or less what wine it was.” The good news of the kingdom should be, in the Church and in the heart of the individual Christian, exactly like new wine in the wineskin or the cask and like that secret in the woman’s heart: so impelling and so lovely that it cannot be kept hidden but trickles out, as it were, from every pore. “What you hear whispered,” says Jesus, “proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:27).


“Jesus Began To Preach” by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa

March 3, 2011

The mystery of the Word of God in salvation-history

After describing the baptism of Jesus, the evangelist Mark continues his narrative by saying that “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: `This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel’ ” (Mark 1:14f.). Matthew writes more briefly: “From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, `Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ ” (Matthew 4:17).

These are the opening words of the gospel, meaning the good news “of” Jesus (that is to say, brought by Jesus) and not merely the good news “about” Jesus. The evangelists say, “Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent. . .’ ” They thus emphasize two quite distinct things: first, the fact that he preached; and second, what he preached, the principal matter being repentance.

What will concern us is not so much the things about which God speaks to us, as the fact, disturbing in itself, that God does speak to us: God’s speaking. Since, however, God speaks about his Word in the Bible, that is to say he expresses himself (and how powerfully he does so!) about his speech with us human beings, our meditation will not be on an abstract and purely formal theme but, quite the reverse, on a real and absolutely concrete one that occupies the very heart of Scripture. “The Lord has spoken,” says the Bible (Psalms 50:1) in tacit and continuous polemic against those gods of the nations who “have mouths but speak not” (Psalms 115:5). In these meditations let us try our best to listen, in fear and trembling, to this speaking God; let us try our best to accept his heartbroken invitation: “Listen, my people, I want to speak” (cf. Psalms 50:7).

It is my intention to let the Word speak, rather than speak myself about the Word; to make sure the Word never becomes a mere object, but ever remains the subject speaking to us with divine authority, before whom we can but exclaim with the infant Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!” (1 Sam 3:9). Nothing is more sure than this, that God speaks; yet we feel the need to pray to him, “Speak, Lord!” since it is one thing that he should speak but quite another that he should speak to us so that we can hear his voice.

And so, let us beseech him truly, from the heart, now: Lord, do not allow us to run through the pages of your Bible without, somewhere, encountering you as you still “move about” in the paradise of your Scriptures; we creatures of nothing, may we dare to venture out on the open sea of your Wisdom; send your divine breath, the Holy Spirit, so that we may indeed commit ourselves to the deep and come to you across the waters. Give us a simple heart, able to marvel and leap at the sound of your voice, as children leap to the voice of their father, as friends to that of their friend, and the bride to that of the bridegroom. With the bride in the Song of Songs, we beseech you: “Let us hear your voice!”

Preaching In The Life Of Jesus
The gospel words quoted above describe an event occupying a very precise position in time and space: it occurs in fact “in Galilee,” “after John had been arrested.” The event itself is contained in these words: “Jesus began to preach.” The words used in this context by the evangelists forcefully stress that here we are dealing with a beginning, something new not only in the life of Jesus but in salvation-history itself. It is the start of a special time, a new kairos, of salvation, lasting for some two and a half years (from the autumn of A.D. 27 to the spring of A.D. 30), until the time of Jesus’ death. It is the time of the preaching of the kingdom.

The importance Jesus attached to this activity of his was such that he could say he had been sent from the Father and consecrated with the unction of the Spirit especially for this purpose, that is, “to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Luke 4:18). On one occasion when people wanted to detain him, he urged the apostles to leave, saying to them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages so that I can preach there too; for this is the purpose for which I have come” (cf. Mark 1:38).

So far I have spoken of the time when the preaching took place; but it is not a matter merely of a time, but also of a mystery; and it is as such that we now approach it. By the word mystery we mean an event in the life of Jesus that conveys a salvific meaning and is celebrated as such by the Church in the liturgy. Now, it is true there is no specific liturgical feast of Jesus’ preaching (as there is for his birth, his transfiguration, his death, and so forth), but it is also true that throughout the liturgy the Church recalls Christ’s preaching.

The Liturgy of the Word, which is an integral part of every Mass, is nothing other than the liturgical actualization of the preaching Christ. A Vatican II text reads: “Christ is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the church.” As, in history, having preached the kingdom of God, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to offer himself in sacrifice to the Father, so, in the liturgy, having once again proclaimed his word, Jesus renews his self-offering 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 are in fact referring to that moment when Jesus enters Jerusalem to celebrate his Passover there: when the time of preaching is over and the time of the passion begins.

It has been said that the gospels came into being as “passion-narratives with extended introductions.” This means just one thing: that the apostles regarded the account of what Jesus said as an indispensable introduction for an understanding of what he did, that is to say his passion and death. The Church, in consequence, by prefixing a Liturgy of the Word to the Eucharistic liturgy properly so-called, has thus done no more than maintain this sequence, linking preaching to passion, Word to Eucharist.

Jesus’ preaching is thus a mystery since it not only contains the revelation of a doctrine but explains the very mystery of Christ’s person; it is essential for an understanding of both what goes before (the mystery of the incarnation) and what comes after (the paschal mystery). Without the words of Jesus, these events would be mute.

The Word Of Christ And The Word Of The Prophets
The opening words of the Epistle to the Hebrews help us to widen our horizon and contemplate Jesus’ preaching, no longer only in the context of his earthly life, but also in that of the entire sweep of salvation-history: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through the Son” (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2).

In what does the difference between the word of the prophets and that of the Son consist? The prophets introduced their words with the formula “Thus says Yahweh,” or “Oracle of the Lord!” Jesus begins with “I say to you.” Moreover, sometimes he reinforces this “I” by prefixing “Amen” to it: “Amen, I say to you . . .” (Mark 3:28), something for which there is no parallel in the whole of Jewish literature. “In the Amen preceding `I say to you’ all Christology is contained in essence” (H. Schlier); with this formula Jesus expresses his absolute certainty that he is speaking in God’s name, with the authority of God himself.

Jesus gives the impression of speaking on his own account, not of just commenting on previous spiritual masters like all the other rabbis of his day. Indeed, he puts himself above even the Bible, not hesitating on occasion to modify and improve it; his Sermon on the Mount is based entirely on the scheme “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you” (cf. Matthew 5:21f.). The impression inevitably caused by such a way of speaking was enormous. It was more or less as though one fine day one of us priests, addressing the folk in church, should start altering the gospel and saying: “Jesus Christ told you . . . but I tell you . . .”

So the reaction of his listeners is easy to understand: “The people were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). The term most commonly used to express the impression of novelty made by Jesus’ words is precisely this “authority” (cf. also Mark 11:28). The soldier sent to arrest him put the same thing more simply: “No one has ever spoken like this man” (cf. John 7:46).

Along with this sovereign authority and absolute independence, we also note in Jesus an absolute dependence. He says, “My teaching is not my own but is from the one who sent me” (John 7:16); “The word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me” (John 14:24). Jesus says, “My word is not mine,” and yet, St. Augustine observes, he himself is “the Word”; it is as though he were saying, “I am not mine, I do not belong to myself!“[St. Augustine, Tractatus in Johannis Evangelium 29.3 (CCL 36, p. 285).]

Hence the secret of Jesus’ authority is his obedience and total submission to the Father. He states that his words are not his own, but the Father’s, and this places him in the ranks of the prophets; but then he adds, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30), and this places him infinitely above all the prophets! Jesus is “the radiance of the glory and the imprint of the substance” of the Father (cf. Heb 1:3); later the Church was to say that he is consubstantial with the Father. So the difference lies in the fact that, first, in the Old Testament, God spoke to us through intermediary persons, but now he speaks to us in person, since the Son is himself “God from God.”

What is new concerns not only the way God speaks (through the Son, and not through the prophets) but also the content; and this concerns God himself. The Abba uttered by his Son during the days he lived on earth unveiled depths of God hitherto unknown, revealed the Trinity! Jesus says, “No one knows the Father except the Son” (Matthew 11:27): we for our part understand these words as meaning that no one could know who the Father was before Jesus.

However, their meaning is much more radical: no one could know that there was a Father, that God is a Father (and a real Father of a real Son) before Jesus revealed this! Indeed, as St. Irenaeus said, Jesus brought a great novelty into the world by the mere fact of bringing himself! Revelation and revealer, in Jesus, are the same thing: he who speaks is also he of whom he speaks and this is so because “the Word was God” (John 1:1). We now have a prophetic message that is altogether reliable, to which we do well to be attentive, as to a lamp shining in a dark place (cf. 2 Peter 1:19).

One day, after reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus closed the scroll and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled” (cf. Luke 4:21). Not only that particular scripture, but all the Scriptures, have been fulfilled in Christ; he is God’s yes to all the promises and all the prophecies (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:19). The Son, through whom God has spoken to us, is “the heir to all things” (cf. Hebrews 1:2) and, first of all, of those things said under the Old Covenant; he it is who “recapitulates” in himself all the Scriptures.

The Lamb who, in the Book of Revelation, advances to receive the book from the hands of him who sits upon the throne, and then breaks open its seals (Revelation 5-6), is a plastic image conveying that by his death Jesus has made the book of the Scriptures his own and that only he can completely explain them. The book has become his book; he has inherited it from the Father. All the words of the Law and the Prophets have thus flowed together, like so many drops of water, into the great sea which is the very Word of God, the Son.

Paul says that Christ was the term (i.e., the end and the aim) of the Law (cf. Rom 10:4), that everything in the Old Testament was said by allegory, referring forward to Christ (cf. Gal 4:24), for our use who live at the end of the ages (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:11). But here a great truth blazes forth: the Son does not annul the prophets but fulfills them; the New Testament does not diminish the status of the Old Testament but promotes it, making it pass from “the letter” to “the Spirit,” transfiguring it into “a ministry of glory” (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7f.). By his death and resurrection, Christ opens the hitherto sealed Old Testament and reveals its true content: “Then,” after Easter, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).

The result is that today we hear Christ’s voice even when we read the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms; they “speak of him” (cf. Luke 24:27; John 5:39), and he speaks in them. The liturgy expresses this conviction by having us listen at Mass to one page from the Old Testament and one from the New. St. Ambrose writes:

Drink from the springs of the Old and New Testaments, since in the one as in the other you drink Christ. . . . Drink Christ, by drinking his words: the Old Testament is his word and the New Testament is his word. The Sacred Scriptures are drunk and the Sacred Scriptures are eaten when the sap of the Eternal Word descends into the veins of the spirit and into the powers of the soul. . . . Drink this word, but drink it in its proper order: first drink it in the Old Testament, then drink it straightway as well in the New. [St. Ambrose, In Psalmum Enarratio 1.33 (PL 14, 983)]

Word-Event And Word-Sacrament
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote quite a long time after the death of Jesus, even longer, therefore, after Jesus had begun to speak; and yet we have already heard him say, “God has spoken to us in the Son recently, in these days.” He therefore regarded the days in which he was living as being part of the days of Jesus. For this reason, a little further on, and quoting the words of the psalm, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” he applies them to Christians and says, “Take care, brothers, that there be not found among you anyone with a perverse and faithless heart who may forsake the living God; but rather encourage one another every day, as long as this `today’ lasts” (cf. Hebrews 3:11).

So, even today, God speaks in the Church and speaks “in the Son.” But how and where can we listen to “his voice”? Divine revelation is closed: in one sense, there are no more words of God. And here we discover another affinity between Word and Eucharist. The Eucharist is present throughout salvation-history: first in the Old Testament, as type, then in the New Testament as event, and finally in the Church as sacrament. True, Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all concluded on the cross; in a certain sense, therefore, there are no more sacrifices for Christ. Yet we know that there is still a sacrifice and that the unique sacrifice of the Cross is made present and operant in the Eucharistic sacrifice; the event continues in the sacrament, and history in the liturgy. Something analogous occurs with the Word of Christ: it has ceased to exist as event but continues to exist as sacrament.

Let me try to explain this. In the Bible, the Word of God (dabar), especially in the particular form it takes in the prophets, always constitutes an event; it is a word-event, that is to say a word that creates a situation, that always sets off something new in history. The recurring expression, “the word of Yahweh came to . . .” could be translated as “the word of Yahweh took concrete form in . . .” (in Ezekiel, in Haggai, in Zechariah, etc.).

This type of word-event continues until John the Baptist; indeed in Luke we read: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar . . . the word of God came down (factum est verbum Domini super) on John the son of Zechariah in the desert” (cf. Luke 3:1f.). But from this moment the formula disappears from the rest of the Bible and in its place appears another: no longer “Factum est verbum Domini” but “Verbum caro facturn est”: the Word was made flesh (John 1:14). The word-event gives place to the Word-person. We never encounter the phrase “the word of God came to Jesus,” since he is the Word. To the provisional realizations of the Word of God in the prophets there now succeeds full and definitive realization. In a famous passage, St. John of the Cross observes,

By giving us his Son, God has spoken to us once and for all and has nothing left to reveal. God has become, as it were, dumb, and has no more to say. . . . Wherefore he that would now enquire of God or seek any vision or revelation, would not only be acting foolishly but would be committing an offence against God, by not setting his eyes altogether upon Christ and seeking no new thing or aught beside. And God might answer him after this manner, saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased. Hear ye him. If I have spoken all things to you in my Word, which is my Son, and I have no other word, what answer can I now make to you, or what can I reveal to you which is greater than this? Set your eyes on him alone; in him I have spoken and revealed to you all things; and in him you shall find yet more than that which you ask or desire.”
St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel 2.22.4-5

But we have to understand this aright: God has become “dumb” in the sense that he doesn’t say anything new regarding what he has said in Jesus, but not in the sense that he no longer speaks; he is forever repeating what he has already said in Jesus!

Jesus is thus the final event of the Word of God in history; he is that word “issuing from the mouth of God” that, like the rain, has come down upon the earth and watered it so it can bear seed to sow and bread to eat, and, once everything has been completed that God sent him to do, returns to him, saying to the Father, “I have accomplished the work you gave me to do” (cf. Isaiah 15:10f.; John 17:4). The Word’s stint in history closes with Christ’s ascension into heaven, but the Spirit that was at work in it “lasts forever” (cf. John 14:16); so this too, mysteriously, lasts forever. There will be no more word-events in the Church; the Word of God will not come down on anyone again as once it came down on Samuel, Jeremiah, or John the Baptist; but there are word-sacraments. Word-sacraments are God’s words “come down” once and for all and collected together in the Bible; these become “active reality” each time the Church proclaims them with authority, and the Spirit who inspired them rekindles them in the hearts of those who hear them.

When we speak of the Word as “sacrament,” we use the term not in the technical and strict sense of the seven sacraments, but in that wider sense in which we speak of Christ as “the primordial sacrament of the Father” and of the Church as “the universal sacrament of salvation.” [Lumen gentium 48]  St. Augustine says that the sacrament is “a word that you see” (verbum visibile), and the word “a sacrament that you hear” (sacramentum audibile) [Cf. St. Augustine, Tractatus in Iohannis Evangelium 80.3; Contra Faustum Manichaeum 19.6.] In every sacrament there is a distinction between the visible sign and the invisible reality, grace.

The word we read in the Bible is in itself only a material sign (like water and bread), a collection of dead syllables or, at best, one word among all the rest of the human vocabulary; but, faith and the illumination of the Holy Spirit intervening, by means of such signs we mysteriously enter into contact with the living truth and the will of God. Who has not experienced this at some time or another? Unexpectedly a word of God has, as it were, caught fire for us; we have almost heard God’s living voice address our hearts; so clear it sounded as to make us exclaim: This is addressed to me. Yes, I’m the one. My God, you’ve caught me in the act!

This is the miracle of the Word made vehicle for God’s power. “Christ’s body is not more truly present in the Blessed Sacrament than is Christ’s truth in the preaching of the Gospel. In the mystery of the Eucharist, the species that you see are signs, but that which is enclosed in them is the very being of Christ; in Scripture, the words that you hear are signs but the thought that these represent is the very truth of the Son of God” (J.-B. Bossuet). As in the incarnation Jesus hides under the veil of flesh and, in the Eucharist, under the veil of bread, so in Scripture he hides under the veil of speech. In the incarnation, God hides “in the lowliness of human nature”; in Scripture, he hides in the lowliness of human language.

The sacramental nature of the Word of God is shown by the way on occasion it manifestly operates beyond the comprehension of the listener, which comprehension may be limited and imperfect; it operates virtually on its own. When the prophet Elisha told Naaman the Syrian, who had gone to him to be cured of his leprosy, that he should wash seven times in the Jordan, Naaman angrily replied: “Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharfar, 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 unquestionably better and had more water in them; yet, by washing in the Jordan he was healed and his flesh became like a little boy’s again, something that would never have happened if he had washed in the great rivers of his own country. So it is with the Word of God contained in the Scriptures. In the world at large and even within the Church there have been and there will be better books than some books in the Bible — of greater literary refinement and, religiously speaking, more edifying (suffice it to mention The Imitation of Christ) — yet none of these produces the effect that the most modest of the inspired books produces.

In the words of Scripture there is something that acts over and above any human explanation; there is an obvious disproportion between the sign and the reality produced by it, which makes one indeed think of the way the sacraments act. “The waters of Israel,” the divinely inspired Scriptures, still cure the leprosy of sin today; the gospel passage for the Mass having been read, the Church invites the minister to kiss the book and say, “May the words of the gospel cancel our sins.” In Tales of a Russian Pilgrim, we read of many people being cured of the vice of drinking, thanks to their having kept a resolution to read a chapter of the gospel whenever they felt the compulsive need for a drink coming on. Recommending the practice to one such, a monk said: “In the very words of the Gospel there is a life-giving power, for in them is written what God himself has uttered. Never mind if you do not understand it properly; it is enough if you read carefully. If you don’t understand the Word of God, the demons certainly do understand what you are reading, and they tremble.” [Tales of a Russian Pilgrim 2]

All this has inspired souls in love with the Word of God with a kind of holy reverence for the words of Scripture: “You who are accustomed to take part in divine mysteries know, when you receive the body of the Lord, how you protect it with all caution and veneration, lest any small part fall from it, lest anything of the consecrated gift be lost. For you believe, and correctly, that you are answerable if anything falls from there by neglect. But if you are so careful to preserve his body, and rightly so, how do you think there is less guilt to have neglected God’s Word than to have neglected his body?” [Origen, In Exodum homilia 13.2 (PG 12, 391)] St. Francis of Assisi, too, united “the most holy mysteries” (i.e., the Eucharist) and “the most holy words” of the Lord in one same tender feeling of affection. In connection with the latter, he once wrote:

I urge all my friars and I encourage them in Christ to show all possible respect for God’s words wherever they may happen to find them in writing. If they are not kept properly or if they lie thrown about disrespectfully, they should pick them up and put them aside, paying honor in his words to God who spoke them. God’s words sanctify numerous objects, and it is by the power of the words of Christ that the sacrament of the altar is consecrated.
St. Francis of Assisi, Letter to the Chapter General & all the Friars 4 (St. Francis of Assisi, Writings and Early Biographies, Chicago 1973, p. 107).

We should prepare ourselves to administer and receive the Word of God just as we prepare ourselves to administer and receive the Eucharist, by entering beforehand into a supernatural climate of faith and of holy fear of God as we pray and adore the mystery of God hidden in the Word.

There was a day when Jesus “began to preach” and there was another day when, having stopped preaching, “he raised his eyes to heaven and said, `Father, the hour has come . . . now I am coming to you’ ” (John 17:1, 13). So, too, for us will come the day when we stop reading the Scriptures and set out for the Father’s house; then those who here below have listened to his voice “will enter into his rest” (cf. Hebrews 4:lf.). Then there will be no more need for lamplight, nor for sunlight, for the Lord God himself will give us light (cf. Revelation 22:5).

Then, when that day comes there will be no more need for lamps; we shall no longer listen to the prophet nor open the book of the Apostle, we shall not require the testimony of John, we shall have no further need even of the Gospel; then all the Scriptures will vanish away, which have blazed like lamps for us in the darkness of this world, for we shall no longer be in darkness. . . . When all these aids are no more, what shall we be able to see? how shall our minds be nourished? how shall our gaze be gladdened? . . . So what shall we see? Let the Gospel tell us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” You will come to the Fountain by which you have already been slightly bedewed; and that Light, of which hardly one ray, reflected and deflected, struck your heart in the darkness here below, you will see in all its brilliance.
St. Augustine, Tractatus in Iohannis Evangelium 35.9

The Scriptures will vanish away and words will cease, but the Word will remain! The Word was in the beginning and at the end, too, will be the Word.


Reading Selections from “We have a great High Priest” Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa’s Homily on Good Friday 2010 in Saint Peter’s Basilica

August 13, 2010

This is the infamous homily that caused the media attacks against Fr. Cantalamessa. It is preceded by a letter addressed to NPR’s Daniel Schorr whose sensational remarks caused much of the trouble:

Daniel Schorr’s remarks on Father Cantalemessa’s Good Friday homily at Saint Peter’s were not worthy of the usual high standards that I have come to expect from Mr. Schorr. In fact, his superficial analysis of the incident demonstrates exactly the syndrome that Father Catalamessa was identifying in his homily. I have read the entire homily, the theme of which is various kinds of violence, both physical and psychic. At no point in his homily did Father Catalamessa ‘defend against that which is indefensible’, as Daniel Schorr suggests. Nor did he refer to the ‘worst phases’ of anti-semitism, as Schorr misquotes him to have said. The use of that term would immediately lead one to think that Catalamessa was drawing an analogy with the Holocaust. He was not.

Rather, Father Catalamessa was decrying the ‘herd mentality’ that gives rise to the concept of the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ made famous by French philosopher Rene Girard. The media ‘herd’ today want a scapegoat, and the ultimate scapegoat would be the Holy Father himself. Father Catalamessa speaks of the use of stereotypes that move from the imputation of personal responsibility to the implication of collective guilt. It is exactly this kind of psychological and cultural shift that makes possible the various kinds of prejudice and persecution of one group by another. Catalamessa is suggesting that there is a kind of anti-Catholic bias in our world, and most especially in our media, which is not unlike the anti-semitic bias that has been endemic to our culture, and even to the Church itself. Father Catalamessa is correct about that bias, and Daniel Schorr’s superficial commentary demonstrates the correctness of Catalamessa’s assertion.

Child sexual abuse is a reality in the Catholic Church, something for which we are duly ashamed. Many mistakes were made by bishops, by psychologists, and by civil authorities in handling the claims that were brought forward by those alleging abuse. The Church has acknowledged this fact repeatedly, and has assiduously sought to correct it. One of the chief tenets of our Catholic faith, however, is that of the intrinsic goodness of every person. That means that the Church believes that every person — the thief, the adulterer, liar, the person sitting on death row, and yes, even the pedophile — is, with God’s help, ultimately capable of redemption. What has often been perceived in the media as mere ‘cover up’ or as an institutional instinct toward self-preservation is much better understood as the Church’s attempt — albeit sometimes misguided — to hold out the possibility of redemption for all.

The media’s obsession with ‘sound bites’ and ‘spin’ makes it almost impossible to have a thoughtful discussion, one that might lead to wisdom and insight, about anything. Generally, NPR’s thoughtful analysis is an antidote to the typical media approach. In this case, however, you have failed us.

Fr. Dave Gentry-Akin, M. Div., STL, STD
Professor of Theology
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
Saint Mary’s College of California

The Historical Source Of The Christian Priesthood
“We have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God”: thus begins the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that we heard in the second reading. In the Year for Priests, the liturgy for Good Friday enables us to go back to the historical source of the Christian priesthood. It is the source of both the realizations of the priesthood: the ministerial, of bishops and presbyters, and the universal of all the faithful. This one also, in fact, is founded on the sacrifice of Christ that, Revelation says, “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:5-6). Hence, it is of vital importance to understand the nature of the sacrifice and of the priesthood of Christ because it is from them that priests and laity, in a different way, must bear the stamp and seek to live the exigencies.

The Letter to the Hebrews explains in what the novelty and uniqueness of Christ’s priesthood consists, not only in regard to the priesthood of the old Covenant, but as the history of religions teaches us today, in regard to every priestly institution also outside of the Bible. “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come [...] he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:11-14).

Every other priest offers something outside of himself, Christ offered himself; every other priest offers victims, Christ offered himself victim! Saint Augustine enclosed in a famous formula this new kind of priesthood in which priest and victim are the same thing: “Ideo sacerdos, quia sacrificium”: priest because victim.”[St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 43]

René Girard And Christ’s New Kind Of Sacrifice
In 1972 a famous French thinker launched the thesis according to which “violence is the heart and secret spirit of the sacred.”[Cf. R. Girard, La Violence et le Sacré, Grasset, Paris, 1972] In fact, at the origin and center of every religion there is sacrifice, and sacrifice entails destruction and death. The newspaper “Le Monde” greeted the affirmation, saying that it made of that year “a year to mark with an asterisk in the annals of humanity.” However, before this date, that scholar had come close again to Christianity and at Easter of 1959 he made public his “conversion,” declaring himself a believer and returning to the Church.

This enabled him not to pause, in his subsequent studies, on the analysis of the mechanism of violence, but to point out also how to come out of it. Many, unfortunately, continue to quote René Girard as the one who denounced the alliance between the sacred and violence, but they do not speak of the Girard who pointed out in the paschal mystery of Christ the total and definitive break of such an alliance. According to him, Jesus unmasks and breaks the mechanism of the scapegoat that makes violence sacred, making himself, the victim of all violence.

The process that leads to the birth of religion is reversed, in regard to the explanation that Freud had given. In Christ, it is God who makes himself victim, not the victim (in Freud, the primordial father) that, once sacrificed, is successively raised to divine dignity (the Father of the Heavens). It is no longer man that offers sacrifices to God, but God who “sacrifices” himself for man, consigning for him to death his Only-begotten Son (cf. John 3:16). Sacrifice no longer serves to “placate” the divinity, but rather to placate man and to make him desist from his hostility toward God and his neighbor.

Christ did not come with another’s blood but with his own. He did not put his sins on the shoulders of others — men or animals –; he put others’ sins on his own shoulders: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

Can one, then, continue to speak of sacrifice in regard to the death of Christ and hence of the Mass? For a long time the scholar mentioned rejected this concept, holding it too marked by the idea of violence, but then ended by admitting the possibility, on condition of seeing, in that of Christ, a new kind of sacrifice, and of seeing in this change of meaning “the central fact in the religious history of humanity.”

Violence And The Sacrifice Of Christ
Seen in this light, the sacrifice of Christ contains a formidable message for today’s world. It cries out to the world that violence is an archaic residue, a regression to primitive stages and surmounted by human history and — if it is a question of believers — a culpable and scandalous delay in becoming aware of the leap in quality operated by Christ.

It reminds also that violence is losing. In almost all ancient myths the victim is the defeated and the executioner the victor . [Cf. R. Girard, Il sacrificio, Milano 2004, pp. 73 f.] Jesus changed the sign of victory. He inaugurated a new kind of victory that does not consist in making victims, but in making himself victim. “Victor quia victima!”, victor because victim, thus Augustine describes the Jesus of the cross.[St. Augustine, Confessions, 10, 43]

The modern value of the defense of victims, of the weak and of threatened life is born on the terrain of Christianity, it is a later fruit of the revolution carried out by Christ. We have the counter-proof. As soon as the Christian vision is abandoned (as Nietzsche did) to bring the pagan back to life, this conquest is lost and one turns to exalt “the strong, the powerful, to its most exalted point, the superman,” and the Christian is described as “a morality of slaves,” fruit of the mean resentment of the weak against the strong.

Unfortunately, however, the same culture of today that condemns violence, on the other hand, favors and exalts it. Garments are torn in face of certain events of blood, but not being aware that the terrain is prepared for them with that which is shown in the next page of the newspaper or in the successive palimpsest of the television network. The pleasure with which one indulges in the description of violence and the competition of the one who is first and the most crude in describing it do no more than favor it. The result is not a catharsis of evil, but an incitement to it. It is disturbing that violence and blood have become one of the ingredients of greatest claim in films and video-games, that one is attracted to it and enjoys watching it.

The same scholar recalled above (René Girard) has unveiled the matrix that sparks the mechanism of violence: mimicry, that innate human inclination to consider desirable the things that others desire and, hence, to repeat the things that they see others do. The “herd” psychology is that which leads to the choice of the “scapegoat” to find, in the struggle against a common enemy — in general, the weakest element, the different one –, a proper artificial and momentous cohesion.

We have an example in the recurrent violence of youth in the stadium, in the bullying in schools and in certain square manifestations that leave behind destruction and debris. A generation of youth that has had the very rare privilege of not knowing a real war and of never having been called to arms, amuses itself (because it is about a game, even if stupid and at times tragic) to invent little wars, driven by the same instinct that moved the primordial horde.

However there is a yet more grave and widespread violence than that of youth in stadiums and squares. I am not speaking here of violence against children, of which unfortunately also elements of the clergy are stained; of that there is sufficient talk outside of here. I am speaking of violence to women. This is an occasion to make persons and institutions that fight against it understand that Christ is their best ally.

It is a violence all the more grave in as much as it is often carried out in the shelter of domestic walls, unknown to all, when it is not actually justified with pseudo-religious and cultural prejudices. The victims find themselves desperately alone and defenseless. Only today, thanks to the support and encouragement of so many associations and institutions, some find the strength to come out in the open and denounce the guilty.

The Sexual Background Of Violence
Much of this violence has a sexual background. It is the male who thinks he can demonstrate his virility by inflicting himself on the woman, without realizing that he is only demonstrating his insecurity and baseness. Also in confrontations with the woman who has made a mistake, what a contrast between the conduct of Christ and that still going on in certain environments! Fanaticism calls for stoning; Christ responds to the men who have presented an adulteress to him saying: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Adultery is a sin that is always committed by two, but for which only one has always been (and, in some parts of the world, still is) punished.

Violence against woman is never so odious as when it nestles where mutual respect and love should reign, in the relationship between husband and wife. It is true that violence is not always and wholly on the part of one, that one can be violent also with the tongue and not only with the hands, but no one can deny that in the vast majority of cases the victim is the woman.

There are families where the man still believes himself authorized to raise his voice and hands on the women of the house. Wife and children at times live under the constant threat of “Daddy’s anger.” To such as these it is necessary to say courteously: dear men colleagues, by creating you male, God did not intend to give you the right to be angry and to bang your fist on the table for the least thing. The word addressed to Eve after the fault: “He (the man) shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16), was a bitter forecast, not an authorization.

John Paul II inaugurated the practice of the request for forgiveness for collective wrongs. One of these, among the most just and necessary, is the forgiveness that half of humanity must ask of the other half, men to women. It must not be generic or abstract. It must lead, especially in one who professes himself a Christian, to concrete gestures of conversion, to words of apology and reconciliation within families and in society.

“You Did It To Me” (Matthew 25:40)
The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that we heard continues saying: “In the days of his flesh, with loud cries and with tears he offered prayers and supplications to Him who could save him from death.” Jesus felt in all its crudity the situation of the victims, the suffocated cries and silent tears. Truly, “we do not have a high priest who cannot suffer with us in our weaknesses.” In every victim of violence Christ relives mysteriously his earthly experience. Also in regard to every one of these he says: “you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Easter And The Jewish Passover
By a rare coincidence, this year our Easter falls on the same week of the Jewish Passover which is the ancestor and matrix within which it was formed. This pushes us to direct a thought to our Jewish brothers. They know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence and also because of this they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms. I received in this week the letter of a Jewish friend and, with his permission, I share here a part of it.

He said: “I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism. Therefore I desire to express to you personally, to the Pope and to the whole Church my solidarity as Jew of dialogue and of all those that in the Jewish world (and there are many) share these sentiments of brotherhood. Our Passover and yours are undoubtedly different, but we both live with Messianic hope that surely will reunite us in the love of our common Father. I wish you and all Catholics a Good Easter.”

And also we Catholics wish our Jewish brothers a Good Passover. We do so with the words of their ancient teacher Gamaliel, entered in the Jewish Passover Seder and from there passed into the most ancient Christian liturgy:

“He made us pass
From slavery to liberty,
From sadness to joy,
From mourning to celebration,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption
Because of this before him we say: Alleluia.”
from Pesachim, X, 5 e Meliton of Sardi, Easter Homily, 68 (SCh 123, p. 98).


All Have Sinned: The Mystery of Impiety by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa

February 11, 2010

The Anastasis of Christ, symbolizes the promise of resurrection in the Eastern Church. Christ, returning from the underworld, pulls Adam and Eve from their graves to their resurrection.

The following reflection on sin by Fr. Cantalamessa is drawn from the second chapter of his book Life In Christ which is about the spiritual messages contained in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In a series of homiletic meditations, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, explores the main themes of St. Paul’s famous epistle in a manner that draws us closer to a more mature relationship with Jesus Christ. The reading selection that follows will show you what I mean.

Only Divine Revelation Knows What Sin Is
Only divine revelation really knows what sin is and neither human ethics nor philosophy can tell us anything about it. No man can say by himself what sin is, for the simple reason that he himself is in sin. All that he says about sin can, in the end, only be a palliative and an understatement of sin. “To have a weak understanding of sin is part of our being sinners.” Scripture says: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart. . . for he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Psalms 36:2-3). Sin also “speaks” just as God does; it too delivers oracles and its place of teaching is man’s heart. Sin speaks in man’s heart and that is why it is absurd to expect man to speak “against” it. Although I am here writing about sin, I too am a sinner and I should therefore tell you not to rely too much on me and on what I write! Sin is a much more serious thing — infinitely more serious — than I shall ever be able to explain. At the most, man can reach an understanding of sin against himself or against other men, but not sin against God; the violation of human rights, but not the violation of divine rights. In fact, if we take a close look around us we can see that this is what is happening in present-day culture.

Therefore only divine revelation knows what sin is. Jesus explains all this more closely by saying that only the Holy Spirit can “convince the world of sin” (cf. John 16:8). I have mentioned that God must be the one to talk to us of sin. When, in fact, God and not man talks against sin it is not easy to remain impassive; his voice is like thunder that “crushes the cedars of Lebanon” (cf. Psalms 29:5). Our meditation will have fulfilled its aim if it manages even to challenge our unshakable basic self-assurance and make us feel a wholesome fear in front of the terrible danger that not only sin but the very possibility of sinning holds for us. With the help of God we want to reach the point of being prepared to shed our blood in the struggle against sin (“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Hebrews 12:4).

Sin, A Refusal To Acknowledge God
The basic sin and primary object of God’s wrath has been singled out by St. Paul as asebein, that is impiety or ungodliness. And he immediately explains what this impiety exactly consists of, saying that it is the refusal to g1orify and thank God. In other words, the refusal to acknowledge God as God and not rendering him the respect that is his. It consists, we could say, in “ignoring” God, not however in the sense of “not knowing he exists”, but, in the sense of “behaving as if he didn’t exist.” In the Old Testament Moses shouts to the people, “Know that the Lord your God is God!” (cf. Deuteronomy  7:9) and a psalmist takes up the same cry: “Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his” (Psalms 100:3). Sin is basically the denial of this “acknowledgement”; it is the attempt, on the part of the creature to cancel out on his own initiative and almost with arrogance, the infinite difference that exists between himself and God. Thus sin infects the very root of things; it is “a stifling of the truth,” an attempt to keep truth the prisoner of injustice. It is something much more sinister and terrible than can be imagined or expressed. If the world knew what sin really is, it would die of terror.

This refusal took shape in idolatry in which the creature is worshipped rather than the Creator (cf. Romans 1:25). In idolatry man doesn’t “accept” God but rather “makes” a god; it is he who decides about God and not God about him. The roles are reversed; man becomes the potter and God the clay which man moulds to his pleasure (cf. Romans 9:20 ff.).

The Moral Fruits Of A Fundamental Choice Against God
So far St. Paul has shown us the withdrawal that took place in man’s heart, his fundamental choice against God, Now he goes on to show the moral fruits of this withdrawal. All of this gave rise to a general dissolution in behavior, a real and true “torrent of perdition” dragging humanity unconsciously to ruin. At this point St. Paul outlines the appalling picture of the vices of the pagan society: male and female homosexuality, injustice, wickedness, covetousness, envy, deceit, malignity, haughtiness, arrogance, disobedience to parents, faithlessness. . . The list of vices is taken from the pagan moralists, but the whole picture that results from it is that of the “wicked one” so often spoken of in the Bible. The disconcerting thing at first glance is that St. Paul sees all this disorder as a consequence of divine wrath. In fact, he affirms this unequivocally three times: “God gave them up to impurity.  For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. . . And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). God certainly does not “want” these things, but he “permits” them to make man understand where his refusal of God leads. St. Augustine wrote that “these things, although they are punishments, are also sins because the punishment for iniquity is that of being, itself, iniquity. God intervenes to punish evil and from his punishment other sins come.”  Sin is the punishment for sin. In fact Scripture says: “One is punished by the very things by which he sins “(Wisdom 11:16). God is “obliged” to abandon people to themselves so as not to have to uphold their injustice and in the hope that they will retrace their steps.

Refusal Of God In Modern Times
Let us listen to a few of those who expressed refusal of God in modern times, keeping in mind, however, that we are judging the words and not the intentions or moral responsibility of the individuals which are known only to God and which might be very different to what they seem to us. Karl Marx gave this reason for his refusal of the idea of a “creator”: “A person” –  he wrote –  “is an independent being only. insofar as he is his own master, and he is his own master only in so far as he is master of his existence. He who lives through the grace of another sees himself as a dependent being. . . But I would live entirely for the sake of another if he had created me, if he were the source of my life and my life was not my own creation”. “Man’s conscience” — he wrote in his youth — is “the highest divinity”; “the origin of man is man himself.” (K. Marx, Manuscript.of 1844) In this same spirit, J.P. Sartre had one of his characters say: “Today I accuse myself and only I, man, can absolve myself. If God exists man is nothing.. . God doesn’t exist! Happiness, tears of joy! Alleluia! No more heaven. No more hell! Nothing else but the earth.” (J.P. Sartre, The Devil and the Good God X, 4)

Another way of arrogantly eliminating the difference between Creator and creature, between God and the “self,” is to confuse them, which is the form that impiety sometimes takes on today in depth psychology. Paul’s reproach against the “wise men” of his times was not for exploring nature and admiring its beauty, but for not going beyond this. In the same way the word of God does not criticize certain trends in depth psychology for having discovered a new area of the human mind, the unconscious, and for trying to throw light on this, but for having made of this discovery yet another occasion for getting rid of God. Thus, the Word of God renders a service to psychology, purifying it of what threatens it, just as psychology in its turn, can be of use — and has effectively been so in many cases — in purifying our understanding of the Word of God.

The Suppression Of The Distinction Between Good And Evil.
The impiety harbored in some of the recent trends of this science is the suppression of the distinction between good and evil. Following a procedure that closely recalls that of ancient, heretical gnosis, the limits move dangerously: the limit of the divine lowers and the demonic limit rises to the point of meeting and even of, being superimposed. Then, in evil, nothing else is seen except “the other side of reality” and in the devil nothing else but the “shadow of God.” There are some who have even gone so far as to accuse Christianity of having introduced the “ill-omened opposition between good and evil” into the world. The following words of Isaiah could have been written today for just such a situation: “Woe to those who call what is bad, good, and what is good, bad, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20).

Psychologists of this trend give no importance to “saving the soul” (which is even considered ridiculous) or even to “analyzing the soul,” but to “helping the soul fulfill itself,” that is, to making it possible for the human soul — which is like saying natural man — to express itself in all ways, repressing nothing. Salvation lies in self-revelation, in man making himself and his psyche known for what they are; salvation lies in self-realization. Salvation — it is thought — is within, immanent in man. It does not come from history but from the archetype manifested in myth and symbol. In a certain sense, it comes from the unconscious. The unconscious, which at the beginning was considered to be the natural place of evil where neurosis and illusions are rooted (including the “illusion” of God) is now seen as the seat of good, as a mine of hidden treasures for man. One day, after reading some works full of the ideas just mentioned, shocked and quite terrified, I was wondering what God’s judgment on all this could possibly be when I happened to read what Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel: “Though the light has come into the world, people have preferred darkness to the light” (John 3:19).

An Extreme Form Of Sin
However, we have not yet reached the heart of the matter. Alongside the intellectual denial of God by people convinced that God does not exist, we have the voluntary denial of those who refuse God, even though they know that God exists. This extreme form of sin, which is hatred of God and blasphemy, is expressed in an open and threatening insult to God, in the loud proclamation of the superiority of evil over good, of darkness over light, of hatred over love, of Satan over God. This is all directly maneuvered by the evil one. Who else, in fact, would be able to harbor the thought that “good is a deviation of evil and, like all deviations, is of secondary importance and destined to disappear one day,” or that “evil, in fact, is nothing but good ill-interpreted”?

The most evident signs of this form of impiety are: the profanation of the Eucharist (the excessive and inhuman hatred towards the consecrated host is a terrible, negative proof of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist); the obscene and sarcastic parody of the stories and words of the Bible; the staging of the figure of Jesus in films and spectacles which are willfully blasphemous and offensive. To send a soul to their infernal lord, these persons are capable of such constancy as only the holiest of missionaries would employ to lead a soul to Christ.

On the other hand, this situation is not as remote as many Christians might think; it is, rather, an open abyss only a stone’s throw away from the indifference and “neutrality” in which they live. One starts with abandoning all religious practice and ends up, one sad day, among the openly declared enemies of God either by adhering to organizations whose aim (mostly kept secret at the beginning) is to make war against God and cause an upheaval in moral values, or through sexual aberrations or use of pornography, or following contacts with magicians, spiritists, esoteric societies, occult practices or other such things. Magic is, in fact, another way and the most blatant, of succumbing to the old temptation of wanting to be “like God.” “The hidden force which guides magic — as is written in one of their manuals — is the thirst for power. The magicians’ aims are defined quite appropriately for the first time by the serpent in the garden of Eden. . . The eternal ambition of the follower of the black arts consists in gaining power over the whole universe and making a god of himself.” The fact that in most cases we are dealing with charlatans and nothing more is of no importance. The irreverent intention behind its practice or with which one turns to it is sufficient to place one in Satan’s power. Satan works through lies and bluffing but the effects are anything but imaginary. In the Bible God says: “There must never be anyone among you. . . who practices divination, who is soothsayer, augur or sorcerer, weaver of spells, consulter of ghosts or mediums, or necromancer. For anyone who does those things is detestable to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy  18:10-12). In the prophet Isaiah we find this severe admonishment: The Lord will strike the country because it is “full of sorcerers from the East and of soothsayers” (cf. Isaiah 2:6).

Claiming To Be Wise, They Became Fools
Man has only the two licit means of nature and grace for gaining power over himself, over sickness, over events and business. “Nature” indicates intelligence, the sciences, medicine, technology and all the resources that man has received from God in creation to dominate the earth in obedience to him. “Grace” indicates faith and prayer through which cures and miracles are sometimes obtained, but always from God, because “power belongs to God” (Psalms 62:12). When a third way is taken, that of the search for occult power, almost hiding from God, without needing his approval or indeed abusing his name and signs, then in one way or another the master and pioneer of this way comes on to the scene. I mean the devil who one day said all the power of the earth had been handed over to him, for him to give to anyone he chose if they would worship him (cf Luke 4:6). In these cases ruin is assured. The fly has been caught in the web of the “big spider” and will not easily manage to get out alive. Exactly what Paul pointed out is happening in our technological and secularized society: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rornans 1:22): they have abandoned faith to embrace every kind of superstition, even the most childish.

The Wages Of Sin
But let us also examine the consequences of impiety, so that not even the slightest shadow of doubt remains in our minds that no one can prevail against God. In the prophet Jeremiah we read these words addressed to God: “All who abandon you will be put to shame” (Jeremiah 17:13). The abandonment of God leads to personal confusion and the feeling of having gone astray. “Lost” and “gone astray” are the words most frequently used in the Bible when sin is spoken of: the lost sheep, the lost son. – . The very word to translate the biblical concept of sin in Greek, hamartia, contains the idea of being lost and having failed. The same term was used when speaking of a river that flows away from its original course and is lost in the marshes, and of an arrow which misses its aim and is lost. Sin is therefore radical failure. A man can fail in many ways: as a husband, as a father or as a businessman. A woman can fail as a wife or as a mother; a priest can fail as a pastor, as a superior or as a spiritual director. But these are all relative failures; there is always the possibility of compensation; one may fail in all these ways and still be a most respectable person, even a saint. But it is not so with sin; through sin one fails as a creature, that is fundamentally, in what one “is” and not in what one “does.” This is the only case where the words of Jesus about Judas apply to a person: “It would have been better for that man if he had never been born” (Matthew 26:24). Man, in sinning, believes he is offending God, whereas, in fact, he is “offending” and mortifying only himself, to his own shame: “Is it really me they spite”, God says, “is it not in fact themselves, to their own confusion”? (Jeremiah 7:19). By refusing to glorify God, man himself becomes “deprived of the glory of God.” Sin offends God, that is, it saddens him greatly, but only in so far as it brings death to man whom he loves; it wounds his love.

The Existential Consequences Of Sin
But let us take a closer look at the existential consequences of sin. St. Paul affirms that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin leads to death; not so much to the “act” of dying –  which lasts only a moment — as to the “state” of death, that is precisely to what has been called “mortal illness,” a state of chronic death. In this state the creature desperately tends to return to being nothing but without succeeding and lives therefore as if in an eternal agony. From this state comes damnation and the pains of hell; the creature is obliged by One stronger than himself to be what he does not consent to be, that is dependent on God, and his eternal torment is that he cannot get rid of either God or of himself. Kierkegaard rightly said that “the formula for all desperation is to desperately refuse to be what one is.” (S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death I, A)

Satan embodies this state. In him sin has run its entire course and is shown in its extreme consequences. He is the prototype of those “who do know God (and how he knew him!) but do not give him the glory and thanks that belong to God.” It is not necessary to fall back on the imagination or on theological speculation to learn Satan’s feelings on this point because he himself shouts them into the hearts of those whom God still allows him to tempt today, as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness: “We are not free”, he shouts, “we are not free! Even if you kill yourself, your soul lives on, you cannot kill it, we cannot say no. We are obliged to exist forever. It’s all deceit! It’s not true that God created us free!” Such thoughts make us shudder as it would seem that we are directly listening to the eternal argument between Satan and God. He, in fact, would wish to be left free to return to nothingness. Not because he doesn’t want to exist or to be God’s antagonist, but because he does not want to be what he is, dependent on God. He wants to exist, but not “through the grace of another.” As the Power above him is stronger than he is and obliges him to exist, this is the way to pure desperation

In choosing absolute autonomy from God, the creature is aware of the unhappiness and darkness involved but he is willing to pay this price. As St. Bernard said, “he prefers to he unhappy in his own sovereignty rather than be happy in submission.” The much talked about eternity of hell does not depend on God, who is always ready to forgive, but on the person who refuses to be forgiven and would accuse God of lacking respect for his freedom if God were to do so.

We have, today, the chance to actually verify through our own experience the results of sin by observing what is happening in our present society after the extreme consequences the refusal of God has led to in certain places. Nietzsche, for whom sin was nothing other than an ignoble “Jewish invention” and good and evil just simple “prejudices of God” (once again we are judging words and not intentions) said: “We have killed him; we are God’s assassins!” But then, having perceived or personally experienced the evil results of this, the philosopher added: “What have we done by unlinking this earth of ours from the chain that links it to its sun? Where is it going now? Where are we going? Isn’t ours an eternal descent? Backwards, sideways, forward, from all sides? Aren’t we perhaps wandering as if through an infinite nothingness?” (F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, nr. 125)To kill God is really the most horrific suicide. Death is really the wages of sin and the proof lies in present-day nihilism.

“You Are The Man!”
The Bible narrates this story. King David had committed adultery and to cover it up he had the woman’s husband killed in war. In this way, to make this woman his wife, could even have seemed an act of generosity on the king’s part towards the man who had died fighting for him — a real chain of sins. The Lord then sent the prophet Nathan to him who told him a parable, although the king did not know it was a parable. There were, he said, two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds and the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb and it grew up with him and used to lie in his bosom. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and instead of taking one of his own flock, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him. On hearing this story David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man and he said to Nathan: “The man who has done this deserves to die!” Then Nathan, pointing his finger, said to David: “You are the man!” (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1 ff.).

This is what the Apostle Paul is doing with us. After making us feel a righteous indignation and horror for the impiety of the world, as we pass from the first to the second chapter of his Letter, as if suddenly addressing us, he repeats: “You are the man!” “Therefore you have no excuse, Oh Man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. Do you suppose, Oh Man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” (Romans 2:1-3). The recurrence, at this point, of the word “inexcusable”, which was used earlier for the pagans, leaves us in no doubt as to St. Paul’s intentions. While you were judging others, he says, you were bringing about your own condemnation. It is time now to turn the horror you feel for sin against yourself.

Safe From God’s Anger Just Because They Can Distinguish Between Good And Evil?
The “person judging” in the second chapter, turns out to be a Jew who, however, is seen here as a kind of stereotype. The “Jew” is a non-Greek, or a non-pagan; he is the pious believer who, with his strong principles and revealed morality, judges the rest of the world and feels safe in doing so. In this sense each one of us is the “Jew.” Origen actually said that in the Church the Apostle’s words were intended for bishops, presbyters and deacons, that is, for the guides and teachers. (Origen, Commentary on the Letter to the Romans II, 2; PG 14 873)Paul himself experienced it when, from being a Pharisee he became a Christian and can therefore confidently indicate to believers the way to abandon Pharisaism. He unmasks the strange and frequent illusions of pious and religious people who consider themselves safe from God’s anger just because they can clearly distinguish between good and evil. They know the law and, when necessary, they know how to apply it to others, whereas, as far as they themselves are concerned, they think that the privilege of being on God’s side or, at least, God’s goodness and patience with which they are very familiar, makes an exception for them.

“Or do you presume”, says the Apostle to us, “upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4-5). What a shock it will be the day when you realize that these words of God are actually directed at you and that you are really the “you” mentioned! It’s like a jurist who is totally absorbed in analyzing a past sentence which is standard. On taking a Closer look he suddenly realizes that the sentence also applies to himself and is still effective. His state of mind undergoes a sudden change and he ceases to be so sure of himself. The Word of God is engaged here in a real and true “tour de force.” It must reverse the situation of the person dealing with it. There’s no escape. It’s necessary to surrender and repeat with David: “I have sinned!” (2 Samuel 12:13), otherwise the heart is hardened again and impenitence reinforced.

A Masked Form Of Idolatry
The specific accusation the Apostle makes against the “pious” is that “they themselves are doing the exact same things” they judge others for. But in what sense? Is it that they materially do the exact same things? This is also sometimes true (cf. Romans 2:21-24); but he is especially talking about the essence which is impiety and idolatry. There is a masked form of idolatry at work in our present world. If it is idolatry “to bow down to the work of our hands” (cf. Isaiah 2:8; Hosea 14:4), if it is idolatry “to put the creature in the place of the Creator,” then I am idolatrous whenever I put the creature — my creature, the work of my hands — in the Creator’s place. My creature could be the home or the church I have built, the family I have formed, the child I have given life to (how many mothers, even Christian mothers, unconsciously make a god out of their children, especially an only child!); it could be the work I do, the school I direct, the book I write. Then there is my “self,” the prince of idols. In fact, idolatry is always based on autolatry, self-worship, self-love, placing oneself first at the center of the world sacrificing everything else to this. The “substance” is always impiety, the non-glorification of God, but always and only one’s self. It is even making use of God for our own success and personal affirmation. The sin St. Paul denounced in the “Jews” throughout the whole Letter was that they sought self-justice and self-glory and they did this even in their observance of God’s law.

Perhaps, deep within myself, I am ready at this point to acknowledge the truth, to admit that so far I have lived “for myself,” that I am also involved in the mystery of impiety. The Holy Spirit has “convinced me of sin.” The ever-new miracle of conversion is beginning for me. What should I do in such a delicate situation? Let us open the Bible and intone the “De profundis”: “Out of the depths I cry to thee, Oh Lord” (Psalms 130). The “De Profundis” wasn’t written for the dead but for the living: the “depths” from which the psalmist cries is not a reference to Purgatory but to sin: “If thou, Oh Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord who could stand”? It is written that Christ “in the Spirit went and preached to the spirits in prison” (cf. 1 Peter 3:19). Commenting on this, one of the Fathers of the Church said: “When you hear that Christ, going down to Hades, freed the souls who were prisoners there, do not think that these things are far removed from what is being done now. Believe me, the heart is a tomb.”(Macanus of Egypt, On the Freedom of Mind 116; PG 34, 936). We are now spiritually in the position of the “spirits in prison” in Hades, awaiting the coming of the Savior. The traditional icon of the Resurrection shows Adam and Eve desperately outstretching their hands to grasp the right hand of Christ who is coming with his cross to snatch them from prison. Let us also raise a cry from the deep prison of our sinful “self” in which we are kept prisoners. The psalm we are saying is full of confident trust and expectation: “In his word I hope. . . My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning . . . He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” We already know that help exists, that there is a remedy for our ills, because “God loves us.” So while we are shaken by God’s Word, let us confidently say to God: “For you do not give me up to sheol, or let your godly one see the pit” (Psalms 16:10).


He Suffered And Died For Our Sake

August 3, 2009
J. Mostaert "Christ Crowned With Thorns"

J. Mostaert "Christ Crowned With Thorns"

The kerygma, or proclamation, of the Passion is always made up of two factors even in the shortest texts: the fact, he “suf­fered” and “died” and the motivation of the fact, “for our sake,” “for our sins.” He was put to death, the Apostle says, “for our trespasses” (Romans 4:25); he died for “the ungodly,” he died “for our sake” (Romans 5:6,8). The Passion will inevitably remain extraneous to us until we go into it through the very narrow door of the “for our sake” because only he who acknowledges that the Passion is his fault truly knows the Passion. Everything else is a digression.

If Christ died “for me” and “for my sins,” this means that “I” killed Jesus of Nazareth, that “my” sins crushed him. That is what Peter strongly proclaimed on the day of Pentecost to the three thousand people listening to him: “You killed Jesus of Nazareth!,” “You denied the holy and righteous one!” (cf. Acts 2:23; 3:14). St. Peter must have known that the three thousand and others he was addressing these words to were not all actually present on Calvary hammering in the nails, neither were they all there before Pilate asking him to crucify Jesus. Yet he re­peated these tremendous words three times and those listening, inspired by the Holy Spirit, acknowledged that what Peter said was true because we read that “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).

This throws new light on what we have meditated on so far. My sin was also present at Gethsemane and it weighed on the heart of Jesus; in the praetorium there was also the abuse I made of my freedom which kept Jesus bound; on the cross Jesus was expiating also my atheism. Jesus knew this, at least he knew it as God, and perhaps at that moment, someone was placing this fact before his eyes in the desperate effort to stop him and make him desist.

It is written that at the end every temptation in the desert, the devil departed Romans Jesus until an opportune time (cf. Luke 4:12) and we know that, for the evangelist, this “opportune time” is the time of the Passion, the “hour of darkness” as Jesus himself calls it when he was being arrested (cf. Luke 22:53). “The ruler of this world is coming,” Jesus said as he left the Upper room to go forward towards his Passion (cf. John14:30 ff.). In the wilderness the tempter showed him all the kingdoms of the earth, here he is showing him all genera­tions throughout history, including ours, and he shouts within to his heart: “Look at them, look at those you are suffering for! See what they will do with all your suffering! They will go on sinning as before and will not give it much thought. It’s all in vain!” And, unfortunately, it is certain that I am also one of that crowd that gives little thought to what happened. I can even remain unmoved as I write these things about the Passion, whereas it should only be written about in fears. The faith-filled words and melody of a Negro spiritual re-echo in my ears:

“Were you there, were you there when they crucified my Lord?,” and in my inner self I have to answer each time: Yes, I was there when they crucified the Lord! “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble”, the rest of the song says.

An earthquake must take place in the life of every man; he should feel in his heart something of what took place in nature as a warning, at the moment of the death of Jesus when the curtain of the temple was torn in two, the stones broke and the tombs opened. It is necessary once and for all that a holy fear of God should shatter our proud hearts, which are so sure of themselves in spite of everything. All the holy people who were assembled at the Passion are examples of this and encour­age us to do just this; the good thief crying out “Remember me!,” the centurion praising God, the multitudes beating their breasts (cf. Luke 23:39 ff.).

St. Peter too had a similar experience and if he was able to shout out those tremendous words to the multitudes it was because he had first shouted them to himself: “You have denied the Author of Life!” At a certain point in the story of the Passion we read: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62). The look that Jesus gave Peter pierced right through him and changed him.

Think of two prisoners in a concentration camp. Imagine you are one of them and you have tried to escape knowing that the punishment for this would be death. A companion is blamed in your presence but he doesn’t inform on you; he is tortured in your presence and he still doesn’t say anything. Finally, while they are taking him to the place of execution, he turns and silently looks at you for a split second without a shadow of reproach. When you manage to get back home, could you ever be the same person again? Would you ever be able to forget that look? Such was the look Peter received from Jesus. How often, on hearing the Passion of Christ being spoken of, or speaking of it myself, or on looking at that image of Jesus in the praetorian mentioned earlier (see above), have I repeated to myself the well-known verse of Dante Alighieri: “What do you weep at, if you do not weep at this?”

The mistake is that we uncon­sciously think of the Passion as something that happened two thousand years ago and which belongs to the past. How can we be moved and weep over something that took place two thousand years ago? Suffering touches us when we see it, not when we remember it. We can only contemplate Christ’s suffering as contemporaries and we have it from reliable sources that “Christ’s Passion is prolonged to the end of time” and that “Jesus will be in agony even to the end of the world.” Scripture itself says that those who sin “crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:6).

All of this is not just simply a way of talking, it corresponds to the truth. In spirit Jesus is also now in Gethsemane, in the praetorium, on the cross and not just in his mystical body, that is in the suffering, the imprisoned or those who have been killed, but also inexplicably in his very person. This is true not in spite of the resurrection but because of the resurrection which made Jesus crucified “alive for all time.” The Revelation pre­sents the Lamb in heaven “standing,” that is resurrected and living, but “as though he had been slain” (cf. Rev 5:6).

Thanks to his Spirit which he gave us, we have become contemporaries of Christ; his Passion is taking place “today” (hodie) as the liturgy tells us. (Sister Kathleen at St. Luke’s, my RCIA teacher, once related a story that when she sees a fellow religious friend and some tragedy has occurred in the news, the other woman always says “It’s happening again.” I thought of her immediately when I read this.)

When we contemplate the Passion we are in a similar situation to a son whose father had been condemned, deported far away and subjected to every sort of ill-treatment through his son’s fault. One day, unexpectedly, he sees his father reappear before him in silence, the signs of all his sufferings visible on his body. It’s true that it is all over now, his father is back home and suffering no longer has any hold over him. But that does not mean that the son will be able to remain unmoved at the sight of his father. Rather, he will burst into bitter tears and throw himself at his father’s feet now that he can finally see with his own eyes what he has done.

In St. John’s Gospel we read: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (John19:37), and the prophecy he is quoting goes on to say: “They shall mourn as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a first­born” (Zechariah 12:10). Has this prophesy ever been realized in my life or is it still awaiting fulfillment? Have I ever looked at the One I pierced?

It is time that “being baptized in Christ’s death” be realized in our lives. It is time that something of the old self be discarded and buried forever in Christ’s Passion. The old self with its carnal desires must be “crucified with Christ.” A stronger idea has now taken over, scaring the old man to death and persuad­ing him to forsake all his “fixed ideas” and vanities.

St. Paul gives an account of this experience when he says: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians: 19-20). It is no longer I who live, that is, my “self” no longer lives. Was it perhaps that Paul no longer felt the impulses and temptations of the old self? Was he already in possession of the eschatological peace and free from all struggles? This was not the case because he himself confesses his interior battle between the laws of the flesh and that of the Spirit (cf. Romans 7:14 ff.), But something irreversible had hap­pened which made it possible for him to say that his “self” no longer lived. Now the case of “self” is a lost one. St. Paul freely accepted to lose his “self,” and if his “self” lives and makes itself felt at times, it is however subjugated. What counts for God here is the will, because the will is what is at issue. This is what we must do too if we want to be “crucified with Christ.”

The fruit of the meditation on the Passion is, therefore, to kill the old self and give birth to the new self, which lives according to God. This is what the baptismal burial symbolizes. St. Basil wrote that “rebirth is the beginning of a new life but to begin a new life, the old one must first come to an end. Just as in a double race in a stadium where the runners are allowed a rest before taking up the race again on the opposite track, so it would seem that in changing life, a death must come between the two lives to end what had gone before and start the new life.”

After passing through this new understanding of our Bap­tism, we see the death of Christ in a completely new light, transformed from being an accusation and a reason for fear and sadness into a reason for joy and confidence. St. Paul exclaims:

“There is, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Condemnation has ended its course in him and given way to benevolence and pardon.

The cross now appears as a “boast” and as a “glory,” which in St. Paul’s language means a confident jubilation together with a heartfelt gratitude to which man raises himself in faith and expresses in praise and thanksgiving: “But far be it for me to glory except in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14). How can we glory in something that is not ours? The reason is that now the Passion has become “ours.” The “for me” which first meant “through my fault” now, after a humble acknowledgement of fault and confession, means “in my favor”. It is written that for our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become “the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is the righteousness St. Paul was talking about when he said, “the righteousness of God has been manifested” (Romans 3:21). This is what made and continues to make that “bold stroke” possible. When, in fact, on our part we add faith to Christ’s Passion, we truly become the righteous of God, the holy and the beloved. God becomes for us what he had foretold, “The Lord-Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6).

Now we can fearlessly open ourselves to that joyful and spiritual dimension in which the cross no longer appears as foolishness and scandal” but, on the contrary, as “God’s power and God’s wisdom.” We can make it the reason of our unshak­able certainty, the supreme proof of God’s love for us, the endless theme of our preaching and we can say with the Apostle: “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!”


Partaking of Divine Love

July 14, 2009
Fr. Raniero Cantalamassa, Vatican Homilist

Fr. Raniero Cantalamassa, Vatican Homilist

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post, a chapter from Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa’s fine reflection on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is titled Life In Christ. Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, 22 July 1934, and ordained a priest in 1958. He is a Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature and a former Ordinary Professor of History of Ancient Christianity and Director of the Department of religious sciences at the Catholic University of Milan.

In 1979 he resigned his teaching position to become a full time preacher of the Gospel. In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent and Lent in the presence of the Pope, the cardinals, bishops an prelates of the Roman Curia and the general superiors of religious orders. He is a living treasure of the Catholic Church.

Justification: Because God’s Love Has Been Poured Into Our Hearts Two Walls Of Separation Are Removed
At the beginning of chapter five of the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul wrote: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than this, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5).

This is the wonderful and full news the Apostle anticipated in his opening greeting. The three words of the greeting are used again here: “love,” “peace” and “grace,” and this time he indicates the source of all this: justification by faith in Christ. Here too, more than just giving us theological ideas, the Apostle wants to communicate a state of soul, to make us conscious of the “state of grace” we find ourselves in. It is once again an elevated way of talking.

However, a leap in quality takes place. Now we are no longer told that we are God’s beloved, but that God’s love has actually been “poured into our hearts.” The expression “God’s beloved” in the greeting was not referring only to the past; it is not just a title the Church inherited from Israel; it refers to recent events and talks of a new and relevant reality. Jesus Christ is the origin of this new reality, but for the moment, we shall not go into the origin and development of this love. Even the fact that it was given to us “by means of the Holy Spirit” is not the most important thing at this point; the Apostle talks about the Holy Spirit further on in chapter eight. Now it is simply a question of accepting the new, overwhelming revelation that God’s love has come among us permanently; now it is in our hearts! Two walls of separation existed between us and God’s love which prevented full communion with God: the wall of nature (God is “Spirit” and we are “flesh”) and the wall of sin. Through his incarnation Jesus defeated the obstacle of nature, and through his death on the cross he defeated the obstacle of sin so that the outpouring of his Spirit and love was no longer impeded by anything. God has become “the life of my soul, the life of my life; my life itself.” (Cf. St. Augustine, Confessions III, 6.)

We Possess (Are Possessed by) God Through Grace
A wonderful new sentiment, the sentiment of” possession,” grows in us where God’s love is concerned; we possess God’s love or, better still, we are possessed by it. It is like when a man who has sought for years and years to get hold of a certain object he particularly likes or a work of art he greatly admires and who has often thought he had completely lost the chance of having it, can, unexpectedly, one evening take it home and lock it in the house. Even if for some reason he cannot unwrap it for months or years and contemplate it directly, it doesn’t really matter because now he knows it is “his” and no one can take it away from him.

“You shall be my people and I will be your God,” God said through the prophets announcing these times (cf. Ezekiel 36:28). Now all this has been fulfilled; God has become “our” God in a new way. We possess God through grace. This is the supreme wealth of a creature and the highest title of glory which, I dare to say, not even God possesses. God is God and is certainly infinitely greater, but God has no God to rejoice over, to be proud of, to complain to… . Man has God!

We could say that the difference between God and us can be reduced to the difference between being and having. What possession can be compared to this? Everything else we possess we shall have to leave behind us but not this. It is ours forever. (On second thought, we discover that God also has a God in whom he can rejoice and take delight because our God is also triune: the Father has the Son, and the Son has the Father and both have the Holy Spirit. But of course, in the Trinity, “to have” has a completely different meaning than it does for us).

To understand the difference that exists between this state and the one before Christ, we would need to have experienced both; we would need to have lived first under the Old Testament and then under the New Testament. But St. Paul, who lived this unique experience; assures us of the incomparable difference. He says that what once had splendor has come to have no splendor at all because of “the splendor that surpasses it” (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:10). Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love.

Partakers Of The Divine Nature
What is this love that was poured into our hearts at baptism? Is it just a feeling God has for us? Is it just a benevolent disposition towards us? That is, something purely intentional? It is much more than all this, it is something real. It is literally the love “of” God, that is, the love that is in God, the very flame that burns in the Trinity and which we partake of in the form of indwelling. “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). We become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), that is, partakers of divine love because God “is” love; love is, so to say, his nature.

We find ourselves mysteriously caught up in the vortex of the work of the Trinity. We are involved in the incessant motion of reciprocal giving and receiving between the Father and the Son from whose jubilant embrace the Holy Spirit springs, who then brings down to us a spark of this fire of love.

Someone who, through grace, experienced this said:

One night I felt the great tenderness of the Father enveloping me in a sweet and gentle embrace. Beside myself, I knelt down huddled in the dark. My heart was pounding and I abandoned myself completely to his will. And the Holy Spirit introduced me to the love of the Trinity. Also through me the ecstatic exchange of giving and receiving was taking place between Christ, with whom I was united, and the Father, and between the Father and the Son.

But how can the inexpressible be expressed? I saw nothing, but it was much more than seeing and there are no words to explain this jubilant exchange which was responding, soaring, receiving and giving. And from that exchange an intense life flowed from one to the other like the warm milk coming from a mother’s breast to her child. And I was that child and so was all creation that partakes of life, of the kingdom, of glory as it had been regenerated by Christ. Opening the Bible I read: ‘For your immortal Spirit is in all things’ (Wisdom 12:1). Oh  Holy and living Trinity! I was beside myself for a few days and that experience is still strongly impressed in my mind today.

The depth of meaning underlying Paul’s words “God’s love has been poured into our hearts” can only be understood in the light of Christ’s words: “That the love with which you have loved me may be in them” (John 17:26). The love that was poured into our hearts is the same love with which the Father has always loved the Son. It is not a different love. It is the divine love of the Trinity overflowing into us.

St. John of the Cross says that God communicates to souls “the same love that he communicates to his Son even if this takes place through union and not by nature as in the Son’s case… Souls partake of God and with him fulfill the work of the Holy Trinity.” (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle V, 38)

Partaking In Love
What gives greater joy and security to a child than the fact that his parents love each other? On an unconscious level for the child this counts for more than the fact that they love him. A father and mother may each one of them love their child as much as they wish but if they do not love each other (and this is not uncommon), nothing will prevent the child from being unhappy arid insecure deep down. A child doesn’t want to be loved separately, with a different and independent love, but he wants to partake in the love, which unites his parents knowing that this has been the source of his life.

And this is the great revelation: the persons of the Trinity love each other with an infinite love and they allow us to partake in this love! They admit us to the banquet of life; the children of men “feast on the abundance of his house,” he gives them to drink “from the river of his delights” (cf. Psalms 36:9). The theological principle that “grace is the beginning of glory” means precisely that we already possess by faith and as “first fruits” what we shall one day possess, face-to-face and fully, in eternal life: namely, God’s love!

St. Catherine of Siena
In the Old Testament God raised the prophets to infuse in the people a longing for these things to come about; now, in the Church, he has raised the saints to cultivate the memory of these same things. The saints and particularly mystics have the special role of speaking to us of God’s love and of helping us to glimpse something of the reality still hidden from our eyes. No one could better convince us that we are created for love than St. Catherine of Siena in her passionate prayer to the Trinity:

Oh Eternal Father, how then did you create this creature? I am greatly overwhelmed by this. In fact, as you show, me, I see that you did this for no other reason than that in your light you were forced to give us being by the fire of your charity in spite of all the iniquity we were to commit against you, Oh  Eternal Father! It was fire, therefore, that forced you to do so.

Oh  Ineffable Love, even if in your light you saw all the iniquities your creature was to commit against your infinite goodness, you pretended almost not to see but fixed your eyes on the beauty of your creature whom you, intoxicated with love, loved and through love you drew her to yourself and formed her in your own image and likeness. You, eternal truth, communicated your truth to me, namely, that it was love that forced you to create her…”

Therefore I do not need to look outside myself for proof that God loves me; I, myself, am the proof; my being is, in itself, a gift. Looking at ourselves in the light of faith we can say, I exist, therefore I am loved! “Being is being loved” (G. Marcel).

Atheistic Existentialism: “We Were Born By Mere Chance” (Wisdom 2:2).
Not everyone of course interprets creation in this way. We were born by mere chance,” was already a saying in biblical times. (Wisdom 2:2). In ancient times there were those who saw the world as the work of a rival of God’s or of an inferior god, the so-called Demiurge, or as the result of a necessity or some accident which occurred in the divine world. God created the world because of an excess of energy (not of love!), almost as a vehicle of his power which could not be contained in himself. Today there are those who hold the existence of man and of things to be the result of cosmic laws. There are even those who see it as a condemnation, almost as if we had been “thrown into existence.” The discovery of existence, which in St. Catherine of Siena generated wonder and exultation, generates only “nausea” in this latter perspective of atheistic existentialism. Recall the stark contrast in my post of yesterday between the Carl Sagan’s Blue Dot and the wonder of the Psalmists. Imagine what they would have said about The Blue Dot!

The Difference Between Us And The Saints
To another of these mystics, a contemporary of St. Catherine’s, God one day showed in a vision “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut, on the palm of her hand” and it was revealed to her that it was all that was made. While she marveled that it continued to exist though it was so small, she received this answer from God: “It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it”. The same mystic received the revelation of another somewhat neglected but true aspect of the biblical doctrine of divine love and that is, the fact that God first rejoices in loving us: “In this way” — she wrote — “I saw that God was rejoicing to be our Father; rejoicing too to be our Mother; and rejoicing yet again to be our true Husband, with our soul his beloved Wife. And Christ rejoices to be our Brother, and our Savior too”. As regards the “motherhood” of God, she said that “the fine and lovely word ‘mother’ is so sweet and so much its own that it cannot properly be used by any but him.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations, chap. 5. 52. 60)

To yet another great Christian mystic, Blessed Angela of Foligno, God spoke these celebrated words: “I didn’t love you as a joke! I didn’t love you while remaining distant! You are me and I am you. You are made to my liking; you are very elevated in my majesty.” She confesses that at times she felt as if she were “resting in the midst of the Trinity”.”

We must convince ourselves that God did not produce these souls just to make us envious, by letting us glimpse what, deep down, each one of us yearns for, more than anything else, only to tell us that all of this is not for us. God loves each one of us in this way and not just one or two persons in every age. In every age, to one or two persons chosen and purified for this by him, he entrusts the task of reminding others of it. But what is the difference of degree, of time or manner, between us and the saints compared to the fundamental reality we share with them that we are all objects of the incredible design of God’s love?

What unites us to them is far greater than what separates us from them. For the Christian people, the mystics are like those who spied out the Promised Land and then came back to relate what they had seen (“a land which flows with milk and honey”), to encourage the people to cross the Jordan (cf. Nehremiah 14:6 ff.). Through them the first flashes of eternal life reach us in this life. Their message can be summarized in St. Paul’s words, who was one of them: “No eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:9).

What Is There In Life That Is Working To Overpower Us?
The third expression that Paul uses about God’s love in his Letter to the Romans is existential. It takes us back to “this” life and to suffering which is its most striking aspect. The tone of the discourse is once again inspired and filled with deep emotion. “In all these things” (He is talking of tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword) “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39). Here St. Paul teaches us how to apply to our everyday life the light of God’s love contemplated so far. The perils and enemies against God’s love that he lists are those he actually experienced himself in his own life: distress, persecution, the sword (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23 ff.).

He mentally reviews them and discovers in amazement that none of them is powerful enough to withstand the thought of God’s love. What seemed insurmountable appears to be a trifle in this light. He implicitly invites us to do the same, to review our life as it is, to allow the fears lurking in us to surface: the sadness, threats, complexes, the physical or moral defect that prevents us from calmly accepting ourselves, and to expose all of this to the thought that God loves me. He is inviting me to ask myself: what is there in my life that is working to overpower me?

In the second part of the text, the Apostle passes from his own personal life to a consideration of the world surrounding him. Here again he observes his world with the powers that threatened it at the time: death and its mystery, life as it was then, with all its allurements, the astral powers and the infernal ones which struck such terror into ancient man…We too are invited to do the same: to look at our surrounding and frightening world with the new eyes given us by the revelation of God’s love.

What Paul calls the “height” and the “depth” are to us, in the new knowledge we now have of the world’s dimensions, what is infinitely great in height and what is infinitely small in depth: in other words, the universe and the atom. Everything threatens. to crush us. Man is small and alone in a universe much bigger than himself and which has become more threatening since his scientific discoveries. But none of this can separate us from God’s love, The God who loves me created all these things and he holds them firmly in his hand! “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” (Psalms 46). How different is this view to the one which, ignorant of God, speaks of the world as “an ant-hill crumbling to pieces” and of man as “a useless passion” and as “a wave on the seashore which the next wave washes away”!

Moved By The Holy Spirit
When St. Paul speaks of the love of God and Jesus Christ, he always appears to be “moved”. Of Christ he says: “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). He is showing us the first and most natural reaction that should grow in us after listening to the revelation of God’s love: we should be deeply moved. When emotion is sincere and heartfelt, it is the most meaningful and worthy response that man can have before the revelation of a great love or a great sorrow.

At any rate, it is most beneficial to the receiver. Not a word or a gesture or a gift can replace this because it is in itself the most beautiful gift. It is the opening of one’s own being to another. That is why we are reserved in showing our feelings, as with the most intimate and holy things in which a person realizes that he no longer belongs entirely to himself but to another.

We cannot conceal our deep feelings completely without depriving others of what is theirs by right because it exists in us for them. Jesus didn’t hide his deep feelings. “He was deeply moved” before the widow of Naim and before the sisters of Lazarus (cf. Luke 7:13; John 11:33-35). It would be very helpful, especially for us, to feel moved as we set out on our spiritual journey to embrace God’s will in a new way in our lives. It is in fact like the ploughing that precedes the sowing: it opens the heart and uncovers deep furrows so that the seed will not fall by the wayside. . .

When God wants to give someone an important message for his life, he usually accompanies this with a certain emotion to help the person embrace his word, and this deep feeling is, in its turn, the sign that it is God who is speaking to the soul. Let us therefore ask the Holy Spirit to help us feel deeply moved; let us ask him to grant us feeling that is not superficial. I shall always remember the time when I too was allowed to experience a similar feeling for an instant. It was at a prayer meeting and I had just been listening to the Gospel Passage where Jesus says to his disciples “No longer do I call you servants but I have called you friends” (John 15:15) The word “friends” moved me deeply; it touched something deep inside of me, so much so that for the remainder of the day, I went about full of amazement and incredulity repeating to myself: “He called me his friend! Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord, my God! He called me his friend! I am his friend!” And I felt that, with such a certainty in my heart, I could fly over the roofs of the city and walk through fire.


What Is Man That You Are Mindful Of Him, And The Son Of Man That You Care For Him?

July 13, 2009

Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes.
For they flatter themselves in their own eyes that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; they have ceased to act wisely and do good.
They plot mischief while on their beds; they are set on a way that is not good; they do not reject evil.
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart!
Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me, or the hand of the wicked drive me away.
There the evildoers lie prostrate; they are thrust down, unable to rise.
Psalm 36

The Pale Blue Dot

The Pale Blue Dot

Psalm 136 thanks God from the bottom of our hearts for the love he has shown and continues to show us. It is called the “Great Hallel” and was also recited by Jesus during the Last Supper. It is a long litany of titles and deeds by God in favor of his people and each time the people are invited to answer: “For his steadfast love endures for ever!” We could continue this psalm, adding new blessings to the memory of God’s ancient blessings: “He sent his Son among us; he gave us his Spirit; he called us to be believers) he called us his friends…,” and each time we should answer: “For his steadfast love endures for ever!”

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa offers this meditation on the love of God as found in St. Paul’s Letter To The Romans. It forms the first chapter of his wonderful book titled “Life In Christ.” Selections follow:

The Good News Of God’s Love
The runner arriving breathlessly in the town square from the battlefield does not begin by giving an orderly account of the development of events and neither does he waste time on details. He goes straight to the point and in a few words gives the most vital piece of news which everyone is waiting to hear. Explanations can come later. if a battle has been won, he shouts: “Victory!” and if peace has been made, he shouts: “Peace!” That is how I remember things the day the Second World War ended. The. news “Armistice! Armistice!” brought by someone returning from the city, flashed from house to house in the town and spread throughout the countryside The people poured out on to the streets embracing one another with tears in their eyes after the terrible years of war.

St. Paul, chosen to announce the Gospel, behaves in the same way at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans. He comes as the herald of the greatest event in the world, as the messenger of the most splendid of victories and hastens to tell us, in a few words, the most beautiful news ever told: “To all God’s beloved people in Rome”– he says – “who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”! (Romans 1:7). At first reading, this might seem just a simple greeting, like those at the beginning of each letter, whereas, in fact, it contains news. And what news! I announce, he is saying, that God loves you; that once and for all peace has been made between heaven and earth; I tell you that you “have grace!” Moreover, in such cases, more than the words themselves, it is the tone in which they are said that counts, and this greeting by the Apostle inspires joyous confidence and trust. “Love,” “grace,” “peace” are words that contain in synthesis the entire gospel message. Not only have they the power to communicate news but also to create a state of mind.

We start from the assumption that the Letter to the Romans, being God’s “living and eternal” word, was written also for us and that at this moment in history, we are those for whom it was intended. It follows, then, that this message is being addressed to us here and now. The love of God embraces us right from the beginning of this spiritual journey. We become Witnesses to the first outburst of the good news into the world; we relive the moment when the Gospel “exploded,” in all its greatness and newness, for the first time in history. No other consideration, not even that of our unworthiness, must be allowed to disturb our hearts and distract them from this joyous certainty until they have been filled with thia first and most important message; that God loves us and is offering us this very day his peace and grace as fruits of this love.

Three Phrases Show The Message Of God’s Love
Let us welcome the message of God’s love expressed in three wonderful phrases in the Letter to the Romans: we are “God’s beloved” (Romans 1:7); “God’s love has been poured into our hearts” (Romans 5:5); “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:39). These short phrases are linked one to the other and form something like a single message that runs throughout the whole Letter — almost a message within a message — recognizable even from the style, which each time, from being conversational becomes an inspired and heartfelt proclamation.

Two Very Different Meanings For “The Love Of God”
The expression “the love of God” has two different meanings: in one, God is the object and in the other, God is the subject; one indicates our love for God and the other God’s love for us. Human reason, which naturally tends to be more active than passive, has always given more importance to the first meaning, that is, to our duty to love God Christian preaching has often followed this line, speaking at certain times almost exclusively about the “commandment” to love God and about the degrees of this love. But revelation gives more importance to the second meaning, to God’s love for us rather than to our love for God. Aristotle said that God moves the world insofar as he is loved, that is, insofar as he is the object of love and the final cause of all its creatures) But the Bible says the exact opposite, that God creates and moves the world insofar as he loves the world. Concerning God’s love, therefore, the most important thing is not that man should love God but that God loves man and that he loved him first. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10). Our purpose in this meditation is to re-establish the order revealed by the Word of God, once again placing the gift before the commandment and putting the simple and overwhelming message that “God loves us” at the head of every consideration. Everything else depends on this, including our own chance of loving God: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The Answer To All The “Whys” In The Bible
Our spirit is so made that if a thought is to leave a lasting sign, we need to be exposed to that thought for some time. Nothing of what just quickly strikes the spirit really makes any lasting impression or brings about any change. Just as the soil is daily exposed to the sun to draw light, warmth and life from it, so we must now expose ourselves to the truth of God’s love. This can take place only by questioning divine revelation. Who else, in fact, other than God himself could assure us that he loves us? The whole Bible, St. Augustine observes, does nothing but tell of God’s love (De Catechizandis rudibus I, 8, 4; PL 40, 319 “On Cathechizing Beginners in Faith” or “The First Catechetical Instruction” ). This is the message that supports and explains all the other messages. The love of God is the answer to all the “whys” in the Bible: the why of creation, the why of the incarnation, the why of redemption. If the written word of the Bible could be changed into a spoken word and become one single voice, this voice, more powerful than the roaring of the sea would cry out: “The Father loves you”! (John 16:27). Everything that God does and says in the Bible is love, even God’s anger is nothing but love. God “is” love! It has been said that it is not so important to know whether God exists or not; what is important is to know whether he is love (Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses In Various Spirit 3: The Gospel of Suffering, IV). And the Bible assures us that he is love.

The Prophets Spoke The First Great Revelation Of The Love Of God
The Gospel, says St. Paul, was promised by God in the Scriptures, “by means of his prophets” (Romans 1:2). Let us therefore turn to the prophets to learn from them the first great revelation of the love of God. They were the “friends of the bridegroom,” charged with declaring the love of God to humanity. God prepared those men “from their mother’s womb” so that they might be up to their calling; he gave them immense hearts open to all the great human sentiments, having decided to reach man’s heart by speaking his language and making use of experiences familiar to him.

God talks to us of his love by making use, above all, of the image of paternal love: “When Israel was a child”, he says in Hosea, “I loved him. . . It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; I led them with cords of compassion, with the bonds of love; and I became to them as one who eases the yoke of their jaws and I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:1-4). Because of the mysterious power that symbols possess when they are associated with the things of God, these human images are capable of arousing in man the vivid sentiment of God’s fatherly love. The people, Hosea continues, are not easy to convert; the more God draws men to himself, the less they understand and they turn to idols. What should God do in such a case? Abandon them? Destroy them? God shared with the prophet this intimate drama, this sort of weakness and impotence he finds himself facing because of his passionate love for his creatures. God’s heart misses a beat at the thought that his people can be destroyed: “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. . . I am God and not man” (Hosea 11:8-9). A man might give vent to his anger and usually does so, but God does not, for he is “holy,” he is different; if we are faithless, he is faithful still, for he cannot disown his own self (cf. 2 Timothy 2:13). Jeremiah speaks the same language: “Is Ephraim, then, so dear a son to me, a child so favored, that whenever I mention him, I remember him loving still? That is why I yearn for him, why I must take pity on him” (Jeremiah 31:20).

God’s Love Is Both Paternal And Maternal
In these oracles God’s love simultaneously expresses itself as both paternal and maternal love. Paternal love is made up of care and encouragement; the father wants to bring up his son and guide him towards maturity. A father is reluctant to praise his son too highly in his presence in case he should think too much of himself and make no further effort. In fact a father often disciplines his son and the Lord “disciplines him whom he loves” (Hebrews 12:6) But not only this The father also gives a sense of security and protection and throughout the Bible God presents himself to man as “his rock, his fortress and his deliverer” (Psalms 18:2-3).

Maternal love, on the other hand, is all embracing and full of tenderness; it’s a visceral love coming from the deepest fiber of the mother’s being where the child was formed, gripping her whole person and filling her with compassion. Whatever a child has done, however dreadful, a mother’s first reaction is to open wide her arms and welcome her child back. If a son who has run away from home returns, it is the mother who begs and persuades the father to welcome him back and not to reprimand him too severely. In man these two types of love, maternal and paternal, are almost always separate; in God they are always united. That’s why God’s love is sometimes explicitly expressed through the image of maternal love: “Can a mother forget her child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb”? (Isaiah 49:15); “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus united in the figure of the father the traits of this God who is at the same time both father and mother. Actually, the father of the parable acts more like a mother than a father.

“Don’t you see”, wrote an ancient author, “that fathers and mothers each have a different way of loving their children? Fathers wake their children early to get them to study, not allowing them to be idle but making them drip with sweat, and sometimes tears too. But mothers cuddle their children in their laps and hold them close, taking care not to annoy them or make them cry or work hard.”  But, whereas the God of this philosopher has for human beings only “the attitude of a father, who loves without weakness” — as he himself put it —  the biblical God also has a mother’s attitude who loves “with weakness.”

God’s Love Is Pure Gratuitousness
In revealing his love, God reveals his humility at the same time. It is God in fact who seeks man, who gives in and pardons and he is always ready to start again from the beginning. To love is always an act of humility. When a young man kneels to ask a girl’s hand in marriage, as used to happen in the past, he makes the deepest act of humility of his life. He becomes a mendicant. It’s as if he were saying to the girl: “Give me your being because mine is not sufficient; alone, I am not enough to myself!” But why does God declare his love and humble himself? Does he too, perhaps, have needs? No, his love is pure gratuitousness; he loves, not in order to be completed but to complete not to be fulfilled but to fulfill. He loves because “goodness loves to spread itself.” This quality is what makes God’s love unique and unrepeatable. In loving, God does not even seek his glory; or rather, he does seek his glory but this glory is nothing other than that of loving man gratuitously. St. Irenaeus said that “God’s glory is man fully alive!”  “God”, he explains, “didn’t procure Abraham’s friendship because he needed it but because, being good, he wanted to grant Abraham eternal life . . . because God’s friendship procures incorruptibility and eternal life. Thus, in the beginning, God did not create Adam because he needed man, but so that there would be someone on whom to pour his blessings. He blesses those who serve him simply because they serve him, and those who follow him because they follow him, but he receives no benefit from them because he is perfect and does not need anything.

He prepared his prophets to accustom man on earth to having his Spirit and to being in union with him. He who needs nothing offered his communion to those who needed him.” God loves because he is love; his love is a gratuitous necessity and a necessary gratuity.

Considering the unfathomable mystery of God’s love we can understand the wonder of the psalmist who asked himself: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (cf. Psalms 8:5). That quotation always reminds me of The Blue Dot.

Voyager I, a probe sent by NASA to study our solar system, passed beyond the orbit of Pluto in 1990. Still in range of contacting Earth, NASA scientists had the Voyager I look back toward our planet and take a picture, which has since been received. This picture is referred to as “The Pale Blue Dot,” which is fitting once you have seen the image (seen above). Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer and atheist, in response to this image, wrote:

Look at the earth in this picture — pale, blue dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. And on that dot everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. Every act of human heroism or betrayal, the sum total of human joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, moral teacher and corrupt politician, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. What is the glory and triumph of the greatest conquerors and builders of empires? They were the momentary masters of a fraction of a blue dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the vast and enveloping cosmic dark.
Carl Sagan, “A Pale Blue Dot: The Earth from the Frontiers of the Solar System”

When I read that ten years ago, I probably agreed with Sagan’s sentiments. But now I see the photograph in a completely different context and wonder with the Psalmists:

O Lord, what is man that You
regard him,
or the son of man that You
think of him?
Man is like a breath;
his days are like a passing

Psalm 144:3-4

When I look at Your heavens,
the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which You have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful
of him,
and the son of man that you care
for him
Psalm 8:3-4


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