Papal Preacher on the Historical Dimension of Easter

Father Cantalamessa’s 1st Homily for Lent

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 12, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the Lenten homily given today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Papal Household preacher, to the Pope and officials of the Roman Curia.

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Lent 2004 at the Pontifical Household
First Homily
“The Letter Recounts What Occurred”
The Easter of History

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap.

There has existed in the whole Christian tradition two ways of reading the Scriptures, summarized in the words letter and Spirit. Letter stands for the literal sense or for the historical event narrated; Spirit indicates the hidden mystery in the historical event that can only be grasped through faith. Within the spiritual interpretation, there are, in turn, three different levels of meaning: the Christological meaning, which brings to light the reference to Christ and to the Church; the moral meaning referring to Christian behavior; and the eschatological meaning referring to the final end.

This quadripartite outline was summarized in a famous distich: “Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria. / Moralis, quid agas; quo tendas anagogia.” The letter tells you what occurred; that which you must believe, the allegory. / Morality, what to do; what to tend toward, the anagogy.

In the Lenten meditations of this year, I would like to explore the meaning of Christ’s Easter following this method that comes to us from the most constant tradition of the Church. Having only three periods at our disposition (Friday, March 19, coincides with the feast of St. Joseph), we will have to forego reflecting on the last meaning, the anagogical which invites us to look to the eternal Easter of heaven. We will leave it for our personal meditation.

In this first meditation we reflect on the historical dimension of Easter, namely, on the events that gave it its origin. If we were to reflect on Easter in general, the “letter” we would have to examine would be the accounts of Exodus which speak of the immolation of the lamb in Egypt; wishing to concentrate on the Christian Easter, the “letter” are the accounts of the passion and resurrection of Christ.

1. But does the letter really recount what occurred?

In this regard, a very timely question is posed: Does the letter really refer, in this case, to “the events,” as the ancient distich says, or instead, to a “tendentious” approach, responding to apologetic ends? An opinion has lately spread in this regard which cannot be left unanswered. The thesis espoused in worldwide reviews is, in brief, the following. Keeping strictly to the evangelical accounts when representing the passion of Christ means to ignore the results of modern exegetical science. The latter states that, in referring to the events, Mark and the other evangelists following him, have attributed the responsibility of the death of Christ to the Jews to ingratiate themselves to the Roman political power and calm it on the matter of the new religion. In reality, the principal reason for the condemnation of Jesus was of a political not religious nature, in other words, the menace he represented to the established order.

First of all we must affirm that, whatever explanations are given of the external circumstances and the juridical reasons of the death of Christ, they do not impair in the least the real meaning of his death which depends on what he was thinking, and not on what others were thinking. When he instituted the Eucharist, he made clear in advance the meaning he gave to his death: “Take this and eat it, this is my body given up for you.”

Having said this, to be noted, however, is the seriousness of what is at stake in these arguments. Christian faith is a faith based on history; its compatibility with history is no less necessary than its compatibility with reason. It is not enough to say that the Gospels “are not descended beautiful and formed from heaven, but that they are the product of human hands and hearts,” themselves also subject to conditioning and prejudices. This is admitted today by every serious scholar of biblical studies. The problem is to know if they are or are not honest accounts; if the prejudice is unwitting, or if it is a conscious thesis chosen and put forward for reasons of convenience.

Having addressed this problem at the time I was teaching the History of Christian Origins at the Catholic University of Milan, it seems to me a duty to make a small contribution of clarification to this discussion. What must be energetically contested is that modern historical research now holds, on the condemnation of Christ, conclusions that are different from those that are drawn from the reading of the Gospels.

The thesis of the essentially political motivation of the condemnation of Christ was born, in the past 50 years, from two concerns and has had two “Sitz-im-Leben.” The first was the tragic epilogue of anti-Semitism with the Shoah, the second the affirming in the ’60s and ’70s of the so-called theology of revolution. If one was to avoid Che Guevara taking the place of Christ in the heart of the new generations, then the only choice was to make him one of his disciples.

The two points of view, through different paths, arrive, in essence at a common conclusion: Jesus was a sympathizer of the Zealot movement which was resolved to shake off by force the yoke of Roman domination and of the wealthy local classes that supported it. Proof of this was seen in the fact that one of his disciples was called Simon the “Zealot” (using the same reasoning, the thesis could be defended of Jesus as collaborator of the Romans, given that he called Matthew the Publican as one of his followers!), that Judas’ nickname, “Iscariot,” could be a deformation of “Sicariot,” the name given to the most extreme wing of the Zealot party and other events, as the expulsion of the merchants from the temple, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the multiplication of loaves with a desire to make him king….

In the space of a few years the thesis of the revolutionary Jesus was abandoned as untenable. It resulted in attributing to Jesus himself the idea of a Messiah who imposes himself by force, against which he fought all his life. What remained, instead, was the other thesis, suggested by the desire to remove every pretext of anti-Semitism.

This is a just concern, but it is known that the gravest wrong that can be done to a just cause is that of defending it with mistaken arguments. The struggle against anti-Semitism is based on a more secure foundation than a debatable hypothesis such as this one. The Second Vatican Council formulated it thus: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

In this there is a certain convergence with the Hebrew tradition of the past itself. One thing emerges from the news of the death of Jesus, present in the Talmud and in other Jewish sources (however belated and historically contradictory): The Jewish tradition has never denied the participation of the authorities of the time in the condemnation of Christ. It has not based its defense on the denial of the fact but rather on denying that the condemnation from the Jewish point of view was unjust and that it constituted an offense.

This version is compatible with that of New Testament sources that, while on one hand, bring to light the participation of the Jewish authorities in the condemnation of Christ, on the other, excuse it, attributing it to ignorance (cf. Luke 23:34; Acts 3:17; 1 Corinthians 2:8). How much of this ignorance was due to objective difficulty in recognizing as true the messianic claim of Christ and how much to less excusable motives (John 5:44 attributes to them the search for human glory), only God knows who scrutinizes hearts, and it is not given to any of us to make a definitiv
e judgment, not on Judas, or Caiaphas, or Pilate.

An essential observation is this: No formula of faith of the New Testament or of the Church says that Jesus died “for the sins of the Jews”; all say he “died for our sins,” that is, the sins of all. The extraneousness of the Jewish people, as such, to responsibility of the death of Christ rests on a biblical certainty that Christians have in common with Jews, but that unfortunately for so many centuries was strangely forgotten: “He who has sinned must die. The son does not expiate the iniquity of the father, nor the father the iniquity of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). The doctrine of the Church knows only one sin that is transmitted by heredity from father to son, original sin.

If the Jews of future generations were held responsible for the death of Christ, for the same reason the Romans of future generations should be held responsible and accused of deicide, insofar as it is certain that, from the juridical point of view, the condemnation of Christ and his execution (the form of crucifixion confirms it) are to be imputed in the last analysis, to the Roman authorities.

Perhaps, as believers, it is necessary to go beyond the affirmation of the non-culpability of the Jewish people and to see in the unjust suffering endured by them in history something that places them on the side of the suffering Servant of God and, therefore, for us Christians, on the side of Jesus. Edith Stein had understood in this sense the tragedy that was under way for her and her people in Hitler’s Germany: “There, under the cross, is understood the destiny of the People of God. Reflect: those who know that this is the cross of Christ have the duty to take it upon themselves, on behalf of all others.”

2. Can we still believe in the accounts of the Passion?

Having secured the rejection of anti-Semitism, we can turn our attention to the reliability of the accounts of the Passion, which is of interest to us here. I would like to recall some facts that induce one to take with great caution the thesis according to which the accounts were written with the concern of calming the authorities of the empire in regard to the Christians.

This thesis results in the relegation of the apostolic writings to the same literary gender of “Apologia,” addressed by Christian authors of the second century to the Roman emperors, to convince them of the goodness of their religion. It is forgotten that they are texts born for the internal use of the Christian community, without thinking of readers outside of it, of which in fact there were none. (The first pagan author who shows he had read Christian sources is Celsus in the second century and not of course for political interests.)

We know that the accounts of the Passion, in smaller units and in oral form, circulated in the communities well before the final writing of the Gospels, including that of Mark. Paul, in the earliest of his letters, written around the year 50, gives the same fundamental version of Christ’s death as the Gospels (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:15) and, on the events that occurred in Jerusalem shortly before his arrival in the city, he must have been better informed than us moderns, having initially defended the motives of such a condemnation.

During this earliest phase of Christianity, it was still considered addressed primarily to Israel; the communities in which the first traditions were formed were made up in the main of converted Jews; Matthew is concerned to show that Jesus came to fulfill, not to abolish, the law. If there was then an apologetic concern, this should have led to presenting the condemnation of Jesus as a work of pagans rather than of the Jewish authority, in order to reassure the Jews of Palestine and of the Diaspora.

Many misunderstandings arise from the fact that we project to the beginning of the Church subsequent situations that saw Jews and Christians opposed to each other, while, until it was established as a community of Gentile majority, the opposition was quite another, namely: Jews who believed in Christ and those who did not. The distinction was made within the common Jewish identity. The disciples of Jesus could say with Paul: “Are they Jews? So am I!” This gives the anti-Jewish debate of the authors of the New Testament a very different meaning from that of subsequent Christianity, as the invectives of Moses and the prophets against the People of Israel are different from those of certain Fathers of the Church and from Luther.

On the other hand, when Mark and the other evangelists write their Gospels Nero’s persecution had already taken place; that must have led to seeing in Jesus the first victim of Roman power and in the Christian martyrs those who had suffered the same fate as their Master. There is a confirmation in the Apocalypse, written after the persecution of Domitian, where Rome is made object of a fierce invective (“Babylon,” the “Beast,” the “prostitute”) because of the blood of the martyrs (cf. Apocalypse 13 ff.).

It is not possible to read the stories of the Passion by ignoring all that preceded them. In every page the Gospel attests to a growing religious opposition between Jesus and a group of influential Jews (Pharisees, doctors of the law, scribes) on the observance of the Sabbath, on the attitude toward sinners and publicans, on the pure and the impure. J. Jeremias has demonstrated the anti-Pharisaic motivation present in almost all the parables of Jesus. This context cannot be eliminated without completely disintegrating the Gospels and rendering them incomprehensible. But once this opposition is noted, how can one think that it did not play a role at the moment of the final rendering of accounts and that the Jewish authorities decided to denounce Jesus to Pilate only out of fear of an armed intervention by the Romans, and almost unwillingly?

One of the arguments adopted most often against the veracity of the evangelical accounts is the image that they give of a Pilate sensitive to reasons of justice, who is concerned about the fate of an unknown Jew, while it is known that he was a hard and cruel type, quick to drown in blood every minute sign of revolt.

However, there is a mistake here. Pilate does not try to save Jesus out of compassion toward the victim, but only because of obstinacy against his accusers with whom he had a silent war since his arrival in Judea. If the first Christians were mistaken in something, it was in attributing to Pilate’s behavior sentiments of justice and mercy toward Jesus (for Tertullian he was secretly a Christian and the Coptic Church has canonized him together with his wife!). That which motivated him was in reality only the desire not to give satisfaction to the hated Jewish leaders. In reading with a minimum of psychology the dialogue between him and Jesus’ accusers, one realizes that his real motivation didn’t escape even the evangelists.

In conclusion it must be said that the discussion on the motives of Christ’s condemnation in the postwar years has produced an avalanche of critical hypotheses, often in opposition to one another, but it has not obtained the consensus of the majority of historians on any important point. We have seen that every time a difficulty was tried to be removed, swarms of others have reappeared. Some, for example, have attempted to eliminate as non-historical the trial before the Sanhedrin, but they immediately realized that, in doing so, one could no longer explain the surely historical episode of Peter’s denial, inextricably connected to the time and place of that trial.

Undoubtedly, the evangelical accounts contain numerous discrepancies of detail and uncertain points, but properly considered this confirms the “ingenuousness” of their accounts, born from the life and memories of different persons rather than to support a thesis. A mark of honesty of the accounts of the Passion is also the description of the authors themselves: One disowns, one betrays, and all, at the crucial moment, flee ignominiously. The Biblical scholar Luc
ien Cerfaux was not entirely wrong when he said: “The simplest way of reading the Gospel is often also the most scientific.”

This leaves open the discussion on the use that is made of the evangelical material: that in the past it was used in an improper way, with anti-Jewish distortions, is something recognized by all today and firmly confirmed by the Church in the relevant documents.

In the light of the observations made, it can be said that a representation of the Passion is misleading if it induces to believe that all the Jews of that time and those who came after are responsible for what occurred; it is not contrary to the historical truth if it is limited to show that an influential group of them had a determining role.

3. Jesus Was Silent

If there is still disparity of opinions on the role and conduct of various personages and powers involved in the passion of Christ, fortunately there is unanimity on him and on his conduct. Divine dignity, calm, absolute freedom. Not one gesture or word that denied what he had preached in his Gospel, especially in the Beatitudes.

And yet there was nothing in him that was similar to the proud contempt of the Stoic suffering. His reaction to suffering and cruelty was very human: He shudders and sweats blood in Gethsemane, he would like the chalice to pass him by, he seeks support in his disciples, he cries out his desolation on the cross.

A film of a few years ago — “The Last Temptation of Christ” — showed him on the cross prey to temptations of the flesh. The psychological absurdity of such a representation was justly noted. If Jesus could be tempted while hanging on the cross, his flesh in strips and enemies who were insulting him, this was certainly not by claims of the flesh, but if anything temptations to contempt, anger, and feelings of revenge.

The Psalter gave him words of fire to do it: “Arise, Lord, destroy them, defeat them …,” but he does not quote any of these Psalms of imprecation, but only Psalm 22 which is a sorrowful invocation to the Father: “My God, my God, why hast Thou abandoned me?” “Insulted he did not answer with insults, and suffering he did not threaten with vengeance,” says the First Letter of Peter (2:23). What a contrast even in relation to the model of martyrdom proposed in the Book of Maccabees! (cf. 2 Maccabees 7).

One could pass one’s life immersed in this perfection of the holiness of Christ and still not come to the end. We are before the infinite in the ethical order. There is no memory of a death like this one in the history of the world. It is on the holiness of the protagonist that one should rest to meditate on the Passion, more than on the wickedness and vileness of those around him.

I would like to highlight a feature of this superhuman greatness of Christ in the passion: his silence. “Jesus autem tacebat” (Matthew 26:63). He was silent before Caiaphas, silent before Pilate who is irritated by his silence, silent before Herod, who was hoping to see him perform a miracle (cf. Luke 23:8).

Jesus is not silent because of taking sides or out of protest. He does not leave without an answer any specific question that is addressed to him when truth is at stake, but even in this case his are brief words, essential, pronounced without anger. Silence in him is totally and only love.

The silence of Jesus in the passion is the key to understand the silence of God. When the “quarrel of tongues” becomes too great, the only way of saying something is to be silent. Jesus’ silence, in fact, is disquieting, irritating, and brings to light the non-truth of words themselves, when he was silent before the accusers of the adulterous woman.

“One must be silent about that of which one cannot speak”: This famous slogan of linguistic positivism that (against the intention of the author himself) has served to exclude the possibility of every affirmation about God and of theology itself, can have a true and profound meaning, as it has in the case of Jesus. “I have so many things that I would like to tell you, or just one but greater than the sea,” exclaims the heroine of a lyrical opera who is close to death. These words could be put in Jesus’ mouth. He had only one thing to say, but so great that men were not ready to receive it. He had tried to say it pronouncing before Pilate, the word “Truth!” but we know with what result.

This first meditation, on the historical dimension, the “letter” of Easter, is not the place for the moral applications that will follow. Each one must at least reflect on his own on what these characteristics of Christ in his passion say to him or to the Church. What is in keeping, instead, with the historical considerations that we have developed is to open our spirit to a boundless admiration, enthusiasm and gratitude to Christ. To be moved before the greatness of his love and the majesty of his suffering, saying from the depth of our hearts: “Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi, quia per sanctam crucem tuam redemisti mundum”: We adore you, O Christ, and bless you, because with your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

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