Moral Level of Reading Scripture (Part 1)

Father Cantalamessa’s 3rd Lenten Meditation

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 5, 2004 ( The third and last Lenten meditation offered by Papal Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, to John Paul II and officials of the Roman Curia last Friday focused on the topic «‘Morality Tells Us What to Do’ — Easter in Life.»

Here is a translation of Part I of the text preached in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace. Part II will be published Wednesday.

* * *

Father Raniero Cantalamessa
Lent 2004 in the Papal Household
Third Sermon

«Morality Tells Us What to Do»
Easter in Life

1. From Faith to Virtues

The letter teaches you what has occurred; what you must believe, the allegory. / Morality, what to do; what to tend toward, the anagogy («Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria. / Moralis, quid agas; quo tendas anagogia»). We have arrived the third level of the reading of Scripture: the moral, which seeks to draw from Easter practical teachings for life and customs.

It is important to note the order with which these different meanings of the Bible follow one another: Morality does not come first and then the mystery, first works and then faith, but on the contrary. The principle articulated by St. Gregory the Great is respected: One does not come from virtues to faith, but from faith to virtues.»1

Unfortunately, at a certain moment this order is disturbed. To some Fathers it seemed more suitable pedagogically to address moral things first and then the mystical which are the highest. Ambrose proposes therefore a new order: first, history, second morality, third mystery.2

This tendency was reinforced by the fact that the active life was related to morality and contemplative life to mystery, and it is well known how in the Middle Ages contemplation symbolized by Mary, was considered higher than the active life symbolized by Martha.

Later, when the custom was affirmed of dividing the spiritual life in the three famous stages of the purgative life, the illuminative life, and the mystical life, morality which precedes the purgative life could not but precede, in commenting on Scripture, attention to the mystery.

In this way, in practice if not in theory, works were placed before faith, morality before the kerygma.3 This would also contribute to create that situation which furnished Luther with the pretext for his radical debate. Christ is not for him a model to imitate in one’s own life, but a gift to be received through faith, full stop. It was the birth of the controversy on faith and works, destined to go on for a long time and to create so many false oppositions.

Today, with the joint document of the Catholic Church and the Federation of Lutheran Churches, agreement has been reached at least on this point; not faith or works, but faith and works, each one, however, in the proper order. In the end, it was what St. Gregory the Great had enunciated in his maxim: «One does not come from virtues to faith, but from faith to virtues.»

2. Cleanse Out the Old Leaven

The moral reading, applied to Easter, has a long history. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: «Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth» (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

Everything seems to indicate that the apostle wrote these words before the imminence of a Passover feast, perhaps that of the year 57. The exhortation «let us celebrate, therefore, the festival» refers precisely to the Passover, which now is no longer lived as the memory of the immolation of the lamb and the going out of Egypt but also and above all as the memory of the immolation of Christ. It is the oldest evidence of the existence of a Christian Passover, «our Easter.»

This sermon of St. Paul is, therefore, the first Lenten sermon of Christianity, and this makes it even more timely at this moment. The apostle bases himself on the Jewish custom of examining the house on the eve of Passover and cleansing it of any trace of leavened bread, to illustrate the moral implications of the Christian Easter. The Christian must also examine the interior of the house of his heart, to destroy all that belongs to the old regime of sin and corruption.

The subsequent development of the doctrine and praxis of the Church has specified where and how this paschal cleansing must find its concrete implementation, how to take out «the old leaven»: in the sacrament of reconciliation. Applying to Easter the quadripartite scheme we have been following in this meditation, a medieval author wrote: «Easter can have a historical, allegorical, moral and anagogical meaning. Historically, Passover took place when the Angel of death passed over Egypt; allegorically, when the Church, in baptism, passes from infidelity to faith; morally, when the soul, through confession and contrition, passes from vice to virtue; anagogically, when we pass from the misery of this life to eternal joys.»4

The close link between Easter and confession was confirmed canonically by the 4th Lateran Council of 1215, which prescribes confession and Communion at least at Easter.5 In «Novo Millennio Ineunte» the Holy Father exhorts us to «propose in a persuasive and effective way the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation.»6 I do not know if I will succeed in doing so «in a persuasive and effective way»; however, I also wish to accept the invitation to say something that will increase in us the desire of a good Easter confession.

Let us say first of all that the sacrament of reconciliation is not the only means that we have at our disposition in the daily struggle against sin. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church have recognized in the Eucharist a general efficacy for release from sin.7 The Blood of Christ which we receive in it «purifies our consciences of dead works,» the Letter to the Hebrews assures us (Hebrews 9:14). «Every time you drink this Blood,» St. Ambrose writes, «you receive the remission of sins and are inebriated by the Spirit,» and again: «This bread is the remission of sins.»8

Before distributing Communion, the liturgy makes the celebrant say: «Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.» According to the Fathers, the invocation of the Our Father, «Forgive us our trespasses,» is also a means to obtain the forgiveness of sins.

We know however that the ordinary and necessary means to obtain the forgiveness of grave sins committed after baptism is the sacrament of reconciliation. It is also a wonderful means to free oneself of venial sins and ordinary defects.

It is not necessary to repeat here the historical and theological principles in regard to this sacrament, which we all know and which the postsynodal exhortation «Reconciliation and Penance» of 1984 has amply illustrated. I will only propose some reflections of an existential and spiritual character.

Confession is the moment in which the dignity of the believing individual is most clearly affirmed. In every other moment of the life of the Church, the believer is one among many: one of those who listen to the Word, one of those who receive the Eucharist. Here he is the only one; in that moment the Church exists only for him or for her.

This way of freeing oneself from sin by confessing it to God through his minister, corresponds to the natural need of the human psyche to be freed from that which oppresses the conscience by manifesting it, bringing it out into the light, and giving it verbal expression. Psalm 32 describes the happiness that springs from such an experience:

Blessed is he whose
transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered …
When I declared not my sin, my
body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night they hand was
heavy upon me;
my strength wa
s dried up as by
the heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to thee,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, «I will confess my
transgressions to the Lord»;
then thou didst forgive the guilt of
my sin.

* * *


1. St. Gregory the Great, «Homilies on Ezekiel,» II, 7 (PL 76, 1018).

2. St. Ambrose, «Commentary on the Gospel of Luke,» III, 35 (PL 15, 1603): historiam , mores, mysterium.

3. Cf. H. de Lubac, «Exégèse médiévale,» cit., I,2, p.413.

4. Sicardo di Cremona, «Mitral,» VI, 15 (PL 213, 543).

5. Cf. «Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta,» Bologna, 1973, p. 245

6. «Novo Millennio Ineunte,» 37.

7. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, S. Th. III, q. LXXIX, aa.3-6).

8. St. Ambrose, «De sacr.,» V,3,17 (CSEL 73, p. 65); De ben. Patr. 9,39 (CSEL 32,2, p.147).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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