Father Cantalamessa on St. John's Gospel

«Do You Believe?»

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 9, 2005 (ZENIT.org).- Here is a translation of the Advent sermon delivered today by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.

The sermon was the second in a series. Preaching in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, Father Cantalamessa is offering a series of reflections on the theme «‘For What We Preach Is Not Ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord’ (2 Corinthians 4:5): Faith in Christ Today.»

His first sermon was published in two parts Dec. 2 and 4.

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«Do You Believe?» — The Divinity of Christ in St. John’s Gospel

1. «Unless you believe that I am he …»

One day I was celebrating Mass in a cloistered monastery. It was at Easter time. The evangelical passage was John’s page in which Jesus repeatedly says «I Am»: «you will die in your sins unless you believe that I Am he … When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I Am he … before Abraham was, I Am» (John 8:24,28,58).

The fact that the words «I Am,» contrary to all grammatical rules, were both written in capital letters, united undoubtedly to some other more mysterious cause, ignited a spark. That word was illuminated within me. It was no longer the Christ of 2,000 years ago who was pronouncing it, but the risen and living Christ who again proclaimed at that moment before us his «Ego Eimi,» «I Am!» The word acquired cosmic resonance. It was not a simple emotion of faith, but one of those emotions that, having passed, left an indelible memory in the heart.

I have begun with this personal reminiscence because the subject of this meditation is faith in Christ in John’s Gospel, and the «I Am» of Christ is the highest expression of such faith. Modern commentaries on the fourth Gospel are unanimous in seeing in those words of Jesus an allusion to the divine name, as it presents itself, for example, in Isaiah 43:10: «That you may know and believe me and understand that I am He.»

St. Augustine related this word of Jesus with the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14, and concluded: «I think that the Lord Jesus Christ, when saying: ‘If you do not believe that I Am,’ did not wish to say anything more to us than this: ‘Yes, if you do not believe that I am God, you will die in your sins.'»[1]

It could be objected that these are St. John’s words, late developments of the faith, which have nothing to do with Jesus. But the point is precisely here. They are, in fact, Jesus’ words, certainly of the risen Jesus who is alive and now speaks «in the Spirit,» but always Jesus’ — the same Jesus of Nazareth.

Today Jesus’ words in the Gospels are distinguished between «authentic» and «non-authentic,» that is, in words truly pronounced by him during his life, and in words attributed to him by the apostles after his death. But this distinction is very ambiguous and not valid in Christ’s case, as it is in the case of a common human author.

Obviously, it is not a question of casting doubt on the fully human and historical character of the New Testament writings, the diversity of the literary genres and the «forms,» and much less so of going back to the old idea of verbal and almost mechanical inspiration of the Scriptures. It is only a question of knowing whether or not biblical inspiration still has meaning for Christians; if, at the end of a biblical reading we exclaim: «Word of God!» we believe what we say.

2. «The Work of God Is to Believe in the One He Sent»

According to John, Christ is the specific and primary object of belief. «To believe,» without any other specifications, already means to believe in Christ. It can also mean to believe in God, but inasmuch as he is the God who has sent his Son to the world. Jesus addresses people who already believe in the true God; all his insistence on faith is about this that is new, which is his coming to the world, his speaking in the name of God. In a word, his being the only-begotten Son of God, «one with the Father.»

John made Christ’s divinity and his divine filiation the primary objective of his Gospel, the subject that unifies everything. He concludes his Gospel saying: «These signs are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name» (John 20:31), and he ends his first letter almost with the same words: «I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life» (1 John 5:13).

A quick glance at the fourth Gospel shows how faith in the divine origin of Christ is at once its warp and woof. To believe in the one the Father has sent is seeing as «the work of God,» what pleases God, absolutely (cf. John 6:29). Not to believe in him is seen, consequently, as «the sin» par excellence: «The counselor — it is said — will convince the world of sin,» and sin is not to have believed in him (John 16:8-9). Jesus asks for himself the same kind of faith that was asked for God in the Old Testament: «believe in God, believe also in me» (John 14:1).

Also after his disappearance, faith in him will remain as the great dividing line within humanity: on one hand will be those who believe without having seen (cf. John 20:29) and on the other, will be the world that refuses to believe. In the face of this distinction, all the others known earlier, including that between Jews and Gentiles, become secondary.

One cannot but be astonished before the undertaking that the spirit of Jesus enabled John to accomplish. He embraced the subjects, the symbols, the expectations, all that was religiously alive, both in the Judaic world as well as the Hellenic, making all this serve a single idea, better, a single person: Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior of the world.

Reading the books of some scholars, dependent on the «School of History of Religions,» the Christian mystery presented by John would not be distinguished from the Gnostic and Mandaean religious myth, or from Hellenistic and hermetic religious philosophy, except in matters of little importance. The limits are lost and the parallelisms multiply. The Christian faith becomes a variant of this changing mythology and diffuse religiosity.

But what does this mean? It means that one omits the essential: the life and historical force that lies behind the systems and representations. Living persons are different from one another, but skeletons all look alike. Once reduced to a skeleton, isolated from the life it has produced, that is, from the Church and the saints, the Christian message always runs the risk of being confused with other religious proposals, while it is «unmistakable.»

John has not given us a set of ancient religious doctrines, but a powerful kerigma. He learned the language of the men of his time to cry out in it, with all his strength, the only saving truth, the Word par excellence, «the Word.»

An enterprise such as this is not carried out at a desk. The Johannine synthesis of faith in Christ was «focused,» under the influence of that «anointing of the Holy Spirit who teaches all things,» of which John himself speaks, surely from personal experience, in the first letter (cf. 1 John 2:20,27). Precisely because of this origin, John’s Gospel, also today, is not understood seated at a desk, with four or five dictionaries for consultation.

Only a revealed certainty, which has behind it the authority and very force of God, could be displayed in a book with such insistence and coherence, coming, from a thousand different points, always to the same conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

3. «Blessed Is He Who Takes No Offense at Me»

Christ’s divinity is the highest summit, the Everest of faith. Much more difficult than simply to believe in God. This difficulty is linked to the possibility and, even more so, to the inevitableness of t
he «scandal.» «Blessed is he — says Jesus — who takes no offense at me!» (Matthew 11:6). The scandal depends on the fact that he who proclaims himself «God» is a man about whom everything is known: «We know where he comes from,» say the Pharisees (John 7:27).

The possibility of scandal must have been especially intense for a young Jew like the author of the fourth Gospel, accustomed to think of God as the thrice holy, the one whom one cannot see and remain alive. But the contrast between the universality of the Logos, and the contingency of the man Jesus of Nazareth, seems extremely striking, even for the philosophic mentality of the time. «Son of God» — exclaimed Celsus — «a man who lived a few years ago? One of yesterday or the day before?» A man «born in a village of Judea, of a poor spinner»?[2] This scandalized reaction is the most obvious proof that faith in the divinity of Christ is not the fruit of the Hellenization of Christianity, but if anything of the Christianization of Hellenism.

Also in this connection, illuminating observations are read in the «Introduction to Christianity» of the present Supreme Pontiff: «With the second article of the Creed we are faced with the authentic scandal of Christianity. It is constituted by the confession that the man-Jesus, an individual executed about the year 30 in Palestine, is the ‘Christ’ (the anointed, the chosen One) of God, more than that, no less than the very Son of God, therefore focal center, determinant point of support of the whole of human history. … Is it really right for us to cleave to the fragile stem of only one historical event? Can we run the risk of entrusting our whole existence, more than that, the whole of history, to this blade of straw of an event, which floats in the infinite ocean of the cosmic vicissitude?»[3]

It is known how much this idea, in itself already unacceptable to ancient and Asian thought, meets with resistance in the present context of interreligious dialogue. A particular event — it is observed — limited in time and space, as is the historical person of Christ, cannot exhaust the infinite potentialities of salvation of God and of his eternal Word; it is also true that he can accomplish, from such potentialities, all that suffices for the salvation of the world, he too being infinite!

But in the last analysis, the scandal is only surmounted with faith. Historical proofs of the divinity of Christ and of Christianity are not enough to eliminate it. One cannot really believe — wrote Kierkegaard — except in situations of contemporaneousness, making oneself contemporaneous with Christ and his apostles. But do not history and the past help us to believe? Did Christ not live two thousand years ago? Is his name not proclaimed and believed in the whole world? Has not his doctrine changed the face of the world and penetrated victoriously in every environment? And has not history established more than sufficiently that he was God?

No, replies the same philosopher. History could not do this in the whole of eternity! It is not possible, from the results of a human existence, as was that of Jesus, to conclude saying: Ergo, this man was God! A track on a path is a consequence of the fact that some one has passed through there. I could deceive myself believing, for example, that it was a bird. On closer examination, I might conclude that it was not a bird, but another animal. But I cannot, no matter how much more I examine it, come to the conclusion that it is neither a bird nor another animal but a spirit, because a spirit, by nature, cannot leave tracks on the path.

Similarly we cannot draw the consequence that Christ is God by simply examining what we know about him and his life, namely, through direct observation. Whoever wants to believe in Christ is obliged to make himself his contemporary in his abasement, hearing the «internal testimony» that the Holy Spirit gives us about him.

As Catholics we must have some reservations in this way of posing the problem of the divinity of Christ. What is missing is the relevance due to the resurrection of Christ, in addition to his abasement, and sufficient account is not taken of the external testimony of the apostles, in addition to the «internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.» But there is in the former an important element of truth that we must keep in mind to make our faith ever more authentic and personal.

St. Paul says that «man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved» (Romans, 10:10). The second moment, the profession of faith, is important, but, if it is not accompanied by that first moment which develops in the hidden depths of the heart, the former is vain and empty. «It is from the roots of the heart that faith arises,» exclaims St. Augustine, paraphrasing the Pauline «corde creditur» (belief with the heart).[4]

The social and community dimension is certainly essential in Christian faith, but it must be the result of many personal acts of faith, if it is not to be a purely conventional and fictitious faith.

4. «I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life»

This faith «of the heart» is the fruit of a special anointing of the Spirit. When one is under this anointing, to believe becomes a kind of knowledge, vision, interior illumination: «We have believed, and have come to know» (John 6:69); «We have looked upon the Word of life» (cf. 1 John 1:1). You hear Jesus affirm: «I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by me,» (John 14:6) and feel within yourself, with all your being, that what you hear is true.

Recently I came across an impressive case of this illumination of faith, which occurred precisely thanks to this word of Jesus transmitted by John. I met an Swiss artist in Milan who had enjoyed friendship with the best-known philosophical and artistic personalities of his time, and who had held personal exhibitions of paintings of different parts of the world (one of his paintings was exhibited and acquired by the Vatican on the occasion of Paul VI’s 80th birthday).

His passionate religious search had led him to adhere to Buddhism and Hinduism. After long stays in Tibet, India and Japan, he became a master in these disciplines. In Milan he had a whole group of professionals and men of culture who sought his spiritual direction and practiced transcendental meditation and yoga with him.

His return to faith in Christ seemed immediately to me an extraordinarily timely testimony, and I very much insisted that he put it in writing. I just recently received his manuscript and I would like to read a small fragment from it. It helps, among other things, to understand what Saul must have experienced on the road to Damascus before the light, which in an instant destroyed his entire interior world and replaced it with another.

«I was alone, in a dense forest, when that interior revolution occurred that changed all my mental structure. I knew Christ’s words: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me.’ But in the past I found them to be somewhat presumptuous. Now these words strike at the center of my being. After 35 years of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism I was attracted by ‘that God.’ However, there was in me the presence of a profound rejection for everything concerning Christianity. Slowly, I felt that I was being invaded by an altogether new strange sensation, which I had never before experienced. I perceived the presence of someone who emanated an extraordinary power.

«Those words of Christ obsessed me, they became a nightmare. I put up resistance, but the interior sound would amplify and return as en echo in my conscience. I was close to panic, I was losing control over my mind and this, after 30 years of meditation on the profound, this was for me inconceivable.

«‘Yes, it is true, you are right,’ I cried, ‘it is true, it is true but stop, I beg you, I beg you.’ I thought I would die because of the impossibility to come out of that tremendous situat
ion. I no longer saw the trees, I no longer heard the birds, there was only the interior voice of the words that were imprinting themselves in my being.

«I fell to the ground and lost consciousness. But before it happened, I felt enveloped by a limitless love. I felt the structure of my thought was liquefying, as a great explosion of my conscience. I was dying to a past by which I was profoundly conditioned, all truth was disintegrating. I don’t know how long I was there, but when I regained consciousness I was reborn. The skies of my mind were limpid and endless tears soaked my face and neck. I felt myself the most ungrateful being in all the earth. Yes, the great life exists and it does not belong to this world. For the first time I was discovering what Christians understand by ‘grace.'»

For more than 25 years this man, known as Master Bee, together with his wife, also an artist, has been leading a semi-hermetical life, in the world and to his former disciples who go to consult him he teaches prayer of the heart and the praying of the rosary.

He has not felt the need to deny his past religious experiences which have prepared the encounter with Christ and now allow him to fully value the novelty. More than that, he continues to have profound respect for them, showing with deeds how it is possible to integrate today the most total adherence to Christ with a very great openness to the values of other religions.

The secret history of souls, outside the spotlights of the mass media, is full of these encounters with Christ that change life, and it is a pity that discussion on it, including among theologians, overlooks them completely. They demonstrate that Jesus is truly «the same yesterday, today and always,» able to capture the hearts of the men of today with no less force than when he «captured» John and Paul.

5. The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (and Who Loved Jesus!)

Let us return, to conclude, to the disciple whom Jesus loved. John offers us a very strong incentive to rediscover the person of Jesus and to renew our act of faith in him. It is an extraordinary testimony of the power that Jesus can have over a man’s heart. It shows us how it is possible to build all one’s universe around Jesus. He is able to make one perceive «the unique fullness, the unimaginable marvel that is the person of Jesus.»[5]

There is more. The saints, not being able to take faith with them to heaven, where it is no longer necessary, are happy to leave it as inheritance to brothers that need it on earth, as Elias left his mantle to Elyseus, going up to heaven. It is our turn to pick it up. We can not only contemplate the ardent faith of St. John, but must make it our own. The dogma of the communion of saints assures us that it is possible, and by praying one experiences it.

Some one has said that the greatest challenge for evangelization, at the beginning of the third millennium, is the emergence of a new type of man and culture, the cosmopolitan man that, from Hong Kong to New York, and from Rome to Stockholm, already moves in a planetary system of exchanges and information which cancels distances and translates to a second plane the traditional distinctions of culture and religion.

Now, John lived in a cultural context that had something in common with this. The world was then experiencing for the first time cosmopolitanism. The term itself «kosmopolites,» cosmopolitan, citizens of the world, was born and was affirmed precisely at this moment. In the large Hellenistic cities, such as Alexandria of Egypt, the air of universalism and religious tolerance was breathed.

Well then, in such a situation, how did the author of the fourth Gospel behave? Did he seek perhaps to adapt Jesus to this atmosphere in which all religions and cults were accepted, as long as they agreed to be part of something greater? Not at all! He did not argue against any one more than he did against bad Christians and heretics within the Church; he did not fling himself against other religions and cults of the time (except, in Revelation, against the wrongful emperor); he simply proclaimed Christ as supreme gift of the Father to the world, leaving every one free to receive him or not. He argued, it is true, with Judaism, but for him it was not «another religion,» it was his religion!

How did John come to such a total admiration and such an absolute idea of the person of Jesus? How can one explain that, with the passing of the years, his love for him, instead of weakening, increased ever more? I think that, after the Holy Spirit, it is due to the fact that he had beside him the Mother of Jesus, he lived with her, prayed with her, and spoke with her of Jesus. A certain impression is felt when one thinks of how he conceived the phrase: «And the Word was made flesh,» the evangelist had beside him, under the same roof, the woman in whose womb that mystery was realized.

Origen wrote: «The flower of the four Gospels is the Gospel of John, the profound meaning of which, however, cannot be understood by him who has not leaned his head against Jesus’ breast and received Mary from him as his own mother.»[6]

Jesus was born «by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary.» The Holy Spirit and Mary, in different capacities, are the two best allies in our effort to come close to Jesus, to make him be born, through faith, in our lives this Christmas.

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[1] St. Augustine, «In Ioh» 38,10 (PL 35, 1680).

[2] Origen, «Against Celsius,» I, 26 & 28 (SCh 147, pp. 202 ff.).

[3] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, «Introduction to Christianity,» cit., p. 149.

[4] St. Augustine, «In Ioh.» 26, 2 (PL 35, 1607).

[5] J. Guillet, Jesus, in «Dictionnaire de spiritualité,» 8, col. 1098.

[6] Origen, Commentary on John, I, 6, 23 (SCh 120, pp. 70 f).

[Translation by ZENIT]

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