Father Cantalamessa's 4th Advent Sermon

The Experience of the Salvation of Christ Today

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 23, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Advent sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia.

The sermon was the fourth and last in a series. Father Cantalamessa offered 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.»

* * *

«To You Is Born This Day a Savior»

The Experience of the Salvation of Christ Today

1. What Savior for man?

In one of the last Christmases, I was attending a midnight Mass presided over by the Pope in St. Peter’s. The moment came to sing the Calends:

«Many centuries since the creation of the world … 13 centuries after the march out of Egypt … In the year 752 of the foundation of Rome … In the year 42 of the empire of Caesar Augustus, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal father, having been conceived by the power of the holy Spirit, after nine months, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the virgin Mary, made man.»

Having come to these last words I experienced what is called «the anointing of faith»: a sudden interior clarity which makes one say to oneself: «It is true! It is all true! They are not just words. God has truly come to our earth.» I felt a total upheaval, and could only say: «Thank you, Most Holy Trinity, and thank you, also, holy Mother of God!» I would like to share this profound certainty with you, venerable fathers and brothers, during this last meditation the theme of which is the experience of the salvation of Christ today.

Appearing to the shepherds on the night of Christmas, the angel said to them: «I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord» (Luke 2:10-12). The title of Savior was not attributed to Jesus during his life. There was no need of it, its contents already being expressed, for a Jew, by the title Messiah. But when the Christian faith appeared in the pagan world, the title acquired decisive importance, in part precisely to oppose the custom of calling the emperor by it as well as some saving divinities, such as Aesculapius.

It was found already in the New Testament in the Apostles’ lifetime. Matthew is concerned to emphasize that the name «Jesus» means, precisely, «God saves» (Matthew 1:21). Paul already called Jesus «Savior» (Philippians 3:20); in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter specifies that he is the only Savior, «and there is salvation in no one else» (Acts 4:42), and John puts on the Samaritans’ lips the solemn profession of faith: «We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the savior of the world» (John 4:42).

The content of this salvation consists above all but not only in the remission of sins. For Paul it also embraces the final redemption of our bodies (Philippians 3:20). The salvation wrought by Christ has a negative aspect that consists in the liberation from sin and the forces of evil, and a positive aspect which consists in the gift of the new life, of the freedom of the children of God, of the Holy Spirit and of the hope of eternal life.

Salvation in Christ was not, however, for the first Christian generations, only a truth believed from Revelation; it was above all a reality experienced in life and joyfully proclaimed in worship. Thanks to the word of God and to the sacramental life, believers feel they are living in the mystery of salvation realized in Christ: salvation that is configured, little by little, as liberation, illumination, rescue, divinization, etc. It is a primordial and peaceful event which authors almost never feel the need to demonstrate.

In this double dimension — of revealed truth and lived experience — the idea of salvation played a decisive part in leading the Church to the full truth about Jesus Christ. Soteriology was the plow that made the furrow for Christology; it was the propeller that pulls the plane or drives the ship. The great dogmatic definitions of the Councils were attained by making use of the experience of salvation that believers had in Christ. His contact, they said, divinizes us; therefore, he must be God himself. «We would not be liberated from sin and damnation,» wrote Athanasius, «if the flesh the Word assumed was not human by nature; nor would man be divinized if the Word that was made flesh was not of the same nature of the Father.»[1]

The relationship between Christology and soteriology is mediated, in the patristic age, by anthropology, so that it must be said that to a different understanding of man corresponds always a different presentation of Christ’s salvation. The process develops through three important questions. First: What is man and where does his evil reside? Second question: What kind of salvation is necessary for such a man? Third question: What must the Savior be like to realize such salvation? Based on the different answers given to these questions we see a different understanding being delineated of the person of Christ and of his salvation.

In the Alexandrian school, for example, where the Platonic view prevails, the evil part of man most in need of salvation is his flesh; hence the emphasis on the Incarnation as the moment when, assuming flesh, the Word of God liberates it from corruption and divinizes it. In this line, one of them, Apollinaris of Laodicea, will go so far as to affirm that the Word did not assume a human soul, because the soul has no need to be saved, itself being a spark of the eternal Logos. In Christ the rational soul is substituted by the Logos in person; there is no need for a spark of the Logos where the whole Logos is found.

In the Antiochian school, where, instead, Aristotle’s thought prevails, or in any case a less Platonic view, man’s evil is seen, on the contrary, precisely in his soul and, in particular, in his rebellious will. Hence the insistence on the full humanity of Christ and his paschal mystery, through which, with his obedience unto death, Christ saves man. Synthesizing these two instances, the Church in Chalcedon will attain a complete idea of Christ and his salvation.

The Christian faith does not limit itself however to respond to the expectations of salvation of the environment in which it operates, but it creates and expands all expectations. Thus we see that to the Platonic and Gnostic dogma of salvation «through the flesh,» the Church opposes with firmness the dogma of salvation «from the flesh,» preaching the resurrection of the dead; to a life beyond the tomb infinitely weaker than the present life and devoured by nostalgia of it, deprived as it is of an objective and center of attraction, the Christian faith opposes the idea of a future life infinitely more full and everlasting in the vision of God.

2. Is there still need of a Savior?

In the first meditation I mentioned that, in regard to faith in Christ, in many aspects we find ourselves today close to the situation of the origins and we can learn from that time how to re-evangelize the world which is again, to a large extent, pagan. We must also ask ourselves today those three questions: What idea is there today about man and his evil? What kind of salvation is needed for such a man? How should Christ be announced to respond to such expectations of salvation?

Simplifying greatly, as is necessary in a meditation, we can identify two important positions in regard to salvation outside of the Christian faith: that of religions and that of science.

For the so-called new religions, which share the common background of the New Age movement, salvation does not come from outside, but is potentially within man himself. It consists in being attuned to or in rhythm with the energy and life of the whole cosmos. There is no need therefore for a savior but, at most, of teachers who show the way to self-realization
. I will not comment on this position because it was refuted once and for all by Paul’s affirmation on which we commented last time. «All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God, but have been justified by faith in Christ.»

Let us reflect instead on the challenge to faith in general and the Christian faith in particular from nonbelieving science. The atheist version most in fashion at present is that which is called the scientific, which French biologist Jacques Monod made popular in his book «Chance and Necessity.» «The old alliance is infringed,» concludes the author, «man finally knows that he is alone in the immensity of the universe from which he arose by chance. His duty, as his destiny, is nowhere written. Our number has come up randomly.»

In this view the problem of salvation is not even posed, regarded as it is as a residue of that «animist» mentality, as the author calls it, which seeks to see objectives and aims in a universe which advances instead in obscurity, directed only by chance and necessity. The only salvation is that offered by science and consists in knowledge of how things are, without self-consoling illusions. «Modern societies,» he writes, «are built on science. To it they owe their wealth, power and the certainty that even greater wealth and power will one day be accessible to man if he wants it. … Furnished with all power, and enjoying all the riches that science offers them, our societies still endeavor to live and teach systems of values, already undermined at the base by this same science.»[2]

My intention is not to discuss these theories, but only to give an idea of the cultural context in which we are called at present to announce the salvation of Christ. We must, however, make one observation. Let us admit that «our number has come up randomly,» that life is the result of a chance combination of inanimate elements. But to get the numbers from the roulette, someone has to have put them there. Who has provided by chance the ingredients with which to work? It is an old and trivial observation, and one which no scientist to date has been able to give an answer, except for the quick one that it’s not something brought into question.

One thing is certain and incontrovertible: The existence of the universe and man is not explained on its own. We can give up trying to find a further explanation beyond that which science can give, but that’s not to say that everything has been explained without the hypothesis of God. At most, chance explains the how, not the what, of the universe. It explains that it is as it is, but not the fact itself that it exists. Nonbelieving science does not eliminate the mystery; it only changes its name: Instead of God it calls it chance.

I believe that the most significant denial of Monod’s thesis has come precisely from that science to which, according to him, humanity should entrust its own destiny. The scientists themselves are the ones who, in fact, recognize today that science alone is unable to answer all the questions and needs of man, and seek dialogue with philosophy and religion, the «systems of values» which Monod regards as irreducible antagonists of science. We see it, moreover, with our own eyes: The extraordinary successes of science and technology are not followed necessarily by more free and peaceful human coexistence in our planet.

In my opinion, Monod’s book demonstrates that when a scientist wants to draw philosophic conclusions from his scientific analyses — whether these are of biology or astrophysics — the results are no better than when philosophers sought to draw scientific conclusions from their philosophic analyses.

3. Christ saves us from space

How can we announce in a significant way the salvation of Christ in this new cultural context? Space and time, the two coordinates within which man’s life on earth develops, have undergone such a sudden expansion and acceleration that even the believer suffers vertigo. The «seven heavens» of ancient man, each one slightly above the other, have become, meanwhile, 100 million galaxies, each one made up of 100 million stars, distant from one another by thousands of millions of light-years; the Bible’s 4,000 years since the creation of the world have been transformed into 14 billion years …

I believe that faith in Christ not only resists this clash, but that it offers the one who believes in him the possibility to feel at home in the expanded dimensions of the universe, free and joyful «as a child in his mother’s arms.»

Faith in Christ saves us above all from the immensity of space. We live in a universe the magnitude of which we can no longer imagine or quantify, the expansion of which continues without interruption, until it is lost in the infinite. A universe, science tells us, sovereignly ignorant and indifferent to what happens on earth.

But this is not what most influences the consciences of ordinary people. It’s a fact that on the earth itself, with the event of mass communication, space has expanded all of a sudden around man, making him feel even smaller and insignificant, as a disoriented actor on a huge stage.

Movies, television and the Internet place before our eyes at every moment what we could be and are not, what others do and we do not do, awakening a sensation of resigned frustration and passive acceptance of one’s own fortune or rather, on the contrary, an obsessive need to emerge from anonymity and call attention to oneself. In the first case one lives in the reflection of the life of another and, as a person, becomes an admirer or fan of someone; in the second case, life is reduced to a career.

Faith in Christ frees us from the need to make our way, to avoid our limitations at all costs and to be someone; it also frees us from envy of the great, reconciles us with ourselves and with our place in life, gives us the possibility of being happy and of being totally fulfilled where we are. «And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!» (John 1:14). God, the infinite, came and comes continually to you, where you are. The coming of Christ in the incarnation, kept alive through the centuries by the Eucharist, makes every place the first place. With Christ in one’s heart one feels oneself in the center of the world, including in the earth’s most remote village.

This explains why so many believers, men and women, can live ignored by all, carry out the most humble jobs in the world or even be enclosed in a cloister and feel themselves, in this situation, the happiest and most fulfilled persons on earth. One of these cloistered souls, Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified, known by the name «the Little Arab» because of her Palestinian origin and slight stature, on returning to her place after having received Communion, could be heard exclaiming to herself in a low voice: «Now I have everything, I have everything.»

Today the fact that Christ did not come in splendor, power and majesty, but little and poor acquires a new significance for us; that he chose a «humble maiden» as his Mother, that he did not live in a metropolis of the period, Rome, Alexandria or even Jerusalem, but rather in a remote village of Galilee, exercising the humble profession of carpenter. At that moment the true center of the world was not in Rome or Jerusalem but in Bethlehem, «the smallest village of Judea,» and after it in Nazareth, the village of which it was said that «nothing good could come from it.»

What we say about society in general is even truer for us, people of the Church. The certainty that Christ is with us, wherever we are, frees us from the obsessive need to go higher, to hold the highest posts. No one can say that he is altogether exempt from feeling such natural sentiments and desires within himself — not in the least, preachers! — but the thought of Christ helps us at least to recognize them and to struggle against them so that they will never become the dominant motive of our action. The wonderful result of this is peace.

4. Christ saves us from time

The second realm in which we experience the salvation of Christ is that of time. From this point of view our situation has not changed much from that of men at the time of the Apostles. The problem is always the same and it is called death. The salvation of Christ is compared by Peter to that of Noah of the deluge that «engulfed all» (1 Peter 3:20 ff.) and it is because of this that he is represented among the mosaics of this chapel, as a moment of the history of salvation. But there is always a deluge in the world: that of time which, like water, submerges everything and sweeps all away, one generation after another.

The 19th-century Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer expressed admirably the perception that man has of himself facing death.

«Gigantic wave that the wind / curls and pushes in the sea, / And rolls on and passes, and knows not / what beach it seeks.

«Light that shines in trembling rings, close to expiring, / knowing not which will be the last to shine.

«I am he, who by chance go through the world, thinking not from whence I come or whither my steps will take me.»[3]

At present there are renowned psychologists who see in the rejection of death the true spring of all human action, including the sexual instinct, placed by Freud as the basis of everything, it would be no more than one of the manifestations.[4] Biblical man was consoled by the certainty of surviving in his offspring; pagan man by surviving in fame: «Non omnis moriar (I will not die completely),» said Horace. Referring to his poetry, he said: «Exegi monumentum aere perennius (I have built a monument more lasting than bronze).»

Today appeal is made rather to survival of the species. «The survival of each individual,» writes Monod, «has no importance whatsoever for the affirmation of a specific species; the latter is entrusted to the capacity to give origin to abundant offspring capable in turn of surviving and reproducing themselves.»[5] A variant of the Marxist view — based in this occasion on biology instead of dialectical materialism, but in each case the hope of surviving in the species — has revealed itself insufficient to placate man’s anguish in the face of his own death.

The philosopher Miguel de Unamuno — who was also a «secular» thinker — answered a friend, who reproached him as being proud and presumptuous in his search for eternity, in these terms: «I do not say that we deserve a beyond or that logic show it to us; I say that I need it, whether or not I deserve it, and nothing more. I say that what happens does not satisfy me, that I thirst for eternity, and that without it nothing matters to me. Without it there is no joy in living. … It is very easy to say: ‘We must live!’ ‘We must be content with life!’ And those of us who are not content with it?»[6] It is not the one who desires eternity, said the same thinker, who shows no love for life, but the one who does not desire it, from the moment he resigns himself so easily to the thought that it must end.

What does the Christian faith say about all this? Something simple and grandiose: that death exists, that it is our greatest problem, but that Christ has conquered death! Human death is no longer the same as before; a decisive event has intervened. It has lost its sting, as a serpent whose venom is now only able to lull the victim for an hour, but not kill it. Death is no longer a wall before which everything breaks; it is a step, that is, an Easter. It is a «passing to what does not pass,» said Augustine.[7]

Jesus in fact — and here is the great Christian announcement — did not die just for himself, he did not just leave us an example of heroic death, as Socrates. He did something very different: «One died for all» (2 Corinthians 5:14), exclaims St. Paul, and also: «He tasted death for every one» (Hebrews 2:9). «Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live» (John 11:25). Extraordinary affirmations that do not make us cry out in joy only because we do not take them seriously enough, and to the letter, as we should.

Christianity does not gain ground in consciences with the fear of death; it gains ground with the death of Christ. Jesus came to liberate men from fear of death, not to increase it. The Son of God assumed flesh and blood like us, «to destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage» (Hebrews 2:14 ff.).

In addition to Christ’s resurrection, the proof that all this is not «self-consoling illusion» is the fact that the believer already experiences, from the moment he believes, something of this victory over death. Last summer I preached in an Anglican parish in London. The church was full of young men and women. I was talking about the resurrection of Christ and, at a certain moment, after I had given all the arguments to support it, I was inspired to ask those present a question: «How many of you think you can say as the blind man from birth: ‘I was blind, but now I see,’ ‘I was dead, but now I live’?» A forest of hands were raised even before I finished the question. Some were coming from years of drugs, prison, despairing life and suicide attempts; others, on the contrary, from promising careers in the field of business and entertainment.

To his close friends who expressed concern about his future and health conditions, raising his head in his wheelchair, Pope John Paul II surprisingly repeated one day, toward the end of his life, with a profound voice, Horace’s phrase: «Non omnis moriar» (I will not die completely), but on his lips that already had another meaning.

5. Christ «My Savior»

It is not enough, however, that I recognize Christ as «Savior of the world»; it is necessary that I recognize him as «my Savior.» A moment that cannot be forgotten is that in which this discovery takes place and this illumination is received. One then understands what the Apostle tried to say with the words: «Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost» (1 Timothy 1:15).

The experience of salvation that is had with Christ is wonderfully exemplified in the incident of Peter, drowning in the lake. We experience daily the sense of drowning: in sin, in lukewarmness, in discouragement, in incredulity, in doubt, in routine. Faith itself is to walk on the edge of the cliff, with the constant sensation that at every moment we might lose our balance and plunge into the void.

In these conditions it is an immense consolation to continually discover that Christ’s hand is ready to lift us up, if only we seek and grab hold of it. We can even experience a profound joy seeing ourselves as weak and sinners, as the liturgy sings in the «Exultet» of the Easter Vigil: «O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!» (O happy fault, which gained for us so great a Redeemer).

I shall end here, venerable fathers and brothers, my Advent reflections on faith in Christ in the world of today. Writing against the Docetist heretics of his time, who denied the Incarnation of the Word and his true humanity, Tertullian proffered the cry: «Do not take away from the world its only hope» (parce unicae spei totius orbis).[8]

It is the sad cry we must repeat to the men of today, tempted to do without Christ. He is, still today, the only hope of the world. When the Apostle Peter exhorts us to «give reason for the hope that is in us,» he exhorts us to speak to men of Christ because he is the reason of our hope.

We must re-create the conditions for a recovery of faith in Christ. Reproduce the impulse of faith from which the symbol of Nicaea was born. The body of the Church produced on that occasion a supreme effort, raising itself in faith above all human systems and all the resistances of reason.

The fruit of this effort remained later as the symbol of faith. The tide once rose to the highest level and a sign of it remained on the rock. But it must rise again, the sign is not enough. It is not enough to repeat the
Nicean Creed; the impulse of faith must be renewed which then existed in the divinity of Christ and of which there has been no equal in the centuries.

While waiting to proclaim it publicly, bending the knee, on the night of Christmas, I now take the liberty to invite everyone to recite, in Latin, the article of faith on Jesus. It is the most beautiful gift we can give Christ who comes, the one he always sought in life. He also asks his closest collaborators today: «You, who do you believe that I am?»

And we, rising to our feet, respond:

«Credo in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum. Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero. Genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis. Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex Maria Virgine: et homo factus est.»

(I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.)

Merry Christmas to all!

* * *

[1] St. Athanasius, «Oratio contra Arianos,» I,70.

[2] J. Monod, «Il caso e la necessità,» Est Mondadori, Milan, 1970, pp. 136-7.

[3] Gustavo A. Bécquer, «Obras Completas,» p. 426.

[4] Cf. E. Becker, «Il Rifiuto della Morte,» St. Paul’s Publishers, Rome, 1982.

[5] J. Monod, «Il caso e la necessità,» Milan, 1970.

[6] M. de Unamuno, «Cartas a J. Ilundain,» in Review of the University of Buenos Aires, 9, pp. 135-150.

[7] St. Augustine, «Trattati su Giovanni,» 55, 1.

[8] Tertullian, «De Carne Christi,» 5, 3 (CC 2, p. 881).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation