Father Cantalamessa's 2nd Advent Sermon

«Called by God to Communicate With his Son Jesus Christ»

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 12, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is the Advent homily Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, delivered today in the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia.

This is the second of three Advent sermons the preacher wrote on the theme «‘When the Fullness of Time Had Come, God Sent his Son, Born of a Woman: Going With St. Paul to Meet the Christ Who Comes.»

The last sermon will be given Dec. 19.

* * *

In order to remain faithful to the method of «lectio divina» so recommended by the recent synod of bishops, we listen above all to St. Paul’s words, on which we wish to reflect in this meditation:

«But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own» (Philippians 3:7-12).

1. «That I may know him»

Last time we meditated on Paul’s conversion as a metanoia, a change of mind, in the way of conceiving salvation. Paul, however, did not convert to a doctrine, be it also the doctrine of justification through faith; he converted to a person! Before a change of thought, his was a change of heart, the encounter with a living person. Often used is the expression «stroke of lightning» to indicate a love at first sight that sweeps away every obstacle; in no case is this metaphor more appropriate than for St. Paul.

Let us see how this change of heart shines from the text just heard. He speaks of the «surpassing worth» (hyperechon) of knowing Christ, and it is known that in this case, as in the whole Bible, to know does not indicate only an intellectual discovery, having an idea of something, but a vital and profound bond, an entering into relation with the object known. The same is true for the expression «that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings.» «To know sharing in sufferings» does not mean, obviously, to have an idea, but to experience suffering.

It so happened that I read this passage in a particular moment of my life in which I also found myself before a choice. I was concerned with Christology, I had written and read so much on this argument, but when I read «that I may know him,» I understood all of a sudden that that simple personal pronoun «him» (autòn) contained more truth about Jesus Christ than all the books written or read about him. I understood that, for the Apostle, Christ was not an ensemble of doctrines, heresies, dogmas; he was a living person, present and very real who could be designated with a simple pronoun, as is done, when one speaks of someone who is present, indicating him with the finger.

The effect of falling in love is double. On one hand there is a drastic reduction to one, a concentration on the person loved that makes all the rest of the world pass to a second plane; on the other hand, it renders one capable of suffering anything for the person loved, accepting the loss of everything. We see both these effects realized to perfection at the moment in which the Apostle discovers Christ: «For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse.»

He has accepted the loss of his privileges of «Jew of Jews,» the esteem and friendship of his teachers and fellow countrymen, the hatred and commiseration of all those who did not understand how a man like him was able to allow himself to be seduced by a sect of fanatics without art or position. In the second Letter to the Corinthians is found the impressive list of all the things suffered for Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24-28).

The Apostle himself found the word that alone contains all: «Christ has made me his own.» It could also be translated as seized, fascinated, or with an expression of Jeremiah, «seduced» by Christ. Those in love do not hold back, it has been done by so many mystics at the height of their ardor. I have no difficulty, therefore, imagining Paul who, in an impetus of joy after his conversion, shouts alone to the trees on the seashore that which he would later write to the Philippians: «Christ has made me his own! Christ has made me his own!»

We know well the lapidary and pregnant phrases of the Apostle that every one of us would love to be able to repeat in our own life: «For me to live is Christ» (Philippians 1:21), and «it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me» (Galatians 2:20).

2. «In Christ»

Now, keeping faith with all that was announced in the program of these homilies, I would like to bring to light that which Paul’s thought might mean on this point, first for today’s theology and then for the spiritual life of believers.

Personal experience led Paul to a global vision of Christian life that he indicates with the expression «in Christ» (en Christō). The formula recurs 83 times in the Pauline corpus, without counting the similar expression «with Christ» (syn Christō) and the equivalent pronominal expressions «in him» or «in him that.»

It is almost impossible to translate with words the poignant content of these phrases. The preposition «in» has a meaning now local, now temporal (at the moment in which Christ dies and rises), now instrumental (through Christ). It delineates the spiritual atmosphere in which the Christian lives and acts. Paul applies to Christ that which in the address to the Areopagus of Athens he says of God, quoting a pagan author: «In him we live, and move and have our being» (Acts 17:28). Later the evangelist John would express the same vision with the image of «abiding in Christ» (John 15:4-7).

Those who speak of Pauline mysticism refer to these expressions. Phrases such as «God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself» (2 Corinthians 5:19) are all-encompassing, they do not leave anything and anyone outside of Christ. To say that believers are «called to be saints» (Romans 1:7) is for the Apostle equivalent to saying that they are «called by God into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ» (1 Corinthians 1:9). Rightly, beginning to be considered today, also in the heart of the Protestant world, is the vision synthesized in the expression «in Christ» or «in the Spirit» as more central and representative of Paul’s thought than the doctrine itself of justification through faith.

The Pauline Year might be revealed as the providential occasion to close a whole period of discussions and disagreements linked more to the past than to the present, and to open a new chapter in the use of the Apostle’s thought. To return to his letters, in the first place the Letter to the Romans, for the purpose for which they were written was not, of course, that of furnishing future generations with a gymnasium in which to exercise their theological acumen, but that of edifying the faith of the community, formed in the main by simple and illiterate people. «For I long to see you,» he wrote to the Romans, «that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine» (Romans 1:11-12).

3. Beyond the Reformation and Counter-Reformation

I believe it is time to go beyond the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. What is at stake at the start of the third millennium is no longer the same as at the beginning of the second millennium, when at the heart of Western Christianity the separation took place between Catholics and Protestants.

To give but one example, the problem is no longer that of Luther and of how to liberate man from the sense of guilt that oppresses him, but how to give again to man the true meaning of sin which has been totally lost. What sense does it make to continue to discuss how «justification of the godless comes about,» when man is convinced of not having need of any justification and says with pride: «I accuse myself today and I alone can absolve myself, I the man»?[1]

I believe that all the age-old discussions between Catholics and Protestants about faith and works have ended up by making us lose sight of the main point of the Pauline message, often shifting attention from Christ to doctrines on Christ, in practice, from Christ to men. That which the Apostle is anxious above all to affirm in Romans 3 is not that we are justified by faith, but that we are justified by faith in Christ; it is not so much that we are justified by grace, but that we are justified by the grace of Christ. The accent is on Christ, more than on faith and grace.

After having two preceding chapters of the Letter presenting humanity in its universal state of sin and perdition, the Apostle has the incredible courage to proclaim that this situation has now radically changed «through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,» «by one man’s obedience» (Romans 3:24; 5:19). The affirmation that this salvation is received by faith, and not by works, is most important, but it comes in the second place, not in the first. The error has been committed of reducing to a school problem, in the interior of Christianity, what for the Apostle was an affirmation of a more vast, cosmic and universal event.

This message of the Apostle on the centrality of Christ is of great importance today. Many factors have lead in fact to put his person in parenthesis today. Christ does not come into question in any of the three liveliest dialogues taking place today between the Church and the world. Not in the dialogue between faith and philosophy, because philosophy is concerned with metaphysical concepts; not of historical reality as is the person of Jesus of Nazareth; not in the dialogue with science, with which one can only discuss the existence or nonexistence of a creator God, of a project of evolution; not, finally, in the interreligious dialogue, where we are concerned with that which religions can do together, in the name of God, for the good of humanity.

Asked about what they believe in, few even among believers answered: I believe that Christ died for my sins and has risen for my justification. And few answered: I believe in the existence of God, in life after death. Yet for Paul, as for the whole of the New Testament, faith that saves is only faith in the death and resurrection of Christ: «if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved» (Romans 10:9).

In the past month, a symposium was held here in the Vatican, in the Pius IV Casina, promoted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, titled «Scientific Views About the Evolution of the Universe and of Life,» which was attended by top scientists from around the world. I wished to interview, for the program I conduct every Saturday on TV on the Gospel, one of the participants, professor Francis Collins, director of the research group that led in 2000 to the complete deciphering of the human genome. Knowing he was a believer, I asked him, among others, the question: «Did you believe first in God or in Jesus Christ?» He answered:

«Up to the age of 25 I was an atheist, I had no religious preparation, I was a scientist who reduced almost everything to equations and laws of physics. But as a doctor I began to see people that had to face the problem of life and death, and this made me think that my atheism was not a rooted idea. I began to read texts on the rational arguments of faith that I did not know. As the first result I came to the conviction that atheism was the less acceptable alternative. Little by little I came to the conclusion that a God must exist who has created all this, but I didn’t know how this God was.»

It is useful to read, in his book «The Language of God,» how he overcame this impasse:

«I found it difficult to build a bridge toward God. The more I learned about him, the more his purity and holiness seemed unapproachable. Into this deepening gloom came the person of Jesus Christ. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.»[2]

What comes to mind is the word of Christ: «No one comes to the Father except by me.» It is only in him that God becomes accessible and credible. Thanks to this rediscovered faith, the moment of the discovery of the human genome was, at the same time, he says, an experience of scientific exaltation and of religious adoration.

The conversion of this scientist shows that the Damascus event is renewed in history; Christ is the same today as then. It is not easy for a scientist, especially for a biologist, to declare himself publicly today to be a believer, as it was not for Saul: one risks being immediately «thrown out of the synagogue.» And, in fact, that is what happened to professor Collins who because of his profession of faith had to suffer the arrows of many supporters of laicism.

4. From the Presence of God to the Presence of Christ

It remains for me to say something about the point: What does Paul’s example have to say for the spiritual life of believers? One of the most treated topics in Catholic spirituality is that of the thought of the presence of God.[3] Not counted are the treatises on this argument from the 16th Century up to today. In one of these, one reads:

«The good Christian must be accustomed to this holy exercise in every time and place. On awakening he turns the gaze of his soul immediately to God, he speaks and converses with him as his beloved Father. When he walks through the streets he must keep the eyes of his body down and modest elevating those of the soul to God.»[4]

To be distinguished is the «thought of the presence of God» from the «feeling of his presence»: the first depends on us, the second, instead, is a gift of grace that does not depend on us. (It is known that for St. Gregory of Nyssa «the feeling of the presence» of God, the «aisthesis parousia,» was a synonym of mystical experience).

It is a rigidly theocentric vision that in some authors is driven to the counsel of «leaving to one side the holy humanity of Christ.» St. Teresa of Avila reacted energetically against this idea that reappears periodically in Origen and then at the heart of Christianity, whether Eastern or Western. But the spirituality of the presence of God, also after him, will continue to be rigidly theocentric, with all the problems and the «aporie» that derive from it, brought to light by the very authors that treat it.[5]

On this point St. Paul’s thought can help us to overcome the difficulty that has led to the decline of the spirituality of the presence of God. He always speaks of a presence of God «in Christ.» An irreversible and unsurpassable presence. There is no stage of the spiritual life in which one can make less of Christ, or go «beyond Christ.» Christian life is a «hidden life with Christ in God» (Colossians 3:3). This Pauline Christocentrism does not attenuate the Trinitarian horizon of the faith but exalts it, because for Paul the whole movement comes from the Father and returns to the Father, through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The expression «in Christ» is interchangeable, in his writings, with the expression «in the Spirit.»

The need to overcome the humanity of Christ to accede directly to the eternal Logos and to divinity, was born from a scarce
consideration of the resurrection of Christ. The latter was seen in its apologetic meaning, as proof of the divinity of Jesus, and not sufficiently in its mysterious meaning, as inauguration of his life «according to the Spirit,» thanks to which the humanity of Christ appears now in its spiritual condition and therefore omnipresent and existing.

What derives on the practical plane? That we can do everything «in Christ» and «with Christ,» whether we eat, or sleep, or do any other thing, says the Apostle (1 Corinthians 10:31). The Risen One is not present only because we think about him, but is really beside us; it is not us who must, with thought and imagination, go back to his earthly life and represent to ourselves the episodes of his life (as we were forced to do in the meditation of the «mysteries of the life of Christ»); it is he, the Risen One, who comes toward us. It is not us that, with imagination, must become contemporaries of Christ; it is Christ who really makes himself our contemporary. «I am with you all the days until the end of the world.» (In this connection, why not make an act of faith immediately? He is here, in this chapel, more present than is each one of us; he seeks the gaze of our heart and is joyful when he finds it).

A text that reflects this vision of Christian life marvelously is the prayer attributed to St. Patrick: «Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ below me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left!»[6]

What new and higher meaning the words of St. Louis Grignion de Montfort acquire, if we apply to the «Spirit of Christ» what he says of the «spirit of Mary»:

«We must abandon ourselves to the Spirit of Christ to be moved and guided according to his will. We must put ourselves and remain between his hands as an instrument between the hands of a worker, as a lute between the hands of a skillful player. We must lose and abandon ourselves in him as a stone that is thrown into the sea. It is possible to do all this simply and in an instant, with just one interior glance or a light movement of the will, or also with some brief word.»[7]

5. Forgetting the past

We conclude by turning to the text of Philippians 3. St. Paul ends his «confessions» with a declaration:

«Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus» (Philippians 3:13-14).

«Forgetting the past.» What past? That of Pharisee, of which he first spoke? No, the past of apostle in the Church! Now the gain of considering loss is another: It is proper to have already once considered all a loss for Christ. It was natural to think: «What courage, was that of Paul: to abandon the career of rabbi so well underway for an obscure sect of Galileans! And what letters he wrote! How many voyages he undertook, how many churches he founded!»

The Apostle saw in a confused manner the mortal danger of putting behind himself and Christ his «own justice» derived from works — this time the works done by Christ — and he reacted energetically. «I do not think,» he says, «that I have arrived at perfection.» Toward the end of his life, St. Francis of Assisi cut short every temptation of self-complacency, saying: «We begin, brothers, to serve the Lord, because up to now we have done little or nothing.»[8]

This is the most necessary conversion for those who have already followed Christ and have lived at his service in the Church. An altogether special conversion, which does not consist in abandoning what is evil, but, in a certain sense, in abandoning what is good! Namely, in detaching oneself from everything that one has done, repeating to oneself, according to Christ’s suggestions: «We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty» (Luke 17:10).

This emptying of one’s hands and pockets of every pretension, in a spirit of poverty and humility, is the best way to prepare for Christmas. We are reminded of it by a delightful Christmas legend that I would like to mention again. It narrates that among the shepherds that ran on Christmas night to adore the Child there was one who was so poor that he had nothing to offer and was very ashamed. Reaching the grotto, all competed to offer their gifts. Mary did not know what to do to receive them all, having to hold the Child in her arms. Then, seeing the shepherd with his hands free, she entrusted Jesus to him. To have empty hands was his fortune and, on another plane, will also be ours.

* * *

[1] J.-P. Sartre, «Le Diable et le Bon Dieu» (The Devil and the Good Lord), X, 4 (Paris, Gallimard, 1951, p. 267).

[2] F. Collins, «The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,» pp. 219-255.

[3] Cf. M. Dupuis, «Présence de Dieu» (Presence of God), in D Spir. 12, coll. 2107-2136.

[4] F. Arias (+1605), cit. by Dupuis, col. 2111.

[5] Dupuis, cit., col 2121: «If the omnipresence of God is not distinguished from his essence, the exercise of the presence of God does not add to the traditional subject of the remembrance of God, if not an imaginative effort.»

[6] «Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ below me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left.»

[7] Cf. S.L. Grignon de Montfort, «Treatise on True Devotion to Mary,» nr. 257.259 (in Complete Works, Paris, 1966, pp. 660.661).

[8] Celano, «Vita Prima,» 103 (Franciscan Sources, No. 500).

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