Father Cantalamessa's 4th Lenten Sermon

“There Is No Gift More Beautiful Than Spreading Hope”

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 6, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is the fourth Lenten sermon for 2009 by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, which he gave Friday at the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Curia.

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“We too, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness” (Romans 8:23).

The Holy Spirit, Soul of Christian Eschatology

1. The Spirit of the promise

Let us listen to the passage from the eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans which we want to meditate on today: “And not only that: we too, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to be set free. In hope, we already have salvation; in hope, not visibly present, or we should not be hoping — nobody goes on hoping for something which is already visible. But having this hope for what we cannot yet see, we are able to wait for it with persevering confidence” (Romans 8:23-25).

In the Scriptures we find the same tension between promise and fulfillment with regards to the person of Christ as with regards to the person of the Holy Spirit. Just as Christ was first promised in the Scriptures, then later made manifest in the flesh, and then awaited in his second coming, so also the Spirit, once “promised by the Father,” was poured out at Pentecost, and is now once again awaited and invoked “with indescribable moaning” by mankind and all creation, who, having tasted the first fruits, await the fullness of this gift.

During this period of time that spans from Pentecost to the Parousia, the Spirit is the strength that pushes us forward, that keeps us on the path, that doesn’t allow us to become a “sedentary” people, that makes us sing the “psalms of ascension” with a new enthusiasm: “What joy when they told me: we will go up to the house of the Lord!” He is the one who creates the momentum and, so to say, gives wings to our hope; what is more, he is the very principle and soul of our hope.

Two authors speak to us about the Spirit as “promise” in the New Testament: Luke and Paul. But, as we will see, there is an important difference. In the gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles it is Jesus himself who speaks of the Spirit as “the Father’s promise.” He says, “I will send my Father’s promise upon you;” “While at table with them, he had told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for what the Father had promised. ‘It is,’ he had said, ‘what you have heard me speak about: John baptized with water but, not many days from now, you are going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit'” (Acts 1:4-5).

What is Jesus talking about when he calls the Holy Spirit the Father’s promise? Where is it that the Father made this promise? It could be said that the entire Old Testament is a promise of the Spirit. The work of the Messiah is constantly presented as being fulfilled in a new universal pouring out of God’s Spirit upon the earth. Looking at what Peter says the day of Pentecostshows that Luke thinks particularly about Joel’s prophecies: “In the last days — the Lord declares — I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity” (Acts 2:17).

It is not only these prophecies. How can we not also think about what we read in the other prophets? “Until the spirit is poured out on us from above” (Isaiah 32:15). “I shall pour out my spirit on your descendants” (Isaiah 44:3). “I shall put my spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36:27).

With regards to the content of the promise, Luke highlights, as he often does, the charismatic aspect of the gifts of the Spirit, in particular the gift of prophecy. The Father’s promise is the “strength from on high” that will make all disciples capable of bringing salvation to the ends of the earth. However he does not ignore the deeper, sanctifying and salvific aspects of the Spirit’s actions, such as the remission of sins, the gift of a new law and of a new covenant, as can be taken from the juxtaposition he creates between Sinai and Pentecost. Peters words: “The promise that was made is for you” (Acts 2:39) refer to the promise of salvation, no just the promise of prophecy or some other charisms.

2. The Spirit as first fruit and pledge

As we move from Luke to Paul, we enter into a new perspective, theologically much deeper. He lists numerous objects of the promise: justification, divine sonship, inheritance; but what summarizes everything else, the object of the promise par excellence is the Holy Spirit himself who he calls both “promise of the Spirit” (Galatians 3:14) and “Spirit of the promise” (Ephesians 1:13).

The Apostle introduces two new ideas into the concept of promise. The first is that God’s promise does not depend on the observance of the Law, but on faith on thus on grace. God doesn’t promise the Spirit to those who observe the law, but rather to those who believe in Christ. “How was it that you received the Spirit — was it by the practice of the Law, or by believing in the message you heard? If the inheritance comes by the Law, it no longer comes through a promise” (Galatians 3:2,18).

In Paul it is precisely through the concept of promise that the theology of the Holy Spirit is tied to the rest of his thought and it even becomes a concrete demonstration of his thought. Christians well know that it is after the preaching of the Gospel they first experienced the Holy Spirit, not because they subjected themselves to a more faithful observance of the law. The Apostle can base himself on a well-known fact.

 The second new concept is a bit disconcerting in a way. It is as if Paul wants to nip in the bud any temptation to be overly “enthusiastic,” saying that the promise is not yet fulfilled … at least fully! In this regard, there are two very revealing concepts that are applied to the Holy Spirit: first fruits (aparchè) e deposit (arrabôn). The first concept is present in our text of Romans 8, the other is found in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. “We too, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to be set free” (Romans 8:23). “It is God who gives us, with you, a sure place in Christ and has both anointed us and marked us with his seal, giving us as pledge the Spirit in our hearts” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). “It is God who designed us for this very purpose, and he has given us the Spirit as a pledge” (2 Corinthians 5:5).

What is the Apostle trying to say? That the fulfillment worked by Christ has not exhausted the Holy Spirit. In a unique contrast he says, “we possess … in expectation,” we possess and we await. It is precisely because that which we possess is not yet fullness, but only a first fruit, a foretaste that hope is born in us. What is more, the desire, the longing, the expectation grows even more intense than they were because now we know what the Holy Spirit is. The coming of the Holy Spirit has, in a manner of speaking, fanned the flame of human desire.

This happens the same way it happened with Christ: His coming has fulfilled all the promises, but has not ended the wait. The wait has restarted, under the form of waiting for his return in glory. The title of “the Father’s promise” puts the Holy Spirit at the very heart of Christian eschatology. Therefore we can’t accept the statements of certain authors without reservations. According to these authors, “in the Judeo-Christian construct, the Spirit was primarily the strength of the future world, and in the Hellenistic-Christian construct it is the strength of the superior world.” Paul demonstrates that the two concepts don’t necessarily contradict each other, but can rather coexist together. In him the Spirit is, at the same time, both a reality of the superior, divine world and the strength of the world to come.

In the journey from first fruits to fullness, the first fruits will not be thrown away to make space for the fullness; rather the first fruits will themselv
es turn into the fullness. We will keep what we already have and we will acquire that which we do not now possess. It will be the Holy Spirit himself who will expand in fullness.

The theological principle “grace is the beginning of glory,” applied to the Holy Spirit means that the first fruits are the beginning of the fulfillment, the beginning of glory, part of it. There is no need, in this case, to translate arrabôn, as “pledge” (pignus), rather just as deposit (arra). The pledge is not the beginning of the payment, but rather something that is given in lieu of payment. Once payment has been made, the pledge is returned. A deposit does not function in the same manner. The deposit is not returned when full payment is made, rather payment is completed. It is itself part of the payment. “If God has given us as a pledge the love through his Spirit, when the whole reality is given to us, will the pledge be taken away? Certainly not, but it will complete what he has already given.”[1]

The love of God that we sample, thanks to the deposit of the Spirit, is therefore of the same quality as that we will have in eternal life, but not of the same intensity. The same thing should be said about possessing the Holy Spirit.

A deep transformation has taken place, as we can see, in the meaning of the feast of Pentecost. In the beginning, Pentecost was the feast of the first fruits,[2] that is, the day when the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God. Now it is still the feast of the first fruits, but the first fruits that God offers humanity, in his Spirit. The roles of giver and beneficiary have been reversed, in perfect accord with that which occurs, in all fields, in passing from law to grace, from salvation as a work of man, to salvation as God’s free gift.

This explains how the interpretation of Pentecost as a feast of the first fruits has so strangely had almost no influence in the Christian feast of Pentecost. St. Irenaeus made an attempt in this direction, saying that the day of Pentecost “The Spirit offered the Father the first fruits of all people,”[3] but this would have almost no following in Christian thought.

3. The Holy Spirit soul of Tradition

The patristic age, unlike all the other aspects of pneumatology, does not significantly contribute to the concept of the Spirit as promise. This is due to the little interest that the Church Fathers have in the historical and eschatological perspective, compared to the ontological. St. Basil has a nice text on the role of the Spirit in the final consummation. He writes, “Even at the moment of the Lord’s awaited manifestation from the heavens, the Holy Spirit will not be absent. … Who could so ignore the good things God prepares for those who are worthy as not to understand that event the crown of the just ones is a grace of the Holy Spirit.”[4] However, if we read closely, the Saint only says that the Holy Spirit will have an active part in the final phase of human history, when we will pass from time to eternity. What is missing is any reflection on what the Holy Spirit already does, now, in time, to spur humanity toward its fulfillment. What is lacking is the sense of the Holy Spirit as a catalyst, a driving force of God’s people, on route toward the homeland.

The Spirit drives believers to be vigilant in waiting for Christ’s return, teaching the Church to say “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20). When the Spirit says Marana-tha with the Church, it is like when he says Abba in the heart of the believer: we should understand that he makes it be said, that he becomes the Church’s voice. In fact the Paraclete could not cry out Abba on his own, because he is not the Father’s son, and he could not cry out Marana-tha, “Come, Lord,” because he is not Christ’s servant, but rather “Lord” on par with him, as we profess in the creed.

Jesus says of the Paraclete, “He will make known to you the things to come” (John 16:14): That is, he will disclose the knowledge of the new order of things that comes from the Resurrection. Thus the Holy Spirit is the stimulus of Christian eschatology, the one who keeps the Church facing forward, toward the return of the Lord. This is just what current biblical and theological thought has tried to highlight. Moltmann writes that the new existence, inspired by the Spirit, is already eschatological, without waiting for the final moment of parousia, in the sense that it is the beginning of a life that will fully manifest itself only when the manner of existence determined by the Spirit is established, no longer held hostage by the flesh. The Spirit is not promise in only a static sense, but also the force of the promise, he who make us grasp the possibility of liberation, who makes the chains feel even heavier and more intolerable, and thus drives us to break them.[5]

This Pauline vision of the Holy Spirit as a promise and first fruit allows us to discover the true sense of the Tradition of the Church. Tradition is not primarily a collection of things that have been “transmitted,” but rather, it is in the first place the dynamic principle of transmission. What is more, it is the very life of the Church, in as much as it unfolds in fidelity to Jesus Christ, driven by the Spirit under the guide of the Magisterium. St. Irenaeus writes that revelation is “like a precious deposit held in a valuable vase, that thanks to God’s Spirit, renews itself always and even renews the vase that holds it.”[6] The valuable vase that renews itself along with what it contains is precisely the preaching of the Church and Tradition.

Because of this, the Holy Spirit is the soul of Tradition. If the Holy Spirit is removed or forgotten what remains is just dead letter. If, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Without the grace of the Holy Spirit even the precepts of the Gospel would be letter that kills,” what can we say about Tradition?

Tradition is, therefore, a force of permanence and conservation of the past, but it is also a force of innovation and growth; it is both memory and anticipation. It is like the wave of apostolic preaching that advances and propagates throughout the centuries.[7] The wave cannot be understood without movement. Freezing tradition in a certain moment of history would mean making it a “dead tradition,” no longer a “living tradition” as St. Irenaeus calls it.

4. The Holy Spirit makes us abound in hope

With his encyclical on hope, the Holy Father Benedict XVI points out the practical consequence that comes from our meditation: hope, hope always, and if we have already hoped a thousand times in vain, return and hope again! The encyclical’s title “Spe Salvi” (In Hope We Have Been Saved) is taken right from the Pauline verse we have commented on. It begins with these words: “According to the Christian faith, ‘redemption’ — salvation — is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.”

A certain equivalence and interchangeability is established between hoping and being saved, just as also between hoping and believing. The Pope writes, “Faith is hope,” thus confirming, from a theological perspective, the poetic intuition of Charles Péguy, who begins his poem on the second virtue with the words, “The faith I prefer, says God, is hope.”

Just as we distinguish two types of faith, the “fides quae creditur” and the “fides qua creditur,” that is, the things believed and the very act of believing, the same applies to hope. There is objective hope that indicates the thing hoped for, eternal life, and there is subjective hope, which is the very act of hoping for that thing. This second thing is a driving force, and internal catalyst, and extension of the soul, an opening of oneself toward the future. One of the early Church fathers called it, “A loving migration of the spirit toward tha
t which it hopes for.”[8]

Paul helps us discover the vital relationship that there is between the theological virtue of hope and the Holy Spirit. He ties all three theological virtues back to the action of the Holy Spirit. He writes: “In fact, by virtue of the Spirit, we wait for justice from faith which is the object of hope; since in Christ Jesus it is not being circumcised or being uncircumcised that can effect anything — only faith working through love.”[9]

The Holy Spirit thus appears to us as the wellspring and the strength of our theological life. It is due to him, in particular, that we can “be abounding in hope.” A bit later in the Letter to the Romans the Apostle writes, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in your faith, so that in the power of the Holy Spirit you may be rich in hope” (Romans 15:13). “The God of hope,” what an unusual definition of God!

Hope has been sometimes been called the “poor relation” among the three theological virtues. There has been, it is true, a movement of intense reflection on the theme of hope, even to the point of creating a “theology of hope.” But what has been lacking is a reflection on the relationship between hope and the Holy Spirit. Yet we cannot understand the peculiarity of Christian hope and its distinction from every other idea of hope, if we do not see it within its intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. He is the one that makes the difference between the “principle of hope” of Ernst Bloch and the theological virtue of hope. The theological virtues are such not only because they have God as their end, but also because they have God as their principle; God is not only their object, but also their cause. They are caused, infused, by God.

We need hope to live and we need the Holy Spirit to hope! Every moment is a good one to hope, but above all the time of tribulation, the Apostle writes: “Knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Hope is the most necessary virtue in this time of crisis for the world and of tribulation for the Church.

One of the principle dangers in the spiritual life is that of discouragement when faced with the repetition of the same sins and the seemingly useless cycle of resolution and relapse. Hope saves us. It gives us the strength to start over again, to believe each time that it will work, the strength of true conversion. In this way, God’s heart is moved and he will come to our aid with his grace.

The poet of hope goes on to say, or has God say: “Faith does not surprise me, says God. I shine so much through my creation. Charity does not surprise me, says God. Those poor creatures are so unhappy that, unless they have a heart of stone, how could they not have charity toward one another. … But hope, says God, that is what surprises me. That these poor children see how things are going and that they believe that it will get better tomorrow. This is shocking. It must be that my grace is truly an incredible force.”[10]

We cannot be satisfied with keeping hope just to ourselves. The Holy Spirit wants to make us planters of hope. There is no gift more beautiful than spreading hope at home, in the community, in the local and universal Church. It is like certain modern products that clean the air, making the whole room smell beautiful.

I end this series of Lenten meditations with a text from Paul VI that summarizes many of the points I have touched on: “We have asked ourselves may times … what need do we see, in the first and final analysis, for this our blessed and beloved Church. We should say it in an almost fearful and prayerful way, because it is his mystery and his life, you know it: the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, animator and sanctifier of the Church, her divine breath, the wind in her sails, her unifying principle, her interior source of light and strength, her support and consolation, her source of charism and song, her peace and her joy, her pledge and prelude of blessed and eternal life. The Church needs his perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, word on her lips, and prophecy in her vision… The Church needs to recover the desire, the taste, and the certainty of her truth.”[11]

By the merit of his passion and death, the Resurrection gives to all us, the Holy Easter, a renewal of his Spirit.

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[1] St. Augustine, Sermons, 23, 9 (CC 41, p. 314).[2] Cfr. Numbers 28:26; Leviticus 23:10.[3] St. Ireneus, Adv. Haer., III, 17,2; cf. also Eusebius of di Cesarea, On Easter, 4 (PG 24, 700A).

[4] St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XVI, 40 (PG 32, 141A).[5] Cf. J. Moltmann, Lo Spirito della vita, Brescia 1994, pp. 18. 92 s. 190.

[6] St. Ireneus, Adv. Haer. III, 24, 1.[7] H. Holstein, La tradition dans l’Eglise, Grasset, Parigi 1960 (Trad. ital. La tradizione nella Chiesa, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 1968.

[8] Diadocus of Fotica, Chapters, Introduction (SCh 5, p.84).[9] Galatians 5:5-6; cfr. Romans 5:5

[10] Ch. Péguy, Le porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu, in Œuvres poétiques complètes, Gallimard, Paris 1975, pp. 531 ss.[11] Paul VI, Discours at the general audience of 29 November 1972 (Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, X, pp. 1210s.).

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