Father Cantalamessa's Good Friday Sermon

«Up to Death and Death on a Cross»

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 10, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is the Good Friday 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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«Christus factus est pro nobis oboediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis»

«For Us Christ Made Himself Obedient Up to Death, and Death on a Cross»

On the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the Apostle Paul, let us listen to his burning words on the mystery of Christ’s death, which we are celebrating. No one can help us understand its significance and importance like he can.

His words to the Corinthians are a sort of manifest: «While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, we are preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God» (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). Christ’s death bears universal importance. «One man died for all, then all have died» (2 Corinthians 5:14). His death has given new meaning to the death of every man and every woman.

In Paul’s eyes the cross assumes a cosmic significance. Christ has torn down the wall of separation with it, he has reconciled men with God and with each other, destroying hatred (cf. Ephesians 2:14-16). Based on this, primitive tradition developed the theme of the cross as a cosmic tree that joins heaven and earth with the vertical branch and unites the different peoples of the world with the horizontal branch. It is both a cosmic and a very personal event at the same time: «He loved me and gave himself up for me!» (Galatians 2:20). The Apostle writes, every man is «one for whom Christ died» (Romans 14:15).

From all of this arises the sense of the cross, no longer as a punishment, admonishment, or reason for affliction, but rather, a glory and the boast of a Christian, that is a joyful security, accompanied by heartfelt gratitude, to which man rises in faith: «But as for me, it is out of the question that I should boast at all, except of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ» (Galatians 6:14).

Paul has planted the cross at the center of the Church like the mainmast at the center of the ship. He has made it the foundation and the center of gravity of everything. He has established the permanent framework of the Christian message. The Gospels, written after him, follow his framework, making the story of Christ’s passion and death the fulcrum toward which everything is oriented.

It is incredible to see the work accomplished by the Apostle. It is relatively easy for us today to see things in this light, since, as Augustine said, Christ’s cross has filled the earth and now shines on crowns of kings.[1] When Paul wrote, the cross was still synonymous with the most terrible ignominy, something that shouldn’t even be discussed among educated people.

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The goal of the Year of St. Paul is not so much to know the Apostle’s thinking better (researchers are always doing that, without even counting that scientific research takes longer than a year); rather, as the Holy Father has recalled on a number of occasions, it is to learn from Paul how to respond to the current challenges of the faith.

One of these challenges, maybe the most open challenge known till know, has become a publicity slogan plastered on public transport vehicles in London and other European cities: «There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.»

The most striking element about this slogan is not the premise, «God doesn’t exist,» but rather the conclusion: «Enjoy your life!» The underlying message is that faith in God keeps you from enjoying life; it is an enemy of happiness. Without it there would be more happiness in the world! Paul helps us answer this challenge, explaining the origin and meaning of all suffering, starting with Christ’s suffering.

Why «was it necessary that the Christ suffer so as to enter into his glory?» (Luke 24:26). This question receives what might be a «weak» answer, and in a certain sense, reassuring. Christ, revealing the truth of God, necessarily provokes the apposition of the forces of evil and darkness, and these forces, as happened to the prophets, will lead to his refusal and elimination. «It was necessary that the Christ suffer» would then be understood in the sense of «it was inevitable that the Christ suffer.»

Paul provides a very «strong» response to that question. The need is not of the natural order, but rather the supernatural. In the countries of historic Christian faith the idea of suffering and cross is almost always associated with sacrifice and expiation. Suffering, it is believed, is needed to expiate for sins and placate God’s justice. This is what has provoked, in the modern world, the rejection of every idea of sacrifice offered to God, and in the end, the very idea of God.

It can’t be denied that we Christians have possibly exposed ourselves to this accusation. But we are dealing with a mistake that a better understanding of St. Paul’s thought has already definitively clarified. He writes that God has preordained Christ «to serve as an instrument of expiation» (Romans 3:25). But such expiation is not applied to God in order to placate him; rather it is applied to sin to eliminate it. «It can be said that it is God himself, not man, who expiates sin. … The image is more like that of removing a corrosive stain or neutralizing a lethal virus than that of anger that is placated by punishment.»[2]

Christ has given a radically new meaning to the idea of sacrifice. In it, «it is no longer man who exercises influence on God in order to placate him. Rather it is God who works to make man stop hating him and his neighbor. Salvation does not start with man asking for reconciliation; rather it begins with God’s request: «Let yourselves be reconciled with God» (1 Corinthians 2:6).[3]

The fact is that Paul takes sin seriously, does not make light of it. Sin is, for him, the principal cause of man’s unhappiness, the refusal of God, not God himself! This encloses the human creature within «lies» and «injustice» (Romans 1:18; 3:23), condemns the very cosmic material to «vanity» and «corruption» (Romans 8:19), and it is the final cause also of the social evils that afflict humanity.

Unending analysis is conducted of the economic crisis under way in today’s world and of its causes, but who dares put the ax to the roots and speak about sin? The Apostle defines insatiable avarice as «idolatry» (Colossians 3:5), and he points to «root of all evil» in the unbridled desire for money (1 Timothy 6:10). Can we say he is wrong? Why are there so many families out on the streets, throngs of workers who have lost their job, if not because of some people’s insatiable thirst for profit? The elite members of the financial and economic world turned into a runaway train that steamed ahead without brakes, without stopping to think about the rest of the train that had come to a standstill on the tracks. We were headed in the completely wrong direction.

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Through his death, Christ has not only denounced and conquered sin, he has also given new meaning to suffering, even to that which does not depend on anyone’s sin, like that of the terrible earthquake that recently hit the neighboring Abruzzo region. He has made it an instrument of salvation, a path to resurrection and life. His sacrifice exercises its effects not through death, but rather thanks to the conquering of death, that is the resurrection. «He died for our sins, he rose for our justification.» (Romans 4:25): the two events are inseparable in the mind of Paul and the Church.

It is a universal human experience: In this life pleasure and pain follow each other with the same regularity with which, when a wave arises in the ocean, a trough follows a crest and pulls down the shipwrecked sailor. «Full
from the fount of Joy’s delicious springs Some bitter o’er the flowers its bubbling venom springs.»[4] Drug use, the abuse of sex, and homicidal violence, all provide intoxicating pleasure in the moment, but lead to the moral dissolution, and often even the physical ruin, of the person.

Christ, with his passion and death, has inverted the relationship between pleasure and pain. He, «in exchange for the joy which was placed before him, submitted himself to the cross» (Hebrews 12:2). No longer is it a pleasure that ends in suffering, but rather suffering that leads to life and joy. It is not just a different order of events; it is joy, in this way, that has the last word, not suffering, and a joy that will last for eternity. «Christ risen from the dead will die no more; death no longer has power over him» (Romans 6:9). And it will not have power over us either.

This new relationship between suffering and pleasure is reflected in the way in which time marches on in the Bible. According to human calculations, day starts in the morning and ends at night; in the Bible, day starts at night and ends with daytime: «It was night and it was day: the first day» says the story of creation (Genesis 1:5). It is not meaningless that Christ died in the evening and rose in the morning. Without God, life is a day that ends at night; with God it is a night that ends with day, and a day without a sunset.

So Christ did not come to increase human suffering or preach resignation to suffering; he came to give meaning to suffering and to announce its end and defeat. That slogan on the bus in London and in other cities is also read by parents who have sick children, by lonely people, the unemployed, refugees from war zones, people who have suffered grave injustices in life. I try to imagine their reaction to reading the words: «There’s probably no God. Now enjoy your life!» How?

Suffering is certainly a mystery for everyone, especially the suffering of innocent people, but without faith in God it becomes immensely more absurd. Even the last hope of rescue is taken away. Atheism is a luxury that only those with privileged lives can afford; those who have had everything, including the possibility to dedicate themselves to study and research.

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This is not the only incongruity of that publicity stunt. «God probably doesn’t exist:» So, he might exist, you can’t completely exclude the possibility that he might exist. But, my dear nonbelieving brother, if God doesn’t exist I have not lost anything; if, on the other hand, he does exist, you have lost everything! We should almost thank the people who promoted that advertising campaign; it has served God’s cause more than so many of our apologetic arguments. It has demonstrated the poverty of their reasons and has helped stir so many sleeping consciences.

But God has a different measure of justice than we do, and if he sees good faith, or inculpable ignorance, he even saves those who struggle in their lives to combat him. We believers should prepare ourselves for surprises in this regard. «How many sheep are outside of the flock,» exclaims Augustine, «and how many wolves inside!» (Quam multae oves foris, quam multi lupi intus).[5]

God is capable of turning those who most persistently deny him into his most impassioned apostles. Paul is the example of it. What has Saul of Tarsus done to merit that extraordinary encounter with Christ? What had he believed, hoped or suffered? What Augustine said about every divine choice can be applied to him: «Look for merit, look for justice, reflect and see if you find anything but grace.»[6] This is how he explains his own calling: «I am not really fit to be called an apostle, because I had been persecuting the Church of God; but what I am now, I am through the grace of God» (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

Christ’s cross is a cause for hope for everyone and the year of St. Paul is an occasion of grace also for those who don’t believe and are searching for truth. One thing speaks in their favor before God: suffering! Just like the rest of humanity, even atheists suffer in life, and suffering, since the Son of God took it on himself, has redemptive and almost sacramental power. In «Salvifici Doloris» John Paul II wrote, it is a channel through which the saving powers of the cross of Christ are offered to humanity.[7]

In a moment, after we are invited to pray «for those who do not believe in God,» there will follow a touching prayer in Latin by the Holy Father; translated into English it reads: «Everlasting and eternal God, you have put into the hearts of men a deep nostalgia for you, that only once they find you will they have peace: grant that, overcoming every obstacle, all may recognize the signs of your goodness, and, moved by the witness of our life, they may have the joy of believing in you, the one true God and Father of all mankind. Through Christ our Lord.»

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[1] S. Agostino, Enarr. in Psalmos, 54, 12 (PL 36, 637).[2] J. Dunn, La teologia dell’apostolo Paolo, Paideia, Brescia 1999, p. 227.

[3] G. Theissen – A. Merz, Il Gesù storico. Un manuale, Queriniana, Brescia 20032, p. 573.[4] Lucrezio, De rerum natura, IV, 1129 s.

[5] St. Augustine, «In Ioh. Evang.» 45, 12[6] St. Augustine, «La Predestinazione dei santi» 15, 30 (PL 44, 981).

[7] Cf. Enc. «Salvifici Doloris,» 23.

[Translation by Thomas Daly]
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