Father Cantalamessa's 2nd Lenten Homily

“God Is Love”

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 1, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the second Lenten homily delivered today in the Vatican by Father Raniero Cantalamessa to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia. The homily is titled “God Is Love.”

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The first and essential proclamation that the Church is charged to take to the world and that the world awaits from the Church is that of the love of God. However, for the evangelizers to be able to transmit this certainty, it is necessary that they themselves be profoundly permeated by it, that it be the light of their life. The present meditation should serve this purpose at least in a small part.

The expression “love of God” has two very different meanings: one in which God is object and the other in which God is subject; one which indicates our love for God and the other which indicates God’s love for us. The human person, who is more inclined to be active than passive, to be a creditor rather than a debtor, has always given precedent to the first meaning, to that which we do for God. Even Christian preaching has followed this line, speaking almost exclusively in certain epochs of the “duty” to love God (“De Deo diligere”).

However, biblical revelation gives precedence to the second meaning: to the love “of” God, not to the love “for” God. Aristotle said that God moves the world “in so far as he is loved,” that is, in so far as he is object of love and final cause of all creatures.[1] But the Bible says exactly the contrary, namely, that God creates and moves the world in as much as he loves the world.

The most important thing, in speaking of the love of God, is not, therefore, that man loves God, but that God loves man and that he loved him “first”: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10). From this all the rest depends, including our own possibility of loving God: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

1. The Love of God in Eternity

John is the man of great leaps. In reconstructing the earthy history of Christ, the others paused on the birth from Mary, but John makes the great leap back, from time to eternity: “In the beginning was the Word.” He does the same in regard to love. All the others, including Paul, spoke of the love of God manifesting itself in history and culminating in the death of Christ. He goes back beyond history. He does not present to us only a God that loves, but a God who is love. “In the beginning was love, love was with God and love was God”: thus we are able to solve his affirmation: “God is love” (1 John 4:10).

Of this statement Augustine has written: “If there was not in all this Letter and in all the pages of Scripture, any praise of love outside of this sole word, namely that God is love, we should not ask for more.”[2] The whole Bible does no more than “narrate the love of God.”[3] This is the news that supports and explains all the others. Discussed “ad infinitum,” and not just today, is the question of whether or not God exists. I believe, however, that the most important thing to know is not of God’s existence, but rather of his love.[4] If, by way of hypothesis, he existed but was not love, we would have more to fear than to rejoice over his existence, as in fact happened with several populations and civilizations. Christian faith assures precisely about this: God exists and he is love!

The point of departure of our journey is the Trinity. Why do Christians believe in the Trinity? The answer is because they believe that God is love. Where God is conceived as supreme Law or supreme Power there is evidently no need of a plurality of persons and that is why the Trinity is not understood. Law and Power can be exercised by only one person, but not love.

There is no love that is not love for something or someone, as philosopher Husserl says, there is no knowledge that is not knowledge of something. Who does God love to be defined as love? Humanity? But men have only existed for millions of years; before that time what did God love to be defined love? He could not have begun to be love at a certain point in time, because God cannot change his essence. The cosmos? But the universe has existed for some billions of years; before that time what did God love to be defined love? We cannot say: He loved himself, because to love oneself is not love, but egoism or, as psychologists say, narcissism.

And here is the answer of Christian revelation that the Church received from Christ and has made explicit in her Creed. God is love in himself, before time, because he has always had in himself the Son, the Word, whom he loves with an infinite love which is the Holy Spirit. In every love there are always three realities or subjects: one who loves, one who is loved, and the love that unites them.

2. The Love of God in Creation

When this eternal love is spread in time, we have the history of salvation. The first stage of it is creation. Love is, by nature, “diffusivum sui,” it tends to communicate itself. Just as “action follows being,” being love, God creates out of love. “Why has God created us?” Read the second question of the old catechism, and the answer was: “To know him, to love him and to serve him in this life and to be happy with him in the next in paradise.” Irreprehensible answer, but partial. It responds to the question on the final cause: “for what purpose, for what end has God created us”; it does not respond to the question on the causing cause: “why has he created us, what drove him to create us.” One must not respond to this question: “so that we would love him,” but “because he loved us.”

According to rabbinic theology, endorsed by the Holy Father in his recent book on Jesus, “The cosmos was created, not that there might be manifold things in heaven and earth, but that there might be a space for the ‘covenant,’ for the loving ‘yes’ between God and his human respondent”[5]. Creation is ordained to the dialogue of the love of God for his creatures.

How far on this point is the Christian vision of the universe from that of atheist scientism recalled in Advent! One of the most profound sufferings for a young man or a girl is to discover that they are in the world by chance, not wanted, not awaited, perhaps by a mistake of their parents. A certain atheist scientism seems determined to inflict this type of suffering on the whole of humanity. No one would be able to convince us of the fact that we were created out of love better than the way Catherine of Siena does in one of her enflamed prayers to the Trinity: “How, then, did you create, O Eternal Father, this your creature? […] Fire constrained you. O ineffable love, even though in your light you saw all the iniquities, which your creature would commit against your infinite goodness, you looked as if you did not see, but rested your sight on the beauty of your creature, whom you, as mad and drunk with love, fell in love with and out of love you drew her to yourself giving her being in your image and likeness. You, eternal truth, have declared to me your truth, that is, that loved constrained you to create her.”

This is not only agape, love of mercy, of donation and of descent; it is also eros in the pure state; it is attraction to the object of one’s love, esteem and fascination with its beauty.

3. The Love of God in Revelation

The second stage of the love of God is revelation, the Scriptures. God speaks to us of his love above all in the prophets. In Hosea he says: “[w]hen Israel was a child, I loved him […] “it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms […] “I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them […] “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? […] “My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:1-4

We find this same language in Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?” (Isaiah49:15) and in Jeremiah: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him” (Jeremiah  31:20).

In these oracles, the love of God is expressed contemporaneously as paternal and maternal love. Paternal love is made of stimulus and solicitude; the father wants to make his son grow up and to lead him to full maturity. That is why he corrects him and does not praise him in his presence, out of fear that he should believe he has arrived or that he will no longer make progress. Maternal love instead is made of acceptance and tenderness; it is a “visceral” love; it comes from the profound fibers of the mother’s being, where the child was formed, and from there grips the whole of her person, making her “tremble with compassion.”

In the human realm, these two types of love — virile and maternal — are always , more or less clearly distributed. The philosopher Seneca said: “[d]on’t you see how different is the manner of loving of fathers and mothers? The fathers wake their children early so that they will start to study, they are not allowed to be lazy and they make them pour out sweat and at times even tears. The mothers, instead, put them on their lap and hold them close to themselves, avoid opposing them, or making them cry or tiring them.”[6] However, whereas the God of the pagan philosopher has toward men only “the spirit of a father who loves without weakness” (these are his words), the biblical God also has the spirit of a mother who loves “with weakness.”

Man knows by experience another type of love, that love of which it is said that it is “strong as death and that its flames are flames of fire” (cf. Ct 8, 6) and to this type of love God has also taken recourse, in the Bible, to give us an idea of his passionate love for us. All the phases and the vicissitudes of spousal love are evoked and used for this purpose: the enchantment of love in the nascent state of engagement (cf Jeremiah 2:2); the fullness of the joy of the wedding day (cf Isaiah 62:5); the tragedy of the break (cf. Hosea 2:4 ff) and finally the rebirth, full of hope, of the former bond (cf Hosea 2:16;Isaiah 54:8).

Spousal love is, fundamentally, a love of desire and of choice. If it is true, because of this, that man desires God, the contrary, mysteriously, is also true that God desires man, he wants and esteems his love, he rejoices over it “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride!” (Isaiah 62: 5).

As the Holy Father notes in “Deus Caritas Est,” the nuptial metaphor that traverses almost the whole Bible and inspires the language of “covenant,” is the best proof that God’s love for us is also eros and agape, it is to give and to seek together. It cannot be reduced only to mercy, to a “doing charity” to man, in the most reductive sense of the term.

4. The Love of God in the Incarnation

Thus we come to the culminating stage of God’s love, the Incarnation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). In face of the Incarnation we ask the same question that was posed for the creation. Why did God become man? Cur Deus homo? For a long time the answer was: to redeem humankind from sin. Duns Scotus deepened this answer, making of love the fundamental reason for the Incarnation, as all the other works ad extra of the Trinity.

God, says Scotus, first of all, loves himself; in the second place, he wants other beings that love him (“secundo vult alios habere condiligentes”). If he decided on the Incarnation it was so that there would be another being that would love him with the greatest love possible outside of himself.[7] The Incarnation would then have taken place even if Adam had not sinned. Christ is the first one thought of and the first one willed, the “first born of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), not the solution of a problem intervened immediately with Adam’s sin.

But even Scotus’ answer is partial and must be completed on the basis of what Scripture says of the love of God. God willed the Incarnation of the Son, not only to have someone outside of himself who would love him in a way worthy of him, but also and above all to have outside of himself someone to love in a manner worthy of himself. And this is the Son made man, in whom the Father “finds all his delight” and with him all of us are rendered “sons in the Son.”

Christ is the supreme proof of the love of God for man not only in the objective sense, in the manner of a pledge that is given to someone of one’s love; he is so also in the subjective sense. In other words, it is not only the proof of the love of God, but it is the love itself of God that has assumed a human form to be able to love and to be loved from within our situation. In the beginning was love and “the love was made flesh,” according to an ancient Christian writer, paraphrasing the Prologue of John.[8] 

St. Paul; coined an apposite expression for this new way of God’s love, he calls it “the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:39). If, as we said the last time, all our love for God must now express itself concretely in love for Christ, it is because all love of God for us was first expressed and gathered in Christ.

5. The Love of God Poured into Hearts

The history of the love of God does not end with Christ’s Easter, but is prolonged in Pentecost which renders present and operative “the love of God in Christ Jesus” until the end of the world. We are not constrained, therefore, to live only from the memory of the love of God, as something of the past. “[G]od’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

But what is this love which has been poured into our hearts in Baptism? Is it a feeling of God for us? A benevolent disposition of His towards us? An inclination? Something, that is, intentional? It is much more than that; it is something real. It is, literally, the love of God, namely the love that circulates in the Trinity between the Father and the Son and that in the Incarnation assumed a human form and in which we now participate in the form of “indwelling.” “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

We become “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), that is, participants of divine love. We find ourselves by grace, explains Saint John of the Cross, in the vortex of love that has always taken place in the Trinity between the Father and the Son, [9] better still: in the vortex of love taking place now, between the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, risen from death, of whom we are the members.

6. We Have Believed in the Love of God!

Holy Father, venerable fathers, brothers and sisters, what I have traced poorly is the objective revelation of the love of God in history. Now we come to ourselves: what will we do, what will we say after having heard how much God loves us? A first answer is: to love God in return! Is not this the first and greatest commandment of the law? Yes, but it comes after. Another possible answer: to love one another as God has loved us! Does not the evangelist John say that, if God has loved us “we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11)? This also comes after; first there is something else to do. To believe in the love of God! After having said that “God is love,” the evangelist John exclaims: “We believe the love God has for us” (1 John 4:16).

Hence, faith, but here it is a question of a special faith: faith-astonishment, incredulous faith (a paradox, I know, but true!), a faith that does not know how to equip itself with what it believes, even if it does believe it. How is it possible that God, supremely happy in
his quiet eternity, had the desire not only to create us, but also to come in person to suffer among us? How is this possible? Look, this is faith-astonishment, the faith that makes us happy.

The great convert and apologist of the faith Clive Staples Lewis (the author, said incidentally, of the narrative cycle of Narnia, taken recently to the screen) wrote a singular novel entitled “The Screwtape Letters.” They are letters that an old devil writes to a young and inexperienced little devil who is determined to seduce on earth a young Londoner who has just returned to Christian practice. The purpose is to instruct him on the ways to follow to succeed in his attempt. It is a modern, very fine treatise of morality and asceticism, to be read the opposite way, that is doing exactly the contrary of what is suggested.

At a certain point the author makes us witness a discussion carried out among the demons. They cannot be persuaded that the Enemy (thus they call God) can really love “the human vermin and desire their liberty.” They are sure it cannot be. There must be a fraud, a trick. We are investigating, they say, from the day that “Our Father” (thus they call Lucifer), precisely for this reason, distanced himself from him; we have not discovered it yet, but one day we will. [10] The love of God for his creatures is, for them, the mystery of mysteries. And I believe that, at least on this, the demons are right.

It would seem to be an easy and pleasant faith; instead it is perhaps the most difficult thing that there is also for us human creatures. Do we really believe that God loves us? Not that we do not believe really or at least that we do not believe enough! If we believed, life, we ourselves, things, events, pain itself, everything would immediately be transfigured before our eyes. This very day we would be with him in paradise, because paradise is but this: to enjoy in fullness the love of God.

The world has always made it more difficult to believe in love. Whoever has been betrayed and wounded once, is afraid of loving and of being loved, because he knows how terrible it is to find oneself deceived. So much so that the array of those who are unable to believe in the love of God, more than that, in any love is always increasing. Disenchantment and cynicism is the mark of our secularized culture. On the personal plane there is then the experience of our poverty and misery that make us say: “Yes, this love of God is beautiful, but it isn’t for me. I am not worthy.”

Men need to know that God loves them and no one better than the disciples of Christ are able to take this good news to them. Others, in the world, share with Christians the fear of God, concern for social justice and respect for man, for peace and tolerance; but no one — I say no one — among the philosophers, or among the religions, says to man that God loves him, he loved man first and he loves him with a love of mercy and of desire: with eros and agape.

St. Paul suggests a method to us to apply to our concrete existence the light of the love of God. He wrote: “[w]ho shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-37). The dangers and the enemies of the love of God that he enumerates are those that he had, in fact, experienced in his life: anguish, persecution, the sword (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23 ff). He reviews them in his mind and says that none of these is so strong as to rule in comparison with the thought of the love of God.

We are invited to do as he did: to see our life, exactly as it presents itself, to bring to the surface the fears that nest in us, the sadness, the threats, the complexes, the physical or moral defects, the painful memory that humiliates us, and to expose everything to the light of the thought that God loves me. He invites me to ask myself; what in my life attempts to depress me?

From his personal life, the Apostle broadens his gaze to the world around him. “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39). Hence, he observes “his” world, with the powers that rendered it menacing: death with its mystery, the present life with its allurements, the astral powers or the infernal ones which struck so much terror in ancient man.

We can do the same thing: we can look at the world that surrounds us, which makes us afraid. What Paul calls the “height” and the “depth” are for us now infinitely great on high and infinitely small below, the universe and the atom. Everything is ready to crush us; man is weak and alone, in a universe so much greater than him and become, in addition, even more threatening, following the scientific discoveries that he has made and that he does not succeed in controlling, as is being dramatically demonstrated by the atomic reactors in Fukushima.

Everything can be questioned, all of our safety measures can fail, but never this: that God loves us and is stronger than everything. “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.”


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, XII, 7, 1072b.

[2] St. Augustine, Treatise on the First Letter of John, 7, 4.

[3] St. Augustine, “On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed,” I, 8, 4: PL 40, 319.

[4] Cf. S. Kierkegaard, “Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 3: The Gospel of Suffering,” IV.

[5] Benedict XVI, “Jesus of Nazareth Part II,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana (in Italian), 2011, p. 93.

[6] Seneca, “On Providence,” 2, 5 f.

[7] Duns Scotus, “Opus Oxoniense,” I, d. 17, q. 3, n. 31; Rep., II, d. 27, q. un., n. 3.

[8] “Evangelium Veritatis” (of the Codes of Nag-Hammadi).

[9] Cf. St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle A, Strophe 38.

[10] C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters,” 1942, Chapter XIX.

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