Father Cantalamessa's 4th Lent Homily 2014

St. Leo the Great: Faith in Jesus Christ, True God and True Man

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Here is the fourth Lenten homily given this year by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

The first, second, and third homilies can be found herehere and here.

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1. Unanimity of East and West about Christ

There are different paths or methods by which to approach the person of Jesus. One can, for example, start directly with the Bible and even here one can follow different paths: the typological path followed in the oldest catechesis of the Church, which explains Jesus in the light of prophecy and figures from the Old Testament; the historical path that reconstructs the development of faith in Christ starting from various traditions, authors, and christological titles or from the different cultural environments in the New Testament. One can also do this the other way around and start from the needs and problems of people today, or even with their experience of Christ, and then go back to the Bible from there. These are all paths that have been well explored.

Very early on, the Tradition of the Church developed another path of accessing the mystery of Christ that involves gathering and organizing biblical facts about it, namely, christological dogma, the dogmatic path. What I mean by “christological dogma” is the fundamental truths about Christ defined in the first ecumenical councils, especially the Council of Chalcedon, whose substance can be reduced to the following three cornerstones: Jesus Christ is true man, true God, and one single person.

St. Leo the Great is the Father I have chosen through whom to introduce the profundity of this mystery for a very specific reason. For two and half centuries, the formula of faith in Christ that will become dogma at Chalcedon was already available in Latin theology. Tertullian had written, “We see plainly the twofold state [the two natures], which is not confounded, but conjoined in One person—Jesus, God and Man.”[1] After lengthy exploration, the Greek authors added a formula that, in their opinion, was identical in its substance. Their formula, however, did not at all involve a delay or a waste of time because in the meantime they had brought to light all its implications and resolved its difficulties, and only now could that formula have its true meaning.

St. Leo the Great found himself to be the one to oversee the moment in which the two currents of the river—Latin and Greek—were flowing together, and by his authority as bishop of Rome he supported the universal acceptance of the formula. He is not content simply to transmit the formula inherited from Tertullian and taken up by Augustine during the intervening period; he adapts it to address the problems that had emerged during the time between the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In broad strokes, here is the core of his christological thinking as it is laid out in his famous Tomus ad Flavianum.[2]

First point. The person of the God-man is identical to the person of the eternal Word: He who became man in the form of a servant is the same as the one who, in the form of God, created man. Second point. The divine and human natures coexist in one single person, Christ, without mixture or confusion, with each nature preserving its natural properties (salva proprietate utriusque naturae).[3] He begins to be that which he was not, without ceasing to be that which he was.[4] The work of redemption required that “the one and the same ‘mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ’ [1 Tim 2:5] could die in one nature and not die in the other.”[5] Third point. The unity of his person justifies the use of the communication of idioms through which we can assert both that the Son of God was crucified and buried and that the Son of Man came from heaven.

This was an attempt, successful for the most part, to reach a final agreement between the two great “schools” of Greek theology, the Alexandrian and Antiochan schools, and to avoid the errors in Monophytism and Nestorianism, respectively. The Antiochenians found in Leo’s formula the acknowledgement, which was essential for them, of the two natures of Christ and thus of the full humanity of Christ. The Alexandrians, despite some reservations and resistance, found in Leo’s formula the acknowledgement of the identification of the Person of the Incarnate Word with the eternal Word, which was their primary concern.

We only need to remember the main core of the definition of Chalcedon to be aware of how much Pope Leo’s thinking is present in it:

Following therefore the holy Fathers, we unanimously teach to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man. . . . The same was begotten from the Father before the ages as to the divinity and in the latter days for us and our salvation was born as to his humanity from Mary the Virgin Mother of God. . . . [He] must be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion or change, without division or separation. The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one Person and one hypostasis.[6] 

It could seem to be merely a technically perfect formula, although it is dry and abstract, and yet the whole of the Christian doctrine of salvation is based on it. Only if Christ is a human being like us can he represent us as one of us, and only if he is also God can his actions have an infinite and universal value. Only then, as we sing in “Adoro te devote,” is it possible that “One drop of his blood can free the whole world of all its sins.” (“Cuius una stilla salvum facere totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.”)

East and West are united on this point. St. Anselm (among the Latins) and Cabasilas (among the Orthodox) agree—with few differences between them—in their understanding about the situation of humanity before Christ came. On one side were human beings who had contracted a debt by sinning and had to battle Satan to free themselves; however, they could not succeed in doing it, since the debt was infinite and they were slaves of the one they had to overcome. On the other side was God who could expiate sins and conquer the devil, but he did not need to do it since he was not the debtor. Someone needed to be found who united in himself a person who had to take up the battle and a person who could overcome, and that is what occurred in Jesus, “true God and true man in one person.”[7]

2. The Historical Jesus and the Christ of Dogma United Again

Those long-settled certitudes about Christ underwent a whirlwind of criticism in the last two centuries that tended to remove any substance from them and to characterize them as mere inventions of theologians. Starting with David Friedrich Strauss, there was a kind of battle cry among scholars of the New Testament: Let us liberate the figure of Christ from the shackles of dogma so that we can discover the historical Jesus, the only real Jesus. “The illusion . . . that Jesus could have been a man in the full sense and still as a single person stand above the whole of humanity is the chain which still blocks the harbor of Christian theology against the open sea of rational science.”[8] Here is the conclusion this scholar reaches: “The ideal of the dogmatic Christ on the one hand and the historical Jesus of Nazareth on the other are separated forever.”

The rationalistic presupposition of this thesis is boldly asserted: The Christ of dogma does not satisfy the requirements of rational science. This attack has gone forward with alternating resolutions, almost right up to our day. In its own way it became a dogma itself: To know the true Jesus of history, we need to prescind from a post-Easter faith in him. Imaginative reconstructions of the figure of Jesus proliferated in this atmosphere, adding to this spectacle. Some reconstructions made claims of historicity, but in reality they were constructed of hypotheses that were built on hypotheses, all responding to the tastes or demands of the moment.

I believe that we have come to the end of this trajectory. It is now time to take note of the change that has happened in this area so that we can put behind us a certain defensive and embarrassed attitude that has characterized faith-filled scholars over the years. Even more, we need to send a message to all those who have popularized multiple images of Jesus dictated by this anti-dogma. And the message is that no one can any longer do “research on Jesus” in good faith that claims to be “historical” but that prescinds from, and even excludes, faith in him from the outset.

Someone who embodies this shift in a very clear way is one of the greatest living scholars of the New Testament, the Englishman James D. G. Dunn. He has summarized the results of his monumental research on the origins of Christianity in a small volume called A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed.[10] He has exposed the roots of the two fundamental presuppositions on which the contrast between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith is based. The first is that to know the historical Jesus one needs to prescind from post-Easter faith; the second is that to know what the historical Jesus really said and did, one must remove the layers of tradition and later additions and go back to the original layer or first “redaction” of any given Gospel pericope.

Countering the first presupposition, Dunn demonstrates that faith began before Easter. If some people followed Jesus and became his disciples, it was because they believed in him. It was a faith that was still imperfect, but it was faith. The paschal event will certainly call for a qualitative leap of faith on their part, but there were other qualitative leaps before Easter, even if they were less decisive, concerning particular events like the Transfiguration, certain sensational miracles, and the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. Easter does not constitute the absolute beginning of faith.

Countering the second assumption, while admitting that the gospel tradition circulated for a certain period in oral form, Dunn shows how scholars always applied a literary model to oral tradition just as people do today when they go back from edition to edition to the original text of a work. But if we take into account the rules that regulate the oral transmission of the tradition of a community—even in some cultures today—we see that there is no need to strip all the flesh off of a Gospel saying in search of a hypothetical original nucleus—a procedure that has opened the door to every kind of manipulation of the Gospel texts. The process ends up being similar to what happens when someone removes the layers of an onion to search for a solid nucleus that does not exist. The conclusions Dunn reached have long been held by some Catholic scholars,[11] but he can be credited with having defended these conclusions with arguments that are difficult to refute because they come from within historical-critical research itself and use its very own weapons.

The American Rabbi Jacob Neusner, with whom Benedict XVI establishes a dialogue in his first volume on Jesus of Nazareth,[12] takes this result for granted. Starting from an autonomous, or we could say neutral, point of view, he shows how futile the attempt is to separate the historical Jesus from the Christ of post-Easter faith. The historical Jesus of the Gospels, for example in his Sermon on the Mount, is already a Jesus who asks for faith in himself as someone who can correct Moses, who is Lord of the Sabbath, and who can make an exception to the fourth commandment. In brief he is someone who places himself on the same level as God. For this very reason, though fascinated by the person of Jesus, the Jewish rabbi says he cannot become one of his disciples.

The research on this topic has concluded at this point. It has succeeded in proving the continuity between the historical Jesus and the Christ of the kerygma, but it goes no further. Research still remains to be done to prove the continuity between the Christ of the kerygma and the Christ of the Church’s dogma. Does the formula of St. Leo the Great and of Chalcedon mark a consistent development of New Testament faith, or does it instead represent a breaking away from it? That was my main interest in the years during which I was studying the history of Christian origins, and the conclusion I arrived at does not differ from that of Cardinal John Henry Newman in his famous work An Essay in the Development of Christian Doctrine.[13] There has certainly been a movement from a practical christology (what Christ does) to an ontological christology (what Christ is), but this does not constitute a break. In fact, we see the same process already taking place within the kerygma, for example, in the developing move from Paul’s christology to John’s and, with regard to Paul himself, in the developing move from his earliest letters to his letters written in captivity, Philippians and Colossians.

3. Beyond the Formula

The topic itself required me this time to pause a bit longer on the doctrinal part of our meditation. The person of Christ is the foundation of everything in Christianity. “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”, asks St. Paul (1 Cor 14:8): if we have no clear idea about who Jesus is, in whose name shall we go out to evangelize? But now it is time to move on to a practical application of the doctrine to our personal lives and the faith of the Church today, since that remains the aim of our revisitation of the Fathers.

Four and half centuries of extraordinary theological work gave the Church the formula that “Jesus Christ is true God and true man; Jesus Christ is one single person.” Even more concisely, he is “one person with two natures.” One of Søren Kierkegaard’s sayings applies perfectly to this formula: “The old Christian dogmatic terminology is like an enchanted castle where the loveliest princes and princesses rest in a deep sleep; it only needs to be awakened, brought to life, in order to stand in its full glory.”[14] Our task then is to reawaken dogmas and always give them new life.

Research on the Gospels—even the work by Dunn mentioned above—demonstrates that history cannot lead us to “Jesus himself,” to Christ as he really is. What we find in the Gospels at every stage is always a “remembering” about Jesus, mediated through a memory that the disciples preserved of him, although it is a faith-filled memory. What is going on here is what happened at his resurrection: “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see” (Lk 24:24). History can declare that things about Jesus of Nazareth happened just as the disciples said in the Gospels, but it does not see him.

The same is true of dogma. It can lead us to a “defined” and “formulated” Jesus, but Thomas Aquinas teaches us that faith does not terminate in propositions (enuntiabile) but in the reality (res) itself.[15] There is the same difference between the formula of Chalcedon and the real Jesus as there is between the ch
emical formula H2O and the water that we drink and in which we swim. No one can say that the formula H2O is useless or that it does not perfectly describe a reality. But it is not the reality! Who can lead us to the “real” Jesus who is beyond history and behind the definition?

And here we come to wonderful, comforting news. There is the possibility of “immediate” knowledge of Christ. It is the knowledge we are given by the Holy Spirit whom Jesus himself sent. He is the only “unmediated mediation” between us and Christ in the sense that he does not act as a veil or constitute a barrier. He is not an intermediary since he is the Spirit of Jesus himself, his “alter ego,” who is of the same nature. St. Irenaeus reaches the point of saying that “communion with Christ . . . is the Holy Spirit.”[16] For this reason the Holy Spirit is different from every other mediation between us and the Risen One, whether that mediation is ecclesial or sacramental.

Scripture itself speaks of this role of the Holy Spirit whose aim is the knowledge of the true Jesus. The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost results in a sudden illumination of all the work and person of Jesus. Peter concludes his sermon with a kind of definition of the Lordship of Christ that is urbi et orbi:[17] “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). St. Paul affirms that Jesus Christ is “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4), that is, by the work of the Holy Spirit. No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by an interior illumination of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:3). The apostle attributes to the Holy Spirit “the insight into the mystery of Christ” that was given to him and to the holy apostles and prophets (Eph 3:4-5). Only if believers are “strengthened with might through his Spirit,” says the apostle, will they be able to know “the breadth and height and depth, and . . . the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:16-19).

In John’s Gospel Jesus himself announces this work of the Paraclete on behalf of believers. The Holy Spirit will take what is his and announce it to the disciples; he will make them recall all that Jesus has said; he will lead them into all the truth about his relationship to the Father; he will testify of Jesus. From now on, the criterion to recognize if something is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit is if it prompts people to confess that “Jesus has come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2-3).

4. Jesus of Nazareth, “One Person”

With the help of the Holy Spirit, let us make a small attempt to “reawaken” this dogma. With regard to the dogmatic triangle that came from St. Leo the Great and Chalcedon—“true God,” “true man,” “one person”—we will limit ourselves to consider only the last part: Christ as “one person.” Dogmatic definitions are “open structures” that are able to take on new significations made possible by the progress in human thinking. In its earliest stage, the word “person” (from the Latin personare, “to resonate”) meant the mask that an actor would use to make his voice resonate in the theater. From this meaning it evolved to indicate a person’s face and thus meant an individual, one single person, until it acquired its most profound meaning of “an individual substance of a rational nature” (Boethuis).[18]

In modern usage the concept of “person” has been enriched with a more suggestive and relational meaning, which no doubt benefitted from the trinitarian use of the word “person” as “a subsistent relationship.” It thus indicates the human being insofar as he or she is capable of relationship, of being an “I” in the presence of a “You.” The Latin terminology “one person” proved be more fruitful than the respective Greek word “hypostasis.” “Hypostasis” can be said of every single existing object, but “person” can only be said about a human being and, by analogy, about a divine being. We speak today (as the Greeks do now) of the “dignity of the human person” and not of “the dignity of the hypostasis.”

Let us apply all this to our relationship with Christ. To say that Jesus is “one person” also means that he is risen, that he lives, that he stands before me, that I can talk to him on a first-name basis as he does with me. We continually need to cross over, in our minds and hearts, from the personage of Jesus to the person of Jesus. The personage is the one about whom we can speak and write what we wish but to whom and with whom we generally cannot speak. For the majority of believers, unfortunately, Jesus is still a personage, someone we can debate about and write about endlessly, a memory from the past, someone who is linked to a set of doctrines, dogmas, or heresies. He is an objective entity rather than someone who exists.

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes in a famous passage the metaphysical thrill produced by the unexpected discovery of the existence of things, and for this at least we can give him credit:

So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. . . . Then I had this vision.

It left me breathless. . . . Usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. . . . And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself.[19]

In order to go beyond the words and ideas about Jesus and enter into contact with him as a living person, we need to have an experience of this kind. Some exegetes interpret the divine name “I AM” to mean “I am here,” I am with you, present, available, here and now.[20]

It is possible to have Jesus as a friend, because since he is risen, he is alive, he is next to me. I can relate to him as one living person to another, as someone present to someone present—not physically or even through the imagination alone, but “through the Spirit” who is infinitely more intimate and real than the body or the imagination. St. Paul assures us that it is possible to do everything “with Jesus” whether it be eating or drinking or whatever else we do (see 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17).

Unfortunately, Jesus is rarely thought of as a friend and confidant. In our subconscious the image of him as risen, ascended into heaven, remote in his divine transcendence, and returning one day at the end of the world is the image that dominates. We forget that being “true man,” as the dogma says—and even being the very perfection of humanity itself—he possesses the capacity for friendship to the highest degree, which is one of the noblest characteristics of a human being. It is Jesus who wants that relationship with us. In his farewell discourse, giving full expression to his feelings, he says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15).

I have seen this kind of relationship happen not as much with saints—for whom the prevailing relationship is with a Master, Shepherd, Savior, Spouse—but with Jews who, often in a way not unlike that of Saul, come to accept the Messiah. The name of Jesus is suddenly transformed from being a vague threat to being the sweetest and most beloved of names. A friend. It is as though the absence of 2,000 years of debates about Christ has played out in their favor. Their Jesus is never an “ideological” Jesus but a person of flesh an
d blood. Of their blood! One is deeply moved in reading some of their testimonies. All the contradictions are resolved in an instant, all the obscurities are made clear. It is like seeing the spiritual reading of the Old Testament come to life as a whole, all at once, before their very eyes. Saint Paul says it is like having a veil removed from one’s eyes (see 2 Cor 3:16).

During his earthly life, although Jesus loved everyone without exception, it is only with some—Lazarus, his sisters, and especially John, “the disciple that he loved”—that Jesus has a relationship of true friendship. Now that he is risen and is no longer subject to the limitations of the body, however, he offers every man and woman the possibility of having him as a friend in the fullest sense of that word. May the Holy Spirit, the friend of the bridegroom, help us welcome with amazement and joy this possibility that can fill our lives.

Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson

[1] Tertullian, Adversus Praxean, 27, 11 (CC 2, 1199). English trans., Against Praxeas, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 624.

[2] For the whole letter, see St. Leo the Great, “Letter 28” (PL 54, 755 ff.). [Letter to Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople], vol. 34, trans. Edmund Hunt, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 92-105.

[3] See St. Leo the Great, “Letter to Bishop Flavian,” in Heinrich Denziger, ed., Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, #293, 43rd ed., English ed., eds. Robert Fastiggi and Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 105.

[4] See St. Leo the Great, “Sermon 27,” 1-3 (PL 54, 749); St. Leo: The Great Sermons, vol. 93, trans. Jane Patricia Freeland and Agnes Josephine Conway, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 110-111.

[5] St. Leo the Great, “Letter to Bishop Flavian,” in Denziger, #293, 105.

[6] “The Two Natures in Christ,” Chalcedonian Council, in Denziger, Enchiridion symbolorum, #301-302, 109.

[7] Nicholas Cabasilas, Life in Christ, I, 5 (PG 150, 313); see Anselm, Cur Deus homo? [Why Did God Become Man?], II, 18-20; Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 46, art. 1, a. 3.

[8] David Friedrich Strauss, The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History (1865; Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1977), 5.

[9] Ibid., 169.

[10] James D. G. Dunn, A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).

[11] Ibid., 25, 121. Dunn holds in high regard the research of the German Catholic scholar Heinz Schürmann on the pre-Easter origin of certain sayings of Jesus.

[12] See Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) Jesus of Nazareth, Part One: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), ch. 4, 69, 103-127.

[13] See my book, Dal kerygma al dogma: Studi sulla cristologia dei Padri (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2006), 11-51. Cardinal Newman coined the phrase “development of Christian doctrine” in that 1845 book.

[14] Søren Kierkegaard, Journal, II, A 110 (July 8, 1937), in Papers and Journals: A Selection, trans. and ed. Alistair Hannay (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 86.

[15] See Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 1, art. 2, a. 2.

[16] St Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 24, 1, trans. Alexander Roberts and W. H. Rambaut, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1884), 369.

[17] A message “to the city [Rome] and to the world.”

[18] Boethius, “De persona et duabus naturis,” 3 [“Treatise Against Eutyches and Nestorius”], in The Theological Tractates and “The Consolation of Philosophy” (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classic Library, 1973), 85.

[19] Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (1938; New York: New Directions, 2007), 126-127.

[20] See Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1, intro. Walter Brueggemann (1957; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 179ff.

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