Papal Preacher’s First Advent Sermon 2017

‘All Things Were Created Through Him and for Him’

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa ofmcap, gave the first of two scheduled reflections to the Pope and Roman Curia on December 15, 2017. The text follows:

Father Raniero Cantalamessa ofmcap

First Advent Sermon 2017

“All things were created through him and for him”

Christ and Creation

The meditations for Advent this year (there are only two because of the calendar) propose to put the divine-human person of Christ back at the center of the two great components that together constitute “reality,” that is, the cosmos and history, space and time, creation and humanity. We need to recognize that despite a lot of talk about him, Christ is marginalized in our culture. He is completely absent—and for more than understandable reasons—from the three main dialogues in which faith is engaged in our contemporary world: the dialogues between faith and science, faith and philosophy, and the interreligious dialogue.
My ultimate purpose, however, is not theoretical but practical. The issue above all is putting Christ back at the center of our personal lives and our vision of the world and at the center of the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Christmas is the most propitious season for such a reflection, since this is the time when we recall the moment when the Word became flesh, entering physically into creation and history, into space and time.

  1. The Earth Was Void

In this first meditation, let us reflect on the first part of the announced themes, the relationship between Christ and the cosmos. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2). A medieval author, the English abbot Alexander Neckam (1157-1217), commented on these initial verses of the Bible this way:
The earth was void because the Word had not yet become flesh.
Our earth was void because the fullness of grace and truth did not yet dwell in it.
It was void because it had not yet been made fixed and stable through a union with divinity.
Our earthly dwelling was void because the fullness of time had not yet come.
“And darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The “true light that enlightens every man” who comes into the world had in fact not yet come.[1]
I believe the relationship between creation and the Incarnation could not be expressed in a more biblical and more inspiring way than in reading the beginning of Genesis and of John’s Gospel in counterpoint just the way this author does. The encyclical Laudato si’ devotes a paragraph to this theme that, given its brevity, we can read in its entirety:
In the Christian understanding of the world, the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ, present from the beginning: “All things have been created though him and for him” (Col 1:16). The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) reveals Christ’s creative work as the Divine Word (Logos). But then, unexpectedly, the prologue goes on to say that this same Word “became flesh” (Jn 1:14). One Person of the Trinity entered into the created cosmos, throwing in his lot with it, even to the cross. From the beginning of the world, but particularly through the incarnation, the mystery of Christ is at work in a hidden manner in the natural world as a whole, without thereby impinging on its autonomy. (n. 99)
The issue is what place the Person of Christ occupies in relation to the universe as a whole. This task is more urgent today than ever. The French philosopher Maurice Blondel wrote to a friend,
Our world has expanded through the social and natural sciences. Our world cannot remain true to Catholicism and be content with a mediocre explanation, a limited outlook which represents Christ as an accident of history, isolating Him in the Cosmos as if He were an episode without proper time and place. One cannot represent Him as in intruder, an alien in the crushing and hostile immensity of the universe.[2]
The biblical texts that our faith rests on concerning the cosmic role of Christ are those of Paul and John quoted in the encyclical. It is worthwhile to recall them here in full. In chronological order, the first is Colossians 1:15-17:
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
The other text is John 1:3 and 10:
All things were made through him [the Word], and without him was not anything made that was made. . . . He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.
Despite the striking consonance of these texts, it is possible to distinguish a difference in emphasis between them that would have great importance in the future development of theology. For John the hinge that unites creation and redemption is the moment in which “the Word became made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:13); for Paul it is instead the moment of the cross. For John it is the Incarnation while for Paul it is the paschal mystery. The text in Colossians in fact goes on to say,
For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col 1:19-20)
Patristic reflection, under the pressure of heresies, valued almost only one aspect of these two affirmations: what they tell us about the Person of Christ and the salvation he accomplished for human beings. The Fathers said little or nothing of what Paul and John affirm about its cosmic significance, that is, about the significance of Christ for the rest of creation.
Against the Arians, these texts served to affirm the divinity and the pre-existence of Christ. The Son of God cannot be a creature, Athanasius argued, since he is the Creator of everything. However, the cosmic significance of the Logos in creation is not given proportionate equivalence to his significance for redemption. The only text that lends itself to a development of this issue—Romans 8:19-22, in which creation groans and suffer as if in childbirth—was never, as far as I know, the starting point for any extensive reflection by the Fathers of the Church.
As to the “why” of the Incarnation, the answer from St. Athanasius (De incarnatione) to St. Anselm of Canterbury (Cur Deus homo) was essentially what is said in the creed: “Propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis” (“For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”). The perspective for the relationship between Christ and humanity is anthropological: it does not include the relationship between Christ and the cosmos, except incidentally. The latter topic emerges only during the polemic against the Gnostics and Manicheans who contrasted creation and redemption as the work of two different gods and held that matter and the cosmos were intrinsically alien to God and incapable of being saved.
At a certain point in the development of faith, another answer was proposed in the Middle Ages as to “why God became man.” The question was “Can the coming of Christ, who is ‘the creator of the whole creation’ (see Col 1:15), be entirely tied to the sin of human beings that took place after creation?”
Blessed Duns Scotus took a decisive step in this direction, releasing the Incarnation from its basic link to sin. The reason for the Incarnation, he says, is that God wanted someone extrinsic to himself who could love him perfectly in a way that was worthy of him.[3] Christ is wanted for himself as the only one capable of loving the Father—and being loved by him—with an infinite love worthy of God. The Son of God would have become incarnate even if Adam had not sinned because he is the very crown of creation, God’s supreme handiwork. Man’s sin determined the manner of the Incarnation, conferring on it the character of redemption from sin, but it did not determine the fact of the Incarnation itself. The Incarnation has a transcendent reason, not a circumstantial one.

  1. The Cosmic Vision of Teilhard de Chardin

Scotus was the first to attempt to give a precise meaning to the biblical affirmation that “all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). But we certainly cannot yet speak with Scotus of any actual impact of Christ on all of creation. This is only possible if we jump centuries ahead from Scotus to our time, to Teilhard de Chardin. According to Blondel, Teilhard de Chardin was concerned, in a culture dominated by the idea of evolution, to avoid having Christ end up being seen as an “accident of history, isolated from the rest of the Cosmos.”
Utilizing his indisputable scientific knowledge, Teilhard de Chardin sees a parallel between the evolution of the world (cosmogenesis) and the progressive formation of the total Christ (Christogenesis). Christ is not only not extraneous to the evolution of the cosmos but mysteriously guides it from within, and at the moment of the Parousia he will constitute its final fulfillment and transformation, the “Omega Point” as Teilhard calls it.
He deduces from these premises a whole new positive vision of the relationship between Christianity and earthly reality. For the first time in the history of Christian thinking, a believer composes a “Hymn to Matter” and a Hymn of the Universe.[4] An outburst of optimism rippled through a vast sector of Christianity to the point of making its influence felt in a document of the Second Vatican Council, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes). It is a reevaluation of earthly activities, and first of all of human labor. The works that a Christian does have value in and of themselves as improving the world and not merely for the pious intention with which a Christian does them.
Teilhard de Chardin is particularly inspired when he applies his vision to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Through the work and daily life of the believer, the Eucharist extends its action throughout the entire cosmos. Every Eucharist becomes a “Mass on the World”:[5]
When through the mouth of the priest he says, Hoc est corpus meum” [“This is my body”], these words extend beyond the morsel of bread over which they are said: they give birth to the whole mystical body of Christ. The effect of the priestly act extends beyond the consecrated host to the cosmos itself.[6]
I do not believe, however, that we can define this cosmic spirituality as an ecological spirituality in the current meaning of the word. For Teilhard, the evolutionary idea of progress, of the ascent of creation toward forms that are always more complex and diversified, still predominates while a concern for the preservation of creation is not present, unless indirectly. In his time, people had not yet become clearly aware of the danger that development—especially industrial development—can pose for creation, or at least for the small part of it that is home to humanity.
Biblical faith agrees with Teilhard de Chardin on the fact that Christ is the Omega Point of history, if by Omega Point we mean the One who at the end will subject all things to himself and hand them over to the Father (see 1 Cor 15:28), the One who will inaugurate “the new heavens and the new earth” and will pronounce final judgement on the world and history (see Mt 25:31ff). The same risen Christ calls himself in Revelation “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last” (Rev 22:12).
However, the faith does not justify Teilhard de Chardin’s idea that the final act of history will be a “crowning” of evolution that has reached its apogee. According to the vision dominant in the whole Bible, the final act could be its very opposite, that is, an abrupt interruption of history, a crisis, a judgment, the moment of separating the wheat from the chaff (see Mt 13:24ff). The Second Letter of Peter says that Christians are “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!” (2 Pet 3:12). This is the vision that has characterized the Church’s perspective, as we see in the initial words of the “Dies irae”: “Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla” (“That day of wrath, that dreadful day /Shall heaven and earth in ashes lay”). It will be an end to evil in terms of the present world rather than an apogee of the good.[7]
This weakness in Teilhard de Chardin’s vision is due to a lacuna that has been pointed out even by scholars who admire his thinking.[8] He did not succeed in integrating into his vision, in an organic and convincing way, the negative dimension of sin; consequently he did not integrate Paul’s dramatic vision in which the reconciliation and recapitulation of all things in Christ occur in the cross and in his death.

  1. The Spirit of Christ

Is there anything, then, that allows us to escape the danger of making Christ, as Blondel said, “an intruder, an alien in the crushing and hostile immensity of the universe”? In other words, does Christ have something to say about the burning issue of ecology and the preservation of creation, or does all this unfold in complete independence of him, like an issue that, if anything, concerns theology but not Christology?
The lack of a clear answer to this question by theologians is due, like so many other lacuna, I believe, to the scant attention paid to the Holy Spirit and his relationship to the risen Christ. Paul writes, “The last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45). The apostle goes so far as to say, with a formula that is very succinct, “the Lord . . . is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17), to emphasize that the risen Lord now acts in the world through his “operational arm,” which is the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s mention of creation that is suffering the pains of childbirth is made in the context of his discussion on the diverse operations of the Holy Spirit. He sees a continuity between the groaning of creation and that of believers: “not only creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly” (Rom 8:23).
The Holy Spirit is the mysterious force that propels creation toward its fulfillment. The Second Vatican Council, speaking of evolution in the social order, affirms that “God’s Spirit, Who with a marvelous providence directs the unfolding of time and renews the face of the earth, is not absent from this development” (Gaudium et spes, n. 26). What the council affirms about the social order applies to all spheres, including the cosmos. Every selfless effort and every advance in the stewardship of creation is through the work of the Holy Spirit. He, who is “the principle of the creation of things,”[9] is also the principle of its evolution over time. This is nothing but the continuation of creation.
What does the Holy Spirit bring that is specific and “personal” to creation and to the evolution of the cosmos? He is not at the origin, so to speak, but at the end of creation and of redemption, just as he is not at the origin but at the end of the trinitarian process. St. Basil writes, “In creation, the Father is the first cause, the one from whom all things come; the Son is the efficient cause, the one through whom all things are made; and the Holy Spirit is the perfecting cause.”[10]
From the initial words of the Bible (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters”), one can deduce that the creative action of the Spirit is at the origin of the perfecting of creation. We could say he is not so much the one who transitions the world from nothing to existence as much as the one who makes formless beings into formed and perfected beings, even if we must always keep in mind that every action of God performed outside of himself is always a joint work of the whole Trinity.
In other words, the Holy Spirit is the one who, by his nature, aims to make creation transition from chaos to cosmos, to make the world something beautiful, something ordered and clean, according to the meaning of its Latin name “mundus. St. Ambrose observed,
When the Spirit began to move upon the water, the creation was still without beauty. However, after creation underwent the working of the Spirit, it gained all the splendor of beauty that made it shine like a “world (mundus).”[11]
An anonymous author from the second century sees this marvel repeat itself, in a striking parallel, in the new creation brought about through the Passover of Christ. What the “Spirit of God” did at the time of creation, the “Spirit of Christ” now does in redemption. He writes,
The world would have been dissolved in confusion and fear at the passion if the great Jesus had not expired saying: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46). The whole universe trembled and quaked with fear, and everything was in a state of agitation, but when the Divine Spirit rose again the universe returned to life and regained its vitality. [12]

  1. How Christ Acts in Creation

One question remains that is the most relevant of all in terms of ecology: Does Christ have something to say about the practical issues that the ecological challenge sets before humanity and the Church? In what sense can we say that Christ, working through his Spirit, is the key element for a healthy and realistic Christian ecology?
I believe that, yes, Christ plays a decisive role even in the concrete problems of the preservation of creation, but he functions in an indirect way by operating in human beings and—through them—on creation. He does that through his gospel that the Holy Spirit “recalls” to believers and makes alive and operative in history until the end of the world (see Jn 16:13). This takes place just the way it did at the beginning of creation: God creates the world and entrusts its guardianship and stewardship to human beings. The Eucharistic Prayer IV says it this way:
You formed man in your own image
and entrusted the whole world to his care,
so that in serving you alone, the Creator,
he might have dominion over all creatures.
The innovation brought by Christ in this area is that he has revealed the true meaning of the word “dominion” the way it is understood by God, as service. Jesus says in the Gospel,
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28)
All the reasons that theologians have tried to give for the Incarnation, to the question of “why God became man,” are shattered before the force of this declaration: “I came to serve and give my life for many.” It is now a question of applying this new understanding of dominion to our relationship with creation as well, as being served by it, yes, but also of serving it, that is, respecting it, defending it, and protecting it from any exploitation.
Christ acts in creation the way he acts in the social sphere, namely, according to his precept about love for one’s neighbor. In relationship to space, which we would call its synchronic sense, our “neighbor” refers to people who we are living near to here and now. In relationship to time, in its diachronic sense, our “neighbors” are those who will come after us, starting with today’s children and youth from whom we are taking away the possibility of living on a habitable planet without having to go around wearing masks to breathe or having to “found colonies on other planets.” As for all of these neighbors in time and space, Jesus said, “You did it to me. . . . You did it not to me” (Mt 25:40, 45).
Like everything else, care for creation is also played out on two levels: the global level and the local level. A modern saying exhorts us to “Think globally, but act locally.” This means that the changeover needs to start with the individual, with each of us. Francis of Assisi used to say to his brothers, “I have never been a thief in the matter of alms, and obtained or used more than I needed. I have always accepted less than my needs, lest other poor folk should be cheated of their share; for to act otherwise would be theft.”[13]
Today that rule could have an application that is more useful than ever for the earth’s future. We too should propose to ourselves not to be thieves of resources, using more than we need and taking them away from those who will come after us. To begin with, those of us who are accustomed to work with paper could try not to contribute to the enormous and thoughtless waste of this raw material, leaving Mother Earth with fewer and fewer trees.
Christmas provides a powerful reminder to this restraint and frugality in the use of things. Our very Creator gave us an example of this when, in becoming man, he was content to be born in a stable. Let us recall these two simple and profound verses from the song “You Came Down from the Stars” by St. Alphonsus Maria dei Ligouri: “For you, the Creator of the world, / No clothes and fire, O my Lord.”
All of us, believers and non-believers, are called to strive for the ideal of restraint and respect for creation, but we Christians should do it for an additional and transcendent reason. If the heavenly Father has made “all things through him and for him,” we too should try to do all things “through Christ and for Christ,” that is, with his grace and for his glory.
English translation by Marsha Daigle Williamson
[1] Alexander Neckam, De naturis rerum, 1, 2, ed. Thomas Wright (1863; repr., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 12ff.
[2] Maurice Blondel, “First Paper to Auguste Valensin,” in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Maurice Blondel, Correspondence (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), 23.
[3] Duns Scotus, Reportatio Parisiensis,” III, 7, 4, in Opus Parisiense, eds. Charles Balic et al. (Rome: Vatican City 1950), 13-15; see also Opera omnia, XXIII (Paris: L. Vives, 1894), 303.
[4] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Hymn to Matter,” in Hymn of the Universe, trans. Gerald Vann (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 65-70. See also “My Universe” (1924) in Science and Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 37-85.
[5] Teilhard de Chardin, “The Mass on the World,” in Hymn of the Universe, 9-32.
[6] Ibid., qtd. in the “Introduction to ‘Mass on the World,’” 6. For similar ideas, see How I Believe (1923), trans. René Hague (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).
[7] This is Augustine’s thesis who sees the end as “the separation of good and evil, the destruction (conflagratio) of the world and its rebirth”: cf.  The City of God, XX, 30,5.
[8] See Christopher F. Mooney, Teilhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ (New York: Image Books, 1968),
[9] Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith (Summa contra gentiles), IV, 20, 2, trans. Charles J. O’Neil (New York: Hanover House, 1955-57), 628.
[10] St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XVI, 38 (PG 32, 136).
[11] St. Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, II, 33.
[12] Anonymous Quartodeciman of the second century [Pseudo-Hippolytus], “Homily on the Holy Pascha,” in Dragoş Andrei Giulea, Pre-Nicene Christology in Paschal Contexts (Boston: Brill, 2014), 115; see also SCh 27 1950.
[13] Mirror of Perfection, 12, trans. Leo Shirley-Price, in St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies, ed. Marion A. Habig (Quincy, Il: Franciscan Press, 1991), 1139; see FF 1695.

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