1st Advent Meditation - 2007

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.


Father Cantalamessa's 1st Advent Meditation - 2007

Jesus of Nazareth: “One of the prophets?”


Here is a translation of the first Advent sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.

* * *

1. The Third Quest

"In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:1-3).

These first lines of the Letter to the Hebrews constitutes a great synthesis of the whole of salvation history. There are two successive periods: the period in which God spoke through the prophets and the period in which God speaks through his Son; the time in which he spoke through other persons and the time in which he speaks "in person." The Son in fact is "the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being," that is, as will be said later, he is "of the same substance as the Father."

There is both continuity and a qualitative leap. It is the same God who speaks, the same revelation; the novelty is that now the Revealer becomes the revelation, revelation and revealer coincide. The formula of introduction of the pronouncements is the best demonstration of this: it is no longer "Thus, says the Lord," but "I say to you."

In the light of this powerful word of God that is Hebrews 1:1-3, we will attempt in this Advent preaching to conduct a discernment of the opinions that today circulate about Jesus, inside and outside the Church, in such a way as to be able, at Christmas, to join our voice without reserve with that of the liturgy which proclaims its faith in the Son of God come into this world. We are again and again brought back to the conversation at Caesarea Philippi: Who is Jesus for me, "one of the prophets" or "the Son of the living God"? (cf. Matthew 16:14-16).

What is under way now in the field of historical studies of Jesus is the so-called third quest. This is what it has been called to distinguish it, on the one hand, from the "old historical quest" that was inspired by rationalism and liberalism and which dominated research from the end of the 18th century through the 19th century, and, on the other hand, from the so-called new historical quest that began about the middle of last century in reaction to the thesis of Bultmann who had proclaimed that the historical Jesus was inaccessible and, moreover, completely irrelevant to the Christian faith.

In what way does this third quest distinguish itself from the preceding ones? First of all it is driven by the conviction that, thanks to the available sources, we can know much more about the historical Jesus than was admitted in the past. But the third quest is above all distinguished by the criteria it uses for arriving at the historical truth about Jesus. If before it was thought that the basic criterion of verification of a deed or saying of Jesus was its being in contrast with the Jewish world of his time, now it is, on the contrary, the compatibility of the Gospel data with the Judaism of the time. If before the mark of authenticity of a saying or deed was its novelty and its "inexplicability" in regard to the environment, now it is, on the contrary, its explicability in the light of what we know about the Judaism and social situation of the Galilee of that period.

There are some obvious advantages to this new approach. The continuity of revelation is rediscovered. Jesus is situated in the Jewish world, in the line of the biblical prophets. One smiles at the time when it was believed that the whole of Christianity could be explained by recourse to the Hellenistic influences.

The trouble is that things have been pushed so far beyond this gain that it has become a loss. Jesus ends up completely dissolving into the Jewish world without distinguishing himself anymore than by some small detail or some special interpretations of the Torah. He is one of the Jewish prophets or, as one prefers to say, one of the "charismatic itinerants." The title of a famous book by J.D. Crossan is significant: "The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant."

E.P. Sanders, who is in some ways the founder of the third quest and the most well-known of these authors, is in this line, although he does not go to these extremes. Rediscovering the continuity, the newness has been lost. The popularizing has done the rest, spreading the image of a Jesus who is a Jew among Jews, who did nothing new — although it continues to be said (one knows not how) that "he changed the world."

We continue to criticize the generations of past scholars for creating an image of Jesus according to the fashions or tastes of the time and it is not recognized that we are continuing along the same way. This insistence on Jesus the Jew among Jews, in fact, follows, at least in part, from the desire to make up for the historical crimes committed against this people and to favor dialogue between Jews and Christians. This is a wonderful goal pursued however through mistaken means. What we have is a tendency that is only favorable to the Jews in appearance. In truth one ends up casting another burden upon the Jewish world: that of not recognizing one of their own, a man who's doctrine was perfectly compatible with what it believed.

2. Rabbi Neusner and Benedict XVI

An American Rabbi, Jacob Neusner, has brought to light the illusory character of this approach for the purpose of promoting the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. Those who have read the book of Pope Benedict XVI on Jesus of Nazareth already know a lot about the thought of this rabbi whom the Pope engages in dialogue in one of the most passionate chapters of the book. I will review the main lines here.

The famous Jewish scholar wrote a book entitled, "A Rabbi Talks with Jesus." In it he imagines being a contemporary of Jesus who one day joins the crowd who is following him and listens to the Sermon on the Mount. He explains why, despite his being fascinated with the doctrine and person of the Galilean, in the end he sadly comes to the realization that he cannot be his disciple and he decides to remain a disciple of Moses and follower of the Torah.

All of the reasons for his decision in the end come down to one: to accept what this man says, it is necessary to recognize in him the authority itself of God. He does not limit himself to "fulfilling" the Torah but replace the Torah. Returned from his meeting with Jesus, Neusner imagines a dialogue with a rabbi in a synagogue of the time:

"He: 'What did he leave out [of the Torah]?'
I: 'Nothing.'
He: 'Then what did he add?'
I: 'Himself'."

An interesting coincidence: this is exactly the same answer that Saint Irenaeus gave in the 2nd century to those who asked what new thing Jesus brought when he came into the world. "Bringing himself," Irenaeus wrote, "he brought every newness" — " Omnem novitatem attulit semetipsum afferens."[1]

Neusner has brought to light the impossibility of making Jesus a "normal" Jew of his time or a Jew who departs from Judaism only on matters of secondary importance. There is another important merit of Neusner's work: he has shown the inanity of every attempt to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. He shows how criticism can take every title away from the Jesus of history: it can deny that Jesus or others attributed the title Messiah, Lord, or Son of God to him while he was alive. After the critics have taken away from him everything that they want, there still remains enough in the Gospel to demonstrate that he did not take himself to be a simple man. Just as a bit of hair, a drop of sweat or blood is sufficient to completely reconstruct a person's DNA, so also a saying taken almost at random from the Gospel is sufficient to demonstrate the consciousness Jesus had of acting with the authority itself of God.

As a good Jew, Neusner knows what it means to say: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath," because the Sabbath is the divine "institution" par excellence. He knows what it means to say: "If you want to be perfect, follow me": it means replacing the old paradigm of holiness that consists in imitating God ("Be holy because I your God am holy") with the new paradigm that consists in imitating Christ. He knows that only God can dispense from obeying the fourth commandment as Jesus does when he tells someone not to concern himself with burying his father. Commenting on these sayings of Jesus, Neusner exclaims: "It is the Christ of faith who is speaking here."[2]

In his book the Pope responds at length and, for a believer, in a convincing and illuminating way, to the difficulty of Rabbi Neusner. His response makes me think of the one that Jesus himself gave to the envoys sent by John the Baptist to ask: "Are you the one who must come or should we wait for another?" Jesus, in other words, did not only claim divine authority but he even gave signs and guarantees as his evidence: miracles, his teaching itself (which is not exhausted in the Sermon on the Mount), the fulfillment of prophecies, especially that of Moses about a prophet similar and superior to him; then his death, his resurrection and the community born from him that realizes the universality of salvation announced by the prophets.

3. "Encourage each other"

It would be necessary at this point to mention something: the problem of the relationship between Jesus and the prophets does not appear only in the context of the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, but also within Christian theology itself, where attempts to explain the personality of Christ with recourse to the category of prophet are not lacking. I am convinced of the radical insufficiency of a Christology that tries to isolate the title of prophet and reestablish the whole Christological edifice upon it.

First of all, this project is not at all new. It was proposed in antiquity by Paul of Samosata, Photinus and others in sometimes identical terms. Then, in a metaphysically oriented culture one spoke of the supreme prophet; today, in an historically oriented culture, one speaks of an eschatological prophet. But are eschatological and supreme so different? Can one be the supreme prophet without also being the definitive prophet, and can the definitive prophet not also be the supreme prophet?

A Christology that does not go beyond the category of "eschatological prophet" when it comes to Jesus does, indeed, as is the intention of those who propose it, represent an updating of an ancient teaching, not however a teaching defined by the councils, but rather one condemned by the councils.

But I do not insist on this problem, which I have treated in years past in this same place.[3] Instead I would like to immediately pass to a practical application of my reflections up to this point that will help us make Advent a time of conversion and spiritual reawakening.

The conclusion that the Letter to the Hebrews draws from the superiority of Christ over the prophets and Moses is not a triumphalist conclusion but a parenthetic one; it does not insist on the superiority of Christianity but on the greater responsibility of Christians before God. It says:

"Therefore, we must attend all the more to what we have heard, so that we may not be carried away. For if the word announced through angels proved firm, and every transgression and disobedience received its just recompense, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? [...] Encourage each other daily while it is still "today," so that none of you may grow hardened by the deceit of sin" (Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:13).

And Chapter 10 adds: "Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace?" (Hebrews 10:28-29).

Accepting the author of the Letter to the Hebrew's invitation, the word with which we would like to encourage each other is that which the liturgy spoke to us last Sunday and which sets the tone for the whole first week of Advent: "Be vigilant!" It is interesting to note something. When the apostolic catechesis takes up this word of Jesus after Easter we find that it is almost always dramatized: not only is it said to be vigilant but to wake up, arise from your sleep! From the state of being vigilant we pass to the act of waking up.

The basis of this is the realization that in this life there is the chronic danger of falling back asleep, that is, of sliding into a state of suspension of the faculties, of drowsiness and spiritual inertia. Material things work on the soul like a drug. Because of this Jesus says: "Be careful that your hearts do not grow weary in dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of life" (Luke 21:34).

Saint Augustine's description of this state of sleepiness in the "Confessions" can serve as a useful examination of conscience for us: "As one oppressed by sleep, so I was held down by the pleasant weight of this world; and the thoughts wherein I meditated on you were like the efforts of one who wishes to wake up but, overcome, falls back to sleep ... I was certain that it was better to give myself up to your charity, than to give myself over to my cupidity. Although I was pleased by and won over by the former, the latter bribed and mastered me. I did not know how to answer to your words: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light" (Ephesians 5:14). Convinced by the truth, I knew not how to answer you. You showed me on every side that what you said was true. All I could say were those dull and drowsy words, "Now, now, at this very moment, just leave me alone for a little while longer."[4]

We know how the saint finally found his way out of this state. He was in a garden in Milan, lacerated by this battle between the flesh and the spirit; he heard the words,"Tolle, lege, tolle, lege" — "Take up and read, take up and read." He took them as a divine invitation; he had with him the book of Saint Paul's letters. He decided to take as the word of God the first passage that he came across. He lighted on the text that we heard last Sunday as the second reading of the Mass: "It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness (and) put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh" (Romans 13:11-14).

4. "Give me chastity and continence"

The scene from Augustine's "Confessions" brings me to introduce here something a little more recent. Last week RAI 1 broadcast a two hour show by the comedian and Oscar winner Roberto Benigni which drew many viewers. It was a lesson that at moments had marvelous religious elements from which we preachers might learn something. Benigni demonstrated an ability to give voice to the sense of the eternal in man, wonder before mystery, art, beauty and the simple fact of our existing; he stressed the importance of the "Yes" pronounced by Mary and the influence devotion to her had on the medieval idealized vision of the woman.

Unfortunately, on one point, perhaps not premeditated, the Begnini conveyed a message that could prove fatal for young people and which should be rectified. In support of his invitation to not be afraid of the passions, to experience the heights of love even in its carnal aspect, he cited the a line spoken by Augustine to God: "Give me chastity and continence but not yet."[5] As if it were first necessary to try everything and then, who knows, when we are old practice chastity, when it not longer demands effort.

Benigni did not say how much afterward Augustine regretted this prayer of his youth and how many tears it cost to tear himself away for the passion to which he had abandoned himself. He did not mention the prayer with which the saint replaced the earlier one once he had regained his freedom: "You command me to be chaste; give me what you ask of me and then ask of me what you will!"[6]

I do not think that the young people of today need to be encouraged to "give themselves over," to "experiment," to break down the barriers — everything is pushing them headlong in this direction with the tragic consequences of which we are aware.

In the Canto from the Inferno of the "Divine Comedy" that Benigni admirably commented on, Dante furnishes one of these profound reasons which Benigni however passed over. Evil is the submission of reason to instinct rather than the submission of instinct to reason.

"I understood that unto such a torment
The carnal malefactors were condemned,
Who reason subjugate to appetite ."[7]

Instinct has its function if it is regulated by reason; in the contrary case it becomes the enemy, not the ally, of love, leading to the most barbarous crimes of which we are well-informed by the newspapers.

But let us come more directly to ourselves. The spiritual life is not of course reduced to chastity and purity alone but it is certain that without them every effort in other directions will be impossible. It is truly, as Paul says in the text we cited, "armor of light": a condition for the light of Christ to radiate about us and through us.

Today there is a tendency to oppose sins against purity and sins against our neighbor and it is the sin against our neighbor that is thought to be the real sin; sometimes scorn is cast upon the excessive homage that was paid in the past to the "beautiful virtue." This attitude is in part understandable; the morality of the past emphasized too unilaterally the sins of the flesh, to the point sometimes of creating real neuroses at the expense of attention to our neighbor and at the expense of the virtue of purity itself which was thus impoverished and reduced to an almost entirely negative virtue, the virtue of knowing how to say no.

Now, however, we have gone to the other extreme and there is a tendency to minimize sins against purity to the advantage (often only in theory) of attention to our neighbor. It is an illusion to believe that we can put authentic service to our brothers — which always demands sacrifice, altruism, forgetfulness of self and generosity — together with a disordered personal life, entirely directed toward gratifying ourselves and our own passions. We end up, inevitably, using our brothers, just as we use our own bodies and the other sex. He who does not know how to say no to himself does not know how to say yes to his brothers.

One of the "excuses" that contributes most to encourage the sin of impurity in the popular mindset is the discharging of any responsibility, the claim that it hurts no one, that it does not violate anyone's rights unless, it is said, we are talking about physical violence. But apart from the fact that it violates the basic right of God to give a law to his creatures, this "excuse" is false even in regard to our relations to our neighbor. It is not true that the sin of impurity ends with those who commit it.

In the Jewish Talmud there is an apologue that illustrates quite well the connection that exists between sin and the damage that every sin, even personal sin, does to others: "Some people found themselves on a boat. One of the passengers took a drill and began to make a hole beneath his seat. The others seeing this said to him: 'What are you doing?' He answered: 'What is it to you? Am I not making a hole under my seat?' But they replied: 'Yes, but water will come in and we will all drown!'" Is this not what is happening in our society? The Church too knows something of the evil that can be done to the whole body by personal mistakes of the clergy in this sphere.

In these last months one of the spiritual events that has gotten much press was the publishing of the "private writings" of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The title chosen for the book in which they are gathered is the words Jesus spoke to her when he called her to her new mission: "Come, be my light." These are words that Jesus addresses to each of us and that, with the help of the Most Blessed Virgin and the intercession of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, we would like to welcome with love and try to put into practice this Advent.

* * *

[1] St. Irenaeus, "Adversus Haereses," IV, 34, 1.
[2] Jacob Neusner, "A Rabbi Talks with Jesus," McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000, 84.

[3] See the Advent meditations of 1989 collected in the book "Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God," Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1992, chapter VII.
[4] St. Augustine, "Confessions," VIII, 5, 12.

[5] "Confessions," VIII, 6, 17.
[6] "Confessions," X, 29.
[7] Dante Alighieri, "The Divine Comedy," Inferno, Canto 5.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe http://www.zenit.org/english/subscribe.html
or email: english-request@zenit.org with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field