1st Advent Sermon 2012

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap.


Father Cantalamessa's 1st Advent Sermon

"A Year of the Lord's Favor"

ROME, 7 DEC. 2012 (ZENIT)
Here is a translation of the first Advent sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the pontifical household.

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The Year of Faith and the Catechism of the Catholic Church

1. The "eaten" book

In preaching to the Papal Household, I try to allow myself to be guided in the choice of themes by the graces or special occasions that the Church is experiencing at a given moment in her history. Recently we had the opening of the Year of Faith, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the Synod for Evangelization and the Transmission of the Christian Faith. Therefore, I thought that this Advent I would offer a reflection on each of these three events.

I shall begin with the Year of Faith. In order to avoid getting lost in a theme such as faith, which is vast and wide as the sea, I shall focus on one particular point in the Holy Father's letter Porta Fidei, where he earnestly exhorts us to make the Catechism of the Catholic Church (whose 20th anniversary of publication we celebrate this year) the privileged instrument for fruitfully living out the grace of this year. The Pope writes in his letter:

"The Year of Faith will have to see a concerted effort to rediscover and study the fundamental content of the faith that receives its systematic and organic synthesis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here, in fact, we see the wealth of teaching that the Church has received, safeguarded and proposed in her two thousand years of history. From Sacred Scripture to the Fathers of the Church, from theological masters to the saints across the centuries, the Catechism provides a permanent record of the many ways in which the Church has meditated on the faith and made progress in doctrine so as to offer certitude to believers in their lives of faith".

I certainly will not speak about the CCC's content, divisions or criteria; it would be like wanting to explain the Divine Comedy to Dante Alighieri. Rather, I would like to try to show how this book can be transformed from a silent instrument, like a valuable violin resting on a velvet cloth, into an instrument that sounds and rouses hearts. For a century Bach's St. Matthew Passion remained a written score preserved in music archives, until 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn staged its masterful performance in Berlin. From that day forward, the world knew what melodies and sublime choruses were contained in those pages, which until then had remained silent.

Something similar happens with every book that speaks about faith, including the CCC: we must pass from the score to its performance, from the silent page to something living that makes the soul resound. Ezekiel's vision of the outstretched hand unrolling a scroll helps us to understand what is required for this to occur:

"And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and lo, a written scroll was in it; and he spread it before me; and it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe. And he said to me, 'Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel'. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, 'Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it'" (Ez. 2:9-3:3).

The Supreme Pontiff is the hand that, over the course of this year, offers the CCC to the Church anew, saying to every Catholic: "Take this book, eat it, and fill your stomach with it". What does it mean to eat a book? It means not only studying it, analyzing it and memorizing it, but making it flesh of one's flesh and blood of one's blood. It means "assimilating it" as we do materially with the food we eat. It means transforming it from faith studied into faith lived.

It is not possible to do this with the entire volume, and with each and everything it contains; we cannot do it analytically, but only synthetically. In other words, we need to grasp the principle that informs and unifies the whole; in short, we need to discover the CCC's pulsating heart. And what is this heart? It is not a dogma or a truth, a doctrine or an ethical principle. It is a Person: Jesus Christ! "On page after page," — the Holy Father writes regarding the CCC in the same Apostolic Letter – "we find that what is presented here is no theory, but an encounter with a Person who lives within the Church".

If all of Scripture speaks of Jesus, as he himself attests (cf. Jn 5:39), if it is pregnant with Christ, and if all that it contains is summed up in him, could it be otherwise for the CCC, which is intended as a systematic exposition of the very same Scriptures, elaborated by the Tradition under the guidance of the Magisterium?

In the first Part, which is dedicated to the Faith, the CCC recalls the great principle of St. Thomas Aquinas, according to which "the act of faith does not terminate in the proposition, but in the reality." ("Fides non terminatur ad enunciabile sed ad rem"). Now, what is faith's reality, its final "thing"? God, of course! But not just any god that each of us fashions according to his own tastes and pleasures, but rather a God who revealed himself in Christ, who "identifies" with him to the point that he is able to say: "He who sees me sees the Father" and "No one has ever seen God; the Only begotten Son, who is God, he has made him known" (Jn 1:18).

When we say faith "in Jesus Christ", we do not separate the New Testament from the Old. We do not make the true faith begin with the coming of Christ on earth. If this were so, we would be excluding from the number of believers the very Abraham whom we call "our father in faith" (cf. Rom. 4:16). By identifying his Father with "the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob" (Mt. 22:32) and with the God "of the law and the prophets" (Mt. 22:40), Jesus authenticated the Jewish faith. He revealed its prophetic character by affirming that it was him of whom the prophets spoke (cf. Lk 24:27,44; Jn 5:46). This is what makes the Jewish faith different from every other faith in the eyes of Christians, and what justifies the special status our dialogue with the Jewish people enjoys following the Second Vatican Council, as compared with other religions.

2. Kerygma and Didachè

At the Church's beginning, the distinction between kerygma and didachè was clear. The kerygma, which Paul also calls "the gospel", concerned God's work in Christ Jesus, the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. And it consisted in brief formulas of faith, such as the one taken from Peter's address on the day of Pentecost: "You crucified him, but God raised him up and has made him Lord" (cf. Acts 2:23-36), or: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

The didaché, on the other hand,indicated the teaching subsequent to the coming of faith; it referred to the development and complete formation of the believer. The early Church (especially Paul) was convinced that faith, as such, blossomed only in the presence of the kerygma. For it was neither a summary of the faith nor one of its parts; rather, it was the seed from which everything else comes. Even the four Gospels were written afterward, precisely in order to explain the kerygma.

Even the most ancient core of the creed regarded Christ, whose two natures, human and divine, it sought to highlight. One example of this is contained in the verse from the Letter to the Romans, which speaks of Christ "who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:3-4). Soon this original nucleus, or Christological creed, was included within a broader context, such as the second article of the symbol of faith. In this way, for reasons linked to baptism, the Trinitarian symbols came into existence.

This process is part of what Newman calls "the development of Christian doctrine". It is an enrichment rather than a departure from the original faith. Today it is up to us — in the first place bishops, preachers and catechists — to give due prominence to the kerygma's distinct character as a seminal moment of faith. To borrow again from the imagery of music, in lyric opera there is the recitativo and there is the cantata, and within the cantata there are the "high notes" that move the hearer and arouse strong emotion, at times even to tears. Now we know what the high note of every catechesis is.

Our situation is becoming more and more similar to that of the apostles. They were faced with a pre-Christian world to evangelize; we have before us, at least to some extent and in certain quarters, a post-Christian world to re-evangelize. We need to return to their method by bringing anew to light "the sword of the Spirit", which is the announcement — in Spirit and power — of Christ who died for our sins and who rose for our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25). 

However, the kerygma is not just the announcement of a series of clearly defined facts or truths about the faith. It is also a certain spiritual climate that can be created whatever is said, a backdrop against which everything is placed. It is up to the announcer, by means of his faith, to allow the Holy Spirit to create this atmosphere.  

What then is the inner sense of the CCC? The same that the didaché had in the apostolic Church: to give shape to the faith, to give it content and to show its ethical and practical demands, to bring faith to the point of "working through love" (cf. Gal. 5:6). A paragraph from the CCC puts it well. After having recalled the thomistic principle that "faith does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities", it adds:

"All the same, we do approach these realities with the help of formulations of the faith which permit us to express the faith and to hand it on, to celebrate it in community, to assimilate and live on it more and more". 

Here we see the importance of the second "C" in the title "Catechism of the Catholic Church"; i.e., of the adjective "Catholic". The strength of several non-Catholic churches is their emphasis on the initial moment of coming to faith, by adhering to the kerygma and accepting Jesus as Lord (the famous "being born again" or "second conversion"). But this can become a limitation if it keeps us there and if everything continues to revolve around this initial moment.

We Catholics have something to learn from these ecclesial communities, but we also have a great deal to give. In the Catholic Church, this is all just the beginning, not the end, of the Christian life. After that initial decision, the path towards growth and the fullness of Christian life opens up before us, and thanks to her sacramental riches, magisterium, and the example of countless saints, the Catholic Church finds herself in a privileged position in leading believers to the perfection of the life of faith. The Pope writes in Porta Fidei:

"From Sacred Scripture to the Fathers of the Church, from theological masters to the saints across the centuries, the Catechism provides a permanent record of the many ways in which the Church has meditated on the faith and made progress in doctrine so as to offer certitude to believers in their lives of faith."

3. The anointing of faith

I spoke about the kerygma as the "high note" of catechesis.  But raising the tone of one's voice is not enough to produce this high note; something more is needed. "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord!' [this is the high note par excellence!], except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3). The evangelist John applies the theme of anointing in a way that is particularly relevant during this Year of Faith.

He writes:

"But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know […] The anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him" (1 Jn 2:20,27).

The author of this anointing is the Holy Spirit, as we deduce from the fact that elsewhere the role of "teaching all things" is attributed to the Paraclete as the "Spirit of truth" (Jn. 14:26). It is, as various Fathers have written, an "anointing of faith": "The anointing that comes from the Holy One" — writes Clement of Alexandria – "is realized in faith"; "The anointing is faith in Christ", says another writer from the same school.

St. Augustine in his commentary addresses a question to the evangelist. "Why", he asks, "did you write your letter, if those whom you were addressing had already received the anointing that teaches all things and if they had no need that anyone instruct them? Why, indeed, do we speak and instruct the faithful?" And here is his response, which is based on the theme of the interior Master:

"The sound of our words strikes the ear, but the true Master is within […] I, for my part, have spoken to all; but they to whom that Unction within speaks not, they whom the Holy Ghost within teaches not, those go back untaught […]. There is then, I say, a Master within that teaches: Christ teaches; His inspiration teaches".

External instruction is therefore needed; we need teachers. But their voices penetrate the heart only if the interior voice of the Spirit is also present. "We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him" (Acts 5:32). With these words, addressed to the Sanhedrin, the Apostle Peter not only affirms the necessity of the Holy Spirit's interior witness, but he also indicates the condition for receiving it: readiness to obey, to submit oneself to the Word.

It is the Spirit's anointing that makes us pass from propositions to their reality. Believing which is also knowing is a theme dear to the evangelist John: "We know and believe the love God has for us" (1 Jn. 4:16). "We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn. 6:69). "Knowing" in this case, as in general throughout the whole of Scripture, does not mean what it means for us today, i.e. having an idea or concept about something. It means experiencing it, entering into relationship with the thing or with the person. The Virgin's statement: "I do not know man", certainly didn't mean "I don't know what a man is …"

What Pascal experienced on the night of the 23rdof November 1654 was a clear case of the anointing of faith. He committed it to writing with brief exclamatory phrases in a text found sewn inside his jacket after his death:

"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob! Not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ.[…].He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. […] Joy, joy. Joy, tears of joy. […]. This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and he whom you have sent, Jesus Christ".

The anointing of faith usually occurs when the Holy Spirit's illumination unexpectedly falls upon a word of God or a statement of faith, and it is generally accompanied by deep emotion. I remember one year, on the feast of Christ the King, I was listening during the first reading of the Mass to Daniel's prophecy concerning the son of man:

"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like the son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed" (Dan. 7:13-14).

The New Testament, as we know, saw Daniel's prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. Standing before the Sanhedrin, he himself makes it his own (cf. Mt. 26:64). A phrase from the text even entered into the Creed ("cuius regnum non erit finis"). I knew all this from my studies, but at that moment it was something wholly other. It was as though the scene unfolded right there before my eyes. Yes, the son of man who was coming was him, Jesus. All the scholars' doubts and alternative explanations, with which I was also familiar, at that moment seemed to me to be simple pretexts for not believing. Without knowing it, I was experiencing the anointing of faith.

On another occasion (I believe I have already shared this experience in the past, but it helps in understanding) I was assisting at Midnight Mass presided by John Paul II in St. Peter's. The moment had arrived for the singing of the Kalenda; that is, the solemn proclamation of the Savior's birth, which is present in the ancient Martyrology and was reintroduced in the Christmas liturgy after Vatican II:

"Innumerable ages having passed since the creation of the world …

From the Exodus of the people out of Egypt, thirteen centuries …

In the year of the one hundred and ninety fourth Olympiad,
From the founding of the city of Rome, seven hundred and fifty two years …

In the rule of Caesar Augustus, the forty second year;

Jesus Christ, eternal God, the eternal Father's Son, by the Holy Spirit conceived, nine months having passed since His conception, in Bethlehem of Judah was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man".

At these final words, I experienced a sudden and unexpected moment of interior clarity, and I remember saying within myself: "It is true! What is being sung is all true! They are not only words. The eternal enters into time. The final event in the series has broken the series; it has created an irreversible 'before' and 'after'; the reckoning of time which was previously based on different events (such and such Olympiad, such and such reign), now takes place in relation to a unique event": before Christ, after Christ. I was suddenly overcome by emotion, and I could only say: "Thank you, Most Holy Trinity, and thank you too, Holy Mother of God!"

The Holy Spirit's anointing also produces, shall we say, a "side effect" in the messenger: it makes him experience the joy of proclaiming Jesus and his Gospel. It transforms evangelization from incumbency and duty into honor and glory. It is the joy well known to the messenger who carries the announcement to a city under siege that the siege has come to an end, or to the herald in ancient times, who ran ahead to bring the people the announcement of a decisive victory obtained on the field by their army. The "joyful news" brings its herald joy even before the one who receives it.

There was one time in history when Ezekiel's vision of the eaten scroll was fulfilled in a literal and not only in a metaphorical sense. It was when the scroll of God's words enclosed themselves in one Word, the Word. The Father brought him to Mary. Mary received him. She filled herself with him inwardly, even physically, and then she gave him to the world. She "uttered" him by giving birth to him. She is the model for every evangelizer and for every catechist. She teaches us to fill ourselves with Jesus in order to give him to others. Mary conceived Jesus "through the working of the Holy Spirit" and so it must also be for everyone who proclaims him.

The Holy Father concludes his letter of Indiction for the Year of Faith by calling to mind the Virgin: "Let us entrust this time of grace to the Mother of God, proclaimed 'blessed' because 'she believed'" (Lk 1:45).

 Let us ask her to obtain for us the grace of experiencing over the course of this year many moments of the anointing of faith. "Virgo fidelis, ora pro nobis". Mother of faith, pray for us.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]


[1] Benedict XVI, Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, n. 11

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 1,2, ad 2, cited in CCC, n. 170.

[3] CCC, n. 170

[4] Clemente Al. Adumbrationes in 1 Johannis (PG 9, 737B); Homéliies paschales (SCh 36, p.40): texts cited from I. de la Potterie, L’unzione del cristiano con la fede, in Biblica 40, 1959, 12-69.

[5] St. Augustine, Commentary on the First Letter of John 3, 13 (PL 35, 2004 ff).

[6] B. Pascal, Memorial, ed. Brunschvicg.

[7] Porta Fidei, n. 15

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