Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent Sermon

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


Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent Sermon

"Spe Gaudentes — Joyful in Hope"


Here is a translation of the third Advent sermon delivered today 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. Jesus the Son

In this third and last meditation, leaving the prophets and John the Baptist aside now, we will focus exclusively on the goal of everything: the "Son." From this point of view, the text of Hebrews suggests the parable of the treacherous tenants of the vineyard. There too God first sends his servants and then, at the end, he sends his Son, saying: "They will respect my Son" (Matthew 21:33-41).

In a chapter of his book on Jesus of Nazareth the Pope illustrates the profound difference between the title "Son of God" and that of "Son" without any added qualifications. The simple title of "Son," contrary to what one might think, is much more pregnant than that of "Son of God." The latter comes after a long list of attributions: This is what the people of Israel were called, and in a special way, their king; this is what the Pharaohs were called and the eastern sovereigns and also what the Roman emperor was to be called. By itself, then, this title would not be enough to distinguish the person of Christ from every other "son of God."

The case of the simple title "Son" is different. This appears in the Gospels as exclusive to Christ and it is with it that Jesus will express his profound identity. After the Gospels it is precisely the Letter to the Hebrews that powerfully testifies to this absolute use of the title "the Son." It appears five times in the letter.

The most significant text in which Jesus defines himself as "the Son" is Matthew 11:27. "Everything has been given to me by my Father; no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." The exegetes explain that the saying has a clear Aramaic origin and demonstrates that the later developments that we see in this regard in John's Gospel have their remote origin in Christ's consciousness itself.

A communion of knowledge so absolute between Father and Son, the Pope notes in his book, cannot be explained except by an ontological communion, a communion in being. The later formulations, culminating in the definition of Nicaea, of the Son as "begotten not made, of the same substance as the Father," are therefore daring but consonant with the Gospel datum.

The strongest proof of the consciousness that Jesus had of his identity as Son is in his prayer. In Jesus' prayer the sonship is not only declared but lived. The way and the frequency with which the exclamation "Abba" appears in Christ's prayer attests an intimacy and a familiarity with God that does not have an equal in the tradition of Israel. If the expression has been conserved in the original language and becomes the characteristic of Christian prayer (cf. Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) it is precisely because people were convinced that it was the typical form of Jesus' own prayer.[1]

2. A Jesus of the atheists?

This Gospel datum throws light on a particular contemporary debate about the person of Jesus. In the introduction to his book, the Pope cites the claim of R. Schnackenburg according to which "without the rootedness in God the person of Jesus remains fleeting, unreal and inexplicable." "This," the Pope says, "is the basis of this book of mine: considering Jesus from the point of view of his communion with the Father. This is the true center of his personality."[2]

In my opinion this brings to light the problematic nature of an historical investigation of Jesus that from the beginning not only prescinds from, but excludes, faith; in other words, it calls into question the historical plausibility of that which is sometimes called "the Jesus of the atheists." Here I am not talking about faith in Christ and his divinity, but about faith in the more common meaning of the term, of faith in God's existence. This has nothing to do with the idea that non-believers have no right to concern themselves with Jesus. What I want to show, taking my cue from the claim cited by the Pope, are the consequences that follow from such a point of departure, that is, how the "pre-comprehension" of the non-believer has a much greater impact on his historical research than does the believer's — contrary to what atheist scholars think.

If one rejects or prescinds from faith in God, it is not only the divinity of Christ that is eliminated, or the so-called Christ of faith, but also the historical Jesus tout court — his human credibility is lost. No one can deny on historical grounds that the Jesus of the Gospels lives and works in constant reference to the heavenly Father, that he prays and teaches to pray, that he bases everything on faith in God. If this dimension of the Jesus of the Gospels is eliminated, nothing remains.

If one begins with the tacit or declared presupposition that God does not exist, then Jesus is nothing more than one of the many deluded people who prayed, worshiped, and talked to his own shadow, or the projection of his own essence, as Feuerbach would have it. Jesus would be the most illustrious victim of what the militant atheist Richard Dawkins calls "the God delusion."[3] But how do we explain then that the life of this man "changed the world" and, after 2,000 years continues to intrigue us like no one else? If a delusion is able to do what Jesus did in history, Dawkins and others had better reconsider their concept of delusion.

There is only one way out of this difficulty, that which made some headway in the context of the "Jesus Seminar" at Berkeley in the United States. Jesus was not a Jewish believer; he was at bottom an itinerant philosopher after the fashion of the Cynics;[4] he did not preach a kingdom of God, nor a coming end of the world; he was only a purveyor of sapiential maxims in the style of a Zen master. His purpose was to reawaken self-consciousness in men, to convince them that they did not need him nor another god, because there was a divine spark in them.[5] But these are the things that the New Age has been preaching for decades! This is an image of Jesus constructed according to contemporary fashions. It is true: Without the rootedness in God, the figure of Jesus remains "fleeting, unreal and inexplicable."

3. Pre-existence of Christ in the Trinity

On this point too, as with the reduction of Jesus to a prophet, the problem comes up not only in discussion with atheist scholarship; it comes up, in a different manner and with a different spirit, in theological discussion within the Church. I will try to explain in what sense. In regard to the title "Son of God" we are witnessing a kind of climbing back up the mountain in the New Testament: In the beginning it is connected with Christ's resurrection (Romans 1:4); Mark takes a step back and connects it with his baptism in the Jordan (Mark 1:11); Matthew and Luke connect it with his birth (Luke 1:35). The Letter to the Hebrews makes the decisive leap, affirming that the Son did not begin to exist at the moment of his coming among us but existed from all eternity. "Through him," it says, "God made the world"; he is the "radiance of his glory and the image of his substance." Some 30 years later, John's Gospel will consecrate this conquest, beginning with the words: "In the beginning was the Word ..."

Now, in regard to the pre-existence of Christ as eternal Son of the Father some very problematic theses have been advanced in the ambit of the so-called new Christologies. In these, it is claimed that the pre-existence of Christ as eternal Son of the Father is a mythical concept taken over from Hellenistic thought. In modern terms, this would mean simply that "the relationship between God and Jesus did not develop only in a second moment and, causally, so to speak, but exists a priori and is founded in God himself."

In other words, Jesus pre-existed in an intentional way but not in a real way; in the sense that the Father, from all eternity, foresaw, chose and loved as a son the Jesus who would one day be born of Mary. He did not pre-exist, therefore, in a way that was different from each of us, from the moment that every man, as Scripture says, was "already chosen and predestined" by God as his son, before the creation of the world! (cf. Ephesians 1:4).

From this point of view, faith in the Trinity disappears together with Christ's pre-existence. This is reduced to something heterogenous (an eternal person, the Father, plus an historical person, Jesus, plus a divine energy, the Holy Spirit); something that, besides, does not exist ab aeterno but that comes to be in time.

I will limit myself to observing that this is not a new thesis. The idea of an intentional rather than a real pre-existence of the Son was advanced, discussed and rejected by ancient Christian thought. Just as it is not true, then, that this thesis is imposed by the new conceptions we have of God, conceptions that are no longer mythological, it is also not true that the contrary idea, of an eternal pre-existence, was the only conceivable solution in the ancient cultural context and that the Fathers, therefore, had no other choice.

Photinus, in the 4th century, already knew the idea of a pre-existence of Jesus "in the mode of prevision" or "in the mode of anticipation." Against him a synod declared: "If anyone says that the Son, before Mary, existed only according to prevision and that he was not begotten by the Father before the ages to be God and to make all things come into being through him, let him be anathema."[6] The intention of these theologians was laudable: to translate the ancient datum into language accessible to contemporary man. Unfortunately, however, once again, that which gets translated into modern language is not the datum defined by the councils, but that condemned by the councils.

Already St. Anthanasius made it clear that the idea of a Trinity composed of heterogenous realities compromised that divine unity that was to be safeguarded with it. If then it is admitted that God "comes to be" in time, no one guarantees us that his growth and coming to be are finished. He who has come to be will continue along the path of becoming.[7] How much time and trouble we would be saved by a less superficial knowledge of the Fathers!

I would like to conclude this doctrinal part of our meditation on a positive note, with something that, in my opinion, is of extraordinary importance. For almost a century, since Wilhelm Bousset wrote his famous book "Kyrios Christos" in 1913, the idea that the devotion to Christ as divine was to be looked for in the Hellenistic context, and therefore a good deal after the death of Christ, has dominated the sphere of critical studies.[8]

In the ambit of the so-called third quest for the historical Jesus, the question has been taken up again from the beginning by Larry Hurtado, professor of language, literature and theology of the New Testament at Edinburgh. Here is the conclusion that he reaches at the end of an investigation of over 700 pages:

"Devotion to Jesus as divine erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually and late, among first-century circles of followers. More specifically, the origins lie in Jewish Christian circles of the earliest years. Only a certain wishful thinking continues to attribute the reverence of Jesus as divine decisively to the influence of pagan religion and the influx of Gentile converts, characterizing it as developing late and incrementally. Furthermore, devotion to Jesus as the ‘Lord,' to whom cultic reverence and total obedience were the appropriate response, was widespread, not confined or attributable to particular circles, such as ‘Hellenists' or Gentile Christians of a supposed Syrian ‘Christ cult.' Amid the diversity of earliest Christianity, belief in Jesus' divine status was amazingly common."[9]

This rigorous historical conclusion should put an end to the opinion, which has been dominant up until now in a certain popularized form, that holds that the divine cult of Christ is supposed to be a later fruit of the faith (imposed by law by Constantine at Nicaea in 325, according to Dan Brown in his "DaVinci Code"!)

4. Hope, the little girl

Besides the book on Jesus of Nazareth, this year the Holy Father has also given us the gift of an encyclical on hope. The usefulness of a papal document, apart from its elevated content, is that it focuses the attention of all the faithful on one point, stimulating reflection on it. In this line, I would like to make a little spiritual and practical application of the encyclical's theological content, showing how the text of the Letter to the Hebrews that we have meditated on can contribute to nourishing our hope.

In hope — the author of the letter writes, with a beautiful image destined to become a classic of Christian art — "we have an anchor of our life, strong and secure, which penetrates beyond the veil of the sanctuary, where Jesus has entered as precursor for us" (Hebrews 6:17-20). The foundation of this hope is precisely the fact that "in these last times God has spoken to us through his Son." If he has given us the Son, says St. Paul, "will he not give us all things together with him?" (Romans 8:32). This is why "hope does not disappoint" (Romans 5:5): the gift of the Son is the pledge and the guarantee of all the rest and, in the first place, of eternal life. If the Son is "the heir to all things" ("heredem universorum") (Hebrews 1:2), we are his "co-heirs" (Romans 8:17).

The iniquitous tenants of the vineyard in the parable, seeing the Son arrive, say to each other: "He is the heir. Let us go and kill him and we will have the inheritance" (Matthew 21:38). In his all-powerful mercy, God the Father turned this criminal design into something good. Men did kill the Son and truly received the inheritance! Thanks to that death, they have become "heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ."

We human creatures need hope to live as we need oxygen to breathe. It is said that as long as there is life there is hope; but the reverse is likewise true: That as long as there is hope there is life. Hope has been for a long time and is still now the poor relation among the theological virtues. We speak often of faith, more often of love, but very little about hope.

The poet Charles Péguy is right when he compares the three theological virtues to three sisters: two grown-ups and a little girl. They walk along the street hand-in-hand (the three theological virtues are inseparable!), the two big ones on either side, the little girl in the middle. All who see them are convinced that the two big ones — faith and love — drag along the little girl hope in the middle. But they are mistaken: it is the little girl hope who drags the other two along; if she stops, everything stops.[10]

We see it at the human and social level too. In Italy hope has stopped and with it confidence, drive, growth, even in economic matters. The "decline" that is spoken of is born here. Fear of the future has taken the place of hope. The low birth rate is the clearest indicator. No country needs to meditate on the Pope's encyclical as much as Italy.

Theological hope is the "thread from above" that sustains all human hopes from the center. "The thread from above" is the title of a parable by the Danish writer Johannes Jorgensen. He speaks of a spider who lowers himself from the branch of a tree with a thread that he himself makes. Positioning himself on the hedge he weaves his web, a masterpiece of symmetry and functionality. It is supported on the sides by other threads but everything is sustained in the center by the thread that he used to descend from the tree. If one of the threads on the side breaks, the spider fixes it and everything is in order, but if the thread from above breaks (I wanted to verify this once and found out that it is true), everything droops down and the spider leaves, knowing that there is nothing to be done. This is an image of what happens when we break that thread from above that is theological hope. Only it can "anchor" human hopes in the hope "that does not disappoint."

In the Bible we see real leaps of hope. One of them is found in the third Lamentation: "I am a man," the prophet says, "who has known misery and suffering ... I said: My glory is gone, the hope that came to me from the Lord."

But here is the leap of hope that turns everything upside down. At a certain point the person praying says to himself: "But the Lord's mercy is not finite; therefore I want to hope in him! The Lord never rejects but if he afflicts, he will have pity. Perhaps there is still hope" (cf. Lamentations 3:1-29). From the moment that the prophet decides to return to hope, the tone of the discourse completely changes: Lamentation turns into confident supplication: "The Lord never rejects. But if he afflicts, he will also have pity according to his great mercy" (Lamentations 3:32).

We have more reason for this leap of hope: God has given us his Son: Will he not give us all things together with him? Sometimes it is worthwhile to say to ourselves: "But God does exist and that is enough!" The most precious service that the Church in Italy can perform at this moment for the country is to help it make a leap of hope. The Church in Italy is not the only one in need of this leap of hope; the Church in the United States needs it too after what it has gone through in last years.

Last time I talked about an "aroma therapy" based on the oil of joy that is the Holy Spirit. We need this therapy to be healed of the most pernicious of all maladies: desperation, discouragement, loss of confidence in self, in life and finally in the Church. "May the God of hope fill you with every joy and peace in the faith, so that you abound in hope and the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13). This is what the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans.

One cannot abound in hope without the power of the Holy Spirit. There is an African-American spiritual in which one just continually repeats these few words: "There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole ..." In the Old Testament, Gilead is famous for its perfumes and ointments (cf. Jeremiah 8:22). The song continues, saying: "Sometimes I feel discouraged / and think my work's in vain / But then the Holy Spirit / revives my soul again." For us, Gilead is the Church and the balm that heals is the Holy Spirit. He is the scent that Jesus has left behind, passing through this world.

Hope is miraculous: When it is reborn in a heart, everything is different even if nothing is changed. In Isaiah we read: "Even the young people toil and grow weary, the grown-ups stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord again receive strength and grow wings like eagles, they run without stopping and walk without tiring" (Isaiah 40:30-31).

Where hope is reborn, joy above all is reborn. The apostle says that the believers are "spe salvi," "saved in hope" (Romans 8:24) and for this reason should be "spe gaudentes" — "joyous in hope" (Romans 12:12). They are not people who hope to be happy but people who are happy to hope; they are already happy now on account of the simple fact of hoping.

May this Christmas the God of hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the intercession of Mary "Mother of Hope," grant us to be joyous in hope and abound in it.

[1] Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "Christianity in the Making, I: Jesus Remembered," Eerdmans, 2003, 746 ff.

[2] Benedict XVI, "Jesus of Nazareth," Doubleday, 2007.

[3] R. Dawkins, "God Delusion," Bantam Books, 2006.

[4] On the theory of Jesus as a Cynic cf. B. Griffin, "Was Jesus a Philosophical Cynic?" [http://www-oxford.op.org/allen/html/acts.htm].

[5] Cf. Harold Bloom's essay, "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings...", published as an appendix to Marvin Meyer's edition of the Gospel of Thomas, "The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus," Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

[6] Formula of the Synod of Sirmio of 351, in A. Hahn, "Bibliotek der Symbole und Glaubensregeln in der alten Kirche," Hildesheim, 1962, 197.

[7] Cf. Saint Athanasius, "Against the Arians," I, 17-18 (PG 26, 48).

[8] Wilhelm Bousset, "Kyrios Christos," 1913.

[9] L. Hurtado, "Lord Jesus Christ. Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity," Eerdmans, 2003, 650.

[10] Ch. Péguy, "Oeuvres poétiques complètes," Gallimard, 1975, 531 ff.

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