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Fr. Cantalamessa’s 3rd 2018 Advent homily: No one has ever seen God

FATHER RANIERO CANTALAMESSA
Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA
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Christ is the Way and the Gate; Christ is the Ladder and the vehicle

The living God is the living Trinity, we said last time. But we dwell in time and God dwells in eternity. How can we overcome this “infinite qualitative difference”? How can we build a bridge over such an infinite gulf? The answer is in the feast that we are preparing to celebrate: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).

The great Byzantine theologian Nicholas Cabasilas has written that there were three walls that stood between us and God: the wall of nature, since God is spirit and we are flesh; the wall of sin; and the wall of death. The first of these walls was torn down through the Incarnation when divine nature and human nature became united in the person of Christ. The wall of sin was torn down on the cross, and the wall of death was torn down through the resurrection.[1] Jesus Christ is now the definitive place of the encounter between the living God and a living human being. In him the far-off God has drawn near to us, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The path to the pursuit of the living God that we have undertaken this Advent has an illustrious precedent: St. Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Road to God (Itinerarium mentis in Deum). As a speculative philosopher and theologian, he identified seven steps by which the soul ascends to the knowledge of God:

The contemplation of God in his traces in the universe

The contemplation of God in his traces in the visible world

The contemplation of God through his image impressed on the powers of the soul

The contemplation of God in the soul renewed by grace

The contemplation of the divine unity under its basic name: Being

The contemplation of God in the most Blessed Trinity under its name: Goodness

The mental and mystical ecstasy in which rest is given to the mind and completely transports the affections to God.[2]  

After having reviewed the various ways that we have to increase our knowledge of the living God and the “places” in which we may encounter him, St. Bonaventure reaches the conclusion that the definitive, infallible, and most satisfactory way is the person of Jesus Christ. This is in fact how he ends his treatise:

It now remains for the mind, speculating on these things, to go beyond the world of senses, and indeed, to go beyond itself. In this part of the journey Christ is the Way and the Gate; Christ is the Ladder and the vehicle, the propitiatory, as it were, placed over the Ark of God and the mystery which was hidden from eternity.[3]

The philosopher Blaise Pascal, in his famous “Memorial,” reaches the same conclusion: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “can be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.”[4] The reason for this is simple: Jesus Christ is “the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). The Letter to the Hebrews bases the innovation of the New Testament on this:

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Heb 1:1-2)

The living God no longer speaks to us through an intermediary but in person because the Son “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (Heb 1:3). This is the case from the ontological and objective perspective; on the other hand, from the existential or subjective perspective, the great innovation is that now it is no longer human beings who are in search of the living God “in the hope that they might feel after him and find him” (Acts 17:27). It is the living God who has descended to seek human beings so that he could dwell in their hearts. From now on, Christ is the place in which one can encounter and worship “in spirit and truth.” “If a man loves me,” Jesus says, “he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).

“No one comes to the Father except through me”

The one who has established this truth—that Jesus Christ is the supreme revealer of the living God and the “place” in which we can enter into contact with him—is John the evangelist. We rely on him because he helps our pursuit of the living God be something more than a simple “pursuit” but also an “experience” of him, so that we have not only knowledge of him but an intense “feeling” of him.

So as not to lose the power and the immediacy of his inspired testimony, let us avoid imposing some kind of interpretive framework on the texts. Let us move on simply to review the most explicit words in which Jesus presents himself as the definitive revealer of God. Each of these sayings is able in itself to bring us to the edge of the mystery and make us look out over an infinite horizon.

John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” To understand the meaning of these words we need to refer to the whole biblical tradition that no man is able to see God and live. We only have to read Exodus 33:18-20: “Moses said, ‘I beg, show me your glory.’ And he [God] said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’” And then God adds, “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.”  

There is such a great gulf between the holiness of God and the unworthiness of a human being that a person would die in seeing God or even just in hearing him. For this reason, Moses (see Ex 34:33) and the Seraphim as well (see Is 6:2) veil their faces before God. Remaining alive after having seen God, a person experiences grateful amazement (see Gen 32:30). It is a rare favor that God grants to Moses (see Ex 33:11) and to Elijah (see 1 Kgs 19:11ff), the same two people allowed on Mount Tabor to contemplate the glory of Christ.

John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.” This is the affirmation that is perhaps the most charged with mystery in all of the New Testament. Jesus Christ is not only the revealer of the living God, he is also himself the living God! The revealer and the revealed are the same person. The Church’s reflection will start from this affirmation to arrive at the full and explicit faith in the Trinity. What we translate by the word “one” here is a neuter noun (hen) in Greek and unum in Latin). If Jesus had used the masculine eis, unus, one might have thought that the Father and the Son were one single person, and then the doctrine of the Trinity would have been excluded at the outset. When Jesus said “unum,” “one thing,” the Fathers rightly deduced that the Father and the Son (and later the Holy Spirit) have one same nature but are not one single person.

John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’” We need to pause here for a bit longer. “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” Read in the current context of interfaith dialogue, these words raise a question that we cannot pass over in silence. What are we to think of that whole part of humanity that does not know Christ and his gospel? Do none of them come to the Father? Are they excluded from the mediation of Christ and thus from his salvation?

One thing is certain and every Christian theology of religions needs to start from this point: Christ has given his life “as a ransom” and for love of all human beings because they are all creatures of his Father and his brothers. He did not make any distinctions. His offer of salvation, at least, is certainly universal. “I, when I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross!], will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). Peter proclaims before the Sanhedrin, “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Some people, while professing to be Christian believers, cannot accept that a particular historical event, like the death and resurrection of Christ, could have changed the situation for the entire human race before God, and therefore they substitute the historical event with an “impersonal” universal principle, the idea of “Good” instead of “God. They should, I believe, ask another question, that is, whether or not they truly believe in the mystery by which the whole of Christianity stands or falls: the Incarnation of the Word and the divinity of Christ. Once this truth is admitted, it no longer seems unreasonable that a particular act could have a universal significance. Rather it would be strange to think otherwise.

The greatest injustice, in removing such a large part of humanity from this act, is not against Christ or the Church but against humanity itself. Is it possible to begin with the affirmation that “Christ is the supreme, definitive, and normative offer of salvation by God to the world” without recognizing the right for all human beings to benefit from this salvation?

But we can ask, “Is it realistic to continue believing in the mysterious presence and influence of Christ in religions that existed before his coming in which people do not experience any need after twenty centuries to accept his gospel?” There is an aspect of God the Bible reveals that can help us answer this objection: the humility of God, the hiddenness of God. “Truly, you are a God who hide yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Is 45:15) (“Vere tu es Deus absconditus,” Vulgate). God is humble in creating. He does not put his label on everything, the way people do. It is not written within creatures that they are made by God; that is left for them to discover.

How much time did it take for human beings to recognize to whom they owed their existence and who had created the heavens and the earth for them? How much time will it still take before everyone ends up recognizing that? Does God cease being the creator of everything because of this? Does he cease causing the sun to shine on those who know him and those who do not? The same thing is true with redemption. God is humble in creating and humble in saving people. Christ is more concerned that all human beings be saved than that they know who their Savior is, although we must do our best to help them in discovering it.

More than the salvation of those who have not known Christ, we need to be concerned, I believe, about the salvation of those who have known him but live as though he never existed, completely forgetting their baptism and estranged from the Church and every religious practice. As for the salvation of non-believing people, Scripture assures us that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35). Francis of Assisi, in turn, makes a statement that is almost incredible for his time: “Whatever is good there [in pagan writings] does not pertain to the pagans, nor to any other men, but to God alone, to whom belongs every good.”[5]

The Paraclete Will Guide into All the Truth

Speaking of the role of Christ toward people living outside the Church, Vatican II affirms that “The Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with his paschal mystery” (Gaudium et spes, 22), that is, with his redemptive work. We have arrived at the last step in our journey, the Holy Spirit. At the end of his earthly life Jesus said,

I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (Jn 16:12-15)

Jesus is still the one who continues to reveal the Father in the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is now the Spirit of the Risen One, the Spirit who continues and carries out the work of the earthly Jesus. Very soon after the words recorded above, Jesus adds, “I have said this to you in figures; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father” (Jn 16:25). When is it that Jesus will be able to speak plainly to his disciples about the Father if these are among his last words when he was alive and would die soon after on the cross? He will do it precisely through the Holy Spirit that he will send from the Father.

St. Gregory of Nyssa has written that if we remove the Holy Spirit from the Godhead, what remains is no longer the living God but a lifeless god.[6] Jesus himself explains the reason for this: “It is the spirit,” he says, “that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” (Jn 6:63). Applied to us, this means it is the Spirit who gives life to the idea of God and to our pursuit of him. Human reason, marked as it is by sin, is not enough by itself. The person who is going to speak about God, in any capacity, needs to remember, if he or she is a believer, that “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 2:11).

The Holy Spirit is the true “living environment,” the Sitz in Leben, in which every authentic Christian theology is born and developed. The Holy Spirit is that invisible space in which it is possible to perceive the movement of God and in which God himself appears as a living and active reality. The living God, unlike idols, is a “God who breathes,” and the Holy Spirit is his breath. This is true also with regard to Christ. “In the Holy Spirit” indicates that mysterious sphere in which, since Christ’s resurrection, one can enter into contact with him and experience his sanctifying action. Christ now lives “in the Spirit” (see Rom 1:4; 1 Pet 3:18). The Holy Spirit is “the breath of the Risen One” in history.

The high voltage arc between God and human beings cannot therefore be completed and the sudden flash cannot be produced except in this special “magnetic field” constituted by the Holy Spirit of the living God. He is the one who creates in the depths of a person that state of grace through which one experiences a great “illumination” one day and discovers that God exists, that he is real, to the point of having “one’s breath taken away.”

We need to repeat to any person who looks for God elsewhere—just in the pages of books or through human reasoning—what the angel told the women: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Lk 24:5). A “close relationship with God”, St. Basil says, depends on the Holy Spirit.[7] It depends on whether God is close to us or a stranger to us, whether we are sensitive or allergic to his reality.

The solution is therefore to find a contact that is increasingly filled with the reality, with the person of the Holy Spirit. Let us not be content with a renewed pneumatology, with a theology of the spirit, but let us also aspire to have a personal experience of him. Millions of Christians in our time have had this personal experience that is called “Baptism of the Spirit.” Here is how one of the first people in the Catholic Church who had that experience described its effects to a friend:

Our faith has come alive, our believing has become a kind of knowing. Suddenly, the world of the supernatural has become more real than the natural. In brief, Jesus Christ is a real person to us, a real person who is Our Lord and who is active in our lives. We read the New Testament as though it were literally true now, every word, every line. Prayer and the sacraments have become truly our daily bread instead of practices which we recognize as “good for us.” A love of Scripture, a love of the Church I never thought possible, a transformation of our relationships with others, a need and a power of witness beyond all expectation, have all become part of our lives. The initial experience of the “Baptism of the Spirit” was not at all emotional, but life has become suffused with calm, confidence, joy, and peace.[8]

“And the Word became flesh”

A meditation on the role of Christ as the unique revealer of the Living God cannot conclude in a worthier manner than with the Prologue of John’s Gospel—not as a Gospel passage to comment on (which we will do on Christmas day) but as a hymn of praise that now springs up in our hearts to the glory of the most holy Trinity. That such a representative part of the Church in a place like this proclaims its absolute faith in Christ the Son of God and the light of the world has a salvific value. Christ founded his church on such an act of faith and has promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Let us stand and recite it with hearts full of amazement and gratitude.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […]The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.[…] No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (Jn 1:1-18, NIV)

Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, Merry Christmas!  

________________________________________________

English translation by Marsha Daigle-Williamson

[1]  Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, Book 3, 3, trans. Carmino J. deCatanzaro (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1974), pp. 105-106.

[2] This phrasing is based on the chapter titles in Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Journey to God, trans. Lawrence S. Cunningham (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press,1979).

[3] Ibid., 7,1, p. 86.

[4] Blaise Pascal, “Pascal’s Profession of Faith,” Nov 23, 1654, in The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, trans. C. Kegan Paul (Project Gutenberg Ebook, #46921, 2014), p. 2.

[5] Thomas Celano, The First Life of St. Francis, XXIX, 82, in St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources, trans. Placid Hermann, ed. Marion A. Habig, 4th ed. (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1991), p. 297.

[6] See St. Gregory of Nyssa, De eo qui sit ad imaginem Dei (PG 44, p. 1340).

[7]  St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, 19, 49 (PG 32, 157).

[8] Testimony quoted in Patti Gallagher Mansfield, As by a New Pentecost: The Dramatic Beginning of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (Amor Deus Publishing, Phoenix, AZ, 2016, p.55).

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