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Fr. Cantalamessa: Have you understood God’s love like this?

PADRE RANIERO CANTALAMESSA
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Father Cantalamessa preaching one of the Advent 2018 homilies.
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In 5th Lent Sermon of 2019, preacher of pontifical household considers two facets of Christ's love

John and Paul: Two Diverse Views on the Mystery of Christ

In the New Testament and in the history of theology there are things that cannot be understood if we do not take into account one fundamental fact, that is, the two diverse but complementary approaches to the mystery of Christ: Paul’s approach and John’s.

John sees the mystery of Christ from the point of view of the Incarnation. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is for him the supreme revealer of the living God, the one outside of whom no one “comes to the Father.” Salvation consists in recognizing that Jesus “has come in the flesh” (cf. 2 Jn 7) and in believing that he “is the Son of God” (1 Jn 5:5). “He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life” (1 Jn 5:12). The center of everything, as we can see, is the “person” of Jesus the man-God.

The distinctive feature of this Johannine vision jumps out at us when we compare it to that of Paul. For Paul, the central focus is not so much the person of Christ, understood as an ontological reality, but rather the work of Christ, the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. Salvation is not so much in believing that Jesus is the Son of God come in the flesh as it is believing in Jesus “who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). The central event is not the Incarnation but the paschal mystery.

It would be a fatal mistake to see in this a dichotomy in the origin itself of Christianity. Whoever reads the New Testament without prejudice understands that for John the Incarnation is considered in view of the paschal mystery when Jesus will finally pour out his Spirit on humanity (see Jn 7:39) and understands that for Paul the paschal mystery presupposes and is based on the Incarnation. The one who made himself obedient to death, even to death on a cross, is the one who “was in the form of God,” equal to God (see Phil 2:5ff). The trinitiarian formulas in which Jesus Christ is mentioned together with the Father and the Holy Spirit are a confirmation that for Paul the work of Christ takes its meaning from his person.

The different emphases in these poles of the mystery reflect the historical path that faith in Christ followed after Easter. John reflects the more advanced phase of faith in Christ that one has at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the editing of the New Testament writings. He is at the end of a process of a return to the sources of the mystery of Christ. We can note this in observing where the four Gospels begin. Mark begins his Gospel at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan; Matthew and Luke, who come afterward, take a step back and begin their narratives of Jesus with his birth from Mary; John, who writes last, makes a decisive leap even further back and sets the beginning of the Christ event no longer in time but in eternity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1).

The reason for this shift of interest is well known. Faith in the meantime had entered into contact with Greek culture, which was more interested in the ontological dimension than in the historical dimension. What mattered in Greek culture was not so much the unfolding of events as their foundation (arche). In addition to this cultural context came the first signs of the Docetic heresy that questioned the reality of the Incarnation. The christological dogma of the two natures and the unity of the person of Christ will be almost entirely based on the Johannine perspective of the Logos made flesh.

It is important to take this into account to understand the difference and the complementarity of Eastern and Western theology. The two perspectives, Pauline and Johannine, while merging together (as we see happen in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed) preserve their different emphases like rivers flowing into one another that preserve the different colors of their waters for a long stretch. Orthodox theology and spirituality is primarily based on John; Western theology and spirituality (the Protestant even more than the Catholic) is based primarily on Paul. Within the Greek tradition itself the Alexandrian School is more Johannine and the Antiochene School is more Pauline. In the first school, salvation consists in divinization, and in the other, in the imitation of Christ.

The Cross, the Wisdom and Power of God

Now I would like to illustrate what all of this means in our quest for the face of the living God. At the end of the meditations in Advent, I spoke about John’s Christ who, at the very moment he was made flesh, introduced eternal life into the world. At the end of these meditations in Lent, I want to speak about Paul’s Christ who, on the cross, changed the destiny of humanity. Let us listen right now to the text that we will reflect on in which the Pauline perspective appears most clearly:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor 1:21-25)

The apostle speaks of an innovation in God’s action, of a change in approach and method. The world did not understand how to recognize God in the splendor and wisdom of his creation, so he decided to reveal himself in an opposite way, through the impotence and the foolishness of the cross. We cannot read this assertion by Paul without remembering this saying of Jesus: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to infants”(Mt 11:25).

How do we interpret this reversal of values? Luther spoke of a revelation of God “sub contraria specie,” that is, through the opposite of what would be expected from him.[1] He is power but he reveals himself in impotence, he is wisdom but he reveals himself in foolishness, he is glory but he reveals himself in ignominy, he is rich but he reveals himself in poverty.

Dialectical theology in the first half of the last century carried this perspective to its extreme conclusion. Between the first and second modes of God’s manifestation of himself there is not, according to Karl Barth, a continuity but a break. It is not a question of a succession that is only temporal, as between the Old and New Testaments, but of an ontological opposition. In other words, grace does not build on nature but against it; it touches the world “the way the tangent touches the circle,” that is, it brushes up against the world but without permeating it the way yeast does in a lump of dough. This is the only difference, according to Barth himself, that held him back from calling himself a Catholic; all the other differences seemed to be of little importance in comparison. He opposed the analogia fidei – that is, the opposition of the word of God against all that belongs to the world – to the analogia entis, that is to the collaboration between nature and grace.

Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus caritas est, describes the consequences of this different vision with respect to love. Barth wrote, “Where Christian love enters, there always begins at once the unceasing controversy between itself and every other love. . . . There can only be conflict and not compromise between Christian love and this other.” [2] In contrast Benedict XVI writes,

Eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. . . . Biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe, or one opposed to that primordial human phenomenon which is love, but rather accepts the whole man; it intervenes in his search for love in order to purify it and to reveal new dimensions of it. [3]

The radical opposition between nature and grace, between creation and redemption, was toned down in Barth’s later writings and now no longer has supporters. We can therefore approach this passage from the apostle with more peace of mind to understand what the innovation of the cross of Christ truly entails.

On the cross God manifested himself, yes, “under the contrary form,” but under the contrary of what human beings have always thought of God, and not under the contrary of who God truly is. God is love and on the cross we had the ultimate manifestation of God’s love for human beings. In a certain sense, only here, on the cross, does God reveal himself “in his own species,” as he truly is. The text of First Corinthians on the meaning of the cross of Christ needs to be read in the light of another text from Paul in the Letter to the Romans:

While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)

The medieval Byzantine theologian Nicholas Cabasilas (1322-1392) furnishes us with the best key to understand what the innovation of the cross of Christ consists in. He writes,

Two things reveal him who loves and cause him to prevail—the one, that he in every possible way does good to the object of his love; the other, that he is willing, if need be, to endure terrible things for him and suffer pain. Of the two the latter would seem to be a far greater proof of friendship than the former. Yet it was not possible for God since He is incapable of suffering harm. . . . That the greatness of his love should not remain hidden, but that He should give the proof of the greatest love and by loving display the utmost love, . . . He devised this self-emptying and carried it out, and made the instrument [i.e., Christ’s human nature] by which he might be able to endure terrible things and to suffer pain. When He had thus proved by the things he endured that He indeed loves exceedingly, He turned man . . . towards Himself.” [4]

In creation God filled us with gifts, but in redemption he suffered for us. The relationship between the two is that of a beneficent love that becomes suffering love.

But what occurred on the cross of Christ of such importance to make it the culminating moment of the revelation of the living God in the Bible? Human beings instinctively seek for God along the line of power. The title that accompanies the name of God is almost always “omnipotent.” But here, in opening the Gospel, we are invited to contemplate the absolute impotence of God on the cross. The Gospel reveals that God’s true omnipotence is the total impotence of Calvary. It requires little effort to draw attention to oneself, but it takes a lot of strength to step aside, to remove oneself. The Christian God is this unlimited power of concealing himself!

The ultimate explanation is therefore in the indissoluble link that exists between love and humility. “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death” (Phil 2:8). He humbled himself, making himself dependent on the object of his love. Love is humble because, by its nature, it creates dependence. We see this, on a smaller scale, in what happens when two people fall in love. The young man who, according to the traditional ritual, kneels before a young girl to ask for her hand is performing the most radical act of humility in his life; he is making himself a beggar. It is as if he were saying, “I am not enough by myself; I need you to live.” The essential difference is that dependence on God by his creatures is born solely from the love that he has for them, while the dependence of creatures among themselves is born from the need they have for one another.

“The revelation of Love,” wrote Henri de Lubac, “overturns all that the world had conceived of the Divinity.” [5] Theology and exegesis is still far, I believe, from having dealt with all the consequences of this. One such consequence is that if Jesus suffers in an atrocious manner on the cross, he does not do so principally to pay the unpayable debt owed by human beings. (In the parable of the two servants in Luke 7:41ff, he explained ahead of time that the debt of 10,000 talents was freely forgiven by the king!) No, Jesus dies crucified so that the love of God could reach humanity in the most distant point people have come to in their rebellion against him, namely, death. Even death is now inhabited by the love of God. In his book on Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI wrote,  

That which is wrong, the reality of evil, cannot simply be ignored; it cannot be left there to stand. It must be dealt with; it must be overcome. Only this counts as a true mercy. And the fact that God now confronts evil himself because men are incapable of doing so—therein lies the “unconditional” goodness of God. [6]

The traditional motive of the expiation of sins retains all its validity, as we can see, but it is not the ultimate motive. The ultimate motive is “the unconditional goodness of God,” his love.  

We can identify three steps on the Church’s journey of Easter faith. At the beginning there are only two bare facts: “he died; he is risen.” Peter cries out to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, “you crucified and killed [Jesus] by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up” (Acts 2:23-24). In the second phase the question was, “Why did he die and why was he raised?” and the answer is the kerygma: Jesus was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). There remains yet another question, “Why did he die for our sins? What made him do it?” The answer—and Paul and John are unanimous on this point—is “because he loved us.” Paul writes, the Son of God “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20), and John writes, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1).

Our Response

What will be our response to the mystery we have contemplated and that the liturgy will re-enact for us during Holy Week? The first and fundamental response is that of faith. Not just any kind of faith but the faith by which we appropriate what Christ has gained for us, the faith that “takes the kingdom by force” (Mt 11:12). The apostle concludes the text that we began with in these words:

God made [Christ Jesus] our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:30-31)

What Christ has become “for us”—righteousness, holiness, redemption—belongs to us; it is more ours than if we had acquired it ourselves! I never tire or repeating what St. Bernard wrote in this regard:

I confidently take for myself (usurp!) what I lack from the bowels of the Lord because they overflow with mercy. . . . My merit, therefore, comes from the mercy of the Lord. I will surely not lack merit as long as the Lord does not lack mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are abundant, then I too have abundance with regard to merits. . . . Shall I perhaps sing about my righteousness? “Lord, I will remember only your righteousness” [see Ps 71:16]. It is also mine, for behold, you have become for me the righteousness that comes from God [see 1 Cor 1:30]. [7]

We should not let Easter go by without having made, or renewed, the audacious stroke of Christian life suggested to us by St. Bernard. St. Paul often exhorts Christians to “put off the old nature” and “clothe yourselves with Christ.” [8] The image of undressing and dressing does not indicate a process that is merely ascetic, consisting in abandoning certain “clothes” and substituting them with other clothes, that is, in abandoning vices and acquiring virtues. It is above all a process to be done through faith. Someone comes before a crucifix and, as an act of faith, hands over to Christ all his or her sins, all troubles past and present, just like someone who gets undressed and throws those dirty rags into the fire. Then he or she gets dressed again but with the righteousness that Christ acquired for us and says, like the tax collector in the temple, “‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ and that person goes home ‘justified’” (see Lk 18:13-14). That would really be “celebrating the Passover,” performing the holy “crossing over!”  

Naturally not everything ends here. From appropriation we need to move on to imitation. Christ, as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard pointed out to his Lutheran friends, is not only “the gift of God to accept through faith,” he is also “the model to imitate in life.” [9] I would like to underscore a concrete point about seeking to imitate God’s action, the point Cabasilas highlighted with his distinction between a beneficent love and a suffering love.

In creation God demonstrated his love for us by filling us with gifts: outside of us, nature in its magnificence, and within us all the other gifts: intelligence, memory, freedom. But that was not enough for him. In Christ God wanted to suffer with us and for us. Something happened then also in relationships among creatures. When love blossoms, one immediately feels the need to manifest it by giving gifts to the beloved. This is what engaged couples do. We know, however, what happens next: after they are married, then limitations, difficulties, and different character traits emerge. Giving gifts is not enough anymore; to go forward and keep the marriage alive, the couple needs to learn to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2), to suffer for the other and with the other. This is how eros, without fading away, becomes agape, self-giving love and not just needy love. Benedict XVI, in the encyclical already cited, expresses it this way:

Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. (no. 7)

The imitation of God’s action does not apply only to marriage and spouses; in a different sense, it applies to all of us, especially us consecrated religious. Progress, in our case, consists in moving away from doing so many things for Christ and for the Church to suffering for Christ and for the Church. What happens in religious life is what happens in marriage, and we should not be amazed at this, since religious life also involves a marriage: a marriage with Christ.

Once Mother Teresa of Calcutta was speaking to a group of women and exhorted them to smile at their husbands. One of them objected, “Mother, you are saying that because you are not married and you don’t know my husband.” Mother Teresa answered her, “You are mistaken. I too am married, and I assure you that at times it is not easy for me to smile at my Spouse either.” After her death, people discovered what this saint was alluding to with these words. Following her call to serve the poorest of the poor, she had undertaken her work with enthusiasm for her divine Spouse, establishing works that astonished the whole world.

Quite soon, however, the joy and enthusiasm ebbed, and she sank into a dark night that accompanied her for the rest of her life. She ended up doubting if she even still had faith, so much so that when her private diaries were published after death, someone, who was completely unaware of spiritual matters, even spoke of the “atheism of Mother Teresa.” The extraordinary holiness of Mother Teresa lies in the fact that she lived this way in the most absolute silence with everyone, hiding her interior desolation under a constant smile. In her we see what it means to go from doing things for God to suffering for God and for the Church.

It is a rather difficult goal, but fortunately Jesus did not give us just the example of this new kind of love on the cross; he also merited the grace for us to make it our own, to appropriate it through faith and the sacraments. During Holy Week, therefore, the cry of the Church bursts forth from our hearts: “Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi, quia per sanctam crucem tuam redemisti mundum.” We adore you and bless you, O Christ, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, have a happy and holy Easter!

_____________________________________

English Translation by Marsha Daigle Williamson

[1] See Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will [De servo arbitrario], trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), p. 101ff; see WA, 18, p. 633, and WA 56, pp. 392, 446-447.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 4, Part 2: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. Thomas Forsythe Torrance (New York: T & T Clark, 2004), p. 736. The incompatibility of human love and divine love is the theme of Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), original Swedish, Eros och Agape, 1930.

[3] Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, nos. 7-8.

[4] Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, VI, 3, trans. Carmino J. DeCatanzaro (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), p. 163.

[5] Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture by Origen, trans. Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), p. 277.

[6] Joseph Ratzinger [Benedict XVI], Jesus of Nazareth, Part II (San Francisco : Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 133.

[7] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs , 61, 4-5 (PL 183, 1072).

[8] See Col 3:9; Rom 13:14; Gal 3:27; Eph 4:24.

[9] Søren Kierkegaard, Diary X1, A, 154 (1849).

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