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Reflections on the Eucharist: 'Same Prayer as the Repentant Thief' (Part 1 of 2)

Father Raniero Cantalamessa's 3rd Sermon of Advent

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 19, 2004 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the third Advent sermon, delivered this morning before the Pope and officials of the Roman Curia, by the Pontifical Household preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

The Capuchin priest has been offering a series of Eucharistic reflections, in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel, in the light of the hymn "Adoro Te Devote."

Part 2 of this sermon appears Monday.

* * *

Father Raniero Cantalamessa
I make the Same Prayer as the Repentant Thief
Third Sermon of Advent at the Pontifical Household

A laud of Jacopone da Todi, composed around the year 1300, contains a clear allusion to the second stanza of the Adoro Te Devote which we commented on last time: "Visus, tactus gustus ..." In it, Jacopone imagines a sort of contest among the different human senses in regard to the Eucharist: three of them (sight, touch and taste) say that it is only bread, "only the hearing" is opposed, assuring that "under these visible forms, Christ is hidden."1 If not enough to affirm that the hymn is St. Thomas Aquinas', it nevertheless shows that it is older than was thought until now. Certainly the date is not incompatible with an attribution to the Angelic Doctor. If Jacopone can allude to it as the well- known text, it must have been composed at least some 20 years before and therefore have already enjoyed a certain popularity.

1. Contemporaries of the Good Thief

We now turn to the third stanza of the hymn that will accompany us in this meditation:

In cruce latébat sola déitas;
at hic latet simul et humánitas.
Ambo tamen credens atque cónfitens
peto quod petívit latro poénitens.

God only on the Cross lay hid from view
But here lies hid at once the Manhood too;
And I, in both professing my belief,
Make the same prayer as the repentant thief.

Christmas is now approaching. A certain romantic tendency has succeeded in making Christmas a wholly human feast of maternity and childhood, of gifts, and of good sentiments. In Moscow's Tetriakov Gallery, Vladimir's painting of the Virgin of Tenderness, which depicts her pressing the Baby Jesus to herself, bore the caption "Maternity" during the Communist regime. However, experts know what is signified in the image of the Mother's worried look, tinged with sadness, as if wishing to protect the child from impending danger, announcing the passion of the Son that Simeon made her perceive in the presentation in the temple.

Christian art has expressed this connection between the birth and death of Christ in a thousand ways. In some pictures by famous painters, the Child Jesus sleeps on his Mother's knees stretched out on a cloth, in the exact position in which he is usually represented in the deposition from the Cross; the bound lamb that is often seen in the representations of the Nativity alludes to the immolated lamb. In a 15th-century painting, one of the Wise Men gives the Child the gift of a chalice with coins in it, sign of the price of the ransom that he has come to pay for sins. (The Child is in the act of taking one of the coins and handing it to the one who offers it to him, a sign that he will die for him also!)2

In this way, the artists express a profound theological truth. "The Word became flesh," writes St. Augustine, "to be able to die for us."3 He is born to be able to die. In the Gospels themselves the accounts of the childhood are a preamble to the accounts of the Passion.

We are not drawn away therefore from the meaning of Christmas if, following the line of this stanza of the hymn, we meditate on the relationship between the Eucharist and the cross. The Year of the Eucharist helps us to appreciate the most profound aspect of Christmas. The true and living memory of Christmas is not the crib but, precisely, the Eucharist. The Pope writes in "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" that "The Eucharist, while commemorating the passion and resurrection, is also in continuity with the incarnation. At the Annunciation Mary conceived the Son of God in the physical reality of his body and blood, thus anticipating within herself what to some degree happens sacramentally in every believer who receives, under the signs of bread and wine, the Lord's body and blood."4

In the third stanza of the Adoro Te Devote the author goes spiritually to Calvary. In a subsequent stanza, that which begins with the words "O memoriale mortis Domini," he contemplates the intrinsic and objective relationship between the Eucharist and the cross, the relationship, that is, which exists between the event and the sacrament. Here, rather, is expressed the subjective relationship between that which occurred in those who were present at the Lord's death and that which must ...

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