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Father Cantalamessa's Good Friday Sermon

True Body, Truly Born of the Virgin Mary

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 26, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the sermon Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, gave at the Good Friday service in St. Peter's Basilica.

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True Body, Truly Born of the Virgin Mary Mild
By Father Raniero Cantalamessa

Good Friday of the year 2005, the year of the Eucharist! What light is shed on both these mysteries when we think of the two together! And yet a question arises. If the Eucharist is "the memorial of the Passion," why is it that the Church abstains from celebrating it precisely on Good Friday? (For we are now gathered to take part, not in a Mass, but rather in a liturgy of the Passion in which we will receive the body of Christ consecrated yesterday.)

There is a profound theological reason for this. The one who makes himself present on the altar in every Eucharist is Christ, not dead but risen and alive. And so the Church abstains from celebrating the Eucharist on these two days when we remember Jesus lying dead in the tomb, his soul separated from his body (although not from his divinity).

The fact that we do not celebrate the Eucharist today does not weaken, but rather strengthens, the bond between Good Friday and the Eucharist. The Eucharist is to the death of Christ as the sound and the voice are to the word they carry through the space into the ear of the listeners.

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There is a Latin hymn, as dear as the Adoro Te Devote to Catholic Eucharistic piety: the Ave Verum. It is not possible to find a better way to bring to light the link between the Eucharist and the cross. Written in the 13th century as an accompaniment to the elevation of the Host at Mass, it serves us today equally well as our salutation of Christ raised up on the cross. In no more than five short couplets it brings us such a great load of meaning:

Hail, true Body, truly born
of the Virgin Mary mild.
Truly offered, wracked and torn,
on the Cross for all defiled,
from Whose love-pierced, sacred side
flowed Thy true Blood's saving tide:
be a foretaste sweet to me
in my death's great agony.
O my loving, Gentle One,
Sweetest Jesus, Mary's Son.

The first couplet, "Ave verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine" -- Hail, true body, truly born of the Virgin Mary -- gives the key to understand all the rest. Berengarius of Tours denied that the presence of Christ in the sign of bread was real, saying it was only symbolic. In reaction to this heresy, a new emphasis arose, identifying totally the Eucharistic body and the historical body of Christ. All expressions in the first part of the hymn refer to Christ in the flesh: birth from Mary, passion, death, pierced side. The author stops at that point; he makes no mention of the resurrection, lest this should lead one to think of a glorified, spiritual body, not "real" enough.

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Theology in our day has developed a more balanced vision of the identity between the historical body of Christ born of Mary and his Eucharistic body. The tendency now is to rediscover the sacramental character of Christ's presence, which, however real and substantial, is not material. The basic truth affirmed in the hymn remains however intact. The very Jesus born of Mary, who "went about doing good to all" (Acts 10: 38), who died on the cross and rose again on the third day, is really present in the world today, not merely in a vague and spiritual way, or, as some would say, in the "cause" he stood for. The Eucharist is the way Jesus invented to remain forever Emmanuel, God-with-us.

This presence is a guarantee, not only for the Church, but for the entire world. Yet we feel afraid to use the words "God is with us," because they have been used before in an exclusive sense: God is "with us," on our side, meaning not with others, and even "against" those others who are our enemies. But since Christ has come, there is no longer any exclusiveness, everything has become universal. "God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding men's faults against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). The whole world, not just a part of it; humankind as a whole, not just one people.

"God is on our side," that is, on the side of humankind, our friend and ally against the powers of evil. God alone personifies the kingdom of good against the kingdom of evil. We need to bear witness to this hope that is in us, rising up against the gloomy wind of pessimism blowing through our society. As the Pope writes in "Novo Millennio Ineunte," "We do not know what the new millennium has in store for us, but we are certain that it is safe in the hands of Christ, the 'King of kings and Lord of lords' (Revelation 19:16)" (John Paul II, "Novo Millennio Ineunte," 35).

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