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Father Cantalamessa on Christ Yesterday and Today (Part II)

"What Place Does Christ Occupy in My Life?"

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 6, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of Part 2 of the Advent sermon delivered Friday by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, to Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.

Father Cantalamessa is offering a series of Advent reflections on the theme "'For What We Preach Is Not Ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord' (2 Corinthians 4:5): Faith in Christ Today."

Part 1 appeared Monday. Father Cantalamessa will deliver subsequent sermons the next three Fridays.

* * *

Faith in Christ Today and at the Beginning of the Church

Faith comes therefore from listening to preaching. But what is, precisely, the object of "preaching"? It is known that on the lips of Jesus it is the great news that is the background of his parables and from all his teachings springs: "The Kingdom of God has come to you!" But, what is the content of the preaching on the lips of the apostles? The answer: the work of God in Jesus of Nazareth! It is true, but there is something that is even more concrete, which is the germinating nucleus of everything and that, in regard to the rest, is like the plowshare, that kind of sword in front of the plow that first breaks the earth and allows the plow to mark out the furrow and turn over the earth.

This more concrete nucleus is the exclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" pronounced and accepted in the wonder of a "statu nascenti" faith, namely, in the very act of being born. The mystery of this word is such that it cannot be pronounced "except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). It alone can bring one to salvation who believes in his resurrection: "because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9).

"Like the wake of a ship," Charles Péguy would say, "it enlarges until it disappears and is lost, but it begins with a point that is the point of the ship itself," so -- I add -- the preaching of the Church goes enlarging itself, until it is an immense doctrinal edifice, but it begins with a point and that point is the kerygma: "Jesus is the Lord!"

Therefore that which in Jesus' preaching was the exclamation "the Kingdom of God has come!" in the preaching of the apostles is the exclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" And yet there is no opposition, but perfect continuity between the Jesus that preaches and the Christ preached, because to say: "Jesus is the Lord!" is as if to say that in Jesus, crucified and risen, the kingdom and sovereignty of God over the world has at last been realized.

We must understand each other well so as not to fall into an unreal reconstruction of the apostolic preaching. After Pentecost, the apostles did not go around the world repeating always and only: "Jesus is the Lord!" What they did when they found themselves announcing the faith for the first time in a specific environment was, rather, to go directly to the heart of the Gospel, proclaiming two events: Jesus died -- Jesus rose, and the motive for these two events: he died "for our sins," he rose "for our justification" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:4; Romans 4:25). Dramatizing the issue, in the Acts of the Apostles Peter does no more than repeat to those who listened to him: "You killed Jesus of Nazareth; God has resurrected him, making him Lord and Christ."[6]

The proclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" is nothing other therefore than the conclusion -- now implicit, now explicit -- of this brief history, recounted in an always living and new way, though substantially identical, and is at the same time that in which this history is summarized and becomes operative for the one who hears it. "Christ Jesus ... emptied himself ... and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him ... that at the name of Jesus ... every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:6-11).

The proclamation "Jesus is the Lord!" alone, does not constitute therefore the entire preaching, but it is its soul and so to speak the sun that illuminates it. It establishes a kind of communion with the history of Christ through the "particle" of the word and makes one think, by analogy, in the communion that takes place with the body of Christ through the particle of bread in the Eucharist.

To come to faith is the sudden and astonished opening of the eyes to this light. Recalling the moment of his conversion, Tertullian described it as the coming forth from a great dark womb of ignorance, startled by the light of Truth.[7] It was like the opening of a new world; the First Letter of Peter describes it as being called "out of darkness into marvelous light" (2 Peter 2:9; Colossians 1:12ff.).

The kerygma, as the exegete Heinrich Schlier well explained, has an assertive and authoritative character, not discursive or dialectical. It has no need, therefore, to justify itself with philosophic or apologetic reasoning: It is accepted or it is not accepted, and that's it. It is not something which can be disposed of, because it is what disposes everything; it cannot be founded by someone, because it is God himself who founds it and it is that which later becomes the foundation of existence.[8]

Indignant, the pagan Celsius, in the second century, in fact wrote: "Christians behave like those who believe without reason. Some of them do not want either to give or receive a reason around which they believe and use formulas like these: 'Do not discuss, but believe; faith will save you. The wisdom of this century is an evil and simplicity is a good.'"[9]

Celsius (who here seems to be extraordinarily close to the modern partisans of weak thought) would like, in essence, Christians to present their faith in a dialectical manner, subjecting it, that is, in everything and for everything, to investigation and discussion, so that it can enter the general framework, also acceptable philosophically, of an effort of self-understanding of man and of the world which will remain always provisional and open.

Naturally, Christians' refusal to give proofs and accept discussions did not refer to the whole itinerary of faith, but only to its beginning. Neither did they avoid, in that apostolic age, confrontation or giving an "account for the hope" that was in them (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) also to the Greeks (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). Apologists of the second-third century are the confirmation of it. They only thought that faith itself could not arise from that confrontation, but that it should precede it as a work of the Spirit and not of reason. The latter could, at most, prepare it and, once accepted, show its "reasonability."

We have seen that, in the beginning, the kerygma was distinguished from the teaching (didache) as well as from the catechesis. The last things tend to form the faith, or to preserve its purity, while the kerygma tends to awaken it. It has, so to speak, an explosive or germinating character; it is more like the seed that gives origin to the tree than to the ripe fruit that is at the top of the tree and that, in Christianity, is constituted rather by charity. The kerygma is not obtained at all by concentration, or by summary, as if it was the core of the tradition; but it is apart, or better, at the beginning of everything. From it all the rest is developed, including the four Gospels.

On this point an evolution was interrupted due to the general situation of the Church. In the measure that one moves to a regime of Christianity, in which everything around one is Christian, or considers itself as such, one is less aware of the importance of the initial choice by which one becomes a Christian, so much so that baptism is normally administered to children, who do not have the capacity to make it their own choice. What is most accentuated of faith is not so much the initial moment, the miracle of coming to faith, but rather the fullness and orthodoxy of the contents of faith itself.

3. Rediscover the Kerygma

This situation greatly affects evangelization today. The Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the Catholic Church is par excellence), run the risk of finding themselves at a disadvantage if underneath the immense patrimony of doctrine, laws and institutions, they do not find that primordial nucleus capable of awakening faith by itself.

To present oneself to the man of today, often lacking any knowledge of Christ, with the whole range of this doctrine is like putting one of those heavy brocade capes all of a sudden on the back of a child. We are more prepared by our past to be "shepherds" than to be "fishers" of men; that is, better prepared to nourish people that come to the Church then to bring new people to the Church, or to catch again those who have fallen away and live outside of her.

This is one of the reasons why in some parts of the world many Catholics leave the Catholic Church for other Christian realities; they are attracted by a simple and effective announcement that puts them in direct contact with Christ and makes them experience the power of his Spirit.

If on one hand one must rejoice that these persons have found an experienced faith, on the other it is sad that to do so they have left their Church. With all the respect and esteem we must have for these Christian communities not all of which are sects (with some of them the Catholic Church has maintained an ecumenical dialogue for years, something that it certainly would not do with sects!), it must be said that the former do not have the means that the Catholic Church has to lead people to the perfection of Christian life.

In many people, everything continues to turn, from the beginning to the end, around the first conversion, the so-called new birth, whereas for us, Catholics, this is only the beginning of Christian life. After that must come catechesis and spiritual progress, which implies self-denial, the night of faith, the cross, until the resurrection. The Catholic Church has a very rich spirituality, innumerable saints, the magisterium and, above all, the sacraments.

It is necessary, therefore, to propose the fundamental announcement clearly and sparely at least once among us, not only to the catechumens, but to all, given that the majority of today's believers have not gone through the catechumenate. The grace that some of the new ecclesial movements constitute at present for the Church consists precisely in this. They are the place where adult persons at last have the occasion to hear the kerygma, renew their own baptism, consciously choose Christ as their own personal Lord and Savior and commit themselves actively in the life of their Church.

The proclamation of Jesus as Lord should find its place of honor in all the intense moments of Christian life. The most propitious occasion is, perhaps, funerals, because in the face of death man questions himself, has an open heart, is less distracted than on other occasions. Nothing speaks so precisely to man about the problem of death as does the Christian kerygma.

The kerygma resounds, it is true, in the most solemn moment of every Mass: "We proclaim your death and resurrection, come Lord Jesus!" But, on its own, the latter is a simple formula of acclamation. It has been said that "the Gospels are accounts of the Passion preceded by a long Introduction" (M. Kähler). However, strangely, the original and most important part of the Gospel is the least read and heard in the course of the year. On no day of obligation, with a multiplicity of people, is the Passion of Christ read, except on Palm Sunday in which, because of the length of the reading and solemnity of the rites, there is no time to pronounce a consistent homily on the subject!

Now that there are no longer popular missions as there once were, it is possible that a Christian will never hear in his life a sermon on the Passion. However, it is precisely this sermon which normally opens hardened hearts. This was demonstrated on the occasion of the showing of Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ." There were cases of detained persons, who always denied their guilt, who, after seeing the film, confessed their crime spontaneously.

4. To Choose Jesus as Lord

We began with the question: "What place does Christ have in present-day society?" But we cannot end without asking ourselves the most important question in a context such as this: "What place does Christ occupy in my life?" Let's call to mind Jesus' dialogue with the apostles in Caesarea Philippi: "Who do men say the Son of man is? ... But who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:13-15). The most important thing for Jesus does not seem to be what the people think of him, but what his closest disciples think of him.

I referred earlier to the objective reason that explains the importance of the proclamation of Christ as Lord in the New Testament: It makes present and operative in the one who pronounces it the salvific events that it recalls. But there is also a subjective and existential reason. To say "Jesus is the Lord!" means, in fact, to make a decision. It is as though saying: Jesus Christ is "my" Lord; I recognize his full right over me, I hand the reins of my life over to him; I do not want to live any more "for myself," but "for him who died and rose for me" (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15).

To proclaim Jesus as one's Lord means to subject to him all the region of our being, to make the Gospel penetrate everything we do. It means, to recall a phrase of the venerated John Paul II, "to open, more than that, to open wide the doors to Christ."

I have been at times the guest of families and have seen what happens when the portable phone rings and an unexpected visitor is announced. The owner of the house hastens to close the doors of the room in disorder, with the bed unmade, in order to take the guest to the most welcoming place. With Jesus, the exact opposite must be done: We must open to him precisely life's "rooms in disorder," above all the room of intentions. For whom do we work and why do we do so? For ourselves or for Christ, for our glory or for Christ's? It is the best way this Advent to prepare a welcoming crib for Christ who comes at Christmas.

* * *

[6] Cf. Acts 2:22-36; 3:14-19; 10:39-42.

[7] Tertullian, "Apologeticum," 39,9: "ad lucem expavescentes veritatis."

[8] H. Schlier, "Kerygma e Sophia" (Kerygma and Wisdom), in "Il Temp della Chiesa" (The Time of the Church), Bologna, 1968, pp. 330-372.

[9] Origin, "Contra Celsum," I,9.

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