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Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent Sermon (Part 2)

12/19/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Righteousness That Comes From Faith in Christ

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 19, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is the second part of a translation of the Advent sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia.

The sermon was the third in a series. Father Cantalamessa is offering a series of 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 Friday on Catholic Online.

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4. Justification and Confession

I said at the beginning that gratuitous justification by faith should transform itself into lived experience for the believer. We Catholics have an enormous advantage in this: the sacraments, and in particular, the sacrament of reconciliation. This offers us an excellent and infallible means to experience anew each time justification by faith. In it is renewed what happened once in baptism, in which, says Paul, the Christian has been "washed, sanctified and justified" (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11).

The "admirable exchange" ("admirabile commercium") takes place in each confession. Christ takes on my sins and I take on his righteousness! Unfortunately in Rome, as in any great city, there are many homeless person, poor brothers dressed in dirty rags who sleep on the street, and who drag with them everywhere they go their few belongings. We could imagine what would happen if one day the word spread that in the Via Condotti there was a luxurious boutique where each one of them could go, leave their rags, take a good shower, pick out whatever they want, and take it, just like that, free, "without expense, without money," because for some unknown reason the owner had given to them all this out of generosity.

This is what happens in each well-made confession. Jesus inculcated this with the parable of the prodigal son: "Quickly bring the finest robe" (Luke 15:22). Rising up anew after each confession we can exclaim in the words of Isaiah: "For he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice" (Isaiah 61:10). The story of the publican is also repeated: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." "I tell you, this one went home justified" (Luke 18:13f).

5. "So that I can know him"

Where did St. Paul get the marvelous message of gratuitous justification by faith, in harmony, as we have seen, with that of Jesus? He did not get it from the Gospels, for they had not yet been written, but rather from the oral tradition regarding the preaching of Jesus, and above all from his own personal experience, that is, from how God had acted in his life. He himself affirms this by saying that the Gospel that he preaches (this Gospel of justification by faith!) he did not learn from men, but rather from what Jesus Christ revealed, and he relates that revelation with the story of his own conversion (cf. Galatians 1:11ff).

Upon reading the description that St. Paul makes of his conversion, in Philippians 3, the image that comes to my mind is that of a man who moves forward in the night, through a forest, with the help of the weak flame of a candle. He makes sure that the candle does not go out, for it is all he has to help him on his way. But after a while, continuing on his way, the dawn arrives; in the horizon the sun rises, and his little light fades quickly until soon it's not even noticeable, and he throws it to one side.

The little light was for Paul his righteousness, a poor smoky wick, though based in high sounding titles: circumcised on the eighth day, of the line of Israel, Hebrew, Pharisee, impeccable in observing the law ... (cf. Philippians 3:5-6). One good day, in the horizon of his life the sun appeared: the "sun of righteousness" that he calls, in this text, with infinite devotion, "Jesus Christ, my Lord," and thus his righteousness appeared to him "loss," "rubbish," and he did not want to be found with his own righteousness, but rather with that which comes from faith. God allowed him to experience beforehand, dramatically, what he was called to reveal to the Church.

In this autobiographical text it is clear that the central focus for Paul is not a doctrine, even if it were that of justification by faith, but rather a person, Christ. What he desires more than anything else is to "be in him," "know him," where that simple personal pronoun says an infinite number of things. It shows that, for the Apostle, Christ was a real, living person, not an abstraction or an ensemble of titles and doctrines.

The mystical union with Christ, through participation in his Spirit (the living "in Christ," or "in the Spirit"), is for him the final goal of Christian life; justification by faith is only the beginning and a means to achieve it.[7] This invites us to overcome the ...

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