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

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 contingent polemical interpretations of the Pauline message, centered on the theme of faith-works, so as to find again, underneath them, the genuine thought of the Apostle. What is important for him to affirm before everything else is not that we be justified by faith, but rather that we be justified by faith in Christ; it is not so much that we be justified by grace, as much as that we be justified by the grace of Christ.

Christ is the heart of the message, even before grace and faith. After having presented, in the preceding two and a half chapters of the Letter to the Romans, all of humanity in its universal state of sin and perdition ("all sinned and are deprived of the glory of God"), the Apostle has the incredible courage to proclaim that this situation has changed radically for all, Jews and Greeks, "in virtue of the redemption in Christ Jesus," "through the obedience of one man" ([cf.] Romans 3:24; 5:19).

The affirmation that this salvation is received by faith, and not for works, is present in the text and it was perhaps the most urgent to clarify in the time of Luther. But that takes second place, not first place, especially in the Letter to the Romans, where the polemic with the Judaizers is much less present than in the Letter to the Galatians. It was erroneous to reduce to a problem of schools, within Christianity, what was, for the Apostle, an affirmation of much greater and universal reach.

In the description of the medieval battles there is always a moment in which, the archers, the cavalry and all the rest overcome, the fray centers around the king. The final battle is decided here. Also for us the battle is fought around the king. As in the time of Paul, the person of Jesus Christ is at stake, not this or that doctrine regarding him, no matter how important that doctrine might be. Christianity "remains or falls" with Jesus, and with nothing else.

6. Forgetting the past

Continuing with the autobiographical text of Philippians 3, Paul suggests to us the practical idea with which we will conclude our reflection:

"Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession [of perfect maturity]. Just one thing: forgetting the past but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus" ([cf.] Philippians 3:13-14).

"Forgetting the past." What "past"? That of the Pharisee, of what he had said before? No, the past of the apostle, in the Church! Now the "gain" to consider a "loss" is something else: It is precisely having already considered once everything lost to the cause of Christ. It was natural to think: "What courage, this Paul: to abandon such a good career as a rabbi for an obscure sect of Galileans! And what letters he has written! How many trips he undertook! How many churches he founded!"

The Apostle warned confusedly of the mortal danger of putting between himself and Christ "his own righteousness" derived from works -- this time the works done by Christ -- and he reacted vigorously. "I do not believe," he said, "that I have reached perfection." St. Francis of Assisi, in a similar situation, cut short any temptation of self-complacency, saying: "We begin, brothers, to serve the Lord, because until now we have done little or nothing."[8]

This is the most necessary conversion for those that have followed Christ and have lived serving him in the Church. A conversion altogether special, which does not consist in abandoning evil, but rather, in a certain sense, in abandoning the good! That is, by detaching oneself from all that you have done, repeating to yourself, according to the suggestion of Christ: "We are useless servants; we have done only our duty" (Luke 17:10). And not even, perhaps, the good we should do!

A beautiful Christmas story makes us want to arrive to the Nativity, with a heart that is poor and empty of everything. Among the shepherds who presented themselves on Christmas night to adore the Child, there was one so poor that he didn't have anything to offer and he was very much ashamed. Upon arriving to the cave, the shepherds fought among themselves to offer their gifts. Mary didn't know how to receive all of them, for she had the Child in her arms. So, seeing the poor shepherd with his hands free, she gave him Jesus to hold. Having empty hands was his fortune, and on another level, it will also be our fortune.

* * *

[7] Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "La teologia dell'apostolo Paolo," Brescia, Paideia, 1999, p. 421.

[8] Celano, "Vita prima," 103 ("Fonti Francescane," No. 500).

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