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Father Cantalamessa on Christ's Obedience

4/1/2006 - 6:00 AM PST

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Second Lenten Sermon Given to Pontifical Household

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 1, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the second Lenten sermon preached this morning, before Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, at the Vatican.

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1. Sacrifice or obedience?

One cannot take in the ocean, but one can do something better: allow oneself to be taken in by it, submerging oneself anywhere in its expanse. This is what occurs with Christ's passion. The mind cannot wholly take it in, nor can its depth be seen, but we can submerge ourselves in some moments of its occurrence. In this meditation, we would like to enter in through the door of obedience.

Christ's obedience is the most salient aspect in the apostolic catechesis. "Christ became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8); "by one man's obedience many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:8-9). Obedience appears as the key to the reading of the whole history of the passion, from where it takes its meaning and value.

To those who were scandalized that the Father could find satisfaction in the death on a cross of his Son Jesus, St. Bernard rightly responded: "It was not his death that satisfied him, but the spontaneous will of the one who was dying": "Non mors placuit sed voluntas sponte morientis."[1] Thus, it is not so much the death itself of Christ that has saved us, but his obedience unto death.

God wants obedience, not sacrifice, says Scripture (1 Samuel 15:22; Hebrews 10:5-7). It is true that in Christ's case, he also wanted sacrifice, and he wanted it likewise for us, but of the two one is the means, the other the end. God wants obedience for itself; he wants sacrifice only indirectly, as the condition that makes obedience possible and authentic. In this connection, the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christ "learned to obey through suffering." The passion was the proof and measure of his obedience.

Let us try to understand in what Christ's obedience consisted. As a child, Jesus obeyed his parents; as an adult he submitted himself to the Mosaic Law; during the passion he submitted himself to the Sanhedrin's and Pilate's sentence. However, the New Testament does not mention these obediences; it mentions Christ's obedience to the Father. St. Irenaeus interprets Jesus' obedience in the light of the Songs of the Servant, as an interior, absolute submission to God, carried out in a situation of extreme difficulty:

"That sin which had appeared thanks to the wood, was abolished thanks to obedience on the wood, as obeying God, the Son of Man was nailed on the wood, destroying the science of evil and introducing and having penetrate in the world the science of good. Disobedience to God is evil, as obedience to God is good. Therefore, in virtue of the obedience he rendered unto death, hanging from the wood, he eliminated the ancient disobedience that occurred in the wood."[2]

Jesus' obedience is exercised, in a particular way, in the words that are written about and for Him "in the law, in the prophets and in the psalms." When they want to oppose his capture, Jesus says: "But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" (Matthew 26:54).

2. Can God obey?

But how can Christ's obedience be reconciled with faith in his divinity? Obedience is an act of the person, not of nature, and the person of Christ, according to orthodox faith, is that of the very Son of God. Can God obey himself? Here we touch upon the most profound core of the Christological mystery. Let us try to understand in what this mystery consists.

In Gethsemane Jesus says to the Father: "yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt" (Mark 14:36). The whole problem consists in knowing who that "I" and who that "you" is; who says the "fiat" and to whom it is said. In antiquity, two quite different answers were given to this question, according to the underlying type of Christology.

For the Alexandrian School, the "I" speaking was the person of the Word that, as incarnate, says his "yes" to the divine will -- the "you" -- that he himself has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He who says "yes" and he to whom he says "yes" constitute the same will, but considered in two times or in two different states: in the state of the incarnate Word and in the state of the eternal Word. The drama, if one can speak of such, takes place more within God than between God and man, and this because the existence is not yet clearly recognized of a human and free will in Christ.

More valid on this point is the interpretation of the Antiochian School. The authors of this School say that for obedience to take place there must be a subject that obeys and a subject to obey: No one obeys himself! As moreover Christ's obedience is the antithesis of Adam's disobedience, it must be a ...

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