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Father Cantalamessa on Christ's Suffering

4/8/2006 - 6:30 AM PST

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3rd Lenten Sermon Given to Pontifical Household

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 8, 2006 (ZENIT) - Here is a translation of the second Lenten sermon preached Friday morning, before Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household.

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"The Rocks Were Split"

1. The Passion and the Shroud

Christ's passion is the subject most addressed in Western art. Suffice it to think of the innumerable representations, in painting and sculpture, of Jesus in Gethsemane, the "Ecce Homo," the crucifixion, the famous depositions from the cross, called "pietà" and, in the German world, "Vesperbild." In our secularized world, art remains one of the forms of evangelization which even penetrates realms closed to all other forms of proclamation. I met a Japanese girl who converted and received baptism [after] studying art in Florence.

No artistic representation of the Passion, however, has exercised and still exercises a fascination like that of the shroud. It matters not, from our point of view, to know whether or not the shroud is "authentic," if the image was formed naturally or artificially, if it is only an icon or also a relic. What is certain is that it is the most solemn and sublime representation of death that the human eye has ever contemplated. If a God can die, this is the least inadequate way to represent his death to us.

The closed eyelids, the lips together, the composed features of the face: More than a dead person, it all makes one think of a man immersed in profound and silent meditation. It seems like the translation in images of the ancient antiphon of Holy Saturday: "Caro mea requiescet in spe," "my body too will rest secure." Even the former homily on Holy Saturday that is read in the office of readings acquires a particular force read before the shroud: "What happened? Today on earth, there is great silence, great silence and solitude. Great silence because the King sleeps.…"[1]

Theology tells us that at his death Christ's soul separated from his body as it does in every man who dies, but his divinity remained united both to his soul as well as to his body. The shroud is the most perfect representation of this Christological mystery. That body was separated from the soul, but not from the divinity. There is something divine that moves over the martyred face, full of majesty, of the Christ of the shroud.

To perceive it, suffice it to compare the shroud with other representations of the dead Christ made by the hand of human artists, for example Mantegna's dead Christ, and even more so that of Holbein the Younger, in the Museums of Basel, which represents the body of Christ in all the rigidity of death and the incipient decomposition of the members. Before this image, Dostoyevsky, who contemplated it at length on one of his trips, said that one can easily lose one's faith;[2] before the shroud, on the contrary, faith may be found, or found again if it has been lost.

Christ's face of the shroud is like a boundary, a wall that separates two worlds: the world of men full of agitation, violence and sin and the world of God inaccessible to evil. It is a shore on which all waves break. As if, in Christ, God says to the force of evil what the book of Job says to the ocean: "Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed" (Job 38:11).

Before the shroud we can pray like this: "Lord, make me your shroud. When, again descending from the cross, you come to me in the sacrament of your body and blood, may I wrap you with my faith and love as in a shroud, so that your features are imprinted on my soul and also leave on it an indelible trace. Lord, make of the coarse and crude cloth of my humanity our shroud!"

2. The Passion of the Savior's Soul

In this meditation, we go ideally to Calvary. The evangelists sum up the most overwhelming event of the history of the world in three words: "and they crucified him" (Mark and Matthew), "there they crucified him" (Luke), "to crucify him" (John). The readers they were addressing knew well what these words meant; we do not. We must deduce it from other sources. These also, however, are strangely reticent; the torture of the cross was considered so horrifying that it had to be kept far away, in Cicero's words, "not only from the eyes, but also from the ears of a Roman citizen."[3] It should not be spoken about by genteel people.

The condemned one could be bound by cords on the writs or fixed with nails to the cross. Mention of the wounds to the hands and feet of the risen one tells us that for Jesus the second way was adopted and one can easily imagine the torture that this entailed.

Several theories have been proposed about the immediate physical cause of Jesus' death: heart attack, suffocation; the most recent indicates ...

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