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1st Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa

3/12/2007 - 5:00 AM PST

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"Blessed Are the Pure of Heart, for They Will See God"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 12, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the Lenten sermon delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa in the presence of Benedict XVI and officials of the Roman Curia. The Pontifical Household preacher delivered it in the Mater Redemptoris Chapel of the Apostolic Palace.

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1. From ritual purity to purity of heart

Continuing our reflection on the evangelical beatitudes that we began in Advent, in this first Lenten meditation we would like to reflect on the beatitude of the pure of heart.

Whoever today reads or hears proclaimed, "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God," instinctively thinks of the virtue of purity almost as if this beatitude is the positive equivalent of the Sixth Commandment, "Do not commit impure acts." This interpretation, sporadically advanced in the course of the history of Christian spirituality, became predominant beginning in the 19th century.

In reality, purity of heart does not indicate, in Christ's thinking, a particular virtue, but a quality that should go along with all the virtues, so that they are truly virtues and not rather "glittering vices." Its most direct contrary is not impurity, but hypocrisy. A little exegesis and history will help us to better understand.

What Jesus means by "purity of heart" is made clear by the context of the Sermon on the Mount. According to the Gospel, what determines the purity or impurity of an action -- whether it be almsgiving, fasting or prayer -- is the intention: Is the deed done to be seen by men or to please God?

"When you give alms sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you: They have already received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your alms may be secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:2-6).

Hypocrisy is the sin that is most powerfully denounced by God in the Bible and the reason for this is clear. With his hypocrisy, man demotes God, he puts him in second place, putting the creature, the public, in first place. "Man sees the appearance, the Lord sees the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7): Cultivating our appearance more than our heart means giving greater importance to man than to God.

Hypocrisy is thus essentially a lack of faith; but it is also a lack of charity for our neighbor in the sense that it tends to reduce persons to admirers. It does not recognize their proper dignity, but sees them only in function of one's own image.

Christ's judgment on hypocrisy is without appeal: "Receperunt mercedem suam" (They have already received their reward)! A reward that is, above all, illusory, even on a human level because we know that glory flees from those that seek it, and seeks those who flee from it.

Jesus' invectives against the scribes and the Pharisees also help us understand the meaning of purity of heart. Jesus' criticisms focus on the opposition between the "inside" and the "outside," the interior and the exterior of man.

"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and filth. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity" (Matthew 23:27-28).

The revolution which Jesus brings about here is of incalculable significance. Before him, except for some rare hint in the prophets and the Psalms -- "Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord? Those whose hands are innocent and whose hearts are pure" (Psalm 24:3) -- purity was understood in a ritual and cultural way; it consisted in keeping one's distance from things, animals, persons or places that were understood to contaminate one and separate one from God's holiness. Above all, these were things associated with birth, death, food and sexuality. In different forms and with different presuppositions, other religions outside the Bible shared these ideas.

Jesus makes a clean sweep of all these taboos and does so first of all by certain gestures: He eats with sinners, touches lepers, mixes with pagans. All of these were taken to be highly unsanitary things. He also sweeps away these taboos with his teachings. The solemnity with which he introduces his discourse on the pure and the impure makes apparent how conscious he was of the novelty of his doctrine.

"And he called the people to him again and said to them: 'Hear me all of you and understand; there is nothing outside a man that by going into him can defile him. It is the things that come out of a man that can defile him.... For from within, out of the heart of a man, come evil thoughts, ...

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