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Reflections on the Eucharist: 'Same Prayer as the Repentant Thief' (Part 2 of 2)

Father Raniero Cantalamessa's 3rd Sermon of Advent

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 21, 2004 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the third Advent sermon, delivered Friday before the Pope and officials of the Roman Curia, by the Pontifical Household preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

The Capuchin priest offered a series of Eucharistic reflections in the light of the hymn "Adoro Te Devote." Part 1 appeared Sunday.

* * * Father Raniero Cantalamessa
I make the Same Prayer as the Repentant Thief
Third Sermon of Advent at the Pontifical Household


3. One Believes with the Heart

We now move from the theological affirmation to the application in prayer, a movement present in every stanza of the Adoro Te Devote. The existential implication in this case is the invitation to a renewed act of faith in the full humanity and divinity of Christ: "Ambo tamen credens atque confitens": I firmly believe and profess both. The first stanza also contained a profession of faith: "Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius," I believe all that the Son of God has spoken. But there it was only a question of faith in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament; here the problem is another; it is about knowing who it is who makes himself present on the altar; the object of faith is the person of Christ, not the sacramental action.

"Credens atque confitens": I believe and profess. We said that it was not enough to believe; we must also profess. But we must immediately add: it is not enough to profess, we must also believe! The most frequent sin of the laity is to believe without professing, hiding their faith out of human respect; the most frequent sin in us, men of the Church, might be that of professing without believing. In fact, it is possible that little by little faith becomes a "creed" that is repeated with the lips, as a declaration of belonging, a flag, without ever asking oneself if one really believes what one says, writes, and preaches. "Corde creditur," Paul reminded us, a phrase that St. Augustine translates as: "Faith rises from the roots of the heart."9

It is necessary, however, to distinguish lack of faith from the darkness of faith and temptations against it. In this Third Week of Advent we are again accompanied by the figure of John the Baptist, but under a new guise. It is the Baptist who in last Sunday's Gospel sends the disciples to ask Jesus: "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" (Matthew 11:3).

We must not avoid the drama that is hidden behind this episode of the Precursor's life. He is in prison, cut off from everything; he knows that his life is hanging from a thread; but the external darkness is nothing compared to the darkness that arises in his heart. He no longer knows if all that for which he lived is true or false. He had pointed to the Rabbi of Nazareth as the Messiah, as the Lamb of God, and pressed the people and also his disciples to be united to him and now suffers the piercing doubt that all this might have been an error of his, that Jesus is not the one awaited. How different this John the Baptist is from the one of the preceding Sundays thundering on the banks of the Jordan.

But how is it that Jesus, who seems so severe in face of the lack of faith of the people and reproaches his disciples for being "men of little faith," shows himself, in this circumstance, so understanding in his Precursor's uncertainty? He does not refuse to provide the "signs" requested, as he does in other cases: "Go and tell John what you hear and see ..." The envoys having left, Jesus expresses the greatest praise of the Baptist that ever came from his lips: "Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist," adding only in that circumstance: "Blessed is he who takes no offense in me" (Matthew 11:6). He knew how easy it is to "take offense" in him, in his apparent impotence, in the apparent denial of the facts.

The Baptist's test is one that is renewed in every age. There have been great souls who lived only by faith and who, in a phase of their life, often even the last, fell into the most painful darkness, tormented by the doubt of having failed everything and lived in deceit. From a bishop who was his friend, I learned that even Don Tonino Bello, unforgettable bishop of Molfetta, experienced a similar moment before dying. There is faith in these cases, stronger than ever, but hidden in a remote corner of the soul, which only God is able to read.

If God so glorified John the Baptist it means that when he was in darkness he never ceased believing in the Lamb of God whom he once pointed out to the world. The Apostle Paul's testament is also his: "I have finished the course, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).

Faith is the wedding ring that unites God and man in an alliance -- it is no accident that a wedding ring, at least in Italian, is called, precisely, faith. Like gold, faith -- says the First Letter of Peter -- must be purified in the crucible (cf. 1 Peter 1:7) and the crucible of faith is suffering, above all suffering caused by doubt and by what St. John of the Cross calls the dark night of the spirit. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory being established, everything can continue to be purified after death -- hope, charity, humility ..., except faith. The latter can only be purified in this life, before passing from faith to vision. This is why this heavy trial is concentrated here on earth.

However, it is not just a question of exceptional souls. The same difficulty that drove the Baptist to send messengers to Jesus still impedes the Jewish people from recognizing Jesus of Nazareth as the awaited Messiah. And not only them. The Second Letter of St. Peter refers to the question that was rife among Christians of his time: "Where is the promise of his coming? For, ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation" (2 Peter 3:4). Even today, this is the reason that many people give who do not believe in the coming redemption, namely, that "everything continues as before!"

Peter suggests an explanation: God "is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). But more than speculative reasons it is necessary to draw from one's heart the strength that makes faith triumph over doubt and skepticism. It is in the heart that the Holy Spirit makes the believer know that Jesus is alive and real, in a way that cannot be expressed by reasoning.

At times one word of Scripture suffices to rekindle this faith and renew the certainty. For me this was settled by Balaam's oracle proclaimed in last Monday's first reading: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall call forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel" (Number 24:17). We know that star, we know to whom that scepter belongs. Not by abstract deduction, but because for 2,000 years the realization of the prophecy has been before our eyes.

As every year, we are preparing to celebrate the apparition of that star. We recalled at the beginning that the Eucharist is the true crib in which it is possible to adore the Word of God, not in images but in reality. The clearest sign of the continuity between the mystery of the Incarnation and the Eucharistic mystery is that, with the same words with which, in the Adoro Te Devote, we greet the God hidden under the appearances of bread and wine, we can, at Christmas, greet the God hidden under the appearance of a child. Let us, therefore, place ourselves in spirit before the Child Jesus in the crib and let us sing together the first stanza of our hymn, as if it was written for him:

Adóro te devóte, latens Déitas,
quae sub his figuris vere látitas:
tibi se cor meum totum súbicit,
quia te contémplans totum déficit.


9 St. Augustine, "In Ioh.," 26, 2 (PL 35, 1077).


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