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Father Cantalamessa on Christ Yesterday and Today (Part I)

"How Are They to Believe In Him of Whom They Have Never Heard?"

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 5, 2005 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the first Advent sermon delivered this year by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, to Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.

The following sermon was given Friday. Preaching in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, 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 2 of this sermon will appear Tuesday. Father Cantalamessa will deliver the subsequent sermons the next three Fridays.

* * *

Faith in Christ Today and at the Beginning of the Church

Holy Father, I would like to say two things at this time: First to thank you for your confidence in asking me to continue in the office of Pontifical Household preacher, and to affirm my total obedience and fidelity to you, as Successor of Peter.

I believe there is no more beautiful way of greeting the beginning of a new pontificate than to recall and try to reproduce the event in which Christ founded the primacy of Peter. Simon becomes Cephas, rock, in the moment that, by the Father's revelation, he professes his faith in the divine origin of Jesus. "On this rock -- as St. Augustine paraphrases Christ's words -- I will build the faith you have professed. I will build my Church on the fact that you have said: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."[1]

For this reason I have chosen "faith in Christ" as the theme of the Advent preaching. In this first meditation, I would like to sketch what I believe is the current situation in our society concerning faith in Christ and the remedy that the Word of God offers us to address it. In subsequent meetings we will meditate on what the faith in Christ of John, Paul, the Council of Nicaea and the lived faith of Mary, his Mother, says to us today.

1. Presence-Absence of Christ

What role does Jesus have in our society and culture? I think that in this regard, one can speak of a presence-absence of Christ. At a certain level -- that of the mass media in general, Jesus Christ is very present, he is no less than a "superstar," according to the title of a well-known musical about him. In an interminable series of stories, films and books, writers manipulate the figure of Christ, at times under the pretext of new phantomlike historical documents about him.

"The Da Vinci Code" is the latest and most aggressive instance of this long series. It has already become a fashion, a literary genre. There is speculation on the vast resonance that Jesus' name has and on what he represents for a large part of humanity to ensure great publicity at low cost. And this is literary parasitism.

From a certain point of view, we can therefore say that Jesus Christ is very present in our culture. But if we look at the ambit of faith, to which he belongs in the first place, we note, on the contrary, a perturbing absence, if not an outright rejection of his person.

Above all, at the theological level. A certain theological current maintains that Christ did not come for the salvation of Jews (for whom it would be enough to remain faithful to the Old Covenant), but only for the Gentiles. Another current maintains that he is not necessary either for the salvation of the Gentiles, the latter having, thanks to their religion, a direct relationship with the eternal logos, without needing to go through the incarnate word and his paschal mystery. We must ask, for whom is Christ still necessary?

Even more worrying is what is observed in society in general, including those who define themselves "Christian believers." In what, in fact, do those in Europe and other places believe who define themselves "believers?" In the majority of cases, they believe in a supreme being, a creator; they believe in "the beyond."

But this is a deist faith, not yet a Christian faith. Taking into account Karl Barth's well-known distinction, the latter is religion, not yet faith. Different sociological researches note this fact also in countries and regions of ancient Christian tradition, as the region in which I myself was born, in the Marcas. In practice, Jesus Christ is absent in this type of religiosity.

Even the dialogue between science and faith, which has again become so timely, leads to putting Christ in brackets. The former, in fact, has God, the creator as object. The historical person of Jesus of Nazareth has no place there. The same occurs in the dialogue with philosophy, which loves to be concerned with metaphysical concepts more than historical realities.

In brief, what is repeated on a world scale is what occurred at the Areopagus of Athens, on the occasion of Paul's preaching. While the Apostle spoke about God "who made the world and everything that is in it" and of whom "we are also stock," the learned Athenians listened to him with interest; when he began to speak of Jesus Christ "risen from the dead," they answered with a polite "We will hear you again about this" (Acts 17:22-32).

Suffice it to glance at the New Testament to understand how far away we are, in this case, from the original meaning of the word "faith" in the New Testament. For Paul, the faith that justifies sinners and bestows the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:2), in other words, salvific faith, is faith in Jesus Christ, in his paschal mystery of death and resurrection. Also for John, the faith that "overcomes the world" is faith in Jesus Christ. He writes: "Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:4-5).

In face of this new situation, the first task is for us to be the first to make a great act of faith. "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33), Jesus said to us. He did not only overcome the world of that time, but the world of always, in that which it bears in itself of opposition and resistance to the Gospel. Therefore, no fear or resignation. The recurrent prophecies about the inevitable end of the Church and of Christianity in the technological society of the future make me smile. We have a far more authoritative prophecy to adhere to: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Matthew 24:35).

However, we cannot remain inert; we must put our hands to the task to respond in an appropriate manner to the challenges that faith in Christ faces in our time. To re-evangelize the post-Christian world it is indispensable, I believe, to know the path followed by the Apostles to evangelize the pre-Christian world! The two situations have much in common. And this is what I would now like to bring to light: How was the first evangelization carried out? What way did faith in Christ follow to conquer the world?

2. Kerygma and Didache

All the authors of the New Testament show that they presupposed the existence and knowledge, on the part of readers, of a common tradition (paradosis) which goes back to the earthly Jesus. This tradition presents two aspects, or two components: a component called "preaching," or announcement (kerygma) which proclaims what God has wrought in Jesus of Nazareth, and a component called "teaching" (didache) which presents ethical norms for correct conduct on the part of believers.[2] Several Pauline letters reflect this distribution, because they contain a kerygmatic first part, from which a second part derives of a parenetic or practical character.

The preaching, or kerygma, is called the "gospel"[3]; the teaching, or didache, instead is called the "law," or the commandment of Christ that is summarized in charity.[4] These two things, the first -- the kerygma, or gospel -- is what gives origin to the Church; the second -- the law, or the charity that springs from the first, is what draws for the Church an ideal of moral life, which "forms" the faith of the Church. In this connection, the Apostle distinguishes before the Corinthians his work of "father" in the faith from that of the "pedagogues" who came after him. He says: "For it is I, through the Gospel, who has begotten you in Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians 4:15).

Therefore, faith as such flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, or the announcement. "How are they to believe -- writes the Apostle speaking of faith in Christ -- in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" Literally, "without some one who proclaims the kerygma" (choris keryssontos). And he concludes: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Romans 10:17), where by "preaching" the same thing is understood, that is, the "gospel" or kerygma.

In the book "Introduction to Christianity," the Holy Father Benedict XVI, then professor of theology, shed light on the profound implications of this fact. He wrote: "In the formula 'faith comes from hearing' ... the fundamental distinction between faith and philosophy is clearly considered ... In faith the word takes precedence over thought ... In philosophy, thought precedes the word; the latter therefore is a product of reflection, which one then attempts to express in words ... Faith instead always comes to man from the outside -- it is not an element thought-out by the individual, but said to him, which comes to him not as thought-out or thinkable, questioning him and committing him."[5]

* * *

[1] St. Augustine, Sermon 295,1 (PL 38,1349).

[2] Cf. C.H. Dodd, "Storia ed Evangelo" (History and Gospel), Brescia, Paideia, 1976, pp. 42 ff.

[3] Cf., for example, Mark 1:1; Romans 15:19; Galatians 1:7.

[4] Cf. Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 7:25; John 15:12; 1 John 4:21.

[5] J. Ratzinger, "Introduzione al Cristianesimo" (Introduction to Christianity), Brescia, Queriniana, 1969, pp. 56 f.


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