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Good Friday Sermon of Father Cantalamessa

"There Were Also Some Women"

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 7, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the Good Friday sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa during the Celebration of the Lord's Passion in St. Peter's Basilica, and in the presence of Benedict XVI.

* * *

There were also some women

"Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25). Let us leave Mary his mother aside this time. Her presence on Calvary needs no explanation. She was his mother, and this by itself says everything; mothers do not abandon their children, not even one condemned to death. But why were the other women there? Who were they and how many were there?

The Gospels tell us the names of some of them: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, a certain Joanna and a certain Susanna (Luke 8:3). Having come with Jesus from Galilee, these women followed him, weeping, on the journey to Calvary (Luke 23:27-28). Now, on Golgotha, they watched "from a distance" (that is from the minimum distance permitted them), and from there, a little while later, they accompanied him in sorrow to the tomb, with Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:55).

This fact is too marked and too extraordinary to hastily pass over. We call them, with a certain masculine condescension, "the pious women," but they are much more than "pious women," they are "mothers of courage"! They defied the danger of openly showing themselves to be there on behalf of the one condemned to death. Jesus said: "Blessed is he who is not scandalized by me" (Luke 7:23). These women are the only ones who were not scandalized by him.

There has been animated discussion for quite some time about who it was that wanted Jesus' death: Was it the Jews or Pilate? One thing is certain in any case: It was men and not women. No woman was involved, not even indirectly, in his condemnation. Even the only pagan woman named in the accounts, Pilate's wife, dissociated herself from his condemnation (Matthew 27:19). Certainly Jesus died for the sins of women too, but historically they can say: "We are innocent of this man's blood" (Matthew 27:24).

* * *

This is one of the surest signs of the honesty and the historical reliability of the Gospels: The poor showing of the authors and inspirers of the Gospels and the marvelous figure cut by the women. Clearly the authors and inspirers of the Gospels saw the story they were telling as infinitely greater than their own miserableness and were thus drawn to be faithful to it. Otherwise, who would have allowed the ignominy of their own fear, flight, and denial -- which was made to look worse by the very different conduct of the women -- recorded for posterity.

It has always been asked why it was the "pious women" who were the first to see the Risen Christ and receive the task of announcing it to the apostles. This was the more certain way of making the Resurrection credible. The testimony of women had no weight and much less that of a woman, like Mary Magdalene, who had been possessed by demons (Mark 16:9). It is probably for this reason that no woman figures in Paul's long list of those who had seen the Risen Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8). The same apostles took the words of the women as "an idle tale," an entirely female thing, and did not believe them (Luke 24:11).

The ancient authors thought they knew the answer to this question. Romanos the Melode exhorts the apostles to not be offended by the precedence accorded to the women. They were the first to see the Risen Christ, he said, because a woman, Eve, was the first to sin![1] The real answer is different: The women were the first to see him because they were the last to leave him for dead after his death when they came to bring spices to his tomb to anoint him (Mark 16:1).

* * *

We must ask ourselves about this fact: Why were the women untroubled by the scandal of the cross? Why did they stay when everything seem finished, and when even his closest disciples had abandoned him and were secretly planning to go back home?

Jesus had already given the answer to this question when, replying to Simon, he said of the woman who had washed and kissed his feet: "She has loved much" (Luke 7:47)! The women had followed Jesus for himself, out of gratitude for the good they had received from him, not for the hope of getting some benefit from him or having a career from following him. "Twelve thrones" were not promised to them, nor had they asked to sit at his right hand in his kingdom. They followed him, it is written, "to serve him" (Luke 8:3; Matthew 27:55); they were the only ones, after Mary his mother, to have assimilated the spirit of the Gospel.

They followed the reasoning of the heart and this had not deceived him. In this there presence near to the crucified and risen Christ contains a vital teaching for today. Our civilization, dominated by technology, needs a heart to survive in it without being dehumanized. We have to give more room to the "reasons of the heart," if humanity is not to fail in this ice age.

In this, quite differently than in other areas, technology is of little help to us. For a long time now there has been work on a computer that "thinks" and many are convinced that there will be success. But (fortunately!) no one has yet proposed inventing a computer that "loves," that is moved, that meets man on the affective plane, facilitating love, as computers facilitate the calculation of the distance between the stars, the movement of atoms, and the memorizing of data.

The improvement of man's intelligence and capacity to know does not go forward at the same rate as improvement in his capacity to love. The latter does not seem to count for much and yet we know well that happiness or unhappiness on earth does not depend so much on knowing or not-knowing as much as it does on loving or not loving, on being loved or not being loved. It is not hard to understand why we are so anxious to increase our knowledge but not so worried about increasing our capacity to love: Knowledge automatically translates into power, love into service.

One of the modern idolatries is the "IQ" idolatry, of the "intelligence quotient." Numerous methods of measuring intelligence have been proposed, even if all have so far proved to be in large part unreliable. Who is concerned with the "quotient of the heart"? And yet what Paul said always remains true: "Knowledge puffs up, love builds up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Secular culture is no longer able to draw this truth from its religious source, in Paul, but perhaps it is ready to underwrite it when it returns in literary garments. Love alone redeems and saves, while science and the thirst for knowledge, by itself, is able to lead Faust and his imitators to damnation.

After so many ages had spoken of human beings by taking names from man -- "homo erectus," "homo faber," and today's "homo sapiens-sapiens" -- it is good for humanity that the age of woman is finally dawning: an era of the heart, of compassion, of peace, and this earth ceases to be "the threshing floor which makes us so fierce."[2]

* * *

From every part there emerges the exigency to give more room to women in society and in religion. We do not believe that "the eternal feminine will save us."[3] Everyday experience shows us that women can "lift us up," but they can also cast us down. She too needs to be saved, neither more nor less than man. But it is certain that once she is redeemed by Christ and "liberated" on the human level from ancient subjugations, woman can contribute to saving our society from some profound evils that threaten it: inhuman cruelty, will to power, spiritual dryness, disdain for life.

But we must avoid repeating the ancient gnostic mistake according to which woman, in order to save herself, must cease to be a woman and must become a man.[4] Pro-male prejudice is so deeply rooted in society that women themselves have ended up succumbing to it. To affirm their dignity, they have sometimes believed it necessary to minimize or deny the difference of the sexes, reducing it to a product of culture. "Women are not born, they become," as one of their illustrious representatives has said.[5]

This tendency seems to have been overcome. In postmodern thought the ideal is no longer indifference but equal dignity. Difference in general is beginning to be seen as creative, whether for men or for women. Each of the two sexes represents "the other" and stimulates openness and creativity, since what defines the human person is precisely his being in relation. "Man is prideful," writes the poet Claudel; "There was no other way to get him to understand his neighbor, to get inside his skin; there was no other way to get him to understand dependence, necessity, the need for another than himself, than through the law of being different [a man or a woman]."[6]

* * *

How grateful we must be to the "pious women"! Along the way to Calvary, their sobbing was the only friendly sound that reached the Savior's ears; while he hung on the cross, their gaze was the only one that fell upon him with love and compassion.

The Byzantine liturgy honored the pious women, dedicating a Sunday of the liturgical year to them, the second Sunday after Easter, which has the name "Sunday of the Ointment Bearing Women." Jesus is happy that in the Church the women who loved him and believed in him when he was alive are honored. Of one of them -- the woman who poured the perfumed oil on his head -- he made this prophecy that has come true over the centuries: "Wherever in the whole world this Gospel is preached what she has done will be told in memory of her" (Matthew 26:13).

The pious women must not only be admired and honored, but imitated. St. Leo the Great says that "Christ's passion is prolonged to the end of ages"[7] and Pascal wrote that "Christ will be in agony until the end of the world."[8] The passion is prolonged in members of the Body of Christ. The many religious and lay women are the heirs of the "pious women" who today are at the side of the poor, those sick with AIDS, prisoners, all those rejected by society. To them, believers and nonbelievers, Christ repeats: "You have done this for me" (Matthew 25:40).

* * *

The pious women are examples for Christian women today not only for the role they played in the Passion but also for the one they played in the Resurrection. From one end of the Bible to the other we meet the "Go!" of the missions ordered by God. It is the word addressed to Abraham and Moses ("Go, Moses, into the land of Egypt"), to the prophets, to the apostles: "Go out to all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature."

They are all "Go's!" addressed to men. There is only one "Go!" addressed to women, the one addressed to the ointment bearers the morning of the resurrection: "Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me'" (Matthew 28:10). With these words they were made the first witnesses of the resurrection.

It is a shame that, because of the later erroneous identification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who washed Jesus' feet (Luke 7:37), she ended up giving rise to numerous ancient and modern legends and she has entered into the devotions and art in "penitent" garments, instead of as the first witness of the resurrection, the "apostolorum apostola" (apostle of the apostles), according to St. Thomas Aquinas' definition.[9]

"The women departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples" (Matthew 28:8). Christian women, continue to bring the successors of the apostles and to us priests, who are their collaborators, the good news: "The Master lives! He has risen! He precedes you into Galilee, that is, wherever you go!" Continue to give us courage, continue to defend life. Together with the other women of the world you are the hope of a more human world.

To the first among the "pious women," and their incomparable model, the mother of Jesus, we repeat this ancient prayer of the Church: "Holy Mary, succor of the miserable, support of the fearful, comfort of the weak: pray for the people, intervene for the clergy, intercede for the devoted female sex" (Ora pro populo, interveni pro clero, intercede pro devoto femineo sexu).[10]

* * *

[1] Romanos the Melode, "Hymns," 45, 6.
[2] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 22, v.151.
[3] W. Goethe, "Faust," finale, part II.

[4] Cf. Coptic Gospel of Thomas, 114; Excerpts of Theodotus, 21,3.
[5] Simone de Beauvoir, "The Second Sex," 1949.
[6] P. Claudel, "The Satin Slipper," act III, scene 8.

[7] St. Leo the Great, Sermon 70, 5 (PL 54, 383).
[8] B. Pascal, "Pensées," n. 553 Br.
[9] St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, XX, 2519.

[10] Antiphon to the Magnificat, Common of Virgins.


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Good Friday, Sermon, Cantalamessa, Passion, Women, Mary, Jesus, Lent

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