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Second Lenten Sermon of Fr. Cantalamessa to papal household: Full text

Second Lenten Sermon of Fr. Cantalamessa to papal household: Full text

(Vatican Radio)  The Preacher of the Papal Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., gave his second Lenten Sermon to Pope Francis on Friday morning in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel.

The theme of the Lenten meditations is: “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). This second iteration carried the title: Christ, ‘true God from true God’.

The next three Sermons of Lent will take place on Friday 24 and 31 March, and Friday 7 April.

Below please find the official English version translated from the Italian original by Marsha Daigle Williamson:

Christ, “true God from true God”

1. The Faith of Nicea

In this meditation we continue our reflection on the role of the Holy Spirit in knowing Christ. In this regard one cannot fail to mention an unexpected confirmation of this happening in the world today. For some time there has been a movement called “the Messianic Judaism,” whose members are Hebrew Christians.  (“Christ” and “Christian” are the Greek translations for the Hebrew “Messiah” and “messianic”!) A low estimate points to about 150,000 members, divided into different groups and associations. They are based primarily in the United States, Israel, and in various European nations.

They are Jews who believe that Jesus, Yeshua, is the promised Messiah, the Savior, and the Son of God, but they do not want to renounce their Jewish identity and tradition. They do not officially adhere to any of the traditional Christian Churches because their intention is to connect with and revive the early church of the Jewish Christians, whose experience was very early on interrupted by well-known traumatic events.

The Catholic Church and other Churches have always abstained from promoting, or even mentioning, this movement for the obvious reason of their dialogue with official Judaism. I myself have never spoken of it. But the conviction is now growing that it is not fair, for either side, to continue to ignore them, or worse, to ostracize them. Recently a study by various theologians has been released in Germany on this phenomenon.[1]

I am mentioning it in this setting for the specific reason that it is relevant to topic of this meditation. In response to a survey about the factors and circumstances that were at the origin of their faith in Jesus, more than 60 percent of those involved answered, “the interior action of the Holy Spirit”; the second factor was their reading of the Bible, and the third was personal contact with other people.[2] This is a confirmation from life experience that the Holy Spirit is the one who gives the true, intimate knowledge of Christ.

Let us return now to our main topic.  Soon after Christianity appeared in the surrounding Greco-Roman world, the title “Lord,” Kyrios, was no longer enough. The pagan world knew many various “lords,” the Roman emperor specifically being the primary one among them. It was necessary to find another way to guarantee full faith in Christ and his worship as God. The Arian crisis provided that opportunity.

This leads us to the second part of the article on Jesus that was added to the symbol of faith at the Council of Nicea in 325:

Born of the Father before all ages.

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made, consubstantial with [homoousios] with the Father.

The bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, the undisputed champion of the Nicene faith, was very certain that neither he nor the Church of his time were the ones to discover the divinity of Christ. However, his whole work will consist in demonstrating that this had always been the faith of the Church. What was new was not the truth but its opposing heresy. His conviction in this regard finds an indisputable historical confirmation in a letter that Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bithynia, wrote to the emperor Trajan around 111 AD. The only certain information he says he knows about the Christians is that “they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses . . .  in honor of Christ as if to a god (“carmenque Christo quasi Deo dicere”).”[3]

Faith in the divinity of Christ already existed, so it is therefore only by completely ignoring history that anyone could say that the divinity of Christ is a dogma deliberately imposed on the Council of Nicea by the emperor Constantine. The contribution of the Fathers at Nicea, and in particular Athanasius, was, more than anything, to remove the obstacles that had impeded a full recognition of the divinity of Christ without reservation up to that point in the theological debates.

One such obstacle was the Greek habit of defining the divine essence with the word agennetos, “unoriginate” or “unbegotten.” How does one proclaim that the Word is true God from the moment that he is the Son, that is, from the moment that he is generated by the Father? It was easy for Arius to set up the equivalence between “generated” and “made” that is, to go from gennetos to genetos, and to conclude with his famous statement that exploded the issue: “There was a time when he was not!” (en ote ouk en). This was the equivalent of making Christ a creature even if he was “not like other creatures.” Athanasius resolved the controversy with a fundamental observation: “‘Unoriginated’ [agneneto] is a word of the Greeks, who know not the Son.”[4] He vigorously defended Nicea’s expression “begotten, not made” (genitus non factus).

Another cultural obstacle to the full recognition of Christ’s divinity, on which Arius was able to base his thesis, was the doctrine of an intermediary divine being, the deuteros theos, put in charge of the creation of the world. From Plato onward, that “secondary god” had become a common assumption in many religious systems and philosophies in antiquity. The temptation to treat the Son “through whom all things were made” as this intermediate entity was creeping into Christian speculation (the apologists, Origen), even if it was extraneous to the internal life of the Church. It resulted in a tripartite order of being: at the top, the ungenerated Father; after him, the Son (and later also the Holy Spirit); and in third place, creatures. 

The definition of “begotten, not made” and of the homoousios removed this obstacle and led to a Christian cathartic cleansing of the metaphysical universe of the Greeks. With that definition, only one line of demarcation was drawn through the vertical axis of being. There were only two modes of being now: that of Creator and that of creatures, and the Son was placed in the first category, not the second. 

If we were to summarize the perennial significance of Nicea’s definition in one statement, we could formulate it this way: in every age and culture, Christ must be proclaimed as “God” not in some derivative or secondary sense but in the strongest sense that the word “God” has in that culture.

It is important to understand what motivated Athanasius and other orthodox theologians in their battle, that is, why their conviction was so absolute. It did not come from speculation but from life, more specifically, from reflection on the experience that the Church, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit, has of salvation in Christ Jesus.

The soteriological question was not born out of the Arian controversy; it was present in all the great christological controversies of antiquity ranging from the Gnostic controversy to the Monothelite controversy. In its classical formulation, it says, “That which He has not assumed He has not saved” (Quod non est assumptum non est sanatum).”[5] In Athanasius’ use of the formula, it could be understood this way: “What is not assumed by God is not saved,” and all it force lies in that short addition of “by God.”’ Salvation requires that human beings are not assumed by some kind of intermediary but by God himself. “If the Son were a creature,” writes Athanasius, “man had remained mortal as before, not being joined to God”[6] and “man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God.”[7]

We need, however, to make an important clarification here. The divinity of Christ is not a practical “postulate” as is true, according to Immanuel Kant, for the very existence of God.[8] It is not a postulate but the explanation of a true fact. It would be a postulate—and thus a human theological deduction—if it began from a certain idea of salvation, and the divinity of Christ was deduced from it as the only possible means for bringing about such a salvation. Instead, it is the explanation of a fact if it starts from an experience of salvation, as Athanasius does, and demonstrates how that experience could not exist if Christ were not God.  In other words, the divinity of Christ is not based on salvation; instead, salvation is based on the divinity of Christ.

2. “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15)

But it is time to return to our theme and try to see what we can learn today from the epic battle that orthodoxy endured in its time. The divinity of Christ is the cornerstone that holds up the two principal mysteries of Christian faith: the Trinity and the Incarnation. They are like two doors that open and close together. There are buildings or metal structures that are constructed in such a way that if a certain point is touched, or if one removes a certain stone, they collapse. The edifice of Christian faith is like that, and its cornerstone is the divinity of Christ. If this is removed, everything comes crashing down, and first of all the Trinity. If the Son is not God, who forms the Trinity? St. Athanasius had already clearly denounced any theory against Christ’s divinity and in writing against the Arians and says,

If the Word is not with the Father from everlasting, the Triad is not everlasting, but a Monad was first, and afterwards by addition it became a Triad.[9]

Saint Augustine said, “It is no great thing to believe that Christ died: even pagan and Jews and all bad people believe that. All of them are sure that he died. The faith of Christians is in Christ’s resurrection.”[10] The same thing that is said about the death and resurrection should be said about the humanity and divinity of Christ, whose death and resurrection are their respective manifestations. Everyone believes that Jesus was a man; what distinguishes believers from non-believers is the belief that he is God. The faith of Christians is in the divinity of Christ!

We need to ask ourselves a serious question. What place does Jesus Christ have in our society and in the faith of Christians? I believe we can speak in this regard about a presence-absence of Christ. On a certain level—that of entertainment and media in general—Jesus Christ is very present. In a never-ending series of stories, films, and books, writers manipulate the figure of Christ, at times under the pretext of supposedly new historical documents about him. This has become a trend, a literary genre. Some people take advantage of the broad appeal of Jesus’ name and of what he represents for a large part of humanity to guarantee wide-ranging publicity at a low cost. I call all this literary parasitism.

From a certain point of view, we can say, then, that Jesus Christ is very present in our culture. But if we look at the sphere of faith, to which he belongs in the first place, we notice instead a disquieting absence, if not a direct rejection of his person. What do those who call themselves “believers” in Europe and elsewhere really believe?  Most of the time they believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, a Creator; they believe in a “hereafter.” However, this is deistic faith and not yet Christian faith. Various sociological studies highlight this fact even in countries and regions that have an ancient Christian tradition. Jesus Christ is absent in practical terms in this type of religiosity.

The dialogue between science and faith also leads, unintentionally, to putting Christ in parentheses. It does have God, the Creator, as its object, but the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth has no place in it whatsoever. The same thing happens in the dialogue with philosophy that likes to concern itself with metaphysical concepts rather than historical reality, not to mention interfaith dialogue in which peace and ecology are discussed, but not Jesus.

It takes just a simple glance at the New Testament to see how far we are here from the original meaning of the word “faith” in the New Testament. For Paul, the faith that justifies sinners and confers the Holy Spirit (see Gal 3:2)—in other words the faith that saves—is faith in Jesus Christ, in the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection.

During the earthly life of Jesus, the word “faith” already meant faith in him. When Jesus says, “your faith has saved you,” and when he reproves the apostles and calls them “you of little faith,” he it is not referring to a generic faith in God that was a given for the Jews; he is speaking about faith in himself! This by itself refutes the thesis that says faith in Christ begins solely at Easter and before this there is only the “Jesus of history.” The Jesus of history already presupposes faith in himself, so if the disciples followed him it is precisely because they had a certain faith in him, even it was quite imperfect before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

We therefore need to allow ourselves to directly confront the question Jesus asked his disciples one day after they had told him the opinions of people around him: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15), and to confront the question that is even more personal, “Do you believe? Do you truly believe? Do you believe with your whole heart?” St. Paul says, “Man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” (Rom 10:10). St. Augustine exclaims that faith “springs from the root of the heart.”[11]

In the past, the second moment of this process—that is, the profession of a correct faith, i.e., orthodoxy—was at times so emphasized that it overshadowed the first moment, which is the most important one and which takes place in the hidden recesses of the heart. Almost all the treatises “On Faith” (De fide) written in ancient times focus on what to believe and not on the act of believing.

3. Who Is It That Overcomes the World?

We need to recreate the conditions for a faith in the divinity of Christ without reservation or hesitation. We need to reproduce the enthusiasm of faith from which the formula of faith was born. The Church body once produced a supreme effort through which it raised itself in faith above all human systems and all the opposition of reason. Afterward the fruit of this effort remained. The tide rose at one time to its greatest level and its trace was left behind on the rock. Its trace is the definition by Nicea that we proclaim in the creed. However, that rising tide needs to happen again; its trace is not enough. It is not enough to recite the Nicene Creed; we need to renew the enthusiastic surge of faith that existed at that time concerning the divinity of Christ and that has had no equal for centuries. We need to experience this again.

We need it above all for the sake of the new evangelization. St. John writes his First Letter, “Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn 5:5). We need to understand clearly what “overcoming the world” means. It does not mean having more success or dominating the political and cultural scene. That would instead lead to the opposite: not overcoming the world but becoming worldly. Unfortunately, there have been times in which people fell into this misunderstanding without realizing it. One can think of the theory of “the two swords” or of “the triple reign of the Supreme Pontiff,”[12] although we must always be careful not to judge the past with present-day criteria and assumptions. From the historical point of view, the opposite has happened instead, and Jesus declared it to his disciples ahead of time: “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice” (Jn 16:20).

So this excludes any triumphalism. It involves a victory of quite another kind: a victory over what the world also hates and does not accept in itself, which includes transience, debility, evil, death.  This is in fact what the word “world” (kosmos) means in its negative sense in the Gospel. This is its meaning when Jesus says, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:20).

How did Jesus overcome the world? Certainly not by defeating his enemies with “ten legions of angels” but instead, as Paul says, by “bringing the hostility to an end” (Eph 2:16), that is to say, bringing to an end everything that separates a human being from God, a person from another person, a nation from another nation. In order that there would not be any doubt about the nature of this victory over the world, it was inaugurated by an altogether special victory, the victory of the cross.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). These are the words most often reproduced in ancient mosaics on the pages of the book that the Pantocrator is holding open in his hands, like the mosaic in the famous cathedral of Cefalu.  The Evangelist John affirms about Jesus that “in him was life, and the life was the light of men” (Jn 1: 4). Light and life, Phos and Zoe: these two words have their central Greek letter (omega) in common, and they are often found written in a crisscross pattern—one horizontally and the other vertically—to form a powerful and very widespread monogram of Christ:

What does a human being want most if not precisely these two things: light and life? We know that a great modern author, Goethe, murmured as he was dying, “More light.”[13] He was perhaps referring to wanting more natural light in his room, but the statement has always been  assigned a metaphysical and spiritual meaning, and rightly so. One of my friends, who returned to faith in Christ after having gone through all possible and imaginable religious experiences, recounted his life in a book called Mendicante di luce [Beggar of Light]. The crucial moment came when, right in the middle of a deep meditation, he felt a saying of Christ reverberating in his mind without being able to silence it: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”[14]  Along the lines of what the apostle Paul said to the Athenians at the Areopagus, we are called to say in all humility to the world today, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).

“Give me a place to stand on,” exclaimed Archimedes, the inventor of the principle of the lever, “and I will lift the Earth.” The one who believes in Christ is someone who has found a place to stand on. “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matt 7:25).

4. “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!”

We cannot, however, end our reflection without also mentioning the call that it includes, not just in view of evangelization but also in view of our lives and personal testimonies. In Paul Claudel’s play, The Humiliated Father, set in Rome at the time of Blessed Pius IX, there is a very evocative scene. A young Jewish girl, who is very beautiful but blind, is walking in the garden of a Roman villa in the evening with the pope’s nephew, Orian, who is in love with her. Playing on the dual significance of light, that of nature and that of faith, she says to her Christian friend at a certain point, “fervently, in a low-pitched voice,”

“But you who see, what use have you made of the light? . . .

You who say you live, what have you done with your life?” [15]

It is a question that we cannot allow to go unheeded: What are we Christians doing with our faith in Christ? Or even better, what am I doing with my faith in Christ? Jesus said to his disciples one day, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!” (Lk 10:23; see Matt 13:16). It is one of the assertions with which Jesus tries to help his disciples on several occasions to discover his real identity for themselves, not being able to reveal it directly because of their lack of readiness to receive it.

We know that the words of Jesus are words that “will not pass away” (Matt 24:35); they are living words addressed to whoever hears them with faith at all times and in all places throughout history. It is therefore to us that he says here and now, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!” If we have never seriously reflected on how fortunate we who believe in Christ are, perhaps this is the time to do so.

Why are Christians “blessed” if they have no more reason than others to rejoice in this world and in many regions of the earth are even continually exposed to death, precisely because of their faith in Christ?  He gives us the answer himself: “Because you see! Because you understand the meaning of life and of death, because ‘yours is the kingdom of heaven’—not in the sense that it is ‘yours and no one else’s.’” (We know that the kingdom of heaven, in its eschatological dimension, extends well beyond the confines of the Church.) “It is ‘yours’ in the sense that you are already part of it, you are tasting its first fruits. You have me!”

The most wonderful thing that one spouse can say to another, and vice versa, is “You have made me happy!” Jesus deserves that his spouse, the Church, says that to him from the bottom of her heart. I say it to him and invite you, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, to do the same. And to say it this very day so as not to forget it. 


Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson

[1] Ulrich Laepple, ed., Messianische Juden: Eine Provokation (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016).

[2] Ibid., p. 34.

[3] Pliny the Younger, “Letter to Trajan about the Christians,” The Letters of the Younger Pliny, 10, 96, trans. Betty Radice (New York: Penguin, 1963), p. 294. See also Enchiridion fontium historiae ecclesiasticae antiquae, ed. Conradus Kirch, 9th ed. (Barcelona: Herder, 1965), p. 23.

[4] Athanasius, “Defense of the Nicene Definition” (De decretis Nicenae synodi), 7, 31, in St. Athanasius: Select Work and Letters, series 2, vol. 4, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (New York: The Christian Literature Co., 1882), p. 384.

[5] See Gregory of Nazianzen, “Letter to Cledonius,” Select Letters of Saint Gregory Nanzianzen (London: Aeterna Press, 2016), p. 5; see also PG 37, 181.

[6] Athanasius, Against the Arians, 2, 69, in St. Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters, p. 700.

[7] Ibid., 2, 70, p. 701.

[8] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (New York: Classical Books International, 2010), chapters 3 and 6.

[9] Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1, 18, p. 34; see also PG 26, 48.

[10] Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 99-120,  “Psalm 120,” 6, vol. 3/19,  trans. Mario Boulding, ed. Boniface Ramsey, The Works of Saint Augustine, ed. John Rotelle (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003),  p. 514; see CCL 40, p. 1791.

[11] St Augustine, Tractates on John, 26, 2, vol. 7, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philp Schaff (New York: Cosimo, 2007), p. 168; see also PL 35, p. 1607.

[12] The “two swords” or “two powers” theory was a medieval approach by Pope Gelasius on the relationship between the Church and the empire and the pope’s spiritual authority over kings and other rulers. “The triple reign” or the “triple crown” theory means, in some interpretations, that the pope is a universal pastor, a universal judge, and a temporal power.

[13] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Mehr licht!,” quoted in The Medico-chirurgical Review and Journal of Medical Science, 24 (1834): 501.

[14] See Masterbee, Mendicante di luce: Dal Tibet al Gange e oltre (Cinisello Balsamo: San Paolo, 2006), pp. 223ff.

[15] See Paul Claudel, The Humiliated Father, Act 1, sc. 3, in Three Plays (Boston: Luce, 1945).

(from Vatican Radio)

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