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In our attempt to place ourselves under the teaching of the Fathers to give a new impetus and depth to our faith, we cannot omit a reflection on their way of reading the Word of God. It will be Pope St. Gregory the Great who will guide us to the “spiritual understanding” of the Scriptures and a renewed love for them.
The same thing happened to Scripture in the modern world that happened to the person of Jesus. The quest for the exclusively historical and literal sense of the Bible, based on the same presuppositions that dominated during the last two centuries, led to results similar to those in the quest for a historical Jesus opposed to the Christ of faith. Jesus was reduced to being an extraordinary man, a great religious reformer, but nothing more.
Similarly, Scripture is reduced to being an excellent book, and perhaps even the most interesting book in the world, but it is just a book like any other that needs to be studied with the same methods used for all the great works from antiquity. Today things are going even farther than that. A kind of maximalist, militant atheism, which is anti-Jewish and anti-Christian, considers the Bible (and the Old Testament in particular) to be a book “full of wickedness” that should be removed from bookshelves today.
The Church counters this assault on the Scriptures through her doctrine and experience. In Dei Verbum the Second Vatican Council reasserted the perennial validity of the Scriptures as the Word of God to all humanity. The Church’s liturgy reserves a place of honor for Scripture in each of her celebrations. Many scholars, who are more up-to-date on appropriate critical methods, now bring to their work a faith that is even more convinced of the transcendent value of the inspired word.
Perhaps the most convincing proof, however, is that of experience. The argument, as we have seen, that led to the affirmation of the divinity of Christ at Nicea in 325 and of the Holy Spirit at Constantinople in 381 can be fully applied to Scripture as well. We experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in Scripture; Christ still speaks to us through it; its effect on us is different from that of any other word. Therefore, Scripture cannot be simply a human word.
The goal of our reflection is to see how the Fathers can help us to rediscover a “virginity” of listening, that freshness and freedom in approaching the Bible that allows us to experience the divine power that flows from it. The Father and Doctor of the Church that we are choosing as a guide, as I said, is St. Gregory the Great, but to understand his importance in this area, we need to go back to the springs of the river he entered into and to trace its course, at least briefly, before it reached him.
In their reading of the Bible, the Fathers were following the path initiated by Jesus and the apostles, so that fact itself should already make us cautious in our judgment of them. A radical rejection of the exegesis of the Fathers would signify a rejection of the exegesis of Jesus himself and of the apostles. Jesus, when he was with the disciples at Emmaus, explains everything that referred to him in the Scriptures. He asserts that the Scriptures are speaking about him (Jn 5:39) and that Abraham saw Jesus’ day (Jn 8:56); many of Jesus’ actions and words occur “so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” His first two disciples initially say about him, “We have found him of whom Moses and the law and also the prophets wrote” (Jn 1:45).
But these were only partial correspondences. The complete transference has not yet happened. That is accomplished on the cross and is contained in the words of a dying Jesus: “It is finished.” Even within the Old Testament, there were new events that had been foreshadowed by earlier events, new beginnings, and transpositions: for example, the return from Babylon was seen as a renewal of the miracle of the Exodus. These were partial re-interpretations; now a global re-interpretation occurs. Personages, events, institutions, laws, the temple, sacrifices, the priesthood—everything suddenly appears in another light. It is similar to a room being illumined by the light of candle when a powerful neon light is suddenly turned on. Christ who is “the light of the world” is also the light of the Scriptures. When we read that the risen Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:45), it means that he opened the minds of the disciples at Emmaus to this new understanding brought about by the Holy Spirit.
The Lamb breaks the seals, and the book of sacred history can finally be opened and read (see Rev 5: 1ff.). Everything from before is still there, but nothing is as it was before. This is the moment that unites—and at the same time distinguishes—the two testaments and the two covenants. “There, vivid and colored red [in the missal], is the great page that separates the two Testaments. . . . All the doors open up simultaneously, all oppositions fade away, all contradictions are resolved.” The clearest example to help us understand what happens in that moment is the consecration in the Mass, which is in fact a memorial of that event. Nothing apparently seems changed in the bread and wine on the altar, yet we know that after consecration they are completely other than what they were, and we treat them quite differently than we did before.
The apostles continue to do this kind of reading, applying it to the Church as well as to the life of Jesus. All that is written about the Exodus was written for the Church (see 1 Cor 10); the rock that followed the Jews in the desert and quenched their thirst foreshadowed Christ, and the manna foreshadowed the bread that came down from heaven. The prophets spoke of Christ (see 1 Pet 1:10ff); what was said about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah is fulfilled in him, etc.
Moving from the New Testament to the time of the Church, we note two different uses of this new understanding of the Scriptures: one is apologetic and the other is theological and spiritual. The first is used in dialogues with those outside the Church and the second for the edification of the community. For the Jews and heretics with whom they share the Scriptures in common, they compose the so-called “testimonies,” collections of biblical verses or passages that produce evidence for faith in Christ. This approach, for example, is found in St. Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, and in many other works.
The theological and ecclesial use of a spiritual reading begins with Origen, who is rightly considered to be the founder of Christian exegesis. The richness and beauty of his insights into the spiritual sense of the Scriptures and of their practical applications is inexhaustible. His approach will gain followers in the East as well as in the West once it begins to be known during Ambrose’s time. Together with its richness and genius, however, Origen’s exegesis also injects a negative element into the Church’s exegetical tradition that is due to his enthusiasm for a Platonic kind of spiritualism. We can take his following statement as a description of his methodology:
We must not suppose that historical things are types of historical things, and corporeal of corporeal. Quite the contrary; corporeal things are types of spiritual things, and historical of intellectual things.
In Origen’s approach, the horizontal and historical correspondence—by which a personage, an event, or a saying from the Old Testament is seen as a prophecy and a figure (typos) of something that is fulfilled in the New Testament by Christ or by the Church—is replaced by a vertical Platonic perspective in which an historical, visible event (either in the Old Testament or the New) becomes a symbol of a universal and eternal idea. The relationship between prophecy and its fulfillment tends to be transformed into the relationship between history and spirit.
Through Ambrose and others who translated his works into Latin, Origen’s methodology and content fully enter into the veins of Latin Christianity and will continue to flow through them during all of the Middle Ages. So what, then, was the contribution of the Latin Fathers to explaining the Scriptures? The answer can be given in one word, a word that best expresses their genius: organization!
It is true that there is a contribution by another genius who is no less creative and bold than Origen, namely, Augustine, who enriched the reading of the Bible with new insights and applications. However, the most important contribution of the Latin Fathers is not along the line of discovering new and hidden meanings in the Word of God so much as it is in their systematizing the immense amount of exegetical material that was accumulating in the Church. They marked out a kind map by which to use that material.
This organizing effort, begun by Augustine, was brought into its definitive form by Gregory the Great and consisted in the doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture. In this area he is considered “one of the principal initiators and one of the greatest patrons of the medieval doctrine of the fourfold sense,” to the point that we can speak of the Middle Ages as being “the Gregorian age.”
The doctrine of the four senses of Scripture is a like a grid, a way of organizing the explanations of a biblical text or of a reality in salvation history and categorizing it into four different areas or levels of application: 1) the literal, historical level; 2) the allegorical level (often referred to today as typological),which relates to faith in Christ; 3) the moral level, which relates to the behavior of a Christian; and 4) the eschatological (or anagogical) level, which relates to final fulfillment in heaven. Gregory writes,
The words of Scripture are four-sided stones. . . . In regard to every past event the words recount [the literal sense], in regard to every future thing they announce [the anagogical sense], in regard to every moral duty they preach [moral sense], in regard to every spiritual reality they proclaim [allegorical or christological sense]—on every level the words of Scripture stand and are beyond reproach.
There was a famous couplet in the Middle Ages that summarized this doctrine: “Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, / Moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia”: “The letter teaches events, allegory what you should believe. / Morality teaches what you should do, anagogy what mark you should be aiming for.” Perhaps the clearest application of this approach can be seen in regard to Passover. According to the letter or history, the Passover is the rite that the Jews performed in Egypt. According to allegory, which relates to faith, Passover indicates the sacrifice of Christ, the true Passover lamb. According to the moral sense, it indicates moving from vice to virtue, from sin to holiness. According to anagogy or eschatology, it indicates the passage from the things here below to the things above, or to the eternal Passover that will be celebrated in heaven.
This is not a rigid or mechanical system; it is flexible and open to infinite variations, starting from the order in which the various senses are listed. In the following text from Gregory, we see how freely he uses the system of the fourfold senses and how he is able to derive a variety of corresponding meanings from the Scripture through it. Commenting on the image in Ezekiel 2:10 of the scroll with writing “on the front and on the back” (Vulgate: intus et foris), he says,
The book of the Bible is written on the inside through allegory and the outside through history; on the inside through a spiritual understanding, on the outside through a mere literal sense suited to those who are still weak; on the inside because it promises things which cannot be seen, on the outside because it lays down visible things through its upright precepts; on the inside, because it promises heavenly things, on the outside because it orders in which way earthly things are worthy of contempt, whether we put them to use or flee from desiring them.
What can we still retain from such a bold and open-ended way of putting oneself before the Word of God? Even an admirer of patristic and medieval exegesis like Father Henri de Lubac admits that we can neither return to it nor mechanically imitate it today. It would be an artificial procedure doomed to fail because we no longer share the presuppositions the Fathers began with and the spiritual universe in which they moved.
Gregory the Great and the Fathers were generally right about the fundamental point of reading the Scriptures in reference to Christ and the Church. Jesus and the apostles, as we have seen, were already reading it that way before them. The weakness in the Fathers’ exegesis was in their belief that they could apply this approach to every single saying in the Bible, often in an improbable way, pushing symbolism (for example, the symbolism of numbers) to excesses that sometimes make us smile today.
We can be certain, however, as de Lubac notes, that if they were alive today, they would be the exegetes who were the most enthusiastic about using the critical resources at our disposal for the advancement of research. In this regard, Origen carried out a herculean task in his time, procuring the various available Greek translations of the Bible and comparing them with the Hebrew text (the Hexapla), and Augustine did not hesitate to correct some of his explanations in light of the new translation of the Bible that Jerome was in the process of doing.
So what is still valid, then, in the legacy from the Fathers in the field of biblical interpretation? Perhaps here more than anywhere else, they have a decisive word to deliver to the Church today that we must try to discover. Apart from their ingenious allegories, their bold applications, and the doctrine of the four senses of Scripture, what characterizes the Fathers’ reading of the Bible? It is that—from beginning to end, and at each step of the way—it is a reading done in faith; it started from faith and led to faith. All their distinctions between the historical, allegorical, moral, and eschatological readings can be narrowed down to a single distinction today: reading Scripture with faith or reading it without faith, or at least without a certain quality of faith.
Let us leave aside the Bible scholars who are non-believers whom I spoke about at the beginning because for them the Bible is an interesting but merely human book. The distinction I want to highlight here is more subtle and applies to believers. It is the distinction between a personal reading and an impersonal reading of the Word of God. I will try to explain what I mean. The Fathers approached the Word of God with a recurring question: What is it saying here and now to the Church and to me personally?
They were persuaded that—in addition to its objective content of faith and morals, always and for all valid – Scripture always has new light to shed and new tasks to point out for everyone personally.
“All Scripture is inspired by God” (1 Tim 3:16). The phrase that is translated “inspired by God” or “divinely inspired” is a unique word in the original language, theopneustos, which combines two words, God (Theos) and Spirit (Pneuma). This word has two fundamental meanings. The most familiar is the passive one, which is used in all modern translations: Scripture is “inspired by God.” Another passage in the New Testament explains that concept this way: “Men moved by the Holy Spirit [prophets] spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21). This is, in a word, the classical doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture that we proclaim as an article of faith in the Credo when we say that the Holy Spirit is the one who “has spoken through the prophets.”
The aspect of biblical inspiration that generally gets attention is biblical inerrancy, the fact that the Bible contains no errors, if we correctly understand by “error” the absence of a truth that was humanly knowable by the writer in his particular cultural context. However, biblical inspiration is the basis for far more than the mere inerrancy of the Word of God (which is its negative aspect, something Scripture does not have). On the positive side it establishes Scripture’s inexhaustibility, its divine power and vitality. Scripture, said Ambrose, is theopneustos, not only because it is “inspired by God” but also because it is “breathing forth God,” it breathes out God! God is now being breathed forth from it. St. Gregory writes,
To what can we compare the word of Sacred Scripture if not to a rock in which fire is hidden? It is cold if you just hold it in your hand, but when it is struck by iron it gives off sparks and shoots out fire.
Scripture contains not only God’s thinking fixed once and forever, it also contains God’s heart and his on-going will that indicates to you what he wants from you at a certain moment, and perhaps from only you. The conciliar constitution Dei Verbum also takes up this line of tradition when it says,
Since they [the Scriptures] are inspired by God [passive inspiration] and committed to writing once and for all time, they present God’s own word in an unalterable form, and they make the voice of the holy Spirit [active inspiration!] sound again and again in the words of the prophets and apostles.
This means not only reading the Word of God but also our being read by it, not only probing the Scriptures but also letting ourselves be probed by them. It means not approaching the Scriptures the way firefighters used to when they would go into a fire wearing asbestos suits that allowed them to pass untouched through the flames.
Taking up an image from St. James, many Fathers, including Gregory the Great, compare Scripture to a mirror. What do we think about a man who spends all his time examining the mirror’s shape and its materials, the time period it belongs to, and many other details about it but does not ever look at himself in it? This is precisely what people do when they spend their time resolving all the critical issues that Scripture presents, its sources, its literary genres, and so on, but never look in the mirror, or worse yet, do not allow the mirror to gaze at them and probe them in depth to the point at which joints and marrow are divided. The most important thing about Scripture is not to resolve its most obscure points but to put into practice the points that are clear! Our Gregory, says, “we understand it when putting it into practice.”
A strong faith in the Word of God is indispensable not only for a Christian’s spiritual life but also for every form of evangelization. There are two ways to prepare a sermon or any proclamation of faith, whether it is oral or written. I can first sit at my desk and choose, on my own, the word to proclaim and the theme to develop based on my understanding, my preferences, etc. Then once the sermon is ready, I can kneel down and hastily ask God to bless what I have written and to make my words effective. This is acceptable, but it is not the prophetic way. It is necessary to reverse the order for that: first on my knees and then to my desk.
In every circumstance one needs to begin with the certainty of faith that the risen Lord has a word in his heart that he wants his people to hear. He does not fail to reveal it to his minister who humbly and insistently asks him for it. At the beginning there is a nearly imperceptible movement in your heart. A small light goes on in your mind, a word from the Bible that begins to draw attention to itself and shed light on a situation. At first it is “the smallest of seeds,” but afterwards you realize that everything was contained inside it; in it there was a thunderous roar that could shake the cedars of Lebanon. After that, you go to your desk, you open your books, you look through your notes, you consult the Church Fathers, experts, poets. . . . At this point it has already become something altogether different. It is no longer the Word of God in service to your knowledge but your knowledge in service to the Word of God.
Origen accurately describes the process that leads to this discovery. Before finding nourishment in Scripture, he says, we need to undergo a kind of “poverty of the senses; the soul is surrounded by darkness on every side, and it comes upon paths that have no exit. Then suddenly, after a difficult search and prayer, the voice of the Word resonates and all at once something is illuminated. The One your soul was seeking comes ‘leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills’ [Songs 2:8], that is, opening up your mind to receive his powerful word full of light.” Great joy accompanies this moment. It made Jeremiah say, “Your words were found, and I ate them, / and your words became to me a joy / and the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16).
Usually God’s answer comes in the form of a word from Scripture that reveals its extraordinary relevance at that moment for the situation or the problem that needs to be addressed, as if it were written precisely for it. The minister then speaks as “one speaking the very words of God” (see 1 Pet 4:11). This method is valid in all instances—as much for great documents as for a teacher’s lesson to his or her novices, as much for the scholarly conference as for the humble Sunday homily.
We have all had the experience of how much effect a single word from God can have when it is profoundly believed and lived by the person who says it to us, sometimes without that person even knowing it. It must be acknowledged that often this is the word, among so many other words, that touched hearts and led more than one listener to the confessional. Human experience, images, our past history—none of this is excluded from gospel preaching, but it all needs be submitted to the Word of God, which must stand out above everything else. Pope Francis has reminded us of this in the pages of Evangelii gaudium dedicated to the homily, and it is almost presumptuous on my part to think I can add anything to it.
I would like to conclude this meditation with an expression of gratitude to our Jewish brethren and a wish for them on the occasion of the Holy Father’s upcoming visit to Israel. If our interpretation of the Scriptures separates us from them, we are united in our shared love for the Scriptures. In a museum in Tel Aviv, there is a painting by Reuben Rubin in which rabbis are clasping scrolls of the Word of God to their chests or to their cheeks, and they are kissing them the way a man would kiss his wife. With our Jewish brothers and sisters we can—in a way that is analogous to the spiritual ecumenism occurring among Christians—share together what unites us in an atmosphere of dialogue and mutual respect, without ignoring or covering up the things that separate us. We cannot forget that it is from the Jews that we received the two most precious things we have in life: Jesus and the Scriptures.
Once again this year, the Jewish Passover falls on the same week as the Christian one. Let us wish ourselves and them a holy and happy Passover.
[Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson]
 Paul Claudel, L’épée et le miroir: Les sept douleurs de la Sainte Vierge [The Sword and the Mirror: The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary] (Paris: Gallimard, 1939), 74-75.
 Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 10, 110, trans. Ronald E. Heine, vol. 80, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 1989), 279.
 See Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen (1950; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).
 Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, vol. 1, trans. Mark Siebanc (1959; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 134.
 Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture, vol. 2, trans. E. M. Macierowski (1959; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 117ff.
 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, II, 9, 8.
 Generally credited to Augustine of Dacia (12th c.), qtd. in de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, vol. 1, 1.
 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, I, 9, 30, qtd. in John Moorhead, Gregory the Great (New York: Routledge, 2005), 50.
 de Lubac, History and Spirit, 489ff.
 Augustine (CC 40, p. 1791) does this, for example, about the meaning of the word pasch in Expositions of the Psalms 99-120, 120, 6 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003), 514-515.
 See Ambrose, De Spiritu Sancto, III, 112. English trans., On the Holy Spirit, vol. 10, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Cosimo 2007), 151.
 Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, II, 10, 1.
 Dei Verbum [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation], 21, in Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, gen. ed. Austin Flannery (Northport, NY: Costello, 1995), 112.
 See Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, 2, 1 (PL 75, 553D). English trans., Morals on the Book of Job (London: Walter Smith, 1883), 67.
 Ibid., I, 10, 31.
 This quote conflates ideas found in passages from two of Origen’s works: Commentary on Matthew, 38 (GCS, 1933, p. 7), English trans., Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Origen, Spirit and Fire: A Thematic Anthology of His Wrtings, trans. Robert J. Daly (1938; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2001), 106-107; and In Canticum canticorum,3 (GCS, 1925, p. 202), English trans., Origen: “The Song of Songs,” Commentary and Homilies, 3, 11, vol. 26, Ancient Christian Writers, ed. R. P. Lawson (New York: Paulist Press, 1957), 209-210.
There are different paths or methods by which to approach the person of Jesus. One can, for example, start directly with the Bible and even here one can follow different paths: the typological path followed in the oldest catechesis of the Church, which explains Jesus in the light of prophecy and figures from the Old Testament; the historical path that reconstructs the development of faith in Christ starting from various traditions, authors, and christological titles or from the different cultural environments in the New Testament. One can also do this the other way around and start from the needs and problems of people today, or even with their experience of Christ, and then go back to the Bible from there. These are all paths that have been well explored.
Very early on, the Tradition of the Church developed another path of accessing the mystery of Christ that involves gathering and organizing biblical facts about it, namely, christological dogma, the dogmatic path. What I mean by “christological dogma” is the fundamental truths about Christ defined in the first ecumenical councils, especially the Council of Chalcedon, whose substance can be reduced to the following three cornerstones: Jesus Christ is true man, true God, and one single person.
St. Leo the Great is the Father I have chosen through whom to introduce the profundity of this mystery for a very specific reason. For two and half centuries, the formula of faith in Christ that will become dogma at Chalcedon was already available in Latin theology. Tertullian had written, “We see plainly the twofold state [the two natures], which is not confounded, but conjoined in One person—Jesus, God and Man.” After lengthy exploration, the Greek authors added a formula that, in their opinion, was identical in its substance. Their formula, however, did not at all involve a delay or a waste of time because in the meantime they had brought to light all its implications and resolved its difficulties, and only now could that formula have its true meaning.
St. Leo the Great found himself to be the one to oversee the moment in which the two currents of the river—Latin and Greek—were flowing together, and by his authority as bishop of Rome he supported the universal acceptance of the formula. He is not content simply to transmit the formula inherited from Tertullian and taken up by Augustine during the intervening period; he adapts it to address the problems that had emerged during the time between the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451. (…)
The topic itself required me this time to pause a bit longer on the doctrinal part of our meditation. The person of Christ is the foundation of everything in Christianity. “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”, asks St. Paul (1 Cor 14:8): if we have no clear idea about who Jesus is, in whose name shall we go out to evangelize? But now it is time to move on to a practical application of the doctrine to our personal lives and the faith of the Church today, since that remains the aim of our revisitation of the Fathers.
Four and half centuries of extraordinary theological work gave the Church the formula that “Jesus Christ is true God and true man; Jesus Christ is one single person.” Even more concisely, he is “one person with two natures.” One of Søren Kierkegaard’s sayings applies perfectly to this formula: “The old Christian dogmatic terminology is like an enchanted castle where the loveliest princes and princesses rest in a deep sleep; it only needs to be awakened, brought to life, in order to stand in its full glory.” Our task then is to reawaken dogmas and always give them new life.
Research on the Gospels—even the work by Dunn mentioned above—demonstrates that history cannot lead us to “Jesus himself,” to Christ as he really is. What we find in the Gospels at every stage is always a “remembering” about Jesus, mediated through a memory that the disciples preserved of him, although it is a faith-filled memory. What is going on here is what happened at his resurrection: “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see” (Lk 24:24). History can declare that things about Jesus of Nazareth happened just as the disciples said in the Gospels, but it does not see him.
The same is true of dogma. It can lead us to a “defined” and “formulated” Jesus, but Thomas Aquinas teaches us that faith does not terminate in propositions (enuntiabile) but in the reality (res) itself. There is the same difference between the formula of Chalcedon and the real Jesus as there is between the chemical formula H2O and the water that we drink and in which we swim. No one can say that the formula H2O is useless or that it does not perfectly describe a reality. But it is not the reality! Who can lead us to the “real” Jesus who is beyond history and behind the definition?
And here we come to wonderful, comforting news. There is the possibility of “immediate” knowledge of Christ. It is the knowledge we are given by the Holy Spirit whom Jesus himself sent. He is the only “unmediated mediation” between us and Christ in the sense that he does not act as a veil or constitute a barrier. He is not an intermediary since he is the Spirit of Jesus himself, his “alter ego,” who is of the same nature. St. Irenaeus reaches the point of saying that “communion with Christ . . . is the Holy Spirit.” For this reason the Holy Spirit is different from every other mediation between us and the Risen One, whether that mediation is ecclesial or sacramental.
Scripture itself speaks of this role of the Holy Spirit whose aim is the knowledge of the true Jesus. The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost results in a sudden illumination of all the work and person of Jesus. Peter concludes his sermon with a kind of definition of the Lordship of Christ that is urbi et orbi: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). St. Paul affirms that Jesus Christ is “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4), that is, by the work of the Holy Spirit. No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by an interior illumination of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:3). The apostle attributes to the Holy Spirit “the insight into the mystery of Christ” that was given to him and to the holy apostles and prophets (Eph 3:4-5). Only if believers are “strengthened with might through his Spirit,” says the apostle, will they be able to know “the breadth and height and depth, and . . . the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:16-19).
In John’s Gospel Jesus himself announces this work of the Paraclete on behalf of believers. The Holy Spirit will take what is his and announce it to the disciples; he will make them recall all that Jesus has said; he will lead them into all the truth about his relationship to the Father; he will testify of Jesus. From now on, the criterion to recognize if something is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit is if it prompts people to confess that “Jesus has come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2-3).
With the help of the Holy Spirit, let us make a small attempt to “reawaken” this dogma. With regard to the dogmatic triangle that came from St. Leo the Great and Chalcedon—“true God,” “true man,” “one person”—we will limit ourselves to consider only the last part: Christ as “one person.” Dogmatic definitions are “open structures” that are able to take on new significations made possible by the progress in human thinking. In its earliest stage, the word “person” (from the Latin personare, “to resonate”) meant the mask that an actor would use to make his voice resonate in the theater. From this meaning it evolved to indicate a person’s face and thus meant an individual, one single person, until it acquired its most profound meaning of “an individual substance of a rational nature” (Boethuis).
In modern usage the concept of “person” has been enriched with a more suggestive and relational meaning, which no doubt benefitted from the trinitarian use of the word “person” as “a subsistent relationship.” It thus indicates the human being insofar as he or she is capable of relationship, of being an “I” in the presence of a “You.” The Latin terminology “one person” proved be more fruitful than the respective Greek word “hypostasis.” “Hypostasis” can be said of every single existing object, but “person” can only be said about a human being and, by analogy, about a divine being. We speak today (as the Greeks do now) of the “dignity of the human person” and not of “the dignity of the hypostasis.”
Let us apply all this to our relationship with Christ. To say that Jesus is “one person” also means that he is risen, that he lives, that he stands before me, that I can talk to him on a first-name basis as he does with me. We continually need to cross over, in our minds and hearts, from the personage of Jesus to the person of Jesus. The personage is the one about whom we can speak and write what we wish but to whom and with whom we generally cannot speak. For the majority of believers, unfortunately, Jesus is still a personage, someone we can debate about and write about endlessly, a memory from the past, someone who is linked to a set of doctrines, dogmas, or heresies. He is an objective entity rather than someone who exists.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes in a famous passage the metaphysical thrill produced by the unexpected discovery of the existence of things, and for this at least we can give him credit:
So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface… Then I had this vision.
It left me breathless… Usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can’t say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it… And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself.
In order to go beyond the words and ideas about Jesus and enter into contact with him as a living person, we need to have an experience of this kind. Some exegetes interpret the divine name “I AM” to mean “I am here,” I am with you, present, available, here and now.
It is possible to have Jesus as a friend, because since he is risen, he is alive, he is next to me. I can relate to him as one living person to another, as someone present to someone present—not physically or even through the imagination alone, but “through the Spirit” who is infinitely more intimate and real than the body or the imagination. St. Paul assures us that it is possible to do everything “with Jesus” whether it be eating or drinking or whatever else we do (see 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17).
Unfortunately, Jesus is rarely thought of as a friend and confidant. In our subconscious the image of him as risen, ascended into heaven, remote in his divine transcendence, and returning one day at the end of the world is the image that dominates. We forget that being “true man,” as the dogma says—and even being the very perfection of humanity itself—he possesses the capacity for friendship to the highest degree, which is one of the noblest characteristics of a human being. It is Jesus who wants that relationship with us. In his farewell discourse, giving full expression to his feelings, he says, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15).
I have seen this kind of relationship happen not as much with saints—for whom the prevailing relationship is with a Master, Shepherd, Savior, Spouse—but with Jews who, often in a way not unlike that of Saul, come to accept the Messiah. The name of Jesus is suddenly transformed from being a vague threat to being the sweetest and most beloved of names. A friend. It is as though the absence of 2,000 years of debates about Christ has played out in their favor. Their Jesus is never an “ideological” Jesus but a person of flesh and blood. Of their blood! One is deeply moved in reading some of their testimonies. All the contradictions are resolved in an instant, all the obscurities are made clear. It is like seeing the spiritual reading of the Old Testament come to life as a whole, all at once, before their very eyes. Saint Paul says it is like having a veil removed from one’s eyes (see 2 Cor 3:16).
During his earthly life, although Jesus loved everyone without exception, it is only with some—Lazarus, his sisters, and especially John, “the disciple that he loved”—that Jesus has a relationship of true friendship. Now that he is risen and is no longer subject to the limitations of the body, however, he offers every man and woman the possibility of having him as a friend in the fullest sense of that word. May the Holy Spirit, the friend of the bridegroom, help us welcome with amazement and joy this possibility that can fill our lives.
See full version: Father Cantalamessa’s 4th Lent Homily 2014
What is our place in this human-divine drama that we have just recalled? Our reflection on the Eucharist should lead us to discover exactly that. And it is, in fact, to involve us in his action that Jesus made a “sacrament” of his gift.
In the Eucharist two miracles happen: one makes the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ; the other makes us “a living sacrifice acceptable to God” that unites us to Christ’s sacrifice as participants and not merely as spectators. During the Offertory we offered bread and wine that obviously have no value or significance for God in and of themselves. In the consecration it is Christ who imparts the value that I am not able to put into my offering. At that moment, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ who hands himself over to death in a supreme act of love to the Father.
Look at the result of this: My poor, worthless gift has become the perfect gift for the Father. Jesus not only gives himself in the bread and wine, but he also takes us and changes us into himself (mystically, not physically); he also gives us the value that his gift of love to the Father has. We too are in that bread and wine: “The Church . . . herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God,” writes Augustine.
I would like to summarize what happens in the eucharistic celebration with the help of an example from normal life. Think of a large family in which there is a first-born son who admires and loves his father without measure and wants to give him a valuable gift for his birthday. Before giving it to him, however, he secretly asks all his brothers and sisters to affix their signatures on the gift. This gift comes into the father’s hands as a sign of love from all his children indiscriminately, even though only one of the children has actually paid the price for it.
This is what happens in the eucharistic sacrifice. Jesus admires and loves his heavenly Father without measure. Every day until the end of the world, he wants to give him the most precious gift he can think of, that of his own life. At Mass he invites all his “brothers and sisters” to affix their signatures on the gift in such a way that the gift reaches God the Father as a gift coming from all of his children together, even though only one has paid the price for the gift. And what a price!
Our signature is represented by the little drops of water that are mixed into the wine in the chalice. Our signature, Augustine explains, is above all the “Amen” that the faithful say at the time of receiving communion: “It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What . . . you see is the body of Christ, and you answer Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make your Amen truthful. . . . Be what you can see, and receive what you are.” All of Augustine’s eucharistic ecclesiology that we recalled in the last meditation finds its application here. If one cannot say that the Eucharist is the church (as some of his disciples ended up asserting), we can and should say that the Eucharist makes the Church.
We know that whoever has signed an agreement then has the duty to honor that signature. This means that when leaving Mass we too need to make of our lives a gift of love to the Father and to our brothers and sisters. We too need to say, within ourselves, to our brothers and sisters, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Take my time, my abilities, my attention. Take my blood too, that is, my suffering, all that humbles me, mortifies me, and limits my strength, my physical death itself. I want all of my life, like Christ’s, to be bread broken and wine poured out for others. I want to make my whole life a Eucharist.
I mentioned earlier the Didaché as the document which marks the passage from the Jewish to the Christian liturgy. Let us conclude with one of its prayer which has inspired so many Eucharistic prayers in the Church:
“Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.”
ROME, March 21, 2014 – See integral text in Zenit:
Let us now try to see how Augustine’s ideas about the Church can contribute to shedding light on the problems that the Church has to confront in our time. I would like in particular to devote some time to the importance of Augustine’s ecclesiology for ecumenical dialogue. One circumstance makes this choice particularly relevant. The Christian world is preparing to celebrate the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation. Joint declarations and documents are already beginning to circulate in view of this event. It is vital for the whole Church that this opportunity not be wasted by people remaining prisoners of the past, trying to ascertain—even if with a more objective and irenic attitude than in the past—each other’s motives and faults. Rather, let us take a qualitative leap forward, like what happens when the sluice gate of a river or a canal allows ships to continue to navigate at a higher water level.
The situation in the world, in the church, and in theology has changed since then. It is a matter of starting over again with the person of Jesus, of humbly helping our contemporaries to discover the person of Christ. We need to place ourselves in the time of the Apostles: they faced a pre-Christian world, and we face a world that is in large part post-Christian. When Paul wants to summarize the essence of the Christian message in one sentence, he does not say, “I proclaim this or that doctrine to you.” Instead he says, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), and “We preach . . . Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5).
This does not mean ignoring the great theological and spiritual enrichment that came from the Reformation or desiring to return to the time before it. It means instead allowing all of Christianity to benefit from its achievements, once they are freed of certain distortions due to the heated atmosphere of the time and of later controversies. Justification by faith, for example, ought to be preached by the whole Church—and with more vigor than ever—not in opposition however to good works, which is an issue that has been settled, but in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves without a need for God or Christ. I am convinced that if he were alive today this is the way Luther himself would preach the justification through faith!
Let us see how Augustine’s theology can help us in this effort of overcoming the long-standing barriers. The path to take today is, in a certain sense, in an opposite direction to the one Augustine took with the Donatists. At that time, he needed to move from the communion through the sacraments toward the communion through the grace of the Holy Spirit and charity; today we need to move from the spiritual communion of charity to full communion in the sacraments as well, among which the Eucharist is first.
The distinction between the two levels in which the true Church is present—the exterior one of signs and the interior one of grace—allows Augustine to formulate a principle that would have been unthinkable before him: “As, therefore, there is in the Catholic Church something which is not Catholic, so there may be something which is Catholic outside the Catholic Church.” These two aspects of the Church—the visible, institutional and the invisible, spiritual—cannot be separated. This is true and has been reasserted by Pope Pius XII in Mystici corporis and by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen gentium. However, since these two aspects unfortunately do not coincide because of historical separations and the sin of human beings, one cannot give more importance to institutional communion than to spiritual communion.
This poses a serious question for me. Can I, as a Catholic, feel in communion more with the multitude of those baptized in my own church, who nevertheless completely neglect Christ and the church—or if they express some interest, it is only to speak ill of it—than I do with the group of those who, belonging to other confessions, believe in the same fundamental truths I do, who love Jesus Christ to the point of giving their lives for him, who spread the gospel, who are concerned with trying to alleviate the poverty in the world, and who have the same gifts of the Holy Spirit that we have? Persecutions, so frequent today in certain parts of the world, do not make distinctions: they do not burn churches or kill people because they are Catholic or Protestant but because they are Christians. In the eyes of the persecutors we are already “one”!
This is of course a question that Christians in other churches should also ask themselves in regard to Catholics, and, thanks be to God, this is precisely what is happening to a hidden degree and is far more frequent than the news would lead us to believe. I am convinced that one day, we will be amazed, and others will be amazed, at not having been aware earlier of what the Holy Spirit has been doing among Christians in our day beyond official channels. There are so many Christians outside the Catholic Church who are looking at it in a new light and beginning to recognize their own roots in it.
Augustine’s most novel and most fruitful insight about the Church, as we saw, is to have identified the essential principle of her unity in the Spirit instead of in the horizontal communion of bishops among themselves and with the pope of Rome. Just as the unity of a human body is achieved by the soul that animates and moves all its members, the same is true for the unity of the body of Christ. It is a mystical fact first before it is a reality that is expressed socially and visibly in an external way. It is a reflection of the perfect unity between the Father and Son through the work of the Spirit. Jesus is the one who once and for all established this mystical foundation when he prayed “that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). A fundamental unity in doctrine and discipline will be the fruit of this mystical and spiritual unity, but it can never be its cause.
The most concrete steps toward unity, therefore, are not those that are made around a table or in joint declarations (even though those are all important). They are the ones made when believers of different confessions find themselves proclaiming the Lord Jesus together in fraternal accord, sharing their charisms, and recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. What the Church has proclaimed in its different messages for the World Day of Peace, including the message in 2013, is valid for the unity of Christians: peace begins in people’s hearts, and fraternity is the foundation for peace.
In his sermons to the people Augustine never set forth his ideas about the Church without quickly drawing out their practical consequences for the daily life of the faithful. And I would also like to do that before concluding our meditation, as if we were joining the ranks of his listeners back then.
The image of the Church as the body of Christ is not new with Augustine. What he brings that is new concerns the practical implications that we can infer for the life of believers. For one, we no longer have any reason to look at one another with envy and jealousy. What I do not have that others have is also mine. You can listen to the apostle list all the marvelous charisms—apostolate, prophecy, healings, etc—and perhaps you are saddened at thinking you do not have any. But wait, Augustine advises, “If you love, you do not have nothing; for if you love unity, whoever in it has anything has it also for you! Take away envy, and what I have is yours; let me take away envy, and what you have is mine.”
Only the eye has the capacity to see. But does the eye see only for itself? Isn’t it the whole body that benefits from its ability to see? The hands works, but does it work only on its own behalf? If a rock is about to hit the eye, does the hand remain motionless because the blow is not being directly aimed at itself? The same thing happens in the body of Christ: what every member is and does, he or she is and does it for all!
This reveals the secret about why charity is “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). It makes me love the Church, or the community in which I live, and because of unity, all of the charisms, and not just some of them, are mine. And there is more. If you love unity more than I do, the charism I have is more yours than mine. Let us suppose I have the charism to evangelize; I can flatter myself or boast of it and then I become “a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Through my charism, “I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3); however, it does not cease to be useful for you who listen, despite my sin. Through charity you possess without risk that which someone else possesses with risk. Charity truly multiplies the charisms because it makes one person’s charism the charism of all.
“Are you part of the one body of Christ? Do you love the unity of the church?” Augustine asked his faithful. “Now if a pagan asks you why you do not speak all languages, since it is written that those who received the Holy Spirit spoke all languages, respond without hesitating, ‘Certainly I speak all languages. In fact I belong to a body, the Church, that speaks all languages and proclaims in all languages the mighty works of God.’”
When we are able to apply this truth not only to internal relationships within the community in which we live and to our Church, but also to the relationships between one Christian church and another, that is the day when the unity of Christians will for all practical purposes be an accomplished fact.
Let us recall the exhortation with which Augustine ended so many of his discourses on the Church: “If you wish to live in the Holy Spirit, preserve charity, love the truth, and you will attain eternity. Amen.”
[Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson]
Rome, March 14, 2014 (Zenit.org) – Here is the first Lenten homily given this year by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.
Every year Lent begins with the account of Jesus going into the desert for forty days. In this introductory meditation we seek to discover what Jesus did during this time, and what themes are present in the evangelical account, to apply them to our life.
The first theme is that of the desert. Jesus had just received the messianic investiture in the Jordan to take the good news to the poor, to heal afflicted hearts, to preach the Kingdom (cf. Luke 4:18 f). However, he is not in a hurry to do any of these things. On the contrary, obeying an impulse of the Holy Spirit, he goes into the desert where he stays for forty days. The desert in question is the desert of Judah, which extends from the walls of Jerusalem to Jericho, in the valley of the Jordan. Tradition identifies the place as Mount Quarentyne overlooking the Jordan valley.
In history there have been groups of men and women who have chosen to imitate Jesus and withdraw into the desert. In the East, beginning with Saint Anthony Abbot, they withdrew into the deserts of Egypt or Palestine. In the West, where there were no sand deserts, they withdrew into solitary places, remote mountains and valleys. However, the invitation to follow Jesus in the desert is not addressed only to monks and hermits. In a different way, it is addressed to all. Monks and hermits chose a space of desert, we have to choose at least a time of desert.
Lent is the occasion that the Church offers to everyone, indistinctly, to live a time of desert without thus having to abandon daily activities. Saint Augustine made this famous appeal:
“Re-enter your heart! Where do you want to go, far from yourself? Re-enter from your wandering which has led you outside the way; return to the Lord. He is quick. First re-enter into your heart, you who have become a stranger to yourself, because of your wandering outside: you do not know yourself, and seek him who has created you! Return, return to your heart, detach yourself from your body …. Re-enter into your heart: there examine him whom you perceived as God, because the image of God is there, Christ dwells in man’s interior (Saint Augustine, In Ioh. Ev., 18, 10).
To re-enter into one’s heart! But, what is represented by the word heart, of which there is so often talk in the Bible and in human language? Outside the ambit of human physiology, where it is but a vital organ of the body, the heart is the most profound metaphysical place of a person, the innermost being of every man, where each one lives his being a person, namely his subsisting in himself, in relation to God, from whom he has his origin and in whom he finds his purpose, to other men and to the whole of creation. In ordinary language the heart also designates the essential part of reality. “To go to the heart of the problem” means to go to the essential part of it, on which all the other parts of the problem depend.
Thus, the heart indicates the spiritual place, where one can contemplate the person in his most profound and true reality, without veils and without pausing on externals. Every person is judged by their heart, by what he bears within himself, which is the source of his goodness and his wickedness. To know the heart of a person means to have penetrated the intimate sanctuary of his personality, by which that person is known for what he really is and is worth.
To return to the heart means, therefore, to return to what is most personal and interior to us. Unfortunately, interiority is a value in crisis. Some causes of this crisis are old and inherent to our nature itself. Our “composition,” that is, our being constituted of flesh and spirit, inclines us toward the external, the visible, the multiplicity. Like the universe, after the initial explosion (the famous Big Bang), we are also in a phase of expansion and of moving away from the center. We are perennially “going out” through those five doors or windows which are our senses.
Saint Teresa of Avila wrote a work titled The Interior Castle, which is certainly one of the most mature fruits of the Christian doctrine of interiority. However there is, alas, also an “exterior castle” and today we see that it is possible to be shut-in also in this castle. Shut outside of home, incapable of returning. Prisoners of externals! How many of us must make our own the bitter observation that Augustine made in regard to his life before his conversion: “Late have I loved Thee, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved Thee! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong – I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you those things which would have no being were they not in you.” (Saint Augustine, Confessions, X, 27).
What is done outside is exposed to the almost inevitable danger of hypocrisy. The look of other persons has the power to deflect our intention, like certain magnetic fields deflect the waves. Our action loses its authenticity and its recompense. Appearance prevails over being. Because of this, Jesus invites to fasting and almsgiving in a hidden way and to pray to the Father “in secret” (cf. Matthew 6:1-4).
Inwardness is the way to an authentic life. There is so much talk today of authenticity and it is made the criterion of success or lack thereof in life. However, where is authenticity for a Christian? When is it that a person is truly himself? Only when he has God as his measure. “There is so much talk – writes the philosopher Kierkegaard – of wasted lives. However, wasted only is the life of a man who never realized that a God exists and that he, his very self, stands before this God.” (S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, II).
Persons consecrated to the service of God are the ones who above all are in need of a return to interiority. In an address given to Superiors of a contemplative religious Order, Paul VI said:
“Today we are in a world which seems to be gripped by a fever that infiltrates itself even in the sanctuary and in solitude. Noise and din have invaded almost everything. Persons are no longer able to be recollected. They are prey of a thousand distractions, they habitually dissipate their energies behind the different forms of modern culture. Newspapers, magazines, books invade the intimacy of our homes and of our hearts. It is more difficult to find the opportunity for the recollection in which the soul is able to be fully occupied in God.”
However, let us try to see what we can do concretely, to rediscover and preserve the habit of inwardness. Moses was a very active man. But we read that he had a portable tent built and at every stage of the exodus, he fixed the tent outside the camp and regularly entered it to consult the Lord. There, the Lord spoke with Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
However, we cannot always do this. We cannot always withdraw into a chapel or a solitary place to renew our contact with God. Therefore, Saint Francis of Assisi suggested another device closer at hand. Sending his friars on the roads of the world, he said: We always have a hermitage with us wherever we go and every time we so wish we can, as hermits, re-enter in this hermitage. “Brother body is the hermitage and the soul is the hermit that dwells within to pray to God and to meditate.” It is like having a desert “in the house,” in which one can withdraw in thought at every moment, even while walking on the street. We conclude this first part of our meditation listening, as addressed to us, the exhortation that Saint Anselm of Aosta addresses to the reader in one of his famous works:
“Come now, miserable mortal, flee for a brief time from your occupations, leave for a while your tumultuous thoughts. Move away at this moment from your grave anxieties and put aside your exhausting activities. Attend to God and repose in him. Enter into the depth of your soul, exclude everything, except God and what helps you seek him and, having closed the door, say to God: I seek your face. Your face I seek, Lord.” (Saint Anselm, Proslogion, 1).
The second great theme present in the account of Jesus in the desert is fasting. “After having fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matthew 4:1). What does it mean for us today to imitate Jesus’ fasting? Once understood by the word fasting, was a limit of one’s intake of food and drink and to abstain from meat. This fasting from food still keeps its vitality and is highly recommended, when, of course, its motivation is religious and not only hygienic and aesthetic, but it is not the only kind of fasting or the most necessary.
Today the most necessary and meaningful form of fasting is called sobriety. To willingly deprive oneself from little and great comforts, of what is useless, and sometimes also damaging to one’s health. This fasting is solidarity with the poverty of so many. Who does not remember Isaiah’s words that the liturgy speaks to us at the beginning of every Lent? “Is not this the fast that I choose: To share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Such fasting is also a protest against a consumerist mentality. In a world, which has made of superfluous and useless comfort one of the ends of one’s activity, to renounce the superfluous, to be able to do without something, to stop oneself from taking recourse to the most comfortable solution, from choosing the easiest thing, the object of greater luxury — to live, in sum with sobriety, is more effective than imposing on oneself artificial penances. It is, moreover, justice towards the generations that will follow ours that must not be reduced to live from the ashes of what we consumed and wasted. Sobriety is also an ecological value of respect for creation.
More necessary than fasting from food today is fasting from images. We live in a civilization of images; we have become devourers of images. Through television, internet, the press, advertising, we let a flood of images enter us. Many of them are unhealthy, they engender violence and malice, they do nothing other than incite the worst instincts we bear within us. They are made expressly to seduce. However, perhaps the worst thing is that they give a false and unreal idea of life, with all the consequences that derive from that in the subsequent impact with reality, especially for young people. They pretend unwittingly that life offers all that advertising presents.
If we do not create a filter, a barricade, we quickly reduce our imagination and our spirit to a rubbish dump. The evil images do not die on reaching us but ferment. They are transformed into impulses to imitate, they condition our freedom horribly. Feuerback, a materialist philosopher, said: “Man is what he eats”; today, perhaps we should say: “man is what he sees.”
Another of these alternative fasts which we can do during Lent is that of evil words. Saint Paul recommends: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Evil words are not only bad language; they are also cutting, negative words that systematically bring to light a brother’s weak side, words that sow discord and suspicions. In the life of a family or a community, such words have the power to shut everyone in himself, to freeze, creating bitterness and resentment. They literally “mortify,” that is, they give death. Saint James said that the tongue is full of mortal poison; with it we can bless or curse God, resurrect a brother or kill him (cf. James 3:1-12). A word can do more evil than a fist.
Reported in Matthew’s Gospel is a word of Jesus that made the readers of all times of the Gospel tremble: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render an account for every careless word they utter” (Matthew 12:36). Jesus certainly does not intend to condemn every useless word, in the sense of those not “strictly necessary.” Taken in the passive sense, the term argon (a = without, ergon = work) used in the Gospel indicates an unfounded word, hence calumny; taken in the active sense, it means an un-founding word, a word which produces nothing and does not even serve for necessary relaxation. Saint Paul recommended to his disciple Timothy: “Avoid such godless chatter, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Timothy 2:16), a recommendation that Pope Francis has repeated to us more than once.
The useless word (argon) is the contrary of the word of God, which is described in fact, by contrast, as energes, (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 4:12), that is, effective, creative, full of energy and useful for everything. In this sense, what men will have to render account for in the day of judgment is, in the first place, the empty word, without faith and without anointing, pronounced by one who should instead pronounce the words of God which are “spirit and life,” especially at the moment in which he exercises the ministry of the Word.
We pass to the third element of the evangelical narrative on which we wish to reflect: Jesus’ fight against the devil, the temptations. First of all a question: does the devil exist? That is, does the word devil truly indicate some personal reality gifted with intelligence and will, or is it simply a symbol, a way of speaking to indicate the sum of moral evil of the world, the collective unconscious, the collective alienation and so on?
The main proof of the existence of the devil in the Gospels is not in numerous episodes of deliverance of the possessed, because in interpreting these facts we must take into account ancient beliefs about the origin and nature of certain sicknesses. The proof is Jesus who was tempted in the desert by the devil. The proof is also the many Saints who fought in life with the prince of darkness. They are not “Don Quixotes” who fought against windmills. On the contrary, they were very concrete men of very healthy psychology. Saint Francis of Assisi confided once to a companion: “If the friars knew how many and what tribulations I receive from the devil, there would not be one who would not weep for me.” (Cf. Speculum perfectionis, 99).
If so many find it absurd to believe in the devil it is because they base themselves on books, they spend their life in libraries or at the desk, whereas the devil is not interested in books but in persons, especially, in fact, in the Saints. What can one know of Satan if one has never had to do with the reality of Satan, but only with his idea, that is, with the cultural, religious, ethnological traditions about Satan? They usually address this argument with great certainty and superiority, writing everything off as ”Medieval obscurantism.” But it is a false assurance, as one who boasts that he is not afraid of a lion, adducing as proof the fact that he has seen a lion so many times depicted in photographs and has never been scared.
It is altogether normal and coherent that one who does not believe in God does not believe in the devil. It would be downright tragic if one who does not believe in God believed in the devil! Yet, if we think about it well, it is what happens in our society. The devil, Satanism and other connected phenomena are of great topicality today. Our technological and industrialized world is replete with magicians, city sorcerers, occultism, spiritualism, horoscope reciters, vendors of witchcraft, of amulets, as well as even true and proper Satanists. Chased out the door, the devil has re-entered by the window. That is, chased out of the faith, he has re-entered with superstition.
The most important thing that the Christian faith can tell us is not, however, that the devil exists, but that Christ has conquered the devil. For Christians, Christ and the devil are not two equal and contrary princes, as in certain dualistic religions. Jesus is the only Lord; Satan is only a creature “gone bad.” If he has been granted power over men, it is because men have the possibility to freely make a choice and also so that they “are kept from being too elated” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7), believing themselves self-sufficient and without need of a redeemer. “Old Satan is mad,” says a Negro spiritual. He “shot his ball at me … He missed my soul and caught my sins!”
With Christ we have nothing to fear. Nothing and no one can do us harm, if we ourselves do not allow it. After the coming of Christ, said an ancient Father of the Church, Satan is like a tethered dog: he can bark and fling himself as much as he wants but, if we do not approach him, he cannot bite. Jesus freed himself from Satan in the desert to free us from Satan!
The Gospels speak to us of three temptations: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread”; “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down”; “All these things I will give you if, prostrating yourself, you adore me.” They all have one common purpose: to divert Jesus from his mission, to distract him from the purpose for which he came on earth; to replace the Father’s plan with a different one. In Baptism, the Father had indicated to Christ the way of the obedient Servant who saves with humility and suffering. Satan proposes to him the way of glory and triumph, the way that everyone then expected of the Messiah.
Today also, the whole effort of the devil is to divert man from the purpose for which he is in the world, which is to know, love and serve God in this life to enjoy him later in the next; to distract him. But Satan is astute; he does not appear as a person with horns and the smell of sulfur. It would be too easy to recognize him. He makes use of good things leading them to excess, absolutizing them and making them idols. Money is a good thing, as is pleasure, sex, eating, drinking. However, if they become the most important thing in life, they are no longer means but become destructive for the soul and often also for the body.
A particularly related example to the topic is amusement, distraction. Play is a noble dimension of the human being; God himself commanded rest. The evil is to make of amusement the purpose of life, to live the week waiting for Saturday night or the trip to the stadium on Sunday, not to mention other pastimes that are rather less innocent. In this case amusement changes sign and, instead of serving human growth and alleviating stress and exhaustion, it makes them grow.
A liturgical hymn of Lent exhorts to use more sparingly, at this time, “words, food, drink, sleep and amusements.” This is a time to rediscover why we have come to the world, where we come from, where we are going, what route we are following. Otherwise what can happen to us is what happened to the Titanic or, closer to our time and in space, to the Costa Concordia.
I have tried to bring to light the teachings and the examples that come to us from Jesus for this time of Lent, but I must say that I have omitted up to now to speak about the most important of all. Why did Jesus, after his Baptism, go into the desert? To be tempted by Satan? No, he did not give that the least thought. No one goes on purpose in search of temptations and he himself has taught us to pray so as not to be led into temptation. The temptations were an initiative of the devil, permitted by the Father, for the glory of his Son and as teaching for us.
Did he go into the desert to fast? Yes, but not mainly for this reason. He went there to pray! Jesus always withdrew into desert places to pray to his Father. He went there to be attuned, as man, with the divine will, to deepen the mission that the voice of the Father, in his Baptism, had made him perceive: the mission of the obedient Servant called to redeem the world with suffering and humiliation. He went there, in sum, to pray, to be in intimacy with his Father. And this is also the main purpose of our Lent. He went into the desert for the same reason for which, according to Luke, he would later go to Mount Tabor, namely, to pray (Luke 9:28).
One does not go into the desert to leave something – the noise, the world, occupations — one goes there above all to find something, rather Someone. One does not go alone to find oneself, to put oneself in contact with one’s inner self, as in so many forms of non-Christian meditation. To be alone with oneself can mean to find oneself with the worst of company. The believer goes into the desert, goes down into his own heart, to renew his contact with God, because he knows that “Truth dwells in the interior man.”
It is the secret of happiness and of peace in this life. What does one in love desire more than to be alone, in intimacy, with the person loved? God is in love with us and he wants us to be in love with him. Speaking of his people as of a bride, God says: “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:16). We know what the effect is of being in love: all things and all other persons withdraw, are placed in the background. There is a presence that fills everything and renders all the rest “secondary.” It does not isolate from others, rather it renders one more attentive and disposed to others. Oh if we men and women of the Church would discover how close to us, within our reach, is the happiness and the peace that we seek in this world!
Jesus awaits us in the desert: let us not leave him alone during this time.