|"Do You Believe?"
VATICAN CITY, 9 DEC. 2005 (ZENIT)
Here is a translation of the Advent
sermon delivered today by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical
Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the
Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.
The sermon was the second in a series. Preaching in the Redemptoris
Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, Father Cantalamessa is offering a
series of reflections on the theme "'For What We Preach Is Not Ourselves
but Jesus Christ as Lord' (2 Corinthians 4:5): Faith in Christ Today."
* * *
"Do You Believe?"
The Divinity of Christ in St. John's Gospel
1. "Unless you believe that I am he ..."
One day I was celebrating Mass in a cloistered monastery. It was at
Easter time. The evangelical passage was John's page in which Jesus
repeatedly says "I Am": "you will die in your sins unless you believe
that I Am he ... When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will
know that I Am he ... before Abraham was, I Am" (John 8:24,28,58).
The fact that the words "I Am," contrary to all grammatical rules, were
both written in capital letters, united undoubtedly to some other more
mysterious cause, ignited a spark. That word was illuminated within me.
It was no longer the Christ of 2,000 years ago who was pronouncing it,
but the risen and living Christ who again proclaimed at that moment
before us his "Ego Eimi," "I Am!" The word acquired cosmic resonance. It
was not a simple emotion of faith, but one of those emotions that,
having passed, left an indelible memory in the heart.
I have begun with this personal reminiscence because the subject of this
meditation is faith in Christ in John's Gospel, and the "I Am" of Christ
is the highest expression of such faith. Modern commentaries on the
fourth Gospel are unanimous in seeing in those words of Jesus an
allusion to the divine name, as it presents itself, for example, in
Isaiah 43:10: "That you may know and believe me and understand that I am
St. Augustine related this word of Jesus with the revelation of the
divine name in Exodus 3:14, and concluded: "I think that the Lord Jesus
Christ, when saying: 'If you do not believe that I Am,' did not wish to
say anything more to us than this: 'Yes, if you do not believe that I am
God, you will die in your sins.'"
It could be objected that these are St. John's words, late developments
of the faith, which have nothing to do with Jesus. But the point is
precisely here. They are, in fact, Jesus' words, certainly of the risen
Jesus who is alive and now speaks "in the Spirit," but always Jesus'
the same Jesus of Nazareth.
Today Jesus' words in the Gospels are distinguished between "authentic"
and "non-authentic," that is, in words truly pronounced by him during
his life, and in words attributed to him by the apostles after his
death. But this distinction is very ambiguous and not valid in Christ's
case, as it is in the case of a common human author.
Obviously, it is not a question of casting doubt on the fully human and
historical character of the New Testament writings, the diversity of the
literary genres and the "forms," and much less so of going back to the
old idea of verbal and almost mechanical inspiration of the Scriptures.
It is only a question of knowing whether or not biblical inspiration
still has meaning for Christians; if, at the end of a biblical reading
we exclaim: "Word of God!" we believe what we say.
2. "The Work of God Is to Believe in the One He Sent"
According to John, Christ is the specific and primary object of belief.
"To believe," without any other specifications, already means to believe
in Christ. It can also mean to believe in God, but inasmuch as he is the
God who has sent his Son to the world. Jesus addresses people who
already believe in the true God; all his insistence on faith is about
this that is new, which is his coming to the world, his speaking in the
name of God. In a word, his being the only-begotten Son of God, "one
with the Father."
John made Christ's divinity and his divine filiation the primary
objective of his Gospel, the subject that unifies everything. He
concludes his Gospel saying: "These signs are written that you may
believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you
may have life in his name" (John 20:31), and he ends his first letter
almost with the same words: "I write this to you who believe in the name
of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John
A quick glance at the fourth Gospel shows how faith in the divine origin
of Christ is at once its warp and woof. To believe in the one the Father
has sent is seeing as "the work of God," what pleases God, absolutely
(cf. John 6:29). Not to believe in him is seen, consequently, as "the
sin" par excellence: "The counselor
it is said
— will convince the world of sin," and sin is not to have
believed in him (John 16:8-9). Jesus asks for himself the same kind of
faith that was asked for God in the Old Testament: "believe in God,
believe also in me" (John 14:1).
Also after his disappearance, faith in him will remain as the great
dividing line within humanity: on one hand will be those who believe
without having seen (cf. John 20:29) and on the other, will be the world
that refuses to believe. In the face of this distinction, all the others
known earlier, including that between Jews and Gentiles, become
One cannot but be astonished before the undertaking that the spirit of
Jesus enabled John to accomplish. He embraced the subjects, the symbols,
the expectations, all that was religiously alive, both in the Judaic
world as well as the Hellenic, making all this serve a single idea,
better, a single person: Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior of the world.
Reading the books of some scholars, dependent on the "School of History
of Religions," the Christian mystery presented by John would not be
distinguished from the Gnostic and Mandaean religious myth, or from
Hellenistic and hermetic religious philosophy, except in matters of
little importance. The limits are lost and the parallelisms multiply.
The Christian faith becomes a variant of this changing mythology and
But what does this mean? It means that one omits the essential: the life
and historical force that lies behind the systems and representations.
Living persons are different from one another, but skeletons all look
alike. Once reduced to a skeleton, isolated from the life it has
produced, that is, from the Church and the saints, the Christian message
always runs the risk of being confused with other religious proposals,
while it is "unmistakable."
John has not given us a set of ancient religious doctrines, but a
powerful kerigma. He learned the language of the men of his time to cry
out in it, with all his strength, the only saving truth, the Word par
excellence, "the Word."
An enterprise such as this is not carried out at a desk. The Johannine
synthesis of faith in Christ was "focused," under the influence of that
"anointing of the Holy Spirit who teaches all things," of which John
himself speaks, surely from personal experience, in the first letter
(cf. 1 John 2:20,27). Precisely because of this origin, John's Gospel,
also today, is not understood seated at a desk, with four or five
dictionaries for consultation.
Only a revealed certainty, which has behind it the authority and very
force of God, could be displayed in a book with such insistence and
coherence, coming, from a thousand different points, always to the same
conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God and the Savior of the
3. "Blessed Is He Who Takes No Offense at Me"
Christ's divinity is the highest summit, the Everest of faith. Much more
difficult than simply to believe in God. This difficulty is linked to
the possibility and, even more so, to the inevitableness of the
"scandal." "Blessed is he
— who takes no offense at me!" (Matthew 11:6). The scandal
depends on the fact that he who proclaims himself "God" is a man about
whom everything is known: "We know where he comes from," say the
Pharisees (John 7:27).
The possibility of scandal must have been especially intense for a young
Jew like the author of the fourth Gospel, accustomed to think of God as
the thrice holy, the one whom one cannot see and remain alive. But the
contrast between the universality of the Logos, and the contingency of
the man Jesus of Nazareth, seems extremely striking, even for the
philosophic mentality of the time. "Son of God"
"a man who lived a few years ago? One of yesterday or the day before?" A
man "born in a village of Judea, of a poor spinner"? This scandalized
reaction is the most obvious proof that faith in the divinity of Christ
is not the fruit of the Hellenization of Christianity, but if anything
of the Christianization of Hellenism.
Also in this connection, illuminating observations are read in the
"Introduction to Christianity" of the present Supreme Pontiff: "With the
second article of the Creed we are faced with the authentic scandal of
Christianity. It is constituted by the confession that the man-Jesus, an
individual executed about the year 30 in Palestine, is the 'Christ' (the
anointed, the chosen One) of God, more than that, no less than the very
Son of God, therefore focal center, determinant point of support of the
whole of human history. ... Is it really right for us to cleave to the
fragile stem of only one historical event? Can we run the risk of
entrusting our whole existence, more than that, the whole of history, to
this blade of straw of an event, which floats in the infinite ocean of
the cosmic vicissitude?"
It is known how much this idea, in itself already unacceptable to
ancient and Asian thought, meets with resistance in the present context
of interreligious dialogue. A particular event
it is observed
limited in time and space, as is the historical person of Christ, cannot
exhaust the infinite potentialities of salvation of God and of his
eternal Word; it is also true that he can accomplish, from such
potentialities, all that suffices for the salvation of the world, he too
But in the last analysis, the scandal is only surmounted with faith.
Historical proofs of the divinity of Christ and of Christianity are not
enough to eliminate it. One cannot really believe
except in situations of contemporaneousness, making oneself
contemporaneous with Christ and his apostles. But do not history and the
past help us to believe? Did Christ not live two thousand years ago? Is
his name not proclaimed and believed in the whole world? Has not his
doctrine changed the face of the world and penetrated victoriously in
every environment? And has not history established more than
sufficiently that he was God?
No, replies the same philosopher. History could not do this in the whole
of eternity! It is not possible, from the results of a human existence,
as was that of Jesus, to conclude saying: Ergo, this man was God! A
track on a path is a consequence of the fact that some one has passed
through there. I could deceive myself believing, for example, that it
was a bird. On closer examination, I might conclude that it was not a
bird, but another animal. But I cannot, no matter how much more I
examine it, come to the conclusion that it is neither a bird nor another
animal but a spirit, because a spirit, by nature, cannot leave tracks on
Similarly we cannot draw the consequence that Christ is God by simply
examining what we know about him and his life, namely, through direct
observation. Whoever wants to believe in Christ is obliged to make
himself his contemporary in his abasement, hearing the "internal
testimony" that the Holy Spirit gives us about him.
As Catholics we must have some reservations in this way of posing the
problem of the divinity of Christ. What is missing is the relevance due
to the resurrection of Christ, in addition to his abasement, and
sufficient account is not taken of the external testimony of the
apostles, in addition to the "internal testimony of the Holy Spirit."
But there is in the former an important element of truth that we must
keep in mind to make our faith ever more authentic and personal.
St. Paul says that "man believes with his heart and so is justified, and
he confesses with his lips and so is saved" (Romans, 10:10). The second
moment, the profession of faith, is important, but, if it is not
accompanied by that first moment which develops in the hidden depths of
the heart, the former is vain and empty. "It is from the roots of the
heart that faith arises," exclaims St. Augustine, paraphrasing the
Pauline "corde creditur" (belief with the heart).
The social and community dimension is certainly essential in Christian
faith, but it must be the result of many personal acts of faith, if it
is not to be a purely conventional and fictitious faith.
4. "I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life"
This faith "of the heart" is the fruit of a special anointing of the
Spirit. When one is under this anointing, to believe becomes a kind of
knowledge, vision, interior illumination: "We have believed, and have
come to know" (John 6:69); "We have looked upon the Word of life" (cf. 1
John 1:1). You hear Jesus affirm: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life;
no one comes to the Father, but by me," (John 14:6) and feel within
yourself, with all your being, that what you hear is true.
Recently I came across an impressive case of this illumination of faith,
which occurred precisely thanks to this word of Jesus transmitted by
John. I met an Swiss artist in Milan who had enjoyed friendship with the
best-known philosophical and artistic personalities of his time, and who
had held personal exhibitions of paintings of different parts of the
world (one of his paintings was exhibited and acquired by the Vatican on
the occasion of Paul VI's 80th birthday).
His passionate religious search had led him to adhere to Buddhism and
Hinduism. After long stays in Tibet, India and Japan, he became a master
in these disciplines. In Milan he had a whole group of professionals and
men of culture who sought his spiritual direction and practiced
transcendental meditation and yoga with him.
His return to faith in Christ seemed immediately to me an
extraordinarily timely testimony, and I very much insisted that he put
it in writing. I just recently received his manuscript and I would like
to read a small fragment from it. It helps, among other things, to
understand what Saul must have experienced on the road to Damascus
before the light, which in an instant destroyed his entire interior
world and replaced it with another.
"I was alone, in a dense forest, when that interior revolution occurred
that changed all my mental structure. I knew Christ's words: 'I am the
Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me.' But
in the past I found them to be somewhat presumptuous. Now these words
strike at the center of my being. After 35 years of Buddhism, Hinduism
and Taoism I was attracted by 'that God.' However, there was in me the
presence of a profound rejection for everything concerning Christianity.
Slowly, I felt that I was being invaded by an altogether new strange
sensation, which I had never before experienced. I perceived the
presence of someone who emanated an extraordinary power.
"Those words of Christ obsessed me, they became a nightmare. I put up
resistance, but the interior sound would amplify and return as en echo
in my conscience. I was close to panic, I was losing control over my
mind and this, after 30 years of meditation on the profound, this was
for me inconceivable.
"'Yes, it is true, you are right,' I cried, 'it is true, it is true but
stop, I beg you, I beg you.' I thought I would die because of the
impossibility to come out of that tremendous situation. I no longer saw
the trees, I no longer heard the birds, there was only the interior
voice of the words that were imprinting themselves in my being.
"I fell to the ground and lost consciousness. But before it happened, I
felt enveloped by a limitless love. I felt the structure of my thought
was liquefying, as a great explosion of my conscience. I was dying to a
past by which I was profoundly conditioned, all truth was
disintegrating. I don't know how long I was there, but when I regained
consciousness I was reborn. The skies of my mind were limpid and endless
tears soaked my face and neck. I felt myself the most ungrateful being
in all the earth. Yes, the great life exists and it does not belong to
this world. For the first time I was discovering what Christians
understand by 'grace.'"
For more than 25 years this man, known as Master Bee, together with his
wife, also an artist, has been leading a semi-hermetical life, in the
world and to his former disciples who go to consult him he teaches
prayer of the heart and the praying of the rosary.
He has not felt the need to deny his past religious experiences which
have prepared the encounter with Christ and now allow him to fully value
the novelty. More than that, he continues to have profound respect for
them, showing with deeds how it is possible to integrate today the most
total adherence to Christ with a very great openness to the values of
The secret history of souls, outside the spotlights of the mass media,
is full of these encounters with Christ that change life, and it is a
pity that discussion on it, including among theologians, overlooks them
completely. They demonstrate that Jesus is truly "the same yesterday,
today and always," able to capture the hearts of the men of today with
no less force than when he "captured" John and Paul.
5. The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (and Who Loved Jesus!)
Let us return, to conclude, to the disciple whom Jesus loved. John
offers us a very strong incentive to rediscover the person of Jesus and
to renew our act of faith in him. It is an extraordinary testimony of
the power that Jesus can have over a man's heart. It shows us how it is
possible to build all one's universe around Jesus. He is able to make
one perceive "the unique fullness, the unimaginable marvel that is the
person of Jesus."
There is more. The saints, not being able to take faith with them to
heaven, where it is no longer necessary, are happy to leave it as
inheritance to brothers that need it on earth, as Elias left his mantle
to Elyseus, going up to heaven. It is our turn to pick it up. We can not
only contemplate the ardent faith of St. John, but must make it our own.
The dogma of the communion of saints assures us that it is possible, and
by praying one experiences it.
Some one has said that the greatest challenge for evangelization, at the
beginning of the third millennium, is the emergence of a new type of man
and culture, the cosmopolitan man that, from Hong Kong to New York, and
from Rome to Stockholm, already moves in a planetary system of exchanges
and information which cancels distances and translates to a second plane
the traditional distinctions of culture and religion.
Now, John lived in a cultural context that had something in common with
this. The world was then experiencing for the first time
cosmopolitanism. The term itself "kosmopolites," cosmopolitan, citizens
of the world, was born and was affirmed precisely at this moment. In the
large Hellenistic cities, such as Alexandria of Egypt, the air of
universalism and religious tolerance was breathed.
Well then, in such a situation, how did the author of the fourth Gospel
behave? Did he seek perhaps to adapt Jesus to this atmosphere in which
all religions and cults were accepted, as long as they agreed to be part
of something greater? Not at all! He did not argue against any one more
than he did against bad Christians and heretics within the Church; he
did not fling himself against other religions and cults of the time
(except, in Revelation, against the wrongful emperor); he simply
proclaimed Christ as supreme gift of the Father to the world, leaving
every one free to receive him or not. He argued, it is true, with
Judaism, but for him it was not "another religion," it was his religion!
How did John come to such a total admiration and such an absolute idea
of the person of Jesus? How can one explain that, with the passing of
the years, his love for him, instead of weakening, increased ever more?
I think that, after the Holy Spirit, it is due to the fact that he had
beside him the Mother of Jesus, he lived with her, prayed with her, and
spoke with her of Jesus. A certain impression is felt when one thinks of
how he conceived the phrase: "And the Word was made flesh," the
evangelist had beside him, under the same roof, the woman in whose womb
that mystery was realized.
Origen wrote: "The flower of the four Gospels is the Gospel of John, the
profound meaning of which, however, cannot be understood by him who has
not leaned his head against Jesus' breast and received Mary from him as
his own mother."
Jesus was born "by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary." The
Holy Spirit and Mary, in different capacities, are the two best allies
in our effort to come close to Jesus, to make him be born, through
faith, in our lives this Christmas.
* * *
 St. Augustine, "In Ioh" 38,10 (PL 35, 1680).
 Origen, "Against Celsius," I, 26 & 28 (SCh 147, pp. 202 ff.).
 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "Introduction to Christianity," cit., p.
 St. Augustine, "In Ioh." 26, 2 (PL 35, 1607).
 J. Guillet, Jesus, in "Dictionnaire de spiritualité," 8, col. 1098.
 Origen, Commentary on John, I, 6, 23 (SCh 120, pp. 70 f).
[Translation by ZENIT]