1st Lenten Sermon

Author: Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.


1st Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa

"May the Words of the Gospel Wash Our Sins Away"


Here is a translation of the Lenten meditation delivered today by Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, titled "Jesus Began to Preach: The Word of God in the Life of Christ."

This is the first in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective."

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In view of the Synod of Bishops next October I thought that I would dedicate my Lenten preaching this year to the theme of the word of God. We will meditate, in succession, on the proclamation of the Gospel in the life of Christ, that is, on Jesus as the one “who preaches,” on proclamation in the mission of the Church, that is, on Christ as “preached,” on the word of God as a means of personal sanctification, the “lectio divina,” and on the relationship between the Spirit and the word, concretely speaking, the spiritual reading of the Bible.

We begin this preaching on the day in which the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, and this in not without significance for our theme. First of all it offers us an occasion to pay the homage of our affection and devotion to him who today sits in the Chair of Peter, the Holy Father Benedict XVI. We then recall what the Apostle Peter himself wrote in his Second Letter, namely, that “no prophetic scripture may be subjected to private explanation” (2 Peter 1:20) and that for this reason every interpretation of the word of God must be measured against the living tradition of the Church, whose authentic interpretation is entrusted to the apostolic teaching office and, in a singular way, to the Petrine teaching office.

It is beautiful, in such a circumstance as this, and in the contemporary context of ecumenical dialogue, to recall the famous text of St. Irenaeus: “Since, however, it would take too long to enumerate the successions of all the Churches in this volume, we take the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. [...] With this Church, by reason of its more excellent origin (‘propter potentiorem principalitatem’), every Church must be in agreement, that is, the faithful from everywhere, since in her the Tradition that comes from the apostles has always been preserved for all men.”[1]

In this spirit, not without fear and trembling, I ready myself to present my reflections on the vital theme of the word of God, in the presence of the successor of Peter, the Bishop of the Church of Rome.

1. Preaching in the Life of Jesus

After the account of Jesus’ baptism, the Evangelist Mark continues his narrative saying: “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God and saying ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:14). Matthew puts it more briefly: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). With these words the “Gospel” begins understood as the good news “of” Jesus — that is, received from Jesus and of which Jesus is the subject, which is different from the good news “about” Jesus of the subsequent apostolic preaching, in which Jesus is the object.

We have here an event that occupies a very precise place in time and in space: It happened “in Galilee,” “after John was arrested.” The verb used by the evangelists, “he began to preach,” strongly emphasizes that it is a “beginning,” something new not only in the life of Jesus, but in salvation history itself. The Letter to the Hebrews expresses this novelty thus: “In many and sundry ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by the Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

A special time begins in salvation, a new “kairos,” which lasts for about 2 and a half years (from the autumn of 27 A.D., to the spring of 30 A.D.). Jesus attributed to this activity of his such an importance as to say that he had been sent by the Father and consecrated with an anointing of the Spirit for this, that is, “to announce the glad tidings” (Luke 4:18). On one occasion, while there were some who wanted to keep him, he tells the apostles that they must leave, saying to them: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for this in fact I have come” (Mark 1:38).

Preaching is part of the so-called “mysteries of the life of Christ” and it is as such that we will approach it. In this context the word “mystery” means an event of the life of Jesus that bears salvific significance, which is celebrated by the Church as such in her liturgy.[2] If there is not a special feast for the Jesus’ preaching it is because it is recalled in every liturgy of the Church. The “liturgy of the word” in the Mass is nothing other than the liturgical actualization of Jesus who preaches. A Second Vatican Council text says that Christ “is present in His word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church.”[3]

As, in history, after having preached the kingdom of God, Jesus went to Jerusalem to offer himself in sacrifice to the Father, so too, in the liturgy, after having again proclaimed his word, Jesus renews the offering of himself to the Father through the Eucharistic action. When, at the end of the preface, we say: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest,” we spiritually return to that moment when Jesus enters Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover there; there the time of preaching ends and the time of the passion begins.

Jesus’ preaching is therefore a “mystery” because it does not only contain the revelation of a doctrine, but it explains the mystery itself of the person of Christ; it is essential for understanding both that which comes before — the mystery of the incarnation — and that which comes after, the paschal mystery. Without the word of Jesus they would be mute events. Pope John Paul II’s idea was a happy one when he inserted the preaching of the kingdom among the “mysteries of light,” which he added to the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the rosary, along with the baptism of Christ, the marriage feast at Cana, the transfiguration and the institution of the Eucharist.

2. Christ’s Preaching Continues in the Church

The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote long after the death of Jesus, thus, a long time after Jesus had ceased to speak; and yet he says that God spoke through the Son “in these last days.” He considers the days in which he is living, therefore, as part of “Jesus’ days.” For this reason, a little further on in the letter, citing the words of the Psalm, “Today if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts,” he applies them to Christians, saying: “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart without faith leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’” (Hebrews 3:12-13). God speaks, then, today as well in the Church and he speaks “in the Son.”

But how and where can we hear this “voice” of his? Divine revelation is over; in a certain sense there are no longer any words of God. And here we find another affinity between word and Eucharist. The Eucharist is present in the whole of salvation history: in the Old Testament, as figure (the passover lamb, the sacrifice of Melchizedek, the manna in the desert), in the New Testament, as event (the death and resurrection of Christ), in the Church, as sacrament (in the Mass).

Christ’s sacrifice is finished and concluded on the cross; in a certain sense, therefore, there are no more sacrifices of Christ; and yet we know that there is still a sacrifice and it is the one sacrifice of the cross that is made present and effective in the Eucharistic sacrifice; the event continues in the sacrament, history in the liturgy. Something analogous happens with Christ’s word: It has ceased to exist as event, but it continues to exist as sacrament.

In the Bible, the word of God (“dabar”), especially in the particular form it assumes in the prophets, always constitutes an event; it is a word-event, that is a word that creates a situation, that always realizes something new in history. The recurrent expression, “the word of Yaweh came to,” could be translated as: “the word of Yaweh assumed a concrete form in” (in Ezekiel, in Haggai, in Zechariah, etc.).

This kind of word-event continues right up to John the Baptist; in Luke, in fact, we read: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar [...] the word of God came to (“factum est verbum Domini super”) John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1ff.). After this moment, this formula disappears completely from the Bible and in its place there appears another — it is no longer “Factum est verbum Domini” but “Verbum caro factum est,” the word became flesh (John 1:14). The event is now a person! One never encounters the phrase, “the word of God came to Jesus,” because he is the Word. After the provisional realizations of the word of God in the prophets, there comes the full and definitive realization.

Giving us the Son, St. John of the Cross famously writes, God has said everything and had nothing left to reveal. God has become mute in a certain sense, not having anything else to say.[4] But this must be rightly understood: God has become silent in the sense that he does not say anything new in regard to what he has said in Jesus, but not in the sense that he no longer speaks; he is always saying again what he said in Jesus!

There are no longer word-events in the Church; the word of God will no longer come to someone, as it once did with Samuel, Jeremiah or John the Baptist; there are however word-sacraments. The word-sacraments are the words of God that “came” once and for all and are gathered in the Bible, that become “active reality” every time the Church proclaims with authority and the Spirit who inspired them returns to ignite them again in the heart of those who hear them. “He will take what is mine and declare it to you,” Jesus says of the Holy Spirit (John 16:14).

4. The Word-Sacrament That Is Heard

When one speaks of the word as “sacrament,” this term is not understood in the technical and restricted sense of the “seven sacraments,” but in the broader sense as when one speaks of Christ as the “primordial sacrament of the Father” and of the Church as the “universal sacrament of salvation.”[5] St. Augustine’s definition of sacrament as “a word that is seen” (“verbum visibile”),[6] used to be contrasted with the word as “a sacrament that is heard” (“sacramentum audibile”).

In every sacrament there is distinguished the visible sign and the invisible reality, which is grace. The word that we read in the Bible, in itself, is only a material sign (like wine and bread), an ensemble of dead syllables, or, at most, one word of human language among others; but faith intervening and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, through such a sign we mysteriously enter into contact with the living truth and will of God and we hear the voice itself of Christ.

“The body of Christ," Bossuet wrote, "is more truly present in the adorable sacrament than the truth of Christ is in the evangelical preaching. In the mystery of the Eucharist the species that you see are signs, but what is contained in them is the body itself of Christ; in Scripture, the words that you hear are signs, but the thought that is drawn from them is the truth itself of the Son of God.”

The sacramentality of the word of God is revealed in the fact that sometimes it plainly works beyond the person’s understanding, which can be limited and imperfect, it almost works by itself, “ex opera operata,” as one says in theology.

When the prophet Elisha told Naaman the Syrian, who had come to him to be cured of leprosy, to wash seven times in the Jordan, Naaman replied indignantly, “Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed” (2 Kings 5:12)? Naaman was right: The rivers of Syria were undoubtedly better, they had more water; and yet, washing in the Jordan he was healed and his flesh became like that of a little child, something that would not have happened if had bathed in the great rivers of his country.

This is how it is with the word of God contained in Scripture. Among the nations and also in the Church there have been and there will be better books than some of the books of the Bible, more refined from a literary standpoint and religiously more edifying (just think of the "Imitation of Christ"), but none of them work as well as the most modest of the inspired books. There is, in the words of Scripture, something that acts beyond every human explanation; there is an evident disproportion between the sign and the reality that it produces, that makes one think, precisely, of the action of the sacraments.

The “waters of Israel,” which are the divinely inspired Scriptures, continue even today to heal the leprosy of sin; once he has finished reading the Gospel passage at Mass, the Church invites the ordained minister to kiss the book and say: “May the words of the Gospel wash our sins away” (“Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta”). The healing power of the word of God is attested to by Scripture itself: “For indeed, neither herb nor application cured them, but your all-healing word, O Lord" (Wisdom 16:12).

Experience confirms it. I heard a person give witness in a television program that I took part in. He was an alcoholic in the final stage; he could not go for more than two hours without a drink; his family was on the brink of desperation. They invited him with his wife to a meeting on the word of God. There someone read a passage of Scripture. A verse went through him like a burning flame and he felt healed. After that, every time he felt tempted to drink he went to the Bible and opened it to that verse to reread it and he felt the strength return to him until he was completely healed. When he wanted to say what the verse was his voice broke with emotion. It was the word of the Song of Songs: “Your love is more delightful than wine” (Song of Songs 1:2). These simple words, apparently unrelated to his life, accomplished the miracle.

One reads of a similar episode in “The Way of a Pilgrim.” But the most celebrated instance is that of Augustine. Reading Paul’s words to the Romans, “Let us then throw off the works of darkness. […] Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness” (Romans 13:12-13), he felt “a light of serenity” shining in his heart and he understood that he was healed of the slavery of the flesh.[7]

5. The Liturgy of the Word

There is a place and a moment in the life of the Church in which Jesus speaks today in the most solemn and certain way and that is the liturgy of the word in the Mass. In the primitive Church the liturgy of the word was separated from the liturgy of the Eucharist. The disciples, the Acts of the Apostles reports, “went to the temple together every day”; there they listened to the reading of the Bible, they recited the psalms together with the other Jews; they did what is done in the liturgy of the word; then they gathered in their houses to “break bread,” that is, to celebrate the Eucharist (cf. Acts 2:43).

Quite early on this practice became impossible for them because of the hostility of the Jewish community toward them, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, because by this point that had acquired a new way of reading the Scriptures completely oriented to Christ. It was in this way that that the hearing of Scripture was also transferred from the temple and the synagogue to the Christian places of worship, becoming the present liturgy of the word that precedes the Eucharistic prayer.

St. Justin, in the second century, gives a description of the Eucharistic celebration in which there are already present all of the essential elements of the future Mass. Not only is the liturgy of the word an integral part of it, but alongside the readings of the Old Testament there are already those readings that the saint calls the “memoirs of the apostles,” that is, the Gospels and the letters, in concrete terms New Testament.

Heard in the liturgy, the biblical readings acquire a new and more powerful sense than when they are read in other contexts. They do not have so much the purpose of bringing about better knowledge of the Bible, as when one reads at home or in a school for biblical studies, as they have the purpose of recognizing him who makes himself present in the breaking of the bread, of every time illuminating a particular aspect of the mystery that is about to be received. This appears in an almost programmatic way in the episode with the two disciples traveling to Emmaus: It was in listening to an explanation of the Scriptures that the heart of the disciples began to open so that they were then able to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.

One example among many: the readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time of Cycle B. The first reading is the passage on the suffering servant who takes upon himself the people’s iniquity (Isaiah 53:2-11); the second reading speaks of Christ the high priest tried in every like us but sin; the Gospel passage speaks of the Son of Man who has come to give his life in ransom for many. Together these three passages bring to light a fundamental aspect of the mystery that is about to be celebrated and received in the Eucharistic liturgy.

In the Mass the words and episodes of the Bible are not only narrated, they are relived; memory becomes reality and presence. That which happened “in that time” happens “in this time,” “today” (“hodie”) as the liturgy loves to express it. We are not only hearers of the word, but also interlocutors and doers of it. It is to us, there present, that the word is addressed; we are called to take the place of the characters who are evoked.

Here too some examples will help one to understand. One reads, in the first reading, of the episode in which God speaks to Moses golden calf: We are, in the Mass, before the true golden calf. One reads of Isaiah upon whose lips the hot coal is pressed, to purify him for his mission: we are about to receive the true hot coal upon our lips. Ezekiel is invited to eat at the scroll of the prophetic oracles and we are about to eat him who is the word itself made flesh and made bread.

This thing becomes clearer if we pass from the Old Testament to the new, from the first reading to the Gospel passage. The woman who suffers from hemorrhages is certain of being healed if she is able to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment: What to say of us who are about to touch much more than the hem of his garment? Once I was listening to the Gospel episode about Zaccheus and was struck by its “relevance.” I was Zaccheus; the words were addressed to me. “Today I must come to your house.” It was about me that it could be said: “He went to stay with a sinner!” And it was about me, after having received him in communion, that Jesus said: “Today salvation has entered into this house.”

It is the same with every single episode in the Gospel. How can one not in the Mass identify himself with the paralytic to whom Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven you” and “Get up and go to your house,” with Simeon who holds the baby Jesus in his arms, with Thomas who, trembling, touches his wounds? In today’s celebration, Friday of the second week of Lent, the Gospel is about the murderous tenants of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-45): “Finally he sent his own son, saying, ‘They will respect my son!’” I remember the effect that these words had on me when I was listening to them once rather distractedly. That same Son was about to be given to me in communion: Was I prepared to receive him with the respect that the heavenly Father expected?

It is not only the deeds but also the words of the Gospel heard at Mass that acquire a new and more powerful sense. One summer day I found myself celebrating Mass in a small cloistered monastery. The Gospel passage was Matthew 12. I will never forget the impression that those words of Jesus made on me: “Behold, now there is one here greater than Jonah. [...] Behold, now there is one here greater than Solomon.” In that moment it was as if I had heard them for the first time. I understood that those to words “now” and “here” truly meant now and here, that is, in that moment and in that place, not only in the time that Jesus was on earth, many centuries ago. From that summer day, those words became dear and familiar to me in a new way. Often, at Mass, in the moment that I genuflect and stand up again after the consecration, I repeat to myself: “Behold, now there is one here greater than Jonah. [...] Behold, now there is one here greater than Solomon!”

“You who often partake in the divine mysteries,” Origen said to the Christians of his time, “when you receive the body of the Lord you treat it with great care and veneration so that not even a crumb will fall to the ground, so that nothing is lost of the consecrated gift. You are rightly convinced that that it is wrong to let a piece fall out of carelessness. If you are so careful in safeguarding his body — and it is right that you are — know that neglecting God’s word is not less wrong that neglecting his body.”[8]

Among the many words of God that we hear every day at Mass or in the Divine Office, there is almost always one that is especially destined for us. By itself it can fill our whole day and illumine our prayer. It must not be allowed to fall into the void. Various sculptures and bas-reliefs of the ancient East depict the scribe in the act of listening to the voice of the sovereign who dictates or speaks: He is all attention, his legs are crossed, he is upright, his eyes are wide open, his ears are pealed. This is the attitude that in Isaiah is attributed to the Servant of the Lord: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear” (Isaiah 50:4). This is how we must be when the word of God is proclaimed.

Let us understand the exhortation that one reads in the prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict as being addressed to us: “Let us open our eyes to the divine light, let us hear with ears that are attentive and full of stupor the divine voice that cries out to us daily, ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts’ (Psalm 95). And again, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Revelation 2:7).”[9]

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[1] St. Irenaeus, “Adversus Haereses,” III, 2.
[2] Cf. St. Augustine, Letters, 55, 1,2.

[3] “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” No. 7.
[4] Cf. St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” II, 22, 4-5.

[5] Cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 48.
[6] St. Augustine, “Tractates on the Gospel of John,” 80,3.

[7] St. Augustine, “Confessions,” VIII,12.
[8] Origen, “Homily on Exodus,” XIII, 3.
[9] “Rule of St. Benedict,” Prologue.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

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