3rd Advent Sermon, 2008

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


3rd Advent Sermon, 2008

Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent Meditation

"When the Fullness of Time Had Come God Sent His Son Born of a Woman"


Here is the Advent homily Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, delivered today in the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia.

This is the third and last Advent sermons the preacher wrote on the theme "'When the Fullness of Time Had Come, God Sent his Son, Born of a Woman: Going With St. Paul to Meet the Christ Who Comes."

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1. Paul and the Dogma of the Incarnation

Once again we will present the passage from St. Paul that we intend to reflect on.

"I mean that as long as the heir is not of age, he is no different from a slave, although he is the owner of everything, but he is under the supervision of guardians and administrators until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were not of age, were enslaved to the elemental powers of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, 'Abba, Father!' So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God" (Galatians 4, 4-7).

We hear this passage often during the Christmas season, beginning with First Vespers for the solemnity of Christmas. We will first of all speak about the theological implications of this text. It is the place in which we come closest, in the Pauline corpus, to the idea of preexistence and incarnation. The idea of "sending" ("God sent [exapesteilen] his Son") is placed parallel to the sending of the Spirit, which is spoken of two verses later and hearkens back to that which is said in the Old Testament about God's sending of Wisdom and the Holy Spirit out into the world (Wisdom 9:10, 17). These combinations indicate that here we are not dealing with a sending "from the earth," as in the case of the prophets, but "from heaven."

The idea of Christ's preexistence is implicit in the Pauline texts, which speak of Christ's role in the creation of the world (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:15-16), and when Paul says that the rock that followed the people in the desert was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). The idea of the incarnation is, in turn, suggested in the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-7: "Being in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave."

Despite these passages, it must be admitted that in Paul preexistence and incarnation are truths that are still germinating; they have not yet been fully formulated. The reason for this is that the center of interest and the starting point of everything for St. Paul is the paschal mystery, that is, the work, more than the person of the Savior. This is in contrast to St. John, for whom the starting point and the epicenter of attention is precisely the Son's preexistence and incarnation.

We have here two different "ways" or routes in the discovery of who Jesus Christ is. One, that of Paul, begins from humanity to reach divinity, from the flesh to reach the Spirit, from the history of Christ to arrive at the preexistence of Christ. The other, that of John, follows the inverse path: It begins from the Word's divinity to arrive at affirming his humanity, from his existence in eternity to descend to his existence in time. Paul's approach makes the resurrection the hinge of the two phases, and John's sees the passage as turning on the incarnation.

These two approaches consolidated in the epoch that followed and gave rise to two models or archetypes and finally to two Christological schools: the Antiochene school influenced by Paul and the Alexandrian school influenced by John. Neither group was aware of choosing between Paul and John; each takes itself to include both. That is undoubtedly true; but it is a fact that the two influences are visible and distinguishable, like two rivers that merge together but are nevertheless identifiable by the different color of their waters.

This difference is reflected, for example, in the different way in which the two schools interpret Christ's kenosis in Philippians 2. From the 2nd and 3rd centuries, even down to modern exegesis, two different readings can be delineated. According to the Alexandrian school the initial subject of the hymn is the Son of God preexistent in the form of God. In this case the kenosis, or "pouring out," would consist in the incarnation, in becoming man. According to the Antiochene school, the sole subject of the hymn, from beginning to end, is the historical Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. In this case the kenosis would consist in the abasement inherent in his becoming a slave, in submitting himself to the passion and death.

The difference between the two schools is not that some follow Paul and others John, but that some interpret John in the light Paul and others Paul in the light of John. The difference is the framework or background perspective that is adopted for illustrating the mystery of Christ. It can be said that the main lines of the Church's dogma and theology have formed in the confrontation of these two schools, which continue to have an impact today.

2. Born of a Woman

The relative silence about the incarnation in Paul leads to an almost complete silence about Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word. The incisive "born of a woman" ("factum sub muliere") of our text is the most explicit reference to Mary in the Pauline corpus. It is equivalent to the other expression: "from the seed of David according to the flesh" – "factum ex semine David secundum carnem" (Romans 1:3).

However bare, this claim of the Apostle is quite important. It was one of the essential propositions in the struggle against gnostic Docetism from the 2nd century onward. It says, in fact, that Jesus is not a heavenly apparition; because he is born of a woman, he is fully inserted into humanity and history, "like men in all things" (Philippians 2:7). "Why do we say that Christ is a man," Tertullian writes, "if not because he is born of Mary who is a human creature?"[1] On second thought, "born of a woman" better expresses the true humanity of Christ than the title "son of man." In a literal sense, Jesus is not the son of man, not having a man for a father, but he is truly the "son of woman."

The Pauline text was also at the center of the debate over the title "Mother of God" ("theotokos") in the subsequent Christological disputes, and this explains why the Galatians text is the second reading in the liturgy for the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God on Jan. 1.

There is one detail that should be noted. If Paul would have said: "born of Mary," he would have been merely mentioning a biographical fact; but in saying "born of a woman," he gives universal and immense import to his statement. And the woman herself, every woman, is elevated in Mary to an incredible height. Mary is here the woman par excellence.

3. "What Does it Matter to Me that Christ was Born of Mary?"

We meditate on the Pauline text with Christmas fast approaching and in the spirit of "lectio divina." So, we cannot tarry to long over the exegetical data, but after having contemplated the theological truth contained in the text, we must draw guidance for our spiritual life from it, highlighting the "for me" character of the word of God.

A line of Origen — taken up by St. Augustine, St. Bernard, Luther and others — says: "What does it matter to me that Christ was once given birth by Mary in Bethlehem, if faith is not also born in my soul?"[2] Mary's divine maternity is realized on two levels: on a physical level and a spiritual level. Mary is the Mother of God not only because she carried him in her womb physically but also because she first conceived him in her heart, with faith. Of course, we cannot imitate Mary in the first sense, giving birth to Christ again, but we can imitate her in the second sense, in the sense of her faith. Jesus was the first to apply this title of "Mother of Christ" to the Church when he said: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice" (Luke 8:21; cf. Mark 3:31 f.; Matthew 12:49).

In the tradition, this truth was applied in two complementary ways, one pastoral and the other spiritual. In the one case we see this maternity realized in the Church taken as a whole inasmuch as she is "universal sacrament of salvation"; in the other we see it realized in each individual person or soul who believes.

Blessed Isaac of Stella, a medieval theologian, made a kind of synthesis of all these elements. In a famous homily that we read last Saturday in the Liturgy of the Hours, he writes: "Mary and the Church are one mother and more than one, one virgin and more than one ...Therefore in the divinely inspired Scripture what is said, what is said universally of the Church, Virgin and Mother, is also said individually of Mary; and what is said in a special way of Mary is understood in a general sense of the Virgin Mother Church ... In the end, every faithful soul is the spouse of the Word of God, mother, daughter and sister of Christ. Each faithful soul is understood in its own sense to be virgin and fruitful."[3]

The Second Vatican Council positions itself in the first perspective when it says: "The Church ... becomes herself a mother. By her preaching she brings forth to a new and immortal life the sons who are born to her in baptism, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God."[4]

We will focus on the personal application to each soul: "Every soul who believes," writes St. Ambrose, "conceives and gives birth to the Word of God ... if one alone is Mother of Christ according to the flesh, all souls, according to the faith, give birth to Christ when they accept the word of God."[5] An Eastern Father echoes St. Ambrose: "Christ is always mystically born in the soul, taking flesh in those who are saved and making a virgin mother of the soul that gives him birth."[6]

Just how one concretely becomes mother of Jesus he himself indicates in the Gospel: hearing the word and putting it into practice (cf. Luke 8:21; Mark 3:31 f.; Matthew 12:49). To understand this, let us again think about how Mary became mother: conceiving him and giving birth to him. In Scripture we see these two moments emphasized: "Behold the Virgin will conceive and will give birth to a son," it says in Isaiah; and the angel tells Mary: "You will conceive and give birth to a Son."

There are two incomplete maternities or two types of interruptions of maternity: the one is the old and well known interruption that takes place in a miscarriage or an abortion. These occur when a life is conceived but there is no birth because in the meantime, either on account of natural causes (in the case of a miscarriage) or because of human sin (in the case of an abortion), the child dies. Until a short time ago, these were the only forms of incomplete maternity. Today there is an opposite form of incomplete maternity, which consists in a woman giving birth to a child that she did not conceive. This occurs with children who are conceived in a test tube and then inserted in a woman's womb and in the case of wombs "borrowed" to host, perhaps for money, human lives conceived elsewhere. In this case, the child to whom the woman gives birth, does not come from her, is not conceived "first in the heart and then in the body."

Unfortunately, these two sad types of incomplete maternity also exist in the spiritual realm. Those who hear the word without putting it into practice, those who have one spiritual abortion after another, making plans for conversion that they systematically abandon when they get halfway down the road, conceive Jesus but do not give birth to him. They are impatient observers of the word, they look at their face in a mirror and then go away forgetting what they looked like (cf. James 1:23). In sum, they are those who have faith but no works.

But there are also those who, on the contrary, give birth to Christ without having conceived him. They do many works, even good ones, that do not come from the heart, from love of God and right intention, but rather from habit, hypocrisy, the pursuit of their own glory and their own interests, or simply from the gratification of doing them. In sum, they are those who have works but no faith.

St. Francis of Assisi summarizes, in a positive way, what constitutes true maternity in regard to Christ: "We are mothers of Christ," he says, "when we carry him in our heart and in our body by divine love and with a pure and sincere conscience; we give birth to him through holy works, which should shine forth as an example for others. ... How holy and dear, pleasant, humble, peaceful, lovable and desirable above all things it is to have such a brother and such a son, our Lord Jesus Christ!"[7] The saint is telling us that we conceive Christ when we love him with a sincere heart and with rectitude of conscience, and we give birth to him when we accomplish holy deeds that manifest him to the world.

4. The Two Feasts of the Child Jesus

St. Bonaventure, a disciple and spiritual son of the "Poverello" of Assisi, took up and developed this idea in an opuscule entitled "The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus." In the introduction to the book, he recounts how one day, while in retreat on Mount Verna, he recalled that the holy Fathers say that the soul devoted to God, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High, can conceive the blessed Word and only-begotten Son of the Father, give birth to him, give him his name, seek and adore him with the Magi and, finally, happily present him to God the Father in his temple.[8] Of these five moments or feasts of the Child Jesus that can be re-lived by the soul, we are above all interested in the first two: the conception and birth. For St. Bonaventure, the soul conceives Jesus when, dissatisfied with the life he is living, prompted by holy inspirations and inflamed by holy ardor, he resolutely tears himself away from his old habits and defects, is in a way made spiritually fertile by the grace of the Holy Spirit and conceives the project of a new life. Christ has been conceived!

Once conceived, the blessed Son of God will be born in the heart so long as this soul, after having made a right discernment, asked for appropriate advice and called upon God for help, puts his holy plan immediately into practice and begins to realize that which had been ripening in him but which he had always put off for fear of being incapable of succeeding in it.

But we must insist on one thing: This project of a new life must translate itself, without delay, into something concrete, into a change, possibly even external and visible, in our life and in our habits. If the plan is not put into action, Jesus is conceived, but he is not born. It will become one of the many spiritual abortions. The "second feast" of the Child Jesus, which is Christmas, will never be celebrated. It will be one of the many postponements which are the main reason why so few become saints.

If you decide to change your lifestyle and enter into the category of the poor and humble, who, like Mary, only seek the grace of God, without worrying about pleasing men, then, St. Bonaventure writes, you must arm yourself with courage, because you will need it. You will face two kinds of temptations. First, from the more carnal sorts among those with whom you associate, who will say to you: "What your taking on is too hard; you'll never do it, you lack the strength, it will be bad for your health; these kinds of things don't suit your position in society, you'll compromise your good name and your dignity in your work."

This obstacle overcome, other people will turn up who are thought to be pious, and perhaps even are pious, but who do not really believe in the power of God and his Spirit. They will tell you that if you start to live this way — giving so much time to prayer, avoiding gossip and idle chatter, doing works of charity — you will soon be thought a saint, a person of devotion, a spiritual person, and since you know well that you are not yet any of those things, you will end up deceiving people and being a hypocrite, drawing the reproof of God, who knows our heart.

We must respond to all these temptations with faith. "The hand of God is not too short to save!" (Isaiah 59:1) and, almost getting impatient with ourselves, exclaiming, like Augustine on the eve of his conversion: "If these men and women have done it, why can't I?" — "Si isti et istae, cur non ego?"[9]

5. Mary Said Yes

The example of the Mother of God suggests to bring this new drive to our spiritual life, to truly conceive and give birth to Jesus in us this Christmas. Mary says a decisive and total Yes to God. Great stress is put on Mary's "fiat," on Mary as "the Virgin of the 'fiat'." But Mary did not speak Latin and so did not say "fiat"; nor did she speak Greek and so did not say "genoito," which is the word we find at that point in Luke's Greek text.

If it is legitimate to go back, with a pious reflection, to the "ipsissima vox," to the exact word that came from Mary's mouth — or at least to the word that would be found at this point in the Judaic source that Luke used — this must have been the word "amen." Amen, a Hebrew word whose root means solidity, certainty — was used in the liturgy as a response of faith to God's word. Every time that, at the end of certain Psalms in the Vulgate we once read "fiat, fiat," now in the new version, translated from the original text, we read: "Amen, amen." This is also the case for the Greek word: in the Septuagint, at the end of the same Psalms, where we read "genoito, genoito," the original Hebrew has "Amen, amen!"

The "amen" recognizes that the word that has been spoken is firm, stable, valid and binding. Its exact translation, when it is a response to the word of God, is: "This is how it is and this is how it shall be." It indicates both faith and obedience; it recognizes that what God says is true and submits to it. It is saying "yes" to God. This is the meaning it has when it is spoken by Jesus: "Yes, amen, Father, because this was your good pleasure" (cf. Matthew 11:26). Jesus is, indeed, Amen personified: "Thus, he is the Amen" (Revelation 3:14), and it is through him, St. Paul adds, that every "amen" pronounced on earth ascends to God (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:20).

In almost all human languages the word that express consent is a monosyllable — sì, ja, yes, oui, da — one of the shortest words in the language but that with which both bride and groom and consecrated persons decide their lives forever. In the rite for religious profession and priestly ordination there is also a moment in which yes is said.

There is a nuance in Mary's Amen that is important to note. In modern languages we use verbs in the indicative mood to refer to something that has happened or will happen, and in the conditional mood to refer to something that could happen under certain conditions, etc. Greek has a particular mood called the optative mood. It is a mood that is used to express a certain desire or impatience for a particular thing to happen. The word used by Luke, "genoito," is in this mood!

St. Paul says that "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7) and Mary says her "yes" to God with joy. Let us ask her to obtain for us the grace to say a joyous and renewed Yes to God and so conceive and give birth to his Son Jesus Christ this Christmas.

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[1] Tertullian, "De carne Christi," 5,6 (CC, 2, p. 881).
[2] Origen, "Commentary on the Gospel of Luke," 22, 3 (SCh, 87, p. 302).

[3] Isaac of Stella, "Sermones," 51 (PL 194, 1863 f.).
[4] "Lumen Gentium," 64.

[5] St. Ambrose, "Expositio Evangelii Secundum Lucam," II, 26 (CSEL 32, 4, p.55).
[6] St. Maximus the Confessor, "Commentary on the Our Father," (PG 90, 889).

[7] St. Francis of Assisi, "Lettera ai fedeli," 1 (Fonti Francescane, n. 178).
[8] St. Bonaventura, "The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus," prologue (ed. Quaracchi 1949, pp. 207 ff.).

[9] St. Augustine, "Confessions," VIII, 8, 19.

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