3rd Lenten Homily 2015

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


Fr. Cantalamessa's 3rd Lenten Homily 2015

East and West Before the Mystery of Christ

VATICAN CITY, 13 March 2015 (ZENIT)
Here is the third Lenten homily given this year by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa. The homily did not take place due to the Vatican holiday celebrating the 2nd anniversary of Pope Francis' election. 

* * *

1. Paul and John: Christ seen from two angles

In our effort to bring together the spiritual treasures of the Christian East and West, let us reflect today on our common faith in Jesus Christ. Let us seek to do that as people who know we are speaking about someone who is present and not absent. If it were not for our human dullness that impedes us, every time we pronounce the name of Jesus we should think that there is someone who hears himself called by name and that he turns around to look. He is here with us even this morning and is listening, let us hope with indulgence, to what we will say about him.

We begin with the biblical data about Jesus. In the New Testament we already see outlined two different ways of expressing the mystery of Christ. The first is St. Paul’s. Let us summarize the specific characteristics of this path that make it become a model and archetype of Christology in the development of Christian thought:

—First, this path starts from Christ’s humanity to arrive at his divinity, from history to arrive at his pre-existence. It is thus an ascending path. It follows the order of Christ’s manifesting of himself, the order by which people have come to know him rather than the order of being.

—Second, it starts from Christ’s duality (flesh and Spirit) to arrive at the unity of the subject “Jesus Christ our Lord.”

—Third, it has the paschal mystery at its center, that is, Christ’s work before the person of Christ. The great turning point between the two phases of Christ’s existence is the resurrection from the dead.

To be convinced of the accuracy of this characterization, we only need to reread the very dense passage—a kind of embryonic credo—with which the Apostle begins the Letter to the Romans. The mystery of Christ is summarized this way:

Descended from David according to the flesh

Designated the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness

By means of his resurrection from the dead,

Jesus Christ our Lord (see Rom 1:3-4)

The Christological hymn in Philippians 2 also speaks first of Christ in his status as a servant and then, after the resurrection, of Christ who is exalted as Lord. The concrete subject for Paul, even when he defines Christ as “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), is always the Christ of history even though the idea of his preexistence is anything but absent in him.

A quick look ahead allows us to see how these Pauline traits of Jesus will be combined and developed in the sub-apostolic generation. Flesh and Spirit, which originally indicated the two phases of the life of Christ—before and after the resurrection—will come to indicate, already in St. Ignatius of Antioch, the two births of Jesus, “from Mary and from God” and finally the two natures of Christ. Tertullian writes,

Here the apostle teaches the two natures of Christ. With the words “descended from David according to the flesh,” he indicates his humanity; with the words “designatedthe Son of God with power according to the Spirit” he indicates his divinity.[1]

Alongside this ascending path of the mystery of Christ, a descending path is added by St. John. We can summarize the characteristics of the second path this way:

—First, this path starts from Christ’s divinity to reach his humanity. The pattern is reversed. It is no longer “flesh—Spirit” but “Logos—flesh.” It is no longer first the human and visible and then the divine and invisible, but the opposite. John begins from the vantage point of Christ’s being, rather than from his manifestation to us, and according to Christ’s being, it is clear that his divinity precedes his humanity.

—Second, it is a path that starts from unity and arrives at a duality of elements: Logos and flesh, divinity and humanity; if we use later terminology, we would say it starts from the person to arrive at the natures.

—Third, the great divide, the pivot point around which everything else revolves, is the Incarnation, not the resurrection or the paschal mystery.

Concerning Christ, John is more interested in the person than the work, Christ’s being more than his acting, which includes the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. The paschal mystery essentially serves to reveal who Jesus is: “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he” (Jn 8:28). His existence with the Father is consistently placed before his coming into the world. Recalling the two great affirmations at the beginning of the Fourth Gospel is enough to demonstrate the validity of this brief reconstruction:

 In the beginning was the Word,

And the Word was with God,

And the Word was God. . . .

And the Word became flesh

And dwelt among us. (Jn 1:1, 14)

This briefly outlines the two tracks along which all the subsequent thinking of the Church about Christ will proceed. Despite the differences, there is a profound affinity and a reciprocal connection between the two paths, and so one can proceed in either direction. For both Paul and John there is a divine component and a human component in Christ even though he is one single subject. For both, he is the revealer and the redeemer for the whole world, even if John emphasizes him as revealer and Paul emphasizes him as redeemer. For both of them, our relationship with Christ is mediated and made possible by the Holy Spirit. It is by believing in Christ, they both say, that one receives the Spirit (see Gal 3:2; Jn 7:39) and by receiving the Spirit that one is able to believe in Christ (see 1 Cor 12:3; Jn 6:63).

Very soon, these two paths tend to become solidified, leading to two models or archetypes, and finally, in the fourth and fifth centuries, to two Christological schools. The first school I refer to is called Alexandrian, because of its major center in Alexandria in Egypt, and the other Antiochene because of the city of Antioch in Syria. The principal reason for their differences is not, as it was sometimes thought, that the Alexandrians were inspired by Plato and the Antiochenes by Aristotle but because the first are more inspired by John and the second by Paul.

None of the followers of either path is consciously choosing between Paul and John. Everyone is sure of having them both, and that is of course true. The fact remains, however, that the two currents remain quite visible and distinguishable, like two rivers merging together that remain distinguishable because of the different color of their respective waters. The difference between the two schools doesn’t consist in the fact that some follow Paul and others  follow John, but rather that some interpret John in the light of Paul and others interpret Paul in light of John. The difference is in the overall approach or in the fundamental perspective that is chosen to elucidate the mystery of Christ.

Together these two schools shaped the fundamental outlines of the Church’s Christological dogma. The synthesis between the two positions, as we know, occurred in the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, with the decisive contribution of the West represented by St. Leo the Great. Here the fundamental truth concerning the oneness of the person of Christ, developed at Alexandria and recognized by the Council of Ephesus, was joined with the fundamental insistence of the Antiochenes on the intact human nature of Christ. The two traditional paths were both recognized as valid, provided that they remained open to each other and connected to each other.

The way in which the definition of Chalcedon was formulated put this very principle into practice. The same mystery of Christ was in fact formulated there twice, in two different ways: first, in the Johannine and Alexandrian way, starting from the affirmation of unity and arriving at the affirmation of the distinction (“one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son must be acknowledged in two natures”), then in the Pauline and Antiochene manner, starting from the distinction of the natures and arriving at the affirmation of the unity (“the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one Person and one hypostasis”).[2] They arrived at the same conclusion from two different starting points.

2. The Image of Christ in East and West

We can ask ourselves, what happened after Chalcedon to the two paths or the two fundamental Christological models elaborated by these traditions? Did they disappear, leveled out by the dogmatic definition? On the theological level, from that time on there was certainly one faith in Christ common to East and West. St. John Damascus in the East[3] and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West both based their Christological syntheses on Chalcedon. In contrast to the differences that arose concerning the Trinity and the Holy Spirit, there were no significant doctrinal disagreements between Orthodoxy and the Latin Church about the doctrine of Christ.

If, however, we look beyond theology and dogmatic theology to other aspects of the life of the Church, we note that the two Christological models or archetypes did not in fact disappear. They were preserved and left their imprint, the first in Orthodox spirituality and the second in Latin spirituality. In other words, the Eastern Church has favored the Johannine and Alexandrian Christ and with it the centrality of the Incarnation, the divinity of Christ, and the idea of divinization. The Western Church has favored the Pauline and Antiochene Christ and with it the humanity of Christ and the paschal mystery.

There is no question here of a rigid separation. The influences are interwoven and vary from author to author, from era to era, and from place to place. Both churches believed—and rightly so—that they valued John and Paul together. Nevertheless, everyone admits that the Christ of the Byzantine tradition has different characteristics than the Christ of the Latin tradition.

Let us note certain facts that highlight this difference, beginning with the Eastern Christ. In art, the most characteristic image of the Orthodox Christ is the Pantocrator, the glorified Christ. This is the image the congregation contemplates in front of them in the apse of the great basilicas. It is clear that Byzantine art is familiar with the crucified Christ, but here the crucified Christ also has glorious, royal traits in which the realism of the passion is already transfigured in light of the resurrection. He is, in a word, the Johannine Christ, for whom the cross represents the moment of his being “exalted” (see Jn 12:32).

In the mystery of Christ, the event of the Incarnation continues to hold first place. Consistent with this emphasis, salvation is conceived of as a divinization of the human being through contact with the life-giving flesh of the Word. St. Symeon the New Theologian, for example, says in one of his prayers to Christ,

By descending from your lofty sanctuary without separating yourself from the bosom of the Father, and by being incarnated and born of the holy Virgin Mary, you already remolded and vivified me, freed me from the guilt of my forefathers, and prepared me to ascend into heaven.[4]

The essential event has already occurred with the Incarnation of the Word. The idea of divinization returns to the forefront through Gregory Palamas and will characterize “Christology in late Byzantium.”[5] So then, is the paschal mystery thereby somehow neglected? On the contrary, everyone knows the extraordinary importance that the celebration of Easter has for the Orthodox. But here again, there is a revealing sign:

the most valued aspect of the paschal mystery is not so much Christ’s self-abasement as his glory, the resurrection. It is not Good Friday but the Sunday of the resurrection that is more highly valued. From all points of view, the attention is on the glorified Christ, on Christ as “God.”

These characteristics are also found in the ideal of holiness that predominates in Eastern spirituality. The apex of holiness is seen here in the transformation of the saint into the image of the glorified Christ. In the lives of two of the more typical saints of Orthodoxy, St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Seraphim of Sarov, we find the mystical phenomenon of conformity to the luminous Christ of Tabor and of the resurrection. The saint appears almost transformed into light.

Now let us take a look at some aspects of Western spirituality. St. Augustine writes that of the three days that constitute the paschal Triduum, “The cross symbolizes our present life while we hold by faith and hope what is symbolized by the tomb and the resurrection.”[6] In other words, while we are in this life the crucified Christ is closer and more immediate to us than the risen Christ.

In art, the characteristic image of Christ in the West is in fact the crucified Christ. This is what towers over or hangs above the altar in churches. The representation of the Crucified One, at a certain point, departs from the glorious and royal model and takes on the realistic traits of real pain and even agony. He is the Pauline crucified Christ who on the cross became “sin” and a “curse” for us.

Starting with St. Bernard and then with St. Francis, devotion and attention to the humanity of Christ and to the different “mysteries” of his life take on great importance. The kenosis, or abasement of Christ, occupies first place and with it the paschal mystery. In this context the principle of “the imitation of Christ,” which had been at the center of Antiochene theology, finds its practical application. It is not surprising that the most famous book of spirituality produced by the Latin Middle Ages will be The Imitation of Christ. Contrary to any attempt to bypass Christ’s humanity and strive directly for union with God, St. Teresa of Avila will affirm that there is no stage of spiritual life in which we can disregard the humanity of Christ.[7]

The saints furnish a kind of practical comparison here as well. What is the sign of having reached the apex of holiness? It is not conformity to the glorious Christ of the Transfiguration but conformity to the crucified Christ. The Orthodox tradition does not have any examples of saints with the stigmata, like St Francis of  Assisi and others, while they have examples, as we have seen, of transfigured saints.

The Protestant Reformation, in some respects, took certain characteristics of this Western Pauline Christ and of the paschal mystery to extremes. It elevated the “theology of the cross” as the criterion for every theology, at times polemically against the “theology of glory.” Søren Kierkegaard will end up affirming that we can know Christ in this life only in his abasement.[8]

It is true that Luther and the Protestants, in polemic with medieval excesses of the imitation of Christ, affirmed that Christ is above all a gift to receive by faith rather than a model to imitate. But here again, which Christ is seen as the “gift” for us to receive by faith? Not the Logos who came down and became incarnate but the Pauline paschal Christ, the Christ “for me,” not the Christ “as he is in himself.”

I repeat: there will be trouble if we make these distinctions rigid; they will become false and anti-historical. For example, Byzantine spirituality includes a tradition of holiness whose followers are called “Fools for Christ” in which the assimilation to Christ in his kenosis is strongly emphasized. With these qualifications, there nevertheless remains an undeniable difference of emphasis. The East has preferred to follow the path outlined by John, the West the one outlined by Paul. But both, faithful to Chalcedon, have been able to embrace the other pole of the mystery in their vision, keeping the two paths connected.

The grace of the present moment is that this diversity is beginning to be seen as an enrichment and no longer as a threat. An Orthodox theologian has expressed the following opinion: If the Latin Christ is taken in isolation, there comes a conception of the Church that is too historical, earthly, and human; if the Orthodox Christ is taken in isolation, there comes a conception of the Church that is too eschatological, disincarnate, and not attentive enough to its historical duties. Because of this, he concludes, “In order for the catholicity of the Church to be authentic, it has to include East and West.”[9] 

It is not necessary, then, to eliminate or to level out the differences that we have noted. Once the legitimacy and the biblical character of the two different approaches are recognized, what is needed instead is an exchange of gifts, a respect and esteem for each other’s tradition. It is as if God had made two keys for us to attain the fullness of the Christian mystery and has given one to Eastern Christianity and the other to Western Christianity, so that neither can open and attain that fullness without the other.

In the city of Colmar in Alsace, there is a famous polyptych by Matthias Grünewald. When the two side panels are closed we see the crucifixion, but when they are open we see the resurrection on the opposite side. The crucifixion is impressively realistic; we see a Christ in agony with his fingers and toes contorted, jutting out like the twigs of a dried up tree; the body seems as if it has thorns and nails thrust into every part of it. It is one of those paintings of Christ about which Dostoevsky said that if someone looks at it for too long, it “might make some people lose their faith.”[10]

On the other hand, the Risen One appears on the other side immersed in such brilliant light that it hardly allows us to see the features of a human face. If we stay in front of this one too long, there is a risk, if not of “losing our faith,” of certainly losing our trust because this Christ appears distant from our experience of suffering. It leads to trouble, then, to divide this polyptych or observe only one side of it. It is an effective symbol of what should take place, on a greater scale, with the Orthodox Christ and the Western Christ. They must be held together.

3. United in love for Christ

Up until now we have proceeded under the guidance of the Fathers and testimonies from the past. More than anything else, we have outlined the history of the respective positions concerning the person of Christ. But this is not what will truly make us advance on the road to unity. It is not, in other words, the substantial doctrinal unity of faith, no matter how indispensable that is, that will achieve this. It will be unity achieved in love for Christ!

What deeply unites the Orthodox and the Catholics and that can make every difference become secondary is a shared, renewed love for the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Not, however, the Jesus of dogma, of theology, of the respective traditions, but the risen Jesus who is alive today. A Jesus who is for us a “you” and not a “he.” To use a distinction dear to a contemporary Orthodox theologian, it is not the personnage of Jesus but the person of Jesus that is significant here.[11]

There are two lungs in the human body, two eyes, two feet, two hands—these are all metaphors often used to describe the synergetic relation between East and West. But there is only one heart! The body that is the Church also has only one heart, and this heart must be love for Christ. Nicholas Cabasilas, one of the most beloved spiritual authors—and beloved not only by the Orthodox—writes,

From the beginning, human love, almost like a jewel case large and wide enough to receive God, was preordained for the Redeemer as its model and goal. . . .The desire of the soul leads uniquely to Christ. He is the place of its rest, since he alone is the Good, the Truth, and everything that inspires love (eros).[12]

Likewise, St. Benedict’s maxim has resonated in all of western monastic spirituality: “Put absolutely nothing before the love of Christ.”[13] This is not meant to restrict the horizon of Christian love from God to Christ. It means loving God in the way that he wants to be loved. This is not a mediated love, as if by proxy, such that for the one who loves Jesus it “is as if” he loved the Father. Jesus is an immediate mediator; in loving him, one ipso facto also loves the Father because he “and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30).

Since this is the Year of Consecrated Life, I would like to offer a particular thought about it. Allow me to repeat some reflections in this regard that I made a while ago in this very same venue, when I commented on the encyclical of Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est. In it the pontiff at that time affirms that love as gift and love as pursuit—agape and eros (this latter word is understood in its noble and not its vulgar sense)—are two inseparable components in the love of God for us and in our love for God. In recognizing this, the East has preceded the West,[14] which remained captive for a long time to the opposite thesis of the incompatibility of agape and eros.[15]

Love still suffers in this regard because of a harmful separation of agape and eros not only in the mind of the secularized world but also on the opposite side by believers and in particular by consecrated souls. In the world we often find eros without agape, and among believers we often find agape without eros. Eros without agape is a romantic love that is very often passionate to the point of violence. It is a love involving conquest that fatally reduces the other to being an object for one’s own pleasure and that ignores every dimension of sacrifice, fidelity, and gift of self, in other words, agape.

Agape without eros comes across to us a “cold love,” a love that comes “out of one’s head” more by an imposition of will than by an inner movement of the heart; it seems like a love that has been dropped down into a pre-established mold rather than a love that is developed by an individual that is unrepeatable, the way every human being is repeatable in God’s eyes. Acts of love toward God seem in this case like love letters to the beloved, written by certain inexperienced lovers, that are copied out of a special handbook.

True and whole-hearted love is a pearl enclosed between the two shells of eros and agape.  We cannot separate these two dimensions of love without destroying it. This is how the love of God for us is revealed in the Bible. It is not only forgiveness, mercy and gift of himself; it is also passion, desire, and jealousy. It is not only a paternal and maternal love but also a spousal love. He desires us; it almost seems that he cannot live without us. This is how Christ wants the love of his consecrated souls for him to be.

The beauty and the fullness of consecrated life depend on the quality of our love for Christ. Only that love is capable of defending us from the wanderings of the heart. Jesus is the perfect man; in him are found, to a vastly superior degree, all the qualities and attention that a man looks for in a woman or that a woman looks for in a man. The vow of chastity does not consist in a renunciation of marriage but in a preference for a different kind of wedding, in marrying “the most beautiful among the sons of men.” St. John Climacus writes, “The chaste man is someone who has driven out eros with Eros”[16]— that is, love for a man or a woman with love for Christ.

Let us conclude by listening to the most ancient hymn to Christ that is known outside of the Bible, which is still in use in the vespers of the Orthodox liturgy, as well as in Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran liturgies. It is still used when the lights are lit for vespers and is therefore called “the lamp-lighting hymn.”

O Gentle Light of the holy glory of the immortal,

heavenly, holy, blessed Father, O Jesus Christ:

Having come to the setting of the sun, having beheld the evening light,

we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God.

Meet it is for Thee at all times to be hymned with reverent voices,

O Son of God, Giver of life.

Wherefore, the world doth glorify Thee.[17]

Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson

[1] Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 27, 11 (CCL 2, p. 1199).

[2] See Denzinger, English ed., #302, p. 109.

[3] See John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (N. p.: Veritatis Splendor, 2012), 150-228.

[4] Symeon the New Theologian, Hymns and Prayers (SCh 196, p. 332).

[5] See John Meyendorff, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), 193-207. This phrase is the title of chapter 10 of his book.

[6] Augustine, Letters, 55, 14, 24 (CSEL 34, 1, p. 195).

[7] Teresa of Avila, Autobiography, 22, 1ff.

[8] See Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, trans. Howard and Edna Wong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 172ff.

[9] Petros B. Vassiliadis, in Vedere Dio: Incontro tra Oriente e Occident (Bologna: Dehoniane, 1994), 97.

[10] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, II, 4, trans. Henry and Olga Carlisle (New York: New English Library, 1969), 238.

[11] John Zizioulas, Du personnage à la personne, in L’être ecclésial (Genève: Labor et Fides, 1981), pp. 23-56.

[12] Nicholas Cabasilas, Life in Christ, II, 9 (PG 88, 560-561).

[13] Rule of St. Benedict, 4, prologue.

[14] See Paul Evdokimov, Orthodoxy (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2011), (original ed., L’Orthodoxie [Paris: Neuchâtel, 1959]).

[15] See Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros (English ed., 1932; repr., Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 1982).

[16] St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, XV (PG 88, 880).

[17] The Unabbreviated Horologion (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1992), 192–193.

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