Father Cantalamessa on Christ's Obedience

Second Lenten Sermon Given to Pontifical Household

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 31, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the second Lenten sermon preached this morning, before Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, at the Vatican.



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1. Sacrifice or obedience?

One cannot take in the ocean, but one can do something better: allow oneself to be taken in by it, submerging oneself anywhere in its expanse. This is what occurs with Christ's passion. The mind cannot wholly take it in, nor can its depth be seen, but we can submerge ourselves in some moments of its occurrence. In this meditation, we would like to enter in through the door of obedience.

Christ's obedience is the most salient aspect in the apostolic catechesis. "Christ became obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8); "by one man's obedience many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:8-9). Obedience appears as the key to the reading of the whole history of the passion, from where it takes its meaning and value.

To those who were scandalized that the Father could find satisfaction in the death on a cross of his Son Jesus, St. Bernard rightly responded: "It was not his death that satisfied him, but the spontaneous will of the one who was dying": "Non mors placuit sed voluntas sponte morientis."[1] Thus, it is not so much the death itself of Christ that has saved us, but his obedience unto death.

God wants obedience, not sacrifice, says Scripture (1 Samuel 15:22; Hebrews 10:5-7). It is true that in Christ's case, he also wanted sacrifice, and he wanted it likewise for us, but of the two one is the means, the other the end. God wants obedience for itself; he wants sacrifice only indirectly, as the condition that makes obedience possible and authentic. In this connection, the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christ "learned to obey through suffering." The passion was the proof and measure of his obedience.

Let us try to understand in what Christ's obedience consisted. As a child, Jesus obeyed his parents; as an adult he submitted himself to the Mosaic Law; during the passion he submitted himself to the Sanhedrin's and Pilate's sentence. However, the New Testament does not mention these obediences; it mentions Christ's obedience to the Father. St. Irenaeus interprets Jesus' obedience in the light of the Songs of the Servant, as an interior, absolute submission to God, carried out in a situation of extreme difficulty:

"That sin which had appeared thanks to the wood, was abolished thanks to obedience on the wood, as obeying God, the Son of Man was nailed on the wood, destroying the science of evil and introducing and having penetrate in the world the science of good. Disobedience to God is evil, as obedience to God is good. Therefore, in virtue of the obedience he rendered unto death, hanging from the wood, he eliminated the ancient disobedience that occurred in the wood."[2]

Jesus' obedience is exercised, in a particular way, in the words that are written about and for Him "in the law, in the prophets and in the psalms." When they want to oppose his capture, Jesus says: "But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?" (Matthew 26:54).

2. Can God obey?

But how can Christ's obedience be reconciled with faith in his divinity? Obedience is an act of the person, not of nature, and the person of Christ, according to orthodox faith, is that of the very Son of God. Can God obey himself? Here we touch upon the most profound core of the Christological mystery. Let us try to understand in what this mystery consists.

In Gethsemane Jesus says to the Father: "yet not what I will, but what Thou wilt" (Mark 14:36). The whole problem consists in knowing who that "I" and who that "you" is; who says the "fiat" and to whom it is said. In antiquity, two quite different answers were given to this question, according to the underlying type of Christology.

For the Alexandrian School, the "I" speaking was the person of the Word that, as incarnate, says his "yes" to the divine will -- the "you" -- that he himself has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He who says "yes" and he to whom he says "yes" constitute the same will, but considered in two times or in two different states: in the state of the incarnate Word and in the state of the eternal Word. The drama, if one can speak of such, takes place more within God than between God and man, and this because the existence is not yet clearly recognized of a human and free will in Christ.

More valid on this point is the interpretation of the Antiochian School. The authors of this School say that for obedience to take place there must be a subject that obeys and a subject to obey: No one obeys himself! As moreover Christ's obedience is the antithesis of Adam's disobedience, it must be a question of the obedience of a man, the New Adam, capable as such to represent humanity. Herein, then, are those who are that "I" and that "you"; the "I" is the man Jesus; the "you" is God, whom he obeys!

However, this interpretation also has a serious lacuna. If Jesus' "fiat" in Gethsemane is essentially a man's "yes," even if he is indissolubly united to the Son of God -- the "homo assumptus" -- how can it have a universal value so as to be able to "constitute" all men "just"? Jesus seems more a sublime model of obedience than an intrinsic "cause of salvation" for all those who obey him (Hebrews 5:9).

The development of Christology filled this lacuna, above all thanks to the work of St. Maximus the Confessor and of the III Constantinopolitan Council. St. Maximus affirms: the "I" is not humanity that speaks to the divinity (Antiochians); neither is it God who, in so far as incarnate, speaks to himself in so far as eternal (Alexandrians). The "I" is the incarnate Word who speaks in the name of the free human will he has assumed; the "you" instead is the Trinitarian will that the Word has in common with the Father.

In Jesus the Word obeys the Father humanly! And yet the concept of obedience is not annulled nor does God, in this case, obey himself, because between the subject and the end of obedience is the whole breadth of a real humanity and a free human will.[3]

God obeyed humanly! One then understands the universal power of salvation contained in Jesus' "fiat": it is the human act of a God; it is a divine-human, "teandrico" act. That "fiat" is truly, to use the expression of a psalm, "the rock of our salvation" (Psalm 95:1). It is because of this obedience that "all have been made just."

3. Obedience to God in Christian life

As always, let us try to extract some practical teaching for our life, remembering the invitation of the First Letter of Peter: "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." To reflect on obedience might contribute to create the appropriate spiritual climate in the Church every time one faces the eventuality of changes of persons and functions.

As soon as one tries to find in the New Testament in what the duty of obedience consists, a surprising discovery is made, that is, that obedience is seen almost always as obedience to God. There is also talk, of course, of the other forms of obedience: to parents, employers, superiors, civil authorities, "to the whole human institution" (1 Peter 2:13), but much less often and in a much less solemn manner. The substantive "obedience" itself is used only and exclusively to indicate obedience to God or, in any case, to instances that are on the part of God, except in one passage of the Letter to Philemon, where it indicates obedience to the Apostle.

St. Paul speaks of obedience to the faith (Romans 10:16,26), of obedience to the doctrine (Romans 6:17), of obedience to the Gospel (Romans 10:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:8), of obedience to the truth (Galatians 5:7), of obedience to Christ (2 Colossians 10:5). We find the same languages in other places: the Acts of the Apostles speak of obedience to the faith (Acts 6:7), the First Letter of Peter speaks of obedience to Christ (1 Peter 1:2) and of obedience to the truth (1 Peter 1:22).

But is it possible and meaningful to speak today of obedience to God, after the new and living will of God, manifested in Christ, has been expressed and fully objectified in a whole series of laws and hierarchies? Is it licit to think that there still exists, after all this, "free" wills of God that must be accepted and obeyed?

Only if one believes in an actual and punctual "Lordship" of the Risen One in the Church, only if one is convinced in one's heart of hearts that also today -- as the Psalm says -- "The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks ... and does not keep silent" (Psalm 50:1), only then is one able to understand the need and the importance of obedience to God. It consists of listening to God who speaks, in the Church, through his Spirit, which illuminates the words of Jesus and of the whole Bible and confers authority on them, making them channels of the living and actual will of God for us.

But as in the Church institution and mystery they are not opposed, but united, so we must show that spiritual obedience to God does not dissuade from obedience to the visible and institutional authority; on the contrary, it renews it, strengthens and vivifies it to the point that obedience to men is the criteria to judge if obedience to God does or does not exist and if it is authentic.

Obedience to God is like the "thread from on high" that sustains the splendid spider web hanging from a fence. Lowering himself by the thread that it itself has made, the little animal makes its fabric, perfect and stretching out to every corner. However, that thread from on high, which has served to weave the fabric, does not break once the work is finished; what is more, it is what sustains the whole framework; without it everything loosens. If one of the lateral threads becomes detached, the spider works to rapidly repair its fabric, but if that thread from on high breaks, the spider moves away; it knows that there is nothing to do.

Something similar occurs with respect to the network of authorities and obediences in a society, in a religious order, in the Church. Obedience to God is the thread from on high: All has been built around it; but it cannot be forgotten not even after the construction has ended. Otherwise, everything enters in crisis, until proclaiming, as has occurred in not very distant years: "Obedience is no longer a virtue."

But, why is it so important to obey God? Why does God want so much to be obeyed? Certainly not because he likes to command and have subjects! It is important because by obeying we do the will of God, we want the same things God wants, and thus we fulfil our original vocation, which is to be "in his image and likeness." We are in the truth, in the light and as a consequence in peace, as the body that has reached its point of stillness. Dante Alighieri enclosed all this in a verse considered by many the most beautiful of the whole "Divine Comedy": "and in loving him we find our peace."[4]

4. Obedience and authority

Obedience to God is obedience we can always carry out. To obey orders and visible authorities happens only occasionally, three or four times in one's whole life -- I am speaking, of course, of those of a certain seriousness; however, to obey God is something that occurs very often. The more one obeys, the more God's orders multiply, because he knows that this is the most beautiful gift that he can give, the one he gave his favorite Son, Jesus.

When God finds a soul determined to obey, then he takes his life in his hands, as one takes the rudder of a boat, or as one takes the reins of a cart. He becomes in deed, and not only in theory, "Lord," who "rules," who "governs," it can be said, moment by moment the person's gestures and words, his way of using time, everything.

This "spiritual direction" is exercised through "good inspirations" and with greater frequency even in God's words in the Bible. One reads or hears passages of Scripture and behold a phrase, a word, is illuminated, it becomes, so to speak, radioactive. One feels it questions one, that it indicates what one must do. Here one decides whether or not to obey God. The Servant of Yahweh says thus in Isaiah: "Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught" (Isaiah 50:4). We, too, every morning in the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass, should listen with an attentive ear. In it there is almost always a word that God addresses to us personally and the Spirit does not fail to act so that it will be recognized among all.

I have mentioned that obedience to God is something that can always be done. I must add that it is also obedience that we can all do, both subjects as well as superiors. It is usually said that one must obey to be able to command. It is not just question of an empirical affirmation; there is a profound theological reason at its base, if by obedience we understand obedience to God.

When an order comes from a superior who makes an effort to live in the will of God, who has prayed before and has no personal interests to defend, but only the brother's good, then the authority of God itself is the buttress of such an order or decision. If protest arises, God says to his representative what he said one day to Jeremiah: "Behold, I make you this day a fortified city ... and bronze walls [...]. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you" (Jeremiah 1:18f.).

A famous English exegete gives an enlightening interpretation of the Gospel episode of the centurion: "I," says the centurion, "am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it" (Luke 7:8). By the fact of being subject, that is, obedient, to his superiors and ultimately, to the emperor, the centurion can give orders which are backed by the authority of the emperor in person; he is obeyed by his soldiers because, in turn, he obeys and is subject to his superior.

So -- he says -- it occurs with Jesus in regard to God. Given that he is in communion with God and obeys God, he has behind him the very authority of God and because of this can command his slave to be healed, and he will heal; he can command the sickness to leave him, and it will leave him.[4]

It is the force and simplicity of this argument which draws Jesus' admiration and makes him say that he has never found such faith in Israel. He has understood that Jesus' authority and his miracles stem from his perfect obedience to the Father, as Jesus himself, moreover, explains in John's Gospel: "He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him" (John 8:29).

Obedience to God adds authority to power, that is, a real and effective power, not only nominal or of duty; ontological, so to speak, not only juridical. St. Ignatius of Antioch gave this wonderful advice to a colleague of his in the episcopate: "May nothing be done without your consent, but may you not do anything without God's consent."[5]

This does not mean to attenuate the importance of the institution or the duty, or to make the subject's obedience depend only on the degree of spiritual power or of the superior's authority, which would manifestly be the end of all obedience. It only means that the one who exercises authority must lean as little as possible, or only as a last resort, on the task or duty he carries out, and lean the most possible on the union of his will with God's, that is, on his obedience; the subject on the other hand must not judge or pretend to know if the superior's decision is or is not in conformity with God's will. He must presume it is, unless it is an order that is manifestly against conscience, as occurs sometimes in the political realm, under totalitarian regimes.

It occurs as in the commandment of love. The first commandment is the "first" because the source and incentive of everything is the love of God; but the criterion to judge is the second commandment: "he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). The same can be said of obedience: if one does not obey God's visible representatives on earth, how can one say one obeys God who is in heaven?

5. Present Matters to God

This way of obedience to God does not have, of itself, anything of the mystical or extraordinary, but is open to all the baptized. It consists of "presenting affairs to God," according to the advice that Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, gave him one day (cf. Exodus 18:19). I can decide on my own to take an initiative, to go or not go on a trip, to take or not take a job, to make or not make a visit, to incur or not incur an expense and then, once decided, to pray to God for the success of the matter.

But if love of obedience to God is born in me, then I will act in a different way: I will first ask God, with the very simple means of prayer, if it is his will that I undertake that trip, job, visit, expense and then I do or do not do it, but then it will already be, in any case, an act of obedience to God, and no longer a free initiative on my part. In general it is clear that I will not hear, in my brief prayer, any voice, nor will I have an explicit answer about what to do, or at least it is not necessary that there be one so that what I do will be obedience.

Acting thus, in fact, I have submitted the matter to God, I have despoiled myself of my will, I have given up deciding on my own and I have given God a possibility to intervene, if he so wills, in my life. What I now decide to do, regulating myself with the ordinary criteria of discernment, will be obedience to God.

Just as the faithful servant never takes an initiative or responds to an order from strangers without saying: "I must first hear my employer," likewise the true servant of God does not undertake anything without saying to himself: "I must pray a little to know what my Lord wants me to do!" Thus one relinquishes the reins of one's life to God! Thus the will of God penetrates, in an ever more capillary way in the fabric of a life, embellishing it and making it a living, holy and agreeable sacrifice to God" (Romans 12:1). The whole of life becomes obedience to God and proclaims silently his sovereignty in the Church and the world.

God -- said St. Gregory the Great -- "sometimes warns us with words, sometimes, instead, with events," that is, with incidents and situations.[6] There is an obedience to God -- often among the most exacting -- which consists simply in obeying the situations. When one has seen that, despite all the efforts and prayers, there are difficulties, at times even absurd situations in our lives and -- in our opinion -- spiritually counterproductive, which do not change, it is necessary to stop "kicking against the goad" and to begin to see in them God's silent but determined will in us. Experience teaches that only after having pronounced a total "yes" from the depth of one's heart to the will of God, do such situations of suffering lose the anguishing power they have over us. We live them with greater peace.

A case of difficult obedience to situations is the one that befalls all with age, that is, the withdrawal from activity, the cessation of function, having to pass witness to others leaving perhaps incomplete and in suspense projects and initiatives underway. There are those who, jokingly, have said that the highest function is a cross, but that at times the most difficult thing is not so much to ascend it, as to descend from it, to be deprived of the cross!

Of course it is not a question of speaking ironically about a delicate situation, before which no one knows how to react until it touches him. The latter is one of the obediences that is most akin to Christ's in his Passion. Jesus suspended teaching, truncated all activity, did not let himself be held back by the thought of what would happen with his disciples; he was not concerned about what would happen to his word, entrusted, as it was, only to the poor memory of some fishermen. He did not even let himself be held back by the thought that he was leaving his mother alone. No lament, no attempt to bring about a change in the Father's decision: "I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go hence" (John 14:31).

6. Mary, the obedient one

Before ending our considerations on obedience, let us contemplate for a moment the living icon of obedience, she who not only imitated the obedience of the Servant, but lived it with Him. St. Irenaeus writes: "In a parallel manner" -- understood as referring to Christ, the new Adam -- "one finds that also the Virgin Mary is obedient, when she says: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word' (Luke 1:38). As Eve, by disobeying became the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race, so Mary, by obeying, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race."[7] Mary appears to the theological reflection of the Church -- we are, in fact, in the presence of the first outline of Mariology -- through the title of obedient.

Mary also surely obeyed her parents, the law, Joseph. But it is not of these obediences that St. Irenaeus is thinking, but of her obedience to the Word of God. Her obedience is the exact antithesis of Eve's disobedience. But -- again -- whom did Eve disobey to be called the disobedient? Certainly not her parents, of which she was lacking; or her husband or some written law. She disobeyed the word of God! As Mary's "fiat" is situated in Luke's Gospel next to Jesus' "fiat" in Gethsemane (cf. Luke 22:42), so for St. Irenaeus, the obedience of the new Eve is placed next to the obedience of the new Adam.

No doubt, in her earthly life, Mary recited or heard the verse of the Psalm in which one says to God: "Teach me to do thy will" (Psalm 142:10). We address the same prayer to her: "Teach us, Mary, to do the will of God as you did!"

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[1] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "De errore Abelardi," 8, 21 (PL 182, 1070).

[2] St. Irenaeus, "Dimostrazione della predicazione apostolica," 34.

[3] St. Maximus the Confessor, "In Matth.," 26, 39 (PG 91, 68).

[4] Dante Alighieri, "Paradiso," 3, 85.

[5] Cf. C.H. Dodd, "Il fondatore del cristianesimo, Leumann," 1975, p. 59 f.

[6] St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Lettera a Policarpo," 4, 1.

[7] St. Gregory the Great, "Omelie sui vangeli," 17, 1 (PL 76, 1139).

[8] St. Irenaeus, "Adv. Haer.," III, 22, 4.

[Translation by ZENIT]