Father Cantalamessa on Those Who Mourn

Delivers Advent Meditation in the Vatican

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 16, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Advent sermon delivered Friday by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.



Preaching in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel of the Apostolic Palace, Father Cantalamessa began a series of meditations on the beatitudes.

* * *

"Blessed are you who weep now!"
The beatitude of those who mourn

With this meditation we begin a cycle of reflections on the beatitudes which, if it pleases God, we will continue in Lent. Within the New Testament itself, the beatitudes have known a development and various applications as these were determined by the theology of the particular Gospel writer or the needs of the new community. The words that St. Gregory the Great says of Scripture in general are also applicable to the beatitudes: "Cum legentibus crescit,"[1] they grow with those who read them and never cease to reveal new implications and richer content, according to the circumstances and needs of the readers.

Being faithful to this principle means that even today we must read the beatitudes in the light of the new situations in which we find ourselves living. Yet, we must remember that the interpretations of the Gospel writers are inspired, and for this reason remain normative for us. Our contemporary interpretations do not share this prerogative.

1. A new relationship between pleasure and pain

Leaving aside the beatitude of poverty, which we meditated on during a previous Advent, we will concentrate on the second beatitude: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). In the Gospel of Luke, where the beatitudes, four in number, form a direct discourse and are reinforced with woes, the same beatitude is pronounced thus: "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh ... Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:21, 25).

There is a formidable message enclosed within in the structure of this beatitude. It permits us to see the revolution that the Gospel wrought in regard to the problem of pleasure and pain. The point of departure -- common to both religious and profane thought -- is the realization that pleasure and pain are inseparable in this life; they follow upon each other with the same regularity as the cresting and falling of waves in the sea.

Man tries desperately to detach these Siamese twins, to isolate pleasure from pain. But in vain. The same disordered pleasure turns back on him and transforms itself in suffering, either suddenly and tragically, or a little at a time, insofar as it is by nature ephemeral and generates exhaustion and nausea. It is a lesson that comes to us from the daily news and which man has expressed in a thousand ways in his art and literature. "A strange bitterness," wrote the pagan poet Lucretius, "emerges from the heart of every pleasure and disturbs us already in the midst of our delight."[2]

The Bible has an answer to give to this the true drama of human existence. From the very beginning man has made a choice, rendered possible by his freedom, that has brought him to orient his capacity for joy -- which was bestowed on him so that he would aspire to the enjoyment of the infinite good, who is God -- exclusively toward visible things.

In the wake of the pleasure that is chosen against God's law and symbolized by Adam and Eve who taste the forbidden fruit, God permitted that pain and death should come, more as a remedy than as a punishment. God wanted to prevent man, who would be moved by his instinct and an unbridled egoism, from destroying everything, including his neighbor. Thus, we see that suffering adheres to pleasure as its shadow.

Christ finally broke this bond. He, "in exchange for the joy that was placed before him submitted to the cross" (Hebrews 12:2). In other words, Christ did the contrary of what Adam did and what every man does. "The Lord's death," wrote Maximus Confessor, "different from the death of other men, was not debt paid for with pleasure, but rather something cast against pleasure itself. Thus, through this death, the fate merited by man was changed."[3] Rising from the dead he inaugurated a new type of pleasure: that which does not precede pain, as its cause, but that which follows on it as its fruit.

All of this is wondrously proclaimed by our beatitude which opposes the sequence weeping-laughter to the sequence laughter-weeping. This is not a simple temporal inversion. The difference, which is infinite, is in the fact that in the order proposed by Jesus, it is pleasure, and not suffering, that has the last word, that counts more, a last word that endures for eternity.

2. "Where is your God?"

But let us try to understand just who exactly are those who mourn and weep who Christ proclaims blessed. Today exegetes exclude, almost unanimously, that these are only those who are afflicted in a purely objective or sociological sense, people who Jesus would proclaim blessed simply because they are suffering and weeping. The subjective element, that is, the reason for the weeping, is decisive.

And what is this reason? The surest way to discover which weeping and which affliction are those which Christ proclaims blessed is to see why one weeps in the Bible and why Jesus wept. In this way we discover that there is a weeping of repentance like that of Peter after the betrayal. There is also a "weeping with those who weep" (Romans 12:15), that is, of compassion for the sorrows of others, as Jesus wept with the widow of Nain and with the sisters of Lazarus. There is likewise the weeping of the exiled who long for their homeland, as the Israelites wept along the rivers of Babylon. There are many others besides...

I would like to focus on two reasons for weeping in the Bible and for which Jesus wept, which seem to me particularly appropriate to meditate on in the time in which we live.

In Psalm 41 we read: "Tears are my bread day and night, as they daily say to me, 'Where is your God?' ... While my bones are broken, my enemies who trouble me have reproached me; they say to me all the day long, 'Where is your God?'"

This sadness of the believer, caused by the presumptuous denial of God that surrounds him, has never had more reason to exist than it does today. After the period of relative silence that followed the end of Marxist atheism, we are witnessing the return to life of a militant and aggressive atheism of a scientific and scientistic kind. The titles of some recent books speak eloquently of this: "The Atheist Manifesto," "The God Illusion," "The End of Faith," "Creation without God," "An Ethics without God."[4]

In one of these treatises we read the following declaration: "Human societies have developed various normative means for acquiring knowledge which are generally shared, and through which something can be accepted. Those who affirm the existence of a being that cannot be known through those instruments must take upon themselves the burden of proof. For this reason it seems legitimate to hold that, until the contrary is proved, God does not exist."[5]

With the same arguments we could demonstrate that love does not exist either, from the moment that it cannot be ascertained by the instruments of science. The fact is that the proof for God's existence is found in life and not in the books and laboratories of biology. First of all, in the life of Christ, and in the lives of the saints and of countless witnesses of faith. It is also found in the much derided signs and miracles that Jesus himself gave as a demonstration of his truth and that God continues to give but which atheists reject a priori, without trying to investigate them.

The reason for the sadness of the believer, as for the psalmist, is the impotence that he feels when faced with the challenge of those who say "Where is your God?" With his mysterious silence God calls the believer to share his weakness and defeat, allowing victory only under this condition: "The weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:25).

3. "They have taken away my Lord!"

No less painful for the Christian believer today is the systematic rejection of Christ in the name of an objective historical research which, in certain forms, degenerates into the most subjective thing one can imagine: "photographs of the authors and of their ideals," as the Holy Father notes in the introductory pages to his new book on Jesus. We are watching a race to see who succeeds in presenting a Christ who best measures up to the man of today, stripping him of every transcendental aspect. In answer to the question of the angels, "Woman why do you weep?" Mary Magdalene, on Easter morning, says, "They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where to find him" (John 20:13). This is a reason for weeping that we can make our own.

The temptation to clothe Christ in the garb of our own epoch or ideology has always existed. But in the past the causes were arguably serious and of a wide scope: Christ the idealist, the romantic, the liberal, the socialist, the revolutionary... Our time, obsessed as it is with sex, cannot but think of him as troubled by certain problems of desire. "Once again Jesus has been modernized, or better, postmodernized."[6]

It is good to know the origin of these recent currents which make Jesus of Nazareth a testing ground for the postmodern ideals of ethical relativism and absolute individualism (called deconstructionism) that are, directly or indirectly, inspiring novels, films and events and also influence historical investigations of Jesus. We can trace it to a movement that emerged in the United States in the final decades of the last century and that in the "Jesus Seminar" had its most active form.

This movement defined itself as "neo-liberal" on account of its return to the Jesus of the liberal theology of the eighteenth century, without any connection to Judaism or to Christianity and the Church; a Jesus who is a propagator of moral ideas, no longer of a universal scope, as in classical liberalism (the paternity of God, the infinite value of the human soul), but of a narrow wisdom, of a sociological rather than a theological nature. The aim of these scholars is no longer simply to correct but to destroy, as they say, "that mistake called Christianity."

The programmatic remarks made by the founder of the movement in 1985 is significant:

We are about to embark on a momentous enterprise. We are going to inquire simply, rigorously after the voice of Jesus, after what he really said. In this process, we will be asking a question that borders the sacred, that even abuts blasphemy, for many in our society. As a consequence, the course we shall follow may prove hazardous. We may well provoke hostility. But we will set out, in spite of the dangers, because we are professionals and because the issue of Jesus is there to be faced, much as Mt. Everest confronts the team of climbers.[7]

Jesus is liberated not only from the dogmas of the Church, but also from the Scriptures and the Gospels. What sources remain to speak of him at this point which are not pure fantasy? The apocrypha, naturally, and, in the first place, the Gospel of Thomas, indeed dated by them around 30 to 60 A.D., before all the canonical Gospels and before Paul. Another source would be the sociological analysis of the conditions of life in Galilee at the time of Christ.

What image of Jesus was extracted? I will cite some of the definitions that have been given, not all, naturally, shared by all: "an eccentric Galilean"; a "wise and subversive drifter"; the "master of an aphoristic wisdom"; "a Judean peasant soaked in the philosophy of cynicism."[8]

The mystery of how this innocuous individual ended up on the cross and became "the man who changed the world" remains to be explained. The truly sad thing is not that these things have been written (you need to invent something new if you want to continue to write books) but rather that, once published, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of these books are sold.

It seems to me that the incapacity of historico-philological research to link the Jesus of reality with the Jesus of the Gospel and ecclesiastical sources has to do with the fact that it ignores and does not concern itself with studying the dynamic of spiritual or supernatural phenomena. It would be like trying to hear a sound with your eyes or see colors with your ears.

The study and the experience of mystical phenomena (these too are real!) shows how a later development, in the life of a person or a movement started by him, can be contained in an event, sometimes a brief instant (when we are dealing with an encounter with the divine), the hidden potentialities of which are only revealed afterward in its fruits. Sociologists get close to this truth with the concept of a "nascent state."[9]

The child or adult man looks different from when he was an embryo at the beginning; and yet we know that in the embryo everything was contained. In the same way the kingdom is at the beginning "the smallest of seeds," but is destined to grow and become a great tree (Matthew 13:32).

The birth of the Franciscan movement lends itself to a comparison, one on a qualitatively different level of course. The Franciscan sources present differences and contradictions on nearly every point about the life of the Poverello (St. Francis): on the vision and the words of the crucifix of San Damiano, on the episode of the Stigmata. There is no word of the saint, except for those few written by his own hand, about which there is certainty that they came from his mouth. The "Fioretti" seem to be an idealization of history.

And yet all that which blossomed around and after Francis -- the Franciscan movement with its reflections in spirituality, in art, in literature -- stems from him; it is nothing but a manifestation -- even an impoverished one -- of the spiritual energies unleashed by his person and life; better, by that which God did in his life.

There are many, even among believing scholars, who take for granted that the real Jesus was, and understood himself to be, much less than that which is written about him in the Gospels, that this or that title is not to be attributed to him. The truth is that he is much more, not less, than that which is written about him! Who the Son is, is known only to the Father and, in small part, it is known to those to whom the Father chooses to reveal him, in general not the gifted and the wise, so long as they do not turn and become like children.

Paul spoke of experiencing "a great pain and continual suffering" in his heart for his fellow Jews who had rejected Jesus (Romans 9:1 ff); how can we not feel the same pain for his rejection by many of our contemporaries in the countries of ancient Christian faith? For a similar reason -- for not having recognized a friend and savior in him -- Jesus wept over Jerusalem.

Fortunately, it seems that a chapter in the studies of Jesus is finally closing and the page is being turned. In a work entitled "Los albores del cristianismo" (Christianity in the Making), destined to be a watershed as his previous studies have been, James Dunn, one of the best living scholars of the New Testament, after a careful analysis of the results of the last three centuries of research, comes to the conclusion that there was no rift between the Jesus who preached and the Jesus who was preached, between the Jesus of history and of faith. This faith was not born after Easter but in the first encounters with the disciples, who became disciples precisely because they believed in him, even though at the beginning it was a fragile faith, naive about its implications.

The contrast between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history is the result of a "flight from history," before it is a "flight from faith," due to the projecting onto Jesus of the interests and ideals of the moment. Yes, Jesus is freed from the garb of ecclesiastical dogma, but only to be put into the clothing of a fashion that changes from season to season. The immense effort expended on research into the person of Christ has nevertheless not been in vain since it is precisely thanks to it that now, with all the alternative solutions explored, we are able to critically reach this conclusion.[10]

4. "The priests weep, the ministers of the Lord"

There is another weeping in the Bible that we must reflect on. The prophets speak of it. Ezekiel recounts the vision he had one day. The powerful voice of God cries out to a mysterious person "dressed in linen with an inkwell in his hand": "Go through the whole city, through all of Jerusalem, and mark a tau on the forehead of all those who sigh and weep because of all the abominations that are committed there" (Ezekiel 9:4).

This vision has had a strong impact on revelation and on the Church. That sign, the tau, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, because of its cross-like form, became in the Book of Revelation the "seal of the living God" signed on the forehead of all those who are saved (Revelation 7:2 ff).

The Church has "wept and sighed" in recent times for the abominations committed in her womb by some of her own ministers and shepherds. She has paid a high price for this. She has sought to repair the damage. Strict rules have been laid down so that these abuses do not happen again. The moment has come, after the emergency, to do that which is the most important: to weep before God, to do penance, as God himself has been abused; to do penance for the offense against the body of Christ and the scandalizing of the "least of his brothers," more than for the damage and dishonor that has been brought upon us.

This is the condition for bringing good from this evil and for bringing about a reconciliation of the people with God and with its priests.

"Blow the trumpet in Zion, proclaim a fast, call a solemn assembly.… Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say: 'Spare, O Lord, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach with the nations ruling over them'" (Joel 2:15-17).

These words of the prophet Joel call out to us. Could we not perhaps do the same today: call a day of fasting and penance, at least at the local and national level, where the problem has been the worst, to publicly express repentance before God and solidarity with the victims, bring about the reconciliation of souls, and take up again the path of the Church, renewed in heart and in memory?

The words spoken by the Holy Father to the episcopate of a Catholic country in a recent ad limina visit give me the courage to say this. The Holy Father said that "the wounds caused by similar acts are profound, and the work to restore confidence and trust once these have been broken is urgent … In this way the Church will be strengthened and will be always more capable of bearing witness to the redemptive power of the Cross of Christ."[11]

But we must not leave this topic without a word of hope for the unfortunate brothers who have been the cause of the evil. In regard to a case of incest in the community of Corinth the Apostle declared: "Let this person be delivered up to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so that in the day of the Lord his spirit may obtain salvation" (1 Corinthians 5:5). (Today we would say: Let him be subjected to human justice so that his soul might obtain salvation.) The salvation of the sinner, not his punishment, was what concerned the Apostle.

One day when I was preaching to the clergy of a diocese that suffered much because of these things, I was struck by a thought. These brothers of ours have been stripped of everything, ministry, honor, freedom, and only God knows with what effective moral responsibility in individual cases; they have become the last, the rejected.… If in this situation, touched by grace, they do penance for the evil caused, they unite their weeping to that of the Church, then the blessedness of those who mourn and weep could become their blessedness. They could be close to Christ who is the friend of the last, more than others, me included, rich with their own respectability and perhaps led, like the Pharisees, to judge those who make mistakes.

There is something, however, that these brothers must absolutely avoid doing but which some, unfortunately, are attempting to do: profiting from the clamor to take advantage even of their own guilt, giving interviews, writing memoirs, in an attempt to put the guilt on their superiors and the ecclesial community. This would reveal a truly dangerous hardness of heart.

5. The most beautiful tears

Let us conclude with a look at a different kind of tears. It is possible to weep because of pain but it is also possible to weep because we are moved and to weep for joy. The most beautiful tears are those that fill our eyes when, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, "we taste and see how good the Lord is" (Psalm 34:9).

When we are in this state of grace we marvel that the world and we ourselves do not fall on our knees and, being moved and in a stupor, continually weep. Tears of this kind must have fallen from Augustine's eyes when in the "Confessions" he wrote: "How you loved us, good Father, to have not spared your only Son but to have given him up for all of us. How much you loved us!"[12]

Pascal shed such tears on the night that he had the revelation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who disclosed himself through the Gospel. Pascal wrote on a piece of paper (found sown into his jacket after his death): "Joy, joy, tears of joy!" I think that the tears with which the woman who was a sinner bathed the feet of Jesus were not only tears of repentance but also tears of gratitude and joy.

If in heaven it is possible to weep, then paradise is full of such weeping. In Istanbul, the ancient Constantinople, where the Holy Father traveled some days ago, St. Simeon the New Theologian lived, the saint of tears. He is the most luminous example in the history of Christian spirituality of tears of repentance that transform themselves into tears of wonder and silence. "I wept," he says in one of his works, "and I was in an indescribable joy."[13] Paraphrasing the beatitude of those who mourn, he says: "Blessed are they who always weep bitterly over their sins, for the light will catch hold of them and will transform their bitter tears into sweet."[14]

May God allow us to enjoy, at least once in our lives, these tears of emotion and joy.

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[1] Gregory the Great, "Commentary on Job," 20, 1 (CC 143 A, p. 1003).
[2] Lucretius, "De rerum natura," IV, 1129 s.
[3] Maximus Confessor, "Capitoli vari," IV cent. 39; in Filocalia, II, Torino 1983, p. 249.

[4] Respectively Michel Onfray, di Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Telmo Pievani, Eugenio Lecaldano.
[5] Carlo Augusto Viano, "Laici in ginocchio," Laterza, Bari.
[6] J.D.G. Dunn, "Gli albori del cristianesimo," I,1, Paideia, Brescia, 2006, p. 81. The first two volumes of the first part have appeared in Italian with the title "Albori del cristianesimo," I, La memoria di Gesú, vol. 1: Fede e Gesú storico; I, 2: La missione di Gesú (English title, "Christianity in the Making").

[7] Robert Funk, Opening remarks of March 1985, at Berkeley, California.
[8] Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "Gli albori del cristianesimo," I, 1, pp. 75-82.
[9] Cf. F. Alberoni, "Innamoramento e amore," Garzanti, Milano 1981.

[10] Cf. Dunn.
[11] Benedict XVI, Discourse to the bishops of the episcopal conference of Ireland, Saturday, 28 October, 2006.
[12] Augstine, "Confessions," X, 43.

[13] Simeon the New Theologian, "Thanksgivings," 2 (SCh 113, p. 350).
[14] Simeon the New Theologian, "Ethical Treatises," 10 (SCh 129, p. 318).