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On the Existence and Meaning of Christ, Yesterday and Today

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., Pontifical Household preacher, to Pope Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia, in preparation for Christmas, 2005

This is a five-part series.

Part One (First Part): Faith in Christ Today and at the Beginning of the Church 

Holy Father, I would like to say two things at this time: First to thank you for your confidence in asking me to continue in the office of Pontifical Household preacher, and to affirm my total obedience and fidelity to you, as Successor of Peter. 

I believe there is no more beautiful way of greeting the beginning of a new pontificate than to recall and try to reproduce the event in which Christ founded the primacy of Peter. Simon becomes Cephas, rock, in the moment that, by the Father's revelation, he professes his faith in the divine origin of Jesus. "On this rock -- as St. Augustine paraphrases Christ's words -- I will build the faith you have professed. I will build my Church on the fact that you have said: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."[1]


For this reason I have chosen "faith in Christ" as the theme of the Advent preaching. In this first meditation, I would like to sketch what I believe is the current situation in our society concerning faith in Christ and the remedy that the Word of God offers us to address it. In subsequent meetings we will meditate on what the faith in Christ of John, Paul, the Council of Nicaea and the lived faith of Mary, his Mother, says to us today. 

1. Presence-Absence of Christ 

What role does Jesus have in our society and culture? I think that in this regard, one can speak of a presence-absence of Christ. At a certain level -- that of the mass media in general, Jesus Christ is very present, he is no less than a "superstar," according to the title of a well-known musical about him. In an interminable series of stories, films and books, writers manipulate the figure of Christ, at times under the pretext of new phantomlike historical documents about him. 

"The Da Vinci Code" is the latest and most aggressive instance of this long series. It has already become a fashion, a literary genre. There is speculation on the vast resonance that Jesus' name has and on what he represents for a large part of humanity to ensure great publicity at low cost. And this is literary parasitism.

From a certain point of view, we can therefore say that Jesus Christ is very present in our culture. But if we look at the ambit of faith, to which he belongs in the first place, we note, on the contrary, a perturbing absence, if not an outright rejection of his person. 

Above all, at the theological level. A certain theological current maintains that Christ did not come for the salvation of Jews (for whom it would be enough to remain faithful to the Old Covenant), but only for the Gentiles. Another current maintains that he is not necessary either for the salvation of the Gentiles, the latter having, thanks to their religion, a direct relationship with the eternal logos, without needing to go through the incarnate word and his paschal mystery. We must ask, for whom is Christ still necessary? 

Even more worrying is what is observed in society in general, including those who define themselves "Christian believers." In what, in fact, do those in Europe and other places believe who define themselves "believers?" In the majority of cases, they believe in a supreme being, a creator; they believe in "the beyond." 

But this is a deist faith, not yet a Christian faith. Taking into account Karl Barth's well-known distinction, the latter is religion, not yet faith. Different sociological researches note this fact also in countries and regions of ancient Christian tradition, as the region in which I myself was born, in the Marcas. In practice, Jesus Christ is absent in this type of religiosity. 


Even the dialogue between science and faith, which has again become so timely, leads to putting Christ in brackets. The former, in fact, has God, the creator as object. The historical person of Jesus of Nazareth has no place there. The same occurs in the dialogue with philosophy, which loves to be concerned with metaphysical concepts more than historical realities.

In brief, what is repeated on a world scale is what occurred at the Areopagus of Athens, on the occasion of Paul's preaching. While the Apostle spoke about God "who made the world and everything that is in it" and of whom "we are also stock," the learned Athenians listened to him with interest; when he began to speak of Jesus Christ "risen from the dead," they answered with a polite "We will hear you again about this" (Acts 17:22-32). 

Suffice it to glance at the New Testament to understand how far away we are, in this case, from the original meaning of the word "faith" in the New Testament. For Paul, the faith that justifies sinners and bestows the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:2), in other words, salvific faith, is faith in Jesus Christ, in his paschal mystery of death and resurrection. Also for John, the faith that "overcomes the world" is faith in Jesus Christ. He writes: "Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:4-5). 

In face of this new situation, the first task is for us to be the first to make a great act of faith. "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33),

Jesus said to us. He did not only overcome the world of that time, but the world of always, in that which it bears in itself of opposition and resistance to the Gospel. Therefore, no fear or resignation. The recurrent prophecies about the inevitable end of the Church and of Christianity in the technological society of the future make me smile. We have a far more authoritative prophecy to adhere to: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Matthew 24:35)

​However, we cannot remain inert; we must put our hands to the task to respond in an appropriate manner to the challenges that faith in Christ faces in our time. To re-evangelize the post-Christian world it is indispensable, I believe, to know the path followed by the Apostles to evangelize the pre-Christian world! The two situations have much in common. And this is what I would now like to bring to light: How was the first evangelization carried out? What way did faith in Christ follow to conquer the world? 

2. Kerygma and Didache 

All the authors of the New Testament show that they presupposed the existence and knowledge, on the part of readers, of a common tradition (paradosis) which goes back to the earthly Jesus. This tradition presents two aspects, or two components: a component called "preaching," or announcement (kerygma) which proclaims what God has wrought in Jesus of Nazareth, and a component called "teaching" (didache) which presents ethical norms for correct conduct on the part of believers.[2]


Several Pauline letters reflect this distribution, because they contain a kerygmatic first part, from which a second part derives of a parenetic or practical character. [3]; The preaching, or kerygma, is called the "gospel"


the teaching, or didache, instead is called the "law," or the commandment of Christ that is summarized in charity.[4]

These two things, the first -- the kerygma, or gospel -- is what gives origin to the Church; the second -- the law, or the charity that springs from the first, is what draws for the Church an ideal of moral life, which "forms" the faith of the Church. In this connection, the Apostle distinguishes before the Corinthians his work of "father" in the faith from that of the "pedagogues" who came after him. He says: "For it is I, through the Gospel, who has begotten you in Christ Jesus" (1 Corinthians 4:15). 

Therefore, faith as such flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, or the announcement. "How are they to believe -- writes the Apostle speaking of faith in Christ -- in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" Literally, "without some one who proclaims the kerygma" (choris keryssontos). And he concludes: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Romans 10:17), where by "preaching" the same thing is understood, that is, the "gospel" or kerygma. 


In the book "Introduction to Christianity," the Holy Father Benedict XVI, then professor of theology, shed light on the profound implications of this fact. He wrote: "In the formula 'faith comes from hearing' ... the fundamental distinction between faith and philosophy is clearly considered ... In faith the word takes precedence over thought ... In philosophy, thought precedes the word; the latter therefore is a product of reflection, which one then attempts to express in words ... Faith instead always comes to man from the outside -- it is not an element thought-out by the individual, but said to him, which comes to him not as thought-out or thinkable, questioning him and committing him."[5] 

[1] St. Augustine, Sermon 295,1 (PL 38,1349). 


[2] Cf. C.H. Dodd, "Storia ed Evangelo" (History and Gospel), Brescia, Paideia, 1976, pp. 42 ff. 


[3] Cf., for example, Mark 1:1; Romans 15:19; Galatians 1:7. 


[4] Cf. Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 7:25; John 15:12; 1 John 4:21. 


[5]  J. Ratzinger, "Introduzione al Cristianesimo" (Introduction to Christianity), Brescia, Queriniana, 1969, pp. 56 f. 


[Translation by ZENIT]

Part One (Second Part):
What Place Does Christ Occupy in My Life?

Faith comes therefore from listening to preaching. But what is, precisely, the object of "preaching"? It is known that on the lips of Jesus it is the great news that is the background of his parables and from all his teachings springs: "The Kingdom of God has come to you!" But, what is the content of the preaching on the lips of the apostles? The answer: the work of God in Jesus of Nazareth! It is true, but there is something that is even more concrete, which is the germinating nucleus of everything and that, in regard to the rest, is like the plowshare, that kind of sword in front of the plow that first breaks the earth and allows the plow to mark out the furrow and turn over the earth.

This more concrete nucleus is the exclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" pronounced and accepted in the wonder of a "statu nascenti" faith, namely, in the very act of being born. The mystery of this word is such that it cannot be pronounced "except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). It alone can bring one to salvation who believes in his resurrection: "because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9)


"Like the wake of a ship," Charles Péguy would say, "it enlarges until it disappears and is lost, but it begins with a point that is the point of the ship itself," so -- I add -- the preaching of the Church goes enlarging itself, until it is an immense doctrinal edifice, but it begins with a point and that point is the kerygma: "Jesus is the Lord!" 

Therefore that which in Jesus' preaching was the exclamation "the Kingdom of God has come!" in the preaching of the apostles is the exclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" And yet there is no opposition, but perfect continuity between the Jesus that preaches and the Christ preached, because to say: "Jesus is the Lord!" is as if to say that in Jesus, crucified and risen, the kingdom and sovereignty of God over the world has at last been realized. 


We must understand each other well so as not to fall into an unreal reconstruction of the apostolic preaching. After Pentecost, the apostles did not go around the world repeating always and only: "Jesus is the Lord!" What they did when they found themselves announcing the faith for the first time in a specific environment was, rather, to go directly to the heart of the Gospel, proclaiming two events: Jesus died -- Jesus rose, and the motive for these two events: he died "for our sins," he rose "for our justification" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:4; Romans 4:25). Dramatizing the issue, in the Acts of the Apostles Peter does no more than repeat to those who listened to him: "You killed Jesus of Nazareth; God has resurrected him, making him Lord and Christ." [6]


The proclamation: "Jesus is the Lord!" is nothing other therefore than the conclusion -- now implicit, now explicit -- of this brief history, recounted in an always living and new way, though substantially identical, and is at the same time that in which this history is summarized and becomes operative for the one who hears it. "Christ Jesus ... emptied himself ... and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him ... that at the name of Jesus ... every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:6-11)


The proclamation "Jesus is the Lord!" alone, does not constitute therefore the entire preaching, but it is its soul and so to speak the sun that illuminates it. It establishes a kind of communion with the history of Christ through the "particle" of the word and makes one think, by analogy, in the communion that takes place with the body of Christ through the particle of bread in the Eucharist.

To come to faith is the sudden and astonished opening of the eyes to this light. Recalling the moment of his conversion, Tertullian described it as the coming forth from a great dark womb of ignorance, startled by the light of Truth.[7]


It was like the opening of a new world; the First Letter of Peter describes it as being called "out of darkness into marvelous light" (2 Peter 2:9; Colossians 1:12ff.). 


The kerygma, as the exegete Heinrich Schlier well explained, has an assertive and authoritative character, not discursive or dialectical. It has no need, therefore, to justify itself with philosophic or

apologetic reasoning: It is accepted or it is not accepted, and that's it. It is not something which can be disposed of, because it is what disposes everything; it cannot be founded by someone, because it is God himself who founds it and it is that which later becomes the foundation of existence.[8]


 Indignant, the pagan Celsius, in the second century, in fact wrote: "Christians behave like those who believe without reason. Some of them do not want either to give or receive a reason around which they believe and use formulas like these: 'Do not discuss, but believe; faith will save you. The wisdom of this century is an evil and simplicity is a good."[9] 


Celsius (who here seems to be extraordinarily close to the modern partisans of weak thought) would like, in essence, Christians to present their faith in a dialectical manner, subjecting it, that is, in everything and for everything, to investigation and discussion, so that it can enter the general framework, also acceptable philosophically, of an effort of self-understanding of man and of the world which will remain always provisional and open.


Naturally, Christians' refusal to give proofs and accept discussions did not refer to the whole itinerary of faith, but only to its beginning. Neither did they avoid, in that apostolic age, confrontation or giving an "account for the hope" that was in them (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) also to the Greeks (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). Apologists of the second-third century are the confirmation of it. They only thought that faith itself could not arise from that confrontation, but that it should precede it as a work of the Spirit and not of reason. The latter could, at most, prepare it and, once accepted, show its "reasonability." 


We have seen that, in the beginning, the kerygma was distinguished from the teaching (didache) as well as from the catechesis. The last things tend to form the faith, or to preserve its purity, while the kerygma tends to awaken it. It has, so to speak, an explosive or germinating character; it is more like the seed that gives origin to the tree than to the ripe fruit that is at the top of the tree and that, in Christianity, is constituted rather by charity. The kerygma is not obtained at all by concentration, or by summary, as if it was the core of the tradition; but it is apart, or better, at the beginning of everything. From it all the rest is developed, including the four Gospels.


On this point an evolution was interrupted due to the general situation of the Church. In the measure that one moves to a regime of Christianity, in which everything around one is Christian, or considers itself as such, one is less aware of the importance of the initial choice by which one becomes a Christian, so much so that baptism is normally administered to children, who do not have the capacity to make it their own choice. What is most accentuated of faith is not so much the initial moment, the miracle of coming to faith, but rather the fullness and orthodoxy of the contents of faith itself.

3. Rediscover the Kerygma 

This situation greatly affects evangelization today. The Churches with a strong dogmatic and theological tradition (as the Catholic Church is par excellence), run the risk of finding themselves at a disadvantage if underneath the immense patrimony of doctrine, laws and institutions, they do not find that primordial nucleus capable of awakening faith by itself. 


To present oneself to the man of today, often lacking any knowledge of Christ, with the whole range of this doctrine is like putting one of those heavy brocade capes all of a sudden on the back of a child. We are more prepared by our past to be "shepherds" than to be "fishers" of men; that is, better prepared to nourish people that come to the Church then to bring new people to the Church, or to catch again those who have fallen away and live outside of her. 

This is one of the reasons why in some parts of the world many Catholics leave the Catholic Church for other Christian realities; they are attracted by a simple and effective announcement that puts them in direct contact with Christ and makes them experience the power of his Spirit. 


If on one hand one must rejoice that these persons have found an experienced faith, on the other it is sad that to do so they have left their Church. With all the respect and esteem we must have for these Christian communities not all of which are sects (with some of them the Catholic Church has maintained an ecumenical dialogue for years, something that it certainly would not do with sects!), it must be said that the former do not have the means that the Catholic Church has to lead people to the perfection of Christian life. 

In many people, everything continues to turn, from the beginning to the end, around the first conversion, the so-called new birth, whereas for us, Catholics, this is only the beginning of Christian life. After that must come catechesis and spiritual progress, which implies self-denial, the night of faith, the cross, until the resurrection. The Catholic Church has a very rich spirituality, innumerable saints, the magisterium and, above all, the sacraments. 

It is necessary, therefore, to propose the fundamental announcement clearly and sparely at least once among us, not only to the catechumens, but to all, given that the majority of today's believers have not gone through the catechumenate. The grace that some of the new ecclesial movements constitute at present for the Church consists precisely in this. They are the place where adult persons at last have the occasion to hear the kerygma, renew their own baptism, consciously choose Christ as their own personal Lord and Savior and commit themselves actively in the life of their Church.

The proclamation of Jesus as Lord should find its place of honor in all the intense moments of Christian life. The most propitious occasion is, perhaps, funerals, because in the face of death man questions himself, has an open heart, is less distracted than on other occasions. Nothing speaks so precisely to man about the problem of death as does the Christian kerygma. 


The kerygma resounds, it is true, in the most solemn moment of every Mass: "We proclaim your death and resurrection, come Lord Jesus!" But, on its own, the latter is a simple formula of acclamation. It has been said that "the Gospels are accounts of the Passion preceded by a long

Introduction" (M. Kähler). However, strangely, the original and most important part of the Gospel is the least read and heard in the course of the year. On no day of obligation, with a multiplicity of people, is the Passion of Christ read, except on Palm Sunday in which, because of the length of the reading and solemnity of the rites, there is no time to pronounce a consistent homily on the subject! 

Now that there are no longer popular missions as there once were, it is possible that a Christian will never hear in his life a sermon on the Passion. However, it is precisely this sermon which normally opens hardened hearts. This was demonstrated on the occasion of the showing of Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ." There were cases of detained persons, who always denied their guilt, who, after seeing the film, confessed their crime spontaneously. 

4. To Choose Jesus as Lord 

We began with the question: "What place does Christ have in present-day society?" But we cannot end without asking ourselves the most important question in a context such as this: "What place does Christ occupy in my life?" Let's call to mind Jesus' dialogue with the apostles in Caesarea Philippi: "Who do men say the Son of man is? ... But who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:13-15).


The most important thing for Jesus does not seem to be what the people think of him, but what his closest disciples think of him. I referred earlier to the objective reason that explains the importance of the proclamation of Christ as Lord in the New Testament: It makes present and operative in the one who pronounces it the salvific events that it recalls. But there is also a subjective and existential reason. To say "Jesus is the Lord!" means, in fact, to make a decision. It is as though saying: Jesus Christ is "my" Lord; I recognize his full right over me, I hand the reins of my life over to him; I do not want to live any more "for myself," but "for him who died and rose for me" (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15). 

To proclaim Jesus as one's Lord means to subject to him all the region of our being, to make the Gospel penetrate everything we do. It means, to recall a phrase of the venerated John Paul II, "to open, more than that, to open wide the doors to Christ." 

I have been at times the guest of families and have seen what happens when the portable phone rings and an unexpected visitor is announced. The owner of the house hastens to close the doors of the room in disorder, with the bed unmade, in order to take the guest to the most welcoming place. With Jesus, the exact opposite must be done: We must open to him precisely life's "rooms in disorder," above all the room of intentions. For whom do we work and why do we do so? For ourselves or for Christ, for our glory or for Christ's? It is the best way this Advent to prepare a welcoming crib for Christ who comes at Christmas. 

[6] Cf. Acts 2:22-36; 3:14-19; 10:39-42. 
[7] Tertullian, "Apologeticum," 39,9: "ad lucem expavescentes veritatis." 
[8] H. Schlier, "Kerygma e Sophia" (Kerygma and Wisdom), in "Il Temp della Chiesa" (The Time of the Church), Bologna, 1968,
pp. 330-372. [9] Origin, "Contra Celsum," I,9. [Translation by ZENIT]
Part Two: "Do You Believe?" -- The Divinity of Christ in St. John's Gospel 
1. "Unless you believe that I am he ..." 

One day I was celebrating Mass in a cloistered monastery. It was at Easter time. The evangelical passage was John's page in which Jesus repeatedly says "I Am": "you will die in your sins unless you believe that I Am he ... When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I Am he ... before Abraham was, I Am" (John 8:24,28,58). 

The fact that the words "I Am," contrary to all grammatical rules, were both written in capital letters, united undoubtedly to some other more mysterious cause, ignited a spark. That word was illuminated within me. It was no longer the Christ of 2,000 years ago who was pronouncing it, but the risen and living Christ who again proclaimed at that moment before us his "Ego Eimi," "I Am!" The word acquired cosmic resonance. It was not a simple emotion of faith, but one of those emotions that, having passed, left an indelible memory in the heart. 

I have begun with this personal reminiscence because the subject of this meditation is faith in Christ in John's Gospel, and the "I Am" of Christ is the highest expression of such faith. Modern commentaries on the fourth Gospel are unanimous in seeing in those words of Jesus an allusion to the divine name, as it presents itself, for example, in Isaiah 43:10: "That you may know and believe me and understand that I am He." 

St. Augustine related this word of Jesus with the revelation of the divine name in Exodus 3:14, and concluded: "I think that the Lord Jesus Christ, when saying: 'If you do not believe that I Am,' did not wish to say anything more to us than this: 'Yes, if you do not believe that I am God, you will die in your sins.'"[1] 

It could be objected that these are St. John's words, late developments of the faith, which have nothing to do with Jesus. But the point is precisely here. They are, in fact, Jesus' words, certainly of the risen Jesus who is alive and now speaks "in the Spirit," but always Jesus' -- the same Jesus of Nazareth. 

Today Jesus' words in the Gospels are distinguished between "authentic" and "non-authentic," that is, in words truly pronounced by him during his life, and in words attributed to him by the apostles after his death. But this distinction is very ambiguous and not valid in Christ's case, as it is in the case of a common human author. 

Obviously, it is not a question of casting doubt on the fully human and historical character of the New Testament writings, the diversity of the literary genres and the "forms," and much less so of going back to the old idea of verbal and almost mechanical inspiration of the Scriptures. It is only a question of knowing whether or not biblical inspiration still has meaning for Christians; if, at the end of a biblical reading we exclaim: "Word of God!" we believe what we say. 

2. "The Work of God Is to Believe in the One He Sent" 

According to John, Christ is the specific and primary object of belief. "To believe," without any other specifications, already means to believe in Christ. It can also mean to believe in God, but inasmuch as he is the God who has sent his Son to the world. Jesus addresses people who already believe in the true God; all his insistence on faith is about this that is new, which is his coming to the world, his speaking in the name of God. In a word, his being the only-begotten Son of God, "one with the Father." 

John made Christ's divinity and his divine filiation the primary objective of his Gospel, the subject that unifies everything. He concludes his Gospel saying: "These signs are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31), and he

ends his first letter almost with the same words: "I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13).


A quick glance at the fourth Gospel shows how faith in the divine origin of Christ is at once its warp and woof. To believe in the one the Father has sent is seeing as "the work of God," what pleases God, absolutely (cf. John 6:29). Not to believe in him is seen, consequently, as "the sin" par excellence: "The counselor -- it is said -- will convince the world of sin," and sin is not to have believed in him (John 16:8-9). Jesus asks for himself the same kind of faith that was asked for God in the Old Testament: "believe in God, believe also in me" (John 14:1). 

Also after his disappearance, faith in him will remain as the great dividing line within humanity: on one hand will be those who believe without having seen (cf. John 20:29) and on the other, will be the world that refuses to believe. In the face of this distinction, all the others known earlier, including that between Jews and Gentiles, become secondary. 

One cannot but be astonished before the undertaking that the spirit of Jesus enabled John to accomplish. He embraced the subjects, the symbols, the expectations, all that was religiously alive, both in the Judaic world as well as the Hellenic, making all this serve a single idea, better, a single person: Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior of the world.

Reading the books of some scholars, dependent on the "School of History of Religions," the Christian mystery presented by John would not be distinguished from the Gnostic and Mandaean religious myth, or from Hellenistic and hermetic religious philosophy, except in matters of little importance. The limits are lost and the parallelisms multiply. The Christian faith becomes a variant of this changing mythology and diffuse religiosity. 

But what does this mean? It means that one omits the essential: the life and historical force that lies behind the systems and representations. Living persons are different from one another, but skeletons all look alike. Once reduced to a skeleton, isolated from the life it has produced, that is, from the Church and the saints, the Christian message always runs the risk of being confused with other religious proposals, while it is "unmistakable." 

John has not given us a set of ancient religious doctrines, but a powerful kerigma. He learned the language of the men of his time to cry out in it, with all his strength, the only saving truth, the Word par excellence, "the Word." 


An enterprise such as this is not carried out at a desk. The Johannine synthesis of faith in Christ was "focused," under the influence of that "anointing of the Holy Spirit who teaches all things," of which John himself speaks, surely from personal experience, in the first letter (cf. 1 John 2:20,27). Precisely because of this origin, John's Gospel, also today, is not understood seated at a desk, with four or five dictionaries for consultation. 


Only a revealed certainty, which has behind it the authority and very force of God, could be displayed in a book with such insistence and coherence, coming, from a thousand different points, always to the same conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. 

3. "Blessed Is He Who Takes No Offense at Me" 

Christ's divinity is the highest summit, the Everest of faith. Much more difficult than simply to believe in God. This difficulty is linked to the possibility and, even more so, to the inevitableness of the "scandal." "Blessed is he -- says Jesus -- who takes no offense at me!" (Matthew 11:6). The scandal depends on the fact that he who proclaims himself "God" is a man about whom everything is known: "We know where he comes from," say the Pharisees (John 7:27). 

The possibility of scandal must have been especially intense for a young Jew like the author of the fourth Gospel, accustomed to think of God as the thrice holy, the one whom one cannot see and remain alive. But the contrast between the universality of the Logos, and the contingency of the man Jesus of Nazareth,  

seems extremely striking, even for the philosophic mentality of the time. "Son of God" -- exclaimed Celsus -- "a man who lived a few years ago? One of yesterday or the day before?" A man "born in a village of Judea, of a poor spinner"? [2] This scandalized reaction is the most obvious proof that faith in the divinity of Christ is not the fruit of the Hellenization of Christianity, but if anything of the Christianization of Hellenism.

Also in this connection, illuminating observations are read in the "Introduction to Christianity" of the present Supreme Pontiff: "With the second article of the Creed we are faced with the authentic scandal of Christianity. It is constituted by the confession that the man-Jesus, an individual executed about the year 30 in Palestine, is the 'Christ' (the anointed, the chosen One) of God, more than that, no less than the very Son of God, therefore focal center, determinant point of support of the whole of human history. ... Is it really right for us to cleave to the fragile stem of only one historical event? Can we run the risk of entrusting our whole existence, more than that, the whole of history, to this blade of straw of an event, which floats in the infinite ocean of the cosmic vicissitude?"[3]

It is known how much this idea, in itself already unacceptable to ancient and Asian thought, meets with resistance in the present context of interreligious dialogue. A particular event -- it is observed -- limited in time and space, as is the historical person of Christ, cannot exhaust the infinite potentialities of salvation of God and of his eternal Word; it is also true that he can accomplish, from such potentialities, all that suffices for the salvation of the world, he too being infinite!

But in the last analysis, the scandal is only surmounted with faith. Historical proofs of the divinity of Christ and of Christianity are not enough to eliminate it. One cannot really believe -- wrote Kierkegaard -- except in situations of contemporaneousness, making oneself contemporaneous with Christ and his apostles. But do not history and the past help us to believe? Did Christ not live two thousand years ago? Is his name not proclaimed and believed in the whole world? Has not his doctrine changed the face of the world and penetrated victoriously in every environment? And has not history established more than sufficiently that he was God? 

No, replies the same philosopher. History could not do this in the whole of eternity! It is not possible, from the results of a human existence, as was that of Jesus, to conclude saying: Ergo, this man was God! A track on a path is a consequence of the fact that some one has passed through there. I could deceive myself believing, for example, that it was a bird. On closer examination, I might conclude that it was not a bird, but another animal. But I cannot, no matter how much more I examine it, come to the conclusion that it is neither a bird nor another animal but a spirit, because a spirit, by nature, cannot leave tracks on the path. 


Similarly we cannot draw the consequence that Christ is God by simply examining what we know about him and his life, namely, through direct observation. Whoever wants to believe in Christ is obliged to make himself his contemporary in his abasement, hearing the "internal testimony" that the Holy Spirit gives us about him. 

As Catholics we must have some reservations in this way of posing the problem of the divinity of Christ. What is missing is the relevance due to the resurrection of Christ, in addition to his abasement, and sufficient account is not taken of the external testimony of the apostles, in addition to the "internal testimony of the Holy Spirit." But there is in the former an important element of truth that we must keep in mind to make our faith ever more authentic and personal. 

St. Paul says that "man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved" (Romans, 10:10). The second moment, the profession of faith, is important, but, if it is not accompanied by that first moment which develops in the hidden depths of the heart, the former is vain and empty. "It is from the roots of the heart that faith arises," exclaims St. Augustine, paraphrasing the Pauline "corde creditur" (belief with the heart).[4] 


The social and community dimension is certainly essential in Christian faith, but it must be the result of many personal acts of faith, if it is not to be a purely conventional and fictitious faith. 

4. "I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life" 

This faith "of the heart" is the fruit of a special anointing of the Spirit. When one is under this anointing, to believe becomes a kind of knowledge, vision, interior illumination: "We have believed, and have come to know" (John 6:69); "We have looked upon the Word of life" (cf. 1 John 1:1). You hear Jesus affirm: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by me," (John 14:6) and feel within yourself, with all your being, that what you hear is true. 


Recently I came across an impressive case of this illumination of faith, which occurred precisely thanks to this word of Jesus transmitted by John. I met an Swiss artist in Milan who had enjoyed friendship with the best-known philosophical and artistic personalities of his time, and who had held personal exhibitions of paintings of different parts of the world (one of his paintings was exhibited and acquired by the Vatican on the occasion of Paul VI's 80th birthday). 

His passionate religious search had led him to adhere to Buddhism and Hinduism. After long stays in Tibet, India and Japan, he became a master in these disciplines. In Milan he had a whole group of professionals and men of culture who sought his spiritual direction and practiced transcendental meditation and yoga with him.

His return to faith in Christ seemed immediately to me an extraordinarily timely testimony, and I very much insisted that he put it in writing. I just recently received his manuscript and I would like to read a small fragment from it. It helps, among other things, to understand what Saul must have experienced on the road to Damascus before the light, which in an instant destroyed his entire interior world and replaced it with another. 

"I was alone, in a dense forest, when that interior revolution occurred that changed all my mental structure. I knew Christ's words: 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me.' But in the past I found them to be somewhat presumptuous. Now these words strike at the center of my being. After 35 years of Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism I was attracted by 'that God.' However, there was in me the presence of a profound rejection for everything concerning Christianity. Slowly, I felt that I was being invaded by an altogether new strange sensation, which I had never before experienced. I perceived the presence of someone who emanated an extraordinary power. 

"Those words of Christ obsessed me, they became a nightmare. I put up resistance, but the interior sound would amplify and return as en echo in my conscience. I was close to panic, I was losing control over my mind and this, after 30 years of meditation on the profound, this was for me inconceivable. 

"'Yes, it is true, you are right,' I cried, 'it is true, it is true but stop, I beg you, I beg you.' I thought I would die because of the impossibility to come out of that tremendous situation. I no longer saw the trees, I no longer heard the birds, there was only the interior voice of the words that were imprinting themselves in my being. 

"I fell to the ground and lost consciousness. But before it happened, I felt enveloped by a limitless love. I felt the structure of my thought was liquefying, as a great explosion of my conscience. I was dying to a past by which I was profoundly conditioned, all truth was disintegrating. I don't know how long I was there, but when I regained consciousness I was reborn. The skies of my mind were limpid and endless tears soaked my face and neck. I felt myself the most ungrateful being in all the earth. Yes, the great life exists and it does not belong to this world. For the first time I was discovering what Christians understand by 'grace.'" 


For more than 25 years this man, known as Master Bee, together with his wife, also an artist, has been leading a semi-hermetical life, in the world and to his former disciples who go to consult him he teaches prayer of the heart and the praying of the rosary. 

He has not felt the need to deny his past religious experiences which have prepared the encounter with Christ and now allow him to fully value the novelty. More than that, he continues to have profound respect for them, showing with deeds how it is possible to integrate today the most total adherence to Christ with a very great openness to the values of other religions. 


The secret history of souls, outside the spotlights of the mass media, is full of these encounters with Christ that change life, and it is a pity that discussion on it, including among theologians, overlooks them completely. They demonstrate that Jesus is truly "the same yesterday, today and always," able to capture the hearts of the men of today with no less force than when he "captured" John and Paul. 

5. The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (and Who Loved Jesus!) 

Let us return, to conclude, to the disciple whom Jesus loved. John offers us a very strong incentive to rediscover the person of Jesus and to renew our act of faith in him. It is an extraordinary testimony of the power that Jesus can have over a man's heart. It shows us how it is possible to build all one's universe around Jesus. He is able to make one perceive "the unique fullness, the unimaginable marvel that is the person of Jesus."[5] 


There is more. The saints, not being able to take faith with them to heaven, where it is no longer necessary, are happy to leave it as inheritance to brothers that need it on earth, as Elias left his mantle to Elyseus, going up to heaven. It is our turn to pick it up. We can not only contemplate the ardent faith of St. John, but must make it our own. The dogma of the communion of saints assures us that it is possible, and by praying one experiences it. 

Some one has said that the greatest challenge for evangelization, at the beginning of the third millennium, is the emergence of a new type of man and culture, the cosmopolitan

man that, from Hong Kong to New York, and from Rome to Stockholm, already moves in a planetary system of exchanges and information which cancels distances and translates to a second plane the traditional distinctions of culture and religion. 

Now, John lived in a cultural context that had something in common with this. The world was then experiencing for the first time cosmopolitanism. The term itself "kosmopolites," cosmopolitan, citizens of the world, was born and was affirmed precisely at this moment. In the large Hellenistic cities, such as Alexandria of Egypt, the air of universalism and religious tolerance was breathed. 


Well then, in such a situation, how did the author of the fourth Gospel behave? Did he seek perhaps to adapt Jesus to this atmosphere in which all religions and cults were accepted, as long as they agreed to be part of something greater? Not at all! He did not argue against any one more than he did against bad Christians and heretics within the Church; he did not fling himself against other religions and cults of the time (except, in Revelation, against the wrongful emperor); he simply proclaimed Christ as supreme gift of the Father to the world, leaving every one free to receive him or not. He argued, it is true, with Judaism, but for him it was not "another religion," it was his religion! 

How did John come to such a total admiration and such an absolute idea of the person of Jesus? How can one explain that, with the passing of the years, his love for him, instead of weakening, increased ever more? I think that, after the Holy Spirit, it is due to the fact that he had beside him the Mother of Jesus, he lived with her, prayed with her, and spoke with her of Jesus. A certain impression is felt when one thinks of how he conceived the phrase: "And the Word was made flesh," the evangelist had beside him, under the same roof, the woman in whose womb that mystery was realized. 


Origen wrote: "The flower of the four Gospels is the Gospel of John, the profound meaning of which, however, cannot be understood by him who has not leaned his head against Jesus' breast and received Mary from him as his own mother."[6] 

Jesus was born "by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary." The Holy Spirit and Mary, in different capacities, are the two best allies in our effort to come close to Jesus, to make him be born, through faith, in our lives this Christmas.

[1] St. Augustine, "In Ioh" 38,10 (PL 35, 1680). 
[2] Origen, "Against Celsius," I, 26 & 28 (SCh 147, pp. 202 ff.). 
[3] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "Introduction to Christianity," cit., p. 149. 
[4] St. Augustine, "In Ioh." 26, 2 (PL 35, 1607). 
[5] J. Guillet, Jesus, in "Dictionnaire de spiritualité," 8, col. 1098. 
[6] Origen, Commentary on John, I, 6, 23 (SCh 120, pp. 70 f). 
[Translation by ZENIT] ZE05120929
Part Three (Part One) 
The Righteousness That Comes From Faith in Christ 
St. Paul's Faith in Christ
1. Justified by Faith in Christ 

Last time we sought to make our faith in Christ more ardent through contact with the faith of John the Evangelist; this time we will try to do the same, but this time through making contact with the faith of the Apostle Paul. 


When St. Paul, from Corinth, in the years 57-58, wrote the Letter to the Romans, he would have still been active and ardent in the memory of the rejection he encountered some years before in Athens in his discourse at the Areopagus. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the letter he speaks confidently of having received the grace of apostleship "to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles" (Romans 1:5). 

Obedience, and in addition to that, among all the gentiles! His failure hadn't scratched in the least his certainty that the Gospel "is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). In that moment, the vast work of taking the Gospel to the ends of the world was yet to be done. Shouldn't it have seemed to be an impossible and absurd task? But Paul says: "for I know him in whom I have believed" (2 Timothy 1:12), and 2,000 years has justified his audacious faith.

I reflected over these things the first time that I visited Athens and Corinth and I told myself: "If today we had just a small grain of Paul's faith, we wouldn't let ourselves be intimidated by the fact that the world has yet to be evangelized, and even more, that it rejects, at times contemptuously, like the Areopagites, being evangelized." 

Faith in Christ, for Paul, is everything. "Insofar as I now live in the flesh," he writes as a testament in the Letter to the Galatians, "I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20).[1] 

When one speaks of faith in St. Paul one thinks spontaneously of the great theme of justification by faith in Christ. And on this we wish to concentrate our attention, not to outline the umpteenth discussion on the topic, but to receive his consoling message.

I was saying in the first meditation that there currently exists a need for kerygmatic preaching, suitable to incite faith where it has never existed, or where it has died. Gratuitous justification by faith in Christ is the heart of this type of preaching, and it is a shame that this is, in turn, practically absent from ordinary preaching in the Church.

In this respect something strange has occurred. To the objections raised by the reformers, the Council of Trent had given a Catholic response, that there is a place for faith and for good works, each one, it was understood, in its place. One is not saved by good works, but one cannot be saved without good works. Nevertheless, from this moment in which the Protestants insisted unilaterally on faith, Catholic preaching and spirituality ended up accepting the nearly exclusive and thankless work of calling to mind the need for good works and of one's personal contribution to salvation. The result is that the great majority of Catholics have lived entire lives without having ever heard a direct announcement of gratuitous justification by faith, without too many "buts." 

After the agreement on this topic in 1999, between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, the situation changed in terms of principle, but it's still difficult to put it into practice. The desire is expressed in the text of that agreement that the common doctrine on justification be put into practice, making it part of the lived experience of the faithful, and not simply the subject of learned discussions among theologians. This is what we propose to achieve, at least in small part, in the present meditation. Before anything else, let us read the text:

"All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God -- to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:23-26). 

Nothing of this text can be understood, even to the point that it could inspire fear more than consolation (as occurred for centuries), if the term "righteousness of God" is interpreted incorrectly. It was Luther who rediscovered that "righteousness of God" does not indicate here chastisement, or worse, his revenge, toward man, but rather it indicates, on the contrary, the act through which God "makes" man "just."


(He really said "declares," not "makes," just, because he was thinking of an extrinsic or legal justification, in an imputation of justice, more than a real being made just.) I said "rediscovered," because much earlier than him St. Augustine had written: "The 'righteousness of God' is used in the sense of our being made righteous by his gift ('iustitia Dei, qua iusti eius munere efficimur'), and 'the salvation of the Lord' (Psalm 3:9), in that we are saved by him."[2] 

The concept of "righteousness of God" was explained in the Letter to Titus: "But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:4-5). Saying "The righteousness of God appeared," is the same as saying: The goodness of God, his love and his mercy appeared. It was not man who, all of a sudden, changed life and tradition and put himself to the task of doing good; the novelty is that God acted, he was the first to extend his hand out to sinful man, and his action fulfilled time. 

Here is the novelty that distinguishes the Christian religion from any other. Any other religion draws out for man a path to salvation by means of practical observations and intellectual speculations, promising him, as a final prize, salvation and illumination, but leaving him substantially alone in achieving the task. Christianity does not begin with what man must do to save himself, but rather with what God has done to save him. The order is reversed. 

It is true that to love God with all your heart is "the first and greatest of the commandments," but the commandments are not primary, they are secondary. Before the order of commandments comes the order of gift and of grace. Christianity is the religion of grace! If this is not taken into consideration in interreligious dialogue, the dialogue would be able to do no more than generate confusion and doubts in the hearts of many Christians. 

2. Justification and conversion 

When Jesus said: "Convert, and believe in the Gospel," he was already teaching justification by faith. Before him, conversion always meant "to go back" (in Hebrew the same word is used for both "convert" and "to go back": the word "shub"); it meant to go back to the broken alliance by way of a renewed observance of the law.

Consequently, conversion has a principally ascetic, moral and penitential meaning, and is achieved by changing how one lives. Conversion is seen as a condition for salvation; the sense is: Convert and be saved; convert and salvation will come to you. In the mouth of Jesus this moral meaning passes to a second plane (at least at the start of his preaching), with respect to a new significance, until now unknown. 

Conversion no longer means to go back, to the old alliance and to the observance of the law; it means rather to take a step forward, to enter into a new alliance, to hold onto this Kingdom that has appeared, and to enter into it. And entering it by faith: "Convert and believe" does not mean two different and successive things, but rather the same action: convert, so as to believe; convert believing! "Prima conversio ad Deum fit per fidem," writes St. Thomas Aquinas: "The first conversion to God consists in believing."[4] 


"Convert and believe" means therefore: Pass from the old alliance, based on the law, to the new alliance, based on faith. The Apostle says the same with the doctrine of justification by faith. The only difference is owed to what had happened, meanwhile, between the preaching of Jesus and Paul: Christ had been rejected and led to death for the sins of man. The faith "in the Gospel" ("believe in the Gospel") now takes shape as faith "in Jesus Christ," "in his blood" (Romans 3:25). 

3. Faith-appropriation

 Everything, then, depends on faith. But we know that there are different types of faith: There is the faith-acquiescence of the intellect, the faith-confidence, the faith-stability, as Isaiah calls it (7:9). What type of faith is addressed when talking about justification "by faith?" It addresses a special type of faith: the faith-appropriation. It does not tire me to cite in this respect a text of St. Bernard: 


"But as for me, whatever is lacking in my own resources I appropriate for myself from the heart of the Lord, which overflows with mercy. My merit therefore is the mercy of the Lord. Surely I am not devoid of merit so long as he is not of mercy. And if the Lord abounds in mercy, I too must abound in merits (Psalm 119:156). But would this be my own righteousness? Lord, I will be mindful of your righteousness only. For that is also mine, since God has made you my righteousness."[5] 

It is written in fact: "Jesus Christ became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). "For us," not for himself! We pertain more to Christ than to ourselves, as he has bought us at a great price (1 Corinthians 6:20), and inversely what is Christ's pertains more to us than if it were ours. I call this the blow of audacity, or the flutter, in Christian life. 


St. Cyril of Jerusalem expressed it like this, it is the same conviction in other words: "Oh the extraordinary goodness of God toward man? The just of the Old Testament thank God in the weariness of long years; but that which they obtained, by means of a long and heroic service pleasing to God, Jesus gives to you in the brief time span of an hour. Indeed, if you believe that Jesus Christ is the lord, and that God had raised him from the dead, you will be saved and you will be introduced into heaven by the same one who introduced the good thief."[6]

[1] Today there are those who want to see the expression "faith in the Son of God," or "faith in Christ," frequently used in the writings of Paul (Romans 3:22,26; Galatians 2:16; 2:20; 3:22; Philippians 3:9), as a genitive subject, as if they were addressing the faith of Christ, or the fidelity which he proved by sacrificing himself for us. I prefer to keep with the traditional interpretation, followed as well by authorized contemporary exegetes (cf. Dunn, op. cit., pp. 380-386), that see in Christ the object, not the subject of faith; not so much the faith of Christ (supposing that we could speak of Christ having faith), but rather faith in Christ. On this the Apostle based his own life, and in this he invites us to base our own. 

[2] St. Augustine, "The Spirit and the Letter," 32, 56 (PL 44, 237).
[3] St. Cyril of Alexandria, "Commentary on the Gospel of Luke," 22, 26 (PG 72905).
[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologiae," I-IIae, q.113, a. 4. 
[5] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "Sermons on the Song of Songs," 61, 4-5 (PL 183, 1072). 
[6] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis V, 10 (PG 33, 517). ZE05121621
Part 3 (section two)
Righteousness That Comes From Faith in Christ -- Justified by Faith
4. Justification and Confession

I said at the beginning that gratuitous justification by faith should transform itself into lived experience for the believer. We Catholics have an enormous advantage in this: the sacraments, and in particular, the sacrament of reconciliation. This offers us an excellent and infallible means to experience anew each time justification by faith. In it is renewed what happened once in baptism, in which, says Paul, the Christian has been "washed, sanctified and justified" (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11). 

The "admirable exchange" ("admirabile commercium") takes place in each confession. Christ takes on my sins and I take on his righteousness! Unfortunately in Rome, as in any great city, there are many homeless person, poor brothers dressed in dirty rags who sleep on the street, and who drag with them everywhere they go their few belongings. We could imagine what would  

happen if one day the word spread that in the Via Condotti there was a luxurious boutique where each one of them could go, leave their rags, take a good shower, pick out whatever they want, and take it, just like that, free, "without expense, without money," because for some unknown reason the owner had given to them all this out of generosity.

This is what happens in each well-made confession. Jesus inculcated this with the parable of the prodigal son: "Quickly bring the finest robe" (Luke 15:22). Rising up anew after each confession we can exclaim in the words of Isaiah: "For he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice" (Isaiah 61:10). The story of the publican is also repeated: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner." "I tell you, this one went home justified" (Luke 18:13f). 

5. "So that I can know him" 

Where did St. Paul get the marvelous message of gratuitous justification by faith, in harmony, as we have seen, with that of Jesus? He did not get it from the Gospels, for they had not yet been written, but rather from the oral tradition regarding the preaching of Jesus, and above all from his own personal experience, that is, from how God had acted in his life. He himself affirms this by saying that the Gospel that he preaches (this Gospel of justification by faith!) he did not learn from men, but rather from what Jesus Christ revealed, and he relates that revelation with the story of his own conversion (cf. Galatians 1:11ff). 

Upon reading the description that St. Paul makes of his conversion, in Philippians 3, the image that comes to my mind is that of a man who moves forward in the night, through a forest, with the help of the weak flame of a candle. He makes sure that the candle does not go out, for it is all he has to help him on his way. But after a while, continuing on his way, the dawn arrives; in the horizon the sun rises, and his little light fades quickly until soon it's not even noticeable, and he throws it to one side.


 The little light was for Paul his righteousness, a poor smoky wick, though based in high sounding titles: circumcised on the eighth day, of the line of Israel, Hebrew, Pharisee, impeccable in observing the law ... (cf. Philippians 3:5-6). One good day, in the horizon of his life the sun appeared: the "sun of righteousness" that he calls, in this text, with infinite devotion, "Jesus Christ, my Lord," and thus his righteousness appeared to him "loss," "rubbish," and he did not want to be found with his own righteousness, but rather with that which comes from faith. God allowed him to experience beforehand, dramatically, what he was called to reveal to the Church. 

In this autobiographical text it is clear that the central focus for Paul is not a doctrine, even if it were that of justification by faith, but rather a person, Christ. What he desires more than anything else is to "be in him," "know him," where that simple personal pronoun says an infinite number of things. It shows that, for the Apostle, Christ was a real, living person, not an abstraction or an ensemble of titles and doctrines. 

The mystical union with Christ, through participation in his Spirit (the living "in Christ," or "in the Spirit"), is for him the final goal of Christian life; justification by faith is only the beginning and a means to achieve it.


[7] This invites us to overcome the contingent polemical interpretations of the Pauline message, centered on the theme of faith-works, so as to find again, underneath them, the genuine thought of the Apostle. What is important for him to affirm before everything else is not that we be justified by faith, but rather that we be justified by faith in Christ; it is not so much that we be justified by grace, as much as that we be justified by the grace of Christ.

Christ is the heart of the message, even before grace and faith. After having presented, in the preceding two and a half chapters of the Letter to the Romans, all of humanity in its universal state of sin and perdition ("all sinned and are deprived of the glory of God"), the Apostle has the incredible courage to proclaim that this situation has changed radically for all, Jews and Greeks, "in virtue of the redemption in Christ Jesus," "through the obedience of one man" ([cf.] Romans 3:24; 5:19). 


The affirmation that this salvation is received by faith, and not for works, is present in the text and it was perhaps the most urgent to clarify in the time of Luther. But that takes second place, not first place, especially in the Letter to the Romans, where the polemic with the Judaizers is much less present than in the Letter to the Galatians. It was erroneous to reduce to a problem of schools, within Christianity, what was, for the Apostle, an affirmation of much greater and universal reach. 

In the description of the medieval battles there is always a moment in which, the archers, the cavalry and all the rest overcome, the fray centers around the king. The final battle is decided here. Also for us the battle is fought around the king. As in the time of Paul, the person of Jesus Christ is at stake, not this or that doctrine regarding him, no matter how important that doctrine might be. Christianity "remains or falls" with Jesus, and with nothing else. 

6. Forgetting the past 

Continuing with the autobiographical text of Philippians 3, Paul suggests to us the practical idea with which we will conclude our reflection: 

"Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession [of perfect maturity]. Just one thing: forgetting the past but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus" ([cf.] Philippians 3:13-14). 

"Forgetting the past." What "past"? That of the Pharisee, of what he had said before? No, the past of the apostle, in the Church! Now the "gain" to consider a "loss" is something else: It is precisely having already considered once everything lost to the cause of Christ. It was natural to think: "What courage, this Paul: to abandon such a good career as a rabbi for an obscure sect of Galileans! And what letters he has written! How many trips he undertook! How many churches he founded!" 

The Apostle warned confusedly of the mortal danger of putting between himself and Christ "his own righteousness" derived from works -- this time the works done by Christ -- and he reacted vigorously. "I do not believe," he said, "that I have reached perfection." St. Francis of Assisi, in a similar situation, cut short any temptation of self-complacency, saying: "We begin, brothers, to serve the Lord, because until now we have done little or nothing."[8] 

This is the most necessary conversion for those that have followed Christ and have lived serving him in the Church. A conversion altogether special, which does not consist in abandoning evil, but rather, in a certain sense, in abandoning the good! That is, by detaching oneself from all that you have done, repeating to yourself, according to the suggestion of Christ: "We are useless servants; we have done only our duty" (Luke 17:10).


And not even, perhaps, the good we should do! A beautiful Christmas story makes us want to arrive to the Nativity, with a heart that is poor and empty of everything. Among the shepherds who presented themselves on Christmas night to adore the Child, there was one so poor that he didn't have anything to offer and he was very much ashamed. Upon arriving to the cave, the shepherds fought among themselves to offer their gifts. Mary didn't know how to receive all of them, for she had the Child in her arms. So, seeing the poor shepherd with his hands free, she gave him Jesus to hold. Having empty hands was his fortune, and on another level, it will also be our fortune. 

[7] Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, "La teologia dell’apostolo Paolo," Brescia, Paideia, 1999, p. 421. 

[8] Celano, "Vita prima," 103 ("Fonti Francescane," No. 500). 

[Translation by ZENIT] 


The Experience of the Salvation of Christ Today 

"To You Is Born This Day a Savior" 

The Experience of the Salvation of Christ Today 

1. What Savior for man? 

In one of the last Christmases, I was attending a midnight Mass presided over by the Pope in St. Peter's. The moment came to sing the Calends: "Many centuries since the creation of the world …


13 centuries after the march out of Egypt … In the year 752 of the foundation of Rome … In the year 42 of the empire of Caesar Augustus, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal father, having been conceived by the power of the holy Spirit, after nine months, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the virgin Mary, made man." 

Having come to these last words I experienced what is called "the anointing of faith": a sudden interior clarity which makes one say to oneself: "It is true! It is all true! They are not just words. God has truly come to our earth." I felt a total upheaval, and could only say: "Thank you, Most Holy Trinity, and thank you, also, holy Mother of God!" I would like to share this profound certainty with you, venerable fathers and brothers, during this last meditation the theme of which is the experience of the salvation of Christ today. 

Appearing to the shepherds on the night of Christmas, the angel said to them: "I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10-12). The title of Savior was not attributed to Jesus during his life. There was no need of it, its contents already being expressed, for a Jew, by the title Messiah. But when the Christian faith appeared in the pagan world, the title acquired decisive importance, in part precisely to oppose the custom of calling the emperor by it as well as some saving divinities, such as Aesculapius. 


It was found already in the New Testament in the Apostles' lifetime. Matthew is concerned to emphasize that the name "Jesus" means, precisely, "God saves" (Matthew 1:21). Paul already called Jesus "Savior" (Philippians 3:20); in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter specifies that he is the only Savior, "and there is salvation in no one else" (Acts 4:42), and John puts on the Samaritans' lips the solemn profession of faith: "We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the savior of the world" (John 4:42). 

The content of this salvation consists above all but not only in the remission of sins. For Paul it also embraces the final redemption of our bodies (Philippians 3:20). The salvation wrought by Christ has a negative aspect that consists in the liberation from sin and the forces of evil, and a positive aspect which consists in the gift of the new life, of the freedom of the children of God, of the Holy Spirit and of the hope of eternal life. 


Salvation in Christ was not, however, for the first Christian generations, only a truth believed from Revelation; it was above all a reality experienced in life and joyfully proclaimed in worship. Thanks to the word of God and to the sacramental life, believers feel they are living in the mystery of salvation realized in Christ: salvation that is configured, little by little, as liberation, illumination, rescue, divinization, etc. It is a primordial and peaceful event which authors almost never feel the need to demonstrate. 

In this double dimension -- of revealed truth and lived experience -- the idea of salvation played a decisive part in leading the Church to the full truth about Jesus Christ. Soteriology was the plow that made the furrow for Christology; it was the propeller that pulls the plane or drives the ship. The great dogmatic definitions of the Councils were attained by making use of the experience of salvation that believers had in Christ. His contact, they said, divinizes us; therefore, he must be God himself. "We would not be liberated from sin and damnation," wrote Athanasius, "if the flesh the Word assumed was not human by nature; nor would man be divinized if the Word that was made flesh was not of the same nature of the Father."[1] 

The relationship between Christology and soteriology is mediated, in the patristic age, by anthropology, so that it must be said that to a different understanding of man corresponds always a different presentation of Christ's salvation. The process develops through three important questions. First: What is man and where does his evil reside? Second question: What kind of salvation is necessary for such a man? Third question: What must the Savior be like to realize such salvation? Based on the different answers given to these questions we see a different understanding being delineated of the person of Christ and of his salvation.

In the Alexandrian school, for example, where the Platonic view prevails, the evil part of man most in need of salvation is his flesh; hence the emphasis on the Incarnation as the moment when, assuming flesh, the Word of God liberates it from corruption and divinizes it. In this line, one of them, Apollinaris of Laodicea, will go so far as to affirm that the Word did not assume a human soul, because the soul has no need to be saved, itself being a spark of the eternal Logos. In Christ the rational soul is substituted by the Logos in person; there is no need for a spark of the Logos where the whole Logos is found.

In the Antiochian school, where, instead, Aristotle's thought prevails, or in any case a less Platonic view, man's evil is seen, on the contrary, precisely in his soul and, in particular, in his rebellious will. Hence the insistence on the full humanity of Christ and his paschal mystery, through which, with his obedience unto death, Christ saves man. Synthesizing these two instances, the Church in Chalcedon will attain a complete idea of Christ and his salvation.

The Christian faith does not limit itself however to respond to the expectations of salvation of the environment in which it operates, but it creates and expands all expectations. Thus we see that to the Platonic and Gnostic dogma of salvation "through the flesh," the Church opposes with firmness the dogma of salvation "from the flesh," preaching the resurrection of the dead; to a life beyond the tomb infinitely weaker than the present life and devoured by nostalgia of it, deprived as it is of an objective and center of attraction, the Christian faith opposes the idea of a future life infinitely more full and everlasting in the vision of God. 

2. Is there still need of a Savior? 

In the first meditation I mentioned that, in regard to faith in Christ, in many aspects we find ourselves today close to the situation of the origins and we can learn from that time how to re-evangelize the world which is again, to a large extent, pagan. We must also ask ourselves today those three questions: What idea is there today about man and his evil? What kind of salvation is needed for such a man? How should Christ be announced to respond to such expectations of salvation? 


Simplifying greatly, as is necessary in a meditation, we can identify two important positions in regard to salvation outside of the Christian faith: that of religions and that of science. 

For the so-called new religions, which share the common background of the New Age movement, salvation does not come from outside, but is potentially within man himself. It consists in being attuned to or in rhythm with the energy and life of the whole cosmos. There is no need therefore for a savior but, at most, of teachers who show the way to self-realization. I will not comment on this position because it was refuted once and for all by Paul's affirmation on which we commented last time. "All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God, but have been justified by faith in Christ." 

​Let us reflect instead on the challenge to faith in general and the Christian faith in particular from nonbelieving science. The atheist version most in fashion at present is that which is called the scientific, which French biologist Jacques Monod made popular in his book "Chance and Necessity." "The old alliance is infringed," concludes the author, "man finally knows that he is alone in the immensity of the universe from which he arose by chance. His duty, as his destiny, is nowhere written. Our number has come up randomly." 

In this view the problem of salvation is not even posed, regarded as it is as a residue of that "animist" mentality, as the author calls it, which seeks to see objectives and aims in a universe which advances instead in obscurity, directed only by chance and necessity. The only salvation is that offered by science and consists in knowledge of how things are, without self-consoling illusions. "Modern societies," he writes, "are built on science. To it they owe their wealth, power and the certainty that even greater wealth and power will one day be accessible to man if he wants it. … Furnished with all power, and enjoying all the riches that science offers them, our societies still endeavor to live and teach systems of values, already undermined at the base by this same science."[2] 

My intention is not to discuss these theories, but only to give an idea of the cultural context in which we are called at present to announce the salvation of Christ. We must, however, make one observation. Let us admit that "our number has come up randomly," that life is the result of a chance combination of inanimate elements. But to get the numbers from the roulette, someone has to have put them there. Who has provided by chance the ingredients with which to work? It is an old and trivial observation, and one which no scientist to date has been able to give an answer, except for the quick one that it's not something brought into question. 

One thing is certain and incontrovertible: The existence of the universe and man is not explained on its own. We can give up trying to find a further explanation beyond that which science can give, but that's not to say that everything has been explained without the hypothesis of God. At most, chance explains the how, not the what, of the universe. It explains that it is as it is, but not the fact itself that it exists. Nonbelieving science does not eliminate the mystery; it only changes its name: Instead of God it calls it chance.

 I believe that the most significant denial of Monod's thesis has come precisely from that science to which, according to him, humanity should entrust its own destiny. The scientists themselves are the ones who, in fact, recognize today that science alone is unable to answer all the questions and needs of man, and seek dialogue with philosophy and religion, the "systems of values" which Monod regards as irreducible antagonists of science.


We see it, moreover, with our own eyes: The extraordinary successes of science and technology are not followed necessarily by more free and peaceful human coexistence in our planet. In my opinion, Monod's book demonstrates that when a scientist wants to draw philosophic conclusions from his scientific analyses -- whether these are of biology or astrophysics -- the results are no better than when philosophers sought to draw scientific conclusions from their philosophic analyses.

3. Christ saves us from space 

How can we announce in a significant way the salvation of Christ in this new cultural context? Space and time, the two coordinates within which man's life on earth develops, have undergone such a sudden expansion and acceleration that even the believer suffers vertigo. The "seven heavens" of ancient man, each one slightly above the other, have become, meanwhile, 100 million galaxies, each one made up of 100 million stars, distant from one another by thousands of millions of light-years; the Bible's 4,000 years since the creation of the world have been transformed into 14 billion years … 


I believe that faith in Christ not only resists this clash, but that it offers the one who believes in him the possibility to feel at home in the expanded dimensions of the universe, free and joyful "as a child in his mother's arms." 

Faith in Christ saves us above all from the immensity of space. We live in a universe the magnitude of which we can no longer imagine or quantify, the expansion of which continues without interruption, until it is lost in the infinite. A universe, science tells us, sovereignly ignorant and indifferent to what happens on earth. 


But this is not what most influences the consciences of ordinary people. It's a fact that on the earth itself, with the event of mass communication, space has expanded all of a sudden around man, making him feel even smaller and insignificant, as a disoriented actor on a huge stage. 

Movies, television and the Internet place before our eyes at every moment what we could be and are not, what others do and we do not do, awakening a sensation of resigned frustration and passive acceptance of one's own fortune or rather, on the contrary, an obsessive need to emerge from anonymity and call attention to oneself. In the first case one lives in the reflection of the life of another and, as a person, becomes an admirer or fan of someone; in the second case, life is reduced to a career. 


Faith in Christ frees us from the need to make our way, to avoid our limitations at all costs and to be someone; it also frees us from envy of the great, reconciles us with ourselves and with our place in life, gives us the possibility of being happy and of being totally fulfilled where we are. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!" (John 1:14). God, the infinite, came and comes continually to you, where you are. The coming of Christ in the incarnation, kept alive through the centuries by the Eucharist, makes every place the first place. With Christ in one's heart one feels oneself in the center of the world, including in the earth's most remote village. 

This explains why so many believers, men and women, can live ignored by all, carry out the most humble jobs in the world or even be enclosed in a cloister and feel themselves, in this situation, the happiest and most fulfilled persons on earth. One of these cloistered souls, Blessed Mary of Jesus Crucified, known by the name "the Little Arab" because of her Palestinian origin and slight stature, on returning to her place after having received Communion, could be heard exclaiming to herself in a low voice: "Now I have everything, I have everything.


" Today the fact that Christ did not come in splendor, power and majesty, but little and poor acquires a new significance for us; that he chose a "humble maiden" as his Mother, that he did not live in a metropolis of the period, Rome, Alexandria or even Jerusalem, but rather in a remote village of Galilee, exercising the humble profession of carpenter. At that moment the true center of the world was not in Rome or Jerusalem but in Bethlehem, "the smallest village of Judea," and after it in Nazareth, the village of which it was said that "nothing good could come from it."

What we say about society in general is even truer for us, people of the Church. The certainty that Christ is with us, wherever we are, frees us from the obsessive need to go higher, to hold the highest posts. No one can say that he is altogether exempt from feeling such natural sentiments and desires within himself -- not in the least, preachers! -- but the thought of Christ helps us at least to recognize them and to struggle against them so that they will never become the dominant motive of our action. The wonderful result of this is peace.

4. Christ saves us from time

The second realm in which we experience the salvation of Christ is that of time. From this point of view our situation has not changed much from that of men at the time of the Apostles. The problem is always the same and it is called death. The salvation of Christ is compared by Peter to that of Noah of the deluge that "engulfed all" (1 Peter 3:20 ff.) and it is because of this that he is represented among the mosaics of this chapel, as a moment of the history of salvation. But there is always a deluge in the world: that of time which, like water, submerges everything and sweeps all away, one generation after another.

The 19th-century Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer expressed admirably the perception that man has of himself facing death. 

"Gigantic wave that the wind / curls and pushes in the sea, / And rolls on and passes, and knows not / what beach it seeks. 

"Light that shines in trembling rings, close to expiring, / knowing not which will be the last to shine. 

"I am he, who by chance go through the world, thinking not from whence I come or whither my steps will take me."[3]

At present there are renowned psychologists who see in the rejection of death the true spring of all human action, including the sexual instinct, placed by Freud as the basis of everything, it would be no more than one of the manifestations. [4] Biblical man was consoled by the certainty of surviving in his offspring; pagan man by surviving in fame: "Non omnis moriar (I will not die completely)," said Horace. Referring to his poetry, he said: "Exegi monumentum aere perennius (I have built a monument more lasting than bronze)."

Today appeal is made rather to survival of the species. "The survival of each individual," writes Monod, "has no importance whatsoever for the affirmation of a specific species; the latter is entrusted to the capacity to give origin to abundant offspring capable in turn of surviving and reproducing themselves."[5] A variant of the Marxist view -- based in this occasion on biology instead of dialectical materialism, but in each case the hope of surviving in the species -- has revealed itself insufficient to placate man's anguish in the face of his own death. 

The philosopher Miguel de Unamuno -- who was also a "secular" thinker -- answered a friend, who reproached him as being proud and presumptuous in his search for eternity, in these terms: "I do not say that we deserve a beyond or that logic show it to us; I say that I need it, whether or not I deserve it, and nothing more. I say that what happens does not satisfy me, that I thirst for eternity, and that without it nothing matters to me. Without it there is no joy in living. … It is very easy to say: 'We must live!' 'We must be content with life!' And those of us who are not content with it?"[6] It is not the one who desires eternity, said the same thinker, who shows no love for life, but the one who does not desire it, from the moment he resigns himself so easily to the thought that it must end. 

Jesus in fact -- and here is the great Christian announcement -- did not die just for himself, he did not just leave us an example of heroic death, as Socrates. He did something very different: "One died for all" (2 Corinthians 5:14), exclaims St. Paul, and also: "He tasted death for every one" (Hebrews 2:9). "Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live" (John 11:25). Extraordinary affirmations that do not make us cry out in joy only because we do not take them seriously enough, and to the letter, as we should. 

Christianity does not gain ground in consciences with the fear of death; it gains ground with the death of Christ. Jesus came to liberate men from fear of death, not to increase it. The Son of God assumed flesh and blood like us, "to destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Hebrews 2:14 ff.). 

In addition to Christ's resurrection, the proof that all this is not "self-consoling illusion" is the fact that the believer already experiences, from the moment he believes, something of this victory over death. Last summer I preached in an Anglican parish in London. The church was full of young men and women. I was talking about the resurrection of Christ and, at a certain moment, after I had given all the arguments to support it, I was inspired to ask those present a question: "How many of you think you can say as the blind man from birth: 'I was blind, but now I see,' 'I was dead, but now I live'?" A forest of hands were raised even before I finished the question. Some were coming from years of drugs, prison, despairing life and suicide attempts; others, on the contrary, from promising careers in the field of business and entertainment. 

To his close friends who expressed concern about his future and health conditions, raising his head in his wheelchair, Pope John Paul II surprisingly repeated one day, toward the end of his life, with a profound voice, Horace's phrase: "Non omnis moriar" (I will not die completely), but on his lips that already had another meaning. 

5. Christ "My Savior"

It is not enough, however, that I recognize Christ as "Savior of the world"; it is necessary that I recognize him as "my Savior." A moment that cannot be forgotten is that in which this discovery takes place and this illumination is received. One then understands what the Apostle tried to say with the words: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15).

The experience of salvation that is had with Christ is wonderfully exemplified in the incident of Peter, drowning in the lake. We experience daily the sense of drowning: in sin, in lukewarmness, in discouragement, in incredulity, in doubt, in routine. Faith itself is to walk on the edge of the cliff, with the constant sensation that at every moment we might lose our balance and plunge into the void. 

 In these conditions it is an immense consolation to continually discover that Christ's hand is ready to lift us up, if only we seek and grab hold of it. We can even experience a profound joy seeing ourselves as weak and sinners, as the liturgy sings in the "Exultet" of the Easter Vigil: "O felix culpa quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!" (O happy fault, which gained for us so great a Redeemer).

 I shall end here, venerable fathers and brothers, my Advent reflections on faith in Christ in the world of today. Writing against the Docetist heretics of his time, who denied the Incarnation of the Word and his true humanity, Tertullian proffered the cry: "Do not take away from the world its only hope" (parce unicae spei totius orbis).[8] 

It is the sad cry we must repeat to the men of today, tempted to do without Christ. He is, still today, the only hope of the world. When the Apostle Peter exhorts us to "give reason for the hope that is in us," he exhorts us to speak to men of Christ because he is the reason of our hope.

We must re-create the conditions for a recovery of faith in Christ. Reproduce the impulse of faith from which the symbol of Nicaea was born. The body of the Church produced on that occasion a supreme effort, raising itself in faith above all human systems and all the resistances of reason. 

The fruit of this effort remained later as the symbol of faith. The tide once rose to the highest level and a sign of it remained on the rock. But it must rise again, the sign is not enough. It is not enough to repeat the Nicean Creed; the impulse of faith must be renewed which then existed in the divinity of Christ and of which there has been no equal in the centuries. 


While waiting to proclaim it publicly, bending the knee, on the night of Christmas, I now take the liberty to invite everyone to recite, in Latin, the article of faith on Jesus. It is the most beautiful gift we can give Christ who comes, the one he always sought in life. He also asks his closest collaborators today: "You, who do you believe that I am?"

And we, rising to our feet, respond: 

"Credo in unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei unigenitum. Et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero. Genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos homines, et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis. Et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex Maria Virgine: et homo factus est." 

(I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.) 

Merry Christmas to all! 

[1] St. Athanasius, "Oratio contra Arianos," I,70. 

[2] J. Monod, "Il caso e la necessità," Est Mondadori, Milan, 1970, pp. 136-7. 

[3] Gustavo A. Bécquer, "Obras Completas," p. 426. 

[4] Cf. E. Becker, "Il Rifiuto della Morte," St. Paul's Publishers, Rome, 1982. 

[5] J. Monod, "Il caso e la necessità," Milan, 1970. 

[6] M. de Unamuno, "Cartas a J. Ilundain," in Review of the University of Buenos Aires, 9, pp. 135-150. 

[7] St. Augustine, "Trattati su Giovanni," 55, 1. 

[8] Tertullian, "De Carne Christi," 5, 3 (CC 2, p. 881). 


Translation by Zenit

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