Hearts of Prayer- Lenten Season
"Up to Death and Death on a
Good Friday Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
April 10, 2009
"Christus factus est pro nobis oboediens usque ad mortem, mortem
"For Us Christ Made Himself Obedient Up to Death, and Death on a
On the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the Apostle Paul, let us
listen to his burning words on the mystery of Christ's death, which
we are celebrating. No one can help us understand its significance
and importance like he can.
His words to the Corinthians are a sort of manifest: "While the Jews
demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, we are preaching a
crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to
the gentiles foolishness, but to those who have been called, whether
they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is both the power of God and
the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). Christ's death bears
universal importance. "One man died for all, then all have died" (2
Corinthians 5:14). His death has given new meaning to the death of
every man and every woman.
In Paul's eyes the cross assumes a cosmic significance. Christ has
torn down the wall of separation with it, he has reconciled men with
God and with each other, destroying hatred (cf. Ephesians 2:14-16).
Based on this, primitive tradition developed the theme of the cross
as a cosmic tree that joins heaven and earth with the vertical
branch and unites the different peoples of the world with the
horizontal branch. It is both a cosmic and a very personal event at
the same time: "He loved me and gave himself up for me!" (Galatians
2:20). The Apostle writes, every man is "one for whom Christ died"
From all of this arises the sense of the cross, no longer as a
punishment, admonishment, or reason for affliction, but rather, a
glory and the boast of a Christian, that is a joyful security,
accompanied by heartfelt gratitude, to which man rises in faith:
"But as for me, it is out of the question that I should boast at
all, except of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Galatians 6:14).
Paul has planted the cross at the center of the Church like the
mainmast at the center of the ship. He has made it the foundation
and the center of gravity of everything. He has established the
permanent framework of the Christian message. The Gospels, written
after him, follow his framework, making the story of Christ's
passion and death the fulcrum toward which everything is oriented.
It is incredible to see the work accomplished by the Apostle. It is
relatively easy for us today to see things in this light, since, as
Augustine said, Christ's cross has filled the earth and now shines
on crowns of kings. When Paul wrote, the cross was still
synonymous with the most terrible ignominy, something that shouldn't
even be discussed among educated people.
* * *
The goal of the Year of St. Paul is not so much to know the
Apostle's thinking better (researchers are always doing that,
without even counting that scientific research takes longer than a
year); rather, as the Holy Father has recalled on a number of
occasions, it is to learn from Paul how to respond to the current
challenges of the faith.
One of these challenges, maybe the most open challenge known till
know, has become a publicity slogan plastered on public transport
vehicles in London and other European cities: "There's probably no
God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
The most striking element about this slogan is not the premise, "God
doesn't exist," but rather the conclusion: "Enjoy your life!" The
underlying message is that faith in God keeps you from enjoying
life; it is an enemy of happiness. Without it there would be more
happiness in the world! Paul helps us answer this challenge,
explaining the origin and meaning of all suffering, starting with
Why "was it necessary that the Christ suffer so as to enter into his
glory?" (Luke 24:26). This question receives what might be a "weak"
answer, and in a certain sense, reassuring. Christ, revealing the
truth of God, necessarily provokes the apposition of the forces of
evil and darkness, and these forces, as happened to the prophets,
will lead to his refusal and elimination. "It was necessary that the
Christ suffer" would then be understood in the sense of "it was
inevitable that the Christ suffer."
Paul provides a very "strong" response to that question. The need is
not of the natural order, but rather the supernatural. In the
countries of historic Christian faith the idea of suffering and
cross is almost always associated with sacrifice and expiation.
Suffering, it is believed, is needed to expiate for sins and placate
God's justice. This is what has provoked, in the modern world, the
rejection of every idea of sacrifice offered to God, and in the end,
the very idea of God.
It can't be denied that we Christians have possibly exposed
ourselves to this accusation. But we are dealing with a mistake that
a better understanding of St. Paul's thought has already
definitively clarified. He writes that God has preordained Christ
"to serve as an instrument of expiation" (Romans 3:25). But such
expiation is not applied to God in order to placate him; rather it
is applied to sin to eliminate it. "It can be said that it is God
himself, not man, who expiates sin. … The image is more like that of
removing a corrosive stain or neutralizing a lethal virus than that
of anger that is placated by punishment."
Christ has given a radically new meaning to the idea of sacrifice.
In it, "it is no longer man who exercises influence on God in order
to placate him. Rather it is God who works to make man stop hating
him and his neighbor. Salvation does not start with man asking for
reconciliation; rather it begins with God's request: "Let yourselves
be reconciled with God" (1 Corinthians 2:6).
The fact is that Paul takes sin seriously, does not make light of
it. Sin is, for him, the principal cause of man's unhappiness, the
refusal of God, not God himself! This encloses the human creature
within "lies" and "injustice" (Romans 1:18; 3:23), condemns the very
cosmic material to "vanity" and "corruption" (Romans 8:19), and it
is the final cause also of the social evils that afflict humanity.
Unending analysis is conducted of the economic crisis under way in
today's world and of its causes, but who dares put the ax to the
roots and speak about sin? The Apostle defines insatiable avarice as
"idolatry" (Colossians 3:5), and he points to "root of all evil" in
the unbridled desire for money (1 Timothy 6:10). Can we say he is
wrong? Why are there so many families out on the streets, throngs of
workers who have lost their job, if not because of some people's
insatiable thirst for profit? The elite members of the financial and
economic world turned into a runaway train that steamed ahead
without brakes, without stopping to think about the rest of the
train that had come to a standstill on the tracks. We were headed in
the completely wrong direction.
* * *
Through his death, Christ has not only denounced and conquered sin,
he has also given new meaning to suffering, even to that which does
not depend on anyone's sin, like that of the terrible earthquake
that recently hit the neighboring Abruzzo region. He has made it an
instrument of salvation, a path to resurrection and life. His
sacrifice exercises its effects not through death, but rather thanks
to the conquering of death, that is the resurrection. "He died for
our sins, he rose for our justification." (Romans 4:25): the two
events are inseparable in the mind of Paul and the Church.
It is a universal human experience: In this life pleasure and pain
follow each other with the same regularity with which, when a wave
arises in the ocean, a trough follows a crest and pulls down the
shipwrecked sailor. "Full from the fount of Joy's delicious springs
Some bitter o'er the flowers its bubbling venom springs." Drug
use, the abuse of sex, and homicidal violence, all provide
intoxicating pleasure in the moment, but lead to the moral
dissolution, and often even the physical ruin, of the person.
Christ, with his passion and death, has inverted the relationship
between pleasure and pain. He, "in exchange for the joy which was
placed before him, submitted himself to the cross" (Hebrews 12:2).
No longer is it a pleasure that ends in suffering, but rather
suffering that leads to life and joy. It is not just a different
order of events; it is joy, in this way, that has the last word, not
suffering, and a joy that will last for eternity. "Christ risen from
the dead will die no more; death no longer has power over him"
(Romans 6:9). And it will not have power over us either.
This new relationship between suffering and pleasure is reflected in
the way in which time marches on in the Bible. According to human
calculations, day starts in the morning and ends at night; in the
Bible, day starts at night and ends with daytime: "It was night and
it was day: the first day" says the story of creation (Genesis 1:5).
It is not meaningless that Christ died in the evening and rose in
the morning. Without God, life is a day that ends at night; with God
it is a night that ends with day, and a day without a sunset.
So Christ did not come to increase human suffering or preach
resignation to suffering; he came to give meaning to suffering and
to announce its end and defeat. That slogan on the bus in London and
in other cities is also read by parents who have sick children, by
lonely people, the unemployed, refugees from war zones, people who
have suffered grave injustices in life. I try to imagine their
reaction to reading the words: "There's probably no God. Now enjoy
your life!" How?
Suffering is certainly a mystery for everyone, especially the
suffering of innocent people, but without faith in God it becomes
immensely more absurd. Even the last hope of rescue is taken away.
Atheism is a luxury that only those with privileged lives can
afford; those who have had everything, including the possibility to
dedicate themselves to study and research.
* * *
This is not the only incongruity of that publicity stunt. "God
probably doesn't exist:" So, he might exist, you can't completely
exclude the possibility that he might exist. But, my dear
nonbelieving brother, if God doesn't exist I have not lost anything;
if, on the other hand, he does exist, you have lost everything! We
should almost thank the people who promoted that advertising
campaign; it has served God's cause more than so many of our
apologetic arguments. It has demonstrated the poverty of their
reasons and has helped stir so many sleeping consciences.
But God has a different measure of justice than we do, and if he
sees good faith, or inculpable ignorance, he even saves those who
struggle in their lives to combat him. We believers should prepare
ourselves for surprises in this regard. "How many sheep are outside
of the flock," exclaims Augustine, "and how many wolves inside!"
(Quam multae oves foris, quam multi lupi intus).
God is capable of turning those who most persistently deny him into
his most impassioned apostles. Paul is the example of it. What has
Saul of Tarsus done to merit that extraordinary encounter with
Christ? What had he believed, hoped or suffered? What Augustine said
about every divine choice can be applied to him: "Look for merit,
look for justice, reflect and see if you find anything but
grace." This is how he explains his own calling: "I am not really
fit to be called an apostle, because I had been persecuting the
Church of God; but what I am now, I am through the grace of God" (1
Christ's cross is a cause for hope for everyone and the year of St.
Paul is an occasion of grace also for those who don't believe and
are searching for truth. One thing speaks in their favor before God:
suffering! Just like the rest of humanity, even atheists suffer in
life, and suffering, since the Son of God took it on himself, has
redemptive and almost sacramental power. In "Salvifici Doloris" John
Paul II wrote, it is a channel through which the saving powers of
the cross of Christ are offered to humanity.
In a moment, after we are invited to pray "for those who do not
believe in God," there will follow a touching prayer in Latin by the
Holy Father; translated into English it reads: "Everlasting and
eternal God, you have put into the hearts of men a deep nostalgia
for you, that only once they find you will they have peace: grant
that, overcoming every obstacle, all may recognize the signs of your
goodness, and, moved by the witness of our life, they may have the
joy of believing in you, the one true God and Father of all mankind.
Through Christ our Lord."
* * *
 S. Agostino, Enarr. in Psalmos, 54, 12 (PL 36, 637).
 J. Dunn, La teologia dell’apostolo Paolo, Paideia, Brescia 1999,
 G. Theissen – A. Merz, Il Gesù storico. Un manuale, Queriniana,
Brescia 20032, p. 573.
 Lucrezio, De rerum natura, IV, 1129 s.
 St. Augustine, "In Ioh. Evang." 45, 12
 St. Augustine, "La Predestinazione dei santi" 15, 30 (PL 44,
 Cf. Enc. "Salvifici Doloris," 23.
[Translation by Thomas Daly]
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
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