Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
"We Are Born 'Old Men'
and We Must Become 'New Men'"
1st Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 13, 2009
"All Creation Has Been Groaning and Suffering in Labor Pains"
The Holy Spirit in the Creation and Transformation of the Cosmos
1. The world in a state of anticipation
During Advent St. Paul introduced us to the knowledge and love of
Christ. Now during Lent the Apostle will serve as our guide in
knowing and loving the Holy Spirit. For this purpose I have chosen
Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans, because it contains the most
complete and profound treatise on the Holy Spirit among all the
Pauline writing and the entire New Testament.
We would like to reflect on the following verse:
"In my estimation, all that we suffer in the present time is nothing
in comparison with the glory which is destined to be disclosed for
us, for the whole creation is waiting with eagerness for the
children of God to be revealed. It was not for its own purposes that
creation had frustration imposed on it, but for the purposes of him
who imposed it -- with the intention that the whole creation itself
might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought into the
same glorious freedom as the children of God. We are well aware that
the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning in labor
pains" (Romans 8:18-22).
One of the exegetical topics that has long been debated with regards
to this text is meaning of the Greek word for creation, ktisis. In
using the work creation, ktisis, St. Paul sometimes refers to the
world in its entirety, that is humanity and cosmos together; other
times he is referring to God’s act of creating the world, or the new
creation that comes from Christ's Passion and Resurrection.
Augustine, and even some modern authors, believes that the
term refers to the human world. Therefore no cosmic prospective, in
reference to matter, should be attributed to the text. The
distinction between "the entire creation" and "we who possess the
first fruits of the Spirit," would be a distinction only made within
the human world and would be the same as the distinction between
humanity that is not redeemed and humanity that is redeemed by
Nevertheless, the almost unanimous opinion nowadays is that the word
ktisis refers to creation as a whole, which is both the material
world and the world of humanity. The statement that creation is
subject to vanity "through no fault of its own," would be
meaningless unless it refers precisely to material creation.
The Apostle sees this creation as permeated by a sense of
anticipation, in a "state of internal tension." The object of this
anticipation is the revelation of the glory of God's children. "In
its seemingly closed and immobile existence, creation… impatiently
awaits the glorified man, for whom it will be the 'world,' and
therefore will it also be glorified."
This state of suffering anticipation is caused by the fact that
creation, through no fault of its own, has been dragged into a state
of godlessness that the Apostle describes in the beginning of his
letter (ref. Romans 1:18 and following). There he defines this state
as an "injustice" and a "lie." Here he uses the words "vanity" (mataiotes)
and corruption (phthora) which mean the same thing: "a loss of
meaning, unreal, lack of strength, splendor, the Spirit and life."
This state is not closed or definitive. There is hope for creation!
Not because creation, as such, is capable of subjectively hoping,
but rather because God intends to rescue it. This hope is tied to
the redeemed man, the "son of God." In an action apposed to Adam's,
someday he will definitively raise up the cosmos in its own state of
freedom and glory.
This is the basis for Christian's deepest responsibility with
regards to the world: beginning now, to display the signs of the
freedom and glory to which the entire universe is called; to suffer
with hope, knowing that "the sufferings of the present moment are
nothing compared to the future glory that will be manifested in us."
In the final verse the Apostle sets this vision of faith on a
burning and dramatic image: The entire creation is compared to a
woman who suffers and moans in labor pain. Within human experience,
this is a suffering that is always mixed with joy, very different
from the world's silent and hopeless tears, which Virgil spoke of in
the Aeneid: "sunt lacrimae rerum," these are tears for things.
2. The thesis of "Intelligent design." Is it "Science or Faith"?
The Apostle's prophetic and faith filled vision offers us the chance
to touch upon a topic that today is heavily debated regarding the
presence, or lack there of, of a divine project internal to
creation. At the same time we don't want to place too great of a
scientific or philosophical burden on the Pauline text, which it is
evident is doesn't have. The 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth
(Feb. 12, 1809) makes this type of reflection even more opportune
In Paul's view God is at the beginning and end of the world's
history. He mysteriously guides it toward a purpose, making even the
excesses of human liberty serve this purpose. The material world
serves man and man serves God. It is not just Paul's idea. The theme
of the final liberation of matter and its participation in the glory
of God's children finds a parallel in the themes of the "new heavens
and new earth" of the Second Letter of Peter (3:13) and Revelation
The first great novelty of this vision is that it speaks to us about
liberation of matter, not about liberation from matter, as happened
among almost all the old concepts of salvation: Platonism,
Gnosticism, Docetism, Manichaeism, and Catharism. St. Irenaeus spent
his entire life countering the Gnostic belief according to which
"matter is incapable of salvation."
The problem is presented in different terms within the current
dialogue between science and faith, but the substance is the same.
It is about knowing whether the cosmos was thought of and willed by
someone, or if it is the result of "chance and necessity"; if its
path displays signs of an intelligence and moves toward a precise
purpose, or if it evolves blindly, so to speak, obeying only its own
laws and biological mechanisms.
The thesis of believers in this respect has come to be referred to
in English as Intelligent design, (it's understood that the design
belongs to the Creator). In my opinion what has created so much
discussion and argument about this idea has been the fact that no
clear distinction is made between intelligent design as a scientific
theory and intelligent design as a truth of faith.
As a scientific theory, the thesis of "intelligent design" states
that it is possible to prove that the world has an external author,
based on the very analysis of creation, and therefore
scientifically, and that it displays signs of an organizing
intelligence. This is the statement that the majority of scientists
intend to question (and the only one they can question!), not the
statement about faith, which the believer receives from revelation
and which even his intelligence feels to be intimately true and
If, as many scientists believe (not all!), it is pseudo-science to
make "Intelligent Design" a scientific conclusion, it is just as
much pseudo-science to discount the existence of "Intelligent
Design" based on the results of science. Science could posit this
pretext if it could explain all things by itself: thus not only the
"how" of the world, but also the "what" and the "why." Science well
knows that it is not within its purview to do this. Even the person
that removes the idea of god from his perspective, cannot also
remove the mystery at the same time. There is always an unanswered
questions: Why is there being and not nothingness? Even the very
nothingness is perhaps less inscrutable of a mystery to us than
being, and chance an enigma that is less unexplainable than God?
I've read this significant acknowledgement in a scientific book
written by an nonbeliever: If we go back over the story of the
world, as you would flip through a book from the last page toward
the first, when we finished we would realize that the first page was
missing, the "incipit." We know everything about the world, except
why and how it began. The believer is convinced that the Bible
provides us just this first page that is missing. Just as in every
book, this is the page where the name, author and title of the book
An analogy can help us reconcile our faith in the existence of God's
intelligent design for the world with the apparent fortuity and
unpredictability highlighted by Darwin and current science. It deals
with the relationship between grace and freedom. As in the spiritual
field grace leaves space to the unpredictability of human freedom
and even works through it, so also in the physical and biological
world everything is based on the play of the second causes (the
fight for survival of species according to Darwin, chance and
necessity according to Monod); Even if this very play is
contemplated and assumed by God's providence. In both cases, as the
saying goes, God "writes straight with crooked lines."
3. The evolution and the Trinity
The debate between creationism and evolutionism tends to take place
in dialogue with the contrary thesis, one of a materialistic and
atheistic nature. So it is necessarily a dialogue conducted in
apologetic terms. In a reflection conducted between believers and
for believers, as we are doing, we cannot stop at this point.
Stopping here would imply remaining prisoners of a "deist" vision of
the problem, and not yet Trinitarian, and therefore not specifically
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is the one who opened the conversation on
evolutionism to a Trinitarian dimension. This scholar's contribution
to the discussion on evolution essentially consists of having
introduced the person of Christ into conversation, of making it a
Christological problem as well.
His biblical starting point is Paul's statement, according to which
"all things were created through him and for him" (Colossians 1:16).
Christ appears in this vision as the Omega Point, that is, as the
meaning and final destination of cosmic and human evolution. We can
debate the method and the arguments through which this Jesuit
scholar arrives to his conclusion, but not the conclusion itself.
Maurice Blondel explains the reason well in a note written in
defense of Teilhard de Chardin: "Faced with the grandiose horizons
of nature and humanity, without betraying Catholicism, we cannot
rely on mediocre explanations and ways of seeing things that are
limited, which make Christ a historic incident, which isolate him in
the cosmos as a minor episode, or seem to make him an intruder or a
lost soul within the overpowering and hostile immensity of the
What is still missing, for a completely Trinitarian vision of the
problem, is an understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in the
creation and evolution of the cosmos. This is required by the basic
principle of Trinitarian theology according to which the works ad
extra of God are shared by all three of the persons of the Trinity,
each of which participates in them with their own characteristics.
The Pauline text we are meditating on allows us to fill this gap.
The allusion to creation's labor pains is made within the context of
Paul's discourse on the different workings of the Holy Spirit. He
sees continuity between the creation's groaning and the Christian's
which is openly placed in relationship with the Spirit: "It (the
material world) is not the only one, but we also, who posses the
first fruits of the Spirit, moan internally." The Holy Spirit is the
mysterious strength that pushes creation toward its fulfillment.
Speaking about the evolution of the social order, the Second Vatican
Council states, "God's Spirit which, with admirable providence,
directs the course of the times and renews the face of the earth, is
present in such an evolution."
He who is "the beginning of the creation of things", is also the
beginning of its evolution in time. In fact, this is nothing other
than the creation that continues on. The Holy Father Benedict XVI
highlighted this concept during the address given Oct. 31, 2008, to
the participants in the symposium on evolution, promoted by the
Pontifical Academy of the sciences: "As I said, stating that the
foundation of the cosmos and its development is the wisdom provided
by the Creator is not to say that creation only deals with the
beginning of the history of the world and of life. Rather, this
implies that the Creator establishes these developments and sustains
them, he appoints them and constantly maintains them."
What specific and "personal" thing does the Spirit contribute to
creation? That depends, as always, on the relationships within the
Trinity. The Holy Spirit is not at the beginning, but so to say, at
the end of creation, just as it is not at the beginning, but rather
the end of the Trinitarian process. St. Basil writes that in
creation, the Father is the principle cause, he from whom all things
are; the Son is the efficient cause, he through whom all things are
made; the Holy Spirit is the perfecting cause.
The creating action of the Spirit is, therefore, the origin of the
perfection of creation. We would say that he is not so much the one
who makes the world go from the nothing to being, but rather he who
makes the world go from being formless to being formed and
perfected. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the one who makes
creation go from chaos to cosmos, who makes something beautiful,
ordered and clean from creation: precisely a “mundus” (world)"
according to the original meaning of the Latin word. St. Ambrose
"When the Spirit began to gently blow on it, creation did not yet
have any beauty. Instead, when creation received the working of the
Spirit, it obtained all the splendor of beauty which made it shine
It is not that the creative action of the Father was "chaotic" and
needing correction, but rather the Father himself, as St. Basil
notes in the text referenced, wants to make all things exist through
the Son and wants to bring all things to perfection through the
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth
was formless and deserted and darkness covered the abyss and the
Spirit of God hovered over the waters" (Genesis 1:1-2). The Bible
itself, as can be seen, alludes to the universe's passing from a
formless and chaotic state to a state on the path of progressive
formation and differentiation of creatures and mentions the Spirit
of God as the principle of this passage or evolution. This passage
is presented in the Bible as sudden and immediate. Science has
revealed that it extended over millions of years and is still in
action. But this should not create any problems, once we know the
purpose and literary genre of the biblical account.
Based on the sense of analogous expressions presented in the
Babylonian cosmological poems, today the expression "spirit of god"
(ruach 'elohim) from Genesis' chapters 1 and 2 tends to be
attributed a purely naturalistic sense of strong wind. It is seen as
an element of the primordial chaos, on par with the abyss and
darkness, thus tying it to what came earlier, not to what follows in
the story of creation.
But the image of "God's breath" returns in the next chapter of
Genesis (God "blew a breath of life into the nose of man and man
became a living being") with a "theological" sense and certainly not
a naturalistic sense.
To exclude every reference in the text to the divine reality of the
Holy Spirit, no matter how nascent, attributing the creative
activity exclusively to the word of God, would mean reading the text
only in light of what comes before it and not in light of what comes
after it in the Bible; in the light of the influences it has
undergone and not also the influence it has exercised, contrary to
what the most recent biblical hermeneutics suggest. (Isn't the
surest way to establish the nature of an unknown seed to see what
type of plant comes from it?)
Reflecting on the unfolding of the revelation, we find little by
little signs that are ever more explicit of the creative activity of
the breath of God, in close connection with that of his Word. "By
the word (dabar) of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their
host by the breath (ruach) of his mouth" (Psalm 33:6; cf. also
Isaiah 11:4: "He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips He shall slay the wicked"). Spirit
and breath certainly do not indicate, in these texts, the natural
wind. Another Psalm refers to that same text, stating: "When thou
sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the
face of the ground" (Psalm 104:30). Hence, no matter what
interpretation one wishes to give Genesis 1:2, it is a fact that the
rest of the Bible attributes to the Spirit of God an active role in
This line of development becomes very clear in the New Testament
which describes the intervention of the Holy Spirit in the new
creation, making use precisely of the images of breath and wind that
are read in regard to the origin of the world (cf. John 20:22 with
Genesis 2:7). The idea of the creative ruach cannot be born from
nothing. In the same commentary or edition of the Bible, one cannot
translate Genesis 1:2 with "a wind of God breathed over the waters"
and then refer to that same text to explain the dove in Jesus'
Hence, it is not incorrect to continue to refer to Genesis 1:2 and
to other subsequent testimonies, to find a biblical foundation for
the creative role of the Holy Spirit, as the Fathers did. "If you
adopt this explanation," said St. Basil, followed in this by Luther,
"it will bring great profit." And it is true: To perceive in the
"Spirit of God" that moved across the waters a first embryonic
reference to the creative action of the Spirit opens up the
understanding to so many subsequent passages of the Bible, the
origin of which otherwise could not be explained.
4. Easter, Passage from Old Age to Youth
Let us now identify some practical consequences that the biblical
vision of the role of the Holy Spirit can have for our theology and
for our spiritual life. As regards the theological applications, I
remember only one: the participation of Christians in the obligation
to respect and safeguard creation. For the believing Christian,
ecology is not only a practical necessity of survival or a political
or economic problem; it has a theological foundation. Creation is
the work of the Holy Spirit!
Paul speaks to us of a creation that "groans and suffers in the
pangs of birth." To this, his cry of birth, is mixed in a cry of
agony and death. Nature is subjected once again "without its will,"
to a vanity and pollution, different from those of the spiritual
order intended by Paul, but derived from the same source that is sin
and man's egoism.
The Pauline text that we are meditating might inspire more than one
consideration on the problem of ecology: Are we, who have received
the first fruits of the Spirit, hastening "the full liberation of
the cosmos and its participation to the glory of the children of
God," or are we retarding it, as are all the others?
But lets come to a more personal application. We say that man is a
microcosm; to him, therefore, as individual, is applied all that we
have said in general of the cosmos. The Holy Spirit is he who makes
each one of us pass from chaos to the cosmos: From disorder, from
confusion and from dispersion, to order, unity and beauty, that
beauty which consists of being conformed to the will of God and in
the image of Christ, in passing from the old man to the new man.
With a veiled autobiographic reference, the Apostle wrote to the
Corinthians: "Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner
nature is being renewed every day" (2 Corinthians 4:16). The
evolution of man's spirit does not take place in a parallel manner
to that of his body, but in the opposite sense.
In recent days, given the three Oscars and the fame of the actor,
there has been much talk of a film entitled "The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button," a story by writer Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. It
is the story of a man who is born old, with the monstrous features
of an 80-year-old and, growing, he is reinvigorated to the point of
dying as a real baby. The story is of course paradoxical, but there
could be an all-together more real application if transferred to the
spiritual plane. We are born "old men" and we must become "new men."
The whole of life, not just adolescence, is a "an evolutionary age!"
According to the Gospel, one is not born a child but becomes a
child! St. Maximus of Turin, a Father of the Church, describes
Easter as a passage "from sins to holiness, from vices to virtues,
from old age to youth: a youth understood not of age but of
simplicity. We were in fact fallen by the old age of sins, but by
the Resurrection of Christ we were renewed in the innocence of
Lent is the ideal time to apply oneself to this reinvigoration. A
preface of this time states: "You have established for your children
a time of spiritual renewal, so that they may convert to you with
their whole heart, and free from the ferment of sin live the
vicissitudes of this world, always oriented toward eternal goods." A
prayer, stemming from the Gelasian Sacramentary of the 7th century
is still in use in the Easter Vigil; it proclaims solemnly: "Let the
whole world see and recognize that all that is destroyed is
reconstructed, all that is old is renewed, and everything returns to
its integrity, through Christ who is the principle of all things."
The Holy Spirit is the soul of this renewal and rejuvenation. Let us
begin our day by saying, with the first verse of the hymn in his
honor: Come Creator Spirit, renew in my life the prodigy of the
first creation, blow over the void, the darkness and the chaos of my
heart, and guide me toward the full realization of the "intelligent
design" of God on my life.
* * *
 Cf. St. Agustine, Exp. on the Letter to the Romans, 45 (PL 35,
 A. Giglioli, L’uomo o il creato? Ktisis in S. Paolo, Edizioni
Dehoniane, Bologna. 1994.
 H. Schlier, Letter to the Romans, Paideia Brescia 1982, p. 429.
 Virgil, Aeneid, I, 462.
 Cf. St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. V 1,2: V 3,3.
 Cf. C. F. Mooney, Teilhard de Chardin et le mystère du Christ,
Aubier, Paris 1966.
 M. Blondel – A. Valensin, Correspondance, Aubier, Paris. 1965
 Gaudium et Spes, 26
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 20, n. 3570 (Marietti,
Torino 1961, vol. 3, p. 286)
 St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XVI, 38 (PG 32, 136)
 St. Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, II, 32.
 Thus G. von Rad, in Genesi. Translation and commment by G. von
Rad, Paideia, Brescia 1978, pp. 56-57; it should nevertheless be
noted that in Enuma Elish wind appears as and ally of God the
creator, not a hostile element that is apposed ot him. Ref. R. J.
Clifford-R. E. Murphy, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1990,
 This is how the "Jerusalem Bible" states it: cf. note to
Genesis 1:2 and Matthew 3:16 and in The New Jerome Biblical
Commentary, Prentice Hall, 1990, pp. 10 and 638.
 St. Basil, Exaemeron, II, 6 (SCh 26, p. 168); Luther, On
Genesis (WA 42, p. 8).
 St. Maximus of Turin, Sermon of Holy Easter, 54, 1 (CC 23, p.
[Translation by ZENIT]
© Innovative Media, Inc.
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
This page is the work of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and