Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
"The Law Is at the
Service of Love and Defends It"
2nd Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 20, 2009
"The Law of The Spirit That Gives Life"
The Holy Spirit, the new law of Christians
1. The law of the Spirit and Pentecost
The way in which the Apostle begins his discussion of the Holy
Spirit in Chapter 8 of the letter to the Romans is truly surprising:
"Thus, condemnation will never come to those who are in Christ
Jesus, because the law of the Spirit which gives life in Christ
Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death." He spent the
entire preceding chapter using positive and uplifting words in
describing the law. "The law of the Spirit" means the law that is
the Spirit; the term is a genitive of apposition, or of definition;
such as the phrase the flower of the rose refers to the flower that
is itself a rose.
In order to understand what Paul means through this brief expression
we need to refer to the event of Pentecost. In the Acts of the
Apostles the story about the coming of the Holy Spirit begins with
the words: "When Pentecost day came round, they had all met
together" (Acts 2: 1). We deduce from these words that Pentecost
predated... Pentecost. In other words, there already was a Pentecost
feast day within Judaism and that was the feast day when the Holy
There were fundamentally two different interpretations of the feast
of Pentecost in the Old Testament. In the beginning Pentecost was
the feast of the seven weeks (ref. Tobit 2:1), the feast of the
harvest (ref. Numbers 28:26), when the first fruits were offered to
God (ref. Exodus 23:16; Deuteronomy 16:9). Then afterward, in the
time of Jesus, the feast was enriched with a new meaning: it was the
feast of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai and of the covenant;
in essence, the feast that celebrated the events described in Exodus
chapters 19 and 20. (In fact, according to calculations based on the
bible text, the law as given on Sinai fifty days after Passover).
Pentecost was transformed from being a feast tied to nature's cycles
(the harvest) into a feast tied to salvation history: "This day of
the feast of the weeks is the time of the gift of our Torah" says a
text from the current Jewish liturgy. When they left Egypt the
people walked for fifty days in the desert and, at the end of these,
God gave Moses the law. Based on the law he established a covenant
with the people and made them "a kingdom of priests and a holy
people." (Ref. Exodus 19:4-6)
It seems like Luke purposefully described the descent of the Holy
Spirit using terms that characterized the theophany of Sinai. In
fact he used images that call to mind earthquakes and fire. The
Church's liturgy confirms this interpretation by putting Exodus 19
among the readings of the Pentecost vigil.
What does this juxtaposition tell us about our Pentecost? In other
words, what is meant by the fact that the Holy Spirit descends on
the Church on the very day when Israel commemorated the gift of the
law and the covenant? Even St. Augustine asked himself this
question: "Why do even the Jews celebrate Pentecost? This is a great
and marvelous mystery brothers: if you realize, on the day of
Pentecost they received the law written by God's hand and on the
same day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came."
Another Father of the Church, this time from the East, helps us see
that this interpretation of Pentecost was a common patrimony of the
whole Church during the first centuries: "The law was given on the
day of Pentecost; it was appropriate then that on the day when the
old law was given, the same day the grace of the Spirit be also
The answer to our question is clear at this point, that is because
the Spirit descends on the apostles precisely on the day of
Pentecost: to point out that he is the new law, the spiritual law
that seals the new and eternal covenant and that consecrates the
royal and priestly people that are the Church. What a great
revelation on the meaning of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit himself!
St. Augustine exclaims: "Who would not be struck by both this
coincidence and also this difference?" There are fifty days between
the celebration of Passover and the day when Moses received the law
written by God's hands on tablets. So also, fifty days after the
death and resurrection of him who was led like a lamb to the
slaughter, God's hand, that is the Holy Spirit, poured himself into
the faithful gathered all together.
All of a sudden this sheds light on Jeremiah and Ezekiel's
prophecies about the new covenant: "this is the covenant I shall
make with the House of Israel when those days have come, Yahweh
declares. Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their
hearts." (Jeremiah 31:33) It is no longer written on stone tablets,
but rather on their hearts; it is no longer and external law, but
rather an interior law.
Ezekiel takes ups and completes Jeremiah's prophecy, better
explaining what this interior law is: "I shall give you a new heart,
and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from
your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my
spirit in you, and make you keep my laws, and respect and practice
my judgments." (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
In using the expression "the law of the Spirit" St. Paul refers to
this whole group of prophecies linked to the theme of the new
covenant. This appears clearly in the passage in which he calls the
community of the new covenant a "letter from Christ, written not
with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on stone
tablets, but rather on the tablets of our hearts" and in it he
defines the apostles as "Ministers suitable to a new covenant, not
of letter, but of the Spirit; because the letter kills, the Spirit
gives life" (ref. Corinthians 3:3-6).
2. What is the law of the Spirit and how does it act
So the new law, the law of the Spirit, strictly speaking is not the
law Jesus proclaimed during the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, it is
the law that he inscribes in hearts on Pentecost. Certainly the
gospel precepts are more elevated and perfect that the mosaic
precepts. Nevertheless, even these would have been inefficient in
and of themselves. If it was enough to just proclaim the new will of
God through the Gospel, it wouldn't explain what need there was for
Jesus to die and the Holy Spirit to come. But the apostles
themselves demonstrated that it was not enough; even though they
heard everything, for example that we need to turn the check to
those who strike us, during the passion they did not have the
strength to follow any of Jesus' commandments.
If Jesus had limited himself to promulgate the new commandment,
saying: "I give you a new commandment: that you love on another"
(John 13:34), this would have been "letters" as the old law was. It
was at Pentecost, when he infused that love in the hearts of his
disciples through the Holy Spirit, that this commandment became a
new law in the full sense, a law of the Spirit that gives life. It
is because of the Spirit that the commandment is "new", not because
of the letter. Based on the letter, this was an old law since it was
already found in the Old Testament (ref. Leviticus 19:18).
Without the interior grace of the Spirit, even the Gospel, and so
also the new commandment would have remained old law, letter. St.
Thomas takes a bold idea from St. Augustine. He writes: "he letter
denotes any writing external to man, even that of the moral precepts
such as are contained in the Gospel. Wherefore the letter, even of
the Gospel would kill, unless there were the inward presence of the
healing grace of faith." What he wrote a bit before that is even
more explicit: "The new law is principally the same grace of the
Holy Spirit that is given to the believers."
But this new law that is the Spirit, how exactly does it work and in
what send can it be called ‘law'? It works through love! The new law
is nothing other than what Jesus calls the "new commandment." The
Holy Spirit has written the new law in our hearts, infusing love in
them: "the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy
Spirit which has been given to us." (Romans 5:5) This love is the
love with which God loves us and by which, at the same time, we are
made capable of loving him and our neighbor: amor quo Deus nos
diligit et quo ipse nos dilectores sui facit. It is a new
capacity for love.
The person who approaches the Gospel with a human mentality finds it
absurd that love is turned into a "commandment"; what love is there,
they object, if it is not free, but commanded? The answer is that
there are two ways through which people can be led to do something
or not do something: by constriction or by attraction. Positive law
leads to action by the first means, constriction, through the threat
of punishment; love leads to action by the second means, through
In fact, everyone is attracted by what they love, without suffering
an external constriction. Show a child nuts and you will see him
reach out to grab them. Who is pushing him? No one, he is attracted
by the object of his desire. Show the Good to a soul that thirsts
for truth and he will pursue it. Who is pushing him? No one, he is
attracted by his desire. Love is like a "weight" on the soul that
attracts us toward the object of our desire, in which we know we
will find our rest.
It is in this sense that the Holy Spirit, specifically love, is a
"law", a "commandment": this creates a dynamism within the Christian
which bring him to do everything God wants, spontaneously, without
even needing to think about it, because he has made God's will his
own and he loves everything that God loves.
We can say that living in grace, governed by the new law of the
Spirit, is a way of living "in love", that is transported by love.
The same change that falling in love creates in the rhythm of human
life and in the relationship between two creatures, the coming of
the Holy Spirit creates within the relationship between man and God.
3. Love preserves the law...
What place does following the commandments have within this new
economy of the Spirit? This is a neuralgic point that should be
clarified. Even after Pentecost the written law continues to exist:
there are God's Ten Commandments, and the evangelical precepts; the
church laws were added to these immediately thereafter. What meaning
do the codices of cannon law have, monastic rules, religious vows,
in short, everything that is an objective will that is imposed on me
from the outside? Are things such as these external to the Christian
We know that over the history of the Church there have been
movements that have thought like this and have refused all laws in
the name of the freedom of the Spirit, so much so that they have
even called themselves "anonymous" movements. But these have always
been denounced by the authority of the Church and by the very
Christian conscience. Even in our day, in a cultural context
characterized by atheistic existentialism, the law is no longer
refused in the name of the name of freedom of the Spirit, but rather
in the name of pure human liberty. One of the characters in J. P.
Sarte's works says: "There is no longer anything in heaven, neither
good nor evil, nor any person that can give me orders. I am a man,
and every man must invent his own path."
The Christian response to this problem comes to us from the Gospel.
Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to "bring it
to fulfillment". (Ref. Matthew 5:17) And what is the "fulfillment"
of the law? "Complete fulfillment of the law, responds the Apostle,
is love! (Romans 13:10) Jesus says that all the law and the prophets
depend on the commandment of love (Ref. Matthew 22:40). Love,
therefore, cannot substitute the law, but it observes the way, it
"observes" it, it "fulfills" it. In fact, it is the only force that
makes it be observed.
In Ezekiel's prophecy the new possibilities for observing God's law
are attributed to the future gift of the Holy Spirit and the new
heart: "I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws, and
respect and practice my judgments." (Ezekiel 36:27) And Jesus says
in the same sense: "Anyone who loves me will keep my word" (John
14:23), that is he will capable of observing it.
There isn't opposition or incompatibility within the new economy
between the internal law of the Spirit and the external written law.
On the contrary, rather, there is full collaboration: the former is
provided in order to protect the later: "The law was given because
grace was being sought, and grace was given so that the law would be
observed." The observance of the commandments and, in practice,
obedience are the sounding board of love, the sign to recognize
whether one is living "by the Spirit" or "by the flesh."
So what is the difference, if we are still supposed to observe the
law? The difference is that before we observed the law to get life
from it which it could not give, and so it became an instrument of
death. Now we observe the law to live in coherence with the life
received. The observance of the law is no longer the cause of
justification, but rather the effect. In this sense the Apostle is
right to say that his words do not annul the law, but rather confirm
it and ennoble it: "Are we saying that the Law has been made
pointless by faith? Out of the question; we are placing the Law on
its true footing." (Romans 3:31)
4. And the law protects love
A type of circularity and circumincession is created between the law
and love. If it is in fact true that love takes care of the law, it
is also true that the law take care of love. In different ways the
law is at the service of love and defends it. We know that "the law
is given for sinners" and we are still now sinners (ref. 1 Timothy
1:9). Yes, we have received the Spirit, but only the first fruits of
the spirit; the old man still lives with the new man as long as
there is concupiscence in us, and providentially that there are
commandments which can help us recognize and combat him, even if
only with the threat of punishment.
The law is a support for our liberty which is still uncertain and
unsteady in good. The law is for and not against liberty. It's
necessary to say that those who have believed they could reject
every law, in the name of human liberty, are mistaken. They
misunderstand the real and historic situation in which that liberty
In addition to this function, which we can call negative, the law
performs another positive action of discernment. With the grace of
the Holy Spirit, we adhere globally to God's will, we make it our
own and we desire to do it, but we do not yet know it in all its
implications. These are revealed to us, by the law in addition to
from the happenings of life.
There is a deeper sense in which you could say that the law watches
over love: "Only when there is the duty to love," wrote Kierkegaard
"is love then guaranteed against every change; eternally freed in
blessed independence; protected by eternal happiness against all
The meaning of these words is as follows: the man that loves, the
more intensely he loves, the more he can see the dangers that this
his love is in; It is danger that does not come from others but from
within himself. If fact, he knows well that he is changeable and
that tomorrow, alas, he could grow tired and not love anymore. And
since now that he is in love he sees clearly what an irreparable
loss this would be, he guards against it by "tying himself" to love
with the law. In this way he anchors his act of love, which happen
in time, to eternity.
This supposes that we are dealing with true love and not, as the
Philosopher says, a game and a mutual teasing. True love, explains
the Pope, in the encyclical Deus caritas est, "it now seeks to
become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the
sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense
of being "for ever". Love embraces the whole of existence in each of
its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be
otherwise, since its promise looks towards its definitive goal: love
looks to the eternal."
Man today asks himself with increasing frequency what relationship
there can ever be between the love between two young people and the
law of marriage and what need there is for love to "bind itself"
since it is by its nature free and spontaneous. Because of this,
there are ever more people who come to refute, in theory or in
practice, the institution of marriage and choose the so called free
love or simply living together.
Only if we discover the deep and vital relationship that there is
between law and love, between decision and institution, can we
respond correctly to those questions and give young people a
convincing reason to "bind themselves" to love forever and not to be
afraid of making love a "duty." The duty to love protects love from
"desperation" and makes it "happy and independent" in the sense that
it protects it from the despair of not being able to love forever.
Kierkegaard says, give me a person that is truly in love and you
will see whether the thought of having to love forever is a weight
for him or rather the highest bliss.
This consideration is not only true for human love, but even more
so, for divine love. Why, we could be asked, should we bind
ourselves to loving God, submitting ourselves to a religious rule,
why make "vows" that "restrict" us to be poor, chaste and obedient,
since we have a internal and spiritual law that can obtain all of
that through "attraction?" It is because, in a moment of grace, you
have felt attracted to God, you loved him and wanted to possess him
forever, totally, and fearing losing him because of your
instability, you have "bound" yourself to him to protect your lover
from every "alteration."
We bind ourselves for the same reason that Ulysses tied himself to
the mast of the ship. Ulysses wanted at all costs to return to see
his homeland and the wife he loved. She knew he had to pass through
the place of the Sirens and fearing that he would be shipwrecked
like so many others before him, he had himself tied to the mast of
the ship after having his companions ears plugged. When they arrived
to where the sirens were he was bewitched, he wanted to reach out to
them and he screamed to be freed, but his sailors did not hear him
and thus the danger passed and he was able to reach his goal.
5. There is no condemnation!
Before concluding, let us turn to the initial statement where we
began: "There is no longer any condemnation for those who are in
Christ Jesus. Because the law of the Spirit that gives life in
Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death." The world
at the time of the Apostle lived oppressed by a sense of
condemnation and separation from the divine, which they tried to
overcome through various mystical cults. A great scholar of
antiquity has defined it as an "epoch of anguish" (E.R. Dodds).
To have an idea of the effect St. Paul's words must have had on the
intellectuals of his time, we should think of a man that is
condemned to death who lives awaiting the execution and one day he
hears a friendly voice cry out: "Clemency! You've been granted
clemency! All the sentences have been lifted. You're free!" It is
like feeling born again. This charge of freedom is still intact
because the Holy Spirit is not subject to the laws of entropy as all
the sources of physical energy are. All of us have the duty to open
our hearts to receive it and the ministers of the Word even today
should make it ring out vibrantly throughout the world.
 St. Augustine, Sermo Mai, 158, 4: PLS 2, 525.
 Severiano Di Gabala, in Catena in Actus Apostolorum 2, 1; ed.
J.A. Cramer, 3, Oxford 1838, p. 16.
 St. Augustine, De Spiritu et littera, 16, 28: CSEL 60, 182.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-IIae, q. 106, a. 2.
 Ibid., q. 106, a. 1; cf St. Augustine, De Spiritu et littera,
 Thomas Aquinas, On the Letter to the Romans, chap. V, lez.1, n.
 St. Augustine, On the Gospel of John, 26, 4-5: CCL 36, 261;
Confessions, XIII, 9.
 J.-P. Sartre, Les mouches, Paris 1943, p. 134 s.
 St. Augustine, De Spiritu et littera, 19, 34.
 S. Kierkegaard, The Works of Love, I, 2, 40.
 Benedict XVI, Enc. "Deus caritas est", 6.
[Translation by Thomas Daly]
© 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
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