Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
"There Is No Gift More
Beautiful Than Spreading Hope"
4th Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
April 3, 2009
"We too, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we are
groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness" (Romans 8:23).
The Holy Spirit, Soul of Christian Eschatology
1. The Spirit of the promise
Let us listen to the passage from the eighth chapter of the Letter
to the Romans which we want to meditate on today: "And not only
that: we too, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we are
groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our bodies to
be set free. In hope, we already have salvation; in hope, not
visibly present, or we should not be hoping -- nobody goes on hoping
for something which is already visible. But having this hope for
what we cannot yet see, we are able to wait for it with persevering
confidence" (Romans 8:23-25).
In the Scriptures we find the same tension between promise and
fulfillment with regards to the person of Christ as with regards to
the person of the Holy Spirit. Just as Christ was first promised in
the Scriptures, then later made manifest in the flesh, and then
awaited in his second coming, so also the Spirit, once "promised by
the Father," was poured out at Pentecost, and is now once again
awaited and invoked "with indescribable moaning" by mankind and all
creation, who, having tasted the first fruits, await the fullness of
During this period of time that spans from Pentecost to the Parousia,
the Spirit is the strength that pushes us forward, that keeps us on
the path, that doesn't allow us to become a "sedentary" people, that
makes us sing the "psalms of ascension" with a new enthusiasm: "What
joy when they told me: we will go up to the house of the Lord!" He
is the one who creates the momentum and, so to say, gives wings to
our hope; what is more, he is the very principle and soul of our
Two authors speak to us about the Spirit as "promise" in the New
Testament: Luke and Paul. But, as we will see, there is an important
difference. In the gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles it
is Jesus himself who speaks of the Spirit as "the Father's promise."
He says, "I will send my Father's promise upon you;" "While at table
with them, he had told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait
there for what the Father had promised. 'It is,' he had said, 'what
you have heard me speak about: John baptized with water but, not
many days from now, you are going to be baptized with the Holy
Spirit'" (Acts 1:4-5).
What is Jesus talking about when he calls the Holy Spirit the
Father's promise? Where is it that the Father made this promise? It
could be said that the entire Old Testament is a promise of the
Spirit. The work of the Messiah is constantly presented as being
fulfilled in a new universal pouring out of God's Spirit upon the
earth. Looking at what Peter says the day of Pentecostshows that
Luke thinks particularly about Joel's prophecies: "In the last days
-- the Lord declares -- I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity"
It is not only these prophecies. How can we not also think about
what we read in the other prophets? "Until the spirit is poured out
on us from above" (Isaiah 32:15). "I shall pour out my spirit on
your descendants" (Isaiah 44:3). "I shall put my spirit in you"
With regards to the content of the promise, Luke highlights, as he
often does, the charismatic aspect of the gifts of the Spirit, in
particular the gift of prophecy. The Father's promise is the
"strength from on high" that will make all disciples capable of
bringing salvation to the ends of the earth. However he does not
ignore the deeper, sanctifying and salvific aspects of the Spirit's
actions, such as the remission of sins, the gift of a new law and of
a new covenant, as can be taken from the juxtaposition he creates
between Sinai and Pentecost. Peters words: "The promise that was
made is for you" (Acts 2:39) refer to the promise of salvation, no
just the promise of prophecy or some other charisms.
2. The Spirit as first fruit and pledge
As we move from Luke to Paul, we enter into a new perspective,
theologically much deeper. He lists numerous objects of the promise:
justification, divine sonship, inheritance; but what summarizes
everything else, the object of the promise par excellence is the
Holy Spirit himself who he calls both "promise of the Spirit"
(Galatians 3:14) and "Spirit of the promise" (Ephesians 1:13).
The Apostle introduces two new ideas into the concept of promise.
The first is that God's promise does not depend on the observance of
the Law, but on faith on thus on grace. God doesn't promise the
Spirit to those who observe the law, but rather to those who believe
in Christ. "How was it that you received the Spirit -- was it by the
practice of the Law, or by believing in the message you heard? If
the inheritance comes by the Law, it no longer comes through a
promise" (Galatians 3:2,18).
In Paul it is precisely through the concept of promise that the
theology of the Holy Spirit is tied to the rest of his thought and
it even becomes a concrete demonstration of his thought. Christians
well know that it is after the preaching of the Gospel they first
experienced the Holy Spirit, not because they subjected themselves
to a more faithful observance of the law. The Apostle can base
himself on a well-known fact.
The second new concept is a bit disconcerting in a way. It is as if
Paul wants to nip in the bud any temptation to be overly
"enthusiastic," saying that the promise is not yet fulfilled … at
least fully! In this regard, there are two very revealing concepts
that are applied to the Holy Spirit: first fruits (aparchè) e
deposit (arrabôn). The first concept is present in our text of
Romans 8, the other is found in the Second Letter to the
Corinthians. "We too, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even
we are groaning inside ourselves, waiting with eagerness for our
bodies to be set free" (Romans 8:23). "It is God who gives us, with
you, a sure place in Christ and has both anointed us and marked us
with his seal, giving us as pledge the Spirit in our hearts" (2
Corinthians 1:21-22). "It is God who designed us for this very
purpose, and he has given us the Spirit as a pledge" (2 Corinthians
What is the Apostle trying to say? That the fulfillment worked by
Christ has not exhausted the Holy Spirit. In a unique contrast he
says, "we possess ... in expectation," we possess and we await. It
is precisely because that which we possess is not yet fullness, but
only a first fruit, a foretaste that hope is born in us. What is
more, the desire, the longing, the expectation grows even more
intense than they were because now we know what the Holy Spirit is.
The coming of the Holy Spirit has, in a manner of speaking, fanned
the flame of human desire.
This happens the same way it happened with Christ: His coming has
fulfilled all the promises, but has not ended the wait. The wait has
restarted, under the form of waiting for his return in glory. The
title of "the Father's promise" puts the Holy Spirit at the very
heart of Christian eschatology. Therefore we can't accept the
statements of certain authors without reservations. According to
these authors, "in the Judeo-Christian construct, the Spirit was
primarily the strength of the future world, and in the
Hellenistic-Christian construct it is the strength of the superior
world." Paul demonstrates that the two concepts don't necessarily
contradict each other, but can rather coexist together. In him the
Spirit is, at the same time, both a reality of the superior, divine
world and the strength of the world to come.
In the journey from first fruits to fullness, the first fruits will
not be thrown away to make space for the fullness; rather the first
fruits will themselves turn into the fullness. We will keep what we
already have and we will acquire that which we do not now possess.
It will be the Holy Spirit himself who will expand in fullness.
The theological principle "grace is the beginning of glory," applied
to the Holy Spirit means that the first fruits are the beginning of
the fulfillment, the beginning of glory, part of it. There is no
need, in this case, to translate arrabôn, as "pledge" (pignus),
rather just as deposit (arra). The pledge is not the beginning of
the payment, but rather something that is given in lieu of payment.
Once payment has been made, the pledge is returned. A deposit does
not function in the same manner. The deposit is not returned when
full payment is made, rather payment is completed. It is itself part
of the payment. "If God has given us as a pledge the love through
his Spirit, when the whole reality is given to us, will the pledge
be taken away? Certainly not, but it will complete what he has
The love of God that we sample, thanks to the deposit of the Spirit,
is therefore of the same quality as that we will have in eternal
life, but not of the same intensity. The same thing should be said
about possessing the Holy Spirit.
A deep transformation has taken place, as we can see, in the meaning
of the feast of Pentecost. In the beginning, Pentecost was the feast
of the first fruits, that is, the day when the first fruits of
the harvest were offered to God. Now it is still the feast of the
first fruits, but the first fruits that God offers humanity, in his
Spirit. The roles of giver and beneficiary have been reversed, in
perfect accord with that which occurs, in all fields, in passing
from law to grace, from salvation as a work of man, to salvation as
God's free gift.
This explains how the interpretation of Pentecost as a feast of the
first fruits has so strangely had almost no influence in the
Christian feast of Pentecost. St. Irenaeus made an attempt in this
direction, saying that the day of Pentecost "The Spirit offered the
Father the first fruits of all people," but this would have
almost no following in Christian thought.
3. The Holy Spirit soul of Tradition
The patristic age, unlike all the other aspects of pneumatology,
does not significantly contribute to the concept of the Spirit as
promise. This is due to the little interest that the Church Fathers
have in the historical and eschatological perspective, compared to
the ontological. St. Basil has a nice text on the role of the Spirit
in the final consummation. He writes, "Even at the moment of the
Lord's awaited manifestation from the heavens, the Holy Spirit will
not be absent. … Who could so ignore the good things God prepares
for those who are worthy as not to understand that event the crown
of the just ones is a grace of the Holy Spirit." However, if we
read closely, the Saint only says that the Holy Spirit will have an
active part in the final phase of human history, when we will pass
from time to eternity. What is missing is any reflection on what the
Holy Spirit already does, now, in time, to spur humanity toward its
fulfillment. What is lacking is the sense of the Holy Spirit as a
catalyst, a driving force of God's people, on route toward the
The Spirit drives believers to be vigilant in waiting for Christ's
return, teaching the Church to say "Come, Lord Jesus" (Revelation
22:20). When the Spirit says Marana-tha with the Church, it is like
when he says Abba in the heart of the believer: we should understand
that he makes it be said, that he becomes the Church's voice. In
fact the Paraclete could not cry out Abba on his own, because he is
not the Father's son, and he could not cry out Marana-tha, "Come,
Lord," because he is not Christ's servant, but rather "Lord" on par
with him, as we profess in the creed.
Jesus says of the Paraclete, "He will make known to you the things
to come" (John 16:14): That is, he will disclose the knowledge of
the new order of things that comes from the Resurrection. Thus the
Holy Spirit is the stimulus of Christian eschatology, the one who
keeps the Church facing forward, toward the return of the Lord. This
is just what current biblical and theological thought has tried to
highlight. Moltmann writes that the new existence, inspired by the
Spirit, is already eschatological, without waiting for the final
moment of parousia, in the sense that it is the beginning of a life
that will fully manifest itself only when the manner of existence
determined by the Spirit is established, no longer held hostage by
the flesh. The Spirit is not promise in only a static sense, but
also the force of the promise, he who make us grasp the possibility
of liberation, who makes the chains feel even heavier and more
intolerable, and thus drives us to break them.
This Pauline vision of the Holy Spirit as a promise and first fruit
allows us to discover the true sense of the Tradition of the Church.
Tradition is not primarily a collection of things that have been
"transmitted," but rather, it is in the first place the dynamic
principle of transmission. What is more, it is the very life of the
Church, in as much as it unfolds in fidelity to Jesus Christ, driven
by the Spirit under the guide of the Magisterium. St. Irenaeus
writes that revelation is "like a precious deposit held in a
valuable vase, that thanks to God's Spirit, renews itself always and
even renews the vase that holds it." The valuable vase that
renews itself along with what it contains is precisely the preaching
of the Church and Tradition.
Because of this, the Holy Spirit is the soul of Tradition. If the
Holy Spirit is removed or forgotten what remains is just dead
letter. If, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, "Without the grace of the
Holy Spirit even the precepts of the Gospel would be letter that
kills," what can we say about Tradition?
Tradition is, therefore, a force of permanence and conservation of
the past, but it is also a force of innovation and growth; it is
both memory and anticipation. It is like the wave of apostolic
preaching that advances and propagates throughout the centuries.
The wave cannot be understood without movement. Freezing tradition
in a certain moment of history would mean making it a "dead
tradition," no longer a "living tradition" as St. Irenaeus calls it.
4. The Holy Spirit makes us abound in hope
With his encyclical on hope, the Holy Father Benedict XVI points out
the practical consequence that comes from our meditation: hope, hope
always, and if we have already hoped a thousand times in vain,
return and hope again! The encyclical's title "Spe Salvi" (In Hope
We Have Been Saved) is taken right from the Pauline verse we have
commented on. It begins with these words: "According to the
Christian faith, 'redemption' -- salvation -- is not simply a given.
Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given
hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present:
The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it
leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this
goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey."
A certain equivalence and interchangeability is established between
hoping and being saved, just as also between hoping and believing.
The Pope writes, "Faith is hope," thus confirming, from a
theological perspective, the poetic intuition of Charles Péguy, who
begins his poem on the second virtue with the words, "The faith I
prefer, says God, is hope."
Just as we distinguish two types of faith, the "fides quae creditur"
and the "fides qua creditur," that is, the things believed and the
very act of believing, the same applies to hope. There is objective
hope that indicates the thing hoped for, eternal life, and there is
subjective hope, which is the very act of hoping for that thing.
This second thing is a driving force, and internal catalyst, and
extension of the soul, an opening of oneself toward the future. One
of the early Church fathers called it, "A loving migration of the
spirit toward that which it hopes for."
Paul helps us discover the vital relationship that there is between
the theological virtue of hope and the Holy Spirit. He ties all
three theological virtues back to the action of the Holy Spirit. He
writes: "In fact, by virtue of the Spirit, we wait for justice from
faith which is the object of hope; since in Christ Jesus it is not
being circumcised or being uncircumcised that can effect anything --
only faith working through love."
The Holy Spirit thus appears to us as the wellspring and the
strength of our theological life. It is due to him, in particular,
that we can "be abounding in hope." A bit later in the Letter to the
Romans the Apostle writes, "May the God of hope fill you with all
joy and peace in your faith, so that in the power of the Holy Spirit
you may be rich in hope" (Romans 15:13). "The God of hope," what an
unusual definition of God!
Hope has been sometimes been called the "poor relation" among the
three theological virtues. There has been, it is true, a movement of
intense reflection on the theme of hope, even to the point of
creating a "theology of hope." But what has been lacking is a
reflection on the relationship between hope and the Holy Spirit. Yet
we cannot understand the peculiarity of Christian hope and its
distinction from every other idea of hope, if we do not see it
within its intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. He is the one
that makes the difference between the "principle of hope" of Ernst
Bloch and the theological virtue of hope. The theological virtues
are such not only because they have God as their end, but also
because they have God as their principle; God is not only their
object, but also their cause. They are caused, infused, by God.
We need hope to live and we need the Holy Spirit to hope! Every
moment is a good one to hope, but above all the time of tribulation,
the Apostle writes: "Knowing that affliction produces endurance, and
endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope
does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out
into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us"
(Romans 5:3-5). Hope is the most necessary virtue in this time of
crisis for the world and of tribulation for the Church.
One of the principle dangers in the spiritual life is that of
discouragement when faced with the repetition of the same sins and
the seemingly useless cycle of resolution and relapse. Hope saves
us. It gives us the strength to start over again, to believe each
time that it will work, the strength of true conversion. In this
way, God's heart is moved and he will come to our aid with his
The poet of hope goes on to say, or has God say: "Faith does not
surprise me, says God. I shine so much through my creation. Charity
does not surprise me, says God. Those poor creatures are so unhappy
that, unless they have a heart of stone, how could they not have
charity toward one another. … But hope, says God, that is what
surprises me. That these poor children see how things are going and
that they believe that it will get better tomorrow. This is
shocking. It must be that my grace is truly an incredible
We cannot be satisfied with keeping hope just to ourselves. The Holy
Spirit wants to make us planters of hope. There is no gift more
beautiful than spreading hope at home, in the community, in the
local and universal Church. It is like certain modern products that
clean the air, making the whole room smell beautiful.
I end this series of Lenten meditations with a text from Paul VI
that summarizes many of the points I have touched on: "We have asked
ourselves may times … what need do we see, in the first and final
analysis, for this our blessed and beloved Church. We should say it
in an almost fearful and prayerful way, because it is his mystery
and his life, you know it: the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, animator and
sanctifier of the Church, her divine breath, the wind in her sails,
her unifying principle, her interior source of light and strength,
her support and consolation, her source of charism and song, her
peace and her joy, her pledge and prelude of blessed and eternal
life. The Church needs his perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in
her heart, word on her lips, and prophecy in her vision… The Church
needs to recover the desire, the taste, and the certainty of her
By the merit of his passion and death, the Resurrection gives to all
us, the Holy Easter, a renewal of his Spirit.
* * *
Augustine, Sermons, 23, 9 (CC 41, p. 314).
 Cfr. Numbers 28:26; Leviticus 23:10.
 St. Ireneus, Adv. Haer., III, 17,2; cf. also Eusebius of di
Cesarea, On Easter, 4 (PG 24, 700A).
 St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, XVI, 40 (PG 32, 141A).
 Cf. J. Moltmann, Lo Spirito della vita, Brescia 1994, pp. 18. 92
 St. Ireneus, Adv. Haer. III, 24, 1.
 H. Holstein, La tradition dans l'Eglise, Grasset, Parigi 1960 (Trad.
ital. La tradizione nella Chiesa, Vita e Pensiero, Milano 1968.
 Diadocus of Fotica, Chapters, Introduction (SCh 5, p.84).
 Galatians 5:5-6; cfr. Romans 5:5
 Ch. Péguy, Le porche du mystère de la deuxième vertu, in Œuvres
poétiques complètes, Gallimard, Paris 1975, pp. 531 ss.
 Paul VI, Discours at the general audience of 29 November 1972 (Insegnamenti
di Paolo VI, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, X, pp. 1210s.).
© 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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