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 CELEBRATION OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD

HOMILY OF FATHER RANIERO CANTALAMESSA

Vatican Basilica 
Good Friday, 25 March 2005
 

 

Good Friday of the year 2005, the year of the Eucharist! What light is shed on both these mysteries when we think of the two together! And yet a question arises. If the Eucharist is "the memorial of the Passion", why is it that the Church abstains from celebrating it precisely on Good Friday? (For we are now gathered to take part, not in a Mass, but rather in a liturgy of the Passion in which we will receive the body of Christ consecrated yesterday).

There is a profound theological reason for this. The one who makes himself present on the altar in every Eucharist is Christ, not dead but risen and alive. And so the Church abstains from celebrating the Eucharist on these two days when we remember Jesus lying dead in the tomb, his soul separated from his body (although not from his divinity).

The fact that we do not celebrate the Eucharist today does not weaken, but rather strengthens, the bond between Good Friday and the Eucharist. The Eucharist is to the death of Christ as the sound and the voice are to the word they carry through the space into the ear of the listeners.

* * *

There is a Latin hymn, as dear as the Adoro te devote to catholic Eucharistic piety: the Ave Verum. It is not possible to find a better way to bring to light the link between the Eucharist and the cross. Written in the thirteenth century as an accompaniment to the elevation of the Host at Mass, it serves us today equally well as our salutation of Christ raised up on the cross. In no more than five short couplets it brings us such a great load of meaning:

Hail, true Body, truly born
of the Virgin Mary mild.
Truly offered, wracked and torn,
on the Cross for all defiled,
from Whose love-pierced, sacred side
flowed Thy true Blood's saving tide:
be a foretaste sweet to me
in my death's great agony.
O my loving, Gentle One,
Sweetest Jesus, Mary's Son.

The first couplet, Ave verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine Ė Hail, true body, truly born of the Virgin Mary Ė gives the key to understand all the rest. Berengarius of Tours denied that the presence of Christ in the sign of bread was real, saying it was only symbolic. In reaction to this heresy, a new emphasis arose, identifying totally the Eucharistic body and the historical body of Christ. All expressions in the first part of the hymn refer to Christ in the flesh: birth from Mary, passion, death, pierced side. The author stops at that point; he makes no mention of the resurrection, lest this should lead one to think of a glorified, spiritual body, not "real" enough.

* * *

Theology in our day has developed a more balanced vision of the identity between the historical body of Christ born of Mary and his Eucharistic body. The tendency now is to rediscover the sacramental character of Christís presence, which, however real and substantial, is not material. The basic truth affirmed in the hymn remains however intact. The very Jesus born of Mary, who "went about doing good to all" (Ac. 10: 38), who died on the cross and rose again on the third day, is really present in the world today, not merely in a vague and spiritual way, or, as some would say, in the "cause" he stood for. The Eucharist is the way Jesus invented to remain forever Emmanuel, God-with-us.

This presence is a guarantee, not only for the Church, but for the entire world. Yet we feel afraid to use the words "God is with us", because they have been used before in an exclusive sense: God is "with us", on our side, meaning not with others, and even "against" those others who are our enemies. But since Christ has come, there is no longer any exclusiveness, everything has become universal. "God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding menís faults against them" (2 Cor. 5: 19). The whole world, not just a part of it; humankind as a whole, not just one people.

"God is on our side", that is, on the side of humankind, our friend and ally against the powers of evil. God alone personifies the kingdom of good against the kingdom of evil. We need to bear witness to this hope that is in us, rising up against the gloomy wind of pessimism blowing through our society. As the pope writes in Novo millennio Ineunte, "We do not know what the new millennium has in store for us, but we are certain that it is safe in the hands of Christ, the ĎKing of kings and Lord of lordsí (Rv. 19: 16)" (John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte, 35).

* * *

After the initial salutation an invocation follows in the hymn: Esto nobis praegustatum mortis in examine - be a foretaste in my death's great agony. Long ago the martyr Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist "the medicine of immortality", that is, the remedy for our mortality (St Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 20,2). "We will rise, says St. Cyril of Alexandria, because Our Lord Jesus Christ has hidden life within us through his flesh, and has inserted it as the seed of immortality which frees us from all corruption that is now in us." (St. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Gospel of John, IV, 2 - PG 73,581). In the Eucharist we have the "pledge of future glory": "futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur".

Some religious polls have revealed a strange fact: there are, even among believers, some who believe in God but not in a life after death for human beings. Yet how could one think such a thing? The Letter to the Hebrews says that Christ died to win "an eternal redemption" for us (Heb 9: 12). Redemption not for time only, but eternal. Some object: but no one has ever come back from the beyond to assure us that it exists in fact and is not merely an illusion. That is not true. There is someone who comes back from beyond death every day to give us that certainty and to renew his promises, if we but know how to listen to him. We are on our way to meet the one who comes to meet us every day in the Eucharist to give us a foretaste (praegustatum!) of the eternal banquet of the kingdom.

We need to cry out this our hope to help ourselves and others to overcome the horror of death and the mood of gloomy pessimism common in our society. So many reasons are put forward for the desperate state of the world: "an anthill crumbling away", "a planet in distress"Ö. Scientists research in ever greater detail the possible scenario for the dissolution of the cosmos. The earth and other planets will grow cold, the sun and the stars will cool down, everything will grow coldÖ Light will fade, there will be more and more black holes, until the universe will be full of gigantic black holes drifting further and further apartÖ until eventually the expansion ceases, the contraction begins, and all matter and all energy collapses into a compact mass of infinite density. It will all end in a grand implosion, the Ďbig crunchí, and all will have returned to the emptiness, the silence that preceded the big bang fifty billion years ago...

No one knows whether things will really go that way or some other way, but faith gives us the assurance that, whatever may happen, it will not be the total and final end. God did not reconcile the world to himself only to abandon it to nothingness; he did not promise to remain with us to the end of the world only to go, alone, back to his heaven when that end comes. "I have loved you with an everlasting love", God says in the Bible (Jer. 31: 3), and Godís promises of "everlasting love" are not like ours.

Taking up the same train of thought as the Ave Verum, the author of the Dies irae raises an agonised cry to Christ that we especially on this day, can make our own: "Recordare, Iesu pie, quod sum causa tuae viae: ne me perdas illa die": Remember, loving Jesus, that I was the reason you went to the cross: donít let me be lost when that day comes. "Quaerens me sedisti lassus, redemisti crucem passus: tantus labor non sit cassus": looking for me, wearied you sat by the well of Sychar, and to redeem me you suffered the cross: donít let such suffering be wasted.

* * *

The Ave verum closes with a cry to Christ: "O Iesu dulcis, o Iesu pie". These words evoke for us a tender, wholly evangelical image of Christ: the Jesus "sweet and gentle", merciful and compassionate, who does not break the crushed reed or quench the smouldering wick. The Jesus who one day said, "Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart" (Mt. 11: 29).

The Eucharist makes present in the world the one who, by his teaching and by his life, has unmasked and broken forever the system that makes something sacral of violence.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of non-violence! Thanks to the Eucharist, Godís absolute "no" to violence, spoken on the cross, echoes alive down the centuries. And, at the same time, it is Godís "yes" to the innocent victims, and it is the place where all the blood spilled on earth joins with the blood of Christ and cries out to God and "pleads more insistently than Abelís" (Heb. 12: 24).

But Christís meekness is no justification for the violence that is done today to his person, and in fact renders it the queerer, the more odious. It has been said that Christ, by his sacrifice, has put an end to the perverse recourse to the scapegoat, having taken upon himself all of its consequences (See R. Girard, Des choses cachťes depuis la fondation du monde, Grasset, Paris 1978). Sad to say, Christ is once again subjected to that same destiny.

All the resentment pent up in a certain secular line of thinking regarding the link between violence and the sacred is unleashed against him. As usual, when a scapegoat is wanted, all the fury of the attack is directed at the one that seems the weakest. "Weakest", here, in the sense that he can be mocked, derided with impunity, without any risk of retaliation; Christians after all long ago renounced any right to use force in defence of their beliefs.

This is not just a question of the pressure to remove the cross from public places and the crib from Christmas folklore. In an unending stream of novels films and plays, writers manipulate the figure of Christ under cover of imaginary and non-existent new documents and discoveries. This is becoming a fashion, a literary genre.

There has always been the tendency to clothe Christ in the garb of oneís own time or oneís own ideology. In the past the issues were at least serious, genuinely human concerns (Jesus the idealist, Jesus the socialist, the revolutionary...). Our time, obsessed as it is with sex, seems unable to portray Jesus in any other way than as a homosexual, or as one who taught that salvation is to be found in uniting with the feminine principle and gave the example by marrying Mary Magdalene. The passion and the crucifixion of Christ? All later inventions of the Church!

It is trading on the vast resonance of the name of Christ and on all that he means to a large part of humankind, to achieve wide publicity at very little cost, or to shock with advertisements which exploit Gospel symbols and images, as the one of the Last Supper. This is literary parasitism!

Yet if in some extreme cases believers react and phone to protest about these things, some people are scandalised and decry it as intolerance and censorship. Intolerance has changed sides in our day, at least in the West: where we used to have religious intolerance, we now have intolerance of religion!

There are who present themselves as champions of science against religion: an astonishing claim, considering the way they treat the science of history! Many drink in their fantasies and utterly absurd stories, imagining them to be true, and even the only truth now freed at last from Church censure and taboo. Someone once said, "When a man no longer believes in God, he is ready to believe anything". The facts show that he was right.

The mystery we are celebrating today prevents us from giving way to a persecution complex and raising up once again walls or bastions between ourselves and modern society. Perhaps we ought simply to imitate our Master and say, "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing". Forgive them and forgive us, for certainly our own sins, past and present, are also to blame when the name of Christ is held in contempt among the nations.

We could perhaps appeal to these people of our time, not only for our own sake but for theirs as well, saying what Tertullian said to gnostics of his time who denied the humanity of Christ: "Parce unicae spei totius orbis": Do not destroy the only hope of the world (Tertullian, De carne Christi, 5,3 - CCL 2, p.881).

* * *

The final line of the Ave verum recalls for us the image of the Mother: "O Iesu, fili Mariae". The Virgin is remembered twice in this short hymn: at the beginning, and at the end. The other exclamations that end the hymn: O Iesu dulcis, o Iesu pie, all bring to mind the closing words of the Salve Regina: "O clemens, o pia, o dulcis virgo Maria": o clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary.

It is not merely in answer to a devotional need, but also theological, that there is this insistence on the link between Mary and the Eucharist. Christís birth from Mary, which used to be the principal argument against the Docetists who denied the reality of Christís body, bears witness now to the truth and the reality of the body of Christ present in the Eucharist.

John Paul II ends his apostolic letter Mane nobiscum Domine, referring to the words of this very hymn: "The bread that we receive is the spotless flesh of her Son: ĎAve verum corpus natum de Maria Virgineí. In this year of grace, sustained by Mary, may the Church discover new enthusiasm for her mission and come to acknowledge ever more fully that the Eucharist is the source and the summit of her entire life" (Mane nobiscum Domine, 31).

The clearest sign of the unity between the Eucharist and the mystery of the cross, between the year of the Eucharist and Good Friday, is that we can now use the words of the Ave verum, without changing a syllable, to greet Christ who, in a short while, will be raised on the cross in the sight of us all. And so, humbly I invite all here who know the hymnís Latin text to join with me in proclaiming, with deep gratitude and in the name of all human beings redeemed by Christ:

Ave verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine
Vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine
Cuius latus perforatum fluxit aqua et sanguine
Esto nobis praegustatum mortis in examine
O Iesu dulcis, o Iesu pie, o Iesu fili Mariae.

              

 

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