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CELEBRATION OF THE PASSION OF THE LORD

HOMILY OF FATHER RANIERO CANTALAMESSA, O.F.M. Cap.

St. Peter's Basilica
Good Friday, 10 April 2009

 

“Suffering draws us into the power of the Cross”

"Christus factus est pro nobis oboediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis" - "For us Christ became obedient unto death, even death on a cross". On the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the Apostle Paul, let us listen to some of his fiery words on the mystery of Christ's death which we are celebrating. No one can help us understand its significance and importance better than he can.

His words to the Corinthians are a sort of manifesto: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ Crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1: 22-24). Christ's death bears universal importance. "One has died for all: therefore all have died" (2 Cor 5: 14). His death has given new meaning to the death of every man and every woman.

In Paul's eyes the Cross assumes cosmic significance. With it Christ knocked down the wall of separation, he reconciled men with God and with one another, destroying hatred (cf. Eph 2: 14-16). Based on this the primitive tradition was to develop 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 at the same time both a cosmic and a very personal event: He "loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2: 20). Every human, the Apostle writes, is "one for whom Christ died" (Rom 14: 15).

From all of this arises the meaning of the Cross, no longer as a punishment, admonishment or reason for affliction but, rather, as the glory and boast of a Christian, that is, a jubilant certainty, accompanied by heartfelt gratitude, to which man rises in faith: "But far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 6: 14). Paul has planted the Cross at the centre of the Church like the main mast at the centre of a ship. He has made it the foundation and centre 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 to which everything is oriented.

It is amazing to see all the work the Apostle carried out. 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 the crowns of kings [1]. When Paul wrote, the Cross was still synonymous with the greatest possible dishonour, something that well-brought up people should not even mention.

The goal of the Year of St Paul is not so much to know the Apostle's thinking better (researchers are always doing this, quite apart from the fact that scientific research takes more 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 to the faith. One of these challenges, perhaps the most open one known yet, 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 does not exist", but rather the conclusion: "Enjoy your life"! The underlying message is that faith in God is an obstacle to enjoying life, that it is an enemy of happiness. Without it there would be more happiness in the world! Paul helps us to respond to this challenge, explaining the origin and meaning of all suffering, starting with the suffering of Christ.

Why "was it... necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" (cf. Lk 24: 26) This question sometimes receives what might be termed a "weak", and in a certain sense, reassuring answer. Christ, in revealing the truth of God, necessarily provokes the opposition of the forces of evil and darkness, and these forces, as happened with the prophets, will lead to his rejection and elimination. "It was necessary that Christ suffer" would then be understood in the sense of "it was inevitable that Christ suffer".

Paul gives a very "strong" answer to that question. The need is not of the natural order but rather of the supernatural. In countries where the Christian faith has existed since antiquity the idea of suffering and the cross is almost always associated with sacrifice and expiation. Suffering, it is thought, is necessary to atone for sins and to placate God's justice. This is what has provoked, in the modern epoch, the rejection of every idea of sacrifice offered to God, and in the end, the very idea of God.

It cannot be denied that we Christians have possibly exposed ourselves to this accusation. But we are dealing with a ambiguity that a better understanding of St Paul's thought has already definitively clarified. He writes that God has preordained Christ "whom God put forward as an expiation" (Rom 3: 25). However, this expiation does not act on God to placate him, but on sin to eliminate it. "It can be said that it is God himself, not man, who expiates sin... the image is that of removing a corrosive stain or neutralizing a lethal virus rather than anger placated by punishment" [2].

Christ has given a radically new meaning to the idea of sacrifice. In it, "it is no longer man who exerts an influence on God in order to placate him. Rather it is God who acts to make man stop hating him and his neighbour. Salvation does not start with man asking for reconciliation; it begins with God's request: "Be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5: 20ff.) [3].

The fact is that Paul takes sin seriously, he does not make light of it. For him, sin is the principal cause of man's unhappiness, the rejection of God, not God himself! Sin encloses the human creature in "lies" and "injustice" (Rom 1: 18; 3: 23), condemns the cosmic material itself to "vanity" and "corruption" (Rom 8: 19ff.) and it is also the principal cause of the social evils that afflict humanity.

Unending analyses of the economic crisis are underway in today's world and its causes, but who dares take an axe to the roots and speak about sin? The global financial and economic elite resembled a runaway train steaming recklessly ahead without brakes, without stopping to think about the rest of the train that had come to a standstill on the tracks some way back. We were heading in completely the wrong direction.

The Apostle defines insatiable avarice as "idolatry" (Col 3: 5) and points to the unbridled desire for money as "the root of all evils" (1 Tim 6: 10). Can we say he is wrong? Why are there so many families on the streets, masses of workers who have lost their jobs, if not because of some people's insatiable thirst for profit?

And why, in the recent earthquake in the Abruzzi, did so many recently built buildings collapse? What led the builders to use sea sand instead of cement?

Through his death, Christ not only denounced and conquered sin, he also gave new meaning to suffering, even to that which does not depend on anyone's sin, like the suffering of the many victims of the earthquake that recently devastated the nearby Abruzzo region. He made it a means of salvation, a path to resurrection and life. The new meaning that Christ gave to suffering was not so much made manifest in his death but rather in his victory over death, that is, the Resurrection. He "was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Rom 4: 25): the two events are inseparable in the thought of Paul and of the Church.

It is a universal human experience: in this life pleasure and pain follow one another with the same regularity with which, when a wave swells in the ocean, a trough follows a crest and sucks in the shipwrecked sailor. "Full from the fount of Joy's delicious springs, some bitter o'er the flowers its bubbling venom springs", the pagan poet Lucretius wrote [4]. Drug use, the abuse of sex and homicidal violence all provide momentary intoxicating pleasure but lead to the person's moral dissolution and often also to his physical ruin.

Christ, with his Passion and death, inverted the relationship between pleasure and pain: "for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the Cross" (Heb 12: 2). No longer is it pleasure which ends in suffering, but suffering that leads to life and joy. It is not only a different order of events; in this way it is joy, not suffering, that has the last word, a joy that will last for eternity. "Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him" (Rom 6: 9). Nor will it have any power over us.

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 with the morning and ends with the night; in the Bible day starts with night and ends with daytime: "And there was evening and there was morning, one day", says the story of creation (Gn 1: 5). It is not meaningless that Jesus died in the evening and rose in the morning. Without God, life is a day that ends in night; with God it is a night that ends in day, a day without sunset.

So Christ did not come to increase human suffering or to preach resignation to it; he came to give meaning to suffering and to announce its end and defeat. That slogan on the buses in London and in other cities may also be read by parents who have a sick child, by lonely people or the unemployed, by refugees from war zones, by 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 the innocent, but without faith in God it becomes much more senseless. Even the last hope of redemption is taken away. Atheism is a luxury that only the privileged can afford; those who have had everything, including the possibility of dedicating themselves to study and research. This is not the only incongruity of that publicity gimmick. "God probably does not exist": so he might exist, the possibility of it cannot be totally excluded. But, dear non-believing brother or sister, if God does not exist I have not lost anything; if on the other hand he does exist, you have lost everything! We should almost thank those who promoted that advertising campaign; it has served God's cause better than so many of our apologetic arguments. It has shown up the poverty of their reasoning and helped to jolt so many sleeping consciences.

Yet God's measure of justice is different from ours and if he sees good faith or blameless ignorance he saves even those who had been anxious to fight him in their lives. We believers should prepare ourselves for surprises in this regard. "Quam multae oves foris, quam multi lupi intus!" [How many sheep are outside of the flock and how many wolves inside it!], Augustine exclaims [5].

God is capable of turning those who most persistently deny him into his most impassioned apostles. Paul is an example. What had Saul of Tarsus done to deserve 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 whether you find anything other than grace" [6]. This is how he explains his calling: "I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor 15: 9-10).

The Cross of Christ is a cause of hope for all and the Year of St Paul is an opportunity of grace also for those who do not believe and are seeking the truth. One thing speaks in their favour before God: suffering! 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 that suffering is a channel through which the saving powers of the Cross of Christ are offered to humanity [7].

In a moment, after we are invited to pray "for those who do not believe in God", a moving prayer by the Holy Father in Latin will follow; translated it says: "Everlasting and eternal God, you have instilled in the hearts of men a deep longing for you, so 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".


Notes

[1] St Augustine, Enarr. in Psalmos, 54, 12 (PL 36, 637).

[2] J. Dunn, La teologia dell’apostolo Paolo, Paideia, Brescia 1999, p. 227.

[3] G. Theissen A. Merz, Il Gesł storico. A manual, Queriniana, Brescia 2003, p. 573.

[4] Lucrezio, De rerum natura, IV, 1129 s.

[5] St Augustine, In Ioh. Evang. 45,12.

[6] St Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, 15, 30 (PL 44, 981).

[7] Cf. Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, n. 23.

 

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