OGF 12/2014

Living Advent
God, in these last days, spoke to us through a son

Father Cantalamessa

Avvento (23)

PDF File:  OGF 2014-12 God, in these last days, spoke to us through a son

1. Jesus of Nazareth: “One of the prophets?”

1.1 The Third Quest

“In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

These first lines of the Letter to the Hebrews constitutes a great synthesis of the whole of salvation history. There are two successive periods: the period in which God spoke through the prophets and the period in which God speaks through his Son; the time in which he spoke through other persons and the time in which he speaks “in person.” The Son in fact is “the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being,” that is, as will be said later, he is “of the same substance as the Father.”

There is both continuity and a qualitative leap. It is the same God who speaks, the same revelation; the novelty is that now the Revealer becomes the revelation, revelation and revealer coincide. The formula of introduction of the pronouncements is the best demonstration of this: it is no longer “Thus, says the Lord,” but “I say to you.”

In the light of this powerful word of God that is Hebrews 1:1-3, we will attempt in this Advent preaching to conduct a discernment of the opinions that today circulate about Jesus, inside and outside the Church, in such a way as to be able, at Christmas, to join our voice without reserve with that of the liturgy which proclaims its faith in the Son of God come into this world. We are again and again brought back to the conversation at Caesarea Philippi: Who is Jesus for me, “one of the prophets” or “the Son of the living God”? (cf. Matthew 16:14-16).

What is under way now in the field of historical studies of Jesus is the so-called third quest. This is what it has been called to distinguish it, on the one hand, from the “old historical quest” that was inspired by rationalism and liberalism and which dominated research from the end of the 18th century through the 19th century, and, on the other hand, from the so-called new historical quest that began about the middle of last century in reaction to the thesis of Bultmann who had proclaimed that the historical Jesus was inaccessible and, moreover, completely irrelevant to the Christian faith.

In what way does this third quest distinguish itself from the preceding ones? First of all it is driven by the conviction that, thanks to the available sources, we can know much more about the historical Jesus than was admitted in the past. But the third quest is above all distinguished by the criteria it uses for arriving at the historical truth about Jesus. If before it was thought that the basic criterion of verification of a deed or saying of Jesus was its being in contrast with the Jewish world of his time, now it is, on the contrary, the compatibility of the Gospel data with the Judaism of the time. If before the mark of authenticity of a saying or deed was its novelty and its “inexplicability” in regard to the environment, now it is, on the contrary, its explicability in the light of what we know about the Judaism and social situation of the Galilee of that period.

There are some obvious advantages to this new approach. The continuity of revelation is rediscovered. Jesus is situated in the Jewish world, in the line of the biblical prophets. One smiles at the time when it was believed that the whole of Christianity could be explained by recourse to the Hellenistic influences.

The trouble is that things have been pushed so far beyond this gain that it has become a loss. Jesus ends up completely dissolving into the Jewish world without distinguishing himself anymore than by some small detail or some special interpretations of the Torah. He is one of the Jewish prophets or, as one prefers to say, one of the “charismatic itinerants.” The title of a famous book by J.D. Crossan is significant: “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.”

E.P. Sanders, who is in some ways the founder of the third quest and the most well-known of these authors, is in this line, although he does not go to these extremes. Rediscovering the continuity, the newness has been lost. The popularizing has done the rest, spreading the image of a Jesus who is a Jew among Jews, who did nothing new — although it continues to be said (one knows not how) that “he changed the world.” We continue to criticize the generations of past scholars for creating an image of Jesus according to the fashions or tastes of the time and it is not recognized that we are continuing along the same way. (…).

2. Rabbi Neusner and Benedict XVI

An American Rabbi, Jacob Neusner, has brought to light the illusory character of this approach for the purpose of promoting the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. Those who have read the book of Pope Benedict XVI on Jesus of Nazareth already know a lot about the thought of this rabbi whom the Pope engages in dialogue in one of the most passionate chapters of the book. I will review the main lines here.

The famous Jewish scholar wrote a book entitled, “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.” In it he imagines being a contemporary of Jesus who one day joins the crowd who is following him and listens to the Sermon on the Mount. He explains why, despite his being fascinated with the doctrine and person of the Galilean, in the end he sadly comes to the realization that he cannot be his disciple and he decides to remain a disciple of Moses and follower of the Torah.

All of the reasons for his decision in the end come down to one: to accept what this man says, it is necessary to recognize in him the authority itself of God. He does not limit himself to “fulfilling” the Torah but replace the Torah. Returned from his meeting with Jesus, Neusner imagines a dialogue with a rabbi in a synagogue of the time:

“He: ‘What did he leave out [of the Torah]?’ I: ‘Nothing.’

He: ‘Then what did he add?’ I: ‘Himself’.”

An interesting coincidence: this is exactly the same answer that Saint Irenaeus gave in the 2nd century to those who asked what new thing Jesus brought when he came into the world. “Bringing himself,” Irenaeus wrote, “he brought every newness” – “Omnem novitatem attulit semetipsum afferens.”[1]

Neusner has brought to light the impossibility of making Jesus a “normal” Jew of his time or a Jew who departs from Judaism only on matters of secondary importance. There is another important merit of Neusner’s work: he has shown the inanity of every attempt to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. He shows how criticism can take every title away from the Jesus of history: it can deny that Jesus or others attributed the title Messiah, Lord, or Son of God to him while he was alive. After the critics have taken away from him everything that they want, there still remains enough in the Gospel to demonstrate that he did not take himself to be a simple man. Just as a bit of hair, a drop of sweat or blood is sufficient to completely reconstruct a person’s DNA, so also a saying taken almost at random from the Gospel is sufficient to demonstrate the consciousness Jesus had of acting with the authority itself of God.

As a good Jew, Neusner knows what it means to say: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath,” because the Sabbath is the divine “institution” par excellence. He knows what it means to say: “If you want to be perfect, follow me”: it means replacing the old paradigm of holiness that consists in imitating God (“Be holy because I your God am holy”) with the new paradigm that con­sists in imitating Christ. He knows that only God can dispense from obeying the fourth commandment as Jesus does when he tells someone not to concern himself with burying his father. Commenting on these sayings of Jesus, Neusner exclaims: “It is the Christ of faith who is speaking here.”[2]

In his book the Pope responds at length and, for a believer, in a convincing and illuminating way, to the difficulty of Rabbi Neusner. His response makes me think of the one that Jesus himself gave to the envoys sent by John the Baptist to ask: “Are you the one who must come or should we wait for another?” Jesus, in other words, did not only claim divine authority but he even gave signs and guarantees as his evidence: miracles, his teaching itself (which is not exhausted in the Sermon on the Mount), the fulfillment of prophecies, especially that of Moses about a prophet similar and superior to him; then his death, his resurrection and the community born from him that realizes the universality of salvation announced by the prophets.

1.3 “Encourage each other”

It would be necessary at this point to mention something: the problem of the relationship between Jesus and the prophets does not appear only in the context of the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, but also within Christian theology itself, where attempts to explain the personality of Christ with recourse to the category of prophet are not lacking. I am convinced of the radical insufficiency of a Christology that tries to isolate the title of prophet and reestablish the whole Christological edifice upon it.

First of all, this project is not at all new. It was proposed in antiquity by Paul of Samosata, Photinus and others in sometimes identical terms. Then, in a metaphysically oriented culture one spoke of the supreme prophet; today, in an historically oriented culture, one speaks of an eschatological prophet. But are eschatological and supreme so different? Can one be the supreme prophet without also being the definitive prophet, and can the definitive prophet not also be the supreme prophet?

A Christology that does not go beyond the category of “eschatological prophet” when it comes to Jesus does, indeed, as is the intention of those who propose it, represent an updating of an ancient teaching, not however a teaching defined by the councils, but rather one condemned by the councils.

But I do not insist on this problem. Instead I would like to immediately pass to a practical application of my reflections up to this point that will help us make Advent a time of conversion and spiritual reawakening.

The conclusion that the Letter to the Hebrews draws from the superiority of Christ over the prophets and Moses is not a triumphalist conclusion but a parenthetic one; it does not insist on the superiority of Christianity but on the greater responsibility of Christians before God. It says:

“Therefore, we must attend all the more to what we have heard, so that we may not be carried away. For if the word announced through angels proved firm, and every transgression and disobedience received its just recompense, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? […] Encourage each other daily while it is still “today,” so that none of you may grow hardened by the deceit of sin” (Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:13).

And Chapter 10 adds: “Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:28-29).

Accepting the author of the Letter to the Hebrew’s invitation, the word with which we would like to encourage each other is that which the liturgy spoke to us last Sunday and which sets the tone for the whole first week of Advent: “Be vigilant!” It is interesting to note something. When the apostolic catechesis takes up this word of Jesus after Easter we find that it is almost always dramatized: not only is it said to be vigilant but to wake up, arise from your sleep! From the state of being vigilant we pass to the act of waking up.

The basis of this is the realization that in this life there is the chronic danger of falling back asleep, that is, of sliding into a state of suspension of the faculties, of drowsiness and spiritual inertia. Material things work on the soul like a drug. Because of this Jesus says: “Be careful that your hearts do not grow weary in dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of life” (Luke 21:34).

Saint Augustine’s description of this state of sleepiness in the “Confessions” can serve as a useful examination of conscience for us: “As one oppressed by sleep, so I was held down by the pleasant weight of this world; and the thoughts wherein I meditated on you were like the efforts of one who wishes to wake up but, overcome, falls back to sleep … I was certain that it was better to give myself up to your charity, than to give myself over to my cupidity. Although I was pleased by and won over by the former, the latter bribed and mastered me. I did not know how to answer to your words: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). Convinced by the truth, I knew not how to answer you. You showed me on every side that what you said was true. All I could say were those dull and drowsy words, “Now, now, at this very moment, just leave me alone for a little while longer.”[3]

We know how the saint finally found his way out of this state. He was in a garden in Milan, lacerated by this battle between the flesh and the spirit; he heard the words,”Tolle, lege, tolle, lege” — “Take up and read, take up and read.” He took them as a divine invitation; he had with him the book of Saint Paul’s letters. He decided to take as the word of God the first passage that he came across. He lighted on the text that we heard last Sunday as the second reading of the Mass: “It is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness (and) put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:11-14). (…)

2. John the Baptist: “More Than a Prophet”

Basing myself on Hebrews 1:1-3, I attempted to sketch the image of Jesus that we get when we compare him to the prophets. But between the time of the prophets and that of Jesus there is a special, pivotal figure: John the Baptist. Nothing in the New Testament illuminates the newness of Christ better than comparison with the Baptist.

The theme of fulfillment, of an epochal turning point, clearly emerges in the texts in which Jesus himself speaks of his relationship to the precursor. Today scholars recognize that these sayings are not inventions of the post-Easter community, but derive their substance from the historical Jesus. Indeed, some of them are inexplicable if they are attributed to the subsequent Christian community.[4]

A reflection on Jesus and John the Baptist is also the best way to put us in tune with the Advent liturgy. In fact, the Gospels of the second and third Sunday of Advent have the figure and message of the precursor at their center. There is a progression in Advent: In the first week the voice that stands out is the prophet Isaiah’s, who announces the Messiah from a distance; in the second and third weeks it is that of the Baptist who announces the Christ as present; in the last week the prophet and the precursor give way to the Mother, who carries him in her womb.

2.1 The great turning point

The most complete text in which Jesus reflects on his relationship to John the Baptist is the Gospel passage (when) John, in prison, sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who must come or should we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:2-6; Luke 7:19-23).

The preaching of the Rabbi of Nazareth whom he himself had baptized and presented to Israel seems to John to go in a very different direction from the fiery one that he had expected. More than the imminent judgment of God, he preaches the mercy that is present, offered to all, righteous and sinners.

The most significant part of the whole text is the praise that Jesus offers of John after he had answered the question posed by John’s disciples: “Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet […]. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matthew 11:11-15).

One thing is made plain by these words: Between the mission of John the Baptist and that of Jesus something so decisive has happened that it constitutes a parting of the waters, so to speak, between two epochs. The focus of history has shifted: That which is important is not in a more or less imminent future but “here and now,” that kingdom that is already operative in Christ. Between John’s preaching and the preaching of Jesus there is a qualitative leap: The littlest one of the new order is superior to the greatest one of the old order.

The occurrence of this epochal turning point is confirmed in many other contexts in the Gospel. We only need recall such words of Jesus as: “Behold, there is one here greater than Jonah. […] Behold, there is one here greater than Solomon!” (Matthew 12:41-42). “Blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear. Truly I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and did not see it, and longed to hear what you hear and did not hear it!” (Matthew 13:16-17). All of the so-called parables of the kingdom — one thinks of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price — at bottom express the same idea, always in a new and different way: With Jesus, history’s decisive hour has struck, in his presence the decision that determines salvation imposes itself.

It was this claim that brought Bultmann’s disciples to break with the master. Bultmann included Jesus in Judaism, making him a premise of Christianity but not yet a Christian; he attributed the great turning point to the faith of the post-Easter community. Bornkamm and Conzelmann realized the impossibility of this thesis: The “epochal turning point” already happened in Jesus’ preaching. John belonged to the premises and the preparation, but with Jesus we are already in the time of fulfillment.

(…) In Luke’s theology it is evident that Jesus occupies the “center of time.” With his coming he divided history in two parts, creating an absolute “before” and “after.” Today it is becoming common practice, especially in the secular media, to abandon the traditional way of dating events “before Christ” or “after Christ” (“ante Christum natum e post Christum natum”) in favor of the more neutral formula of “before the common era” and “common era.” It was a decision motivated by a desire not to offend the sensibilities of people and other religions who do not use Christian chronology; in that regard it should be respected, but for Christians there is no question of the decisive role that Christ’s coming plays in the religious history of humanity.

2.2 He will baptize with the Holy Spirit

Now, as is our usual practice, we will pass from the exegetical and theological certainty that has been established to our life today.

The comparison of John the Baptist and Jesus crystallizes in the New Testament in the comparison of the baptism with water and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. “I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). “I did not know him,” the precursor says in John’s Gospel, “but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’“ (John 1:33). And Peter, in the house of Cornelius, says: “And I remembered the word of the Lord how, he said, ‘John baptized with water but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit’“ (Acts 11:16).

What does it mean to say that Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit? The expression serves not only to distinguish Jesus’ baptism from John’s baptism; it serves to distinguish the entire person and work of Christ from that of the precursor. In other words, in all of his work Jesus is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. Baptism has a metaphorical meaning here; it means to inundate, to completely cover, as water does to bodies that are immersed in it.

Jesus “baptizes in the Holy Spirit” in the sense that he receives and gives the Spirit “without measure” (cf. John 3:34), he “pours out” his Spirit (Acts 2:33) on all of redeemed humanity. The expression refers more to the event of Pentecost than to the sacrament of baptism. “John baptized with water but before many days you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit” (Act 1:5), Jesus tells the disciples, obviously referring to Spirit’s descent at Pentecost that would happen in a few days.

The expression “baptize with the Spirit” therefore defines the essential work of the Messiah, which already in the prophets of the Old Testament appears as oriented toward the regeneration of humanity through a great and universal outpouring of the Spirit of God (cf. Joel 3:1ff.). Applying all of this to the life and time of the Church, we must conclude that the risen Jesus baptizes in the Spirit not only in the sacrament of baptism, but, in a different way, also in other moments: in the Eucharist, in listening to the Word and, in general, through all the channels of grace. (…)

St. Thomas Aquinas writes: “There is an invisible mission of the Spirit every time there is a progress in virtue or an augmentation of grace…; when someone moves to a new activity or a new state of grace.”[5] The Church’s liturgy itself inculcates this. All of its prayers and its hymns to the Holy Spirit begin with the cry, “Come!”: “Come, O Creator Spirit!” “Come, Holy Spirit!” And those who pray this way have already at sometime received the Spirit. This means that the Spirit is something that we have received and that we must receive again and again. (…)

The philosopher Heidegger concluded his analysis of society with the alarmed cry: “Only a god can save us.” We Christians know this God who can save us, and who will save us: It is the Holy Spirit! Today something called “aroma therapy” is widely popular. It uses essential oils that emit a perfume to maintain health and as therapy for certain disturbances. The Internet is full of advertising about aroma therapy. There are perfumes for physical maladies, like stress; there are also “perfumes for the soul”; one of these is supposed to help us achieve “interior peace.” (…) There is a sure, infallible aroma therapy that does not provoke counter indications: that one made up of a special aroma, the “sacred chrism of the soul” that is the Holy Spirit! St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote: “A perfumed ointment (‘myron’) was poured upon the Lord’s head to breath incorruptibility on the Church!”[6] Only if we also receive this “aroma” can we be “the sweet odor of Christ” in the world (2 Corinthians 2:15). (…)

2.3 The new prophecy of John the Baptist

Returning to John the Baptist, he can show us how to carry out our prophetic task in today’s world. Jesus defines the Baptist as “more than a prophet,” but where is the prophecy in his case? The prophets announced a future salvation; John indicates one that is present. In what sense, then, can he be called a prophet? Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel helped the people to go beyond the barrier of time; John the Baptist helps the people to go beyond the more difficult barrier of contrary appearances, of scandal, of banality and poverty with which the fateful hour manifests itself.

It is easy to believe in something grandiose, divine, when you project into the indefinite future: “in those days,” “in the last days,” in a cosmic framework, with the heavens that distill sweetness and the earth that opens to allow the Savior to grow. It is more difficult when you have to say: “Look! It is he!” and that of a person about whom people know everything: where he is from, what used to be his job, who is his mother and father.

With the words: “There is one among you whom you do not know!” (John 1:26), John the Baptist has inaugurated the new prophecy, that of the time of the Church, which does not consist in proclaiming a future and distant salvation, but in revealing the hidden presence of Christ in the world. In taking away the veil from the eyes of the people, he upsets the indifference, repeating with Isaiah: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth. Do you not see it?” (cf. Isaiah 43:19).

It is true that 20 centuries have passed and we know many more things about Jesus than about John. But the scandal has not been removed. In John’s time the scandal derived from the physical body of Jesus, from his flesh so similar to ours, except in sin. Even today it is his body that causes difficulties and scandalizes: his mystical body, so similar to the rest of humanity, included sin.

“Jesus’ testimony,” we read in the Book of Revelation, “is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelations 19:10), the spirit of prophecy is required to bear witness to Christ. Is this spirit of prophecy in the Church? Is it cultivated? Or do we believe, implicitly, that we can do without it, depending more on human expedients?

In 1992 there was a retreat for priests in Monterrey, Mexico, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the first evangelization of Latin America. There were 1,700 priests and about 70 bishops present. During the homily of the concluding Mass I spoke about the urgent need that the Church has for prophecy. After Communion there was prayer for a new Pentecost in small groups scattered throughout the great basilica. I remained in the presbytery. At a certain moment a young priest came up to me in silence, knelt down in front of me and with a look I will never forget said to me: “Bendígame, Padre, quiero ser profeta de Dios!” — “Bless me, Father, I want to be a prophet for God!” A chill went down my spine because I saw that he was plainly moved by grace.

We can with humility make that priest’s desire our own: “I want to be a prophet for God.” Little, unknown to anyone, it does not matter, but one who, as Paul VI said, has fire in his heart, words on his lips, and prophecy in his outlook.

3. “Spe Gaudentes – Joyful in Hope”

3.1 Jesus the Son

Now, we will focus exclusively on the goal of everything: the “Son.” From this point of view, the text of Hebrews suggests the parable of the treacherous tenants of the vineyard. There too God first sends his servants and then, at the end, he sends his Son, saying: “They will respect my Son” (Matthew 21:33-41).

In a chapter of his book on Jesus of Nazareth the Pope (Benedict XVI) illustrates the profound difference between the title “Son of God” and that of “Son” without any added qualifications. The simple title of “Son,” contrary to what one might think, is much more pregnant than that of “Son of God.” The latter comes after a long list of attributions: This is what the people of Israel were called, and in a special way, their king; this is what the Pharaohs were called and the eastern sovereigns and also what the Roman emperor was to be called. By itself, then, this title would not be enough to distinguish the person of Christ from every other “son of God.”

The case of the simple title “Son” is different. This appears in the Gospels as exclusive to Christ and it is with it that Jesus will express his profound identity. After the Gospels it is precisely the Letter to the Hebrews that powerfully testifies to this absolute use of the title “the Son.” It appears five times in the letter.

The most significant text in which Jesus defines himself as “the Son” is Matthew 11:27. “Everything has been given to me by my Father; no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” The exegetes explain that the saying has a clear Aramaic origin and demonstrates that the later developments that we see in this regard in John’s Gospel have their remote origin in Christ’s consciousness itself.

A communion of knowledge so absolute between Father and Son cannot be explained except by an ontological communion, a communion in being. The later formulations, culminating in the definition of Nicaea, of the Son as “begotten not made, of the same substance as the Father,” are therefore daring but consonant with the Gospel datum.

The strongest proof of the consciousness that Jesus had of his identity as Son is in his prayer. In Jesus’ prayer the sonship is not only declared but lived. The way and the frequency with which the exclamation “Abba” appears in Christ’s prayer attests an intimacy and a familiarity with God that does not have an equal in the tradition of Israel. If the expression has been conserved in the original language and becomes the characteristic of Christian prayer (cf. Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) it is precisely because people were convinced that it was the typical form of Jesus’ own prayer.[7] (…)

I would like to conclude this doctrinal part of our meditation on a positive note, with something that, in my opinion, is of extraordinary importance. For almost a century, since Wilhelm Bousset wrote his famous book “Kyrios Christos” in 1913, the idea that the devotion to Christ as divine was to be looked for in the Hellenistic context, and therefore a good deal after the death of Christ, has dominated the sphere of critical studies.[8]

In the ambit of the so-called third quest for the historical Jesus, the question has been taken up again from the beginning by Larry Hurtado, professor of language, literature and theology of the New Testament at Edinburgh. Here is the conclusion that he reaches at the end of an investigation of over 700 pages:

“Devotion to Jesus as divine erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually and late, among first-century circles of followers. More specifically, the origins lie in Jewish Christian circles of the earliest years. Only a certain wishful thinking continues to attribute the reverence of Jesus as divine decisively to the influence of pagan religion and the influx of Gentile converts, characterizing it as developing late and incrementally. Furthermore, devotion to Jesus as the ‘Lord,’ to whom cultic reverence and total obedience were the appropriate response, was widespread, not confined or attributable to particular circles, such as ‘Hellenists’ or Gentile Christians of a supposed Syrian ‘Christ cult.’ Amid the diversity of earliest Christianity, belief in Jesus’ divine status was amazingly common.”[9]

This rigorous historical conclusion should put an end to the opinion, which has been dominant up until now in a certain popularized form, that holds that the divine cult of Christ is supposed to be a later fruit of the faith (imposed by law by Constantine at Nicaea in 325, according to Dan Brown in his “DaVinci Code”!)

3.2 Hope, the little girl

(…) I would like to make a little spiritual and practical application of (…) the text of the Letter to the Hebrews that we have meditated on can contribute to nourishing our hope.

In hope — the author of the letter writes, with a beautiful image destined to become a classic of Christian art — “we have an anchor of our life, strong and secure, which penetrates beyond the veil of the sanctuary, where Jesus has entered as precursor for us” (Hebrews 6:17-20). The foundation of this hope is precisely the fact that “in these last times God has spoken to us through his Son.” If he has given us the Son, says St. Paul, “will he not give us all things together with him?” (Romans 8:32). This is why “hope does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5): the gift of the Son is the pledge and the guarantee of all the rest and, in the first place, of eternal life. If the Son is “the heir to all things” (“heredem universorum”) (Hebrews 1:2), we are his “co-heirs” (Romans 8:17).

The iniquitous tenants of the vineyard in the parable, seeing the Son arrive, say to each other: “He is the heir. Let us go and kill him and we will have the inheritance” (Matthew 21:38). In his all-powerful mercy, God the Father turned this criminal design into something good. Men did kill the Son and truly received the inheritance! Thanks to that death, they have become “heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ.”

We human creatures need hope to live as we need oxygen to breathe. It is said that as long as there is life there is hope; but the reverse is likewise true: That as long as there is hope there is life. Hope has been for a long time and is still now the poor relation among the theological virtues. We speak often of faith, more often of love, but very little about hope.

The poet Charles Péguy is right when he compares the three theological virtues to three sisters: two grown-ups and a little girl. They walk along the street hand-in-hand (the three theological virtues are inseparable!), the two big ones on either side, the little girl in the middle. All who see them are convinced that the two big ones — faith and love — drag along the little girl hope in the middle. But they are mistaken: it is the little girl hope who drags the other two along; if she stops, everything stops.[10] (…)

Theological hope is the “thread from above” that sustains all human hopes from the center. “The thread from above” is the title of a parable by the Danish writer Johannes Jorgensen. He speaks of a spider who lowers himself from the branch of a tree with a thread that he himself makes. Positioning himself on the hedge he weaves his web, a masterpiece of symmetry and functionality. It is supported on the sides by other threads but everything is sustained in the center by the thread that he used to descend from the tree. If one of the threads on the side breaks, the spider fixes it and everything is in order, but if the thread from above breaks (I wanted to verify this once and found out that it is true), everything droops down and the spider leaves, knowing that there is nothing to be done. This is an image of what happens when we break that thread from above that is theological hope. Only it can “anchor” human hopes in the hope “that does not disappoint.”

In the Bible we see real leaps of hope. One of them is found in the third Lamentation: “I am a man,” the prophet says, “who has known misery and suffering … I said: My glory is gone, the hope that came to me from the Lord.”

But here is the leap of hope that turns everything upside down. At a certain point the person praying says to himself: “But the Lord’s mercy is not finite; therefore I want to hope in him! The Lord never rejects but if he afflicts, he will have pity. Perhaps there is still hope” (cf. Lamentations 3:1-29). From the moment that the prophet decides to return to hope, the tone of the discourse completely changes: Lamentation turns into confident supplication: “The Lord never rejects. But if he afflicts, he will also have pity according to his great mercy” (Lamentations 3:32).

We have more reason for this leap of hope: God has given us his Son: Will he not give us all things together with him? Sometimes it is worthwhile to say to ourselves: “But God does exist and that is enough!” The most precious service that the Church can perform at this moment for the (world) is to help it make a leap of hope. (…)

I talked about an “aroma therapy” based on the oil of joy that is the Holy Spirit. We need this therapy to be healed of the most pernicious of all maladies: desperation, discouragement, loss of confidence in self, in life and finally in the Church. “May the God of hope fill you with every joy and peace in the faith, so that you abound in hope and the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). This is what the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans.

One cannot abound in hope without the power of the Holy Spirit. There is an African-American spiritual in which one just continually repeats these few words: “There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole …” In the Old Testament, Gilead is famous for its perfumes and ointments (cf. Jeremiah 8:22). The song continues, saying: “Sometimes I feel discouraged / and think my work’s in vain / But then the Holy Spirit / revives my soul again.” For us, Gilead is the Church and the balm that heals is the Holy Spirit. He is the scent that Jesus has left behind, passing through this world.

Hope is miraculous: When it is reborn in a heart, everything is different even if nothing is changed. In Isaiah we read: “Even the young people toil and grow weary, the grown-ups stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord again receive strength and grow wings like eagles, they run without stopping and walk without tiring” (Isaiah 40:30-31).

Where hope is reborn, joy above all is reborn. The apostle says that the believers are “spe salvi,” “saved in hope” (Romans 8:24) and for this reason should be “spe gaudentes” — “joyous in hope” (Romans 12:12). They are not people who hope to be happy but people who are happy to hope; they are already happy now on account of the simple fact of hoping.

May this Christmas the God of hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the intercession of Mary “Mother of Hope,” grant us to be joyous in hope and abound in it.

Text taken from Father Cantalamessa’s Advent Meditations 2007

[1] St. Irenaeus, “Adversus Haereses,” IV, 34, 1.

[2] Jacob Neusner, “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus,” McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000, 84.

[3] St. Augustine, “Confessions,” VIII, 5, 12.

[4] Cf. J. D.G. Dunn, “Christianity in the Making, I: Jesus Remembered,” Eerdmans, 2003, Part 3, Ch. 12.

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas, “Summa theologiae,” I, q. 43, a. 6, ad 2.

[6] St. Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Ephesians,” 17.

[7] Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, “Christianity in the Making, I: Jesus Remembered,” Eerdmans, 2003, 746 ff.

[8] Wilhelm Bousset, “Kyrios Christos,” 1913.

[9] L. Hurtado, “Lord Jesus Christ. Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity,” Eerdmans, 2003, 650.

[10] Ch. Péguy, “Oeuvres poétiques complètes,” Gallimard, 1975, 531 ff.