FATHER CANTALAMESSA’S 1ST LENTEN SERMON (Romans 8:22)
“We Are Born ‘Old Men’ and We Must Become ‘New Men'”
MARCH 15, 2009 ZENIT
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 15, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is the first Lenten sermon Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, gave Friday at the Vatican in the presence of Benedict XVI and the Curia.
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“All Creation Has Been Groaning and Suffering in Labor Pains”
The Holy Spirit in the Creation and Transformation of the Cosmos
1. The world in a state of anticipation
During Advent St. Paul introduced us to the knowledge and love of Christ. Now during Lent the Apostle will serve as our guide in knowing and loving the Holy Spirit. For this purpose I have chosen Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans, because it contains the most complete and profound treatise on the Holy Spirit among all the Pauline writing and the entire New Testament.
We would like to reflect on the following verse:
“In my estimation, all that we suffer in the present time is nothing in comparison with the glory which is destined to be disclosed for us, for the whole creation is waiting with eagerness for the children of God to be revealed. It was not for its own purposes that creation had frustration imposed on it, but for the purposes of him who imposed it — with the intention that the whole creation itself might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God. We are well aware that the whole creation, until this time, has been groaning in labor pains” (Romans 8:18-22).
One of the exegetical topics that has long been debated with regards to this text is meaning of the Greek word for creation, ktisis. In using the work creation, ktisis, St. Paul sometimes refers to the world in its entirety, that is humanity and cosmos together; other times he is referring to God’s act of creating the world, or the new creation that comes from Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.
Augustine, and even some modern authors, believes that the term refers to the human world. Therefore no cosmic prospective, in reference to matter, should be attributed to the text. The distinction between “the entire creation” and “we who possess the first fruits of the Spirit,” would be a distinction only made within the human world and would be the same as the distinction between humanity that is not redeemed and humanity that is redeemed by Christ.
Nevertheless, the almost unanimous opinion nowadays is that the word ktisis refers to creation as a whole, which is both the material world and the world of humanity. The statement that creation is subject to vanity “through no fault of its own,” would be meaningless unless it refers precisely to material creation.
The Apostle sees this creation as permeated by a sense of anticipation, in a “state of internal tension.” The object of this anticipation is the revelation of the glory of God’s children. “In its seemingly closed and immobile existence, creation… impatiently awaits the glorified man, for whom it will be the ‘world,’ and therefore will it also be glorified.”
This state of suffering anticipation is caused by the fact that creation, through no fault of its own, has been dragged into a state of godlessness that the Apostle describes in the beginning of his letter (ref. Romans 1:18 and following). There he defines this state as an “injustice” and a “lie.” Here he uses the words “vanity” (mataiotes) and corruption (phthora) which mean the same thing: “a loss of meaning, unreal, lack of strength, splendor, the Spirit and life.”
This state is not closed or definitive. There is hope for creation! Not because creation, as such, is capable of subjectively hoping, but rather because God intends to rescue it. This hope is tied to the redeemed man, the “son of God.” In an action apposed to Adam’s, someday he will definitively raise up the cosmos in its own state of freedom and glory.
This is the basis for Christian’s deepest responsibility with regards to the world: beginning now, to display the signs of the freedom and glory to which the entire universe is called; to suffer with hope, knowing that “the sufferings of the present moment are nothing compared to the future glory that will be manifested in us.”
In the final verse the Apostle sets this vision of faith on a burning and dramatic image: The entire creation is compared to a woman who suffers and moans in labor pain. Within human experience, this is a suffering that is always mixed with joy, very different from the world’s silent and hopeless tears, which Virgil spoke of in the Aeneid: “sunt lacrimae rerum,” these are tears for things.
2. The thesis of “Intelligent design.” Is it “Science or Faith”?
The Apostle’s prophetic and faith filled vision offers us the chance to touch upon a topic that today is heavily debated regarding the presence, or lack there of, of a divine project internal to creation. At the same time we don’t want to place too great of a scientific or philosophical burden on the Pauline text, which it is evident is doesn’t have. The 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (Feb. 12, 1809) makes this type of reflection even more opportune and needed.
In Paul’s view God is at the beginning and end of the world’s history. He mysteriously guides it toward a purpose, making even the excesses of human liberty serve this purpose. The material world serves man and man serves God. It is not just Paul’s idea. The theme of the final liberation of matter and its participation in the glory of God’s children finds a parallel in the themes of the “new heavens and new earth” of the Second Letter of Peter (3:13) and Revelation (21:1).
The first great novelty of this vision is that it speaks to us about liberation of matter, not about liberation from matter, as happened among almost all the old concepts of salvation: Platonism, Gnosticism, Docetism, Manichaeism, and Catharism. St. Irenaeus spent his entire life countering the Gnostic belief according to which “matter is incapable of salvation.”
The problem is presented in different terms within the current dialogue between science and faith, but the substance is the same. It is about knowing whether the cosmos was thought of and willed by someone, or if it is the result of “chance and necessity”; if its path displays signs of an intelligence and moves toward a precise purpose, or if it evolves blindly, so to speak, obeying only its own laws and biological mechanisms.
The thesis of believers in this respect has come to be referred to in English as Intelligent design, (it’s understood that the design belongs to the Creator). In my opinion what has created so much discussion and argument about this idea has been the fact that no clear distinction is made between intelligent design as a scientific theory and intelligent design as a truth of faith.
As a scientific theory, the thesis of “intelligent design” states that it is possible to prove that the world has an external author, based on the very analysis of creation, and therefore scientifically, and that it displays signs of an organizing intelligence. This is the statement that the majority of scientists intend to question (and the only one they can question!), not the statement about faith, which the believer receives from revelation and which even his intelligence feels to be intimately true and needed.
If, as many scientists believe (not all!), it is pseudo-science to make “Intelligent Design” a scientific conclusion, it is just as much pseudo-science to discount the existence of “Intelligent Design” based on the results of science. Science could posit this pretext if it could explain all things by itself: thus not only the “how” of the world, but also the “what” and the “why.” Science well knows that it is not within its purview to do this. Even the person that removes the idea of god from his perspective, cannot also remove the mystery at the same time. There is always an unanswered questions: Why is there being and not nothingness? Even the very nothingness is perhaps less inscrutable of a mystery to us than being, and chance an enigma that is less unexplainable than God?
I’ve read this significant acknowledgement in a scientific book written by an nonbeliever: If we go back over the story of the world, as you would flip through a book from the last page toward the first, when we finished we would realize that the first page was missing, the “incipit.” We know everything about the world, except why and how it began. The believer is convinced that the Bible provides us just this first page that is missing. Just as in every book, this is the page where the name, author and title of the book are written!
An analogy can help us reconcile our faith in the existence of God’s intelligent design for the world with the apparent fortuity and unpredictability highlighted by Darwin and current science. It deals with the relationship between grace and freedom. As in the spiritual field grace leaves space to the unpredictability of human freedom and even works through it, so also in the physical and biological world everything is based on the play of the second causes (the fight for survival of species according to Darwin, chance and necessity according to Monod); Even if this very play is contemplated and assumed by God’s providence. In both cases, as the saying goes, God “writes straight with crooked lines.”
3. The evolution and the Trinity
The debate between creationism and evolutionism tends to take place in dialogue with the contrary thesis, one of a materialistic and atheistic nature. So it is necessarily a dialogue conducted in apologetic terms. In a reflection conducted between believers and for believers, as we are doing, we cannot stop at this point. Stopping here would imply remaining prisoners of a “deist” vision of the problem, and not yet Trinitarian, and therefore not specifically Christian.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is the one who opened the conversation on evolutionism to a Trinitarian dimension. This scholar’s contribution to the discussion on evolution essentially consists of having introduced the person of Christ into conversation, of making it a Christological problem as well.
His biblical starting point is Paul’s statement, according to which “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). Christ appears in this vision as the Omega Point, that is, as the meaning and final destination of cosmic and human evolution. We can debate the method and the arguments through which this Jesuit scholar arrives to his conclusion, but not the conclusion itself. Maurice Blondel explains the reason well in a note written in defense of Teilhard de Chardin: “Faced with the grandiose horizons of nature and humanity, without betraying Catholicism, we cannot rely on mediocre explanations and ways of seeing things that are limited, which make Christ a historic incident, which isolate him in the cosmos as a minor episode, or seem to make him an intruder or a lost soul within the overpowering and hostile immensity of the Universe.
What is still missing, for a completely Trinitarian vision of the problem, is an understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in the creation and evolution of the cosmos. This is required by the basic principle of Trinitarian theology according to which the works ad extra of God are shared by all three of the persons of the Trinity, each of which participates in them with their own characteristics.
The Pauline text we are meditating on allows us to fill this gap. The allusion to creation’s labor pains is made within the context of Paul’s discourse on the different workings of the Holy Spirit. He sees continuity between the creation’s groaning and the Christian’s which is openly placed in relationship with the Spirit: “It (the material world) is not the only one, but we also, who posses the first fruits of the Spirit, moan internally.” The Holy Spirit is the mysterious strength that pushes creation toward its fulfillment. Speaking about the evolution of the social order, the Second Vatican Council states, “God’s Spirit which, with admirable providence, directs the course of the times and renews the face of the earth, is present in such an evolution.”
He who is “the beginning of the creation of things”, is also the beginning of its evolution in time. In fact, this is nothing other than the creation that continues on. The Holy Father Benedict XVI highlighted this concept during the address given Oct. 31, 2008, to the participants in the symposium on evolution, promoted by the Pontifical Academy of the sciences: “As I said, stating that the foundation of the cosmos and its development is the wisdom provided by the Creator is not to say that creation only deals with the beginning of the history of the world and of life. Rather, this implies that the Creator establishes these developments and sustains them, he appoints them and constantly maintains them.”
What specific and “personal” thing does the Spirit contribute to creation? That depends, as always, on the relationships within the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is not at the beginning, but so to say, at the end of creation, just as it is not at the beginning, but rather the end of the Trinitarian process. St. Basil writes that in creation, the Father is the principle cause, he from whom all things are; the Son is the efficient cause, he through whom all things are made; the Holy Spirit is the perfecting cause.
The creating action of the Spirit is, therefore, the origin of the perfection of creation. We would say that he is not so much the one who makes the world go from the nothing to being, but rather he who makes the world go from being formless to being formed and perfected. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the one who makes creation go from chaos to cosmos, who makes something beautiful, ordered and clean from creation: precisely a “mundus” (world)” according to the original meaning of the Latin word. St. Ambrose observes:
“When the Spirit began to gently blow on it, creation did not yet have any beauty. Instead, when creation received the working of the Spirit, it obtained all the splendor of beauty which made it shine as ‘world.'”
It is not that the creative action of the Father was “chaotic” and needing correction, but rather the Father himself, as St. Basil notes in the text referenced, wants to make all things exist through the Son and wants to bring all things to perfection through the Spirit.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and deserted and darkness covered the abyss and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2). The Bible itself, as can be seen, alludes to the universe’s passing from a formless and chaotic state to a state on the path of progressive formation and differentiation of creatures and mentions the Spirit of God as the principle of this passage or evolution. This passage is presented in the Bible as sudden and immediate. Science has revealed that it extended over millions of years and is still in action. But this should not create any problems, once we know the purpose and literary genre of the biblical account.
Based on the sense of analogous expressions presented in the Babylonian cosmological poems, today the expression “spirit of god” (ruach ‘elohim) from Genesis’ chapters 1 and 2 tends to be attributed a purely naturalistic sense of strong wind. It is seen as an element of the primordial chaos, on par with the abyss and darkness, thus tying it to what came earlier, not to what follows in the story of creation.
But the image of “God’s breath” returns in the next chapter of Genesis (God “blew a breath of life into the nose of man and man became a living being”) with a “theological” sense and certainly not a naturalistic sense.
To exclude every reference in the text to the divine reality of the Holy Spirit, no matter how nascent, attributing the creative activity exclusively to the word of God, would mean reading the text only in light of what comes before it and not in light of what comes after it in the Bible; in the light of the influences it has undergone and not also the influence it has exercised, contrary to what the most recent biblical hermeneutics suggest. (Isn’t the surest way to establish the nature of an unknown seed to see what type of plant comes from it?)
Reflecting on the unfolding of the revelation, we find little by little signs that are ever more explicit of the creative activity of the breath of God, in close connection with that of his Word. “By the word (dabar) of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath (ruach) of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6; cf. also Isaiah 11:4: “He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips He shall slay the wicked”). Spirit and breath certainly do not indicate, in these texts, the natural wind. Another Psalm refers to that same text, stating: “When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30). Hence, no matter what interpretation one wishes to give Genesis 1:2, it is a fact that the rest of the Bible attributes to the Spirit of God an active role in creation.
This line of development becomes very clear in the New Testament which describes the intervention of the Holy Spirit in the new creation, making use precisely of the images of breath and wind that are read in regard to the origin of the world (cf. John 20:22 with Genesis 2:7). The idea of the creative ruach cannot be born from nothing. In the same commentary or edition of the Bible, one cannot translate Genesis 1:2 with “a wind of God breathed over the waters” and then refer to that same text to explain the dove in Jesus’ baptism!
Hence, it is not incorrect to continue to refer to Genesis 1:2 and to other subsequent testimonies, to find a biblical foundation for the creative role of the Holy Spirit, as the Fathers did. “If you adopt this explanation,” said St. Basil, followed in this by Luther, “it will bring great profit.” And it is true: To perceive in the “Spirit of God” that moved across the waters a first embryonic reference to the creative action of the Spirit opens up the understanding to so many subsequent passages of the Bible, the origin of which otherwise could not be explained.
4. Easter, Passage from Old Age to Youth
Let us now identify some practical consequences that the biblical vision of the role of the Holy Spirit can have for our theology and for our spiritual life. As regards the theological applications, I remember only one: the participation of Christians in the obligation to respect and safeguard creation. For the believing Christian, ecology is not only a practical necessity of survival or a political or economic problem; it has a theological foundation. Creation is the work of the Holy Spirit!
Paul speaks to us of a creation that “groans and suffers in the pangs of birth.” To this, his cry of birth, is mixed in a cry of agony and death. Nature is subjected once again “without its will,” to a vanity and pollution, different from those of the spiritual order intended by Paul, but derived from the same source that is sin and man’s egoism.
The Pauline text that we are meditating might inspire more than one consideration on the problem of ecology: Are we, who have received the first fruits of the Spirit, hastening “the full liberation of the cosmos and its participation to the glory of the children of God,” or are we retarding it, as are all the others?
But lets come to a more personal application. We say that man is a microcosm; to him, therefore, as individual, is applied all that we have said in general of the cosmos. The Holy Spirit is he who makes each one of us pass from chaos to the cosmos: From disorder, from confusion and from dispersion, to order, unity and beauty, that beauty which consists of being conformed to the will of God and in the image of Christ, in passing from the old man to the new man.
With a veiled autobiographic reference, the Apostle wrote to the Corinthians: “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). The evolution of man’s spirit does not take place in a parallel manner to that of his body, but in the opposite sense.
In recent days, given the three Oscars and the fame of the actor, there has been much talk of a film entitled “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a story by writer Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. It is the story of a man who is born old, with the monstrous features of an 80-year-old and, growing, he is reinvigorated to the point of dying as a real baby. The story is of course paradoxical, but there could be an all-together more real application if transferred to the spiritual plane. We are born “old men” and we must become “new men.” The whole of life, not just adolescence, is a “an evolutionary age!”
According to the Gospel, one is not born a child but becomes a child! St. Maximus of Turin, a Father of the Church, describes Easter as a passage “from sins to holiness, from vices to virtues, from old age to youth: a youth understood not of age but of simplicity. We were in fact fallen by the old age of sins, but by the Resurrection of Christ we were renewed in the innocence of children.”
Lent is the ideal time to apply oneself to this reinvigoration. A preface of this time states: “You have established for your children a time of spiritual renewal, so that they may convert to you with their whole heart, and free from the ferment of sin live the vicissitudes of this world, always oriented toward eternal goods.” A prayer, stemming from the Gelasian Sacramentary of the 7th century is still in use in the Easter Vigil; it proclaims solemnly: “Let the whole world see and recognize that all that is destroyed is reconstructed, all that is old is renewed, and everything returns to its integrity, through Christ who is the principle of all things.”
The Holy Spirit is the soul of this renewal and rejuvenation. Let us begin our day by saying, with the first verse of the hymn in his honor: Come Creator Spirit, renew in my life the prodigy of the first creation, blow over the void, the darkness and the chaos of my heart, and guide me toward the full realization of the “intelligent design” of God on my life.