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Fr Cantalamessa during his Lenten sermon Fr Cantalamessa during his Lenten sermon 

Fr Cantalamessa's third Lenten Sermon - Full text

In his third Lenten Sermon, the Preacher of the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., reflects on Mary, the Mother of God, who stood silent at the foot of the cross. The full text of his sermon follows:

“STANDING BY THE CROSS OF JESUS WAS HIS MOTHER”

Third Sermon, Lent 2020

Mary on Calvary

The Scripture word that will accompany us in this meditation is John 19:25-27:

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

In the present meditation we shall consider only the initial narrative of the text, leaving for next time what Jesus said.

If Mary, his mother, was there on Calvary beneath the cross of Jesus, she was certainly in Jerusalem in those days, and if she was in Jerusalem, she witnessed everything and was present at all that happened. She was present at the Ecce homo!; she saw the flesh of her own flesh being scourged, bleeding, being crowned with thorns; she saw him almost naked before the crowds, trembling, his body jerking in the rigors of death. She heard the banging of the hammers and the insults: “If you are the Son of God ....” She saw the soldiers divide his garments and the tunic she herself had probably woven.

The Gospel tells us that “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” So Mary wasn’t alone; she was one of the women. But Mary was present as his mother, and this fact changes everything because it places Mary in a very different situation from that of the others. I remember the funeral of a boy of 18 years. Several women followed the hearse. They were all dressed in black and all were crying, so that they all looked alike. But one of them, the mother, was different, and all those present were thinking of her and almost surreptitiously glancing at her! She was a widow, and this boy was her only child. Her eyes were fixed on the coffin, and you could see her lips continually forming her son’s name. At the moment of the Sanctus, when those present started to say, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of heaven and earth,” she too, probably without even realizing it, started to murmur, “Holy, Holy, Holy . . . .” I thought of Mary beneath the cross.

But something much more difficult had been asked of Mary: to forgive. When she heard her son call out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), she knew the heavenly Father wanted her to repeat the same words with all her heart: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And Mary repeated them. She forgave.

If Mary was tempted, as even Jesus was in the desert, this took place above all beneath the cross. And the temptation was very deep and painful because the reason for it was Jesus himself. She believed in the promises, she believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God; she knew that if Jesus had appealed to the Father, he would have sent him “more than twelve legions of angels” (Mt 26:53). But she saw that Jesus didn’t do this. If he freed himself from the cross, he would also free her from this dreadful sorrow, but he didn’t do it.

Yet Mary didn’t cry out, “Come down from the cross; save yourself and me!” Nor did she cry, “My son, you have saved others; why don’t you now save yourself too?”—even though it isn’t difficult to understand that similar thoughts and desires must have spontaneously come to her mother’s heart. Mary was silent. Humanly speaking, there was every reason for Mary to cry out to God, “You have deceived me!”—similar to the prophet Jeremiah who one day cried out, “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived!” (Jer 20:7)—and escape from Calvary. Instead, she didn’t run away but remained there, standing, in silence, and she thus became in a very special way a martyr of faith, a supreme testimony of trust in God, after her Son.

The idea of Mary being united to her son’s sacrifice is soberly and solemnly expressed in a Vatican Council II text:

The Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth.[1]

Mary didn’t, therefore, just stand close to the cross of Jesus in a physical and geographical sense. She was there in a spiritual sense too. She was in union with the cross of Jesus; she was inside the same suffering. She suffered in her heart what her son suffered in his body. And how could anyone who has any idea of what it means to be a mother think differently?

Jesus was also man, and at that moment on Calvary he was, in the eyes of all, just a son being executed before his mother. Jesus no longer said, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2:4). Now that his hour had come, he and his mother had something very important in common, the same suffering. In those last moments in which even the Father mysteriously withdrew from his human gaze, Jesus had only his mother’s gaze from which to draw solace and comfort. Would he who in Gethsemane requested the three disciples to “remain here, and watch with me” (Mt 26:38) now disdain his mother’s presence and comfort?

Staying Close to the Cross of Jesus

Following as usual our guiding principle with Mary as the figure and mirror of the Church, its first flowering and model, we must now ask ourselves what the Holy Spirit wanted to say to the Church by deciding that Mary’s presence and Jesus’ words to her be recorded in Scripture.

Once again, it is God’s own word that implicitly traces the passage from Mary to the Church and tells us what every believer has to do to imitate her: “Standing by the cross of Jesus was his mother Mary and near her was the disciple whom he loved.” The parenesis is contained in the fact. What took place that day indicates what should take place every day: we should stay near Mary close to the cross of Jesus, just as the disciple he loved did.

Two things are concealed in this sentence. First, we should stay “close to the cross,” and second, we should stay close to the cross “of Jesus.” The two things are different, though inseparable.

Standing close to the cross “of Jesus.” These words tell us that the first and most important thing to do is not just to stay close to the cross but to stay close to the cross “of Jesus.” It is not sufficient to stay close to the cross in sorrow and silence. This might even seem heroic, and yet it is not the most important thing. It may not even signify anything. The vital thing is to stay close to the cross “of Jesus.” In other words, what counts is not one’s own cross but Christ’s cross. It is not suffering that counts but believing, thereby making Christ’s sufferings our own. The main thing is faith.

The greatest thing about Mary beneath the cross was her faith, which was even greater than her suffering. St. Paul said the cross is the power and wisdom of God to us who are being saved (see 1 Cor 1:18, 24); it is the power of God “to every one who has faith” (Rom 1:16). It is, therefore, for all those who have faith and not for those who suffer, even if, as we shall see, both things are usually linked.

This is the source of the strength and fecundity of the Church. The strength of the Church comes from preaching the cross of Jesus, which is the very symbol of folly and weakness in the eyes of the world, thereby rejecting any possibility or desire to face the incredulous and unthinking world with its own means, such as the wisdom of speech, the force of argument, irony, ridicule, sarcasm, and all the other “strong things” of the world (see 1 Cor 1:27). It is necessary to renounce human superiority so that the divine power of Christ’s cross can be seen. We must insist on this point because there is still a need for it. The majority of believers have never been helped to grasp this mystery, which is the heart of the New Testament and of the kerygma and which changes one’s life.

“Staying close to the cross.” But what is the sign and proof that we really believe in Christ’s cross and that the “word of the cross” is not just a word, an abstract principle, a fine piece of theology or ideology, but truly the cross? The sign and proof is this: that you take up your cross and follow Jesus (see Mk 8:34). The sign is to suffer with him (see Phil 3:10; Rom 8:17), to be crucified with him (see Gal 2:20), to complete in one’s sufferings what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (see Col 1:24). The Christian’s whole life must be a living sacrifice like Christ’s (see Rom 12:1). It is not only a question of a passively accepted suffering but a suffering that is also active and lived in union with Christ. “I pommel my body and subdue it” (1 Cor 9:27), says the Apostle. “The whole life of Christ was cross and martyrdom, and you are looking for rest and joy?”, says the author of The Imitation of Christ. [2]

In fact, there have been two different ways of considering the cross and passion of Christ. One of these, characteristic of Protestant theology, is based on faith and appropriation. It is based on the cross of Christ and wants no other boast that is not the cross of Christ. The second, cultivated, at least in the past, particularly by Catholic spirituality, insists on suffering together with Christ, on sharing his passion, and, as in the case of certain saints, of actually experiencing in themselves the passion of Christ, including the stigmata. Ecumenism urges us to restore the synthesis of what in the Church has ended up by being divided and opposed.

Naturally, it is not a question of placing God’s work and ours on the same level but of accepting the word of Scripture, which says that one—be it faith or works—without the other is dead (see Jas 2:14 ff.). It is faith in the cross of Christ that needs to be put to the test for suffering to be real. St. Peter said that suffering is the crucible of faith, that faith is made genuine by suffering trials, as gold is tested by fire (see 1 Pet 1:6-7).

Our cross is not in itself salvation or power or wisdom; in itself it is simply human, or even punishment. It becomes the power and wisdom of God inasmuch as it unites us to the cross of Christ, the will of God himself. While recovering from the attempt on his life St. John Paul II wrote a letter on suffering, saying, “To suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ.”[3] Suffering unites us to the cross of Christ not only intellectually but also existentially and physically; it is a sort of channel, a means of access, to the cross of Christ, not parallel with faith but one with it.

“In hope she believed against hope”

But it is time to move ahead. The paschal mystery doesn’t consist either in the cross of Christ taken by itself or in the resurrection taken by itself; not even in both taken together, one after the other, juxtaposed and combined. It consists in passing from one to the other, from death to life, passing from death to glory and the kingdom (see Lk 24:26; Acts 14:22). It consists therefore in something dynamic, not static, in a movement or event that, as such, cannot be interrupted without being destroyed.

For St. John the cross of Jesus is not only the moment of his death, but also of his “glorification.” The resurrection is already operating in it, in the sign of the Spirit being poured from his pierced side (see Jn 7:37ff.). On Calvary, therefore, Mary didn’t experience only the death of her Son but also the first fruit of the resurrection. An image of Mary beneath the cross such as the one we get from the Stabat Mater, in which Mary is only “mournful, sad, and distressed,” would not be complete. On Calvary, she was not just the “Mother of sorrows” but also the “Mother of hope,” Mater spei, as the Church invokes her in one of its hymns.

St. Paul affirmed the following about Abraham in his predicament: “in hope he believed against hope” (Rom 4:18). With all the more reason we must say the same about Mary beneath the cross: in hope she believed against hope, that is, in a situation that, humanly speaking, is entirely hopeless, one never ceases to hope solely in virtue of the word of hope, uttered at the time by God. In an inexplicable way, which perhaps she was unable to explain to herself, Mary too, just as Scripture says of Abraham, believed that God was able “to raise” her son “even from the dead” (Heb 11:19).

One of the texts of Vatican Council II mentions Mary’s hope beneath the cross as a determining factor of her maternal calling. It says that being united with Him as He died on the cross, “In this singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour.” [4]

Let us turn to the Church, that is, to ourselves. St. Augustine says that of the three events commemorated by the Church in the paschal triduum—the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of the Lord—“we, in our present life, realize the significance of the crucifixion, whereas, through faith, we have hope in what the burial and resurrection signify.”[5] The Church, like Mary, lives the resurrection “in hope.” For it, too, the cross is an object of experience, whereas the resurrection is an object of hope.

Just as Mary was close to her crucified son, so the Church is called to be close to the crucified of today: the poor, the suffering, the humiliated, the insulted. How can the Church stay close to these? In hope, like Mary. It is not enough to pity their sufferings or even to try to alleviate them. This would be too little. Anyone can do this, even those who know nothing of the resurrection. The Church must transmit hope, proclaiming that suffering is not absurd, that it is meaningful, because there will be a resurrection after death. She must give the reason for the hope that she has (see 1 Pet 3:15).

People need hope to live just as they need oxygen to breathe. The Church too needs hope to advance in history and not be crushed by all the internal and external trials. In the general audience of March 11 - the last public before the suspension for the Corona virus - pope Francis urged us to live this time of trial "with strength, responsibility and hope”. I should like to take up especially his appeal for hope.

Hope has been, and still is, the poor relation among the theological virtues. The poet Charles Péguy has a beautiful image in this regard. He says that the three theological virtues - faith, hope and charity are like three sisters: two grown-ups and one still a child. They walk together on the street holding hands, the two big ones on the sides and the little girl in the center. The little girl is of course Hope. Everyone seeing them says: "It is certainly the two grown-ups who drag the girl in the center!". They are wrong: it is the little girl Hope who drags the two sisters, because if hope stops everything stops.[6]

We must become “accomplices of the child Hope”, as the same poet says. Perhaps there’s something you’ve ardently hoped for, hoped that God would intervene, and nothing happened. The next time you hoped again and nothing happened. Things were just as before despite all your supplications and tears, maybe despite some indications that this time God would listen to you? If you go on hoping again and again; if you never cease to hope, right to the end, you become an accomplice of hope.

This means you allow God to delude you, deceive you on this earth as often as he wishes. More than that, it means being happy deep down in some remote corner of your heart that God didn’t listen to you because, in this way, he has allowed you to show him another proof of your hope, to make yet another act of hope, which is increasingly more difficult for you each time. He has granted you a much greater grace than the one you asked for: the grace to hope in him. He has eternity to let us “forgive Him” for the delay!

However, we must remember that hope is not just a beautiful and poetic interior disposition, as difficult as you like, but that, when all is said and done, it doesn’t call for activity or specific tasks and is, therefore, in the end, pointless. On the contrary, to hope means precisely that there is still something we can do, a duty to be done, and that we are not, therefore, at the mercy of a vain or crippling inactivity.

Therefore, even when in vain we have done our utmost to change a difficult situation, we still have something great to do that will keep us occupied and keep desperation far from us, and that is to endure patiently to the end. This was the great thing that Mary did as she hoped beneath the cross, and she is now ready to help us do the same.

We can find some real surges and unexpected feelings of hope in the Bible. There is one, for example, in the Third Lamentation, the song of the soul in the most desolate trial, which can almost literally be applied to Mary beneath the cross:

I am the man who has seen affliction. . . . [God] has driven and brought me into darkness without any light. . . . He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; . . . though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. . . . I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from the Lord.” (Lam 3:1-18)

But then we find an unexpected surge of hope, and the situation changes. At a certain point the worshiper says to himself: ‘‘Surely God’s mercies are not over; so I shall put my hope in him! For the Lord will not reject anyone forever. If he brings grief, he will have pity. There may yet be hope” (see Lam 3:21-32). From the very moment the prophet decides to return to hope, the tone changes: the lament turns into a confident supplication for God's intervention.

Let us now turn to Mary, who stayed close by the cross hoping against all hope. Let us implore  her as mother of hope with the words of a very ancient hymn of the Church:

Salve Mater misericordiae,
Mater Dei, et mater veniae,
Mater Spei, et mater gratiae,
Mater plena sanctae laetitiae,
O MARIA!

Hail, O Mother of mercy,

Mother of God and Mother of forgiveness

Mother of Hope and Mother of grace,

Mother full of holy joy,

O MARY!

 

[1] Lumen gentium, 58.

[2] See Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, II, 12.

[3] John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 23.

[4] Lumen gentium, 61.

[5] See St. Augustine, “Letter 55,” 14, 24.

[6] See Charles Péguy, le Porche du Mystère de la Deuxième Vertu [The Portal of the Mystery of the Second Virtue] in Oeuvres Poétiques Complètes, vol. 5 (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p. 655.

27 March 2020, 17:07