Fr. Cantalamessa’s 5th Lenten Homily: East and West Before the Mystery of Salvation

Here is the fifth Lenten homily given this year by the preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

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With this meditation we conclude our overview of the common faith of East and West, and we conclude it with what concerns us more directly, the problem of salvation: that is, how Orthodoxy and the Latin world have understood the content of Christian salvation.

This is probably the area in which it is more necessary for us Latins to turn our gaze to the East to enrich, and in part to correct, our prevailing way of conceiving of the redemption accomplished by Christ. We have the good fortune of doing so in this chapel where the work of Christ and the mystery of salvation is presented in the art of Father Marko Rupnik, according to the understanding that the Eastern Church and Byzantine iconography has had of it.

Let us start with a presentation of the different way of understanding salvation by the East and by the West that is found in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité and whichsynthesizes the prevailing opinion in theological circles:

The goal of life for Greek Christians is divinization, and for Christians in the West, the attainment of holiness. . . . The Word became flesh, according to the Greeks, to restore to man his likeness to God that was lost through Adam and to divinize him. According to the Latins, he became man to redeem humanity . . . and to pay the debt owed to God’s justice.[1]

Let us try to find the basis of this difference in vision and what is true in the way that it is presented.

1. The two aspects of salvation in Scripture

Already in the prophecies of the Old Testament that announced “the new and eternal covenant” there are two fundamental aspects: a negative aspect that consists in the elimination of sin and evil in general and a positive aspect that consists in the gift of a new heart and a new spirit; in other words, destroying the works of man and rebuilding, or restoring, in him the work of God. A clear text in this regard is the following one from Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will give you a heart of flesh; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ez 36:25-27)

There is something that God wants to take out of man: iniquity, a heart of stone; and there is something he wants to put within man: a new heart, a new spirit. In the New Testament both these aspects are evident. From the beginning of the gospel, John the Baptist presents Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” but also as the one “who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1: 29, 33). In the Synoptic Gospels, the aspect of redemption from sin predominates. In them Jesus applies to himself on several occasions the status of the Servant of Yahweh who takes upon himself and atones for the sins of the people (see Is. 52:13–53: 9). In the institution of the Eucharist he speaks of his blood poured out “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28).

This aspect is also present in John, tied precisely to the theme of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In John’s First Letter, Jesus is presented as “the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2). However, in John the positive aspect is emphasized more. Once the Word was made flesh, light, truth, eternal life, and the fullness of every grace came into the world (see Jn 1:16). The fruit of Jesus’ death that receives greater prominence is not the expiation of sins but the gift of the Spirit (see Jn 7:39; 19:34).

In St. Paul we see these two aspects in perfect balance. In the Letter to the Romans, which we can consider the first analytical exposition of Christian salvation, he first highlights what Christ came to free us from by his death on the cross (see Rom 3:25): death (see Rom 5), sin, (Rom 6), and the law (Rom 7). Then in chapter 8, he expounds on all the splendor of what Christ has procured for us through his death and resurrection: the Holy Spirit and with him divine sonship, the love of God, and the certainty of final glorification. The two aspects are present at the very heart of the Kerygma. Jesus, we read, “was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). Justification here means not only the remission of sin but also what is spoken of next in the text: grace, peace with God, faith, hope, and the love of God poured into our hearts (see Rom 5:1-5).

As always, in moving from Scripture to the Fathers of the Church, one notices a diverse reception of these two aspects. According to the general opinion summarized in the text quoted above from Bardy, the East has assimilated the positive aspect of salvation: the deification of man and the restoration of the image of God. The West has assimilated the negative aspect: freedom from sin. The reality is somewhat more complex, so clarifying it cannot help but facilitate mutual understanding.

Let us try first of all to correct some generalizations that make the two visions of salvation appear more distant from each other than they actually are. We cannot be surprised, if we do not find in the Latin world some concepts that are central for the Greeks, like “divinization” and “restoration of the image of God.” They do not appear as such in the New Testament, which is our only common source, even if those expressions serve to transmit an exquisitely biblical mode of understanding salvation. The very word theosis, divinization, raised concerns because of its use in pagan discourse and in imperial Roman language (apotheosis).

The Latins preferred to express the positive effect of baptism with the Pauline concept of divine sonship. According to St. John of the Cross, the operations that happen by nature in the Trinity are accomplished in the Christian soul through grace.[2] This doctrine is not far from the Orthodox doctrine of deification, but it is based on the Johannine affirmation of the indwelling of the Trinity (see Jn 14:23).

Another observation. It is not completely true that Orthodox soteriology is summed up in the ontological vision of divinization and that Western soteriology is summed up by the juridical theory of St. Anselm of the expiation needed due to sin. The idea of sacrifice for sin, of ransom, of repaying of a debt (even in some cases of a ransom paid to the devil!) is no less present in St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Chrysostom than in their Latin contemporaries. One only needs to consult a good history of the development of Christian thought to see that.[3] One text among many is this one by Athanasius who is also one of the strongest affirmers of the theme of divinization:

There still remained a debt to pay that was owed by all, because all were condemned to death, and this was the principle reason for his coming among us. This is the reason that, after having revealed his divinity through his works, it remained for him to offer a sacrifice for all, yielding the temple of his body to death for all.[4]

For these ancient Greek Fathers, the paschal mystery of Christ is still an integral part and a path to divinization. That is still the case in the later Byzantine era. According to Nicholas Cabasilas, there were two walls that blocked communication between God and us: nature and sin. “The first was removed by the Savior through his Incarnation and the second was removed through his crucifixion since the cross destroyed sin.”[5]

Only in some cases do we see affirmed at the heart of Orthodoxy the idea of a salvation of the human race accomplished at its root through the Incarnation itself of the Word, understood as the assuming not of a single human nature but of the human nature present in every human being, like a Platonic universal. In one extreme case, divinization comes even before baptism. St. Symeon the New Theologian writes,

By descending from your lofty sanctuary without separating yourself from the bosom of the Father, and by being incarnate and born of the holy Virgin Mary, you already remolded and vivified me, freed me from the guilt of my forefathers, and prepared me to ascend into heaven. Then, after having created me and made me grow little by little, you also, in your holy baptism of the new creation, have renewed me and adorned me with your Holy Spirit. [6]

Up to this point then, the different theories of salvation are not as clearly divided between East and West as people would often have us believe. Where the difference is clear and consistent, from the beginning until now, lies instead in the way of understanding original sin and consequently in the primary effect of baptism. Eastern Christians have never understood original sin in the sense of a truly inherited “guilt” but as the transmission of a wounded nature that is inclined to sin, like a progressive loss of the image of God in human beings that is due not only to the sin of Adam but to the sin of all the following generations.

With the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol, everyone professes “one baptism for the remission of sins,” but for Eastern Christians the primary aim of baptism is not to remove original sin (it does not have this aim at all for babies) but to free people from the power of sin in general, to restore the image of God that was lost and to insert the creature into the new Adam, Christ. This different perspective has implications. For example, in the image that one has of the Virgin Mary. In the West, she is seen as “immaculate” that is, conceived without original sin (macula) right up to the dogmatic definition of that title. In the East, her corresponding title is Panhagia, the All-Holy.

2. An asymmetrical comparison

I do not need to spend much time on the West’s way of conceiving the salvation brought by Christ because it is more familiar to us. Let us only say that here we see a unique paradox. The one who was, through all the span of Christianity, the cantor of grace par excellence, who better than anyone highlighted the Christian innovation with regard to the law and the absolute necessity of grace for salvation, the one who identified such a gift with the Giver himself, the Holy Spirit, is also the one who, due to historical circumstances, contributed the most to restricting its field of action.

The polemic against the Pelagians drove St. Augustine to highlight first and foremost the role of grace in preserving and healing from sin, the so-called prevenient helping and healing grace. His doctrine of original sin, as a real hereditary sin that is transmitted during the sexual act of generation, caused baptism to be seen chiefly as liberation from original sin.

Neither Augustine nor others after him ever omitted mention of the other benefits of baptism: divine sonship, insertion into the body of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and so many other magnificent gifts. The fact remains, however, that in the manner of administering baptism and in general opinion, the negative aspect of freedom from original sin has always prevailed over the positive aspect of the gift of the Holy Spirit (this last gift being assigned instead to the sacrament of confirmation). Still today, if one asks an average Christian what it means to be “in the grace of God” or to live “in grace,” the answer is almost certainly “to live without mortal sin on one’s conscience.”

This is the inevitable repercussion of all heresies: pushing theology to focus its attention temporarily on one point of doctrine at the expense of the whole. It is a normal event that can be observed at many times in the development of doctrine. It is what pushed some Alexandrian authors to the border of Monophysitism in order to oppose Nestorianism and vice versa. What made the temporary loss of balance, in Augustine’s case, so different and so long-lasting? The answer is simple: his own unique stature and authority!

There was someone who came after him who proposed a different explanation that is closer to that of the Greeks, John Duns Scotus (1265-1308). The primary purpose of the Incarnation for him is not redemption from sin but the summing up of everything in Christ, “in view of whom everything was created” (see Col 1:15ff). It is the union in Christ of the divine nature and the human nature.[7] The Incarnation thus would have occurred even if Adam had not sinned. Adam’s sin only determined the manner of this recapitulation, making it “redemptive.”

But the voice of Scotus remained isolated, and only recently has it been reassessed by theologians. The voice that stood out was another voice, which did not restore the balance to Augustine’s thinking but exacerbated it. I am speaking of Martin Luther, who had the merit for all Christians of putting the Word of God, Scripture, back at the center of everything and above everything, including the words the Fathers, which are after all only the words of men. With him the difference with respect to the East in understanding salvation becomes truly radical. In contrast now to the theory of the divinization of man is the thesis of an extrinsically imputed righteousness by God that leaves the baptized person “just and sinner” at the same time: a sinner in himself, but justified in the eyes of God.

But let us leave aside this last development that deserves a separate discussion. Turning to the comparison between Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church, we need to highlight a fact that, in the eyes of some Orthodox authors, made our concept of salvation and of Christian life appear in the past to be different on almost all points from theirs. It involves a fundamental asymmetry in the comparison. In the East, theology, spirituality, and mysticism are united; it does not conceive of a theology that is not at the same time mystical, that is, experiential. The reconstruction of the Orthodox position was made by taking into account theologians like the Cappodocian Fathers, John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor, as well as spiritual movements like the Desert Fathers, hesychasm, monasticism, Palamism, the Philokalia, and mystical authors like Symeon the New Theologian, Seraphim of Sarov, and so forth.

Unfortunately this did not happen in the West where, especially with the arrival of scholasticism, mysticism and spirituality, even in teaching, occupied a position distinct from dogmatics, and mixing the two was viewed with suspicion. The encounter between the East and the Latin West would have produced very different results and many fewer conflicts if people had taken into account the many spiritual movements and Catholic mystical writers, in which Christian salvation was not treated as a theory but lived experientially.

In the three books I already cited[8] that have contributed the most to familiarizing the West with the “mystical theology” of the East, only in one are there two mentions (and both basically negative) of St. John of the Cross. Yet, he, like so many others in the West, with the theme of the “dark night,” is in line with the vision of “God in darkness” of St. Gregory of Nyssa. No mention is made of Western monasticism, or of St. Francis of Assisi and his positive and Christocentric spirituality, or of mystical writings like The Cloud of Unknowing that are in harmony with the apophatism of Eastern theology. But this, I repeat, is more our fault than that of the Eastern writers, if we want to talk about blame. We are the ones who made the harmful separation between theology and spirituality, and one cannot ask others to synthesize those two when we ourselves have not yet tried to do so either.

3. A chance for the West

Let us return to the opinion of Bardy that we started off with: the East, he says, has a more optimistic and positive vision of man and salvation, and the West a more pessimistic one. I would like to show how, in this case as well, the golden rule in the dialogue between East and West is not “either/or” but “both/and.” If Eastern doctrine, with its very lofty idea of the grandeur and dignity of man as the image of God, has highlighted the possibility of the Incarnation, Western doctrine, with its insistence on sin and the misery of humanity, has highlighted the necessity of the Incarnation. A later disciple of Augustine, Blaise Pascal, observed,

Knowledge of God without knowledge of our misery produces pride. The consciousness of our misery without consciousness of God produces despair. Knowledge of Jesus Christ represents the middle way, because in him we find both God and our misery.[9]

For Augustine, St. Anselm, and Luther, the insistence on the gravity of sin[10] was a different approach to having us reach the grandeur of the remedy procured by Christ. They accentuated “the abundance of sin” in order to exalt “the superabundance of grace” (see Rom 5:20). In both cases, the key to everything is the work of Jesus, seen, so to speak, by the East on the right, and by the West on the left. The two avenues of pursuit were both legitimate and necessary. In face of the explosion of “absolute evil” in World War II, someone remarked that this is what discounting the bitter truth about human beings had brought us to, after two centuries of naïve confidence in the unstoppable progress of man.[11]

Where then is the particular lacuna in our soteriology, as I was saying, for which we need to look to the East? It is in the fact that grace, inasmuch as it is exalted, has ended up in practice being reduced only to its negative dimension as a remedy for sin. Even the jubilant cry of the Easter Exultet—“O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”—does not go beyond the negative perspective of sin and redemption, if we look at it closely.

It is precisely on this point, thanks be to God, that we have been witnessing a change for a while that we can call momentous. All the Churches of the West and those or founded by them, have had for more than a century a current of grace running through them, the Pentecostal movement and the different charismatic renewals derived from it in traditional churches. It is not actually a movement in the current meaning of that term. It has no founder, no rule, no spirituality of it own; nor does it possess a governmental structure, except for coordination and service. It is exactly a current of grace that must be diffused through the whole Church, to be dispersed in it the way an electric discharge is dispersed into a mass, and then at the end, to disappear as a distinct phenomenon.

It is no longer possible to ignore, or to consider as marginal, this phenomenon that in more or less profound ways, has reached hundreds of millions of believers in Christ from all Christian confessions and tens of millions just in the Catholic Church. In receiving the leaders of the charismatic renewal in St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time on May 19, 1975, Paul VI in his address called the renewal “a chance for the Church and for the world.”

The theologian Yves Congar, in his address to the International Congress of Pneumatology at the Vatican on the occasion of the sixteenth centenary of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, speaking of the signs of an awakening of the Holy Spirit in our era, said this:

How can we avoid situating the so-called charismatic stream, better known as the Renewal in the Spirit, here with us? It has spread like a brushfire. It is far more than a fad. . . . In one primary aspect, it resembles revival movements from the past: the public and verifiable character of spiritual action which changes people’s lives . . . It brings youth, a freshness and new possibilities into the bosom of the old Church, our mother.[12]

What I would like to highlight at this moment is one specific point: in what sense and under what aspect can one say that this reality is a chance for the Catholic Church and for the churches born from the Reformation? I think it is this: it allows us to restore to Christian salvation the rich and inspiring positive content summed up in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The primary goal of Christian life is once again shown to be, as St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”[13] St. John Paul II in a discourse to the leaders of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in 1998 said,

The Catholic charismatic movement is one of the many fruits of the Second Vatican Council, which, like a new Pentecost, led to an extraordinary flourishing in the Church’s life of groups and movements particularly sensitive to the action of the Spirit. . . . How many lay faithful—men, women, young people, adults and the elderly—have been able to experience in their own lives the amazing power of the Spirit and his gifts! How many people have rediscovered the faith, the joy of prayer, the power and beauty of the Word of God, translating all this into generous service in the Church’s mission! How many lives have been profoundly changed![14]

I am not saying that all the people who are involved in this “current of grace” are demonstrating all these characteristics, but I know from experience that all of them, even the simplest ones, know what it means and aspire to actualize it in their lives. It gives a different outward picture of Christian life: it is a joyous, contagious Christianity that has none of the gloomy pessimism that Nietzsche reproved it for. Sin is not in the least trivialized because one of the first effects of the coming of the Paraclete in the heart of a human being is to “convince the world of sin” (Jn 16.8). I know this because an experience of this kind brought about my difficult and reluctant surrender to this grace 38 years ago!

It is not a question of belonging to this “movement’—or to any movement—but of opening oneself to the action of the Holy Spirit in whatever state one finds oneself. No one has a monopoly on the Holy Spirit, much less the Pentecostal and charismatic movement. The important thing is not to remain outside of the current of grace that is flowing under different forms through all of Christianity, to see it as God’s initiative and a chance for the Church and not as a threat or an outside infiltration into the Catholic faith.

One thing can ruin this chance, and it comes, unfortunately, from within. Scripture affirms the primacy of the sanctifying work of the Spirit over its charismatic activity. We only need to read consecutively 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 about the different charisms and about the more excellent way, which is love. It would compromise this opportunity if the emphasis on the charisms, and in the particular on those that are more visible, would end by prevailing over the effort for an authentic life “in Christ” and “in the Spirit,” based on the conformity to Christ and therefore on putting to death the works of the flesh and on seeking the fruits of the Spirit.

I hope that the next world retreat for clergy, which will take place in June here in Rome in preparation for the 50thanniversary of the Catholic Church Charismatic Renewal in 2017, serves to reaffirm this priority forcefully, while continuing to encourage in every way the exercise of the charisms that are so useful and necessary, according to the Second Vatican Council “for the renewal and the building up of the Church.”[15]

We will leave it to our Orthodox brethren to discern if this current of grace is intended only for us, the Church in the West and those that arose from the West, or if, for a different reason, a new Pentecost is also what Eastern Christians are in need of. In the meantime, we can do no less than thank them for having cultivated and tenaciously defended through the centuries a beautiful and inspiring ideal of Christian life from which all of Christianity has benefited, even through the silent instrument of the icon.

I have laid out my reflections of the common faith of the East and West, having before us in this chapel the image of the heavenly Jerusalem with Orthodox and Catholic saints gathered three by three in mixed groups. Let us ask them to help us realize in the Church here below the same fraternal communion of love that they live in the heavenly Jerusalem.

I thank the Holy Father, and you, venerable Fathers, brothers, and sisters, for your kind attention, and I wish you all a Happy Easter!

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Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson

[1] Gustave Bardy, in Dictionnaire de spiritualité, ascétique et mystique, vol. 3 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1937), col. 1389ff.; see also on this theme Yannis Spiteris, Salvezza e peccato nella tradizione orientale (Bologna: EDB, 1999).

[2] St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle A, stanza 38.

[3] See J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: A & C Black, 1968), chap. 14.

[4] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 20.

[5] Nicholas Cabasilas, Life in Christ, III, 1 (PG 153, 572).

[6] Symeon the New Theologian, Hymns and Prayers (SCh 196, 1973, 330ff.).

[7] Duns Scotus, Reportationes Parisienses, III, d.7, q.4, § 5, vol. 11, ed. Luke Wadding, p. 451.

[8] Vladimir Lossky, Paul Evdokimov, John Meyendorff, cited in the first meditation.

[9] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 527 (Brunschvicg numbering); see Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), pp. 73-76.

[10] Anselm, Cur Deus homo, XXI: (Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis sit peccatum: “You have not considered how weighty sin is”).

[11] Walter Lippman, qtd. in Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries, p. 76.

[12] Yves Congar, “Actualité de la Pneumatologie,”in Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, vol. 1(Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983), p. 18.

[13] Seraphim of Sarov, Conversation with Nicholas Motovilov, in Irina Gorainoff, The Message of St. Seraphim (Oxford: SLG Press, 1972).

[14] John Paul II, Address to the Leaders of the Renewal in the Spirit, April 4, 1998.

[15] Lumen gentium, 12.

Fonte: ZENIT

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