January 18, 2019

Wedding at Cana



Fr. Fernando Armellini

At first glance, this passage seems a simple story of a miracle, even if a bit strange, somewhat embarrassing miracle. There are various details that amaze. I try to name a few.
John in his Gospel narrates only seven miracles. Is it possible that he had one more interesting to choose? This gesture of Jesus does not seem at all educative. If they had already drunk too much, why provide more wine? The farmers of northern Africa, upon hearing this passage read, commented: “We are at the level of Bacchus.” St. Augustine answered them: the water that comes from heaven revives your vineyards, and this water is transformed into wine; miracles happen every day.
Difficulties are not over: even if it were appropriate to offer wine, why resort to a miracle? It would have been sufficient to take up a collection among the guests.
The first disciples of Jesus had been followers of the Baptist—an ascetic who did not eat and did not drink (Mt 11:18). Faced with an excess of wine, they should not have believed in Jesus, but remain scandalized.
Why does the evangelist John gives so much importance to this episode? He stresses that it was the first of the signs performed by Jesus. The disciples believed and have given their support to the Master in seeing this sign. He employs a solemn expression, that does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament: “Jesus revealed his glory.” For so little? A gesture that perhaps our magicians today would know how to repeat successfully? The evangelist’s annotations seem excessive, inappropriate. They would be more logical, more understandable, for example, after the healing of the man born blind, or after the “resurrection” of Lazarus.
And again, why nothing is said of the main figures of the feast? The bride does not exist at all; the groom has an insignificant role; he does not say a word. The most important of them are the toastmaster, the servants and the jars that are described in every detail (v. 6). One wonders also what so many stone jars were doing in a private home. Were they just for purifications? They can only have but a symbolic meaning because materially they are perfectly useless: the water could be brought directly to the table without going through the jars; it was not worth for the poor servants to draw it twice.
It is not also clear why they speak of the mother of Jesus without mentioning her name, as it happened at the foot of the cross. (Jn 19:25-27). If we had only the Gospel of John we would not even know that she was called Mary.
There is also a mysterious hint on the hour of Jesus. A dramatic hour that gets closer and closer. It will be discussed later in the Gospel of John (John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23.27; 17:1). What is that hour?
Finally, why did Jesus perform the miracle after giving a negative and a little brusque response to the mother?
Too many difficulties to consider this passage as a simple piece of news! Behind the seemingly simple story lies a deeper message.
The Gospel of John is like a vast ocean: it can be contemplated on the surface or in depth. From the shore, the rippling waves, the unfolding of the sails, the reflections of light and color fascinate. But the most intense emotions are for those who have a chance to gear up and go down to the bottom, where the most unexpected and varied forms of life, fish, corals, algae are waiting.
Even with the Gospel of John, one must go to the bottom to capture all the richness of his message. It is what we will try to do today.
In a village in Galilee, a wedding feast is celebrated. There are the guests who gathered to spend a few happy days, but here’s a disappointment: there is no wine and there is not even water because—according to the story—the jars are empty (they will be filled only by order of Jesus). A situation of abandonment, of general sadness. This is the surface. What’s in depth? To descend we must equip ourselves with the tools that are provided by the Old Testament.
The wedding feast.
The name Israel is for us masculine, in Hebrew, it is feminine: a chance that the prophets did not miss to introduce in describing the symbolism of marital relationship of their people with the Lord. He—they say—is the faithful husband, while Israel is the bride that often lets herself be seduced by idols, giving her love to strangers.
Here’s how through the prophets God declares his love: “As a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so will your God rejoice in you” (Is 62:5); “So I am going to allure her, lead her once more into the desert where I can speak to her tenderly … . There she will answer me as in her youth as when she came out of the land of Egypt … . call me: My husband and never again my Baal. I will espouse you in faithfulness” (Hos 2:16-18,22).
These are delightful images that communicate joy, hope, and the will to respond with the same love and the same fidelity to this God who also promises: “Who can abandon his first beloved? The mountains may depart and the hills be moved, but never will my love depart from you” (Is 54:6,10). Yet, in Jesus’ time, Israel had resumed the attitudes of the slave, not of the bride. We will see later what had happened. Now we continue to search for the meaning of the images in the story of the wedding at Cana.
The wine.
In the Bible, drunkenness is condemned (Pro 23:30), but wine is a symbol of happiness and love (Ecl 10:19; Ct 4:10). “Wine and music gladden the heart” (Sir 40:20). A feast without wine becomes a funeral: no singing, no dancing, no joy; only long faces, unhappy and nervous people. “What is life without wine?”—asks Sirach (31:27). “Wine gladdens the heart of man”—says the Psalmist (Ps 104:15). “In the streets, they cry for wine: all joy is gone”—says Isaiah (Is 24:11).
At the time of Jesus, Israel expects the Kingdom of God, the kingdom that the prophets have described as a banquet laden with “rich food, and choice wines, meat full of marrow, fine wine strained” (Is 25:6). This kingdom, however, still seems to be far away. The people are sad, like those who celebrate a wedding feast without wine.
Why is she in this condition? The reason is simple: the bride’s rapports with God are no longer there—as the prophets had preached—the bride, who is happy to enjoy the tenderness of her husband. They are those of the slave forced to obey the orders of the master. The religion taught by the rabbis is that of “merits.” Who acquires them and is faithful to the law is loved by God. To help people to observe it, the spiritual leaders begin to give the interpretation: they specify, point out, define, stand up to reduce the Word of God to a code of standards, an inextricable maze of provisions of detailed little rules impossible to observe.
Since transgressions are inevitable, and one always feels unclean and guilty, the purification rites were devised. The ritual baths for which having always convenient water at the disposition is essential. Water is not at all easy to get because it cannot be transported with containers, but must flow through special canals.
Here is the symbolic significance of the six empty stone jars: they represent the religion of purification, that set of practices and rituals unable to communicate serenity, joy, and peace. Not from this water, but from what Jesus orders to draw—his water—that will result in the best wine.
The wedding at Cana without wine represents the sad condition of the people of Israel disappointed and dissatisfied, which replaced the momentum of love for the Lord with the fulfillment of legal provisions. This way of relating with God never gave joy, yet it is an always present temptation. People rely willingly on religious practice, the strict observance of duties, the repetition of rituals of which they do not even know the meaning.
Jesus’ mother can be Mary, yes, but she can also indicate the spiritual community in which Jesus was born, and from which he was educated. In today’s passage, she certainly represents the pious people of Israel, those who first realize that the religious situation they live in is unsustainable. What must they do then? They do not have recourse to the head of the table, that is, the religious leaders who proved to be unable to organize a real feast, but to Jesus. They understand that the living water comes only from him. Whoever drinks it, is transformed into wine, that is, rendered happily.
John places this “sign” at the beginning of his Gospel because it is a synthesis of all that Jesus will do later. He is the one who will celebrate the wedding feast with the community.
His hour has not yet come because he is only at the beginning of his public life. The feast has begun but will culminate when “his hour will come,” (Mt 24:36) when, on Calvary, he will manifest all his love by giving his life for the bride when from his pierced side will flow “blood and water” (Jn 19:34). In Cana, he makes only a sign of what we will do. In the hour when he will “pass from this world to the Father” (Jn 13:1) he will actually give the water “welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).

Fernando Armellini is an Italian missionary and biblical scholar.

January 16, 2019

Last Supper




Tuesday, 24 October 2017

“Enter the mystery of Jesus” by looking to the Crucifix and thus “letting yourself go” into the “abyss” of his mercy. In the invitation Pope Francis made during Mass at Santa Marta on Tuesday morning, 24 October, lies the indication of a “journey” for all Christians toward the true “centre” of their own life, in which every word disappears, and what remains is only contemplation of the love of the One who “gave his life” for the salvation of mankind.
The Pontiff’s meditation was inspired by the day’s first reading (Rom 5:12, 15, 17-19, 20-21), in which it seems almost as if Paul is unable to “express what he wants to say”. It is a passage in which the Apostle uses a series of “juxtapositions”, as five times he speaks of “one man” and of “another man”; he ponders the concepts of “sin, trespass, disobedience, grace, righteousness, forgiveness”; and he also correlates “increase with abundance”, and “righteousness” with “forgiveness”. In seeking to help the reader understand, the Pope explained, the Apostle uses a method that is not “studied” but is “what comes from5 his heart”. Above all, Paul feels incapable of “explaining what he wants to explain”.
In reality, Francis said, behind this whole discourse is “the history of salvation; there is creation; there is the history of sin, of the fall of man. There is the ‘re-creation’, that is, the redemption that the Church says is more wondrous than creation; it is more powerful”. The language Paul uses is justified by the fact that, effectively, “there are no words” that can “explain Christ”. Therefore, as he perceives this impossibility, “he pushes us; he leads almost up to the abyss and pushes us; even more: he hurls us, so we fall into the mystery”. Into the “mystery of Christ”.
Thus, the Pontiff said, all “these words, these contrasts, these descriptions are only steps along the journey”, so we may “sink into the mystery of Christ”.
The saints understood all of this, the Pope explained. “Not only the canonized saints”, but the “many saints hidden in everyday life. So many humble, simple people who put their hope only in the Lord. They have entered into the mystery of Jesus Christ”.
Each case, the Pontiff continued, deals with a difficult journey, because “we are not used to entering into the mystery. When we come to Mass, yes, we go to pray, it’s true; we know that Jesus comes; we also know that he is in the Word of God, that he comes into the community”. But “this is not enough”. Indeed, “entering the mystery of Jesus Christ is more: it is letting yourself go into the abyss of mercy where there are no words: only the embrace of love. The love that led him to death for us”.
To make the concept more readily understood, the Pope offered the example of the Sacrament of Reconciliation: “When we go to confess because we have sinned”, what do we do? “We go, we tell our sins to the confessor and we are peaceful and content”. But “in this way, we do not enter into the mystery of Jesus Christ”. Instead, “if I go, I go to meet Jesus Christ, to enter into the mystery of Jesus Christ, to enter that embrace of forgiveness that Paul speaks of; that of freely given forgiveness”.
Thus, this is a question for every Christian: “Who is Jesus for you?”. In response, the Pope suggested that one helpful thing is “Christian piety”, in particular practicing the Via Crucis, which is “beautiful” to practice at home, contemplating the moments of the Lord’s passion”.

January 15, 2019

Lamb with Cross

BENEDICT XVI - GENERAL AUDIENCE - 6.2. 2013 - I believe in God: the Creator of heaven and earth, the Creator of the human being

BENEDICT XVI - GENERAL AUDIENCE - 6.2. 2013 -  I believe in God: the Creator of heaven and earth, the Creator of the human being

Paul VI Audience Hall


Dear Brothers and Sisters,a

The Creed which begins by describing God as “the Father Almighty”, the topic of our meditation last week, then adds that he is “Maker of heaven and earth”, and thus takes up the affirmation with which the Bible begins. Indeed the first verse of Sacred Scripture reads: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). God is the origin of all things and his omnipotence as a loving Father unfolds in the beauty of the creation.
In creation, God manifested himself as Father, since he is the origin of life, and in creating he shows his omnipotence. And Sacred Scripture uses very evocative images of it. (cf. Is 40:12; 45:18; 48:13; Ps 104:2.5; 135:7; Prov 8:27-29; Job 38-39). As a good and powerful Father he takes care of what he has created with unfailing love and faithfulness, as the Psalms say over and over again (cf. Ps 57:11; 108:5; 36:6). So it is that creation becomes a place in which to know and recognize the Lord’s omnipotence and goodness, as well as an appeal to our faith as believers that we proclaim God as Creator.
“By faith”, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, “we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (11:3). Faith thus implies the ability to recognize the invisible, by identifying its traces in the visible world. Believers can read the great book of nature and understand its language (cf Ps 19:2-5); but the word of revelation that awakens faith is necessary if man is to become fully aware of the reality of God as Creator and Father. The Book of Sacred Scripture says that human intelligence can find the clue to understanding the world in the light of faith.
With the solemn presentation of the divine work of creation that unfolded over seven days, the first chapter of Genesis in particular occupies a special place. God brought the creation to completion in six days and on the seventh, the sabbath, he did not do anything, but rested: a day of freedom for all, a day of communion with God. Thus, with this image the Book of Genesis tells us that God’s first thought was to find a love that would correspond to his love.
Then his second thought was to create a material world in which to place this love, these creatures who respond to him in freedom. This structure therefore results in the text being marked by certain meaningful repetitions. For example, the sentence “God saw that it was good”, is repeated six times (vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) and to conclude, the seventh time, after the creation of man: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (v. 31). Everything that God creates is beautiful and good, steeped in wisdom and love; God’s creative action brings order, instils harmony and bestows beauty.
In the narrative of Genesis, therefore, it becomes clear that the Lord created with his word: ten times we read in the text the phrase: “God said” (vv. 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29). It is the Word, the Logos of God who is at the origin of the reality of the world, and saying: “God said”, it was so, emphasizes the effective power of the divine Word. This is what the Psalmist sings: “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth… for he spoke, and it came to be, he commanded and it stood forth” (33[32]:6, 9). Life springs forth, the world exists, because all things obey the divine Word.
However our question today is: in the age of science and technology does speaking of creation still make sense? How should we understand the narratives in Genesis? The Bible does not intend to be a natural science manual; rather, it wishes to make the authentic and profound truth of things understood. The fundamental truth that the accounts of Genesis reveal to us is that the world is not a collection of forces that clash with each other; it has its origin and its permanence in the Logos, in God’s eternal Reason which continues to sustain the universe.
A plan of the world exists which is conceived by this Reason, by the Creator Spirit. To believe that this is the foundation of all things illuminates every aspect of existence and gives us the courage to face the adventure of life with trust and hope. Therefore, Scripture tells us that the origin of being, of the world, our own origin is not in the irrational or in need, but rather in reason and love and freedom. Consequently, there is this alternative: either the priority of the irrational, of necessity, or the priority of reason, of freedom, of love. We believe in the latter hypothesis.
However, I would also like to say a word about the summit of all creation: man and woman, the human being, the only being “able to know and love his creator” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, n. 12). Looking up at the heavens the Psalmist wondered: “when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:3-4).
The human being, lovingly created by God, is indeed tiny in comparison with the immensity of the universe. At times, as we look with fascination at the enormous expanses of the firmament, we too perceive our limitations. Human beings are inhabited by this paradox: our smallness and our transcience exist side by side with the greatness of what God’s eternal love wanted for us.
The accounts of the Creation in the Book of Genesis also usher us in to this mysterious environment, helping us to become acquainted with God’s plan for man. They affirm, first of all, that God formed man of dust from the ground (cf. Gen 2:7). This means that we are not God, we did not make ourselves, we are earth; yet it also means that we come from the good earth through the work of the good Creator.
In addition there is another fundamental reality: all human beings are dust, over and above the distinctions made by culture and by history, over and above every social difference; we are one humanity modelled with God’s one earth.
Then there is a second element: the human being came into existence because God breathed the breath of life into the body he had formed from earth (cf. Gen 2:7). The human being is made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-27). For this reason we all bear within us the life-giving breath of God and every human life — the Bible tells us — is under God’s special protection. This is the most profound reason for the inviolability of human dignity against every attempt to evaluate the person according to utilitarian and power-based criteria. To be in the image and likeness of God indicates that man is not closed in himself but has in God an essential reference point.
In the first Chapters of the Book of Genesis we find two important images: the garden, with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent (cf. 2:15-17; 3:1-5). The garden tells us that the reality in which God has placed the human being is not a wild forest but a place that protects, nurtures and sustains; and human beings must not consider the world as a property to be looted and exploited but as a gift of the Creator, a sign of his saving will, a gift to be cultivated and safeguarded, to increase and to develop with respect and in harmony, following its rhythms and logic in accordance with God’s plan (cf. Gen 2:8-15).
Then the serpent is a symbol that comes from the Oriental fertility cults that fascinated Israel and were a constant temptation to abandon the mysterious covenant with God. In this light Sacred Scripture presents the temptation of Adam and Eve as the core of temptation and sin. What, in fact, did the serpent say? He did not deny God but insinuated a subtle question: “Did God say, ‘you shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” (Gen 3:1). This is how the serpent awoke in them the suspicion that the covenant with God was nothing but a chain that bound them, that deprived them of freedom and of the most beautiful and precious things of life. Their temptation became the temptation to build by themselves the world in which to live, to refuse to accept the limitations of being creatures, the limitations of good and evil, of morality; they saw their dependence on the love of God the Creator as a burden of which to free themselves. This is always the essence of temptation. But when the relationship with God is falsified, with a lie, putting ourselves in his place, all other relationships are altered. The other then becomes a rival, a threat. Straight after succumbing to the temptation, Adam turned on Eve (cf. Gen 3:12); the two conceal themselves from the sight of that God with whom they had been conversing as friends (cf. 3:8-10); the world is no longer the garden in which to live in harmony, but a place to exploit, riddled with hidden snares (cf 3:14-19); envy and hatred for others entered man’s heart. An example of this is Cain who kills his own brother Abel (cf. 4:3-9).
Actually, in opposing their Creator people go against themselves, deny their origin and consequently their truth; and evil, with its painful chain of sorrow and death, enters the world. Moreover, all that God had created was good, indeed, very good, but after man had opted freely for falsehood rather than truth, evil entered the world.
I would like to highlight a final teaching in the accounts of the Creation; sin begets sin and all the sins of history are interconnected. This aspect impels us to speak of what is called “original sin”. What is the meaning of this reality that is not easy to understand? I would just like to suggest a few points. First of all we must consider that no human being is closed in on himself, no one can live solely for himself and by himself; we receive life from the other and not only at the moment of our birth but every day. Being human is a relationship: I am myself only in the “you” and through the “you”, in the relationship of love with the “you” of God and the “you” of others. Well, sin is the distortion or destruction of the relationship with God, this is its essence: it ruins the relationship with God, the fundamental relationship, by putting ourselves in God’s place.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that with the first sin man “chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good” (n. 398). Once the fundamental relationship is spoilt, the other relational poles are also jeopardized or destroyed: sin ruins relationships, thus it ruins everything, because we are relational. Now, if the relationship structure is disordered from the outset, every human being comes into a world marked by this relational distortion, comes into a world disturbed by sin, by which he or she is marked personally; the initial sin tarnishes and wounds human nature (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 404-406). And by himself, on his own, man is unable to extricate himself from this situation, on his own he cannot redeem himself; only the Creator himself can right relationships. Only if he from who we distanced ourselves comes to us and lovingly holds out his hand can proper relationships be restored. This happens through Jesus Christ, who goes in exactly the opposite direction to Adam, as is described by the hymn in the second chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (2:5-11): whereas Adam did not acknowledge his creatural being and wanted to put himself in God’s place, Jesus, the Son of God, was in a perfect filial relationship with the Father, he emptied himself and became the servant, he took the path of love, humbling himself even to death on a cross, to set right our relations with God. The Cross of Christ thus became the new tree of life.
Dear brothers and sisters, living out faith means recognizing God’s greatness and accepting our smallness, our condition as creatures, letting the Lord fill us with his love and thus develop our true greatness. Evil, with its load of sorrows and sufferings, is a mystery illuminated by the light of faith which gives us the certainty that we can be freed from it: the certainty that it is good to be a human being.

January 11, 2019

Baptism of the Lord



Message: By accepting Jesus and the baptism he offers we experience the second birth.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Even though he has no sin, Jesus submits to baptism so we can be baptized in him. As we hear in the letter to Titus, God saves us "through a bath of rebirth."
This brings us to our theme - a new year, a new abeginning. Remember the verse: to those who accept Jesus he gives power to become children of God. Then John adds, "not by natural generation"...but by God. So we have human generation and divine generation.
Before talking about divine generation, let's take a look at human generation. It's mind boggling when you think about it. As a result of the love of a man and woman we begin our existence about the size of a dot at the end of typed sentence. That tiny dot, furiously at work, starts to differentiate, forming various organs - a beating heart at 21 days, soon brain waves, miniature legs, arms, even fingernails.
At the Mary Bloom Center in Peru I had opportunity to listen to a baby's heart beat - about twice as fast as his mother. That little guy, right from the start, sends chemical signals that take control of his mom's body causing dramatic changes - not to mention morning sickness, strange appetites* and roller coaster emotions. In that way he gets his dad's attention. :)
The love of dad and mom has inaugurated an amazing adventure - human generation. There is really only one adventure more amazing - divine generation: Becoming a son or daughter of God.
Divine generation, as we saw in the verse from John, has two parts: one, accepting Jesus and two, baptism. Christians overall acknowledge these two aspects of second birth. Perhaps we Catholics have placed more emphasis on the sacrament of baptism while evangelical Protestants have more emphasized the accepting of Jesus. Both are essential. Jesus said that unless a person is reborn by water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To become a child of God requires baptism and faith in Jesus.
And, you know, just as human generation is a pure gift so is divine generation. John underscores that we are reborn not by a human faculty but by God willing it. We do, however, have a choice whether to accept that gift.
It's something analogous to human generation. A humorous comparison: When I was 10-years-old I remember my older brother - a teenager - getting into an argument with our mom. She accused him of ingratitude and he responded, "I didn't ask to be born." She shot back, "Oh, yes, you did."
I don't know who won the argument, but I do know this: At some point my brother gratefully accepted the gift of life. He went on to a professional life of service. He has a lovely curiosity about people, listens and asks good questions. He married a beautiful gal and they have the joy of grandchildren. He was technically accurate about not asking to be born, but accepting that gift brought enormous blessings.
Something similar applies to accepting the gift of rebirth. It gives great power. One of the most beautiful things about divine regeneration is that we can always make a fresh start. A new year, a new beginning. We've seen that possibility in our families. Families do involve burden and anguish, but in family we find fulfillment and purpose. God invites us to lift up our eyes to see the other person - in our human family, in our parish family - and to see the star that leads to Jesus. By accepting him and the baptism he offers we experience the second birth.
St. Paul gives the proof of our second birth - that we can call God "Father." That is, that we pray. So let's conclude with Paul's words to Titus:

Not because of any righteous deed we have done
but because of his mercy,
he saved us through the bath of rebirth...
though Jesus Christ our savior. Amen.

January 10, 2019

fresco of the ancient aspect of the Constantinian Basilica



Paul VI Audience Hall 


Dear Brothers and Sisters, Good morning and also Happy New Year!

Let us continue our catechesis on the Lord’s Prayer, illuminated by the mystery of Christmas, which we have just celebrated.
The Gospel of Matthew places the text of the Lord’s Prayer strategically at the centre of the Sermon on the Mount (cf. 6:9-13).
Now, let us observe the scene: Jesus goes up the hill by the lake, and sits down; he has his most intimate disciples circled around him, and then a large crowd of anonymous faces. It is this heterogeneous assembly that receives the consignment of the ‘Our Father’ for the first time.
The location, as I said, is highly significant; because in this lengthy teaching, which falls under the title of ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (cf. Mt 5:1 - 7:27), Jesus summarizes the fundamental aspects of his message. The beginning is like an archway decorated for a celebration: the Beatitudes. Jesus crowns with happiness a series of categories of people who in his time — but also in ours! — were not highly regarded. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, people humble of heart.... This is the revolution of the Gospel. Where the Gospel is, there is revolution. The Gospel does not leave us calm, it drives us: it is revolutionary.
All people capable of love, the peacemakers who until now ended up at the margins of history, are instead the builders of the Kingdom of God. It is as Jesus would say: go forth, you who bear in your heart the mystery of a God who has revealed his omnipotence in love and in forgiveness!
From this portal of entry, which overturns historical values, blooms the newness of the Gospel. The Law does not need to be abolished but needs a new interpretation that leads it back to its original meaning. If a person has a good heart, predisposed to love, then he understands that every word of God must be incarnated up to its ultimate results. Love has no boundaries: one can love one’s spouse, one’s friend, and even one’s enemy with a wholly new perspective. Jesus says: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:44-45).
Here is the great secret underlying the whole Sermon on the Mount: be children of your Father who is in heaven. Apparently these chapters of the Gospel of Matthew seem to be a moral discourse; they seem to evoke an ethic so demanding as to appear unfeasible, and instead we discover that they are above all a theological discourse. A Christian is not one who is committed to being better than others: he knows he is a sinner like everyone. A Christian is simply a person who pauses before the new Burning Bush, at the revelation of a God who does not bear the enigma of an unspeakable name, but asks his children to invoke him with the name of ‘Father’, to allow themselves to be renewed by his power and to reflect a ray of his goodness for this world so thirsty for good, thus awaiting good news.
Thus, this is how Jesus introduces the teaching of the ‘Our Father’ prayer. He does so by distancing himself from two groups of his time. First and foremost, hypocrites: “you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men” (Mt 6:5). There are people who are able to compose atheistic prayers, without God, and they do so in order to be admired by people. And how often we see the scandal of those people who go to church and are there all day long, or go every day, and then live by hating others or speaking ill of people. This is a scandal! It is better not to go to church: living this way, as if they were atheists. But if you go to church, live as a child, as a brother or sister, and bear true witness, not a counter-witness. Christian prayer, however, has no other credible witness than one’s own conscience, where one weaves a most intense dialogue with the Father: “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (6:6).
Then Jesus distances himself from the prayer of pagans: “do not heap up empty phrases ...; for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (6:7). Here perhaps Jesus is alluding to that ‘captatio benevolentiae’ that was the necessary introduction to many ancient prayers: divinity had to be in some way adapted from a long series of praises, of prayers too. Let us consider that scene on Mount Carmel, when the Prophet Elijah challenged the priests of Baal. They shouted, danced, and asked for many things, that their god would listen to them. But Elijah instead remained silent and the Lord revealed himself to Elijah. Pagans think that one prays by speaking, speaking, speaking, speaking. I also think of many Christians who think that praying is — pardon me — “talking to God like parrots”. No! One prays from the heart, from within. You instead — Jesus says — when you pray, address God as a child to his father, who knows the things that are needed before he even asks him for them (cf. Mt 6:8). The ‘Our Father’ could also be a silent prayer: it is essentially enough to place yourself under God’s gaze, to remember his Fatherly love, and this is all it takes to be satisfied.
It is beautiful to think that our God does not need sacrifices in order to win his favour! Our God needs nothing: in prayer, he only asks that we keep a channel of communication open with him in order to always recognize that we are his most beloved children. He loves us very much.