Slide 15 Slide 2 Foto di Filippo Maria Gianfelice

“BLESSED IS SHE WHO BELIEVED!” - Second Advent Sermon 2023

Friday December 22nd, 2023

After the Forerunner John the Baptist, today we let the Mother of Jesus take us by her hand to “enter” the mystery of Christmas. In the Gospel of last Sunday, the Fourth of Advent, we heard the story of the Annunciation. It reminds us of how Mary conceived and gave birth to Christ – and how we can conceive and give birth to him in our turn – that is through faith! Referring to this moment, Elizabeth shortly after will exclaim: “Blessed is she who believed” (Lk 1, 45).
Unfortunately, what had happened with the divinity of Jesus happened also with regard to Mary’s faith. Since the Arian heretics sought every occasion to question the full divinity of Christ, in order to remove any pretext, the Fathers gave sometimes a “pedagogical” explanation of those texts of the Gospel which seemed to admit a progress in Jesus’ knowledge of the Father’s will and in his obedience to it. One of these texts was that of the Letter to the Hebrews, according to which Jesus “learned obedience from the things he suffered” (Heb 5:8) and another was the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane. In Jesus, everything had to be given and perfect from the start. As good Greeks, they thought that becoming cannot affect being.
The same, I said, happened with Mary’s faith. It was taken for granted that she had made her act of faith at the moment of the Annunciation and remained in it all her life, like someone who, right at the beginning, reaches the highest note with her voice and then keeps it uninterrupted for the rest of the song. A reassuring explanation was given of all the words that seemed to contrast such assumption.
The gift that the Holy Spirit gave to the Church, with the renewal of Mariology, was the discovery of a new dimension of Mary’s faith. The Mother of God – the Second Vatican Council affirmed – “advanced in the pilgrimage of faith” (LG, 58). She did not believe once and for all, but she walked in the faith and progressed in it. This statement was taken up and made more explicit by St. John Paul II in the encyclical Redemptoris Mater:

Elizabeth’s words: “And blessed is she who believed” do not apply only to that particular moment of the Annunciation. Certainly this represents the culminating moment of Mary’s faith in expectation of Christ, but it is also her starting point, from which she begins her entire journey towards God, her entire journey of faith. (RM, 14).

On this journey, Mary reached the “night of faith” (RM, 18). The words of St. Augustine on Mary’s faith are known and often repeated: “By faith she gave birth to what she had conceived by faith” . We must complete the list with what happened after the Annunciation and Christmas. By faith she presented the Child to the Temple, by faith she followed him in his public life, keeping a low profile, by faith she stood under the cross and by faith she awaited his Resurrection.
Let us reflect on some moments of the journey of faith of the Mother of God. What the angel announces to her is something unheard of: it had never happened before and would never happen afterwards. What is her reaction? She was “very upset” at the words (Lk 1:29). The term used in the Gospel indicates a profound trouble, as when life suddenly takes a whole new turn. The angel’s response: “The Holy Spirit will descend on you…” is sufficient for her to pronounce her total unconditional “Yes”: “Here is the servant of the Lord.” She too sets out on her journey like Abraham, without knowing where she was going; she does not know what God has in store for her, but she accepts without hesitation.
Then comes the moment of joyful enthusiasm for Mary: a time in which everything flourishes and is amplified in joy! It is the moment of her meeting with Elisabeth. The praises she receives are very high. Mary does not refuse them, but she sends them back to God with the Magnificat.
It is easy to believe in these privileged moments, but others also come for her, moments of trial and darkness in which she is guided to a more demanding faith. There are apparently conflicting facts that Mary confronts within herself, without understanding. He is “the Son of God Most high” and lies in a manger! She keeps everything in her heart and lets it ferment in expectation. She hears Simeon’s prophecy and soon realizes how true it was! All the ups and downs of her Son’s life, all the misunderstandings and the progressive desertions around him, had profound repercussions in the heart of his mother. She first experienced this in the loss of Jesus in the Temple: “Why were you looking for me? But they did not understand…” (Lk 2: 49).
Finally there is the cross. She is there, helpless in the face of her son’s execution, but she agrees in love. It is a replica of Abraham’s drama, but how immensely more demanding! With Abraham, God stops at the last moment, with her he does not. She accepts that her Son is to be immolated and she hands him over to the Father, with a broken heart, but on her feet, strong in her unshakable faith. It is here that Mary’s voice reaches its highest note. Of Mary we must say, with much greater reason, what, in Romans 4:18, the Apostle says of Abraham: Mary believed, hoping against all hope, and thus she became the mother of many peoples. Our mother in faith!
There was a time in which Mary’s greatness was seen above all in the privileges that people competed to multiply, with the result of distancing rather than associating her with Christ, who had become “similar to us in every way”, nothing excluded (not even temptation!) but only sin. The Council directed us to see her greatness above all in her faith, hope and charity. Lumen gentium says:

She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ. She presented Him to the Father in the temple, and was united with Him by compassion 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 Savior in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace.

Let us join Mary in believing!

The renewal of Mariology brought about by Vatican II owes much (perhaps the essential part) to St. Augustine. It was his authority that pushed some theologians and then the conciliar assembly to insert the discussion on Mary into the constitution on the Church, the Lumen gentium, rather than making a separate document on her. Starting from the principle that “the whole is superior to a part”, Augustine wrote:

Holy is Mary, blessed is Mary, but the Church is more important than the Virgin Mary. Why? Because Mary is a part of the Church, a holy, excellent member, superior to all the others, but she is nevertheless a member of the whole body. If she is a member of the whole body, undoubtedly more important than a member is the body.

Now it is St. Augustine himself who suggests to us the resolution to take after having briefly retraced the path of faith of the Mother of God. At the end of his discourse on Mary’s faith, he addresses his listeners a vibrant exhortation which is also valid for us: “Mary believed, and in her life what she believed came true. Let us also believe, so that what came true in her can benefit us too!”
The fourth centenary of the birth of Blaise Pascal – which the Holy Father wanted to remind the Church with his Apostolic Letter of June 19 – helps us to give a current content to the exhortation: “Let us join Mary in believing!” One of Pascal’s most famous “Thoughts” is the following:

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. The heart has its reasons that reason does not know […] C’est le cœur qui sent Dieu et non la raison. The heart, and not the reason, feels God. This is what faith is: God felt by the heart and not by the reason.

This is a bold statement, but one that has the highest authority behind it, that of Holy Scripture! The apostle Paul knows and often uses the word nous, which corresponds to the modern concept of mind, intelligence or reason; but, speaking of faith, he does not say “mente creditur”, with the mind one believes; he says corde creditur (kardia gar pisteùetai), one believes with the heart (Rom 10, 19).
God “is felt by the heart and not by reason”, as Pascal says, for the simple reason that “God is love” and love is not perceived with the intellect, but with the heart. It is true that God is also truth (“God is light”, writes John in his First Letter) and truth is perceived with the intellect; but while love presupposes knowledge, knowledge does not necessarily presuppose love. You cannot love without knowing, but you can know without loving! A civilization like ours knows this well, proud, as we are, of having invented artificial intelligence, but so lacking of love and compassion.
Unfortunately, it is not Pascal’s “reasons of the heart” that have shaped the secular and theological thinking of the last three centuries, but rather the Cogito ergo sum “I think, therefore I exist” of his compatriot Descartes, even if against the intention of the latter who always remained a pious Christian and a believer. (I remember reading his name in the list of the famous pilgrims to the shrine of Loreto!).
The consequence was that rationalism dominated and dictated the law, before arriving at the current nihilism. All the speeches and debates that take place, even today, focus on “Faith and Reason”, never, as far as I know, on “Faith and the heart”, or “Faith and the will”. Pascal himself, however, in another of his thoughts, says that faith is clear enough for those who want to believe, and dark enough for those who do not want to believe. Believing, in other words, is more a question of will than reason and intellect.
At this point, I would like to mention a second lesson left to us by Pascal and which the Holy Father strongly highlights in his Apostolic Letter: the centrality of Christ for the Christian faith: “We know God – writes the philosopher – only through Jesus Christ. Without this mediator any communication with God is excluded.” And in the so-called Memorial, an echo of a memorable night of light, he exclaims: “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars…He is found only along the paths taught by the Gospel”
Pascal is often quoted in connection with “calculated risk,” or the profitable gamble. Having to choose between faith and unbelief, he writes, bet on the existence of God, because “if you win you have won everything, and if you lose you have lost nothing.” But the real risk of faith – he also knows this – is a deeper one: it is that of putting Jesus Christ in brackets. A long-standing risk! Let us remember what happened in Athens, on the occasion of the memorable speech given by the apostle Paul at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-33).
The Apostle begins by speaking of the unique God who created the universe and of whom “we ourselves are offspring”. Those present catch the allusion to the verse of one of their poets and follow it attentively. But soon Paul gets to the point. He speaks of a man whom God designated as universal judge, proving this by raising him from the dead. The spell is over! “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some mocked him, others said: ‘We will hear from you about this another time’” (Acts 17, 32).
What bothered them so much? Of course, the idea of the resurrection from the dead, so contrary to what, in the same place, Plato had taught. The body is “the tomb of the soul”: it is therefore not worthwhile carrying it around even after death. But perhaps they were even more disconcerted by the assumption that the fate of the whole humanity depended on a single historical event and on a concrete man. A century later, the Platonic philosopher Celsus threw the reasons for the scandal of the Greeks in the faces of Christians: “Son of God, a man who lived a few years ago? One from yesterday or the day before yesterday? A man born in a village in Judea to a poor spinner?”
The real risk of faith is that of being scandalized by the humanity and humility of Christ. It was the biggest obstacle that Augustine had to overcome to adhere to the Christian faith: “Not being humble, I could not accept the humble Jesus as my God”, he writes in the Confessions. Jesus had spoken of the possibility of being “scandalized” by him, due to his distance from the idea that men had of the Messiah, and he concluded by saying: “Blessed is he who finds no cause for scandal in me” (Mt 11:2-6).
The scandal is today less ostentatious than that of the Areopagites, but no less present among intellectuals. The effect – more harmful than rejection – is silence on him. I have followed many high-level debates on the Internet about the existence of God: almost never in them was the name of Jesus Christ mentioned. As if he didn’t belong in a discussion about God!
This must be our main commitment in the effort for evangelization. The world and its media – I said on another occasion in this same place – do everything they can (and unfortunately they succeed!) to keep the name of Christ separate, or silenced, in all their discussions on the Church. We must do everything we can to keep him obstinately present. Not to hide behind it and remain silent about our failures, but because it is “the light of the nations”, the “name that is above every other name”, “the cornerstone” of the world and of the history.

Back to the heart!

Let us return to Pascal’s words about God who “is felt with the heart”, no longer to make it the object of historical and theological considerations, but of a personal and practical decision. Pascal was a fervent disciple of St. Augustine, to the point of sharing even some of his excesses and errors, such as that, adopted by the Jansenists, of the double divine predestination, to glory or damnation! Pascal’s appeal to the heart is likewise influenced by the doctor of Hippo. Commenting on the verse of Isaiah: “Return, O prevaricators, to the heart (redite, praevaricatores ad cor)” (Is 46, 8, Vulgate), in a speech to the people he said:

Return to your heart!… Return from your wanderings that have led you astray; return to the Lord. He is ready. First return to your heart, you who have become a stranger to yourself, by dint of wandering outside. You do not know yourself, and you seek the one who created you! Do return to the heart, detach yourself from the body… return to the heart: there examine what perhaps you perceive of God, because the image of God is found there. Christ dwells in the interiority of man.

We send probes to the outskirts of the solar system and beyond, but we ignore what happens a few thousand meters below the earth’s crust, hence the difficulty in preventing earthquakes. It is an image of what also happens in the sphere of the spirit and in our own lives. We all live projected outside, to what happens around us, inattentive to what happens inside us. Silence makes us scary.

This year’s Christmas marks the eighth centenary of the first creation of the nativity scene in Greccio. It is the first of the three Franciscan centenaries. It will be followed, in 2024, by that of the Stigmata of the saint and, in 2026, by that of his death. This circumstance can also help us return to the heart. His first biographer, Tommaso of Celano, reports the words with which the Poverello explained his initiative:

I would like, he said, to represent the Child born in Bethlehem, and in some way see with the eyes of my body the hardships in which he found himself for the lack of the necessary things for a newborn baby, how he was placed in a crib and how he lay between the ox and the donkey.

Unfortunately, with the passing of time, the nativity scene has moved away from what it represented for Francis. It has often become a form of art or entertainment of which one admires the external setting, rather than the mystical meaning. Even so, however, it fulfills its function as a sign and it would be foolish to give it up. In our western world, initiatives are multiplying to eliminate every evangelical and religious reference from the Christmas solemnities, reducing it to a pure and simple human and family celebration, with many fairy tales and invented characters in place of the real ones. Some would even like to change the name of the feast.
One of the reasons for this is to foster peaceful coexistence with believers of other religions, in practice with Muslims. In reality, this is the pretext of a certain secularist world that does not want these symbols, not of Muslims. In the Quran there is a Sura dedicated to the birth of Jesus that is worth knowing. It says:

The angels said: “O Mary! Allah gives you good news of a Word from Him, his name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary; honored in this world and the Hereafter, and he will be one of those nearest ˹to Allah˺. And he will speak to people in ˹his˺ infancy and adulthood and will be one of the righteous.” Mary wondered, “My Lord! How can I have a child when no man has ever touched me?” An angel replied, “So will it be. Allah creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He simply tells it, ‘Be!’ And it is!

Once, at the time when, on Saturday evenings, I was explaining the Sunday Gospel on the Italian television RAI “, I had this sura read by an Islamic man who said he was happy to contribute in this way to dispel a misunderstanding that damages them, with the pretext of favoring them. The veneration with which the Quran recalls the birth of Jesus and the place that the Virgin Mary occupies in it received unexpected and sensational recognition a few years ago. The emir of Abu Dhabi decided to dedicate the beautiful mosque of the emirate which previously bore the name of its founder, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed, to Mariam, Umm Eisa, “Mary Mother of Jesus”.
The nativity scene is therefore a useful and beautiful tradition, but we cannot be satisfied with traditional external nativity scenes. We must set up a different presepio, that of the heart. Corde creditur: with the heart you believe. “May Christ dwell in your heart through faith”, says the same Apostle (Eph 3:17).
Mary and her husband Joseph continue to mystically knock at the doors, as they did that night in Bethlehem. In the Revelation it is the Risen One himself who says:”Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev 3:20). Let’s open the door of our heart. Let us make it a cradle for the Baby Jesus, making him feel, in the chill of the world, the warmth of our love and our infinite gratitude!
This is not just a beautiful, poetic fiction; it is the most difficult undertaking in life. In our heart there is room for many guests, but for only one master. Giving birth to Jesus means letting one’s “self” die, or at least renewing the decision to no longer live for ourselves, but for Him who was born, died and rose again for us (see Rom 14:7-9). “Where God is born, man dies,” has been the affirmation of a certain atheistic existentialism. It is true! The one who dies, however, is the old man, corrupt and destined anyway to end in death, while the one who is borne is “the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph 4:24), and destined to live eternally. This is an undertaking that will not end with Christmas, but can begin with it.
May the Mother of God – she who “conceived Christ in her heart before conceiving him in her body” – help us to realize our proposal.
Happy birthday to Jesus – and Merry Christmas to all of you: Holy – and beloved Father – Pope Francis – venerated Fathers, brothers and sisters!

1.Augustine, Sermons, 215: “quem credendo peperit, credendo concepit.”
2.Augustine, Sermon 72,7 (ed, in Miscellanea Agostiniana, I, Roma 1930, p.163).
3.Id., Sermon, 215,4.
4.Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 277-278, ed. Brunschvicg.
5.Cf. Ib., 430, ed. Br.
6.Ib., 221, Br.
7.Cf. Origen, Contra Celsum, I, 26.28; VI, 10.
8.Confessions, VII, 18,24.
9.On the Gospel of John, 18,10.
10.Thomas of Celano, Vita Prima, 84-86.
11.Quran, Sura III, 45-47.