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from issue no. 04 - 2003

In thy womb love rekindled

A meditation of don Giacomo Tantardini Sanctuary of San Leopoldo Mandic - Padova Wednesday 18 December 2002

by Giacomo Tantardini

Often, when I have to speak, the altogether relevant words of Péguy come to mind: «They’ve told us so many things, O Queen of the Apostles / We’ve lost the appetite for speeches / We no longer have altars except yours / We know nothing but a simple prayer». This evening my words, the duty to speak, hence obedience to that duty, would only like to stir in me and in you that simple prayer, this «come», «yes, come», «come, Jesus». One can say nothing to the Lord except by asking. It is one of the finest things that the Lord, in the experience of grace we go through, has made it possible for us to feel. A child does not demonstrate that its mommy’s there. When it says «mommy», it recognizes her presence by asking to be loved. It’s not a demonstration. A presence isn’t demonstrated. When one recognizes it, one pleads. It’s no accident that the Christian Credo is a prayer. At bottom, one can only say to the Lord: «Come», «yes, come».
The Adoration of the Shepherds, Caravaggio, 1609, National Museum of Messina

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Caravaggio, 1609, National Museum of Messina

I’ve been thinking in these days: how many times have we said «Thy will be done» as our response! But people can’t say «Thy will be done» except as a plea. «Thy will be done» is a plea. Even when we say these words, it is not our reply, it’s a plea. Above all in the moments in which it is as it were impossible that such a word should rise from the heart. «Thy will be done» is a plea. That happens in us. But the subject is not us who do His will. Let Thy will be done in me, but done by Thee, by Thee Thy will be done in me. The Our Father is a prayer.
Now I want to mention something, that was a discovery for me, last week, attending mass. Listening to a priest speak, a good priest. I suddenly thought about my old parish priest, the one because of whom I entered the seminary young (after eighth grade, because my father and mother didn’t want me to go after fifth grade). The priest because of whom I entered the seminary really was a good priest, simple and very concrete. And I was thinking that all the words he said were at bottom moralistic. At bottom he only talked of the commandments. Of what one ought to do. And yet all the words he spoke were Catholic. Whereas, I told myself, the words that this priest is saying are all gnostic. Gnosis or gnosticism is the great heresy that Saint John, the beloved disciple, described as: «The Antichrist is he who denies that the Son of God Jesus came in the flesh». All the words of my old parish priest referred to the humanity of Jesus. And hence to the sacraments. All! And instead all the words that they say nowadays refer to ideas. To Christian ideas, because they refer to Christian contents. But they’re ideas, they’re Christian words in which there’s no longer the humanity of Jesus.
The humanity of Jesus. The man created by God had sinned. And there had been so many centuries of waiting for the Messiah. Then two thousand years ago he came. The humanity of Jesus is something real, that began to exist in Nazareth when his conception occurred. Our Lady said «here I am» and the eternal Son of God became flesh. In that moment he began to be man, only in that moment, before he was only God. In that moment he began to be also man. The humanity of Jesus means that his mother carried him nine months in her womb. Jesus would not be true man if he had not been subject to time and space. Subject to time and space: nine months in Mary’s little womb. And in those nine months Our Lady looked at her belly as it swelled. Alvus tumescit virginis. He was subjected to time. And then the marvellous birth, so full of wonder, in Bethlehem. Talis decet partus Deum. And then the child grew up, at twelve he already answered and questioned the doctors of the Law. And then, after the thirty years of silence and work in Nazareth, the miracles, the disciples. Then death. And his death was real death. And the resurrection did not coincide with his death, it occurred the morning of the third day after his death. Easter morning. Instead, the perversion of Gnosticism is that these real distinctions no longer exist. They’re no longer there! Death is life, pain is happiness, sin is grace. No! Sin is sin. Mortal sin gives death to the soul, and if one dies in mortal sin one goes to Hell. Everything is entrusted to the mercy of God who is and remains a mystery. And so with hope as regards every individual, that is praying, Holy Church says that if one dies in the grace of God one goes to Heaven, but if one dies in mortal sin one plummets into the second death that has no end, into eternal death.
It’s as if all this no longer existed. The words no longer refer to those simple things, that is they no longer refer to the humanity of Jesus. Péguy used to say: what is a Christian child as compared to a non-Christian child? «A Christian child is a child to whose eyes the childhood of Jesus has been presented thousands of times.» The history of Jesus has been presented. Not ideas, but the history of Jesus. And so we mustn’t artificially raise questions. It is reality that stirs the questions in the heart. It is life that sets the questions. And the answer to all the questions that life sets is not a Christian explanation that we give. The answer to all the questions that life sets is the humanity of Jesus. The answer to pain is Jesus and him crucified. Good Friday he died on the cross. And the night before, the night of Maundy Thursday (noctem cruentam crimine / that bloody night of great crime), that night he suffered till he sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. And then the trial, the scourging, the crowning with thorns. His humanity! Not the Christian answer that we invent ourselves. His humanity, looking at His humanity is answer to pain. And so the mystery remains intact, and in the heart, if the Lord touches it, the waiting is fulfilled and every answer given.
In short, fifty years ago the words one heard in church, even the most moralistic, referred to the humanity of Jesus. Referred to a history, referred to a man who was conceived in the womb of his mother who was called Mary, who was carried nine months in the womb, who was born, who was suckled (as we heard earlier: Lactas sacrato ubere), suckled like any child, who had begun to smile as every child smiles at his father and mother. That child, grown up, spent those three years gathering a small group around him. That man is everything that the Mystery wanted to reveal and communicate to us. That man is God. «From his fullness we have received everything and grace upon grace.» So John, the beloved disciple. And Saint Paul: «In Him dwells bodily the fullness of God». Everything God has wished to manifest and gives us is in His humanity.
«Tabernaculum eius, caro eius», writes Saint Augustine. The dwelling of God is His flesh. His humanity: how he looked, how he asked, how he was astonished, how he wept, how he busied himself. Like when he sat by Jacob’s Well, that afternoon, when that woman, who was certainly not the most moral woman in the village, came to draw water. Everything that God is, that the eternal and infinite Mystery is, we know and enjoy through His humanity. By embracing, by looking at His humanity. So true is it that on the evening of Maundy Thursday, in reply to Philip (Philip is a likeable apostle because he asks so many questions. Like all the apostles who are one more likeable than the next) who asked: «Show us the Father and it will suffice us», Jesus looking at him replied: «Philip, have I been with you so long and still you do not know me? Who has seen me, has seen the Father». Who has seen me. Not in a mystic vision. Who has seen with eyes, with the eyes of the flesh, who has seen this man has seen the Father.
In short, last week it was as if I’d glimpsed for the first time… And the words of Saint Jerome came to mind: «Ingemuit totus orbis, et arianum se esse miratus est». All the world noticed with shock that it was no longer Christian. It noticed it was no longer Christian, with all its Christian words. With all its Christian ideas, to be no longer Christian. If there’s no longer immediate reference, if the words don’t immediately refer to His humanity, there’s no longer Christianity. There’s no longer this marvellous history. There’s no longer creation nor grace, so true is it that they muddle creation and grace. There’s no longer sin nor salvation, so true is it that they muddle sin and salvation, even going so far as to say that salvation is found in sin. Everything is muddled, because there’s no longer immediate reference to His humanity, to His history.

I’ll now mention three things that the Christmas carols we’ve heard this evening have suggested.
1. The first thing, above all else, that Gnosticism, the great gnostic heresy, fights against is the fact that created man is good and was harmed by original sin. Original sin. All the carols we have heard (all of them!) speak of original sin. Quod Eva tristis abstulit. They say that Eve became sad. The company was so splendid, the Earthly Paradise was so beautiful. It was a continuous surprise. She became sad, Eve, by sinning, and she caused us to fall into this condition that is no longer beautiful. The waiting heart remains, but the condition is no longer beautiful. And instead of surprise, there’s worry. That is one of the finest things Péguy says. What has original sin provoked? It’s turned everything to worry. Instead of surprise, it’s turned everything into a fluster, a worry.
But as regards original sin I want to read you the lines from Alessandro Manzoni’s poem on Christmas, because it sums up the condition of mankind who is born wounded by sin. «Whoever among those born to hatred.» That’s how we’re born after the sin of Adam and Eve, we’re born to hatred. «You are all wicked,» says Jesus. «Whoever among those born to hatred, / Whoever was the person, / That to the inaccessible Holy / Might say: forgive?» Who could say «forgive» to the inaccessible Holy, that had no face? Because, before the humanity of Jesus, the Mystery did not have a face to look at, before that humanity that could be looked at, that Mary looked at, that Joseph looked at. Those two young people who first saw God, when she, Mary, gave birth to Him.
«Whoever among those born to hatred, / Whoever was the person, / That to the inaccessible Holy …» Inaccessible. Where one can’t get to. So true is it that it says in a carol: «you are the open gate of heaven», you, Our Lady, you, His mother, you are the wide-flung door, pervia, easy, to God. «Whoever was the person, / That to the inaccessible Holy / Might say: forgive? / Make a new eternal pact?» Who could renew the covenant, so that the Mystery, the Lord, the Creator would no longer stir fear? Because after sin mankind was afraid of God: «I was afraid and hid». Who could again give that friendship whereby the approach of God does not cause fear, but is ineffable company, a continuous surprise?
«Make a new eternal pact? / From victorious hell / Snatch its prey?» Snatch the prey from triumphant Hell.
This is the condition of mankind. We’re born that way, and no one would even have been able to say «forgive». We’re born that way. But, precisely because we’re born that way, Christians condemn no man. Because the man who fell among thieves, going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and lay half dead by the edge of the road, mortally wounded, the Good Samaritan, that is Jesus, who passed there, did not condemn him. He didn’t say to him «look how desperate you are». No, he had compassion on him. If we don’t accept original sin, we condemn each other, we blackmail each other. There’s not even that compassion that a pagan like Cicero said was the most human of virtues. We are born wounded, we are born wicked. In the long run nobody can on their own observe even those laws written in the heart that are the ten commandments. We are poor sinners. The Good Samaritan accused nobody, he chastised nobody, he took him in his arms, put him on his mount, dried and bandaged the hurts of the wounded man.
2. But something happened. Mankind could not say «forgive», mankind could not go back, like the stone that falls from the mountain and lies on the valley bottom cannot go back unless a friendly power, other than the stone, throws it up again. And Manzoni says so in the same poem. But something happened. And I point to this through the words of Dante. «In thy womb love rekindled». Two thousand years ago. Two thousand years ago! Not outside of time. But in a moment of time. In Nazareth, in that village on the extreme outskirts of the Chosen People, in Galilee of the Gentiles. In that moment of time, «in thy womb», in the womb of that girl called Mary, of that woman (not of the Woman with the capital W), in the womb of that woman (that womb, that flesh and that blood) «love rekindled». Love, the possibility of being forgiven, the possibility of saying «forgive», rekindled in the womb of that girl.
The Adoration of the Shepherds, Caravaggio, 1609, National Museum of Messina, particular

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Caravaggio, 1609, National Museum of Messina, particular

«In thy womb love rekindled, / by whose warmth.» Not by the words we speak, not by the answers we invent ourselves: «by whose warmth». Warmth, what is there more physical than warmth, than the warmth that kindled in the womb of that girl? «By whose warmth in the eternal peace / so did this flower germinate.» «By whose warmth» life flowered again, life, that had been mortally wounded, flowered again. «By whose warmth,» by the warmth of that human presence that was conceived in the womb of Mary. «In thy womb love rekindled / by whose warmth.» In contact with this humanity, in visible contact … because after nine months she gave birth to him, in a stupendous birthing, in a birthing without pain. While giving birth for every woman, in consequence of original sin, is giving birth in pain, the birth-giving of this woman, of this girl, was a birth-giving in wonder. What the Church calls Mary’s virginity in birth-giving is a very fine thing. A birth-giving that filled with wonder. That was how she gave birth to him, with a birth-giving that filled her, and then Joseph, and then the shepherds… filled those who then saw it with wonder.
«In thy womb love rekindled, / by whose warmth in the eternal peace» in Paradise. In Paradise life flowers for ever. But already here, when this warmth reaches the heart, even only for an instant, even only with a droplet of this dew, even only with a promise of a spring bud… this warmth, in reaching hearts, makes germinate. «So did this flower germinate.»
I want to read you the way Saint Pius X puts these things in his catechism, in such a simple and beautiful way. «In what way was the Son of God made man? The Son of God was made man by taking a body and a soul, like ours, in the most pure womb of the Virgin Mary, through the working of the Holy Spirit.» God took a body and a soul like ours. The body all came from that girl, all from her blood and flesh. A human body. And then again: «Did the Son of God, by becoming man» (because it happened, it happened! Verbum caro factum est: it happened that the eternal Word became flesh. It happened two thousand years ago in Nazareth), «cease to be God? The Son of God, by becoming man, did not cease to be God, but, remaining true God, he began to be also true man». And then the last: «Has Jesus Christ always been? Jesus Christ as God has always been; as man he began to be from the moment of the Incarnation». As man he began to exist when Mary said yes.
3. What happens when this warmth reaches the heart of mankind, the warmth rekindled in the womb of that girl? «In thy womb love rekindled.» Love! The possibility of being forgiven. Up to that instant, to that moment, only the shadow, the reflection, the awaiting of this love, of this forgiveness was glimpsed. The Old Testament is shadow, reflection as regards reality. When reality arrives, the shadow is put respectfully aside. When there is the presence that loves, one looks at the presence, without going on looking at the photograph. That’s the nature of the relationship between the human reality of Jesus and the Old Covenant. The human reality of Jesus is the unforeseen and unforeseeable fulfilment of all awaiting. «All has been done in view of Him.»
When this warmth reaches the heart, what does it stir? It stirs hope in the heart. When this warmth reaches the heart of mankind, it astounds the heart of mankind. The second virtue, hope, indicates this astonishment. When it reaches, it moves the heart of mankind. When this warmth touches the heart, mankind, worried, has an instant in which it is astounded, in which it is no longer worried. Taken up in a thousand things, preoccupied (pre-occupied means that the heart is burdened by many things), the heart is astonished. And the heart returns, becomes again or becomes like that of the child. When this warmth reaches the heart, it stirs this commotion, stirs this astonishment, stirs this hope. This hope isn’t a mere knowing that there’ll be something later. This hope is the beginning of that flowering of Paradise on earth. The bud is the beginning, it’s not yet the complete flower. The first budlet is only the beginning. When this warmth touches the heart, the heart buds. It’s called hope.
Let’s read Dante. «Here you are to us», here in Paradise, it is Saint Bernard praying, «noonday face / of charity». In Paradise it’s different from on earth. Because Paradise is this love assured for ever. On earth everything lies in hope alone, that is in astonishment, in real but precarious astonishment, since it’s true that one can lose it. One can lose the grace of God. Indeed, the dogma of the faith says, without special help from grace, one cannot remain in grace. So it is precarious astonishment. Real, most certain, but precarious. «The things that happened, while they were happening, caused astonishment, since it was God operating them.» So says Giussani, describing his life. «The things that happened, while they were happening, caused astonishment, since it was God operating them, turning them into the plot of a story that happened to me and happens to me before my eyes.» Weaving the plot of a calling that happened to me and that happens to me before my eyes.
«Here you are to us noonday face / of charity,» here you are to us resplendent sun of charity, splendor of charity. Charity is when the desire of the heart is satisfied, when what the heart desires is fulfilled. «And down,» down on the earth, «among mortals»: how realist Christianity is: among those who are going towards death. «And down, among mortals, / you are of the living fount of hope.» You are the possibility that the astonishment be continually renewed. You! You, O Mary, You, O Our Lady, are the possibility that the grace of God be renewed, are the possibility that that warmth («in thy womb love rekindled») touch our hearts, touch them so that our lives go from beginning to beginning, embrace it possibly in every instant. Sanctity is when that warmth embraces almost (almost, because the earth is not Paradise) every instant. Father Leopoldo was like that. That warmth, that astonishment embraced his heart almost every instant, so that it was dear to his heart. «True astonishment», Cesare Pavese saw, «is made not of novelty, but of memory.» So that it becomes dear to the heart, like the house in which the heart dwells.
«Here you are noonday face / of charity, and down, among mortals, / you are living fount of hope.» And then Dante concludes by speaking of prayer. What can mankind do, mankind wounded by sin and mankind graced, when this warmth, rekindled two thousand years ago in the womb of Mary, reaches it? Mankind can ask. «Lady, you are so great and of such great worth, / that who wants grace and does not have recourse to you, / his desire would fly without wings.» But then comes an even finer triplet, finer because it suggests that even the asking is fruit of His grace. «Your bounty cannot succour / those who ask, but many times / freely runs before the asking.» And this is a mystery. The most ineffable mystery of the predilection of God: that not only replies to the asking, but anticipates the asking itself. Otherwise we wouldn’t even know how to ask. Your bounty, Mary, not only succours those who ask, but many times (we can even say always, otherwise one doesn’t ask, otherwise one pretends or says words) «freely runs before the asking». Runs before, comes first, precedes. «May your grace precede and accompany us always.» Precedes means that it comes before, even comes before the asking. What is required for asking, at least on the last horizon, is to be drawn, be stirred by the warmth that kindled in the womb of Maria.
And so I conclude. Earlier, kneeling in Father Leopoldo’s little cell, I promised to conclude by saying these things. By saying what, according to me, not according to me, according to Holy Church, is the alternative to the great heresy of which I spoke at the beginning, when I spoke of Gnosticism in the Church. It was Judas, one of the twelve, who betrayed him. The persecution of the world, of the devil, always comes about through Christians. Judas, one of the twelve, betrayed him: he was one of the twelve! Like Peter and Paul, killed in Rome because of the hatred of some Christians. It’s always the way of it. It still is today. However, the alternative to the Antichrist, to those who do not recognise Jesus, the Son of God in the flesh, consists according to me of three things.
The first is confession. Confession as the Council of Trent defined it to be. Humble fidelity which the Pope recently asked of all Christian people. Confession, that is sincere, complete, humble, brief and prudent admission (these are the five characteristics of the admission of sins in the catechism of Saint Pius X. Sincere and complete confession of all single mortal sins. Confession entails this realism. Whereby sin is sin). And the act, the most simple in the world, of a poor sinner, maybe very much more of a sinner than you, as the confessor is, an act done by him, but accomplished by Jesus Christ, an act of Jesus Christ forgives you. The sacrament of confession as Jesus instituted and Holy Church requires it to be: judgment and mercy. So true is it that in the catechism, when I was little, there was an image that well described the fact that if one confesses badly one commits sacrilege. It was the image of a child going off with the devil at its back. While there was the image of a guardian angel near a smiling child who confessed well. Confession, therefore, as Holy Church requires that we confess. The sacrament of confession is the primary way in which Mary has defeated on her own all the heresies. So said an antiphon in the liturgy picked up by Saint John Bosco in his prayer to Our Lady: «You who have destroyed on your own [her on her own, not us!] all the heresies in the world».
The second thing is the Holy Rosary. Let me read some words on the Rosary by Pope Luciani when he was Patriarch of Venice. «Personally, when I talk alone to God and to Our Lady, rather than grown up, I prefer to feel myself a child.» This is true for all of life. Being grown-up in the faith means becoming more easily aware of what one is, that is, nothing: «Without me you can do nothing». Pope Luciani goes on: «…to abandon myself to the spontaneous tenderness that a child has towards its father and mother. To be before God what in reality I am with the poverty and the best of myself. The Rosary, a simple and easy prayer, in its turn, helps me to be a child. And I’m not a bit ashamed of it». The Rosary (with the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the ejaculations that repeat) is the prayer in which I am what I really am, that is, nothing. In which through grace we become children, in which the heart becomes a child, so it enters (so it enters already saying the Rosary!) into the Kingdom of Heaven. So that the heart flowers again.
The Adoration of the Shepherds, particular, Caravaggio, 1609, National Museum of Messina,

The Adoration of the Shepherds, particular, Caravaggio, 1609, National Museum of Messina,

And finally the third thing: ejaculations. Confession, the Rosary, ejaculations. Ejaculations, that is small prayers. Like when one comes in to church and says: «May the most holy and divine Sacrament be praised and thanked at every moment». Every moment! And maybe one realizes that it’s been a long time one hasn’t said thanks. But going in to church and making the genuflexion, one says: «…be praised and thanked at every moment». And the thanks of that instant embrace everything, embrace the hours, the days, the weeks and the months in which one has not said thanks. And then that other ejaculation, so simple and endearing, that Giussani recommended to us so many times: «Veni, Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam». Come, O Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is He who in the womb of Mary «love rekindled», He who stirred love in Mary’s womb. The Holy Spirit is the infinite correspondence between the Father and the Son. I’ve been surprized by this from the time I caught a glimpse of it. It is the infinite correspondence between the Father and the Son. The infinite, eternal, superabundant correspondence between the Father who generates and the Son who is generated. Whereby out of superabundance of correspondence, and not out of dialectics, out of superabundance of joy the Trinity created the world and created me also. «Veni, Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam». Come through Mary.

I end by repeating a line from a hymn that Giussani suggested fifteen days ago: «Jesu mi dulcissime», Jesus most sweet to me. I meant to say only this, only speak the humanity of Jesus. «Jesu mi dulcissime», Jesus sweetness to me. Only a presence is sweetness to the heart. Sweetness is a word that in the Salve Regina we twice repeat to Our Lady: «dulcedo», sweetness, «dulcis virgo Maria». Thus entrusting to her what we not are capable of and that very often we don’t wish… «Jesu mi dulcissime, spes suspirantis animae»: hope, surprize, commotion of the soul that sighs, that awaits («my cry is not hidden to you»). It is life, it is reality that makes us sigh. Things make us sigh. «Spes suspirantis animae.» Soul that sighs, even when we are unaware, for that sweetness, that sighs for that presence which Mary carried nine months in her womb and that she gave birth to in Bethlehem. «Spes suspirantis animae. Te quaerunt piae lacrymae.» Pious tears seek for thee. Tears, because the pain of life brings tears. Our poor sins also bring tears. And the tears are transfigured into tears of gratitude. Otherwise after a while we don’t even cry any more, after a while the face hardens and becomes a mask. Tears of pain, before this presence, become tears of gratitude because His forgiveness, His sweetness, His tenderness is greater. «Te quaerunt piae lacrymae et clamor mentis intimae.» The cry of the heart seeks for you, when we sleep and when we wake. You, Jesus Christ, son of Mary, Son of God, the cry of every heart seeks You. And to us, through grace, it has been given to start to seek and to be found already here on earth.

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