Benedict’s personal search for the face of Christ

By  Noel Cooper, Catholic Register Special
  • August 1, 2007

{mosimage}Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration by Pope Benedict XVI, translated from German by Adrian J. Walker (Random House, hardcover, 400 pages, $32).

Jesus of Nazareth is an erudite, profound, personal and sometimes poetic discussion of the person of Jesus. Always with a thoughtful reflective tone, Pope Benedict explores in detail the sources of Gospel imagery in the Hebrew Scriptures, often in dialogue with Church Fathers and great European and Jewish scholars of the past century.

Jesus of Nazareth offers fertile ground for exploring the depth of the mystery of Jesus. The book is highly intellectual and will be almost inaccessible to readers who have not previously undertaken serious study of theology. Most believers would ask, “What effect can ‘Christology’ have on my daily life?”

Our bishops and priests usually possess at least master’s degrees in theology. They could provide a valuable service to their congregations by studying Pope Benedict’s book and translating it, bit by bit, as Sunday readings allow, into language that will convey the relevance of the greatness of Jesus for the lives of believers.

{sa 0385523416} Pope Benedict tells us this is the first of a two-volume series and “an expression of my personal search for the face of the Lord.” He says the book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, and that “everyone is free, then, to contradict me.”

The Pope sets the context of the discussion by presenting Jesus, not as a “new David, king of Israel and king of the world,” but rather as “the last prophet, the new Moses,” who is granted “a real, immediate vision of the face of God,” and is “the ‘mediator’ of a greater covenant than the one that Moses brought down from Sinai.”

The opening two chapters deal with Jesus’ Baptism and temptation. During Holy Week, the Eastern Church reflects on the Baptism of Jesus as part of a theology of the cross. Baptism is understood as a death and resurrection that expresses Jesus’ acceptance of the whole of God’s will. The temptation narrative portrays Jesus’ inner struggle for fidelity to His task, and at the same time addresses what truly matters in human life.

Pope Benedict considers the heart of temptation for all humans is the inclination to push God aside because we think of God as secondary to the “far more urgent matters that fill our lives.” Temptation does not invite us directly to do evil, but invites us to make the world a better place by constructing it according to our own lights, without reference to God.

Chapter 3 is a strong, scholarly treatment of the heart of Jesus’ teaching—the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Pope Benedict prefers words like “sovereignty” or “lordship” to the more political-sounding word “kingdom.” The dominion of God is “drawing near” in Jesus Himself. Through Jesus’ presence and action, God “entered actively into history in a wholly new way.”

Jesus’ preaching is “a message about the mystery of His person; it is Christology.” In this context, Pope Benedict discusses the tensions between ethics (our actions) and grace (God’s action), and between personalism (focussing on the individual) and community (“the call to enter a new family”).

The Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew chapters 5-7) is given detailed treatment, including a thoughtful exploration of the Beatitudes, which are presented as a “veiled interior biography of Jesus,” expressing the meaning of discipleship, life, suffering and joy. The Beatitudes turn the standards of the world upside down and promise joy—not in a remote future, but in the course of reflective living. The “Torah of the Messiah” (the six antitheses in Matt 5:17-48) is discussed in dialogue with A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, a book by Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner.

Finally, the Lord’s Prayer is reflectively explored, phrase by phrase, in a way that could truly enhance a reader’s life of prayer.

A relatively short chapter identifies the four roles accepted by Jesus’ disciples: to be with Him, to preach, to cast out demons and to heal.

“Healing is an essential dimension. . . of Christian faith in general. . . . The miracles of healing performed by the Lord and by The Twelve. . . are essentially ‘signs’ that point to God Himself

. . . . Only becoming one with God can be the true process of man’s healing.”

Pope Benedict’s discussion of the Gospel According to St. John begins with a scholarly discussion about the authorship and historicity of the Gospel. His conclusion is that “The Gospel of John, because it is a ‘pneumatic Gospel,’ does not simply transmit a stenographic transcript of Jesus’ words and ways. . . . It escorts us beyond the external into the depth of words and events. . . . As such, the Gospel is ‘remembering’; . . . . It remains faithful to what really happened, and is not a violation of the historical events. Rather, it truly shows us who Jesus was.”

He goes on to discuss the great Johannine images—water, vine and wine, bread and shepherd. Later, Pope Benedict also explores Jesus’ distinctive “I am” sayings, found primarily in John, but also in the “messianic Jubelruf” (cry of jubilation) in the synoptic Gospels.

Pope Benedict’s explanatory thoughts on a myriad of issues are fodder for thought, reflection and discussion. In the chapter on “The Temptations of Jesus,” Benedict asks about the temptations we face in life: “If we had to choose today, would Jesus of Nazareth have a chance? The tempter suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world. . . that we throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place

. . . where God may have His place as a private concern, but must not interfere in our essential purposes.”

In the chapter on the Beatitudes the Pope tells us Jesus’ radical sayings about the dangers of wealth “terrify us.” But the poverty of spirit spoken of in the beatitudes wakes us up to the fact that possessions are all about service. The church must contrast the culture of affluence with the culture of inner freedom, and thereby create the conditions for social justice as well.

In the chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, prayer is silent inward communication with God. It should arise above all from our hearts, our needs, our hopes, our joys, our sufferings, our shame and our gratitude. If we don’t use traditional forms of prayer (like the Our Father), our image of the God to whom we pray may become subjective. Prayer is a way of purifying our wishes to realize what we really need — God and Spirit. “Where God’s will is done is heaven. The essence of heaven is oneness with God’s will. Earth becomes heaven when and insofar as God’s will is done there.”

Finally, Pope Benedict mentions political issues occasionally. He refers to the “political theology” of the Jewish monarchy, speaks with regret of an early stage of the Christian Empire as a political kingdom, and says that Christian faith is “fundamentally apolitical.”

Here I have questions. Politics is the art and science of getting communities to work together and make decisions for the common good. It is a good and necessary part of community life. Pope Benedict must surely be aware of the political implications that pervade Jesus of Nazareth. It would be interesting to hear the Pope’s further thoughts on such issues as the gender-exclusive language that characterizes this book and every Vatican document (for example, “God speaks intimately, as one man to another.”) Why does Pope Benedict frequently characterize scholarly opinions he disagrees with as “liberal?”

(Cooper retired as co-ordinator of religious education for the York Catholic District School Board in 1998.)

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