With the celebration of the birth of Jesus just behind us and a new year filled with uncertainties and anxieties ahead of us, it is an opportune time to re-focus our lives on our Lord Jesus. Jesus had said to his disciples and is saying to us now: “Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide all these other things.” (Matt 6:33). Let’s take the humble step to organise our lives in accordance with this priority that Jesus is asking of us.
An excellent guide to help us go forward is Jesus of Nazareth written by Pope Benedict XVI. It is the part one of a two parts’ book and published in 2007. The book covers the period from Jesus’ baptism to the Transfiguration.
The Pope tells us that this book is not an infallible teaching of the Magisterium [the official teaching office of the Church], but is solely an expression of his personal search “for the face of the Lord”. He humbly issues the invitation that: “Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”
And, it is Benedict’s hope that the book will help to foster the growth of a living relationship with Jesus.
A preliminary note: Jesus of Nazareth may be heavy reading at certain parts. It is not just a personal quest but also a pastoral and theological study at the same time. If I may just urge readers to follow Benedict’s line of thought with patient reflection and prayers, we will come to a deeper understanding of our Lord and ourselves in the process. By this review, only a small fraction of the book will be discussed and I am fully aware of its inadequacy, which fails to do justice to the book.
Benedict begins the book by addressing the concept of Jesus portrayed by the modern world, including some theologians, using the historical-critical method of study. This leads to various interpretations which downplay or obscure, if not vanquish, the full biblical revelation of Jesus. As a result, there is an impression that “we have very little certain knowledge of Jesus and that only at a later stage did faith in his divinity shape the image we have of him.” And that faith in Jesus is “in danger of clutching at thin air.”
He explains that the lone historical-critical method of studying Jesus, which confines him to a certain period of time and of application only to that time, has its limit and is inadequate. To understand the Scripture in the spirit in which it is written, it is necessary to read the individual biblical texts in the context of the whole Bible. It is when we study the Bible employing both faith and reason then will we be able to encounter the real Jesus.
The temptations of Jesus are also examined by the Pope. Perhaps like me, you have read the temptation accounts numerous times to the extent that our minds and hearts are dulled and no longer receptive to their vital significance.
In this, the Pope offers us a dynamic study of the temptations against the backdrop of perennial issues as such, demanding proof of God and putting him to the test as we would with product testing, world hunger, worldly power and prosperity, world peace and utopia.
This study is not only thought provoking but it compels a personal reflection if we have the humility and courage to trust God and hold fast to his teachings through Christ, the Apostles and their successors through the ages and now governing the Church, in seemingly hopeless or catastrophic situations or do we believe that change for the better can only be brought about in our own ways by our own perception.
As the Pope says: “At the heart of all temptations, as we see here [Jesus’ temptations], is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him to be secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.”
Benedict also presents a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that over familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer has also blunted our receptivity to the petitions, which begin as the Pope says: “with a great consolation: we are allowed to say ‘Father’. This one word contains the whole of history of redemption.” This meditation invites us to enter into a deeper realm of the Lord’s Prayer taught by our Lord himself.
The Pope goes on to discuss the parables which constitute the heart of Jesus’ preaching and “we find ourselves in the same situation as Jesus’ contemporaries and even his disciples: We need to ask him again and again what he wants to say to us in each of the parables.” This is very true for myself and perhaps, for you. Beyond the stories, what is being conveyed to me?
Three parables were selected for contemplation: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, apart from the reflections on the magnanimity and love of the father [God], the conversion of the Prodigal at the end and the Church Fathers’ interpretations of the parable, we are also asked by the Pope to ponder over the older son’s anger and bitterness in finding an immediate feast for the Prodigal without any period of probation or penance. It is the father’s invitation to the older son to share his joy at the homecoming and reconciliation of the Prodigal.
Benedict tells us: “the Father through Christ is addressing us, the ones who never left home, encouraging us too to convert truly and to find joy in our faith.”
Who are those who never left home? Perhaps they are some of us who may secretly envy others who seem to be getting away with minimum faith whilst we have to make efforts to live in Christian virtues; perhaps they are some of the priests and religious who embrace celibacy as a calling but are beginning to feel the tide of unfairness now that the Church has married priests who came from the Anglican and other Christian communities; and in our diverse situations, it will not be difficult to find similar parallels.
The last part of the book brings us to Jesus’ declaration of his identity. In here, the Pope considers the various titles applied to Jesus: Christ (Messiah), Kyrios (Lord) and Son of God. He also examines Jesus’ own admission of who he is: “Son of Man”, “Son” and “I am he”.
Already during Jesus’ time, the people asked him: “Who are you?” (Jn 8:25) and this is also our question, the Pope observes. To that, Jesus answered: “When you have lifted the Son of man, then you will know that I am he.” (Jn 8:28)
Benedict traces the terms, “Son of Man”, “Son” and “I am he” in the New and the Old Testaments to God – oneness with God. He tells us that this “new meaning had to go through many difficult stages of discernment and fierce debate” and at the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325), the term “consubstantial” [Father, Son and the Holy Spirit as one and same being] was adopted.
We are reminded by Benedict of our own profession of who Jesus is: “In the Nicene Creed, the Church joins Peter in confessing to Jesus ever anew: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16)
And, what did Jesus actually bring? To the Pope, the “answer is very simple: God. He has brought God. He has brought God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature [Job, some Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Wisdom, Sirach and Tobit] – the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth.”
The Pope continues: “He has brought God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth of our origin and destiny: faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think this is too little. Yes indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves. The earthly kingdoms that Satan was able to put before the Lord at that time have all passed away. Their glory, their doxa, has proven to be a mere semblance. But the glory of Christ, the humble, self-sacrificing glory of his love, has not passed away, nor will it ever do so.”
On this point, it is not difficult to discern a parallel lesson in the “kingdom of prosperity” embraced by the world at large with the bygone earthly kingdoms. In the current economic meltdown, we can clearly see that pursuit of prosperity and with it, power, without any moral foundation is just as illusory.
This moving meditative work coupled with the unmistakable love and reverence the Pope has for Jesus, urges me on to re-encounter Jesus and to move out of a lukewarm faith to say “yes” to love and serve the Lord, through whom we can now call God, our Father, and not a diminished figure that I may be tempted to make or re-make to justify my lifestyle at any moment.
I hope Jesus of Nazareth will stir you to the same impulse.
Contributor: Jenny Ang