Christianity is not a theory but an encounter with a person.
This principle, which Benedict XVI restated so often, is at the origin of Jesus of Nazareth, the book in which he describes “my personal search for the ‘face of the Lord,” in order to “favour the development of an intense relationship between the reader and Him.”
Presented today in the Vatican and on sale starting next Monday, April 16 and the Pope’s 80th birthday, the 448-page book published by Rizzoli will cost € 19.50 and be available in 22 different languages around the world.
“Product of a long inner journey,” of which this is the first part, “the initial ten chapters go from His Baptism in the Jordan through Peter’s Confession to the Transfiguration.”
The second part will cover instead Jesus’ childhood. But as the Holy Father writes the work “is not a magisterial act” so anyone “is free to contradict me.”
The subject of the inquiry by the theologian Pope is Jesus. But the question is which Jesus?
Since the 1950s “advances in critical research in history led to increasingly subtler distinctions between the various strata of the tradition,” blurring the image on which the faith stands. Various views of Jesus emerged ranging from the “anti-Roman revolutionary” to the “soft-hearted moralist.”
But for Ratzinger the theologian, they reflect more the “views and ideals of their authors than any revelation about an icon, however faded it might have been.”
The “historical facts” about Jesus’ life and the unforeseeable growth of Christianity just a few years after his death show how extraordinary He was. And He cannot be understood without starting from “truly historical” facts, i.e. Jesus’ relationship to God and His union with Him.”
“My book is based on this, i.e. on the fact that Jesus is in communion with the Father. This is the core of His personality. Without this communion one cannot understand anything and it is from that that He becomes real to us even today.”
The Gospel Jesus is the Jesus of ‘History’
Since we are talking about an actual living human being, we must rely on the historical method to know him. For Benedict XVII, “faith is based on history as it unfolded on the surface of this earth.” Otherwise, “the Christian faith is eliminated and becomes another religion.”
For this reason, the Jesus of the book is necessarily the Jesus of the Gospels: “the ‘historical Jesus’ in its truest sense.”
“I am convinced,” writes Benedict XVI, “and I hope readers realise that this is more logical and more understandable from an historical point of view than any of the reconstructions” offered in the last few decades.
This Jesus is also the “last prophet” as announced in the Old Testament, the “New Moses” to be more precise, who leads His people to “true liberation.”
More than Moses who “as a friend spoke face to face with God” but without the power to see Him, Jesus “lives in the presence of God, not only as friend but also as son. He lives in profound unity with the Father.” It is from this that come the answer to questions like “Where did Jesus get His doctrine? Where does the key that explains his behaviour lie.”
The Beatitudes are confirmation of this. From the “Sermon on the Mount,” Benedict draws many a detail like the “Mount” itself, whose location is not given in the Gospels, but which is simply the “mount,” the “New Sinai” to the crowd that came from the Galilee to hear Him, i.e. “a strip of land still viewed as half pagan,” but which “is in fact proof of His divine mission” to all the peoples; or the address “the New Torah brought by Jesus,” which “starts again from the commandments on the second tablet and goes deeper into the text without abolishing it.”
Indeed, the “paradoxes” that Jesus presents in the Beatitudes—‘Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, those who are persecuted, those who are reviled’—express “what discipleship means.”
The Beatitudes’ meaning “cannot be explained by theory alone; they must be proclaimed in the life, suffering and mysterious joy that the disciple experiences when he has fully donated his life to the Lord.”
But the public life of Jesus, which this book is about, begins with His baptism, writes the Pope.
And many are the nuances even in the first chapter, beginning with the possibility, which Benedict XVI referred to in his last “In Coena Domini” mass, that John the Baptist and perhaps Jesus and his family” might have been close to the Essenes, or the fact that by accepting baptism from the John the Baptist He comes to “fully accept the divine will,” prepares Himself to take the place of sinners and expect His own death on the cross.
Jesus’ Challenges Today
Jesus of Nazareth is not only a profound mediation on the character and life of the founder of Christianity, but is also a pastoral reflection about today’s world. In the book the focus goes from the “world so sadly tormented” when the Pope talks about Palestine to a critique of Nietzsche’s self-centred man to an even more radical critique of the ills that modern society has caused by believing that it can do without God.
Thus, in mentioning Jesus’ “temptations,” he asks in relation to the first one—‘tell these stones to become bread”—“whether feeding the world, and more generally solving social problems, is not the first real standard against which we can measure redemption.”
“Understandably, by providing food to every hungry person Marxism has made this ideal the core of its promise of salvation.”
Feeding the world’s hungry is a challenge the Church must confront even today. As the evangelical story shows, “Jesus is not indifferent to the needs of mankind, including hunger, but He places them in the proper context and order.”
Unfortunately, this is not done today; not even when people try to help. “Western assistance to developing countries, which is informed by purely technical-material principles, has not only sidelined God but also alienated mankind from Him with the pride of their conceit, thus turning the Third World into the Third World in the modern sense.
This kind of help has ignored existing religious, moral and social structures and introduced its empty technical worldview. It thought it could turn stones into bread but instead gave stones in lieu of bread. Because of that God’s primacy is at stake.
[By contrast] there is a need to see Him as reality, a reality without which nothing else can be good. Material structures cannot govern History without God. If a man’s heart is not good, nothing can make it good.
A good heart can only come from the One who is Himself Goodness itself.”
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