Monday, February 23, 2015

Believing in the Gospel
Jesus of Nazareth (2007)
Jesus' opening words in Mark's Gospel ring out, from the first Sunday of Lent 2015 through today:  "This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel"  (Mk 1:15).

But what does "believing in the Gospel" mean during an age dominated by historical-critical study of the Scriptures?  Many Christians who are not scriptural fundamentalist seem to have only a shaky confidence in the credibility of the Scriptures as the living word of God.  More than a few people have a lurking sense that we are not really sure what Jesus said or did.  After all, isn't there an almost insurmountable rift between "the Jesus of History" (i.e., who he really was and what he really did) and "the Christ of Faith" (i.e., what the first Christians claimed about him)? 

The subversive suggestion is that we can know only a few isolated fragments of what Jesus himself may have taught, since the rest is buried under layers of beliefs added by the early Church.  In his magisterial meditation entitled Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI boldly addresses this issue.  Indeed, he speaks to the corrosive impact which a certain approach to historical-critical scholarship has had on Christian confidence regarding the Scriptures:

"All these attempts have produced a common result: the 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.  This impression has by now penetrated deeply into the minds of the Christian people at large.  This is a dramatic situation for faith, because its point of reference is being placed in doubt:  Intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air."  (Jesus of Nazareth, xii; emphasis added)

Pope Benedict's response to this dramatic situation for faith is daring in its simplicity.  He seeks a solution which encompasses both the authentic insights of historical-critical scholarship and the inspired teachings of the Church.  The following passage reveals the reasonableness of his method:

"...I trust the Gospels.  Of course, I take for granted everything that the Council and modern exegesis tell us about literary genres, about authorial intention, and about the fact that the Gospels were written in the context, and speak within the living milieu, of communities.  I have tried, to the best of my ability, to incorporate all of this, and yet I wanted to try to portray the Jesus of the Gospels as the real, 'historical' Jesus in the strict sense of the word.  I am convinced, and I hope the reader will be, too, that this figure is much more logical and, historically speaking, much more intelligible than the reconstructions we have been presented with in the last decades.  I believe that this Jesus--the Jesus of the Gospels--is a historically plausible and convincing figure.

"Unless there had been something extraordinary in what happened, unless the person and the words of Jesus radically surpassed the hopes and expectations of the time, there is no way to explain why he was crucified or why he made such an impact.  As early as twenty or so years after Jesus' death, that great Christ-hymn of the Letter to the Philippians (cf. Phil 2:6-11) offers us a fully developed Christology stating that Jesus was equal to God, but emptied himself, became man, and humbled himself to die on the Cross, and that to him now belongs the worship of all creation, the adoration that God, through the Prophet Isaiah, said was due to him alone (cf. Is 45:23).

"Critical scholarship rightly asks the question:  What happened during those twenty years after Jesus' Crucifixion?  Where did this Christology come from?  To say that it is the fruit of anonymous collective formulations, whose authorship we seek to discover, does not actually explain anything.  How could these unknown groups be so creative?  How were they so persuasive and how did they manage to prevail?  Isn't it more logical, even historically speaking, to assume that the greatness came at the beginning, and that the figure of Jesus really did explode all existing categories and could only be understood in light of the mystery of God?"  (Jesus of Nazareth, xxii-xxiii; emphasis added)

Let's pray that our meditations on the Gospels draw us into a deeper conversion of mind and heart this Lent.  May the "metanoia," or "new mind," which Jesus longs for us to embrace draw us into a more intimate friendship with him:  May we trust more fully in the one Person who exceeds all expectations and explodes all categories of human thought and action!

Peace and best wishes,