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"Present and Active Within World History": On Jesus of Nazareth,
Part Two | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 10, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
"Through this contact (with Christ) the filth of the world is truly
absorbed, wiped out, and transformed in the pain of infinite love. Because
infinite good is now at hand in the man Jesus, the counter-weight to all
wickedness is present and active within world history, and the good is always infinitely greater than the
vast mass of evil, however terrible it is."
— Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week. 
"Here, too, the time of the Gentiles is presupposed, for the Lord
says that his disciples will be brought not only before courts and synagogues,
but also before governors and kings; the proclamation of the Gospel will always
be marked by the sign of the Cross—this is what each generation of Jesus'
disciples must learn anew. The Cross is and remains the sign of 'the Son of
Man': ultimately, in the battle against lies and violence, truth and love have no
other weapon than the witness of suffering."
— Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week. 
The second volume of Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth takes us through the events of the passion,
resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Thus, it continues on the public life of
Christ described in the first volume of this extraordinary book. We are,
perhaps, used to popes speaking ex cathedra, or to their speaking officially in encyclicals and
apostolic letters. We see that they can also speak quietly and persuasively.
Here we have a pope who writes a book for no other reason than to tell us how
he, personally, sees this Christ whom he serves as the successor to Peter in
this world. Benedict does not intend to "define" anything in this book. He
rather wants to tell us just how he sees the figure of Jesus. But he tells us
because he argues that we can see the basic truth of who Christ was.
If the pope spoke "dogmatically," we might well be turned off. Benedict
rather implicitly says, "Look, I do not much care whether you agree with me or
not. What I want you to know, if you have time to consider it, is what I
hold—and the evidence on which it is based." This approach is not unlike
that of G. K. Chesterton who wrote Orthodoxy over a century ago not to argue to the truth of Christianity but
rather to explain how he came to recognize that it was true. It is the official
function of a pope to see that what was handed on by the Apostles are the same
events and teachings that are being handed on today. But it is also of some
worth for us to know, apart from the official teachings, just how a given pope
understands who Jesus of Nazareth was and is. The two are not contradictory but
each gives us a different nuance into the meaning both of our own lives and
that of tradition.
In the initial citation above, Benedict remarks that Christ, having
taken on Himself the sins of the world, is now, as good itself, "present and
active in world history." The remarkable impact of reading the first volume of
this book, an impact that is only reinforced in the second volume, is the
realization that the Son of God did in fact dwell on this green earth. Much of
modern scholarship, no doubt, has been developed in order not have to face the
consequences of this fact. It is not just that many people do not see how
Christianity is true because they never heard it preached to them. Rather it is
that there are others who suspect that it is true but make every scholarly
effort to avoid or to deny the fact on supposedly scientific grounds. It is to
this latter group that this pope's testimony is particularly pertinent. He
knows the scholarship as well as anyone—what it can and does show, what
it leaves out.
Christ's presence in the world is always a "sign of contradiction," as
Simeon told Christ's mother, Mary, in the Temple. Indeed, as Benedict makes
clear in this second volume, the Temple as the place of worship is in Christ's
passion and death replaced by the Temple of Christ's body. No longer is the
seat of worship in a building, but it is found in a person, who told us to
recall "in the breaking of bread" why He came among us. His name is, as He
often intimated, the same "I Am" that we saw in Exodus when Moses wanted to
know how Yahweh was "called." And His followers are told that they are temples
in which His Spirit also dwells, such is their dignity.
In the second citation above from Jesus of Nazareth, we are reminded of the Cross, of the fact that the
disciples will ever encounter opposition and that suffering will be their lot.
This pope frequently comes back to the theme that the best way to understand
what Christianity is to look at those who live it: the martyrs, the saints, and
the ordinary people. We have not noticed this too clearly, but the past hundred
years have produced more martyrs than the earlier centuries combined. We are
almost unaffected by the number of Catholics and Christians who are killed, by
who kills them and why. So the pope is sober. He does not see anything
happening in our time that was not somehow present in revelation. We have, he
tells us, "no other weapon" but the Cross.
It is appropriate that this book is published in English the day
following Ash Wednesday. The book is an account of Christ's last days, His
"hour." "With the Last Supper Jesus' 'hour' has arrived, the goal to which his
ministry have been directed from the beginning" (cf. Mark, 2:4). We are aware,
in reading Jesus of Nazareth, of the
free will of men who act in this event. We are also aware of the plan of the
Father in our creation and redemption. We are taught in words and deeds. In
Christ's "hour" He breaks through to the "divine" (54).
Benedict is ever aware of the philosophical and historical background
to the events of Christ's life. In some sense, the pope tells us, the "going
out" and "returning" that seems to describe Christ's being sent by the Father
and His return on the Ascension in glory is like the thesis of the Greek
philosopher Plotinus. It is typical of Benedict to take up what Plotinus said
and compare it with what difference Christ's life indicated. "For Plotinus ... the
'going out,' which is the equivalent of the divine act of creation, is a
descent that ultimately leads them to a fall: from the height of the 'one' down
into ever lower regions of being." The return then consists in
purification from the material sphere in a gradual ascent and in purifications
that strip away again what is base and ultimately lead back to the unity of the
The problem with such an explanation is that Christianity does not
consider matter as such to be evil, but good. If it were evil, Christ as the
Word could not have "poured Himself" out into it. Here is how Benedict put it:
"Jesus' going out ... presupposes that creation is not a fall, but a positive act
of God's will. It is thus a movement of love, which in the process of
descending demonstrated its true nature—motivated by love for the
creature, love for the lost sheep—and so in descending it reveals what
God is really like" (55-56). God does not become less God in creating. In fact,
He does not change. In creating matter, as it says in Genesis, He looks on each
thing and sees that it is good. What "motivates" God is what He is, Deus
Caritas Est, as the pope called his first
And what about the return? "On returning, Jesus does not strip away his
humanity again as if it were a source of impurity. The goal of his descent was
the adoption and assumption of all mankind, and his homecoming with all men is
the homecoming of 'all flesh.'" (56). This again is a remarkable passage. It anticipates
the true home for which we are initially created, that home that is eternal
life, the gift to each of the inner life of the Trinity. When the Word made
flesh returns to the Father, He does not leave His humanity aside as if it were
an evil or nuisance. He "rises again." He ascends as true God and true man, but
Benedict's discussion of the reality of Christ's resurrected body at
the end of the book is quite brilliant. He is careful to note both that it is a
real body and that it is the same body that died. But he also insists that it
now lives with God. The Word returns to the right hand of the Father, where
James and John asked Christ to put them. He told them that this place was not
His to give, but it was for the Father to achieve. Through man, moreover, "all
flesh" returns to God, that is, our relation to the cosmos, itself awaiting the
redemption of the sons of men, remains. Heaven and earth indeed may pass away,
but not Christ's Word. It is in the same Word that we find the original source
of all that is.
"All mankind," Benedict tells us, are to be adopted and assumed. The
imagery of "homecoming" is apt. It expects that we know something of what a
home is and why we would want to return there. It is particularly interesting
that the place to which we are invited, if we so freely choose, is a place to
which we have never yet been. Why on earth then call it a "homecoming," which
clearly implies that we have been there?
The reason for this, I suspect, is that we have been there. We are not
the origin of ourselves. We are created in the image and likeness of God.
Before we were conceived in our mother's womb, we were already known by God. We
are invited, all of us in the resurrection, back to the home from whence we
came. Only now we are there because we accept the invitation, the gift that
Christ's going out and returning has presented to us.
The trial of Christ is of particular interest. The pope calls it the
"decisive moment in world history" (178). In Mark, the high priest asks
bluntly: "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" "In Mark's account,
Jesus answered this question that would determine his fate quite simply and
clearly: 'I am.'" At this point, Benedict puts in parentheses this query:
"Could there be an echo here of Exodus 3:14, 'I am who I am?'" (180). If we
recall that we are before the high priest in this inquiry, we will know that
both the high priest and Christ knew exactly the implications of the "I am"
reference. Christ is identifying Himself with God, something that the high
priest insists is blasphemy while Christ tells us that it is the truth.
What I particularly like about this book and about this pope is the
clarity of the presentation. He has covered the issues. He knows the
literature. He gives us the results. There are no theses out there to prove the
opposite that are un-investigated and are taken the measure of.
From all this we may
conclude that Jesus accepted the title Messiah, with all the meanings accruing
to it from the tradition, but at the same time he qualified it in a way that
could only lead to a guilty verdict, which he could have avoided either by
rejecting it or by proposing a milder form of Messianism. He left no room for
political or military interpretation of the Messiah's activity. No, the
Messiah—he himself—will come as the Son of Man on the clouds of
heaven. Objectively this is quite close to what we find in John's account when
Jesus says: "My kingship is not of this world" (18:36).
And Christ's listeners knew also that the phrase "Son of Man" from
Daniel had divine implications. Jesus was saying that what was happening to Him
was "according to Scripture." To the Sanhedrin, however, "the application of
the noble words of scripture to Jesus evidently appeared as an intolerable
attack on God's otherness, on his uniqueness" (180-81).
We might add that even today these "noble words" appear to Jews,
Muslims, and many scholars as blasphemy, as an attack on "God's otherness and
uniqueness." The rejection of how the Trinity and the Incarnation mean that God
is one, that the diversity of persons does not jeopardize this oneness, or that
that Incarnation does not mean that the man Jesus is not also the Word remains
the justification for not considering the truth of this revelation.
Jesus was next turned over to Pilate, the Roman governor, the
representative of the great Roman legal concern for fairness. Pilate indeed had
to worry about whether Christ's "kingship" was a "political offense" (183).
Christ's Jewish accusers had to find a political reason to pursue their
theological accusation. Pilate never really believed, after he talked to Him,
that Christ had done anything to warrant death for political opposition.
Whatever sort of "kingdom" this Christ said of Himself was certainly not a
threat to Roman power. "Pilate knew ... that no rebel uprising had been instigated
by Jesus. Everything he had heard must have made Jesus seem to him like a
religious fanatic, who may have offended against some Jewish legal and
religious rulings, but that was of no concern to him (Pilate) ... . From the point
of view of the Roman juridical and political order, which fell under his
competence, there was nothing serious to hold against Jesus" (189).
Well, why then did not Pilate just tell the Jews to get lost and
release Jesus? Though backed by the Tenth Roman Legion, he was a weak man, not
entirely sure of his position back in Rome. The Jews in Rome had influence and
could have made a case that the governor in Palestine was refusing to deal with
revolutionaries. Pilate, in a famous scene, after talking to Christ about his
own and Christ's authority, washes his hands of the whole mess. The pope makes
a very interesting point that I had never considered before, namely, that when
Pilate, to avoid a decision, hits on the releasing of Christ or Barabbas, he
had implicitly already concluded that Christ was guilty. Barabbas was guilty.
Only the guilty were eligible for the pardon. Christ is presented to the crowd
therefore as guilty.
In the conversation of Christ and Pilate—one of the most
instructive and seminal in all political philosophy, I think—Pilate asks
Jesus the oft-cited question: "What is truth?" Christ did not deny that Pilate
had "the power of life and death over Him," nor did He deny that Pilate and
hence the Romans had juridical power. But He did tell Pilate that even his
juridical power was given by the Father. That is, man was by nature a political
animal, as Aristotle had said, though, to be sure, neither Christ nor Pilate
cited "the Philosopher."
"It is entirely understandable that the pragmatic Pilate asks him:
'What is truth?' (John, 18:38). It is the question that is also asked by modern
political theory: Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must
truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere, its
place taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments
are available to power?" (191). The whole drama of Catholic politicians is
contained in this passage. Where do they stand? With Pilate? With the denial
that "truth is a structural category" in their assessment of political things?
"The Synoptic Gospels explicitly portray Jesus' death on the Cross as a
cosmic and liturgical event ... " (224). Then followed Jesus' burial. This is how
Benedict approaches the accounts of Christ's resurrection and ascension:
In this concluding
section, I shall attempt to show, in broad terms, how the early Church, under
the guidance of the Holy Spirit, slowly penetrated more deeply into the truth
of the Cross, in order to grasp at least remotely why and for what purpose it
happened. One thing was astonishingly clear from the outset: with the Cross of
Christ the old Temple sacrifices were definitively surpassed. Something new had
This newness, as we saw in the introductory citation, was that the
actual evils in world history were atoned for in principle by the Cross.
The "good is always infinitely greater than the vast mass of evil,
however terrible it may be" (231). Christ is not denying the seemingly unending
recurrence of evil in all times and places of subsequent history. Rather we are
enlightened about "why and for what purpose it happened." It happened that the
plan of God to bring back all human beings, each person, to his homeland might
be completed. This homeland is not in this world, though it begins here. Almost
every endeavor to deny this return, as the pope says elsewhere, is an effort to
achieve this homeland by means other than the Cross. The Cross remains the
scandal. The Incarnation remains the great blasphemy that God, while being
Word, became man in Jesus of Nazareth.
The last words of Benedict's book that I will cite are these: "It is
part of the mystery of God that he acts so gently, that he only gradually
builds up his history within the great
history of mankind; that he becomes man and so can be overlooked by his
contemporaries and by the decisive forces of history ... " (276). God's history is
occurring within the history of the world which we see. Christ was not a
political messiah. He was the Son of Man, the Word made flesh. We are not
overwhelmed by divine power, but rather called by the divine gentleness, by the
example and sacrifice of Christ among us.
We are told that the same things that happened to Christ while He was
in the world will happen to us. We are given a way to repent of our sins, but
we must know the truth, we must acknowledge it. We play out our salvation in
the lives that we are given, in the place and time in which we live, in the
polities in which we rule and are ruled. We are gently being called home. After
Jesus appeared in the Temple as a young boy in which He spoke of the Law with
the learned men there, He was said to return home to Nazareth. After He left
this home, He lived another three or so years with hardly a place to lay His
head. He did live. He did die. He did rise again. He was who He said He was.
This is the essential teaching in Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth, the truth of what happened in His public life, the
truth of His passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Jesus was "present and active in world history." He left us with "no
other weapon" but the Cross with the Truth that He affirmed that He was.
 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), II, 231.
 Ibid, II, 49.
"The Mystery of the Betrayer" (from Chapter 3)
"The Dating of the Last Supper" (from Chapter 5)
"Jesus Before Pilate" (from Chapter 7)
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007),
and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008).
His most recent book from Ignatius Press is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age,
is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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