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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

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"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. [1]

"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. [2]


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 divine" (55).

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 encyclical.

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 one person.

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 happened. (229)
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.


[1] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), II, 231.
[2] 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)

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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