A Crescendo of Understanding: Finishing Benedict’s Second Volume
I have already noted that the great gift of Benedict’s two volume study, Jesus of Nazareth, is his ability to teach us something about the combination of intelligent investigation and deep faith which can enable us to open Scripture to our thirsty souls (see Ratzinger’s Gift: Faith-Filled Exegesis). Now, having completed a close reading of the entire second volume, I’d like to offer a few more observations, in the hope that you’ll read both books yourself.
First, immediately following my earlier remarks I entered into the chapter on the Last Supper (chapter 5), which could actually stand alone as a kind of proof of Benedict’s great gift. In this chapter the Pope sets himself the task of shedding light on four exegetical difficulties which surround the Last Supper. He covers:
- The problem of the Passover chronology (the Last Supper appears in some accounts to be a Passover meal but did not apparently take place on Passover);
- The institution of the Eucharist (which embodies the idea of expiation from first to last, and so undermines later interpretive attempts to cast Jesus as either a “friendly rabbi” or a “revolutionary”);
- The theology of the words of institution (which suggest that God is now confronting evil directly because man is incapable of doing so);
- The transition and connections between the Last Supper and the celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday (arising from Christ’s command of commemoration and its association with the Resurrection).
After we leave these fascinating perplexities and developments behind, the book becomes more and more moving. The sixth chapter on Gethsemane, the seventh on the trial of Jesus, the eight on His crucifixion and burial, and the ninth on His Resurrection necessarily seek to penetrate the depths of Who Jesus is, what sort of life He possesses, the precise nature of His mission, and its nearly unfathomable success in the midst of what appears to be failure.
Benedict is particularly adept at explaining how Our Lord located His own saving actions in the context of the Old Testament tradition, and how the New Testament writers were awakened by the undeniable facts of crucifixion and resurrection to read the Old Testament books anew and interpret them in a new light. Thus, for example, do the evangelists portray the passion with an interweaving of Old Testament references, especially from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
The books is very quotable, too, as the Pope goes effortlessly to the heart of great matters even when they are contained in only the briefest of inspired texts. Consider, for example, his comments on the significance of this passage in the first letter of John: “This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood” (see 5:6-8). Benedict asks:
What does the author mean by this insistence that Jesus came not with water only but also with blood? We may assume that he is alluding to a tendency to place all the emphasis on Jesus’ baptism while setting the Cross aside. And this probably also meant that only the word, the doctrine, the message was held to be important, but not “the flesh”, the living body of Christ that bled on the Cross; it probably meant an attempt to create a Christianity of thoughts and ideas, divorced from the reality of the flesh—sacrifice and sacrament. (225-6)
Jesus of Nazareth is full of such gems, of which I would like to place in evidence only one more. In explaining the expiatory character of the crucifixion, Benedict bumps up against those exegetes who want nothing to do with expiation: “Again and again people say: It must be a cruel God who demands infinite atonement. Is this not a notion unworthy of God? Must we not give up the idea of atonement in order to maintain the purity of our image of God?” But Benedict notices that St. Paul refers to the crucified Jesus as “hilasterion”, the name given to the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, on which the expiatory blood was sprinkled on the great Day of Atonement. And he answers:
In the use of the term “hilasterion” with reference to Jesus, it becomes evident that the real forgiveness accomplished on the Cross functions in exactly the opposite direction. The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world and at the same time distorts the image of God—this reality exists, through our sin. It cannot simply be ignored; it must be addressed. But here it is not a case of a cruel God demanding the infinite. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself. God himself grants his infinite purity to the world. God himself “drinks the cup” of every horror to the dregs and thereby restores justice through the greatness of his love, which, through suffering, transforms the darkness. (232)
I have said that the book becomes increasingly moving as it draws to a close, but this does not happen through the emotional climax and catharsis of a dramatic tale. Rather, the reader is moved by an ever-increasing understanding of key elements of the Faith. Benedict’s style is never bombastic; it is always gentle and precise. In this sense it is a quiet book, an unpretentious book. Yet it exercises a steadily growing power. It is the power of illumination. It is the power of the Light.
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