Taking offense at Christ: Must we explain Him away?
As we live out Holy Week and prepare to enter the Sacred Triduum, I hope it is hard not to again think about Our Lord in the context of His own time in history. This brings us face to face with Christ Himself, without distraction by our own culture’s clever reformulations and comfortable denials. At this time of year we reflect especially on how the Jewish experience of Passover, through which God brought the Jews safely out of Egypt, is recapitulated and perfected in Our Lord’s suffering and death, by which He saves us and brings us into union with the Father. Such historical connections were important to the understanding and reception of Christ in His own time. They should be important to us as well.
This can of course lead to controversy among Christians concerning the Jews. But God’s special election of the Jews is not voided by their general rejection of Christ as their Messiah. On this we should read what St. Paul has to say in Romans 11:29-33. Paul explains that just as we, who were once disobedient, have received mercy through their disobedience, so too have they become disobedient so that, by the mercy shown to us, they may also receive mercy. Nor is the Old Covenant abrogated as if, for example, the Ten Commandments no longer have any moral validity, or the Old Testament is no longer worthy of our spiritual attention. But the Old Testament priesthood and its Temple sacrifices have indeed been definitively perfected and replaced by the priesthood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Even among believers, this raises a number of delicate questions on which Christians of various inclinations can easily go astray. Thus some have fallen into the “different strokes for different folks” fallacy, arguing that the Old Testament liturgical rubrics are salvific for the Jews, while others have argued that there is no value whatsoever in the Old Covenant and that the Jews have already been ultimately rejected by God. You will find these divergent views expressed, for example, in discussions of whether or not Catholics should engage in “Seder” meals on Holy Thursday, either as a way of celebrating the Last Supper, or in order to grow more acquainted with Jewish practices.
Let me pause for just a moment on this controversy which has become more heated in the past twenty years or so. That is why our Liturgical Year writer, Jennifer Gregory Miller, always discusses the Seder in an appropriately Christian context and warns against removing it from this context of the ultimate fulfillment of the Passover in Christ (see for example, Jenn’s presentation of this issue in Holy Thursday Meal). It is spiritually enriching to the whole family on Holy Thursday to juxtapose readings from the Book of Exodus about the Passover, its celebration, and the use of lamb’s blood as a sign of Divine protection, with readings from Matthew 26 or Mark 14 on Our Lord’s celebration of the Passover with His disciples—which culminated in His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
This is one way to begin the habit of looking closely at Christ in the context of His own historical place and time and people, from which it is far easier to take the cues we need to understand both Himself and His mission. We must ask first not how we think Christ ought to be understood in accordance with our own cultural lights and distortions, but how the people of His own time and place understood Him. Why did they either accept or reject Him? What did they understand Him to claim and to be?
A richer appreciation of Christ in context
I have mentioned recently the great stress in N. T. Wright’s History and Eschatology on the importance of understanding Jesus Christ in the context of his own historical time and place, that is, to depend heavily on how the Jews understood his teachings and his claims when He came to them as Messiah in the first century—how, for example, they understood His claim to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and its extension to all the peoples of the world. In so many ways, it is useless to divorce Our Lord from this human context, as if we can impose on his mission and person some superior understanding based on our own attitudes and prejudices 2,000 years later. If God chose to intervene precisely in human history, then the understanding of Christ’s claims and Christ’s mission at that time and in that deliberately-chosen historical context must take center stage in our own attempt to grasp not only what He claimed but Who He really was.
One writer who has done a great deal to increase our understanding of the person and mission of Christ precisely by studying the Jewish background and setting into which Our Lord inserted Himself in time is Brant Pitre (see my brief reviews of two of his books in Each of us is destined to marry Jesus Christ and The surpassing relevance of Mary’s Jewish roots). Another is John Bergsma. In a roundup of several titles in 2019, I briefly reviewed one of his books, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, in Getting all that smoke out of your eyes: Six reviews. Also, Bergsma has a new book out from Emmaus Road which is perfect for today’s discussion just prior to our celebration of the institution of the Catholic priesthood on Holy Thursday: Jesus and the Old Testament Roots of the Priesthood. Both Pitre and Bergsma tend to write short yet historically, theologically and spiritually rich books which are delightfully accessible to any interested Catholic.
In such questions we can also be guided by the liturgy of the Church. If you have never stretched your liturgical patience to celebrate with and through the Church the pivotal Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, you owe it to your own spiritual recollection and growth to do so. Here you will see and hear exactly what I have been discussing, the setting of Christ’s redemptive work squarely in the Jewish, Old Testament context, while looking forward to His crucifixion and death—by which He is sorrowfully hidden from us, only to rise in glory on Easter. The Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday exposes to us the very core of Christ’s mission and the Church’s comprehensive recollection and perpetuation of it. The Holy Thursday liturgy is, if you will, the Seder as it is celebrated in Heaven. Through it we on earth learn to commune with the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, both immediately and in the Easter triumph soon to come.
Antidote to intellectual and spiritual dishonesty
At the incomparable Easter Vigil Mass—which is the summit of the Church’s liturgical year—we will also see Christ in the Old Testament Jewish context, as both the author and the fulfillment of all things, even if the Alpha and Omega passages from the Book of Revelation are not part of that solemn liturgy. But, sadly, the human intellect is a tricky faculty. Though both intellect and will are essential to our creation in the image and likeness of God, the thoughts which we bring so easily to mind are nonetheless often distorted both by our human limits and imperfections and by the waywardness of our own wills.
Thus do we so often wish to whittle Christ down to our own size, explaining Him away as a dreamer, a liar, a madman, a fiction, or—worse than any of these—a brilliant symbolist, who through either his own imagination or the later distortions of overwrought publicists, can be considered as part of an early creative movement to reimagine human power and glory. And we might well ask what need we have of that—we who have achieved such power and glory far more capably through immense wealth, supreme technological control, and superior sensual satisfaction? Surely the only thing we still lack is just around one more corner in our own history. Surely all we need to do now is to neutralize the naysayers who hold us back?
Or perhaps not. Suppose instead that we stop playing games with the Christ of our own imaginings. Suppose we really do place Christ in His own concrete, human historical context. Suppose we figure out what the Jews of the first century understood Him to do and to say and to mean, and why their leaders were so sure they had to crucify Him. Suppose we find Him thus, receive him thus, recognizing rightly that it is the shoddiest of all methodologies to refabricate Him as a myth in order to explain Him away.
And now that we are taking Him seriously, suppose we actually decide not to crucify Him?
Is not the one thing we lack—that thing which is always around the next bend of our personal and collective history—simply happiness itself? But what if, instead of finding so many ways to explain Christ away, we simply ask the same question John the Baptist asked of the truly human Christ in His own place and time, when poor John, without benefit of an ahistorical imagination, was languishing in a distressingly concrete first-century human prison? Let us go back again to that time and try:
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me. [Mt 11:2-6]
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Posted by: garedawg -
Apr. 04, 2021 7:50 PM ET USA
Well, God has obviously kept the Jews around as a people. I've never eaten at a Hittite deli or heard of any Moabite scientists winning Nobel prizes.
Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 -
Apr. 02, 2021 11:05 PM ET USA
One day I would like someone to address 3 points. 1. Probably every true nation has a distinct vocation. 2. St. Paul was closer in time to Abraham than we are to St. Paul, so Israel is no longer the only national culture shaped by the worship of the One True God. 3. All Europeans are descendants of Jews, just as of Charlemagne (see Scientific American article here). The uniqueness of Jews is real, but a mystery.
Posted by: Jeff Mirus -
Apr. 01, 2021 9:52 PM ET USA
christosvoskresye5324: You raise a fair question, in that this particular part of the piece is removed a bit from the later portions. But since I was advocating taking a close look at Christ in his own historical context, I thought I should touch on the misunderstandings that can arise about the Jews if this examination is not carried on carefully. I just wanted to give some broad guidance along those lines. St. Paul taught that the Jews (insofar as they come to believe in Christ, obviously) will be brought into salvific union in the end, and that this is all part of God's Providence.
Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 -
Apr. 01, 2021 3:09 PM ET USA
I don't understand why you thought it was necessary to bring up the bit about Jews. The question must always be about who is considered a Jew by God, not by polite society; as the question must always be who is considered a priest by God, not by polite society, or what is considered a valid marriage by God, not by the US Supreme Court. What *GOD* means by "Jew" is at this point a mystery on par with the meaning of the number of the Beast or the identify of "he who now restrains it."
Posted by: joy -
Apr. 01, 2021 3:09 PM ET USA
Thank you Jeff! This is beautiful. I only wish I could hear this from the altar. You have strengthened and encouraged me.