JESUS OF NAZARETH: Holy Week
by Pope Benedict XVI
(Ignatius Press/Freedom Publishing, 2011, 362pp, $37.95.
ISBN: 978-1-58617-500-9. Available from Freedom Publishing)
The long awaited second volume of Pope Benedict XVI's meditation on Our Lord Jesus Christ arrived from the publisher with just sufficient time to accompany one through Holy Week: the book takes us from the entrance into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) to the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord.
The first volume concentrated on aspects of Our Lord's public ministry up to the Transfiguration, and the final anticipated volume will concern itself will Christ's birth and infancy.
Jesus of Nazareth is not so much a life of Christ as a theological and spiritual meditation on key aspects of the Mystery of Jesus Christ. While the Pope makes it clear that he offers his reflections as the private theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, it is hardly possible to ignore the fact they are nevertheless penned by the one who is Christ's Vicar!
A striking feature of both volumes has been the Pope's mastery of Jewish history, theology, and liturgy. In the first volume, a major theme was the portrayal of Our Lord as the second Moses.
Among several points of interest in the second volume, Pope Benedict discusses the connection between the Jewish feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the High-Priestly prayer of Christ as recorded in Chapter 17 of St John's Gospel. Following the precise structure of the ritual described in Leviticus 16, Benedict maintains that "Jesus' prayer manifests him as the high priest of the Day of Atonement. His Cross and his exaltation is the Day of Atonement for the world, in which the whole of world history - in the face of all human sin and its destructive consequences - finds its meaning and is aligned with its true purpose and destiny" (p. 79).
The Pope continues later with a lengthy discussion on the dating and precise nature of the Last Supper, and its connection with the Jewish liturgical calendar: the Passover, of course. It is clear that at the Last Supper Our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood of the New Covenant. What has been debated is whether the Last Supper was itself a Passover meal (a view favoured by a reading of the synoptic Gospels), or not.
The Gospel of St John's chronology of the Passion seems to preclude the Last Supper from being a true Passover meal, and has Christ dying on the Cross at the very time the Paschal lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. Pope Benedict clearly favours the 'Johannine' view.
Why does this seem important, at least to Pope Benedict? Perhaps because the Johannine chronology so strikingly asserts the identity of Christ as the Redeemer, the true Paschal lamb who through his death redeems His people from the slavery of sin.
Commenting on the famous passage in St Matthew when the "whole people" cry, "His blood be on us and on our children" (27:25), Benedict comments that "Jesus' blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. These words are not a curse: read in the light of faith, it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood" (p.187).
Both volumes of this remarkable work constitute a stunning apologetic in terms of Jesus Christ being the fulfilment of the Old Testament. There can be no doubt that in this work the Pope is attempting - at a very high theological level - a persuasive, yet gentle, new evangelisation of the Jewish people.
Another highlight of this volume is the Pope's commentary on Christ's appearance before Pilate, particularly in reference to the Lord being a King who bears witness to the Truth. This whole section constitutes a dense critique of modern secular culture and politics. For anyone either concerned with the theological foundations of politics or engaged in political activism, it is essential reading.
"Bearing witness to the truth", Benedict insists, "means giving priority to God and to his will over against the interests of the world and its powers. God is the criterion of creation. ... truth is the real 'king' that confers light and greatness upon all things. ... the unredeemed state of the world consists precisely in the failure to understand the meaning of creation, in the failure to recognise truth: as a result, the rule of pragmatism is imposed, by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world" (p.193).
A masterful section on how Christ's sacrifice accomplishes atonement concludes Benedict's reflection on the Crucifixion. This is a crucial point, as increasingly we find a lack of understanding, even among Catholics, of our need for Redemption and how this atonement is accomplished. All too often, Benedict notes, a parody is set up of a cruel and vengeful God who demands blood on account of the offence of sin. This is nonsense, having more in common with paganism than Catholicism.
Here we see how truly the world has lost both the sense of God, and of sin. The reality of evil exists in the world through our sin. It cannot be swept under the carpet. But here, Benedict notes, "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" (p. 232).
The book's section on the Resurrection is a repudiation of the 'demythologisation' of the Scriptures promoted by Bultmann and a host of others. Here, the Pope argues movingly from the Gospel texts in favour of a Resurrection that is at one and the same time an historical and physical reality (the necessity of the empty tomb, the many instances showing the identity of the Risen Lord with the Crucified one), and an event which takes Christ (and us in Him - if we will have Him) beyond the limits of space and time.
Our faith depends on the objective, external reality of the Resurrection: of Christ Our Lord literally conquering death: "Only if Jesus is risen has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind. Whether Jesus merely was or whether he also is - this depends on the resurrection" (p. 242).
The Lord appeared first to Peter, and then to the twelve. This deeply moving meditation is an affirmation of the faith of Peter, speaking through Benedict. May it work to confirm in many the Faith of the Church: the Lord is Risen - he is truly Risen!
Fr Glen Tattersall is Chaplain in the Melbourne Archdiocese for those who worship in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.