Sunday, November 11, 2007

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration
by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Trans. Adrian J. Walker
New York: Doubleday, 2007

Last night I finished reading this first book published by Joseph Ratzinger since his elevation to the See of Peter. Because he expressly desired to publish this book as a private theologian rather than as an expression of the Church's magisterium, I will refer to the author as Joseph Ratzinger.

Ratzinger's purpose throughout is to lead his readers to an encounter with Christ, the real historical Christ, as He is presented in the Gospels. There is in fact no distinction between the so-called "Jesus of history" and "Christ of faith." A twofold thread runs throughout the book. Ratzinger stresses the necessity of understanding the figure of Jesus in light of His unique "face-to-face" relationship with the Father and in light of His redemptive mission. These two are in fact intimately linked; the Person and the Work of Jesus cannot be separated from one another.

Of great importance generally speaking, but of less interest to me personally, are Ratzinger's repeated contradictions of (or corrections to) common threads of historico-critical biblical interpretation. While not in the least rejecting this method (in fact, he even accepts, for example, the "fact" that Isaiah 40-66 was written centuries after Isaiah 1-39; this despite the fact the then-magisterial Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1908 gave strong indications to the contrary) Ratzinger points out repeatedly and convincingly the limitations of historico-criticism in theology.

Of more interest to me personlly is Ratzinger's emphasis throughout on the doctrine of the Atonement. A systematic treatment of this topic is, of course, far beyond the scope of this work, but Ratzinger makes one facet of the Redemption in particular a point of emphasis. Namely, what it means for Christ to "bear the burden" of our sins. This emphasis is strongly marked right at the beginning of the book. Speaking of Christ's baptism, Ratzinger writes,

"Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind's guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross" (18).

Again, in chapter 2 on the temptations of Christ, Ratzinger remarks that, "He must recapitulate the whole of history from its beginnings - from Adam on; he must go through, suffer through, the whole of it, in order to transform it" (26). This "suffering through" is an important phrase for Ratzinger. The point seems to be that in order for guilt to really be healed from within (in contrast to two alternatives: retaliation, in which the guilty party is simply punished, and on the other hand, a simple amnesty; although in both cases justice is in a certain sense restored, in neither case has the guilty party really been healed interiorly) the guilty party has to "suffer through" his guilt, that is, he must re-experience his sin from the perspective of love. He must re-live, in a certain sense, his sin, this time seeing it for the evil that it is, stripped of its veneer of goodness. Simply put, we are speaking of contrition - which in its root means being "crushed" by the weight of sin. To return to Christ, then, Ratzinger seems to be saying that He "bears the burden" of our sins, He allows himself to be "crushed" by them, inasmuch as He experiences their wickedness from the perspective of love. In I may put it so, He experiences the "contrition" that we should have felt but are inadequate to feel.

This aspect of the redemption wrought by Christ receives its fullest treatment in Ratzinger's reflections on the fifth petition of the Pater noster - forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Here Ratzinger asks, "What is forgiveness?"

"What is forgiveness, really? What happens when forgiveness takes place? Guilt is a reality, an objective force; it has caused destruction that must be repaired. For this reason, forgiveness must be more than a matter of ignoring, of merely trying to forget. Guilt must be worked through, healed, and thus overcome. Forgiveness exacts a price - first of all from the person who forgives. He must overcome within himself the evil done to him; he must, as it were, burn it interiorly and in so doing renew himself. As a result, he also involves the other, the trespasser, in this process of transformation, of inner purification, and both parties, suffering all the way through and overcoming evil, are made new. At this point, we encounter the mystery of Christ's Cross" (158-59).

We could say that in this book we also encounter the mystery of Christ's Cross; we encounter it and it remains nonetheless mysterious, at least to this poor reader. It is a mystery, however, that I have been assigned to penetrate (term paper topic) to the extent that my frail nature will allow by mid-December! Deus miserere me!


Anonymous said...

It certainly was a great read. And now I am enjoying it again on CD, unabridged. It adds a different "flavor" to the book. It is so simple and direct, and straight forward, it is almost scary.

Victoria said...

I am about half-way through and even with the aid of the Ignatius study guide I am finding it difficult. I intend to read it again when I am finished.