Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Jesus of Nazareth: Chapter 1

Let's now continue our discussion of Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth with a look at chapter 1: The Baptism of Jesus. (Please keep in mind that I do not intend these posts to be exhaustive, analytical reviews of each chapter, but rather my refections on particular points and themes that Pope Benedict writes about in each.)
Early on in chapter 1, Pope Benedict focuses on the baptism account found in Luke. He reminds us that Luke's emphasis on the historical backdrop of Jesus' baptism, no less his entire ministry, is an essential character of the Gospel account. As we recall one of the main points of the book's foreword, Pope Benedict reminds us that Christianity is a religion based in history. Therefore, it is important that when we read about Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, we see it as occurring during the height of the Roman Empire. As the Pope states: "The wider history of the world, represented by the Roman Empire, forms the backdrop (11)." Jesus begins his ministry at a particular place, in a particular period of history. As he says: "We are not meant to regard Jesus' activity as taking place in some sort of 'anytime,' which can mean always or never. It is a precisely datable historical event having the full weight that real historical happenings have; like them, too, it happens only once; it is contemporary with all times, but not in the way that a timeless myth would be (11)." Because of this, we can see the Divine irony that when the Son of God was born in lowly Bethlehem, the first and greatest of Rome's emperors, Augustus was seated upon his palatial throne in Rome. So, too, is the case 33 years later when Jesus is baptized by John in the muddy waters of the Jordan, Tiberius reigns as emperor of the known world (west of Mesopotamia) along the River Tiber. As the Pope points out: "The emperor and Jesus represent two different orders of reality (11)." And while these two different orders do not necessarily have to meet in direct conflict, it would not be too far away in history that the emperors would claim divinity as a title, which would force the issue with believing Christians.
A little later in the chapter, the Pope turns to John the Baptist, whose message announces that "Great things are about to unfold (15)." Finally, a prophet has arisen in Israel and many went out to meet and be baptised by him. The Pope goes on to emphasise the character of John's baptism, which is a call to "leave behind the sinful life one has led until now (15)." Jesus arrives on the scene, and in the words of Pope Benedict: "He blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan (16)." How often have I not reflected on that reality? Sometimes I am tempted to read the Bible through the lens of the Jesus movies I have seen in the past. In my poorly formed mind, Jesus approaches John for baptism almost as if he is parting the crowd gathered around just to get to John. Basically, this points to the reality that Jesus doesn't try to skip ahead in line! Instead, Jesus remains in the crowd and waits his turn, so to speak. So it isn't simply that Jesus shows his solidarity with humanity only when the actual baptism occurs, but the fact that he waits with them! Hmmm...... This brings to mind occasions when I have stood in line to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Being in the community of believers, who are at the time preparing to confess their sins, is a visible sign of that solidarity which binds us as the Body of Christ.
A final thought I would like to bring up is Pope Benedict's third aspect of the baptism scene which he describes on page 23. Here, for the first time, we read about the encounter of all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity forms, in a sense, the bookends to the Gospels, particularly that of Matthew. In chapter 3 of the Gospel according to Matthew we find the baptism of John and in chapter 28 there is the great commission of Jesus, where the Apostles are called to "go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." The first one prefigures the next, which brings about the indwelling of the Trinity into the person's soul. I remember a class I took at the seminary which dealt with the Trinity. One of the books we read was Rahner's The Trinity. In it, he proposed the question as to whether a proper understanding of the Trinity mattered anymore to contemporary society. His answer was yes. Clearly for Matthew, as well as Pope Benedict, the answer is also a resounding Yes!
Of course there is a whole lot I left out of this post, but feel free to comment on anything found in chapter 1.


Theophrastus said...

Before digging into the text proper, I'd like to use this opportunity to compare the starkly different treatment given to Benedict XVI's and John-Paul II's teachings. Benedict XVI has enjoyed wide publication of his work, but John-Paul II has much less material in print.

In particular, I'd like to gripe about how poorly publishers have treated the teachings of John-Paul II from his weekly catacheses. There have been, to date, 13 cycles of addresses from John-Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The initial set of teachings, The Theology of the Body, attracted wide attention and is still in print as a volume.

However, John-Paul II's next six sets of teachings, on God, Jesus, The Spirit, The Church, Mary, and Salvation History were published by Pauline Books and Media but are now out of print. It is hard to fathom, given the vast influence of John-Paul II, how so many of his teachings and books could be out of print.

A pair of teachings on the Liturgy of the Hours taught jointly by John-Paul II and Benedict XVI is only partly available in the US -- the Vespers volume is only available from the UK's Catholic Truth Society.

Benedict XVI's more recent lectures on the Apostles, the Church Fathers (two parts), and St. Paul have fared much better, and are in print from Our Sunday Visitor and Ignatius Press -- even in special illustrated editions.

It is lamentable that so many teachings by John-Paul II are no longer in print.

Timothy said...


I think you make valid point. One reason, I think, is that there has been a renewed popular interest in reading the writings of the Popes, which I think began in the late 90's. Ironically, I think JPII's book Threshold of Hope has a bit to do with that. Also, Pope Benedict was much more known at least here in the US before his election. Of course, Fr. Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press, was a former student of Benedict and has championed his writings before and after his election o the Papacy. I believe they have some rights to his works for American publication. (although I am not exactly sure how extensive that deal is.)

Meg said...

Or there might be the simple explanation that JPII's work is very dense and difficult to read compared to Benedict's.

I'm not sure whether that reflects translation differences from the Polish vs. the German or the difference between the way the 2 men thought.

I find reading JPII's letters and encyclicals a real struggle and would not waste time or money on a book of his. However I find Benedict's writing clear, linear and very accessible to a non-theologian. Therefore, I have invested in his books.

As far as book printing goes, it doesn't matter how smart/devout/holy you are if you cannot manage to communicate same in print.

Timothy said...


I tend to agree with you in regards to the writing styles of JPII an Benedict. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that JPII was more of a philosopher? Hmmm...... ;)

Theophrastus said...

Meg --

I am a little surprised by your comment, because I was under the impression that John-Paul II (the great, as many call him) was widely considered in America as perhaps the most important and charismatic pontiff of recent years. Some claim that Benedict falls short of the standard set by John-Paul II. Since John-Paul II's primary way of communicating with his world-wide audience was by his writing, how could we end up in a situation where we admire the man so much while not keeping his books in print?

I haven't read as much of John-Paul II as I would like (in part because his books are out of print), but I do think that his Theology of the Body is an fascinating and important work that demands careful attention.

Timothy said...


I should point out, in regards to Theology of the Body, that it is widely available in various forms, most in use for youth and young adult study groups. As a matter of fact, we teach the Theology of the Body at the high school we work out. But there is certainly more of JPII out there, as you have pointed out.

Meg said...

I agree with you about JPII's charisma, but I disagree that it was primarily communicated through his writings.

It was his smile, his attitude, and above all his travels -- before JPII, popes never travelled. People loved JPII because he visited us, he left the palace and visited the people.

I agree with you about the importance of the Theology of the Body, but I wonder how popular it would have been without Christopher West?

I'd be willing to guess that most big libraries would have copies of JPII's other writings. Maybe even smaller church libraries.