By Fr. Joseph Carola, S.J.
In Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, Pope Benedict XVI builds upon insights gained from historical-critical studies in order to probe the theological depths of the revealed Word of God. He successfully combines an historical hermeneutic with a faith hermeneutic, imitating the Church Fathers whose exegetical insights, he hopes, will “yield their fruit once more in a new context” (p. xv). Ratzinger puts into practice the methodological principle found in Dei Verbum 12. He reads and interprets the Scripture “in the sacred spirit in which it was written” (DV 12). While Ratzinger’s study presupposes historical-critical exegesis and makes use of its discoveries, “it seeks to transcend this method and to arrive at a genuinely theological interpretation of the scriptural text” (p. 295). Ratzinger insists that by attentively listening to the Jesus of the Gospels and through a collective listening with the disciples of every age, that is, through the authentic witness of Scripture and Tradition, one “can indeed attain to sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus” (p. xvii).
Ratzinger does not trouble his reader by unnecessarily descending into exegetical details pertinent primarily to biblical scholars. He avoids such details especially when, forming “[a] dense undergrowth of mutually contradictory hypotheses” (p. 104), they threaten to impede one from encountering Jesus. Ratzinger assures his reader, nonetheless, that in communion with the Church’s living Tradition and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit “we can serenely examine exegetical hypotheses that all too often make exaggerated claims to certainty, claims that are already undermined by the existence of diametrically opposed positions put forward with an equal claim to scientific certainty” (p. 105). Alternatively, he proposes Jesus himself as a model for the contemporary exegete and the modern theologian. For Jesus “acts and lives within the word of God, not according to projects and wishes of his own” (p. 5). Similarly, we, who study the Gospels, should possess “a readiness not only to form a ‘critical’ assessment of the New Testament, but also to learn from it and to let ourselves be led by it: not to dismantle the texts according to our preconceived ideas, but to let our own ideas be purified and deepened by his word” (p. 120). Otherwise, our experience risks remaining that of Saint Paul prior to his conversion: a real expert on the Scriptures, yet ignorant of their true meaning. “This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance,” Ratzinger observes, “causes us to ponder. It reveals the whole problem of knowledge that remains self-sufficient and so does not arrive at Truth itself, which ought to transform man” (p. 207).
Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week addresses various issues significant for modern theology and the world today. When properly understood in the context of the Mosaic Law, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple provides no justification for religiously motivated violence. To kill others in the God’s name is not the way of Jesus. At the same time, the ruthless destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman legions in 70 AD—“all too typical of countless tragedies throughout history” (p. 31)—confronts us with the mystery of evil which God tolerates to a degree that may indeed dumbfound us. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is fundamentally a breach of friendship which, Pope Benedict sadly observes, “extends into the sacramental community of the Church, where people continue to take ‘his bread’ and to betray him” (p. 68). Peter’s insistence at the Last Supper that he would spare Jesus his passion and death reveals a perennial temptation for Christians and the Church, that is, “to seek victory without the Cross” (p. 151)—a common, even if unspoken, theme of the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ preached today by various Christian communities. In contrast Ratzinger elaborates in evangelical terms the doctrine of atonement, revealing at once God’s serious appraisal of sin and the depths of his mercy. While some modern theologians would prefer to set aside all notions of expiation, Ratzinger appeals to the mystery of the Cross in the lives of the saints and concludes that “ [t]he mystery of atonement is not to be sacrificed on the altar of overweening rationalism” (p. 240). Finally, Pope Benedict states with great clarity that the Jewish people are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. Rather, his accusers were the first-century Temple authorities and the ‘crowd’ of Barabbas’s supporters. Moreover, the blood of Jesus called down upon the Jewish people in Matthew 27:25 is not the blood of Abel which cries out for vengeance and punishment, but rather the Blood of the New Covenant which heals and brings reconciliation.
Pope Benedict’s eagerly awaited volume should be seen not only as the second part of his exegetical-theological study of the figure of Jesus in the Gospels, but also as the necessary complement to his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. The volume presently under review addresses directly the question of the new and true worship which Jesus inaugurated upon the Cross. Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. His death upon the Cross is the saving reality once prefigured by animal sacrifices in the Temple which have been surpassed. For this reason among others, Ratzinger favors the Johannine chronology for the events of Jesus’ passion. He was crucified on the ‘Day of Preparation’ for the Passover at the moment when the lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple for the evening meal. Therefore, the Last Supper, while celebrated in the context of the Jewish Passover festivities, was most likely not the Passover meal itself. At the Last Supper Jesus celebrated his own Passover and ushered in a new worship—true spiritual worship which opens for all men and women a pathway to God. This new worship draws mankind into Jesus’ vicarious obedience to the Father’s will. Jesus’ obedience unto death upon the Cross has restored mankind’s obedience and made man’s spiritual self-offering again possible. True worship is the offering of our own living bodies as a spiritual worship truly pleasing to God. The new Temple of our self-offering is Jesus’ Risen Body into which the Christian is incorporated by Baptism and of which he partakes in the Eucharist.
In his previous study, The Spirit of the Liturgy, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that the priestly posture ad orientem is an essential element of the Church’s Eucharistic celebration. That posture opens up the Eucharistic celebration and orients it toward the Risen Christ who will come again—the Oriens ex alto. “The turning of the priest toward the people,” Ratzinger notes, “turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 80). In this light Ratzinger’s use of the word ‘open’ in its various grammatical forms throughout Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, especially in reference to the new worship which Jesus inaugurates, is not without significance. Ratzinger explains in effectively liturgical terms the interpretation which Jesus himself gives for his cleansing of the Temple. Jesus understood his act “to remove whatever obstacles there may be to the common recognition and worship of God—and thereby to open up a space for common worship” (p. 18). The Temple veil torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death reveals that “the pathway to God is now open” (p. 209; also see The Spirit of the Liturgy,"p. 83-84). Prayer, the heart of true worship, is “the self-opening of the human spirit to God” (p. 233). Jesus’ incarnate obedience, which is the new sacrifice itself, opens a space “into which we are admitted and through which our lives find a new context” (p. 236). Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead is not a matter of mere resuscitation, but rather it is “about breaking out into an entirely new form of life…a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence” (p. 244). The Resurrection bursts open history. While its origins lie within history, it points beyond history (cf. p. 275). Ratzinger describes in similar terms Jesus’ Ascension into heaven: “he, who has eternally opened up within God a space for humanity, now calls the whole world into this open space” (p. 287). The ascending Christ’s hands raised in blessing “are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become ‘present’ within it” (p. 293). “In departing,” Ratzinger concludes, “[Jesus] comes to us [especially in his Eucharistic Presence], in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God” (p. 293). In sum, even without making explicit reference to liturgical orientation, Ratzinger’s study of the Holy Week mysteries provides evidence for and confirmation of his insistence upon the essential nature of the ad orientem posture during the Eucharistic liturgy.
These and many other insights await the reader in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week. The book does not disappoint. It is at once intellectually satisfying and spiritually enriching—a worthy mediation upon the passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ; a mediation which will bear much fruit in the lives of the faithful for many years to come.
Jesuit Fr. Joseph Carola teaches at The Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.