Thursday, April 21, 2011

Understanding the significance of Christ's passion and death

Bishop Michael J. Sheridan
Most Rev. Michael J. Sheridan, S.Th.D.

It is in Jesus’ words to his apostles at the Last Supper, as recorded by St. John, that the Lord reveals the meaning of his imminent death. Those words, which make up chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel and the conclusion of his account of the Last Supper, have come to be known as Jesus’ “High-Priestly Prayer.” Here the Holy Father invites us to recall the Jewish Feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It is only against the background of that liturgical feast that Jesus’ prayer can be understood, and thus the significance of his death.

Each year on the Day of Atonement the high priest is required to offer two male goats and one ram to make atonement first for himself, then for “his house” (i.e., the priestly clan of Israel), and finally for all the people (cf. Lev. 16). Jesus’ high-priestly Prayer at his Last Supper “realizes” this ritual. As the pope points out, “the rite is translated into the reality that it signifies. What has been represented in ritual acts now takes place in reality, and it takes place definitively” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 77). Jesus prays first for himself, then for his Apostles, and finally for “all who will believe in him through their word” (Jn. 17:20) (i.e. the Church).

Jesus is the new sacrifice, replacing the animals of the Old Testament. Jesus is himself the new Temple. He is the new High Priest. He makes atonement for the sins of the world perfectly and definitively. “Jesus’ high-priestly prayer is the consummation of the Day of Atonement, the eternally accessible feast, as it were, of God’s reconciliation with men” (Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, p. 79). In his death on the Cross, Christ established the new and everlasting covenant between God and man.

And so we arrive once again at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrifice of our salvation. Together with Baptism, this is the Easter sacrament par excellence – the source and summit of the whole Christian life (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11). The Eucharist will always be our greatest treasure!

Bishop Sheridan, of the Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colo., has a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. He serves on the Boards of Trustees of St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver and Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Directed Study and Path to Prayer

By Most Rev. Robert W. Finn

The second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, subtitled “Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection,” arrives just in time for Lent and offers readers a directed study and path to prayer under the tutelage of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.

Episode by episode, Pope Benedict is a skillful teacher walking us through the Gospels. This Scriptural record of salvation is not, according to the Pope, a collection of “mere symbols of meta-historical truths;” rather, he reminds us how biblical faith “bases itself on history that unfolded upon this earth.” (p. 104) At the Last Supper Jesus truly gave His disciples bread and wine as His body and blood. Concerning the Resurrection: “Only if Jesus is risen,” the Pope writes, “has anything really new occurred that changes the world and the situation of mankind.” (p. 242)

‘Papa Ratzinger’ writes in a style that, while it carefully captures the best of language analysis and exegesis, reads at times like a modern day Father of the Church. He synthesizes the work of the saintly theologians alongside a host of modern authors and scholars, as well as secular philosophers. He provides the context of Jewish Tradition and ritual and is in constant interaction with the Old Testament. At another moment, he takes care to establish the foundational Christology for our interpretation in the confessions of Nicaea and Chalcedon. In all this he provides a faith-filled meditation that lifts up Jesus Christ: Teacher, Priest and Victim, Savior; Divine Word, Incarnate Logos, Eternal Friend.

“Our task,” Pope Benedict insists, “is to become acquainted with the figure of Jesus.” Employing a comprehensive “big picture” approach, the Pope wants to encounter Jesus – wants us to encounter Jesus – and to believe in Him. This Christ, he shows, is offering not only a moral code, but an invitation to enter into life with Him.

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week is hearty spiritual reading, particularly for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide. Preachers and all pilgrims will go back to it again and again to recall the interconnections the Pope makes so brilliantly, devoutly unfolding the layers of truth. Here is his witness to the transcendent power of the Gospel sayings, and the deeply personal immersion into Christ that is renewed each time we read the Word of God.

Bishop Finn, of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., is President of the Institute on Religious Life.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Fr. Joseph Fessio on Fox and Friends

Friday, April 1, 2011

‘… intellectually satisfying and spiritually fulfilling.’

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.