The Catholic Passion: Rediscovering the Power and Beauty of the Faithby David Scott
In The Catholic Passion, David Scott, biographer of Mother Teresa (A Revolution of Love), presents the Catholic faith as a spiritually fulfilling, intellectually coherent answer to the most important human questions: Why are we here? What can we know of God? How should we live?
The Catholic Passion is not an argument for the/i>/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
In The Catholic Passion, David Scott, biographer of Mother Teresa (A Revolution of Love), presents the Catholic faith as a spiritually fulfilling, intellectually coherent answer to the most important human questions: Why are we here? What can we know of God? How should we live?
The Catholic Passion is not an argument for the Catholic faith but a journey to the heart of it, a richly rewarding reflection on prayer, the Bible, the sacraments, the Church, and God-made-human in Jesus Christ. Anyone with a passion for the Catholic faith will be moved by this book, as well as anyone who is seeking a faith that burns in the heart as it enlightens the mind.
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This is a book about Catholics—who we are, what we believe, and why we believe and do the things we do. It is not really intended as a book about Catholicism—that set of dogmas, doctrines, rules, and rituals that makes it one of the great world religions.
Maybe this is a distinction without a difference. It is true that what Catholics do is not easily separated from what Catholicism teaches. But what the faith looks like and how we understand and live that faith depend on where we allow the stress to fall. If the accent is on dogmas and doctrines, the faith will come across one way. Put the accent on the lives and works of flesh-and-blood Catholics, and we will see things differently. The one is not wrong and the other right. They are two ways of trying to understand the same complex reality.
For example, we can quote the Baltimore Catechism: God is an infinitely perfect supreme being who made us to show forth his goodness and to share with us his everlasting happiness in heaven. Or we can talk about Paul Claudel.
One of the nineteenth century’s finest poets and playwrights, Claudel also spent forty years as a French diplomat, serving as ambassador to Tokyo, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Early in his life, Claudel fell away from the church, convinced that God was a figment of the imagination of a prescientific world. Nonetheless, out of nostalgia or habit, he went to Mass on Christmas Eve at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1886. During the service he heard a voice from on high say, “There is a God.” It changed his life.
In describing his experience of God’s love for him, Claudel once wrote: “Overcome with wonder, I can only say it is madness, it is too much. . . . Look, see God striding across the earth like a sower; he takes his heart in both hands and scatters it over the face of the earth!” Now, Claudel is saying nothing different from what the Baltimore Catechism says. Both statements are beautiful. Both statements are true.
In this book I chose to go with Claudel, to explain Catholicism by way of the experience and faith expressions of real Catholics—saints, composers, poets, playwrights, missionaries, ordinary believers. This approach seems appropriate to Catholicism, which is not a philosophy of life so much as a personal encounter and relationship with a divine person, Jesus. The church’s creeds, dogmas, and doctrines are indispensable—they ensure that this encounter with Jesus is true—but if this neat order of rules and laws is the theorem, then Catholicism’s proof will always be found in what Catholics think and hope for, how they pray, and what they do with their lives.
That said, this is not a gathering of various personal visions or idiosyncratic approaches to Catholicism. The Catholics you will meet in these pages—and the works of art, literature, and music that are discussed—have been selected to reflect the ancient and authentic faith of Catholic orthodoxy. This book is not about what individual Catholics might wish the church to believe. Instead it is about what the church actually does believe—as that faith is expressed in its Scriptures, prayers, and authoritative teachings.
If this is a book about Catholics, it is also a book for Catholics. It is unfortunate that many of us receive our entire education in the faith at a relatively young age. Often we discover, as did Claudel, that the explanations of Catholic beliefs and practices we learned in Sunday school are inadequate or irrelevant to the cares and demands of our adult lives. On many of the most important questions, the Catholic answers we were given in our youth seem less compelling than the answers offered by scientists, philosophers, politicians, and the mass media. As a consequence, many of us end up drifting away from the faith, finding other things to believe in, other passions to occupy our days.
But the faith was never meant to be something we “graduate” from as we do high school. Our knowledge and understanding of what we believe is meant to deepen as our relationship with Jesus deepens. The early Christians spoke of mystagogy, a kind of lifelong immersion in the mysteries of the faith. This book is a small exercise in twenty-first-century mystagogy.
Whether or not you are Catholic, this book invites you to take another look at the Catholic faith. In this book you have the chance to enter into a conversation with Catholics from every continent and walk of life from the last two thousand years. It is a conversation about the biggest questions—the only ones that matter, really: Who is Jesus? Who is God? Why do we need a church? Who are we, where do we come from, where are we going, and how do we get there?
Son of Mary, Man of Heaven
On a chill evening in March 1897, an ex-monk named Charles de Foucauld entered Nazareth, a village in the hill country of Galilee. He had walked about 125 miles in little more than a week since climbing off a steamer in the Mediterranean port of Jaffa. He made his way to Bethlehem and then to Jerusalem, sleeping in fields and begging bread along the way. Charles had come to Nazareth to breathe the same air and to live the same obscure life of poverty and manual labor that Jesus Christ had nineteen centuries before.
Charles was thirty-nine years old and had already led a colorful life. Of French aristocratic blood, he scandalized his family by washing out of the military academy and squandering his inheritance on feeding his extravagant appetites for food, wine, and love. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he enlisted in the French army to fight in the deserts of North Africa. Later, he embarked alone on a dangerous and groundbreaking geographical expedition to Morocco.
In the deserts of the Sahara, Charles found God. Coming home, he slowly rededicated himself to the Catholic faith he had been born into and had fallen away from. He went off to live in a monastery in Syria for seven years. He quit that to become a hermit in Nazareth—“to be one with Jesus, to reproduce his life . . . to imitate as perfectly as possible our Lord’s hidden life,” as he wrote to a friend at the time.
Charles’s search for Jesus of Nazareth was the most Catholic of impulses. All Catholics are natives of Nazareth, though most of us will never see the place. In Nazareth, we believe, the creator of the universe took flesh in a woman’s womb and became one of us. For thirty years God lived in that village, made his home with a mother and a father, held down a job, and answered to a common name, Jesus. We believe that God came to Nazareth to share his life with the human family he had created, that he came to reveal a plan of love that includes you and me and every person ever born or yet to be born. Here, God came to live a man’s life so that we could live God’s life.
This is an audacious claim, unique among the world’s religions and philosophies. The history of religion is the history of the human search for inner peace, prosperity, and transcendence—in a word, for God. Singular in that history is the Catholic confession that the tables have been turned, that God has come in search of us.
Nazareth is where he came to start looking for us, and from there the name Jesus has gone forth to the ends of the earth. In Guatemala, the people revere him as el Señor Cristo Negro—the Black Christ who suffers with a suffering people. In Mindanao, one of the isles of the Philippines, he is Manluluwas-Kauban, two words that mean every good thing: “He who cares, who gives aid to the hungry, who travels with his people, who protects the persecuted, who pardons sinners; the liberator.” In Papua New Guinea, Catholics pray to him simply as Kamungo—“The Big Man.”
In every culture and language, the name Jesus has brought strong men to their knees, raised up the weak, changed lives, saved people from ruin, made sinners into saints. Jesus of Nazareth has inspired the most exalted achievements of human art and science and formed the spiritual, intellectual, and moral foundation of Western civilization.
The deepest longings of the human heart, Catholics believe, have a single name: Jesus. On his knees in prayer, St. Francis of Assisi once asked: “Who are you, O Lord? And who am I?” The two questions can never be pried apart. Who you are and who I am, and what our respective destinies are, depend on our answer to the question Jesus first put to his disciples and continues to ask men and women in every age: “Who do you say that I am?”
As Charles de Foucauld knew, the answer takes us back to Nazareth—a place so obscure that until Jesus arrived, it had never been mentioned in a single book or included on any map.
“Salvation Is from the Jews”
It was no accident of history that caused Jesus to be born in that time and place. Jesus was born a Jew, of the elect race to whom God first revealed himself somewhere in present-day Iraq nineteen hundred years before Jesus’ birth. Why was Jesus born of this people? Because, as he would later say, “salvation is from the Jews.” To know Jesus we must know the history of this special people. For it was in the history of the Jews that God disclosed the purpose and destiny of the world. In its broadest outline, that history reads like this:
The father of the Jewish people was Abraham. God made a covenant with Abraham, vowing to give him a vast land and to make his descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. God swore he would bestow his blessings, his salvation, on all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s children. Abraham’s beloved son Isaac bore a child named Jacob. God renewed his covenant with Jacob and changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Ten of Jacob’s twelve sons and two of Jacob’s grandsons in turn became fathers of twelve tribes, which together formed the great nation known as Israel.
The story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel reads like an account of a stormy love affair, and indeed it was. Through it all, even when his chosen people wandered astray, God remained true to his promises. But his people’s infidelity had terrible consequences. They suffered devastating defeats at the hands of their enemies and saw their kingdom shattered, the twelve tribes scattered in exile, their promised land carved up and overrun by a succession of invaders and occupation forces. Still, they hoped in the Messiah, the Christ (“anointed one”) promised by God. The Messiah, they believed, was to ascend the throne of their long-dead king David and reign forever, reuniting the scattered tribes into a single family, a holy kingdom through which God would fulfill his promise to Abraham and bring salvation, God’s blessing, to the world.
But the Jews hoped for far more than political restoration. Speaking through his prophets, God had foretold a deeper, more intimate union with his people. He revealed that his love for his people was like the nuptial love of a man for a woman. He promised a new covenant—the coming of a day when he would take the people Israel to himself as a groom cleaves to his bride. “On that day,” he said through the prophet Hosea, “. . . you will call me, ‘My husband.’ . . . . I will take you for my wife forever.”
All this history and anticipation formed the backdrop to the drama that unfolded in Nazareth. An angel, a messenger of God, appeared to Mary, a Jewish maiden engaged to a carpenter named Joseph. Catholics remember this moment as the Annunciation, the “announcement.” What the angel announced was nothing short of a miracle—that God desired to send his Holy Spirit to “overshadow” Mary and make her pregnant with his Son. The angel later told Joseph to call the boy Jesus—a name that means “God saves.” God saves is at once his name, his identity, and his mission.
The prophets had referred to Israel as “daughter Zion” and promised that she would one day rejoice to see the coming of her Messiah. In the Annunciation, Mary played that role, representing her people as the virgin daughter who awaits the arrival of her divine groom. Mary even responded with a bridal vow of self-dedication and love: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according your word.”
Catholics call Mary’s vow her great fiat (Latin for “let it be done”). By her fiat Mary opened herself to God, allowing his plan, his Word, to unfold within her life—within her own body. The child conceived in her by the power of the Holy Spirit would be the Word of God, the Son of God, and the Christ, the long-anticipated Messiah.
From Eden to Nazareth
The Annunciation was more than an episode in the history of Israel. The encounter at Nazareth marked a new chapter in the story of God’s relationship with the human race, a story that actually began before the foundation of the world. What Mary assented to was nothing less than the fulfillment of God’s eternal design—what the apostle Paul called “the mystery hidden for ages.”
All of history led up to that moment at Nazareth. As St. Maximus the Confessor, a monk of seventh-century Constantinople, once sang:
This is the blessed destiny for which the cosmos was brought into existence. This is the ultimate design which God had in mind before the beginning of anything created—the end foreknown, by reason of which all things exist . . . that everything created by God would finally be in him recollected into the original unity. This is the great mystery that embraces all the aeons . . . that revealed the heart of hearts of the Father’s loving kindness, so that he might show to us, in his own person, the ultimate destiny toward which has been created everything that arose and came into being.
The son born of Mary of Nazareth will reveal the blessed destiny of the cosmos, the heart of God, and the purpose of creation. He will reveal that God is not simply a first cause or prime mover of the universe, but rather a loving Father who seeks to wrap all creation in his loving embrace.
That was God’s original intent in creating the world, and, indeed, humankind once enjoyed this intimacy with its Father. God created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, in a garden called Eden, to be the glory of his creation. He made them in his image, as his children, to share in his freedom, holiness, and life. They were to grow in friendship with him, to serve as guardians and ministers of the world he created—to become parents of a worldwide family of God.
At the prompting of the devil, a rebellious angel who disguised himself as a serpent, Adam and Eve lost their nerve. They stopped believing in God’s promise of divine life, stopped returning the love the Father had lavished upon them. Instead, they believed the serpent’s lie—that they could live without God, that they could be like “gods” themselves.
By rejecting God, our first parents separated themselves and all future generations from the Father. Down through the centuries, the children of Adam and Eve groped in darkness for the love they once had but lost. The empty spaces that God once filled they sought to fill with false idols—wealth, accomplishment, power, and pleasure. But the Father pursued them as a shepherd pursues his lost sheep. He disclosed his marvels in the splendors of creation. He scattered seeds of the truth about him in their philosophies, arts, and religions.
Finally, God made himself known to Abraham and the Jewish people. God gave them a divine law to live by, sent prophets to inspire them, and made them a “light to the nations”—a beacon of hope in a fallen world. His covenant with Abraham was meant to be the first step in the rehabilitation of the human race. Through Israel, God would teach the nations to walk in his ways.
Yet even his chosen people continued to fall. When their prophet Isaiah cried out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he was confessing the anguish of his people, who knew how desperately they needed God but also the futility of all their efforts to keep his covenant.
At Nazareth, the Father finally tore open the heavens and came down. His children were like the man in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan—beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, sick unto death, unable to go any farther. St. Gregory of Nyssa, a mystic in fourth-century Asia Minor, described it this way:
Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again. . . . Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Savior. . . . Are these things minor or insignificant? Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state?
The angel’s visit to Mary announced a new beginning for the world. That is why the scene seems to revisit the fall from grace in Eden. At Nazareth, however, the story had a different ending. At Eden, a fallen angel came to a woman and convinced her to disobey and disbelieve God. At Nazareth, an angel of God appeared and asked a woman to believe in God’s promise and put herself in the service of his will. In both places—Nazareth and Eden—the fate of the race depended on the woman’s response.
In God’s plan, the anguish caused at Eden was a prelude to the glory revealed at Nazareth. In the wake of Adam and Eve’s sin, God cursed the serpent and declared that one day a child born of a woman would crush the serpent’s head, stamping out the Evil One and reversing his legacy of sin and death. Mary was that woman promised by God. Jesus was “born of a woman” as God had promised.
The early followers of Jesus called Mary the “new Eve,” as they called Jesus the “new Adam.” The first Eve orphaned her descendants by her sin—making alienation, fear, and death endemic to the human race. By her fiat, Mary turned things around. She became the “first woman” of a new creation, the mother of a people who live by faith as children of God.
“The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience,” St. Irenaeus wrote in the second century. “What the virgin Eve bound through her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith.” St. Ambrose of Milan preached that because Mary believed and gave herself in faith to the word of God, she became “the mother of reconciliation and of the reconciled, the mother of salvation and of the saved.”
Mary’s son was the “last Adam,” the firstborn of a born-again humanity, the apostle Paul said. As Mary reversed Eve’s sin, Jesus reversed Adam’s failure to believe and to love. Jesus would be tempted by the devil, as Adam was—first in the wilderness and later in the Garden of Gethsemane. But he would not fall, as Adam did, and by his love and obedience to God’s will Jesus would reverse the death sentence humanity had lived under since Eden.
This is the divine drama that was played out at Nazareth. Mary stood at the crossroads of human history. The French monk St. Bernard wrote in the twelfth century:
The angel awaits an answer. . . . We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion. The sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us. The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. . . . This is what the whole earth waits for. . . . For on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned—salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race. Answer quickly, O Virgin. . . . Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word.
Little Child, Eternal God
The one who took human form in Mary was not just a special man, the new Adam. Jesus was at the same time God incarnate—literally, God “in the flesh.” By his incarnation, Jesus became the presence of the Almighty dwelling among us.
Mary was the virgin Isaiah had prophesied, and she was to conceive and bear a son, Emmanuel, a name that means “God is with us.”
From all eternity, God had prepared the womb of Mary to be the immaculate soil, the fertile ground for this new creation. As Adam had been fashioned from the earth and infused with the Spirit of God, the new Adam was to be formed in the immaculate flesh of Mary’s womb and quickened by that same Holy Spirit.
That is why the early followers of Jesus called Mary the Theotokos—the “God bearer,” or mother of God. St. Cyril, a fifth-century Egyptian, used the common Greek term for a fetus to express the astonishing reality: God, he marveled, had become a brephos! “A little child is the eternal God!” exclaimed St. Romanus, a priest in sixth-century Constantinople whose beautiful poetry earned him the nickname “the Melodist.”
In opening her womb to her creator, Mary gave God a human body. The flesh of Mary became the flesh of God. As does every other baby, the infant God looked like his mother. A hymn that Byzantine Catholics sing on Christmas night imagines Mary cradling the child in her arms and praying:
How were You sown as a seed in me?
And how have You grown within me,
O my Deliverer and my God?
Our Deliverer and God came by the quietest of signs, in the everyday miracle of a baby being born—the same way that you and I came into the world. He was born amid tears of joy, swaddled in a blanket, and held in the gentle arms of his father. On the first night of his life, he likely fell asleep nursing, his head nestled against his mother’s warm breast—like countless babies before him and countless babies since.
Why this way? Why not in power and glory, in fire that swept down from the mountaintops, in the upheaval of nations, or in bloodred stars falling from the sky? Because in coming to us as a child, God was making what amounts to an “autobiographical” statement. The Incarnation was God’s confession, his full disclosure of who he is. In the baby conceived at Nazareth and later born in a stable in Bethlehem, God revealed himself as a God of love and mercy—a Father who seeks us in the wilderness of our fallen world. This is how St. Bernard explained it nine centuries ago:
God’s Son came in the flesh so that mortal men could see and recognize God’s kindness. . . . To show his kindness, what more could he do beyond taking my human form? . . . How could he have shown his mercy more clearly than by taking on himself our condition? . . . The incarnation teaches us how much God cares for us and what he thinks and feels about us.
True love requires that lovers be free. Love is a preference, a decision to give oneself wholly to another. “Love” that has no other choice is no love at all. It is servitude. To create beings to love and be loved, God had to make us “a little lower than God,” as the psalmist said, and he had to give us the freedom to love—or not to love.
There was a divine risk in all this, of course; namely, that the people he made would freely choose not to love him in return. And indeed that is what happened. The original sin of Adam and Eve separated the race from the love of God, and only God could save us from this fate. Only God could make it possible for us to live and love again.
He could have chosen to save us from sin any way he wanted. He did not have to humble himself by dwelling for nine months in the confines of a human womb. He could have set us free by decree—speaking a saving word that would lift us from the dunghill of sin and death and plant us again in paradise. Instead he chose to come by way of compassion, as one like us, to fight alongside us against temptation and the devil. St. Hippolytus said in early third-century Rome:
God wished to win man back from disobedience, not by using force to reduce him to slavery, but by addressing to his free will a call to liberty. . . . We know that his manhood was of the same clay as our own. If this were not so, he would hardly have been a teacher who could expect to be imitated. . . . No, he wanted us to consider him as no different from ourselves—and so he worked, he was hungry and thirsty, he slept.
We are saved by Jesus because while being the Son of God he was also, as his neighbors perceived him to be, “the son of Mary.” He came among us fully human and fully divine. He had a human body and a human soul, a human mind and a human will, and he loved with a human heart. And yet in all these things, he expressed perfectly the divine life of God. In his divine-human person, Jesus showed us the depths of the communion that God desires with the human family.
The Imitation of Christ
By humbling himself to share in our humanity, Jesus made it possible for us to share in his divinity. “God became man so that we might become God,” according to the bold expression of St. Athanasius, the heroic fourth-century Egyptian bishop and defender of the faith. This is the Catholic claim, that the Son of God became the Son of Man so that every son and daughter of man could be made a child of God. In the language of the early church, we are to be “deified,” or “divinized”—made godlike, divine.
This is the promise that has changed so many lives down through the centuries. Take the case of Johannes Scheffler, a royal physician in seventeenth-century Poland. Stirred by wonder at the Incarnation, he renounced his fortune, gave everything he had to the poor, and changed his name to Angelus, the name of the church’s prayer recalling the Annunciation and in honor of the Incarnation. Angelus wrote a beautiful poem that captures the glory the Incarnation makes possible for each of us:
Look! God becomes I,
Comes down to misery on earth.
I enter thus his kingdom and be he!
Because God becomes I, each one of us can become him. We do this by following the way of Jesus—not necessarily in the literal fashion, as Charles de Foucauld did at Nazareth, but in a daily effort to understand his gospel and be faithful to it.
“There is nothing little in the life of Jesus,” said Blessed Columba Marmion, the Irish monk who was one of the spiritual masters of the twentieth century. “Christ is God appearing amongst men, conversing with them under the skies of Judea, and sharing with them by his human life how a God lives among men, in order that men may know how they ought to live so as to be pleasing to God.”
Every day in our reading of the Scriptures we stand with Jesus under the Judean skies. We see the face of God and the ideal of human life disclosed in his every breath and gesture, in his every act and word. We read because we want to walk in the footsteps of he who said, “Follow me.” We read because we want to model our lives on he who said, “Learn from me” and “I have set you an example.”
St. Augustine, the fifth-century African who was the church’s seminal teacher, penned a striking phrase to describe the example of Jesus: Caro quasi vox (“Christ’s flesh is like a voice”). What he meant is that at every stage of Jesus’ earthly life—his life in the flesh—he is calling to us, inviting us personally to live in the mystery of divine love that he reveals.
The flesh of Jesus calls to us from the womb of Mary, showing us that God’s love for us begins long before we are born. The flesh of Jesus calls to us from the crude nursery in Bethlehem, telling us of God’s love for the poor, for the homeless, for all who have no place in this world. His flesh calls to us again from his infancy in exile in Egypt, telling us of God’s solidarity with the refugee, with the dispossessed, with all who are persecuted for God’s sake.
The flesh of Jesus calls to us from the poverty and obscurity of his thirty years in Nazareth, what Charles de Foucauld called his “hidden life.” In one of Foucauld’s meditations, he imagines Jesus speaking:
It was for your sake I went there, for love of you. . . . I instructed you continually for thirty years, not in words, but by my silence and example. . . . I was teaching you primarily that it is possible to do good to men—great good, infinite good, divine good—without using words, without preaching, without fuss, but by silence and by giving them a good example. . . . The example of devotion of duty toward God lovingly fulfilled, and goodness toward all men, loving kindness to those about one, and domestic duties fulfilled in holiness. The example of poverty, lowliness . . . the obscurity of a life hidden in God. . . . I was teaching you to live by the labor of your own hands, so as to be a burden on no one and to have something to give to the poor. And I was giving this way of life an incomparable beauty—the beauty of being a copy of mine.
When Jesus began to preach and teach—after thirty years of life as a poor man, an ordinary worker, a neighbor and son—his message was constant with the unspoken lessons of Nazareth. He lived a life devoted simply to the love of God. He taught by way of story and parable, drawing many of his images from the domestic life he knew so well—grinding meal, mixing yeast and dough, mending a tear in a cloak. He drew examples too from the marketplace and the world of work—day laborers seeking a just wage, merchants investing money, farmers sowing seed.
He was especially fond of children, and the intimacies of family life became vivid symbols of his promised kingdom—mothers in labor and nursing their young, a father forgiving a wayward son, the preparing of a wedding feast. His most revolutionary teaching—that God is a tender Father who calls us to be his beloved children—resonates with the warmth he must have felt as the child of his earthly father, Joseph.
Jesus went so far as to say that the goal of our lives is to become “little children” of God: we have to have the faith of a child, the unquestioning trust that we will receive what we ask for from our Father in heaven. And we have to love as a child does, with a love unsoiled by selfish motives or thirst for gain.
The flesh of Jesus calls out a single word: love. To unveil the love of God, Jesus supped with prostitutes, thieves, and cheats; embraced women, lepers, and Samaritans. For the cause of love, he healed them and forgave their sins. For love’s sake he denounced the false-hearted teachers making people feel afraid and unworthy of the love of God.
When Jesus laid down a “new commandment,” it was a law of love: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He preached a way of love so radical that it calls us to forgive every trespass against us, to love even our enemies, to extend to others the mercy we expect God to extend to us. The revelation of love was the “will of God” that Jesus said he had come into the world to do. In the flesh of Christ we see God’s loving will that all men and women be saved from sin and death and be gathered into his family, his kingdom of love.
The Italian mystic St. Catherine of Siena wrote to a friend in the 1370s:
You must, then, become love, looking at God’s love, who loved you so much not because he had any obligation towards you but out of pure gift, urged only by his ineffable love.
The gospel of Jesus is both an announcement of God’s love for us and a vocation—a calling from God to “become love.” We are to follow his call by listening to the voice of his flesh, by loving the way Jesus loved. We are, in Jesus’ words, to take up our personal cross and follow him, to lose our lives in order to find new life in his.
His Love Is No Hoax
The flesh of Jesus spoke most eloquently when it was battered and bloodied, nailed to the executioner’s tree. “Even the insults, even the spitting, the buffeting, even the cross and the tomb, were nothing but You speaking in the Son, appealing to us by Your love, stirring up our love for You,” said William of Saint-Thierry, a monk in twelfth-century France.
To know how much God loves you, look at any crucifix, with its image of Jesus pierced, broken, and dead. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus said.
Catholic devotion and art are so vivid because they reflect our faith that his suffering was an act of self-sacrifice for our sake. He knew you and loved you, as he loved me—even as they whipped his back and drove a crown of thorns into his head, as the taunts of the crowd filled his ears, as they hammered spikes through his hands and feet, as he breathed his last, abandoned to loneliness and pain.
With our eyes raised to the crucified, we can say with St. Paul: “The Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for me.” That is why we reenact his death in Passion plays, meditate on his “sorrowful mysteries,” retrace the “stations of the cross,” listen again and again to his seven last words. Our devotions express the awe of St. Bonaventure, who once cried: “Who am I, O Lord? Why have you loved me so much?”
We recognize his passion as a personal drama in which each of us is implicated. But we do not forget that his suffering and his death, like his birth and his life, are embedded in human history. The Crucifixion was an event that even non-Christian historians documented. Jesus was tortured and killed because Israel’s religious leaders came to regard him as a heretic and a blasphemer. Quite legitimately, they feared that the passions he aroused would incite the Jewish masses to revolt, and that the Romans would use putting down the uprising as a pretext to destroy their temple and the Jewish nation. So the religious leaders had Jesus arrested, and they convinced Roman authorities to execute him as an enemy of Caesar, a would-be rebel “king of the Jews.”
But the Jewish people are not to blame for killing Jesus. Individual Jews and Romans freely pursued their own motives in the affair, and there is no collective guilt that attaches to the peoples involved. Something more epic was taking place beneath the machinations of high priests and political functionaries. Unknown to them, they were delivering up Jesus “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” as Peter would later preach.
The final hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life show the human race at its darkest—betrayal and cowardice; conspiracy, bribery, and deceit; backroom deal making and crowd manipulation; torture and sham legal proceedings. All the injustice and cruelty that sinful humanity can muster is brought to bear against history’s one sinless man, and it all culminates in the execution of this man everybody knew was innocent all along.
“Which of you convicts me of sin?” Jesus challenged his accusers. He knew he was the only person since Adam to be completely blameless before God, to have lived his whole life in conformity to God’s will, to have loved God with his whole heart and strength, and to have loved his neighbor as himself. Even as he prayed at Gethsemane to be spared from suffering, he was offering himself humbly to God: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
The Father’s will is that we be liberated from our enslavement to sin. Otherwise, we would all have to perish for our sins—because sin is separation from God, and no one can live apart from the giver and sustainer of life. To free us from sin and death, Jesus traded places with us. To do the Father’s will, he paid with his life the penalty for our sin. He died instead of us.
In his last days, Jesus was revealed as the “suffering servant” foretold by the prophet Isaiah. He is the “man of suffering” who Isaiah said would be “wounded for our transgressions,” going silently as a lamb to the slaughter to make himself “an offering for sin.” He freely took upon himself all the sins ever committed and all the sins that ever will be committed—the sin of Adam and Eve, my sins and your sins, the sins of our grandchildren’s children, all sins until the end of the age. Innocent, he died for the guilty.
This truth about Jesus’ death is illustrated dramatically in the studies of the crucifix done in the 1960s and 1970s by William Congdon, an abstract-expressionist painter and Catholic convert. In his Crocefisso no. 2, Congdon renders the human figure of Jesus as a flattened shaft of dull light scraped hard against a sky of umber and black. His body is no longer distinguishable from the cross he hangs on. Where you look for human features, you find only marks of suggestion—a narrow twist forms a rib cage, a thorny scrawl his sunken head. Raising his eyes to the crucified, Congdon saw this:
The body I met is my own body hurting from sin, a body soaked with pain to the point of being unable to distinguish the body from the pain, as if the pain had become a body and not the body become pain. . . . The Christ on the cross is myself, that is my sin that is nailed to the cross!
This identification with the suffering Christ is characteristically Catholic. It is a solemn recognition of just how much we are loved. In the fourteenth century, Blessed Angela of Foligno was praying when she heard Jesus speak: “My love for you has not been a hoax!”
What Paul called the “foolishness” of the cross is the final display of God’s foolish love, a love willing to suffer even for those who do not care about his love. Jesus’ offering of his life to the Father was an atonement; it literally makes us again “at one” with God. In his sacrifice God made a new and final covenant with his people. That is how Jesus explained his approaching passion and death to his twelve apostles at their last meal together. He told them to remember his life as poured out from beginning to end for us, his body given up once for all, his blood spilled for the forgiveness of the sin of the world.
Passing Over from Death to Life
Jesus died during Passover, the holy season when the Israelites solemnly recalled their ancestors’ liberation from Egypt. At Passover, the temple priests offered sacrifices of unblemished lambs, and families gathered to eat a ritual meal of lamb and unleavened bread, as was commanded by Moses centuries before.
Celebrating his last Passover with the Twelve the night before he died, Jesus instituted a new and living memorial of his passing over from death to life, which liberated Israel and all nations from sin and death. Jesus called the feast of his passing over the Eucharist (literally, “thanksgiving”) and said that it would be a divine sign, a sacrament, of his love that would last throughout the ages. Every day the Eucharist brings us into the real presence of his body and blood offered for us on the cross.
Jesus died a lonely death—in utter failure, so it seemed—crucified between two thieves in a place called Golgotha, or “Place of the Skull” (Calvary in Latin). In a final indignity, a soldier thrust a spear into his side, stabbing his heart; blood and water flowed out. But even this cruel and unnecessary act had meaning in God’s plan.
The piercing of Jesus’ side is the final parallel between the life of Jesus—the new man—and the life of Adam, the first man. In the beginning, God put Adam into a deep sleep and drew out from his side the woman Eve, the mother of the human race. To announce the start of a new world, the new Adam hung in the sleep of death on the cross. From his side, God drew out water and blood to symbolize the church, the bride of Christ and the mother of a new race, giving life through the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist. St. Gregory of Elvira, writing in the late fourth century, described it this way:
Who does not know that our Lord when he hung on the wood of the cross, did not only shed blood from the wound in his side, but also a stream of living water, showing that his bride, that is, the Church, like our first parents, is formed from his side, as Eve was formed from the side of Adam.
On the ground at Calvary, only Jesus’ mother was with him at the end, along with his beloved apostle John and a handful of other women disciples. The rest had denied him and fled, fearing they too would be arrested and tortured. From the cross, Jesus looked into the tearstained face of Mary and entrusted her to John. Jesus was a dutiful Jewish son to the end, making sure Mary would be provided and cared for after he was gone. “Woman, here is your son,” he said. To John he said: “Here is your mother.”
Even in this moving scene of human anguish, the flesh of Jesus speaks. He is giving his church a visible face—the face of his mother. We are to behold Mary as he did—as our mother. We are to love her as he did, to learn from her pure trust in the will of God. We are to hold fast to him as Mary did—in times of joy and in times of anguish.
On Calvary, the bloody posterity of original sin reached its logical conclusion. Cain, Adam and Eve’s firstborn, committed history’s first homicide, killing his brother Abel in cold blood. On Calvary, the children of Adam and Eve finally rose up and committed deicide—killing God himself. “No event is so sublime as this—the blood of God has been poured out for us,” said St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century bishop of Constantinople. From a Friday afternoon until the early hours of a Sunday morning, it could be declared that God was dead on earth, his voice silent in the land.
Jesus died as true God. And he died as a true man. His solidarity with every aspect of our humanity, begun in the womb, continues to the tomb. Because death is our lot in life, death became his. The early creeds stress this by professing that Jesus “descended into hell,” meaning the netherworld, the abode of the dead.
Jesus went among the dead to offer salvation to those who died before Jesus came into the world. He preached the gospel to the souls in the prison of death, Peter said. According to Paul he descended into the abode of the dead to lead the dead out. Jesus himself had foretold an hour when the dead would hear the voice of the Son of God and would live.
A fourth-century homily attributed to the monk Epiphanius envisions the dramatic encounter beyond the grave between Adam (“our first parent”) and Jesus (“he who is both God and the son of Eve”). Jesus calls out to Adam:
Rise up, work of my hands! You who were created in my image. . . . For your sake I, your God, became your son. . . . For the sake of you who left a garden, I was betrayed . . . in a garden. . . . See on my face the spit I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree. . . . I slept on a cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. . . . Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise but I will enthrone you in heaven. . . . The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places. . . . . The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.
On the third day, Jesus rose from the abyss of death. The Easter icons of Byzantine Catholics depict a scene of triumphant joy—Jesus stepping out of darkness and flames, trailed by a multitude, with Adam at the head of the pack. For them and for us, Jesus’ rising from the dead means that the human condition has passed over from death to life. By his dying he destroyed our death, and by his rising he won us life. “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ,” Paul said.
His resurrection, like his birth, was an event shrouded in silence, simplicity, and humility. He did not come as a conquering hero to lord himself over those who doubted him, mocked him, and killed him. An ancient tradition holds that he appeared first to his mother and to his earthly father, who was among the dead who were raised: “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs . . . and appeared to many,” St. Matthew’s Gospel says.
Then he went among his friends. He appeared first to Mary Magdalene and other women disciples who discovered his empty tomb just after daybreak. Later that first Sunday, he appeared to two disciples making their way to Emmaus, outside Jerusalem. They did not recognize him until he explained the Scriptures to them and blessed and broke the bread as he had during his last supper. Then their eyes were opened. Still later that night he walked through the walls of the upper room and appeared to Peter and the other apostles. In the weeks that followed he appeared to many, once to a gathering of more than five hundred, many of whom were still alive when Paul wrote his first letter to the Christians of Corinth around the year 56.
The risen Jesus was no ghost. He ate and drank with his apostles. They probed the wounds in his hands and side. Jesus had passed from death to a new order of existence. His was a transfigured, glorified body, filled with the Spirit of God, no longer bound by earthly limits of time and space. He can come among us now in any way he desires and at any time—in our neighbor, in the poor, in the pages of Scripture, and in the breaking of the bread. Raised from the dead, the son of Mary is now, in the words of Paul, “the man of heaven.”
The man of heaven is also, as Paul said, “the firstborn from the dead.” If we believe he is the risen Son of God, we can share in his inheritance and have new life as children of God. Because God raised him up, we can trust that we who believe in him will one day rise to live forever in new, glorified bodies.
The Mission of the Resurrection
For forty days Jesus stayed among the people, until he was taken up to heaven in a cloud. During this time, he laid the foundations for his church to continue his presence and work on earth. He gave final instructions to his twelve handpicked apostles, the patriarchs of this new extended family of God.
He had instructed them privately throughout his ministry and given them powers to heal and cast out demons in his name. In those last forty days, he taught them how to interpret the Scriptures and preach. He breathed his Spirit into them, confirmed their authority to forgive sins in his name. He gave them a mission—to preach the good news of his salvation to the ends of the earth, to celebrate the breaking of the bread in his memory, to teach what he had taught them, to baptize all nations and make them one family in God. He promised he would remain on earth through his church—present in the sacraments, living signs that truly bring people into contact with his saving presence.
Jesus ascended to heaven in his glorified, risen body. He took his place in heaven in all the fullness of his humanity, bearing for all time the marks where the nails had been, the signs of his passion carved forever into his precious skin. From that day forward, we could never think of God without thinking of humankind. The very being of God—the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit—now contains One who is one of us.
Jesus is now “seated in glory at the right hand of the Father.” He is “King of kings and Lord of lords.” He will come again one day to render a final judgment on the living and the dead and to usher in the never-ending kingdom that Israel’s prophets proclaimed, the new Jerusalem that will come down from heaven. Until that day, Jesus will remain our high priest in the precincts of heaven, hearing our prayers and sending us his Spirit. He is the one mediator between our Father and us, the only one who can save us from the sin of the world.
Until Christ comes again, Catholics live as the first apostles did—as witnesses to his resurrection, trying by his grace to testify with our entire being to the salvation he won for us. We live by faith in all that he revealed about God. We experience our lives as people born of the water and blood that flows from his sacred heart. We call God our Father and love all men and women as our brothers and sisters. We live by hope in the promise that the kingdom is coming, growing and spreading under the Father’s watchful eye in the church of his Son, empowered by his Spirit. And we live by love, in imitation of Jesus, with the love of God in our hearts giving meaning to everything we do. By his grace, we live as he did, as living “Eucharists,” as offerings of praise and thanksgiving.
And we see miracles every day, not only at the altar where bread and wine become his body and blood. We see lives changed by the encounter with the risen Jesus, and we believe that no person stands beyond the pale of his love. We have seen with our own eyes the truth of what he said, that with God all things are possible. We have seen hateful persecutors like Paul become the greatest of evangelists, and wasted lives like Charles de Foucauld’s turned into offerings of extraordinary holiness and love.
Foucauld was living the Catholic life when he answered a knock at his door in December 1916 and found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He had long since left Nazareth, realizing that, as he put it, “the life of Nazareth can be lived everywhere.” He had chosen to live “his” Nazareth in the remote Sahara in Algeria, to imitate Jesus by a life of quiet goodness and friendship among the desert nomads and Muslims.
But to a rebel band of Muslim nationalists, Charles was just another agent of French imperialism. On that December morning they beat him and bound him like an animal, pulling his hands behind his back and tying them with coarse rope to his ankles. Witnesses say they held him like that for almost a day. Through it all he remained quiet, prayers moving silently across his bloodied lips. He was finally shot through the temple, in the fading light of day. He went to his death as he had lived, in imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, and he died knowing that he would see that Man in heaven, face-to-face.
Meet the Author
David Scott’s essays and reporting have appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, National Review, Commonweal, beliefnet.com, and elsewhere. He holds an advanced degree in religion and the Bible, and he was formerly editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Currently, he is editorial director for The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (www.SalvationHistory.com) and contributing editor to Godspy.com. He resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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