Read an Excerpt
ABOUT THE SERIES
Catholic Basics: A Pastoral Ministry Series offers an indepth yet accessible understanding of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith for adults, both those preparing for lay ministry and those interested in the topics for their own personal growth. The series helps readers explore the Catholic tradition and apply what they have learned to their lives and ministry situations. Each title offers a reliable introduction to a specific topic and provides a foundational understanding of the concepts. Each book in the series presents a Catholic understanding of its topic as found in Scripture and the teachings of the Church. Each of the authors has paid special attention to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, so that further learning can be guided by these core resources.
Chapters conclude with study questions that may be used for small group review or for individual reflection. Additionally, suggestions for further reading offer dependable guides for extra study.
The initiative of the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership led to the development of an earlier version of this series. The indispensable contribution of the series editor, Dr. Thomas Walters, helped ensure that the concepts and ideas presented here are easily accessible to a wide audience.
CERTIFICATION STANDARDS: NATIONAL RESOURCES FOR CHURCH MINISTRY
Each book in this theology series relates to standards for theological competency identified in the resources listed below. Three national church ministry organizations provide standards for certification programs that serve their respective ministries. The standards were developed in collaboration with the United States Catholic Conference Commission on Certification and Accreditation. The fourth resource is the latest document, developed to identify common goals of the three sets of standards.
Competency Based Certification Standards for Pastoral Ministers, Pastoral Associates and Parish Life Coordinators. Chicago: National Association for Lay Ministry, Inc. (NALM), 1994.
These standards address three roles found in pastoral ministry settings in the United States. They were the earliest to receive approval from the United States Catholic Conference Commission on Certification and Accreditation. Copies are available from the National Association for Lay Ministry, 5420 S. Cornell, Chicago, IL 60615-5604.
National Certification Standards for Professional Parish Directors of Religious Education. Washington, DC: National Conference for Catechetical Leadership, 1998. NCCL developed standards to foster appropriate initial education and formation, as well as continuing personal and professional development, of those who serve as directors of religious education (DREs). The standards address various areas of knowledge and abilities needed in the personal, theological, and professional aspects of the ministry. Also included is a code of ethics for professional catechetical leaders. Available from the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, 3021 Fourth Street NE, Washington, DC 20017-1102.
NFCYM Competency-Based Standards for the Coordinator of Youth Ministry. Washington, DC: National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, 1996.
This document lays out the wide range of knowledge and skills that support ministry with young people, as well as the successful leadership and organization of youth ministry wherever it may be situated. The standards are available from the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, 415 Michigan Avenue NE, Suite 40, Washington, DC 20017-1518. Merkt, Joseph T., ed. Common Formation Goals for Ministry. A joint publication of NALM, NFCYM, and NCCL, 2000. Rev. Joseph Merkt compared the documentation of standards cited by three national organizations serving pastoral, youth, and catechetical ministries. The resulting statement of common goals identifies common ground for those who prepare persons for ministry, as well as for the many who wear multiple hats. Copies are available from NALM, NCCL, or NFCYM.
The proclamation of any belief in Jesus Christ will not be an easy matter in this country of ours. A visitor to the United States who has little knowledge of Christianity would have a hard time figuring out exactly who Jesus Christ was—or is. The proliferation of “Christ images” in modern culture testifies to the pluralistic setting of American society. Catholics, Baptists, and Mormons offer various images of Jesus Christ, as do Jews and Muslims. Humanists, artists, commercial ads, and even MTV express still more contrasting images of this religious figure. So then, who is Jesus Christ? He is Almighty God in human dress. He was a first-century sage preaching reverence of God and love for neighbor. He was an angel-like being with semidivine powers. He was a simplistic, religiously deluded individual crushed by Roman authorities. All these views—and more—were the grist for a cover article in the April 8, 1996, issue of U.S. News & World Report.1 All these images of who Christ was, or is, are known to any reasonably well-informed resident of our country. Because of the intense media-driven culture of American society, however, many people have a hard time differentiating between these images. They wonder which one is true. Often, their own views wind up a mixture of disparate elements. This struggle may even be the case with people raised in one particular Christian tradition. Chances are they have seen several contrasting images on television and in movies even before beginning formal religious education. This dilemma causes no small challenge for pastoral ministers, who must not only accurately convey the Catholic Church’s teaching but also deal deftly with the myriad other images of Jesus Christ—and clearly show the difference.
To proclaim Christ today requires a variety of skills. Their purpose is to bring individuals to a clear knowledge of Jesus Christ and into a prayerful relationship with him. They help bring individuals into personal relationship with the living Christ; to make Jesus the example and guide of their lives; and to help them worship the living God through Christ and in the Spirit.
TO KNOW CHRIST JESUS
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. . . .” (Philippians 3:10). Saint Paul’s words state the fundamental belief of the early Christian Church and the Catholic Church through the ages. The goal of faith is “to know Christ Jesus,” who stands at the center of the Catholic Christian faith. The very name “Christian” means follower of Christ, disciple, believer in the Lord Jesus. Many other fundamental beliefs exist in Christianity (Trinity, Church, salvation), but all revolve around and receive their basic meaning from the belief in Jesus Christ. This centrality of Christ shows in many ways throughout the Christian tradition. In the New Testament, the Letter to the Ephesians states, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (1:3–4).
The same centrality permeates the creeds of the Church. The Nicene Creed proclaims: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. . . .” (The Sacramentary, p. 368). Likewise, in the devotional life of Christians, images of Jesus serve to powerfully orient people’s response to God: the crucified Lord, the risen Savior, or the Sacred Heart. Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) professes, “Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe in Jesus and confess: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’.2 On the rock of this faith confessed by Saint Peter, Christ built his Church.3 Over time the Catholic Christian tradition developed and expanded the basic belief in Jesus Christ into certain clear convictions. The study of this interrelated set of convictions about Jesus is called Christology. Christology does not merely look to the past. Like all parts of Catholic Christian belief, Christology grows and develops, continually clarified by faithful understanding. While reverencing past understandings of Christ, the Church of Jesus’ followers seeks an ever-deeper grasp of his mystery and his relationship to our lives. Therefore, a full Christology includes acts of worship, devotion, and prayer to Jesus, as well as doctrinal understandings.
Although this book will focus exclusively on the Catholic Church’s teaching on Jesus Christ, readers must not forget that this belief intersects with many other religious convictions. Some of these convictions are pivotal to Catholic faith (God, Church, sin, sacrament); others are of lesser stature (indulgences, purgatory, sacramentals). In addition, the belief in Jesus Christ can also become entwined with other areas of religious expression, such as the authority structures of the Church, devotional customs, or even personal goals. Sometimes, in an institution as large as the Catholic Church, the core issues can even become overshadowed by peripheral concerns. Thus, one ongoing aspect of Christian conversion seeks a return to the centrality of Jesus Christ in our daily living. Jesus announced clearly, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The challenge stands ready; we must not only learn about Jesus Christ, but we must be willing to follow him wherever he may lead.
THE CATHOLIC CHRISTIAN TRADITION
The particular understanding of Jesus Christ described in these pages will be that of the Catholic Christian tradition as embodied in the Roman Catholic Church. This tradition possesses a continuity reaching all the way back to Jesus and his first disciples. This Christian tradition combines faith, reasoning, and history. All have a proper role to play in answering the question, Who is this Jesus? The foundational document for Catholic Christian beliefs in Jesus Christ is the Holy Bible, the revealed books of the Old and New Testaments. We need to be very clear about this: Catholic faith in Christ finds its prime source in the Bible, especially the writings of the New Testament. But Catholic faith in Jesus Christ sees that biblical witness as embedded in the ongoing life of the Christian community, the Church. The Church reads and prays over sacred Scripture and draws out its meaning through the scope of history, prayerful worship, and critical thinking. This process, called Tradition, has played and continues to play a crucial role in the articulation of Catholic Christian belief in Jesus Christ through the centuries.
Tradition in this sense describes the ongoing life of the Christian community, led by God’s Spirit, trying to be faithful to itself and the gift it has been given. The Second Vatican Council expressed this sense of tradition in Dei Verbum (DV), (Constitution on Divine Revelation):
Thus, the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time. . . . What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. (#8)
A second, perhaps more common, sense of the word tradition might be more accurately called traditions. This expresses the specific and concrete ways the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ gets formulated into language and communicated through the centuries. Among these specific instruments of tradition, first place must be given to the authoritative teaching of Church leaders (the magisterium) and, in particular, the doctrinal decisions of ecumenical councils and the authoritative teaching decrees of the popes. Other important instruments of tradition include the Church’s worship and sacraments, the prayer and devotion of the saints, the ordinary catechizing in parishes, as well as the theological wisdom offered by Catholic thinkers. To arrive at a complete image of Jesus Christ, as seen in the faith of the Roman Catholic tradition, we must examine Scripture and tradition, history and faith, and theology and spirituality.
CATHOLIC CHRISTIAN FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST—MAJOR POINTS
Seven convictions capture the heart of Catholic faith in Jesus Christ. Each is treated in more detail in later chapters; the list below is a reference for future development.
1. The historical human reality of Jesus of Nazareth: Catholic Christology begins with an individual we can identify as one of us “who was descended from David according to the flesh . . . ” (Romans 1:3). Jesus of Nazareth was born into a first-century Jewish culture on the far eastern edge of the expansive Roman Empire. He lived, carried out his religious mission, and died within that time.
2. The Resurrection of Jesus: After Jesus’ tragic and violent death, something occurred that his disciples said had never happened before. The disciples believed and proclaimed that he was “raised” to a glorified life by the power of the God of Israel and exalted to a victorious union with God.
3. Incarnation: As the Church continued to live and pray the living mystery of Jesus Christ as truly “God with us,” she came to confess him as the incredibly unique presence of God on earth. In Jesus, God became human like us, and in Jesus, the fullness of God’s mystery is revealed.
4. The purpose of the Incarnation is for our salvation: The Church also came to believe that the reason for this incredible divine action is found in the pure love of God for all humanity and creation. God desires “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The will of God seeks to effect this purpose through Jesus Christ, who is our perfect mediator.
5. Jesus Christ as the fullness of true humanity: In Jesus, yet another factor is revealed: his life plunges us into the full mystery of our humanness, calling us to explore what it means to live a good human life in the most profound sense of the phrase. By looking at the life of Jesus, we learn to come to God.
6. The continuing presence of Jesus Christ among us now: Catholic Christians believe that Jesus has not left his followers to walk this earthly way alone and unaided. He continues to strengthen and grace those who believe in him with his unique sanctifying presence. This happens, above all, in the sacraments and in many other ways as well.
7. Jesus Christ as Lord of the Future: Finally, this Jesus Christ also directs creation to its true fulfillment. Whatever the Catholic faith says about death or judgment or heaven and hell is but a reflecting into the future of its belief in the mystery of Christ. These convictions form the heart of a full Roman Catholic Christology. The key for any proclamation of the faith is the development of all of these beliefs in relation to one another. Together they become a Christology that provides a solid support for the other central beliefs of the Catholic tradition. In developing these seven convictions, this book offers a greater explanation of what the General Directory for Catechesis (GDC) affirms about proclaiming Jesus Christ.4
To carry out this plan, chapters 1 and 2 explore the Christological core of the New Testament. Chapter 3 traces the Church’s belief in Christ from the apostolic era until the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. Chapter 4 points out how the key issues of salvation and redemption in Jesus Christ continue to be refined and sharpened in the Church’s belief. Chapter 5 looks at the influence of various images of Jesus in Catholic spiritualities through the ages. Chapter 6 explores the Catholic Church’s belief that Christ’s presence remains with us today, above all in the sacraments and personal prayer. And, finally, chapter 7 looks at a difficult contemporary problem: the relation of Jesus Christ to other religious saviors and world religions.
May these pages serve as an introduction to the Church’s belief in Jesus Christ and spur a genuine conversion among readers to make Jesus more pivotal in their lives. The depth of a Christian’s faith is still measured by that Christian’s response to Jesus Christ’s question, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29).
The Church’s proclamation of Jesus Christ takes place in a modern cultural setting that presents many conflicting images of Jesus. Anyone who proclaims the faith must deal openly with this situation and endeavor to clearly affirm the belief of the Catholic Christian tradition, for Jesus Christ surely stands at the very center of Catholic Christian faith. Such has been the proclamation of the Church through the ages to the present. Thus, the goal of all catechesis becomes to know Christ Jesus in a faith-filled, loving relationship.
1. “In Search of Jesus,” U.S. News and World Report (8 April 1996). 2. CCC 424: Mt 16:16. 3. CCC 424: Mt 16:18; St. Leo the Great, Sermo 4, 3: PL 54, 150–152; 51, 1:PL 54, 308–309; 62, 2: PL 54, 350–351; 83, 3: PL 54, 431–432. 4. Especially “Jesus Christ: mediator and fullness of Revelation” (#40); “The object of catechesis: communion with Jesus Christ” (#80); and “The christocentricity of the Gospel message” (#98).
1. What are some images of Christ in society that you as a pastoral minister will have to deal with?
2. In your own words, give a definition and brief description of Christology.
The Witness of the New Testament
The whole New Testament witnesses to the mystery of Jesus Christ: who he was, what he accomplished, and what he continues to accomplish in the world and in people’s lives. The New Testament confesses Jesus Christ as the one who sums up the whole history of God’s dealings with Israel, who inaugurates the Church as the new community of God’s people, and who begins a new and final chapter in God’s dealings with creation and humanity, the definitive moment of God’s revelation and plan. The Letter to the Colossians proclaims this belief. “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:18–19). The GDC also summarizes this fundamental belief. “Jesus Christ is not merely the greatest of the prophets but is the eternal Son of God, made man. He is, therefore, the final event towards which all the events of salvation history converge [cf. Luke 24: 27].” (#40)
The New Testament writings, from the Gospel of Matthew to the Book of Revelation, express this centrality of Christ in a variety of ways. However, the Christian tradition has long given primacy of place to the four Gospels as the documents that most succinctly witness the mystery of Jesus in its full scope. The Gospels, which narrate the life of Jesus, are central to the catechetical message. They are themselves endowed with a “catechetical structure” [Catechesi Tradendae On Catechesis in Our Time, #11b]. They express the teaching that was proposed to the first Christian communities, and which also transmits the life of Jesus, his message, and his saving actions. In catechesis, “the four Gospels occupy a central place because Christ Jesus is their center” [CCC, #139]. (GDC, #98)
As a shorthand method of remembering, we might think of the Gospels as testifying to Jesus in three interrelated ways. These ways correspond to three structural parts of each of the Gospels. First, each Gospel begins with a faith statement of who Jesus really is in his truest identity (from Mark’s baptism account to the stories of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke and, finally, to the hymn to the Eternal Word in the Gospel of John). Second, each Gospel presents an account of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, his adult mission in life followed all the way from his baptism to his death on the cross. Third, each Gospel proclaims God’s ultimate vindication of Jesus by raising him from the dead (the resurrection stories). The Incarnation of the Word, the ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth, his resurrection, and the overarching conviction that all this is “for us and for our salvation” come together in a mix of faith and history that Christian believers describe as the “Christevent,” the beginning, heart, and end of their faith.
Faith and History
Only a couple of decades ago, writing a life of Jesus Christ would have been a fairly straightforward endeavor in Catholic circles. The four Gospels of the New Testament provided the basic, factual, eyewitness accounts. One had merely to assemble these “facts” in a coherent narrative and fill in some relevant cultural and social history of the time—and there it was! Catholic bookshelves and parish libraries still contain many of these histories. Alas, the task has become far more difficult today. The Gospels are no longer seen as simple factual historical accounts but as complex narratives of faith that weave together a variety of literary expressions. These might include testimonies of faith, moral encouragement, and historical recollection. Moreover, the final text of each of the Gospels results from an editing process that likely went on for several decades. These new perspectives actually give the Gospels a greater depth and complexity of meaning, but they also make the task of interpretation more difficult than before. The Second Vatican Council affirmed this basic view of all the biblical writings: “Rightly to understand what the sacred author wanted to affirm in his work, due attention must be paid both to the customary and characteristic patterns of perception, speech and narrative which prevailed at the age of the sacred writer, and to the conventions which the people of his time followed in their dealings with one another” (DV, #12). So, in interpreting a Gospel passage, what belongs to historical recollection and what to the testimony of faith?
Several other contemporary issues complicate our search for an outline of the historical life of Jesus. First, as the very structure of each Gospel implies, the “historical facts” of Jesus’ life must be viewed in connection with two other equally important assertions: who Jesus really was and what he accomplished for us. The Gospel writers apparently preserved only those aspects of his life and work that “fit” with these two more important aspects. For example, several large segments of Jesus’ life, like his adolescence and young adulthood, are mentioned only sparingly. What really mattered were his adult ministry, his teaching, and the ultimate giving up of his life for God’s sake; these three aspects relate to the belief that he was the Son of God who came “for us and for our salvation.” A second factor that makes matters especially difficult today stems from the many other contemporary approaches to the life of Jesus. Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, for example, take everything in the Gospels as literal and historical fact. They make much of labeling those who disagree with them as “not really Christian.” On the other hand, rigorous and critical historians who write scholarly biographies of Jesus omit anything hinting of the supernatural; they fill in the gaps extensively with cultural material of that time, all of which seems to have great “scientific veracity.” Groups like the Jesus Seminar have received much publicity by loudly announcing “shocking reversals” of ancient beliefs and presenting Jesus in terms that almost invade people’s cherished notions.1 Another contemporary group consists of all those who provide “visions”—as in The Poem of the Man-God 2—that profess to give an exact account of everything Jesus said and did. Teachings, sayings, and events that have nothing to do with the Gospels are said to have been revealed through modern visions or locutions. These claims can be particularly insidious because they appear to be pious and devout. Presenting a view of the life of Jesus within a Roman Catholic Christology requires clearly drawn lines of difference between the many divergent expressions.
The position on “faith and history” taken here will be that recommended by the International Theological Commission’s Select Questions on Christology (SQC).
Jesus Christ, the object-referent of the Church’s faith . . . is a man who lived in a concrete milieu, and who died after having lived his own life within the unfolding of an historical process. It follows that historical research concerning Jesus Christ is demanded by the Christian faith itself. . . . [and] within the boundaries proper to exegetical research, it is certainly legitimate to reconstruct a purely historical image of Jesus. . . . The substantive and radical unity between the Jesus of history and the glorified Christ pertains to the very essence of the Gospel message. (#I.A.1, 1.2, I.B.2.2)
History is one (necessary) component of Catholic faith, but it is not the sole determinant. The “historical Jesus,” or what we can know of Jesus’ life, activities, and teaching on purely historical grounds, must be balanced with the faith perspectives of the living Church tradition.
Four topics form the framework for all Christology: Incarnation of the Word; the ministry and death of Jesus of Nazareth; his Resurrection; and the saving work of Christ. These topics structure the outline for chapters 1 through 4. The treatment of these themes begins with the Resurrection. Chronologically, that shattering, marvelous event first revealed God’s total acceptance and exaltation of Jesus and his ministry. That conviction of faith then spurred the apostles to a deeper reflection on Jesus’ life, ministry, and death, as well as a reflection on his true identity.
The Mystery of the Resurrection
The death of Jesus did not end his life story or his influence over his followers. Saint Peter’s sermon, related in the Acts of the Apostles, affirms, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” (2:32). To Jesus’ disciples, however, the Resurrection and Jesus’ subsequent appearances initially came as a sudden, unexpected, and even shocking event: “While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:36–37). Yet, in a powerful act of faith, the disciples believed that Jesus lived in a new, transformed, glorified way, raised up by the power of God and exalted to the right hand of the Father.
Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus forms the absolute basis of Christian faith, both in its beginning and in its ongoing life. But, and this point must be clear, the term resurrection not only refers to a real historical event upon Jesus, but it also describes a profound and complex series of faith convictions that shape an entire way of looking at reality. The Resurrection shapes the Christian’s very way of believing.
In the last fifty years scholars have been restoring the event of resurrection faith to its central and rightful place in Christian belief. The resurrection faith defines the origin, core, and exemplar of what it means to be a Christian. What makes us Christians? Ultimately, that we believe God raised Jesus from death to life and in that action created a new religious vision and bestowed a new divine power in all creation. “The Paschal Mystery has two aspects: by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life” (CCC, #654). The real power of faith in the Resurrection, however, lies not in the fanciful events that people often imagine. The stories of the appearances, the reaction of the women and the apostles, and the conversations between Jesus and others are, in fact, narratives that encase powerful convictions and commitments.
The resurrection narratives exemplify a Gospel story that has been shaped to carry within it an absolute conviction. In its quality as a narrative, a story brings a great personal immediacy to the presentation, but the deep faith convictions hold much more power. These faith convictions proclaim what Jesus accomplished by his death, the newly understood meaning of existence and human life, and God’s will for all people. Taken together, the resurrection accounts express a vision and a hope for which the followers of Jesus were actually willing to die. These powerful faith convictions emerge in the themes that run through the accounts of Jesus’ appearances to his followers. The following paragraphs summarize these themes.
The Resurrection of Jesus names a totally new act of the God of Israel. The real emphasis in resurrection should not be placed on the revivified body of Jesus, but on God’s resurrecting action! The very same God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, who gave them the Torah on Sinai, and who led them back from Exile performed yet another great and definitive action—the raising of Jesus to a glorified life at the right hand of God. “But God raised him up, having freed him from death . . .” (Acts 2:24). This act of God occurred as a real event in our world at the end of Jesus’ human life, but it reverberates through all time and space. Such a completely unexpected action of the God whom Jesus called “Father” would compel Jesus’ disciples to rethink absolutely everything about him.
Resurrection asserts that Jesus now lives in an entirely new and glorified mode of existence. The Jesus who lived, preached, and died in Judea is the same Jesus raised to life by the power of God stretching into human history. “Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history” (CCC, #647).
Jesus has passed beyond our world to the very right hand of God. This divine act vindicated the whole life and work of Jesus. All that Jesus did and taught must now be reevaluated by his followers as leading up to this new revelation of God. His cross shows that a holy life can be liable to great suffering; yet, in that suffering and death the possibility of new life for all creation is revealed. This resurrecting act of God has resulted in the beginning of a new stage in human history and creation. Those who believe in Jesus will also be transformed (changed) by the same power— God the Father—that transformed (raised) him. The appearance accounts exemplify this theme in a number of ways. Jesus’ followers were welded into a holy community, working toward the same resurrected transformation by living as Jesus did (see Luke 24:48–49). Believers were commissioned to preach the good news of God’s new act, to carry the hope of transformation to all people. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . . .” (Matthew 28:19). And the presence of the Spirit in our hearts carries God’s promise and pledge that this larger resurrection still goes on.
All these points can be compacted into a single and unitary belief of resurrection faith, which is the heart and soul of Christianity. One who believes the resurrection faith is convinced that God’s action really happens in the world, that it happened in Jesus’ Resurrection as the prime exemplar, and that it still happens where people come together in true, sharing community, where the Spirit gives increased insight into the meaning of life and where an act of loving service becomes a remembering witness of God and Jesus Christ. God’s action happens in a way that says that the end of God’s act is still hidden, and so in this life we encounter God only in a limited way, “through a glass darkly” (see 1 Corinthians 13:12). To live the Resurrection means to always seek opportunities to increase our love and hope. The whole complex of events (the Passion, death, Resurrection, Ascension of Christ, and the bestowal of the Spirit) is often referred to as the paschal mystery. Its grand and special celebration occurs during the yearly feasts of Holy Week and Easter, but it also forms the central meaning of each Sunday’s celebration of the Eucharist. “Jesus rose from the dead ‘on the first day of the week.’3 . . . For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day . . . Sunday” (CCC, #2174).
To believe that God has raised Jesus means to accept a “new birth into a living hope. . . .” (1 Peter 1:3). This hope looks not just to the distant future; it affects the way we understand our human reality, relate to others, and live here and now. Our belief in resurrection calls forth from us, fundamentally, a practical hope that can challenge the threats and despair of modern life. Christians, as all people, know too well the many disappointments and failures that the course of life brings. But they also believe in a religious strength that helps them press on, and in a religious courage that impels them to find meaning and love once again—until they are overtaken by the infinite love of God and drawn as closely as possible to this saving God. The challenge for Catholic Christians today is to affirm and exemplify this hopeful conviction. We need to let our “living hope” shine through in our work, play, worship, and relationships; in building communities of peace and love; and in valuing every human being as a child of God destined for a glorified, divine life.
In summary, the Resurrection was and remains many things: a unique act of God, an event in the life of Jesus, and the exemplar of the transforming experience at the core of Christian faith. Resurrection remains the central event in the development of the Church’s Christology. It stimulated and continues to stimulate an ever-deepening vision of who Jesus was in his life history and who he is in his deepest reality.
The Divinity of Jesus
As the followers of Jesus probed more deeply the implications of the Resurrection, it became evident that Jesus had been more than just a human being—even an extraordinary human being— raised by God; his was a closer relationship to God than the disciples ever imagined.
The beginnings of this faithful quest into the identity of Jesus can be glimpsed in the New Testament writings themselves. They initiate a search that will not be concluded until the final formation of the Nicene Creed at the ecumenical council of Constantinople in 381. That creed professes clearly, “[O]ne Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father . . . true God from true God . . . one in Being with the Father” (The Sacramentary, p. 368).
The Christian community in those first years after Jesus’ death struggled over how to express this wild and almost unthinkable assertion—and it would take hundreds of years to attain a satisfying expression. The difficulty of the task should not be underestimated. Even though the Church eventually arrived at a clear statement of the divinity of Jesus Christ, there were disagreements, inadequate expressions, and hesitations along the way. It must be remembered that Christians of Jewish background were struggling to say what had never been said before in the Jewish tradition. At the same time, other Christians of a Greco-Roman background were trying to formulate the same belief in a manner that would clearly separate their Christian belief from those of the traditional Greek and Roman myths. (This might help people today be more understanding of efforts to express the same belief in a twenty-first-century culture.) Here we shall briefly show the beginnings of this effort as reflected in the New Testament. Chapter 3 takes up the story in subsequent centuries of early Church history.
Some New Testament writings show clearly that they already considered Jesus Christ in a way that far exceeded any model known in ancient Judaism (e.g., prophet, king, or Messiah). Consider the Letter to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers— all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (1:15–20)
In this passage, and others like it, Jesus possesses divine characteristics and performs actions traditionally reserved for God alone (creation, forgiveness of sins). Note that God-language was used much more loosely in the first-century Roman Empire than in today’s world. Use of such language makes it difficult to interpret exactly many New Testament passages. Still, we can glimpse a number of ways that the followers of Jesus were coming to believe in him in an ever-closer connection to the very mystery of God.
The first way of showing the divinity of Jesus was to bestow on him various titles, like Son of God, Incarnate Word, or Lord. New Testament writers did this in profusion. A proper title carries an indication of the person’s identity and the standing that person possesses in relation to others. A study of the titles for Jesus found in the New Testament uncovers a rich mine of Christological thought.
“Son of God,” for example, counts as one of the most significant titles given to Jesus throughout the New Testament. Even though in many passages it carries no overtones of divinity, there are other texts in which it definitely conveys a unique sense of divinity in Jesus. After the Resurrection, Jesus’ followers would move clearly in this latter direction. The very beginning of Mark’s Gospel affirms, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). And again, at the end of the Gospel, the centurion proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel the angel announces to Mary, “[T]herefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35). The key notion in Jesus’ Sonship describes his relationship with God as completely different from that of any other human being. His Sonship was not given or bestowed but flowed from the very core of his being, a divine filial relationship.
Another popular and powerful title given to Jesus was “Lord” (Kyrios in Greek). This title too, attested to a growing belief in the divinity present in Jesus. Like “Son of God,” “Lord” can mean various things. It can be a simple title of address; it can refer to one who is highly exalted; and it can be a specific signification of divinity. A clear example of the latter use occurs in the famous hymn from the Letter to the Philippians.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:9–11)
Another passage appears in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. “[Y]et for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (8:6). Paul has taken the classic Jewish confession of one God (see Deuteronomy 6:4–5) and woven Jesus Christ into it, giving him the title “Lord,” which usually referred to the unique God of Israel. Calling Jesus “Lord” again draws a connection to divinity by making Jesus share in God’s dominion over all things. It might be valuable to say a brief word about the title “Christ.” Originally, it was a proper title bestowed on Jesus to indicate that he was the “Anointed One,” who would free Israel from all foreign oppressors. Very quickly, however, this title seems to have been judged inadequate to express all that Jesus’ followers wanted to affirm about him. Thus it gradually became a part of his regular name: Jesus Christ.
A second way the early Christians expressed their belief in the divinity of the risen Jesus was to assign to him particular actions that had previously been attributed to God alone. These included knowing and revealing God, changing the divine law, forgiving sins, reconciling people to God, and being the agent for God’s final kingdom. The passages quoted above from the Letter to the Colossians (1:15–20) and 1 Corinthians (8:6) clearly see Jesus as the agent of creation, as the power that holds all things in existence, as the fullness of God’s presence on earth, and as the reconciler between God and the human race.
A further use of this attribution to Jesus of God’s ancient prerogatives was the role of the risen Jesus in bringing about “the Day of the Lord.” That phrase signified the belief of the ancient prophets of Israel that a time would come in the future when God would intervene decisively in the world. This intervention would judge the wicked, restore the land and people of Israel, and manifest God’s glory in a dazzling final victory. New Testament writers saw the risen Jesus as the one who would fully accomplish this consummation of all things. “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
Clearly, some Christians were already thinking of Jesus Christ as being divine or God-like in a very real way during the New Testament period (ca. A.D. 30–100). Their assertions may not have the technical clarity of later Church councils, but they provide a real step in that direction. By the end of the New Testament period, Jesus even seems to be spoken of, at least occasionally, as “God.” We see such attribution in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, probably written toward the end of the first century… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). At the end of John’s Gospel, the apostle Thomas addresses the risen Jesus directly, “My Lord and my God!” (20:28).
As Christians pushed their belief ever deeper in a confession of Jesus’ divinity, two related beliefs began to appear. First, to acknowledge Jesus as God demands some expansion of the traditional notion of one God. Accordingly, the relationship between Jesus and God became Son and Father (and later Spirit) in one God. Christology leads directly to Trinity. In their Theology Christology Anthropology (TCA), the International Theological Commission makes this point explicitly. “Christian theism consists properly in the triune God, and he is known uniquely in the revelation to us in Jesus Christ. Thus . . . knowledge of Jesus Christ leads to a knowledge of the Trinity and attains its plenitude in the knowledge of the Trinity” (#I.B.1.2). But it will take time—centuries—for the full implications to be worked out. The second belief affirms that in a very real way Jesus Christ was a new revelation of God. As much as human beings can know God—for Catholic Christians the context of that knowing comes not from cultural or supposed ideas of God, but from the concrete life of Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever might initially be thought about the justice, anger, or wrath of God, all must be reevaluated in the light of what we know and believe about Jesus. In his service, love, and compassion—in his total humanity— Jesus reveals to us the fullest face of God as we can know it. To that humanity we now turn.
The New Testament first and foremost bears witness to the mystery of Jesus Christ. The Gospels are primary sources for our knowledge about Jesus Christ as well as the affirmation of the Church’s faith in him. To know the Gospels, Catholic Christology recognizes the importance of merging faith and history. These same factors interact in clarifying and expressing the Church’s belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ humanity is known and studied by history; his Resurrection, divinity, and saving work are confessed by faith. Jesus’ Resurrection caused his disciples to see his earthly ministry in a new way; his was a closer relationship to God than they had ever thought. Jesus’ Resurrection and the struggle of his disciples to express that faith also gave a unique shape to the message they would proclaim to others. In Jesus, God acted anew to create a new relationship between God and humanity.
1. “In Search of Jesus,” U.S. News and World Report (8 April 1996).
2. Maria Valtorta, The Poem of the Man-God (Isola dell’ Liri, Italy: Centro Ed. Valtortiana, 1986).
3. CCC 2174: Cf. Mt 28:1; Mk 16:2; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1.
1. How would a Catholic Christian evaluation of the Gospels differ from that of a fundamentalist Christian?
2. Why was it difficult for the first Christians to even imagine the divinity of Jesus? Could these difficulties still be problems for people today?
3. Name some practical ways in which the living hope of the Resurrection might be expressed in real-life circumstances today?