The Word Embodied
Jesus looked up to heaven. (John 17:1)
Once during Holy Week Jesus made the covers of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report—a phenomenon that might lead us to think that he had really changed the world for good, except for the fact that the Unabomber appeared on all three covers the following week.
Anyway, the three magazines vary greatly in their knowledge about Jesus. The real superstars of the articles are speculative theoreticians, whose own imaginings and desires we find in abundance.
Robert Funk, who started the Jesus Seminar and has taught at the academic shrines of Texas, Harvard, and Emory, wants to “set Jesus free,” he says, from scripture and creed.
But what, one might ask, is left of Jesus Christ without scripture, without creed? Well, he’s more like a “Jewish Socrates or Lenny Bruce,” we are told: “Jesus was perhaps the first stand-up comic”—not political, not programmatic, offering no program for the world. It turns out that the most reliable description of Jesus is that he is “an ironic secular sage.”
Some theoreticians say that Jesus is a projection of Christian need and faith. Isn’t it strange, then, how like a professor their Jesus is, this “ironic secular sage”? ’Tis a pity he himself was not tenured, that he was not interviewed by one of the more reputable reporters of his time, that he had not published in a peer-reviewed journal.
I do not mean to belittle or caricature the contemporary academic readings of Jesus Christ. Surely there is a rich diversity of opinion and quality in the theologians quoted by our newsweeklies. There is also devoted and painstaking research going on in our universities.
But the media coverage merits a clear and critical look. The cover stories of our magazines represent a religious crisis of our times: not just the refusal to face up to the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but a deep resistance to the transcendent God whom Jesus reveals.
How close is the so-called contemporary account of Jesus to a rejection of any faith in a God beyond? What criteria are used? All miracles must be deemed impossible; any mention of transcendence is suspect; all messianic claims, all reference to an afterlife are unacceptable; any thought that we need salvation by his death on a cross must be repressed.
The contemporary “secular sage” insists that it is all so ordinary, this faith, this story, this gospel, this Jesus. Yet it is precisely the extraordinary, the supernatural, that makes him what he is—not only his moral teachings (which some great sage might dream up), but also his resurrected body (which no other religion has come up with), and the seeming disgrace of his cross.
No human inventiveness would dare to concoct what was an embarrassment to the Roman Empire, a stumbling block to the Greek world, and a repudiation of Gnosticism. As the luminous Kierkegaard suggested, if faith is an offense to rationality, how might reason deal with faith other than by rejecting it?
It is not new, this struggle of faith in Jesus Christ. Since the beginning it was known that if we banish Christ’s divinity, he and all of us are utterly alone. He was just another heap of chemicals who died. It is humanity alone on that cross. And it is a stranded humanity that is left with post-Resurrection delusions.
But if we believe that Jesus is indeed the eternal Word of God made flesh, then our very God was crucified as well; and the destiny of our dying bodies is somehow found in the presence of the almighty God.
If we do not believe that the cross bore the sorrows of God as much as it does our own, we ought not to have approached that wood to kneel. If we do not believe that by his Resurrection we are destined to be free, we ought not to have sung our alleluias on his day of victory. If it was not a heavenly, unearthly Jerusalem to which Jesus ascended, we ought not gather to look and pray to a God beyond who beckons us.
For it is sheer folly, the things we have done this Paschal season, if Christ does not reveal our sublime fortune. It was all a charade if our saving God was not on that cross, if it was not miraculously one of us who ascended on high. But if we worshiped in faith this season, we have again professed that, rather than being dupes of folly, we are the agents of the only true revolution that has graced human history.
In the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, neither Christ nor we are “confined” to dogma or scripture. Rather, our God is revealed and we are therein liberated.
It is God-with-us, Emmanuel, who died our death. It is the God who called history forth and loved it enough to marry it, to preserve and save it, to redeem its terrible, fragile beauty. Thus it was with full heart that we could pray: “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.” And it is with faith in the miraculous, the transcendent, that we, like Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, look to heaven for the giver of eternal life, the glory of the earth and the love and truth from which we all came.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University