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It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Image (September 6, 2011)
FATHER ROBERT BARRON is a sought-after speaker on the spiritual life—from prestigious universities to YouTube to national conferences and private retreats. The prominent theologian and podcasting priest is one of the world's greatest and most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global media ministry called Word On Fire has a simple but revolutionary mission—to evangelize the culture. Father Barron is the Francis Cardinal George Chair of Faith and Culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. He is the author of a number of theological works including The Priority of Christ and Word on Fire.
Visit the author's website.
Using art, literature, traditional theology, and his own personal narrative, Father Robert Barron's Catholicism takes readers into the depths and beauty of the Catholic faith in a way no other book has ever done. What makes Catholicism unique? Most histories that trace the origin of Christianity can be cumbersome and too academic for a popular market, but Robert Barron, a popular lecturer, writer, and theologian has the ability to make this material accessible for a general audience. Rich and engaging, with attractive photos throughout, Barron has produced a beautiful testament to faith.
List Price: $27.99
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Image (September 6, 2011)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
It all begins with a jest. The essence of comedy is the coming together of opposites, the juxtaposition of incongruous things. So we laugh when an adult speaks like a child or when a simple man finds himself lost amidst the complexities of sophisticated society. The central claim of Christianity—still startling after two thousand years—is that God became human. The creator of the cosmos, who transcends any definition or concept, took to himself a nature like ours, becoming one of us. Christianity asserts that the infinite and the finite met, that the eternal and the temporal embraced, that the fashioner of the galaxies and planets became a baby too weak even to raise his head. And to make the humor even more pointed, this incarnation of God was first made manifest, not in Rome, Athens, or Babylon, not in a great cultural or political capital, but in Bethlehem of Judea, a tiny outpost in the corner of the Roman Empire. One might laugh derisively at this joke—as many have over the centuries—but, as G.K. Chesterton observed, the heart of even the most skeptical person is changed simply for having heard this message. Christian believers up and down the years are those who have laughed with delight at this sacred joke and have never tired of hearing it repeated, whether it is told in the sermons of Augustine, the arguments of Aquinas, the frescos of Michelangelo, the stained-glass of Chartres, the mystical poetry of Teresa of Avila, or the little way of Therese of Lisieux. It has been suggested that the heart of sin is taking oneself too seriously. Perhaps this is why God chose to save us by making us laugh.
Epiphany of the Lord (Chora Church), Istanbul, Turkey. Credit: Word on Fire.
One of the most important things to understand about Christianity is that it is not primarily a philosophy, or a system of ethics, or a religious ideology. It is a relationship to the unsettling person of Jesus Christ, to the God-man. Someone stands at the center of Christian concern. Though Christian thinkers have used philosophical ideas and cultural constructs to articulate the meaning of the faith—sometimes in marvelously elaborate ways—they never, at their best, wander far from the very particular and unnerving first-century rabbi from Nazareth. But who precisely was he? We know next to nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life. Though people have speculated wildly about these hidden years—he travelled to India to learn the wisdom of the Buddha; he sojourned in Egypt where he became adept at healing, etc.—no reliable information concerning Jesus youth and young manhood exists, except perhaps the tantalizing story in Luke’s Gospel about the finding in the temple. Since Joseph, the husband of Mary his mother, is described as a carpenter, we can safely assume that Jesus apprenticed to the carpentry trade while growing up. As far as we can determine, Jesus was not formally trained in a rabbinic school, nor was he educated to be a temple priest or a scribe, nor was he a devotee of the Pharisees, the Saduccees or the Essenes—all recognized religious parties with particular convictions, practices and doctrinal proclivities. He was, if I can use a somewhat anachronistic term, a layman.
Banias. Caesarea-Phillippi, Israel. Credit: Word on Fire.
And this made his arrival on the public scene all the more astounding. For this Nazarene carpenter, with no formal religious education or affiliation, began to speak and act with an unprecedented authority. To the crowds who listened to him preach, he blithely declared, “you have heard it said, but I say…” (Mt 21-48). He was referring, of course, to the Torah, the teaching of Moses, the court of final appeal to any faithful rabbi; and therefore, he was claiming for himself an authority greater than that of Israel’s most significant teacher and lawgiver. To a paralyzed man, he said, “my son, your sins are forgiven” (Mt. 9:2). Grasping the outrageousness of this assertion, the bystanders remark, “who does this man think he is? Only God can forgive sins” (Mt. 2:7). More to it, Jesus demonstrated a mastery over the very forces of nature. He tamed the storm that threatened to swamp his disciples’ boat; he rebuked the dark powers; he opened deaf ears and brought vision back to sightless eyes; he not only pardoned the paralyzed man’s sins—he took away his paralysis; he even raised the daughter of Jairus back to life. All of this made Jesus a figure of utter fascination. Again and again we hear in the Gospels how word of him spread throughout the country and how the crowds kept coming at him from all sides: “when they (the disciples) found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you’” (Mk. 1: 37). Why were they drawn to him? Some undoubtedly wanted to witness or benefit from his supernatural power; others wanted to hear the words of an unsurpassably charismatic rabbi; still others simply wanted to commune with a celebrity. But I think it’s fair to assume that all of them were wondering just who this man was.
Midway through his public ministry, Jesus ventured with his disciples to the northern reaches of the Promised Land, to the region of Caesarea-Philippi, near the present-day Golan Heights, and there he posed just that question: “Who do people say that I am” (Mk. 8:27)? We’re so accustomed to hearing this question in the Gospels that we’ve lost a sense of its peculiarity. He didn’t ask them what people thought about his teaching or what impression he was making, or how the crowds were interpreting his actions—reasonable enough questions. He wanted to know what they thought about his identity, his being. And this question—reiterated by Christian theologians through the centuries—sets Jesus off from all of the other great religious founders. The Buddha actively discouraged his followers from focusing on his person, urging them instead to walk the spiritual way from which he himself had benefitted. Mohammed was an ordinary man who claimed to have received Allah’s definitive revelation. He would never have dreamed of drawing attention to his own person; rather, he wanted the world to read and abide by the Koran which had been given to him. Confucius was a moral philosopher who, with particular acuity, formulated a series of ethical recommendations that constituted a balanced way of being in the world. The structure of his being was never a matter of concern either to him or to his followers.
And then there is Jesus. Though he did indeed formulate moral instructions and though he certainly taught with enormous enthusiasm, Jesus did not draw his followers’ attention primarily to his words. He drew it to himself. John the Baptist instructed two of his disciples to follow after Jesus. They asked the Lord, “where do you stay?” (Jn. 1:38) and he said, “come and see” (Jn. 1:39). That simple exchange is enormously instructive, for it shows that intimacy with Jesus—staying with him—is what Christian discipleship is fundamentally about. This preoccupation with Jesus himself followed, as I’ve been hinting, from the startling fact that he consistently spoke and acted in the very person of God. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mt. 24:35). Sane philosophers and scholars invariably emphasize the provisional nature of what they write, but Jesus claims that his words will last longer than creation itself. Who could reasonably make this assertion except the one who is the Word by which all things came to be? “Unless you love me more than your mother and father, more than your very life, you are not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37). We could easily imagine a prophet, teacher, or religious founder saying “you should love God more than your very life,” or at the limit, “you ought to love my teaching more than your mother and father,” but “unless you love me?” It has been said that the healthiest spiritual people are those who have the strongest sense of the difference that obtains between themselves and God. Therefore who could sanely and responsibly make the claim that Jesus made except the one who is, in his own person, the highest good?
Now the possibility remains that Jesus might have been a madman, a deluded fanatic. After all, mental health facilities are filled with people who think that they are God. And this is precisely what some of Jesus’ contemporaries thought: “For this reason, the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because…he was calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (Jn. 5:18). What is ruled out—and C.S. Lewis saw this with particular clarity—is the bland middle position taken by many theologians and religious seekers today, namely that Jesus wasn’t divine but was indeed an inspiring ethical teacher, a great religious philosopher. However, a close reading of the Gospel witness does not bear such an interpretation. Given that he repeatedly spoke and acted in the person of God, either he was who he said he was and purported to be, or he was a bad man. And this is precisely why Jesus compels a choice the way no other religious founder does. As he himself said, “either you are with me or you are against me” (Lk. 11:23) and “either you gather with me or you scatter” (Lk. 11:23). I realize how dramatically this runs counter to our sensibilities, but Christian evangelization consists in the forcing of that choice.
There is a strange passage in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel which is rarely commented upon but which is, in its peculiarity, very telling. Jesus is in the company of his disciples, and they are making their way from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south. Mark says this: “they were going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went before them: and they were amazed and, as they followed, they were afraid” (Mk. 10:32). They were simply walking along the road with Jesus, and they found him overwhelming and frightening. Why they should have had such a response remains inexplicable until we remember that awe and fear are, in the Old Testament tradition, two standard reactions to God. The twentieth century philosopher of religion, Rudolf Otto, famously characterized the transcendent God as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery that fascinates us even as it causes us to tremble with fear, that in the presence of which we are amazed and afraid. In his sly, understated way, Mark is telling us that this Jesus is also the God of Israel.
Sea of Galilee. Credit: Word on Fire.
Once we grasp that Jesus was no ordinary teacher and healer, but Yahweh moving among his people, we can begin to understand his words and actions more clearly. If we survey the texts of the Old Testament—and the first Christians relentlessly read Jesus in light of these writings—we see that Yahweh was expected to do four great things. He would gather the scattered tribes of Israel; he would cleanse the holy temple in Jerusalem; he would definitively deal with the enemies of the nation; and finally, he would reign as Lord of the world. The eschatological hope expressed especially in the prophets and the Psalms was that through these actions, Yahweh would purify Israel and through the purified Israel bring salvation to all. What startled the first followers of Jesus is that he accomplished these four tasks, but in the most unexpected way.
When Jesus first emerged, preaching in the villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee, he had a simple message: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1:15). Oceans of ink have been spilled over the centuries in the attempt to explain the meaning of “Kingdom of God,” but it might be useful to inquire what Jesus’ first audience understood by that term. N.T. Wright argues that they would have heard, “the tribes are being gathered” (Ps. 122:3-4). According to the basic narrative of the Old Testament, God’s answer to human dysfunction was the formation of a people after his own heart. Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants to be “peculiarly his own,” and he shaped by the divine law to be a priestly nation. God’s intention was that a unified and spiritually vibrant Israel would function as a magnet to the rest of the world, drawing everyone to God by the sheer attractive quality of their way of being. The prophet Isaiah expressed this hope when he imagined Mt. Zion, raised high above all of the mountains of the world, as the gathering point for “all the tribes of the earth.” But the tragedy was that Israel, more often than not, was unfaithful to its calling and became therefore a scattered nation. One of the typical Biblical names for the devil is ho diabalos, derived from the term diabalein (to throw apart). If God is a great gathering force, then sin is a scattering power. This dividing of Israel came to fullest expression in the exile of the tenth century BC, when many of the northern tribes were carried off by the invading Assyrians, and in the even more devastating exile of the sixth century BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the southern tribes away. A scattered, divided Israel would never live up to its vocation, but the prophets continued to dream and hope. Ezekiel spoke of Israel as sheep wandering aimlessly on the hillside, but then he prophesied that one day Yahweh himself would come and gather in his people.
Now we can begin to understand the behavior of the one who called himself “the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:11). As so many contemporary scholars have emphasized, Jesus practiced open table fellowship, serving as host for many who would normally be excluded from polite society: the public sinner, the prostitute, the handicapped, the tax collector. At the very place where, in his time as well as ours, the stratifications and divisions of society were often on clearest display, he was making possible a new kind of social space, one marked by compassion and forgiveness. It is important to note that he was not simply exemplifying the generic virtue of “inclusivity” so valued today; he was acting in the very person of Yahweh gathering in his scattered children. This also helps to explain why he healed so many. In the society of Jesus’ time, physical illness was typically construed as a curse, and in many cases, sickness or deformity prevented one from participating fully in the life of the community, including and especially in common worship. Curing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the leprous, Jesus was Yahweh binding up the wounds of his people and restoring them to communion. A particularly good example of this work is Jesus’ healing of a woman who had, for many years, been bent over at the waist. Jesus restored her to health in the physical sense, but he also thereby permitted her to assume once more the correct attitude of praise.
Jesus turned upside-down many of the social conventions of his time and place, precisely because he was so concerned to place the instantiation of the Kingdom of God first in the minds of his followers. Among first century Jews, the family was of paramount social and cultural importance. One’s existence was largely defined by one’s tribal affiliations and familial obligations. An enthusiastic disciple of Jesus took this for granted when she shouted out, “blessed are the breasts that nursed you and the womb that bore you” (Lk. 11:27). But Jesus dramatically relativized the family in responding, “blessed instead are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28). Another time, a prospective disciple said that he was willing to follow Jesus but first begged permission to bury his father. In that time, as in ours, it would be hard to imagine a more pressing familial duty than attending the funeral of one’s own father. Surely such an obligation would justify a slight delay in giving oneself to the work of the Kingdom. But Jesus, having none of it, responded in a manner that undoubtedly scandalized them: “let the dead bury the dead” (Lk. 9:60) Once again, he was not being gratuitously insensitive to a grieving son; he was insisting that the in-gathering of the tribes into God’s family is of paramount importance. He makes much the same point in one of the most puzzling scenes recorded in the Gospel. “Do you think I have come to bring peace? I tell you I have come to bring a sword. I will divide mother against daughter, father against son, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Mt. 10:34-36). He will break up even the most revered social and religious system if it takes precedence over the new community of the Kingdom. Indeed, when we give the family a disproportionate importance, it becomes in short order dysfunctional, as is evidenced in the fact that much violent crime, even to this day, takes place within families.
In the Palestine of the first century, men did not speak to women publicly, Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans, and righteous people had nothing to do with sinners. But Jesus spoke openly and respectfully to the woman at the well, who, as a woman, a Samaritan, and a public sinner, was triply objectionable. Even if we delight in fashioning structures of domination and exclusion, the in-gathering Yahweh plays by an entirely different set of rules. Jesus asked the Samaritan woman to give him something to drink. St. Augustine’s magnificent commentary: he was thirsting for her faith. A pious Jew of that time would have been rendered ritually unclean by touching a dead body, but Jesus readily touched the dead body of the daughter of Jairus as he raised her back to life. All of the rituals, liturgies, and practices of the Jews, he was insinuating, are subordinate to and in service of the great task of bringing Israel back to life. How wonderful that the Gospel writers preserve Jesus’ Aramaic in their account of this episode: “Talitha koumi” (little girl, get up) (Mk. 5:41). It is Yahweh speaking these intimate words to his people who had fallen into spiritual death. Again and again, Jesus is portrayed as violating the sacred command to rest on the seventh day. His disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, and many times, he cures on the Sabbath, much to the dismay of the protectors of Jewish law. When challenged, he declared himself Lord of the Sabbath (still another breathtaking claim for a Jew to make, since Yahweh alone could be assigned that title), and clarified that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. In short, he claimed the properly divine prerogative of relativizing the significance of perhaps the defining practice of pious Jews, and placing it in subordination to the Kingdom of God.
Apostles (Notre Dame, Paris). Credit: Denis R. McNamara.
One of the facts that even the most skeptical of New Testament scholars affirm is that Jesus chose twelve men as his intimate disciples. The number was hardly accidental. He was forming around his own person a kind of microcosm of the gathered Israel, all twelve tribes joined in prayer and common purpose. And this core group he sent out to proclaim and further instantiate the Kingdom: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Mt. 10:7-8). Upon returning from mission, they exulted, “even the evil spirits are subject to your name” (Lk. 10:17). In time, he commissioned a further seventy-two (six times twelve) in order to preach, heal, and gather in. He encouraged this group to travel light and to do their work while relying utterly on God’s providence. These first apostles and missionaries were the new Israel and hence constituted the core of what would become the church, which still has the mission of drawing the tribes into the community of Jesus.
Herod's Temple (model). Credit: Denis R. McNamara.
According to the synoptic Gospels, Jesus came, at the climax of his ministry, to Jerusalem and entered the temple precincts. Taking a “whip of cords,” he drove the money-changers out and turned over their tables, announcing, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers’” (Mk. 11:17). On St. John’s telling, Jesus, upon being asked for a sign to justify this outrageous act, calmly stated, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). To perform such an act and to say such things in the Jerusalem temple was to be massively, even unsurpassably, offensive to Jews of that time. The temple was everything to a first century Israelite. It was the center of his political, cultural, and religious life; more to it, it was appreciated literally as the dwelling place of God on earth. To get a sense of what Jesus’ provocative action might mean in an American context, we’d have to imagine the violation of some combination of the National Cathedral, the Lincoln Center, and the White House. Or perhaps we could evoke the texture of it more adequately if we compared it, in a Catholic context, to the desecration of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This was most likely the action that led directly to the crucifixion of Jesus, for it not only offended Jews, but also alarmed the Romans, who were exquisitely sensitive to civil disturbances in and around the temple. What in the world was Jesus doing, and what precisely did he mean when he spoke of tearing down the temple and raising it up again? In order to answer these questions, we have to step back from this scene and examine the mystery of the temple.
We have to go back to the very beginning, to the Genesis account of Adam and the garden. The first human being was appreciated by the ancient rabbinic interpreters as the prototypical priest and the Garden of Eden as the primordial temple. In fact, the same Hebrew term is used to designate Adam’s cultivation of the soil and, much later in the Biblical narrative, the priest’s activity within the Jerusalem temple. Adam, we hear, walked in easy fellowship with God in the cool of the evening and spoke to him as to a friend. This ordering of Adam to God meant that our first parent was effortlessly in the stance of adoration. The term “adoration” comes from the Latin “adoratio” which in turn is derived from “ad ora” (to the mouth). To adore, therefore, is to be mouth to mouth with God, properly aligned to the divine source, breathing in God’s life. When one is in the stance of adoration, the whole of one’s life—mind, will, emotions, imagination, sexuality—becomes ordered and harmonized, much as the elements of a rose window arrange themselves musically around a central point. The beautiful garden in which the first priest lived is symbolic of the personal, and indeed cosmic, order that follows from adoration. This is why, on the Biblical telling, orthodoxy, literally “right praise,” is the consistently defended as the key to flourishing and why idolatry, incorrect worship, is always characterized the prime source of mischief and disharmony. The worship of false gods—putting something other than the true God at the center of one’s concern—conduces to the disintegration of the self and the society. Another way to formulate the idea that I’ve been developing is to say that we become what we worship. When the true God is our ultimate concern, we become conformed to him, ; we become his sons and daughters. When we worship money, we become money men; when we worship power, we become power-brokers; when we worship popularity, we become popular men, etc. How trenchantly the psalmist, speaking of carved idols and idolators, spoke this truth: “they have eyes but they cannot see. They have ears but they cannot hear. They have tongues but they cannot speak, nostrils but they cannot smell. Those who honor them will become like them” (Ps. 115:5-8).
I mentioned above that God’s rescue operation was the formation of a people, and now we see why that people was marked, according to the book of Exodus, as “priestly.” They were shaped primarily according to the laws of right worship and derivatively by the laws of right behavior, so that they could model to the nations how to praise and how to act. Some readers of Exodus and Leviticus appreciate the ethical teachings found in those books, but puzzle over the lengthy excurses into the arcana of ritual and temple practice that they find there. This is to get things, from a Biblical perspective, backward, for right belief is the necessary condition for right action, not the other way round. Once we know whom to worship, we then know what to do. At the heart of Jewish right praise was the formal and explicit worship of God, first in the desert tabernacle during the Exodus, then in provisional centers of worship in Hebron and Shiloh as the Israelites established themselves in the Promised Land, and finally in the great Jerusalem temple constructed by David’s son Solomon. When Isaiah dreamed of all the tribes of the world streaming to Mt. Zion, he was thinking primarily of the Zion as the locale of the temple. His hope was that the orthodoxy of Israel would prove compelling to the rest of the nations so that, in time, all the world would come to the temple as its proper place of praise. This is why the Jerusalem temple was constructed so as to be evocative of the Garden of Eden. It was covered inside and out with symbols of the cosmos—planets stars, plants, animals, etc.—because, as we saw, the ultimate purpose of right praise was to order the universe itself. Furthermore, the curtain that shielded the Holy of Holies was woven of fabrics dyed in four colors—purple for the sea, blue for the sky, green for the earth, and red for fire—for it represented the totality of the material realm that the immaterial God had made. In its temple worship, Israel saw itself as carrying forward Adam’s priestly vocation to “Eden-ize” the whole of culture and the whole of nature.
Now all of this was true in principle, but throughout its history, Israel fell into the worship of false gods, sometimes the deities of the surrounding nations, but other times the gods of wealth, power, nationalism, and pleasure. When we read the great prophets, from Hosea and Amos through Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, we hear, again and again, the summons back to righteousness and away from idols and wicked deeds: “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers! Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves…They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (Is. 1:21-23); “But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit…for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:11-13); and “my people consult a piece of wood, and their divining rod gives them oracles…and they have played the whore, forsaking their God” (Hosea 4:12). For the prophets, the symbolic focus for this wickedness was the corruption of the Jerusalem temple, the devolution of the place of right praise into a place of idol worship. Isaiah expresses this by imagining God himself as disgusted with the sacrifices of the temple: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams…I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats…when you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you” (Is. 1:11-12). But Ezekiel envisions it even more dramatically, imagining that, because of Israel’s corrupt worship, the glory of Yahweh has abandoned the temple, forsaking its customary earthly dwelling place. However, he prophesies that one day Yahweh himself will return to the temple and cleanse it of its impurities, and on that day, water will flow forth from the side of the temple for the renewal of the earth. This is, once again, the Edenic vocation of Israel.
Crucifix (Gesu Church, Rome). Credit: Word on Fire.
Against this complex background of temple theology and prophetic expectation, we can understand many of Jesus’ words and actions much more clearly. On one occasion, Jesus said, in reference to himself, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Mt. 12:6). This was, of course, still another example of Jesus’ outrageousness, for the only reality that could possibly be construed by a first century Jewish audience as greater than the temple would be Yahweh himself. But it also serves as a particularly helpful interpretive lens for Jesus’ ministry. One would have come to the temple for instruction in the Torah, for the healing of disease, and for the forgiveness of sin through sacrifice. If Jesus is, in his own person, the true Temple, then he should be the definitive source of teaching, healing, and forgiveness, and this is just what the Gospels tell. The enormous crowds gather on a Galilean hillside or on the seashore or even in the temple precincts, but not to listen to the official scholars of the law. Rather, they soak in Jesus’ teaching. The woman with the hemhorrage, the man born blind, the man with the shriveled hand, blind Bartimaeus—all find healing, not from the temple priests, but from Jesus, the one greater than the temple. And the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, Mary Madgalene, and Matthew the tax collector all find the divine forgiveness, but not through temple sacrifice. They experience it through Jesus. He was not so much eliminating the temple as redefining it, indeed relocating it, in relation to his own person.
It is fascinating in this context to consider the baptizing ministry of Jesus’ forerunner, John. When a worshipper entered the Jerusalem temple to offer sacrifice or to pray, he would cleanse himself in a ritual bath called a “mikvah.” John, who was the son of a temple priest and hence knew this ritual well, was offering a new mikvah, a cleansing in the Jordan, in preparation for a new priest, a new temple, a new sacrifice. When he spied Jesus, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). That, of course, was temple language, designating the lamb which would be ritually sacrificed so as to affect forgiveness. John was telling those who had received his cleansing bath that the true lamb had arrived.
Now we are ready to understand more adequately what Jesus was doing on the temple mount as he turned over the tables and announced the destruction of the temple. He was not simply a 1960’s style radical, protesting against the political and religious establishment. He was reiterating the prophetic judgments of Isaiah and Ezekiel against the corruption of Israelite worship, but even more than this, he was acting in the very person of Yahweh who had come to cleanse his temple and to make it a place of true adoratio. Even the most vociferous of the prophets wanted only to reform the temple, but Jesus declared that he would tear it down—and then re-establish it in his own body: “in three days, I will raise it up again” (Jn. 2:19). In these words, he was drawing out the logical implication of his earlier statement “you have a greater than the temple here,” (Mt. 12:6) telling them that the entire purpose of the earlier temple would be transfigured in him, transposed, as it were, into a new key. He himself would be the place where faithful Israel and faithful Yahweh would come together. This outrageous claim would be ratified, of course, in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but also, more indirectly, in a curious event just after the death of Jesus. We are told in John’s Gospel that a Roman soldier, in order to verify that Jesus was dead, thrust a lance into the side of the crucified, and “out came blood and water” (Jn. 19:34). Physicians tell us that this is a credible account, given the fact that the lance would have pierced the pericardial sac around the heart, which contains a watery substance; theologians have speculated that the blood and water have a symbolic valence, evoking the sacraments of eucharist and baptism. But which first-century Jew would have missed the most obvious interpretation: this was the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy that when Yahweh would cleanse his temple, water would flow forth for the renewal of the world?
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Credit: Denis R. McNamara.
Therefore, Jesus gathered the tribes and he cleansed the temple. But if Jesus truly is Yahweh moving among his people, we should also expect him to fight. As we saw, one of the eschatological hopes of ancient Israel was that God would definitively deal with the enemies of the nation. That Israel, in the course of its history, had been enslaved by the Egyptians, harassed by the Philistines and Amalekites, overrun by the Assyrians, exiled by the Babylonians, and dominated by the Greeks and Romans was not simply a political or military problem; it was a profoundly theological problem. If Israel was God’s chosen people, meant magnetically to attract all the peoples of the world to true worship, then its subjugation was anomalous, puzzling, and frustrating. Had they misunderstood the divine promise? Was God not truly faithful? Therefore the prophets longed for the day when Israel’s God, who had fought mightily for his people against Pharoah and upon their entry into the Promised Land, would finally settle accounts with the gentiles. Isaiah expressed the hope this way: “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Is. 52: 10). The uncovering of the arm of the Lord means the full display of his conquering power. A clear teaching of the Gospels is that Jesus was this divine fighter, but what a strange and surprising warrior he was.
The first glimpse of Jesus the warrior is at Bethlehem of Judea, the little town outside of Jerusalem, where Israel’s greatest fighter, King David, was born. The Christmas stories in the Gospels are not charming children’s tales, for they are full of the motifs of opposition and confrontation. C.S. Lewis, who saw these themes very clearly, asked, “why did God enter into our human condition so quietly, as a baby born in obscurity?” His answer, “because he had to slip clandestinely, behind enemy lines.”
Angels (Orvietto Cathedral, Italy). Credit: Word on Fire.
Let us turn to Luke’s familiar telling of the story. The narrative commences, as one would expect poems and histories in the ancient world to commence, namely with the invocation of powerful and important people: “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was…while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Lk. 2:1-2). And these two mighty figures are doing something paradigmatically powerful, for to count one’s people was to be able to tax them more efficiently, to draft them into the army more easily, and to order them more completely. But then Luke pulls the rug out from under us, for we promptly learn that the story isn’t about Augustus and Quirinius at all, but rather about two nobodies making their way from one forgotten outpost of Augustus’s empire to another. And the narrative will unfold as the tale of two emperors--rival claimants to power—the one in Rome and the one born to Mary in Bethlehem. When Mary and Joseph arrived in David’s city, there was no room, even at the crude travellers’ hostel, and so the child is born in a cave, or as some scholars have recently suggested, the lower level of a dwelling, the humble part of the house where the animals spent the night. Who was the best protected person in the ancient world? It was undoubtedly Caesar Augustus in his palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome. But the true emperor, Luke is telling us, arrives vulnerable and exposed, because the good life is not about the protection of the ego, but rather about the willingness to become open to the other in love. And we hear that the baby king was wrapped up in swaddling clothes. Imagine a new born infant, too weak even to raise his head, and now picture that child wrapped up from head to toe in swaddling bands. It is an image of consummate weakness. Who was the rangiest and freest person in the ancient world? It was certainly Caesar Augustus, able to exert his will to the furthest reaches of the Mediterranean basin and to the wilds of Britain and Germany. Luke is telling us that true kingship hasn’t a thing to do with this sort of worldly dominion, but rather with the willingness to be bound for the sake of the other. The child was then placed in a manger, where the animals eat. Who was the best-fed person in the ancient world? It was Caesar in Rome, who could snap his fingers and taste of any sensual pleasure. But the true emperor, Luke insists, is not the one who feeds himself, but who is willing to offer his life as food for the other. At the climax of his life, this child, come of age, would say to his friends, “take this all of you and eat it, this is my body, given for you” (Lk. 22:19).
There is one more telling detail from Luke’s infancy narrative to which I would draw attention. We hear that an angel appeared to shepherds keeping night watch over their flocks in the hills around Bethlehem. We shouldn’t get romantic or sentimental about angels, for in the biblical accounts, the typical reaction to the appearance of an angel is fear. If a reality from a higher dimensional system suddenly broke into your world, fear would be your immediate and appropriate response. The angel announced the good news of the birth of Jesus and then, Luke informs us, there appeared with the angel an entire stratias of angels. That Greek term is often rendered in English as “host,” but its most basic sense is “army.” Our words “strategy” and “strategic” come from it. Luke is informing us that an army of overwhelmingly frightening realities from heaven have appeared to signal their solidarity with the baby king. Who had the biggest army in the ancient world? It was Caesar Augustus in Rome, and that is precisely why he was able to dominate that world. However, his army is nothing compared to this angelic stratias that has lined up behind the new emperor. Remember Isaiah’s prophecy that Yahweh would one day bare his mighty arm before all the nations. N.T. Wright has magnificently observed that the prophecy finds its fulfillment in the tiny arm of the baby Jesus coming out of his manger-crib.
Golgotha Shrine (Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem). Credit: Word on Fire.
Now the battle that began in Bethlehem, this lining up of two very different views of power, would play itself out in the life and ministry of Jesus. John Courtney Murray said that as the Gospels unfold, we witness the ever increasing agon or struggle between Jesus and the powers that oppose him. From the moment of his arrival on the public scene, the demons screamed and the scribes and Pharisees schemed. Many of the major sections of the Gospels end with ominous phrases such as “the devil…departed from him until an opportune time” (Lk. 4: 13), and “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (Jn. 11:57), and “so they picked up stones to throw at him” (Jn. 8:59). This shouldn’t surprise us, for Jesus, God made flesh, entered a world that was distorted by sin, by deep-seated opposition to God. In fact, the very intensity of the divine presence in Jesus disclosed the powers of darkness most completely, just as a particularly intense light casts the deepest shadows. The fight would reach its culmination in Jerusalem, on the top of Mt. Zion, where the Davidic warrior came to confront definitively the enemies of Israel. The battle would be joined, not on an open field, but on a terrible instrument of torture.
On what we call Palm Sunday, Jesus entered the holy city, hailed as the Son of David, and almost immediately after his arrival, he went into the temple and picked a fight. As we saw, his provocative action in the temple was practically guaranteed to arouse the opposition of both the Jewish and Roman establishment. But as the last week of his life unfolded, Jesus did not contrive to confront these powers in the conventional manner. Rather, he allowed them to spend themselves on him; he permitted the darkness of the world to envelop him. In the densely-textured passion narratives of the Gospels, we see all forms of human dysfunction on display. Jesus was met by betrayal, denial, institutional corruption, violence, stupidity, deep injustice, and incomparable cruelty, but he did not respond in kind. Rather, like the scapegoat, upon whom all the sins of Israel were symbolically placed on the Day of Atonement, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world. As he hung from the cross, he became sin, as St. Paul would later put it, and bearing the full weight of that disorder, he said, “Father, forgive them” (Lk. 23:34). Jesus on the cross drowned all the sins of the world in the infinite ocean of the divine mercy, and that is how he fought. We can see here how important it is to affirm the divinity of Jesus, for if he were only a human being, his death on the cross would be, at best, an inspiring example of dedication and courage. But as the Son of God, Jesus died a death that transfigured the world. The theological tradition has said that God the Father was pleased with this sacrifice of his Son, but we should never interpret this along sadistic lines, as though the Father needed to see the suffering of his Son in order to assuage his infinite anger. The Father loved the willingness of the Son to go to the very limits of godforsakenness—all the way to the bottom of sin—in order to manifest the divine mercy. The Father loved the courage of his Son, the non-violent warrior.
Now Jesus claimed divinity, and I’ve been defending his divine status throughout this chapter, but what finally prevents us from saying that the crucified Jesus wasn’t simply a failed revolutionary, an admirable idealist who was, sadly enough, ground under by the wheel of history? What prevents us from taking that route of interpretation is the stubborn and unnerving fact upon which Christian faith is grounded, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. N.T. Wright has reminded us that, from a strictly historical standpoint, it is practically impossible to explain the emergence of Christianity as a messianic movement apart from the resurrection. In the context of first century Judaism, the clearest indication possible that someone was not the Messiah would be his death at the hands of Israel’s enemies, for as we saw, one of the tasks of the Messiah was to battle those enemies successfully and unite the nation. In the year 132, a Jew named Bar-Kochba led a revolution against the Romans. Many of his followers proclaimed him as the Messiah; they even minted coins stamped with the motto “Year One of Bar-Kochba.” His rebellion was put down, he was executed by the Romans, and precisely no one further entertained the thought that he was the Messiah. Yet the first Christians stubbornly and consistently proclaimed the crucified Jesus as Messiah. Paul refers time and again in his letters to Iesous Christos, which is his Greek rendition of Ieshoua Maschiach (Jesus the Messiah). The first disciples went to the ends of the world and to their deaths declaring the Messiahship of Jesus. How can we realistically account for this apart from the actual resurrection of Jesus from the dead?
Far too many contemporary scholars attempt to explain away the resurrection, turning it into a myth, a legend, a symbol, a sign that the cause of Jesus goes on. But this kind of speculation is born in faculty lounges, for few in the first century would have found that kind of talk the least bit convincing. Can you imagine Paul tearing into Corinth or Athens or Philippi with the message of that there was an inspiring dead man who symbolized the presence of God? No one would have taken him seriously. Instead what Paul declared in all of those cities was anastasis (resurrection). What sent him and his colleagues all over the Mediterranean world (and their energy can be sensed on every page of the New Testament) was the shocking novelty of the resurrection of a dead man through the power of the Holy Spirit.
According to the Gospel accounts, the risen Jesus typically did two things: he showed his wounds and he pronounced a word of peace. The wounds of Jesus are a continual and salutary reminder of our sin. The author of life appeared in our midst and we killed him, and this gives the lie to any attempt at self-justification or exculpation. But the risen Lord never leaves us in guilt; instead, he speaks the word “Shalom,” peace (Jn. 20:19). This is the peace that the world cannot give, for it is the Shalom that comes from the heart of God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8: 38-39). How does Paul know this? He knows it because we killed God, and God returned in forgiving love. He knows it because the enemies of Israel have been defeated.
As we saw, the Old Testament writers anticipated that Yahweh would gather the tribes, cleanse the temple, fight the final battle, and finally would reign as Lord of all the nations. In the light of the resurrection, the first Christians understood that this great work had been accomplished and that Yahweh was to reign precisely in the person of Jesus. And they saw their task as announcing this new state of affairs to the world. This is why Paul darted all over Asia Minor, Cyprus, and Greece, and why he longed to go to Spain, which for a first century Jew would have meant the ends of the earth. If someone today wanted to get a message out far and wide, he would go to New York or Los Angeles or London—centers of culture and communication. Many of the first believers in Jesus—including Peter and Paul—came with a similar hope to Rome.
Arch of Titus, Rome. Credit: Word on Fire.
In the Roman forum stands the Arch of Titus, which was built to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. On the inside of the arch is a depiction of the conquering soldiers carrying the Menorah from the temple. I believe it is fair to say that those soldiers, and those who designed the Arch of Titus, undoubtedly thought that this humiliating conquest signaled the end of the Jewish religion and the disappearance of the God of Israel. The supreme irony was that, just before the destruction of the temple, Peter, Paul, and their Christian colleagues came to Rome and, proclaiming the risen Jesus, they brought the God of Israel to Rome, and through Rome, to the world. In his letters, written to the tiny Christian communities that he had founded, Paul often spoke of Iesous Kyrios (Jesus is Lord). This can sound blandly “spiritual” to us, but in Paul’s time and place, those were fighting words, for a watchword of the era was Kaiser Kyrios (Caesar is Lord). This was the way that one signaled one’s uncompromised loyalty to the Roman emperor, one’s conviction that Caesar was the one to whom final allegiance is due. The revolutionary message of Paul was that Jesus, the crucified Messiah, was Lord, and not Caesar. Having unpacked that simple phrase, it is easy enough to see now why Paul spent so much time in jail! On the slopes of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, in the second half of the first century, a Christian named Mark had a residence. Mark had been a secretary, translator, and companion to St. Peter, and around the year 70, Mark composed the first of what came to be called the “Gospels.” Here is the opening line of the text: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1). Again, this can sound anodyne and harmlessly pious to us, but those too were fighting words. Mark’s Greek term, which we render as “good news” is euanggelion, and this was a word that was typically used to describe an imperial victory. When the emperor would win a battle or quell a rebellion, he sent evangelists ahead with the good news. Do you see now how subversive Mark’s words were? He was writing from Rome, from the belly of the beast, from the heart of the empire whose leaders had killed his friends Peter and Paul just a few years before, and he was declaring that the true victory hasn’t a thing to do with Caesar, but rather with someone whom Caesar put to death and whom God raised up.
In April of 2005, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI came onto the front loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica to bless the crowds. Gathered around him, on the adjoining balconies there appeared all of the Cardinals who had just chosen him. The news cameras caught the remarkably pensive expression on the face of Francis Cardinal George of Chicago. When the Cardinal returned home, reporters asked him what he was thinking about at that moment. Here is what he said: “I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, ‘Where are their successors? Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus? Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius? And finally, who cares? But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.’”
Jesus Christ is Lord. That means that neither Caesar nor any of his descendants is Lord. Jesus Christ, the God-man risen from the dead, the one who gathered the tribes, cleansed the temple, and fought with the enemies of the human race, is the one to whom final allegiance is due. Christians are those who submit to this Lordship.