Wednesday, January 9, 2008


In the Philippines, January 9 is a sacred day of devotion for devout Filipino Catholics. Now on its 401st Anniversary, millions of Filipino devotees annually celebrate the Feast Day of The Black Nazarene by participating in the eight-hour festivities of Mass celebrations and street-wide procession of the Holy Image from the Basilica De San Juan Bautista in Quiapo, City of Manila.

Historically, it is widely believed the much revered Image of the Black Nazarene Jesus Christ got its name from the wood it was made from that for more than 400 years has been said to turn black.

In what seems to be a fervent display of faith, hope and passionate devotion, regular Filipino devotees brave the crowded streets unmindful of the heat and bear the arduous hardships, even risking life and limb; just to get a closer glimpse, touch and participate in the human effort to physically move the Black Nazarene Image set on top of movable cartwheels from the Church grounds to be paraded within the vicinities of Quiapo.

Miracles are widely believed to be granted to those who touch the Image. It is a common sight to see the devotees who share in the duty of bearing the gilded carriage that transports the Image have a towel wrapped around their necks. The towels are then thrown to the marshals stationed aboard the carriage who wipe it on the Black Nazarene and then thrown back to the devotees; perceiving it to be an extension of "physically touching the Black Nazarene".

The devotees themselves attest to the obtaining of numerous miraculous favors granted to them by the Black Nazarene for their firm observance of their faithful devotions spanning years even decades of participation in the celebrations.

In recognition and as fitting tribute to their living Faith in Jesus of Nazareth, this article is on Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the Archbishop Emeritus of Milan who reviews the book JESUS OF NAZARETH by Pope Benedict XVI.

There have been many books on Jesus Christ published in recent times, in different languages and from different viewpoints. Something that brings out the extraordinary relevance of the figure of Jesus and the multiplicity of possible approaches.

But not till now has a book on Jesus been published by a Pope. Pope John Paul II accustomed us to various stories about his life. But it is the first time that a book by a Pope comes out that treats of such an arduous and ample theme.

It is true that only some aspects of the life of Jesus, from Baptism to Transfiguration are dealt with in this volume. The author hopes to be able to complete his work, in the not too distant future.

At all events, the question necessarily arises: are the words contained in this volume the words of a Pope, with the magisterial authority due to them or are they the reflections of a scholar who is expressing his personal convictions, though they may come from long familiarity with his subject and arise from his personal involvement in the life of the Church and in the following of Christ?

The Pope himself aims to resolve any possible ambiguity by saying: "It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search "for the face of the Lord" (of Psalm 27:6). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding" (P. XXIII).

Reading these pages one often comes across references to that background, beginning with the distance that the author takes from such great contemporary Catholic exegate as Rudolf Schnackenburg, as early as the introduction. "It has opened up to us a wealth of material and an abundance of findings that enable the figure of Jesus to become present to us with a vitality and depth what we could not have imagined even just a few decades ago."

And nevertheless, the author intends to employ "new methodological insights, that allow us to offer a properly theological interpretation of the Bible. To be sure, this requires faith, but the aim unequivocally is not, nor should be, to give up serious engagement with history" (P. XXIII).

Thus the author's own method, to which I shall return later, begins to take shape. But now let me deal with the book in itself. It has as title Jesus of Nazareth, and deals as I have said above, with the facts of life of Jesus from Baptism to Transfiguration.

The work is entitled Jesus of Nazareth, but I think that the real title should more precisely be "Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today." In fact the author passes with ease from the consideration of the facts concerning Jesus to their importance for the following centuries and for our Church. Thus, the book is full of allusions to contemporary questions.

For example, speaking of the temptation in the desert in which Satan offers Jesus the dominion of the world, he states that "its true content becomes apparent when we realize that throughout history it is constantly taking on new forms."

"The Christian empire attempted at an early stage to use the faith in order to cement political unity. The Kingdom of Christ was now expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendor. The powerlessness of faith, the earthly powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. This temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power" (PP. 39-40).

This kind of consideration on history after Jesus and on the present gives the book an amplitude and a savor that other books on Jesus concerned with the meticulous discussion solely of events in the life, do not possess.

The author shows that without the reality of Jesus, made of flesh and blood, Christianity becomes a simple moralism and an affair of the intellect. He is, for this reason, also concerned to anchor the Christian faith to its Jewish roots, and does so both by referring to the prophecy in DT 18:15, from which the argument of the book starts, and by recalling many other passages from the Old Testament that are cited by Jesus and that, apart from constituting the framework through which his words are to be understood, give a precise context to His history.

But above all, what matters is the fact that this Jesus has a vision of God which no other man has. He quotes for this the Prologue of John's Gospel: "No one has ever seen God: the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has revealed Him" (John 1:18).

This is the point of departure starting from which it is possible to understand the figure of Jesus. This entails a certain interpenetration between historical knowledge and the faith's knowledge. Each of these ways, reason just as faith, maintains its dignity, freedom and own method, without mixture or blending.

From all this the work method also clearly transpires. The author is wholly contrary to what has recently been called, above all on the Anglo-Saxon American literature, "the imperialism of the historico-critical method" (see for example W. Brueggermann, Theology of the Old Testament, 2002). The author acknowledges that this method is important but that it also risks dismembering the text and making incomprehensible the facts to which the text is referring.

He thus proposes to read the different texts within the framework of the totality of the Scripture. It has become clear that there is a single overall direction, that the Old Testament and the New Testaments belong together. This Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key to the whole and learns from Him to understand the Bible as a unity presupposes a prior act of faith. It cannot be the conclusion of a purely historical method.

But this act of faith is based upon reason - historical reason - and so makes it possible to see the internal unity of the Scripture. By the same token it enables us to understand anew the individual elements that have shaped it, without robbing them of their historical originality" (P. XIX).

The author thus rejects the contradiction between faith and history, because he is convinced that the Jesus of the Gospels is a historically plausible and consistent figure and that the faith of the Church cannot do without a certain historical basis. All this means in practice that the author, as he himself expresses it, puts trust in the Gospels, though integrating everything that modern exegesis has to say about them. From this emerges a real Jesus, a historical Jesus in the true and proper meaning of the term, whose figure is much more logical and historically comprehensible than the reconstructions we have been faced with over the last decades (CF. PP. XXI-XXII).

The author is convinced that "unless there had been something extraordinary in what happened, unless the person and words of Jesus radically surpassed the hopes and expectations of the time, there is no way to explain why He was crucified or why He made such an impact" (P. XXII). That impact led His Disciples to acknowledge to Him within the space of twenty years the name that the prophet Isaiah had reserved to God alone.

Consequently, the author expresses his persuasion "that the deepest theme of Jesus preaching was His own mystery, the mystery of the Son, in whom God is among us and keeps His Word" (P. 188). That is true in particular for the Sermon on the Mount, to which the author devotes two chapters, as for the message of the Parables and for the other great words of Jesus.

If such is the author's method, what should one think of the overall outcome of the work? The author avows that this book is the results of a long inward journey (PP. XI and XXIV). He began working on it during the holidays of the Year 2003. The book is nevertheless the mature fruit of contemplation and study that have occupied his whole life.

He has drawn the consequence from it that Jesus is not a myth, but a man of flesh and of blood, a most real presence in history. We can follow the paths he took. We can listen to His Words, thanks to the witnesses. He died and rose again.

The book thus constitutes the ardent witness of a great scholar, who today also has a place in the forefront of the Catholic Church, to Jesus of Nazareth and on His meaning for the history of mankind and for the perception of the real figure of God. It is always comforting to read testimonies such as this. I find the book very fine: it also gets itself read with a certain ease (I would recommend the reader start from the chapters on discourses of Jesus).

The book does not limit itself to the intellectual aspect only. It shows us the way of the love of God and of our neighbor, as is said very well in explaining the Parable of the Good Samaritan: "Now we realize that we are all in need of the gift of God's redeeming love ourselves, so that we too can become 'lovers' in our turn. Now we realize that we always need God, who makes Himself our neighbor, so that we can become neighbors" (P. 201).

He deals with the theme of the "failure of the Prophet," of every Prophet: His message goes too much against general opinion, and the comfortable habits of life. It is only through failure that His Word becomes efficacious. This failure of the Prophet is an obscure question mark hanging over the whole history of Israel, and in a certain way it constantly recurs in the history of humanity. Above all, it is again and again the destiny of Jesus Christ: He ends up on the Cross. But that very Cross is the source of great fruitfulness" (PP. 189-190).

However, at this point, it is better to wait for the second volume, which will treat at length the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. The reading of this book thus invites us to wait with desire what is to come.

Archbishop Emeritus of Milan
The Messenger of Divine Love
July-September 2007