This spring, Pope Benedict XVI published a 10-chapter book titled Jesus of Nazareth. And while the Pope specifically instructed that the work is a personal project and not part of the magisterial teaching of the Church, his book is a profound reflection on Jesus authored by one of the greatest theological minds in the history of Christianity.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, the Register’s former Rome correspondent, analyzed the book’s contents and its significance in an exclusive five-part series for the Register. This final installment ties it all together.
Who is Jesus of Nazareth? That is obviously the question at the heart of Pope Benedict XVI’s book, written as Joseph Ratzinger.
The penultimate chapter examines two “milestones” on the way to the full revelation of Jesus in the Paschal mystery: Peter’s confession of faith, and the Transfiguration.
Benedict-Ratzinger observes that all three synoptic Gospels link the two events. Jesus asks the disciples about his identity, and then at the Transfiguration he allows his true identity to shine forth. They take place at a critical moment; the great preaching in Galilee is now over, and Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, toward his passion.
The question of identity comes then after Jesus has preached and taught and healed, but before the hour of the Paschal mystery has arrived.
Do the disciples know who Jesus is? If not, what is to come will prove too much for them.
More Than a Prophet
There are actually two stages in the confession. First Jesus asks the apostles who the “people” say that he is — a sort of early public opinion poll. They respond by saying that the people consider him to be John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah — or one of the great prophets.
“The common element in all these ideas is that Jesus is classified in the category ‘prophet,’ an interpretative key drawn from the tradition of Israel,” writes Benedict-Ratzinger. “While Elijah personifies hope for the restoration of Israel, Jeremiah is a figure of the Passion, who proclaims the failure of the current form of the Covenant and of the Temple that, so to speak, serves as its guarantee. Of course, he is also the bearer of the promise of a New Covenant that is destined to rise from the ashes. By his suffering, by immersion in the darkness of contradiction, Jeremiah bears this twofold destiny of downfall and renewal in his own life.”
The “people” are not wholly wrong, but they are not right either. Jesus is not simply another prophet.
“These various opinions are not simply mistaken; they are greater or lesser approximations to the mystery of Jesus, and they can certainly set us on the path toward Jesus’ real identity,” the Holy Father writes. “But they do not arrive at Jesus’ identity, at his newness. They interpret him in terms of the past, in terms of the predictable and the possible, not in terms of himself, his uniqueness, which cannot be assigned to any other category. Today, too, similar opinions are clearly held by the ‘people’ who have somehow or other come to know Christ, who have perhaps even made a scholarly study of him, but have not encountered Jesus himself in his utter uniqueness and otherness. Standing in marked contrast to the opinion of the people is the ‘recognition’ of the apostles, which expresses itself in acknowledgment, in confession.”
The people know about Jesus. That is not enough. It is necessary to know Jesus. And the disciples only know Jesus because he has chosen them to receive his intimate revelation. In a certain sense, the long history of revelation — to the Patriarchs, to the Chosen People, to the contemporaries of Jesus — reaches its most transparent moment in the Transfiguration.
“Once again the mountain serves as the locus of God’s particular closeness,” explains Benedict-Ratzinger. “Once again we need to keep together in our minds the various mountains of Jesus’ life: the mountain of the temptation; the mountain of his great preaching; the mountain of his prayer; the mountain of the Transfiguration; the mountain of his agony; the mountain of the Cross; and finally, the mountain of the Risen Lord where he declares — in total antithesis to the offer of world dominion through the devil’s power: ‘All power in heaven and on earth is given to me’ (Matthew 28:18). But in the background we also catch sight of Sinai, Horeb, Moriah — the mountains of Old Testament revelation. They are all at one and the same time mountains of passion and of Revelation, and they also refer in turn to the Temple Mount, where Revelation becomes liturgy.”
It is one of Benedict-Ratzinger’s favorite images: the unity of revelation seen with the eye of faith from Mount Moriah and the sacrifice of Isaac to Tabor and the transfigured Jesus, to Calvary — all of which is present in the liturgy, where Jesus reveals himself anew.
“The reality that is in the deepest core of his being, which Peter tried to express in his confession — that reality becomes perceptible to the senses at this moment: Jesus’ being in the light of God, his own being-light as Son,” he writes.
Jesus has revealed who he is. The disciples are invited to make their confession, which Peter does in their name. And now the great work of redemption is at hand — the subject of the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, on which the Holy Father is already at work.
Father Raymond J. de Souza
served as the Register’s
Rome correspondent from 1999 to 2003.
He writes from Kingston, Ontario.