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Illuminating disproportion

· Christ’s last week in a reading of the Pope ·

“Jesus of Nazareth” presented at the University of Messina

It should be immediately recognized that the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI forms a whole, together with the first volume dedicated to the public life of Jesus, from the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. The second volume speaks of the last days of the earthly life of Jesus, from the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection.

But wait, it will be objected: it is clearly disproportionate! The last week of Jesus alone is treated with the same breadth of the entire public life which preceded it! Such a “disproportion” is however easily explained and already evident in the Gospels. In the first place, the story of the Passion and the Resurrection is the most ancient and most elaborated of the oral and written traditions used by the Gospels. From the beginning, in fact, liturgical use “fixes” a fairly ample nucleus of the story.

Even more, the apparent “disproportion” shows at a glance that the passion, death and resurrection are not simply epilogues to the life of Jesus. Rather, they give meaning to the rest: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection shed light on the story of the rest of his life.

Thus, two volumes, two parts of one work: the same method was adopted to narrate Jesus of Nazareth, while the contents of his story continue.

Let us take a look at the chapters in the volume. The main road down which the Pope leads us is the meditation on the “hour” of Jesus, that of his, “lifting up,” (John 12:32): that is, a meditation of the salvific moment of death-resurrection.

Entry into Jerusalem and Cleansing of the temple. The first chapter represents a powerful overture to the successive stories. Entering into Jerusalem, Jesus announces himself as the new temple, which he has come to build. This is the meaning of John’s words, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The evangelist explains, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.” (Jn 2:18-22).

Jesus’ eschatological discourse. The discourse of Jesus on the last things, does “not offer a description of the end of the world, but rather to proclaim it using words already found in the Old Testament. Speaking about things to come using words from the past strips these discourses of any temporal frame of reference.” (Ratzinger 2, p.80).

Washing of the feet. “After the teaching discourses that follow the account of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, the Synoptic Gospels resume the narrative thread” (Ratzinger, 2, p.81). And here we find the mysterious episode of the washing of the feet in the context of the Last Supper. “Looking back over the whole chapter on the washing of the feet,” the Pope writes, “we may say that in this humble gesture, expressing the entire ministry of Jesus’ life and death, the Lord stands before us as the servant of God – he who for our sake became one who serves, who carries our burden and so grants us true purity, the capacity to draw close to God.” (p.103) For this reason, the “hour” of the Cross, mystically anticipated by the washing of the feet, “is the hour of the Father’s true glory, the hour of Jesus’ true glory (p. 104).

The Last Supper; Gethsemane; The Trial of Jesus: these three chapters represent the central part of the volume, its most analytical, exegetical and theological.

The Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus; The Resurrection of Jesus: finally, Jesus’ “hour” has come, in a definitive way. As we have already anticipated – and here we conclude our “invitation to the reading,” of our book – the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth is above all an organic meditation on the mystery of this “hour” of Jesus. Chapter after chapter, the Pope takes us by the hand, inviting us to enter into this “hour,” to live the experience of the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord, to guide us to the final threshold.

The final threshold is the definitive confession of our faith in Jesus of Nazareth: “He is truly risen. He is alive. Let us entrust ourselves to him, knowing that we are on the right path. With Thomas let us place our hands into Jesus’ pierced side and confess: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28)” (Ratzinger, 2. p. 318)

Although the Pope, with great humility, defines his work as a simple attempt, “to develop a way of observing and listening to the Jesus of the Gospels that can indeed lead to personal encounter…and sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus.” (p. 24), he appears well-aware that his work represents a decisive moment in the history of Christology. He confesses to have reached it, “after long interior reflection,” even during his youth, although the actual writing of the material of both volumes must have been relatively quick, considering that it was begun only in the summer of 2003.

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