Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jesus of Nazareth - The Baptism in the Jordan

I feel a certain ambivalence about posting these extracts translated from the Italian edition of the Holy Father’s new book. Firstly, I'm very aware of that my translation from the Italian may not always accurately reflect Pope Benedict’s actual thoughts. Translation is not as simple as it might seems to be. (Traduttore, traditore!) Secondly, I wouldn't want it thought that I'm intending to offer any thing like a comprehensive synthesis of all that’s in the book itself.
Those reservations aside, I have to say that I'm sufficiently enthused by what I meeting so far that I have to share some snippets, along with my own thoughts and I very much look forward to the discussion which will follow the publication of the English edition of this work.
On Moses
I had intended referring to the ‘Introduction’ in today's post, where Pope Benedict presents Christ as the new and greater Moses who surpasses all the expectations of the people of Israel. Time, alas, does not allow me to deal with this topic adequately. However, I would make the following observations.
1. This treatment of Christ with reference to a concrete Old Testament figure is typical of the best patristic exegesis, and highlights the preparatory role of the Old Testament in a very real way. We are not dealing here with some kind of religious evolution, but rather the specific promises made by God to the people of Israel. God's self-revelation is something very specific, and the figure of Christ is tied very tightly to specific biblical figures who went before him and who foreshadowed him. Pope Benedict has always made a point of highlighting the ‘scandal’ of this particularity. Some modern theologians and exegetes are unable to accept the concreteness of this preparation, and do not see the relationship between God and Israel as differing qualitatively from the religious experience of any other nation or tradition. To an extent, this is understandable and has cropped up within Christianity at various times, starting with various Gnostics and in particular Marcion who tried to present the God of the Old Testament as someone different from the Father-God of the New. The universal role of Jesus is much more easily appreciated if he is detached from his Jewish background. However, such an approach is alien to the tradition of the Church and taken to its logical conclusions ends up in a denial of Christ as the unique mediator between God and man who entered history at a precise time and in a specific place. Thus, Pope Benedict is saying that Christ arrived following a specific preparation and a definite promise made by God. He affirms Christ as a concrete figure who cannot be substituted by another.
2. Secondly, this presentation of Christ as the New Moses reflects another recurring feature of Joseph Ratzinger's thought. He has written several occasions about the various covenants of the Old Testament and their significance for Christian theology. Indeed, it has been said that his theology in this area has opened the way for a particularly fruitful dialogue between Christianity and Judaism.
On the Baptism
The first chapter proper of the book is devoted to the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. Having read the chapter as a whole, I must say that I'm very impressed (as always) by Benedict's ability to present some fairly meaty theological ideas in simple and accessible terms. A theological background is not required to enjoy and appreciate this book.
It is fascinating to see the diverse sources that Pope Benedict draws on in this work. He certainly makes use of modern biblical scholarship and the results of archaeological investigations (in Qumran, for example), but also draws on the liturgy and the Church’s iconographic tradition in order to explain the deeper meaning of the information which historical research throws up. He is remaining true to his method, namely the use of historical-critical scholarship in the context of a more broadly based theological reading of the text in harmony with the Church’s tradition.
What then does he say about the baptism? The following quotation reflects part of what Pope Benedict has to share with us:
Descending into the water, those baptised recognized their own sins and sought to free themselves from the weight of being oppressed by sin. What did Jesus do? Luke, who throughout his gospel pays particular attention to the prayer of Jesus, and constantly presents Him as the One who prays - in dialogue with the Father - tells us that Jesus was at prayer after being baptised. Because of the cross and resurrection it becomes clear to Christians what had occurred: Jesus took on his shoulders the weight of the sin of all humanity; he took it with him into the Jordan. From the beginning of his activity he takes the place of sinners. There begins the anticipation of the cross. He is, so to say, the true Jonah who said to the sailors: take me and throw me into the sea. (Jonah 1:12) The full meaning of the baptism of Jesus, his fulfilment of “all righteousness” (cf Matt 3:15) reviews itself only in the cross: the baptism is the acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice from heaven "This is my beloved Son” is the anticipated reference to the resurrection. Thus one understands the reason why in his own discourses Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his own death. (Matt 10:38; Luke 12:50) [p 38]

Commentary
Note how Scripture is being understood as a whole, both in terms of the Old and New Testament illuminating each other, and in terms of the whole of Christ's life being understandable in the light of the Paschal mystery. There is a sensitivity to the differences in the evangelists’ presentations, but no desire to dissect Scripture in such a way that it cannot be put back together again.
In this chapter, the Pope also reflects on the continuity of John the Baptist and Christ with the Jewish tradition, but also shows how they are presenting something wholly new that surpasses anything expected by Judaism. The universality of their respective missions is just as crucial a key to understanding them. (Thus, he contrasts the genealogy of Christ in Matthew which concerns itself with Christ's Davidic descent and that of Luke who traces Christ's origin back to Adam, the father of all mankind.)
As I mentioned before, one of the particularly interesting things the Pope Benedict does is that he draws on the Eastern iconographic tradition to flesh out our understanding of the baptism in the Jordan. He notes that the Eastern icon of the baptism portrays the Jordan as being a ‘liquid sepulchre’ which highlights the link between this act of baptism and Christ's descent into hell. Those who have been following the recent debate about von Balthasar’s theology of the descent will find what Pope Benedict does this particular dimension fascinating. He doesn't present this descent in terms of Balthasar’s passive descent into Sheol – indeed, the focus is much more on Christ’s triumphant defeat of the devil in his descent into Hell - but there are decided echoes of Balthasar in Benedict’s description of the baptismal descent. By his baptism Christ “can take upon himself all the sin of the world and exhaust it, suffering to the utmost - leaving behind nothing in the descent into the identity of those who are fallen."
There is much more to say about Benedict's treatment of the baptism in the Jordan - the link he makes between this baptism and St Paul’s theology of baptism is fascinating, especially as St Paul never made explicit reference to the baptism of the Jordan. What we have is a blend of Benedict's fidelity to the tradition and his authentic theological creativity.
Finally, he is insistent that modern scholarship should support the Church’s reading of the Bible and repeatedly affirms the value of what might be thought of as as the ‘plain man’s reading’ of the Gospels. The picture presented by the texts themselves is plausible and logical and need not be supplanted by a more ‘scientific’ vision of ‘what really happened:
A broad current of liberal theology has interpreted the baptism of Jesus as a vocational experience: that He, who until this moment lived a totally normal life in the province of Galilee, had a disturbing experience; He came to the awareness of a special relationship with God and of his religious mission, and made sure awareness based on the expectations which were then present in Israel (to which John the Baptist had given new form) thanks to personal upset caused in Him by the event of baptism. But none of this is found in the texts. No matter how learned the clothes one can put on this theory, it ultimately owes more to the genre of a novel about Jesus, than to the true interpretation of the texts. These texts do not permit us to see inside Jesus. He is above our psychologies. (Romano Guardini) Rather, they let us know what relationship there is between Jesus and “ Moses and the Prophets”. They let us know the intimate unity of His journey from the first moment of his life until his cross and resurrection. Jesus does not appear as a kindly man with his emotions, failures and successes - in other words, as an individual of a past historical era He would remain irreducibility distant from us. Rather, he is put in front of us as the “Beloved Son”, when one hand is totally Other, and because of this he can also become contemporary to all of us, for each one of us he can be closer to us than we can be to ourselves. (Cf St Augustine, Confessions, 3.6.11) [p 44-45]

[That last point is pure Ratzinger. He points out that Christ can be closer to us than we can imagine, precisely because he is so unlike us. The Holy Father has a taste for the striking paradoxes of our faith, and yet is sufficiently sensitive to their meaning to resist the temptation to reduce them to confusing or meaningless dialectic. (Again, another Augustinian dimension to his thought - Erich Pryzwara identified this quasi-dialectic aspect of Augustine's thought as one of the reasons for his eternal relevance - his thought never grows stale)]

2 comments:

Boeciana said...

Carry on putting stuff up! It's very interesting!

finleykaren said...
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