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"This book is ... my personal search for the face of the Lord," said Pope Benedict XVI, referring to Jesus of Nazareth, which is available in most major bookstores.
Mercy and Trust in the Pope's Book on Jesus
By David Came (May 31, 2007)
Noting a sense of urgency, Pope Benedict XVI has published a book Jesus of Nazareth, which in just more than a month has sold more than 1.5 million copies. (The American edition came out on May 15.)
Why a book?
The short answer is that, in an age of skepticism even among many biblical scholars, Pope Benedict says that "it struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and the message of Jesus in His public ministry, and so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with Him." Simply put, Pope Benedict says that without trust in the Gospels, "intimate friendship with Jesus, on which everything depends, is in danger of clutching at thin air."
In fact, you get a sense of this urgency in his Foreword when he writes, "Since my election to the episcopal see of Rome I have used every free moment to make progress on the book." (More is to come on publication of Part Two of the book, which will cover the infancy narratives as well as the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.)
What are we to make of Jesus of Nazareth? Though not an official papal document, the Holy Father's 416-page book is a masterwork on the person and public ministry of Jesus Christ and offers many fresh insights on Jesus in the Gospels — including several that touch on mercy and trust.
Consider these three examples.
'I Bow Down before You, O Lamb of God'
First, with regards to the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, Pope Benedict makes some remarkable connections with this event and the Lord's coming Death and Resurrection that point out why Jesus is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." His observations help us appreciate anew the significance of why we pray at every Mass before Holy Communion, "Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us."
First, Pope Benedict writes of the Baptism:
The act of [Jesus] descending into the waters of this Baptism implies a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness in order to make a new beginning. In a world marked by sin this Yes [of Jesus] to the entire will of God also expressed solidarity with men, who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness. The significance of this event could not fully emerge until it was seen in the light of the Cross and Resurrection.
Then the Holy Father draws out the implications for us:
Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind's guilt on His shoulders; He bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated His public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross. He is, as it were, the true Jonah who said to the crew of the ship, "Take Me and throw Me into the sea" (Jon 1:12).
Further, Pope Benedict discusses the significance of John the Baptist's words upon first seeing Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world" (Jn 1:29). Drawing upon the work of the Scripture scholar Joachim Jeremias, Pope Benedict shows how this scene indicates that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Passover lamb that the Israelites ate before their exodus from Egypt — but with a new twist. Now this meal has been transformed under the New Covenant and is meant for the whole world. All God's people, both Jew and Gentile, are invited to partake of " the blood of the Paschal Lamb" at the liturgy, which is the marriage feast of the Lamb. All are invited to receive God's mercy. As Pope Benedict writes:
This brings us to the great theme of Jesus' universal mission. Israel does not exist for itself; its election is rather the path by which God intends to come to all men. This idea of universality will turn up again and again as the real core of Jesus' mission. By referring to the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, the Fourth Gospel [John] places this idea right at the beginning of Jesus' journey.
Speaking for myself, this exposition by Pope Benedict helps me recognize with new eyes the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God when I receive Him at Holy Communion. He has come to take away my sins and have mercy on me. Most importantly, He desires at every Mass to pour out His mercy on all mankind, even as He shares that mercy personally with each communicant.
As I bow before the mystery of God's love and mercy, a stanza of one of St. Faustina's poems captures this reality much better than I can:
I bow down before You, O Lamb of God
Who take away the sins of my soul,
Whom I receive into my heart each morn,
You who are my saving help (Diary, 1324).
Jesus, Our Ultimate Example of Trust in the Father
In the case of Jesus' second temptation in the desert, Pope Benedict develops the theme of Jesus as our supreme model of trust when we face the trials of life. Satan has just quoted Psalm 91 to Jesus as he tempts the Son of God to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple: "'He will give His angels charge of you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone'" (Mt 4:6). Jesus quotes Scripture right back in response, "Again, it is written, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God'" (Mt 4:7).
Pope Benedict writes of Jesus' response to Satan:
Christ did not cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. He did not leap into the abyss. He did not tempt God. But He did descend into the abyss of death, into the night of abandonment, and into the desolation of the defenseless. He ventured this leap as an act of God's love for men. And so He knew that, ultimately, when He leaped He could only fall into the kindly hands of the Father. This brings to light the real meaning of Psalm 91, which has to do with the right to the ultimate and unlimited trust of which the Psalm speaks: If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you. Yet, this trust, which we cultivate on the authority of Scripture and at the invitation of the risen Lord, is something quite different from the reckless defiance of God that would make God our servant.
I've found it helpful to meditate on these words while gazing at The Divine Mercy image above my desk — the image that bears the inscription "Jesus, I trust in You!" The risen Lord depicted in the image seems to be inviting me to consider His utter abandonment on the Cross to the Father's will. His "ultimate and unlimited trust" in the Father inspires me in my responsibilities both at work and home.
At work, I've been training new staff and feel the tug at my heart to trust more in the Lord that all the work we do in the editorial department here at the Marian Helpers Center will be done well and on time. At home, my oldest child just turned 20, while my middle child will be heading off to college in the fall. Meanwhile, my youngest will graduate from high school in a couple of years. As parents, my wife and I need to trust more in the Lord as our children leave the nest and make their way in the world. We need to hold them up in prayer that they make good and holy choices in life.
Growing in trust isn't easy, though, especially when I face trials in life. In my editing, I've been inspired by the theme of trust in the Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska. She grew in trust throughout her life as she faithfully responded to God's call for her. This particular passage really inspires me when I feel like I'm at the end of my rope as a dad or an editor: "When the burden of the battle becomes too much for me, I throw myself into the arms of the heavenly Father and trust I will not perish" (Diary, 606).
What about you? Take a moment and reread Pope Benedict's words on how Jesus trusted when He was sorely tried. Ask yourself, "What are the situations in my life in which the Lord is asking me to trust Him more?"
Who Is Our Neighbor?
Finally, let's turn to what Pope Benedict has to say about Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37) as a call to show mercy. A man has just been robbed and beaten and is lying by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road. Will anyone stop to help him?
Pope Benedict picks up the narrative here, writing:
And now the Samaritan enters the stage. What will he do? [Unlike the expert in the law who has just been questioning Jesus] he does not ask how far his obligations of solidarity extend. Nor does he ask about the merits required for eternal life. Something else happens: His heart is wrenched open. The Gospel uses the word that in Hebrew had originally referred to the mother's womb and maternal care. Seeing this man in such a state is a blow that strikes him "viscerally," touching his soul. "He had compassion" — that is how we translate the text today, diminishing its original vitality. Struck in his soul by the lightning flash of mercy, he himself now becomes a neighbor, heedless of any question or danger. The burden of the question thus shifts here. The issue is no longer which other person is a neighbor to me or not. The question is about me. I have to become the neighbor, and when I do, the other person counts for me "as myself."
These words have illumined for me what it means to be a neighbor to someone in urgent need of my help. Pope Benedict's image of the Good Samaritan being "struck in his soul by the lightning flash of mercy" is so apt for such a situation. Your heart is touched, and you rush to help beyond any intellectual considerations or human judgments.
This reminds me that only last week in my parish of Sacred Heart in Pittsfield, Mass., we took up a second collection for a family in desperate need. And I was moved by the "lightning flash of mercy" to be as generous as possible. The mother had just suffered from a severe heart attack, while the father had recently lost his job. To make matters even worse, it was a family with small children.
Yet, how many times have I failed miserably to respond to the lightning flash of mercy? I sense a prompting to stop and help a homeless person on the street, but I squelch the urge and pass by on the other side of the road. I feel a pang of conscience about helping my elderly neighbor down the street by picking up her medications and buying her groceries, but I'm too busy with my own chores at home on Saturday.
One powerful image that never ceases to amaze me of this lightning flash of mercy is how firefighters in the face of roaring flames will risk life and limb to save people trapped in fires. For me, they are the very epitome of the Good Samaritan as the one who "now becomes a neighbor, heedless of any question or danger."
Consider your own situation. Has your soul ever been struck by the lightning flash of mercy? Have you seen evidence of it in the lives of others as well?
As you do just that, reflect on these words of the Lord Jesus to St. Faustina, which rightly startle us as a demand:
I demand from you deeds of mercy which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse yourself from it. ... Even the strongest of faith is of no avail without works (Diary, 742).
In closing, if you've been challenged by Pope Benedict's insights on Jesus in this column, keep in mind that I have only scratched the surface. Get your own copy of Jesus of Nazareth and discover a whole treasure trove of such insights into the Jesus of the Gospels, who is very much alive in our midst. As Pope Benedict, ever the teacher, powerfully puts it, "Isn't it more logical, even historically speaking, to assume ... that the figure of Jesus really did explode all existing categories and could only be understood in light of the mystery of God?"
To that, I say, "Amen!"
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.
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