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Jesus of Nazareth II: First Impressions of a Scripture Scholar

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

March 10, 2011
The regenerating experience of reading Scripture is dear to the heart of Pope Benedict XVI.  Benedict’s first book "Jesus of Nazareth" was a masterpiece and model of authentic Scripture scholarship, the lived experience of' the praying and thinking Church, faith, piety and devotion all working together.  I am very grateful to Ignatius Press for having invited me to read Pope Benedict XVI’s second manuscript: Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection prior to its publication and presentation to the world by the Vatican Press Office on March 10, 2011.  As a student of Sacred Scripture, scholar and lecturer in New Testament, I spent two days reading the new, dense text of Pope Benedict XVI – Joseph Ratzinger and came away from the experience as if I had been on a biblical retreat on the Passion and Resurrection Narratives of the Gospels – the very stories at the heart of the Christian faith.
This book should be required reading for every bishop, priest, pastoral minister and serious Catholic who would like to meet Jesus of Nazareth and deepen his/her knowledge of the very person of Jesus and the central mysteries of our faith.  I could think of no better way to prepare for Holy Week and Easter this year than to read this text.  I will forewarn you that it is not an easy read, but rather a dense and meditative text that will require frequent pauses and even prayers to absorb the riches of Joseph Ratzinger’s thought.
The conduct of Judas
Allow me to focus on three important points that Benedict has raised about Jesus’ passion and resurrection.  We have all seen that the theme of friendship with Jesus is one of the central themes of Benedict’s preaching.  It is not surprising, therefore that this theme plays out in the Passion Narratives.  The Pope says Judas lived two tragedies: the betrayal and the "wrong type of remorse" -- a remorse that is "unable to hope."  Benedict notes that John offers no "psychological interpretation" of Judas' conduct.  "For John, what happened to Judas is beyond psychological explanation. He has come under the dominion of another. Anyone who breaks off friendship with Jesus, casting off his 'easy yoke,' does not attain liberty, does not become free, but succumbs to other powers. To put it another way, he betrays this friendship because he is in the grip of another power to which he has opened himself."
Not vengeance but reconciliation
Benedict XVI says the condemnation of Christ had complex political and religious causes and cannot be blamed on the Jewish people as a whole. The pope also said it was a mistake to interpret the words reported in the Gospel, "His blood be on us and on our children," as a blood curse against the Jews. Those words, spoken by the mob that demanded Jesus' death, need to be read in the light of faith. They do not cry out for vengeance, but for reconciliation, he said. "It means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood.  Benedict reaffirms the teaching that much of the Jewish leadership of the time of Jesus did not see Jesus as Israel's messiah and king, but rejected him and sought his death for the crime of blasphemy.
Jesus before Pilate
When Pontius Pilate presented Jesus to the people with the enigmatic words: “Ecce homo” –the expression spontaneously takes on a depth of meaning that reaches far beyond this moment in history.  “In Jesus, it is man himself that is manifested. In him is displayed the suffering of all who are subjected to violence, all the downtrodden.  His suffering mirrors the inhumanity of worldly power, which so ruthlessly crushes the powerless.  In him is reflected what we call “sin”: this is what happens when man turns his back upon God and takes control over the world into his own hands.”
Epilogue: Ascension into heaven
Some of the very striking aspects of this book are when Pope Benedict moves from being exegete and professor to pastor and friend with his very personal additions.  One of those comes in the epilogue of the book on the Ascension of the Lord into heaven.  Benedict writes:
After the multiplication of the loaves, the Lord makes the disciples get into the boat and go before him to Bethsaida on the opposite shore, while he himself dismisses the people. He then goes “up on the mountain” to pray. So the disciples are alone in the boat. There is a headwind, and the lake is turbulent. They are threatened by the power of the waves and the storm. The Lord seems to be far away in prayer on his mountain. But because he is with the Father, he sees them. And because he sees them, he comes to them across the water; he gets into the boat with them and makes it possible for them to continue to their destination.
Benedict continues:
This is an image for the time of the Church—intended also for us. The Lord is “on the mountain” of the Father. Therefore he sees us. Therefore he can get into the boat of our life at any moment. Therefore we can always call on him; we can always be certain that he sees and hears us. In our own day, too, the boat of the Church travels against the headwind of history through the turbulent ocean of time. Often it looks as if it is bound to sink. But the Lord is there, and he comes at the right moment. “I go away, and I will come to you”—that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.
It is this personal encounter with the living Lord, traveling in the boat with us, that lies at the heart of Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI – Joseph Ratzinger.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
Programming note: The 2nd volume of "Jesus of Nazareth" will be officially released today at a press conference in the Vatican. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former Archbishop of Quebec and current prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, will be one of the two presenters. S+L will air this event in its original Italian today at 3:30 pm ET.