Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week by Pope Benedict XVI

An Expression of Catholic Doctrine

The Pope deliberately included his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger, on the title page so as to assert that the contents of this book are merely his personal reflections on Jesus’ life, and not binding on the consciences of the faithful.

One need not be a scholar to understand this book.  But I am surprised at how well received it has been among Protestants, as it is basically an expression of Catholic doctrine.  Jesus of Nazareth starts off with a good explanation of Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the temple.  Ratzinger offers some interesting insights into the symbolism of Jesus’ acts.  For example, the washing of the disciples’ feet is symbolic of the need for the constant renewal/cleansing of the Christian, who though washed in baptism still remains a sinner.

With insights such as this, “Jesus clearly presents himself as the new Moses, who brings to completion what began with Moses at the burning bush,” Ratzinger does a good job explaining the continuity of the Old Testament into the New, and how the New fulfills the Old. 

Ratzinger describes at length the type of unity that he thinks should be seen in the Church.  Not surprisingly, he and his Church hierarchy are described as being central to and at the forefront of bringing about this unity.  I really don’t agree with that, but that is the myth that he wants to perpetuate.

The Last Supper is explained as the new Passover, Jesus being the perfect Lamb of God.  The death and Resurrection of Christ being the Passover that endures.  According to Ratzinger, the institution of the Eucharist is at the heart of the Last Supper tradition where Jesus gave himself to the disciples in the form of bread and wine.  The earliest communities probably “broke bread” more according to the Passover meal traditions.  Whereas the current Eucharistic celebrations evolved over time.

Ratzinger leads us through the Mount of Olives to the Trial of Jesus.  He gives insight into the motives behind Jesus’ trial, and explains the ordinary and prophetic utterances that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.  He delves into the questions of political power versus truth, prompted by Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”  This is presented as a question that has relevance even today.  The Pope seems to have a blind spot, though when it comes to the fact of political power and injustice within his own Church.  The Catholic Church is definitely not above it all.  I think it’s fair to say that those in positions of power in the Catholic Church are at least as corrupt as the temple authorities of Jesus’ day.

The crucifixion is explained as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.  Jesus’ suffering embodies Israel’s suffering all mankind’s suffering so as to transform it mysteriously.  It is also explained in terms of the new symbolism for the new Church.  The water and blood from Christ’s side are view as symbolic of two sacraments—baptism and the Eucharist.

“If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain.”  Ratzinger describes the Resurrection as something more than mere resuscitation from the dead.  A mere resuscitation would have been no more spectacular than Lazarus being raised from the dead, or when people are resuscitated by doctors.  Christ’s Resurrection is supposed to be a whole new form of living, where the infinite meets the finite.

Ratzinger writes like a professor teaching his students.  His style is easy to read.  The book ends with a summary of Christian thought about God’s continued presence despite his seeming absence.

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