Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
December 21, 2009
Jesus Christ: The Way, the Truth and the Life
Archbishop Thomas Collins' talk at the Dec. 10 session of Nothing More Beautiful
I: The Encounter with the Divine Person of Jesus
The basic thing about being a Christian, is that a person has encountered Jesus Christ, and that it shows. Being a Christian is more than simply proclaiming some doctrines, although it necessarily includes that.
We Christians are those who say that "Jesus is Lord," and we need to know what we mean by that, and by the other beliefs of our faith. But it is not knowledge of Christian doctrine, but total allegiance to the Lord Jesus that marks each of us as a Christian. Jesus is for us "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14.6).
This has been so from the beginning, although it was only recently, in the 1920s, that the Church established a liturgical feast to celebrate that commitment: the feast of Christ the King, with which we end each liturgical year with a bang.
Christian discipleship arises out of a profound encounter with a person, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, who came into this world at Bethlehem 2,000 years ago to be for us Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
It has always been so. We are called "Christians" because we have encountered Jesus who is the Christ in such a way that our whole life has been changed utterly. He is the one who shows us the way to the heavenly Father, and sends to each of us the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.
When we encounter Jesus, he calls on each of us to follow him. This invitation, which is the foundation not only of specific forms of consecrated life, but of discipleship itself, is seen in the first chapters of each of the Gospels.
Jesus says: "Follow me" (John 1.43). We are to follow him personally, and to give up all that takes us away from him. Jesus says: "If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if anyone serves me, the Father will honour him" (John 12.26).
ENCOUNTER WITH JESUS
Consider how in the Gospels ordinary people, whom Jesus encounters in the midst of the busyness of their daily life, immediately drop everything to follow him. This is especially obvious in the Gospel of Mark, where it seems that every few words we come upon "immediately." But it is true in each Gospel and in every age: a Christian is a person who has met Jesus on the road of life and who follows him.
In our Christian faith there is a personal element of fervent allegiance to Jesus that sets us apart from all other religions. Pope Benedict notes this in his book, appropriately entitled Jesus of Nazareth, in which he speaks of a learned Jewish rabbi who appreciates much about Christianity, and is well-disposed to the message of the Gospel and to the person of Jesus, but who cannot in conscience take the step of giving to him the loyalty, the obedience - in fact, the worship - that Jesus expects of his disciples.
That makes sense: for the rabbi is a Jew, not a Christian. Jews do not acknowledge in Moses, or Muslims in Mohammed, the divine identity which Christians acknowledge in Jesus.
Throughout the Gospels, and in Christian history, we see many expressions of the way in which disciples relate to Jesus, but in the Resurrection appearances in the Gospel of John, Thomas the doubter expresses it most simply when he says: "My Lord and my God" (John 20.28).
About 1,400 years later in the Christian adventure, another Thomas outlined the implications of that affirmation for the faithful disciple's daily life. Thomas a Kempis quite rightly entitled his masterpiece of Christian spiritual wisdom The Imitation of Christ. That title properly summarizes the Christian life. First we know Christ, and then we imitate him. Really, it is as simple as that.
IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA
A bit later than Thomas a Kempis, Ignatius of Loyola sketches a complementary approach to the basic Christian model of discipleship in another spiritual masterpiece, the Spiritual Exercises, in which the disciple is challenged to make a basic decision to accept Jesus as the Lord, and then to become immersed prayerfully in contemplation of the Gospel experience of the encounter with Christ, especially in his suffering, death and resurrection, and to let that shape the whole of life.
We experience in prayer the encounter with Jesus during his passion through the drama of the Stations of the Cross. As in our imaginations, assisted by the visual representations of a set of the Stations, we follow Jesus along the road to Calvary, we are invited to make the appropriate applications of his Way of the Cross to our own lived experience.
In another spiritual practice that has developed during the course of time, Christians most appropriately enrich their personal commitment to Jesus by spending time in adoration of Our Risen Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Being a Christian is necessarily a matter of adoration of Jesus, and a personal commitment to him that trumps all other loyalties in life. In the Gospel, the disciples are called to set aside even loyalty to the family, a most basic human loyalty, to give their lives to Christ.
We are people who are called to say with our minds, our lips, our hearts, and our lives those simple words of Thomas: "My Lord and my God." That is what forms the integrity of the faithful disciple of Jesus: all of life is in harmony with the call of the Master.
Sadly, that does not always happen in practice, for so often we betray the Lord through our sins, as did the apostles themselves. Each sin is a betrayal of the Lord, who has called us to do the will of the Father, and not to be caught up in the traps set by the fallen human ego: pride, anger, envy, greed, laziness, lust and gluttony.
But when we betray him, he reaches out to us instantly, with mercy and a renewed invitation to holiness.
"Who do you say that I am?" That is the question that first defines the life of the Christian. When asked that question, fickle Peter got it right, and acknowledged the Lord: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16.16). But later, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, he denied Jesus when his fears overcame him.
THE CLUTTER OF LIFE
So often we do the same. So many things get in the way. So many things can clutter our lives, and distract us. That is why Jesus created the sacrament of Reconciliation as his first Easter gift. He always invites us to come back and showers us with his mercy.
Peter had denied the Lord three times, despite all his cheap words of fidelity. But Jesus forgives him, and asks him three times the question that follows from and completes the initial "Who do you say that I am?"
It is not enough simply to say with Peter "You are the Christ," though we must begin with that. We begin with an affirmation of the intellect: faith is an act of the intellect, moved by the will, moved by the grace of God.
But that faith must go deeper and be expressed as love in all that we are and all that we do. And so Jesus brings the initial question of discipleship to fulfilment. After the Resurrection, long after Peter's first profession of faith, and his denials, Jesus does not ask Peter: "Do you talk about me, and tell people that I am the Christ?" or "Do you study my teachings?" or "Do you check 'Catholic' on the census form?"
He asks Peter three times: "Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?" He asks each of us that question, and each day we answer with our lips and with our lives.
ENERGIZED WITH HOPE
In the history of the Church, we see the primacy of the encounter with Jesus in the lives of the saints, whose faith in Jesus energizes them with hope so that they act boldly in generous love.
One of my favourite stories is that of St. Martin, a soldier who had sworn fidelity to the Roman emperor. He rode out of camp one cold day in winter, and saw a beggar shivering by the side of the road. He cut his military cloak in two, and gave half to the beggar. That night, he had a vision in which he saw Jesus wrapped in the cloak. From that moment on, Martin gave his whole life to Christ.
Notice the elements of Christian discipleship in Martin's action: he dedicated the rest of his life to the service of the Lord alone, but he saw Christ at the roadside before he saw Christ in the vision - our actions must reveal in practice that we see the face of Christ, as Martin did, in those whom we encounter by the side of the road of life.
This is what Jesus teaches us in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, in the vision of the Last Judgment: whatever we do, for good or ill, to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do to Jesus.
That was the foundation of the great work begun in Edmonton so many years ago by the young Father Bill Irwin. He read those words of Matthew 25, and they inspired him to establish Catholic Charities and Catholic Social Services, to help those most in need, not just because it is in general a good thing to help those in need, but because in helping them in practical ways we are offering our love to Christ. It is the face of Christ that is our sign of hope.
I have noted that our personal devotion to Jesus is something distinctive in our Christian faith, and is not something that has a parallel in Judaism or Islam. But the idea that Christians see Christ in others is immensely attractive, even to those who do not share our faith.
Earlier this year I spoke on the phone with a young Muslim student at a secular high school, who had as his school project the task of interviewing a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian concerning the approach of the different faiths to questions of social justice. He picked me as the sample Christian.
We had several fascinating conversations, in which it was clear that he had a rather distorted view of Christian faith and history, and at one point I mentioned the personal dimension of Christian faith: how we are called to put Matthew 25 into action by seeing the face of Christ in each person we meet, especially the most vulnerable.
I think I may have even referred to Father Bill. I certainly referred to Mother Teresa, and to the words of John Paul II. The young man, with almost no awareness of Christianity, was deeply moved by that idea: that a Christian's actions would be governed by seeing the face of Christ in those who suffer.
So for a Christian, all of life is rooted in a deep personal connection to Jesus: we follow him, and commit our lives to him. We then show the authenticity of that commitment through our actions.
The encounter with Christ, however, is not simply individualistic. Making a personal "decision for Christ" is not sufficient. That would be a limitation on Christian discipleship. Our faith is not simply a matter of "me and Jesus."
First of all, when we meet Jesus, we are led into a deeper relationship with the divine persons of the Blessed Trinity; Jesus says: who has seen me, has seen the Father. And to experience the Father and the Son, we receive the Holy Spirit.
Our whole life with one another during our brief journey through this world is to be a reflection of the relationships of generous love that are at the heart of the Trinity. Our encounter with Jesus is meant to help us to offer others that divine love. He came among us to show us how to do that, and we see his example throughout the Gospels.
At the Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. That is what divine love looks like in this world of human pride.
On the cross, surrounded by hatred, Jesus asked the Father to forgive his enemies. That is what divine love looks like in this world of hatred and violence.
When we imitate Christ, we are living as persons made in the image and likeness of God as Jesus taught us to live, for we are living on earth the love of the Blessed Trinity. That is the purpose of life. We not only pray in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but we live in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The human community of the disciples is also essential, and it too is meant to be an expression on earth of the generous personal love of the Blessed Trinity. Notice how in the Gospels, new disciples are introduced to Jesus by others, and are invited by him into the community of the disciples.
This still happens. We encounter Jesus through the mediation of those who already know him, and all who know him are called to introduce others to him. Look to the beginning of the Gospel of John, where Andrew introduces his brother Peter to Jesus.
The encounter with Jesus is always a call to enter into the earthly and imperfect community of the disciples, which is the Church.
In the first chapter of John, after John the Baptist has indicated to his disciples that Jesus is the Lamb of God, two of them followed Jesus. "Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, "What do you seek?" And they said to him, "Rabbi" (which means teacher), "Where are you staying? He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour" (John 1.38-39).
What is at issue here is a decision to live fully in the fellowship of the disciples who are gathered around Jesus. We get to become disciples by staying with the Lord and the community of his disciples. One learns to become a disciple not mainly through some course of instruction, but rather through the full experience of the community of the disciples.
This gives us some guidance as we consider the Rite of Christian Initiation which is found in our parishes.
The experience is one of coming and seeing, of growing in a personal knowledge of the Lord and his teachings within the context of the local parish, which is the local community of the disciples of the Lord, within which we are invited to come and see the Lord by living with him.
STABLE COMMUNITY OF DISCIPLES
A key point: those who are coming and seeing need to encounter Jesus through the whole parish, through the stable community of disciples which will be their permanent home. There is a problem if they mainly encounter the small group of disciples who work in RCIA, so that after the big celebration after the reception into the Church at the Easter Vigil the temporary RCIA community disbands and everything unravels.
Each disciple needs to find in a vibrant parish the setting for the ongoing encounter with Jesus, and for living out the implications of that encounter. In our parish we enter into life in Christ through Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, which strengthens us for the daily struggle to be faithful disciples through a sacramental encounter with our Risen Lord.
When we sin, Jesus reaches out to us in with pardon and peace in the sacrament of Reconciliation through the ministry of the Church which he established. Our parish church is the scene for the establishment of the most intimate and fundamental community of the domestic Church, through the great sacrament of Matrimony.
When we are physically suffering, the priest who is the instrument of spiritual healing through the sacrament of Reconciliation comes to us with the solace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Through the sacrament of Ordination, the Lord consecrates the priests who serve us in the preaching of the Word of God and in the sacramental ministry.
All parishioners respond to the encounter with Jesus in Word and Sacrament by living as faithful stewards of the gifts of God, of time, talent and treasure, so that the parish may be a welcoming home for the disciples, where they do indeed stay with the Lord, and reach out to invite others to come and experience the encounter with Jesus in the life of the parish.
From the parish Sunday Eucharist the disciples are sent out into their daily lives, strengthened by the encounter with Jesus through Word and Sacrament, and eager to make him present in practical ways through their life in a world that so often does not recognize him.
II: The Gospel Encounter with the Person of Jesus: the Way, the Truth and the Life
We encounter Jesus in both Word and Sacrament. I have mentioned how he comes to us through the sacraments which we receive during the course of our life of discipleship.
In the Word of God, it is above all in the Gospels that we encounter Jesus as the Lord of our lives, and this happens in different ways in each of the Gospels.
In the Gospel of Mark we find an account of the actions of Jesus. "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1.1). In those blunt opening words we can almost hear the voice of Peter, who traditionally has been considered to be the source of Mark's Gospel.
In the Gospel of Matthew we find a rich treasure of the teachings of Jesus, in discourse and parable, as in the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of the kingdom of God. We need that if we are to know the path in life as disciples.
In the Gospel of Luke, we find actions and teachings, but we especially get a sense of the warmth of the Lord's love for the poor and the vulnerable. It is the Gospel of the parable of the prodigal son - which is the parable of the loving father.
THE SUBLIME GOSPEL
To complete this reflection on Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, I will concentrate on the sublime Gospel of John, the Gospel that arises out of years of pondering by the beloved disciple on the meaning of his own encounter with Christ.
As in each Gospel, so in the Gospel of John we are drawn to focus our love and our life on Jesus, Our Lord. As in Matthew's Gospel Jesus asks "Who do you say that I am?" In John's Gospel Jesus tells us who he is, and it is good for his disciples to think about that.
In the midst of the storm on the sea, Jesus comes walking on the water to encourage his frightened disciples. He says: "It is I; do not be afraid" (John 6.20), and gets into the boat with them, and the winds drop and the sea is calm.
So often we are frightened by the storms of life, outside of us and within the heart. Be not afraid. He is in the boat with us.
In Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John we find the teaching on the Eucharist. Jesus says: "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6.35).
The last time we receive Communion, we call it "viaticum," "food for the journey"; but in our journey as disciples through the desert of this world, Jesus is our Bread of Life, and we are nurtured through the Eucharist.
There at Mass in our parish community, we encounter him most concretely, most intimately, until at the end of our journey we see him face to face: "The Body of Christ." "Amen." "It is the Lord."
After the Resurrection, doubting Thomas finally acknowledges Jesus as "My Lord and my God," but we need to do so in every moment of our lives. Our Eucharistic encounter, whether at Mass or in times of Eucharistic adoration, helps us to do so.
DIVINITY OF JESUS
The divinity of Jesus is absolutely clear. In chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his opponents: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am" (8.58). That is the voice of God, of God with us.
In Chapter 10, Jesus uses two images to express his care for us. He is like a shepherd who keeps the flock safe in the sheepfold.
First of all, he says: "I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture" (John 10.7-9). Jesus controls entry into eternal life; he is the door through whom we enter into the kingdom of God.
And he demonstrates his love for each of us, a sacrificial love which he showed on the cross, and which he expects us to imitate: "I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10.15).
Those, such as bishops and priests and religious superiors, who exercise some office of responsibility and pastoral care in the community of the disciples, obviously need to be attentive to the example of Christ, the Good Shepherd. But all of us are called to care for others in the name of the Good Shepherd. I think particularly of the sacred mission of mothers and fathers.
Our pilgrimage through this world on the way to the heavenly Jerusalem is brief, no matter how many years we live. We are stewards of time, not the masters of it, and as the years go by we are reminded of our mortality by the death of those whom we know and love.
In the experience of grief, Jesus gives us hope, and a vision of the context of earthly life, when he says to us as to Martha and Mary: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11.25-26).
At the Last Supper, Jesus gave his disciples the vision that would guide them home to the heavenly Father. It is the vision that guides us still. He said: "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
"And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also. And you know the way where I am going."
Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?"
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you have known him and have seen him" (John 14.1-6).
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
Jesus is the way, the way to the house of the Father. Through the imitation of Christ, and by obedience to his Gospel, we will find the way home. He has gone before us to show us the way, and we are to follow him.
The early Christians simply called their life "the Way," and that makes sense: Jesus is the way, and we his disciples navigate through life by living as he has shown us, by word and action.
Jesus is the truth. Love must be based on truth, and is inseparably linked to it, as concave to convex, as Pope Benedict has shown us in his most recent encyclical letter, Love in Truth.
Truth matters. We need to know truly the one we love and his teachings. A mere emotional Christianity, devoid of doctrine, and caught up in moral relativism, is a fraud.
KNOW, LOVE AND SERVE
Our mission has always been what used to be the first answer in the old catechism. Why did God make you? God made me to know, to love, and to serve him. That is it: we need first to know, so that we can love through authentic service.
Jesus tells us: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8.32).
It is a false Jesus of our own creation who is merely the object of emotional commitment, in a religion that gives pleasant spiritual experiences but does not challenge us to confront the truth.
Jesus says: "If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God" (John 8.47). We need to let the words of the one who is the Truth challenge and guide us.
Jesus is the Life. He came to give us life, life to the full. "May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins and bring us to everlasting life."
We are not meant just to exist, passing quickly through this world until time is up. We are meant to be fully alive and Jesus is our life. When we follow him, we are alive. That is why vibrant disciples of Jesus are full of joy.
They live to the full in this earthly world by following the way of Jesus which gives true guidance to the house of the Father.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
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