Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
May 3, 2010
The Crucified and risen lord
Truth of Jesus Christ is the truth for humanity
Following is the text of the talk by George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Centre, Washington, D.C., at the April 15 Nothing More Beautiful session.
Last month, in the middle of Lent, I found myself at Baylor University in Waco, Texas - the very heart of (or perhaps I should say "buckle" of) the American Protestant Bible Belt. Greater Waco has, I was told, some 200 Baptist churches and three Catholic churches. Yet after my lecture at Baylor I found myself in conversation with a devout Baptist lady who went on at some length about her tour of the scavi, the excavations under St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and how she had been deeply moved by touching some of the historical roots of Christianity.
It was a striking testimony, all the more so coming from someone who doesn't recognize - at least yet - the authority of Peter and his successors in governing the Church. Yet coming within a few feet of Peter's bones, down there under the high altar of St. Peter's, had been a profound spiritual experience for this woman.
Her experience is worth pondering in light of our reflection tonight on Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen Lord.
The scavi are a remarkable place, and I hope that each of you gets to make a pilgrimage there some day. The fact that a Roman "city of the dead" existed under St. Peter's was unknown for centuries, and it was only discovered accidentally - or, we might say, providentially.
When Pope Pius XI died in February 1939, his former Archdiocese of Milan offered to commission a great marble tomb for him, which was duly sculpted and decorated with beautiful mosaics emphasizing the late pope's motto, Pax Christi in Regno Christi (The Peace of Christ in the Reign of Christ).
However, when the new tomb was brought to Rome, it was found to be a few inches too tall for the Vatican grottoes. So Pius XI's successor, Pius XII, authorized lowering the floor in the grottoes beneath St. Peter's to accommodate his predecessor's tomb - and while excavating the old floor and digging beneath it, the workers found, in the ancient Vatican Hill, a series of tombs, some pagan and some Christian, dating back to what we call the first century AD.
The rest of the story of the scavi is fascinating, but beyond our scope here; suffice it to say that, insofar as these things can be known by our science, the excavations under St. Peter's unearthed an ancient altar and its supporting wall, inside of which were bones that reputable archaeologists and forensic scientists believe are the bones of St. Peter.
Now this raises an interesting question: how did the bones of a fisherman from the farthest reaches of the civilized world at the time - Capernaum in Galilee, which was not exactly at the centre of things - a man who was likely illiterate and with the most modest of educations, end up in Rome, the centre of the Roman imperium?
How did this nobody get from the wilds of Galilee to the centre of the world - and find his bones being venerated there by generations of men and women from all over the world, including parts of the world he never dreamed existed (like Canada)?
A LIFE TRANSFORMED
The answer: Simon, son of Jonah, fisherman of Capernaum whose name was changed to Peter, became a personal friend of Jesus of Nazareth - and his life was transformed forever. So was the history of the world.
Friendship with Jesus Christ is the essence of Christian faith, according to Pope Benedict XVI. But what do we learn in this friendship? And how do we learn it?
What we learn is explained by a great piece of Christian art, the icon of the Christos Pantokrator of St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt. The icon is an image of Jesus in typical iconographic pose, full-face toward us. Yet this is a face with a difference. It is one face, for Christ is one.
Yet the iconographer, by writing a face with two subtly different expressions, has drawn us into the mystery of God incarnate, the Son of God become one of us. For all its humanity we see in the Holy Face - perhaps better, we sense - that this is a face unlike any other we have ever seen. He is in time, in one dimension of his face, but beyond time, in another. He is like every other human being (that is, a person of time and space and history), but he is also transcendent, eternal.
We meet him in his humanity; he draws us into his divinity. He embodies truth, goodness and beauty, and by being drawn we glimpse the glory of our own human destiny: if, like Peter of Capernaum, we believe in him and his power to transform our lives into a share of his own divine life.
How do we meet Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen Lord?
I met him, sacramentally, in Baptism when on April 29, 1951, I was incorporated into Christ by becoming a member of his mystical body, the Church.
Nine years ago, April 29 fell on a Sunday, and I went to the church of my Baptism, Sts. Philip and James in Baltimore, because, like John Paul II on his first return to his hometown as pope in June 1979, I wanted to venerate the baptismal font in which I was born again by water and the Spirit.
The church had been wreckovated over the years, and the old marble baptismal font was off in a sort of side-room/chapel, invisible from the main body of the church. I asked an usher where the baptismal font was and he seemed surprised by the question.
"There aren't any Baptisms scheduled this morning," he replied." When I told him why I was there, he was even more surprised.
I guess they need a Nothing More Beautiful series in that parish. Anyway, I was able to kiss the font, even if the usher thought I was slightly crazy.
After my Baptism I met Jesus through his mystical body in all its strange and various forms in the intact Catholic culture in which I grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s. I met him through my parents, who taught me my prayers and who were devout without being cloying about it. I met him through the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who educated me and prepared me for the sacraments of Penance, first Holy Communion and Confirmation.
I met Christ through priests who instructed me in catechism and who taught me to serve Mass, and I met him in the beautiful music I was taught to sing as part of - pardon the boast - one of North America's finest men-and-boys choirs, modeled on the great King's College Choir of Cambridge, England. (I visited Kings for Evensong a few years ago and afterwards called my wife, telling her, "I just found out what I was supposed to sound like when I was 11 years old.")
I met Christ in the life of the mind in college, where my life-long immersion in philosophy and theology began, and began to nourish my faith, deepening my understanding of the unfathomable mystery of God-made-man. I met Christ at the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto, where I did graduate studies in Christology, the theology of Jesus Christ.
I met Christ in marriage and the family, in raising three children, in trying to bring others to Christ through my teaching, in trying to bring him to an often hostile and uncomprehending world through my writing. All over the world, I met Christ in that remarkable bond of friendship that unites serious Catholics whenever and wherever they find each other.
That one of the greatest of those friendships would be with a pope, whose life it would be my privilege to chronicle for a global audience, was certainly not something I imagined I would ever experience, before I first met John Paul II in 1992. And it was through that work that I came to meet, and be re-introduced to Christ, by others who had met the Lord through his vicar or through his example.
Let me introduce you to two of them.
Nina Sophie Heereman is a German baroness, a bright and beautiful lawyer, perhaps in her mid-thirties now, who grew up in a practising Catholic family, in a country that had lost its Catholic culture and in a Church that had lost its nerve - a Catholicism, she once told me over coffee, that "had lost its sense of sin, and thus had nothing to say about redemption."
Nina Heereman drifted through college and law school, feeling a deep emptiness inside, doing all the things economically well-off students do but not finding much satisfaction in any of them. At World Youth Day 1997, in Paris, she saw John Paul II, and thinking of all that he had done to liberate central and eastern Europe, thought to herself, "Suppose he had said 'No' when the call came? What an awful thing that would have been for the world."
Later in that same World Youth Day, she had what remains, to her, an inexplicable but powerful vision of Christ in the Eucharist, while she was praying at Eucharistic Adoration. After putting herself under the direction of a confessor, she began to discern a vocation as a consecrated laywoman in the world, an agent of John Paul II's "new evangelization."
She is, as I speak, studying Scripture in Jerusalem, prior to returning home to Germany to complete her theological education, having taken private vows in preparation for giving her life to introduce others to the Christ whom she met in such a powerful way in Paris, thanks to John Paul II and the Holy Eucharist.
GIFT TO JOHN PAUL II
Then there is Sister Mary Karol Domski, a religious of the Dominican Congregation of St. Cecelia in Nashville, Tenn., and one of your fellow Canadians. Here are some excerpts from a letter she sent me two years ago about her encounter with Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen Lord, through his vicar on earth:
"My decision to enter religious life was supposed to be a gift to John Paul II. I know it sounds strange because he never knew that almost 10 years ago I was getting ready to visit the Nashville Dominicans as a direct answer to his frequent messages, talks, or letters on the splendour of the encounter with Christ in religious life.
"I heard those talks, read those letters, but the witness of his life given totally and unconditionally to the Son of God drew me even more to desire that same commitment. . . .
"Yet caught up in the ups and downs of my twenties, I waited. I chose to drift along society's promises of 'real' love and freedom, only to find myself carrying the weight of emptiness which appeared to encompass the universe. One day, when I was alone at home the pain seemed so unbearable that I fell down on my knees and cried out to God, 'Lord, where will I go?' . . .
"At this moment I heard John Paul II's words, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.' It was the live transmission of the Holy Father's meeting with the young people at the World Youth Day vigil in France. Christ heard my despair, picked me up, and embraced me with the arms of the Holy Father. . . .
"Religious life is such a marvellous mystery: I thought that my decision to enter the convent would be a little sacrifice for the Holy Father, but ever since that day I have never been happier. It turned out to be his daily gift to me - a gift of community life, of incredible joy and a continual abiding at the side of my Beloved, whom John Paul II proclaimed until the last moments of his life."
That reference to the drama of five years ago in Rome deepens our understanding of the relationship between the Catholic priesthood, in this Year for Priests, and meeting Jesus Christ.
I was in Rome from the day after John Paul II died until a week after Pope Benedict's election, as the Vatican analyst for NBC News and as an author with a book contract to write about the papal transition.
It was a remarkable month, but what struck me most powerfully was that, in his suffering and holy death, John Paul II was doing what every Catholic priest is ordained to do: to bring his people into the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
That is why the pope watched the Via Crucis from the Roman Coliseum on a television in the chapel of his apartment on the last Good Friday of his life, clutching a large crucifix.
LOOK AT JESUS
You may remember that he was only shown from the back, and the question inevitably came to me, on TV, "Are they only showing him from the back because he looks so bad?" To which I responded, "No, his entire life has been spent saying, 'Don't look at me, look at Jesus Christ.' And that's what he's doing to the end."
His suffering and death in the last two months of his life were John Paul II's last, and in some respects greatest, encyclical: he invited the world into the mystery of the Crucified and Risen Lord, whom he embraced with love until there was no more love left for him to give.
There is one more witness to Christ to whom I would like to introduce you tonight: my daughter, Gwyneth, a pediatrician, whose husband Rob, a brilliant young doctor and scientist, died of cancer on Feb. 5.
When I put Gwyneth's hand into Rob's at the foot of the altar in our parish church on Aug. 14, 2004, I was able to get a few words out before I choked up; I managed to say to these two remarkable young people, "You two are great. Be great for each other. Let Christ be great in you."
That is what they did for five and a half years of one of the great marriages I have been privileged to witness. That is what they were for my grandson, William, who turned four two weeks ago. And here is what Gwyneth said after Holy Communion at Rob's funeral Mass:
"At our wedding, the Gospel reading was Matthew 5.13-16. Both Robert and I have the verse engraved on the inside of our wedding rings. The Gospel speaks of (Christ's) call for all of us to be a light for the world.
"Robert lived that calling in everything that he did, and there is not a person here today whose life wasn't made better by his life. But it was for me and for William that his light shone most brightly.
"Robert wasn't perfect - despite his impressive organizational skills, he had a maddening inability to remember my work schedule more than 24 hours in advance; and he had absolutely no realistic understanding of time, firmly believing that he could make it from the door of his office to our front door in 15 minutes, no matter how many times it was proven to him that it was a 35-minute trip.
"But as a husband and a father, Robert was an unwavering beacon of light. He was entirely devoted to William, and he gave me the most selfless and all encompassing love that one person can give to another. Love that I never doubted for one minute. Love that I never regretted for one second.
Not during the challenges of dual internships and a newborn baby. Not during the shock and horror of his initial diagnosis two years ago. Not during the seemingly endless roller coaster of his subsequent treatments. And not during the last few days of his life, when I was asked to do the hardest thing that anyone could ever ask of me - let him go.
"Through all of that - and through the innumerable joyful moments in between - his love and his light was always there around me.
"I gave Robert a book last year for Valentine's Day - a compilation of photos and quotes that told the story of our relationship. One of the quotes stated: 'Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while deeply loving someone gives you courage.'
"I do not understand why Robert was not able to stay with us, why he couldn't continue the great work he was doing here among us.
"But it is my hope and prayer today that we will all find the strength and courage to see Robert's light continue to shine - amongst his colleagues, as they continue his research and remember his great caring and respect for his patients; amongst his family and friends, as we continue the relationships that he helped to bring about, and from me and William, as we work to become the light to the world that Robert believed we could be."
I have no doubt that John Paul introduced Rob to what we might call a higher lifestyle on the evening of Feb. 5, 2010, shortly after Rob met the Lord in whom he had put his trust throughout his life, and in the days of his dying.
He was too good a doctor not to know what was about to happen; and he put himself in the hands of the crucified and risen Lord.
'OUR SEARCH FOR GOD'
Go to any bookstore in North America today and you'll likely find a large section on "spirituality," in which there are large numbers of books about "our search for God."
But there is wisdom in the title the late, great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave to one of his books: God in Search of Man. Biblical religion - faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus - is not about "spirituality," and it's not about our search for God. The God of the Bible comes to search for us, and asks us to take the same path through history that he is taking.
But this God is more than an idea or an ideal. His passionate love for the world he created required an ultimate and unsurpassable demonstration: and that is what we just celebrated in the Paschal Mystery of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection - the unsurpassable demonstration of God's love, which is stronger than death and which in fact destroys death.
The Crucified and Risen Lord is that demonstration.
In him, we encounter the merciful Father who restores to his children the dignity they have squandered by living for themselves alone. In him, we meet the truth about our humanity: that it is only in making a free gift of ourselves to others that we discover the truth of our humanity - that we are called to make ourselves into the gifts for the world that our own lives are to each of us, as John Paul II put it so many times.
In meeting Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, we meet the truth about God and the truth about ourselves. That truth, the truth of God in Christ, is not simply Catholic truth, or Christian truth, or even biblical truth. It is the truth of the world. It is the truth of humanity. We should proclaim it confidently and humbly. Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!
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