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Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week


During my summer vacation in 2008, I borrowed my mom’s copy of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: Part One. The book changed my life, introducing me to the profundity of the figure of Jesus.  Around that time, I experienced a spiritual awakening. I was down in the dumps, after being dumped. Instead of turning to alcohol or something worse, I took up spiritual reading. And after many years of avoiding the cultivation of the spiritual life, I passionately looked to Jesus and his Church. Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth came to me at exactly the right time. 

The previous year I read Augustine’s Confessions for a class. Although Augustine brought me to tears, forcing me to see the waywardness of my desire, I did not fully repent and change. To give you some sense as to why, all I will say is that Augustine’s famous line ending in "...but not yet” really resonated with me. But by the time I read Jesus of Nazareth I was ready to listen. Benedict’s self-described “personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’” was also a personal encounter with the Lord for me. I have been returning to Benedict’s masterpiece ever since. 

A few years later, I took up Part Two of Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, after seeing one of my favorite professors, David L. Schindler, with the book in his hand when I met him on campus during Lent in 2013. I pointed out the book and asked him if it was as good as Part One. I cannot recall his comment about the comparison, but he said that Part Two has become his Lenten reading since its publication. I have tried to follow this advice every Lent since then. 

Every time I read the writings of Pope Benedict, I am impressed by his ability to write about the ultimate things in a simple, yet profound way. This is a rare gift. As a college undergrad, I was reading a lot of Pope John Paul II’s writings but struggling to understand him. A professor advised me to see if Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) wrote an accompanying text on John Paul II’s writing. He said Ratzinger would likely give me a clearer presentation of the topic than John Paul II. He was right.  And when it comes to a presentation of Jesus, I have found no clearer presentation of the Lord than in the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. It is a presentation that leads to a true encounter. 

In the preface to Part Two, Pope Benedict XVI clarifies that his intention in writing such a trilogy is to present the “figure and message” of Jesus. He underscored this intention because of the widespread misunderstanding he met after the publication of Part One. He writes, “…I have attempted to develop a way of observing and listening to the Jesus of the Gospels that can indeed lead to personal encounter and that, through collective listening with Jesus’ disciples across the ages, can indeed attain sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus.” Benedict illuminates the figure and message of Jesus in a compelling way, often offering transformative insights that stick with you and provoke awe at what happened in the events of Holy Week. 

Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead had always been a struggle for me. While I knew that it did not mean the resuscitation of a dead man, I was still confused about what it meant beyond just being the definitive defeat of sin and death — I probably still do not have an adequate grasp on what that really means. But Benedict’s explanation of the Resurrection has helped me more than anything. Benedict writes, 

“Jesus’ Resurrection was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it – a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence. Therefore, the Resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated event that we could set aside as something limited to the past, but it constitutes an “evolutionary leap” (to draw an analogy, albeit one that is easily misunderstood). In Jesus’ Resurrection a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future, a new kind of future, for mankind.”

Benedict is a little hesitant about using the analogy of “evolutionary leap” perhaps in fear of being associated with Teilhard de Chardin and his evolutionism. Benedict had used just such an analogy back in his Introduction to Christianity, and I can think of no better way of thinking about the unexpected, gratuitous leap into a new age, a new “space of being union with God” that is the historical fact of the Resurrection. 

That last part about the Resurrection being a historical fact, perhaps the definitive historical fact, has really got me thinking as a high school history teacher. The history textbooks I must use cover the great history of mankind but nowhere in these books is there mention of the Resurrection. I am not necessarily calling for the Resurrection to be included in the history textbooks but to stress that sometimes the most significant historical events are not included in the story of mankind. Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth shows us why the events of Holy Week are not merely metaphors or symbols but historical facts that have transformed, and are still transforming, the world in a hidden way. We await the day when all reality becomes Eucharist. 

This Holy Week I started re-reading Part Two in preparation for Easter. It turns out that many of my closest friends are reading it this week, as well. I encourage everyone to join us and learn from Pope Benedict who was passionately in love with the Lord Jesus. Such love is evident in his writings, particularly in Jesus of Nazareth. And it is this love that not only illuminates for us the figure and message of Jesus, the One in whom we hope, but pulls us out of the dumps, like me in 2008. 






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