In his pastoral letter On the Coming of the Third Millennium, Pope John Paul II asked all Catholics to spend 1997 reflecting on Jesus Christ. In doing so the pope offers a challenge to prepare our hearts for an advent of Christ, and an opportunity to fan into flame a faith that may have grown cold.
This is the first phase of the pope’s plan for the Church to prepare for the coming millennium, the commemoration of the birth of Christ. This preparation includes a deeper awareness of and repentance for past sins, and a reflection on the mysteries of faith within both a Christological and Trinitarian framework.
This call to reflect on Christ comes at a timely moment, when many groups are claiming the witness of Jesus Christ as the warrant for their differing opinions.
The hallmark of the Catholic theological tradition is its catholicity, its insistence upon embracing the whole truth in all its organic unity and beauty. What distinguishes Catholic thought about Jesus Christ is the emphasis on the fullness of revealed doctrine. When this fullness is forgotten, or when certain aspects are emphasized to the neglect of others, or when minor aspects are elevated, as if they held equal weight with the major aspects, then Christological understanding is distorted.
A deterrent to a false understanding of Jesus Christ, the Catechism of the Catholic Church seeks to portray his existence as a unified whole. It does this by developing the connections between the Trinitarian life, the Incarnation, and the Church which continues Christ’s mission.
How can we respond to John Paul II’s call to commit ourselves anew? How can we stir into flame the embers of our faith? Following the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the model disciple, we can contemplate and reflect upon the mysteries which constituted the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The primary sources at our disposal are the Scripture and Tradition of the Church, read under the inspiration and influence of the Holy Spirit. What follows is a series of reflections directed towards this goal.
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Each of the following reflections presents the major elements of the Church’s Christological teaching on the life and ministry of Christ as developed in the Catechism. They are meant to help families and other small groups of individuals begin to reflect prayerfully on the significance of Christ and his mission as a preparation for the millennium. Try to set aside an hour each week to go through the Catechism and the corresponding scriptural references, discussing them among your families or in small groups from your parish. For each section do the following:
1. Read the selections from the Catechism seeking to understand the main points of consideration. Then read the synopsis which is meant to highlight certain aspects of the doctrine. Discuss what is most important about this doctrine and why.
2. Look up the Scripture references. Consider how they help illustrate the doctrinal teaching. Notice how Catholic doctrine is a further development of the biblical witness.
3. Beginning with the discussion questions, consider how the doctrinal teaching relates to your own life and what you need to do to appropriate this teaching in a more personal way.
4. Using the Scriptures for further reflection, spend the remainder of your week reflecting on this aspect of the Church’s doctrine, not just as an isolated teaching, but as it relates to the whole of the Catholic faith.
Faith: I Believe/We Believe
1. Read SS 142-197 Man’s Response to God.
We believe in Jesus Christ. What we believe is a great mystery, a mystery which our finite minds cannot fully comprehend. A mystery, however, is not something unintelligible; rather its intelligibility has an inexhaustible potentiality. It cannot be fully grasped by human minds. It must be contemplated in all its richness. It forces us to recognize the limitations of our finite human minds and also our capacity for misunderstanding. This is why faith is both a gift and a response.
It is a gift, because the Trinitarian light shines forth through revelation, a revelation mediated through the Incarnation of Christ and handed on by the Church. The light of the Trinity enables us to see the truth about God and ourselves and the love which Christ reveals. This revelation we make personal by our act of faith, our response: I believe. This belief does not stand in isolation, because it is also an ecclesial reality: we believe.
We profess the doctrine handed down through the Church. That which we believe by faith is the reality of Jesus Christ. This reality is expressed by certain formulas (doctrines) which permit us to assimilate the faith and hand it on. These doctrines, though they are normative, and must be believed, do not exhaust the reality they seek to express (5170).
Faith is the first step to a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ and the grace of sanctification. Faith is a response of the whole person, not only an intellectual assent, but a life transforming assent: our way of living and relating to everything around us changes.
2. John 1:1-18: The Word becomes flesh to reveal the Father to those who believe in order that they may become children of God.
Romans 10:1-21: faith in Christ leads to salvation.
3. Questions for Discussion:
1) How is faith both a gift and a response?
2) What is the relationship between the faith of the Church and the individual believer?
4. Scriptures for further reflection: John 20:30-31; Romans 1:16-17; James 2:14-26.
Titles of Christ: We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God
1. Read SS 430-455 On the titles: Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Lord.
The Catechism begins its Christological explication with four titles of Christ taken from the Creed: Jesus, Christ, the only Son of God, and Lord (55 430-455). This serves as a means of introducing the saving significance of Christ and his mission. Scripture also uses an abundance of titles to illustrate Christ and his significance. For instance, in the course of seventeen verses, John (1:35-51) refers to Jesus as: the Lamb of God, Rabbi, Teacher, Messiah, the Anointed, Son of God, King of Israel, Son of Man. There are many other titles that Scripture applies to Christ as well. The various titles used throughout Scripture point to a gradual unfolding and revelation of Christ. The use of a title serves to highlight some aspect of the mystery of Christ’s person.
Deepening reflection on the titles, especially in light of the resurrection, gives them a potency which they might not have first possessed. This is a result of the Holy Spirit enlightening the mind of the Church as she wrestled with the meaning and significance of the Incarnation. Today, the titles can serve as a means of prayer and praise, a form to focus our minds on various aspects of the mystery of Christ. By reflecting on the richness of the titles, and their relationship to one another, we gain a greater insight into the whole of the revelation that Christ came to give.
2. John 1:35-51: Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God, Rabbi, Teacher, Messiah, the Anointed, Son of God, King of Israel, and Son of Man.
Matthew 1:23: Emmanuel means “God is with us.”
3. Questions for Discussion:
1) Many of the titles used of Jesus are based in the Old Testament. How does Jesus fulfill Old Testament expectations?
2) What does it mean to say Jesus is Lord of my life?
4. Scriptures for further reflection: Revelation 19:11-16; Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Timothy 6:14-16.
The Incarnation: By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man
1. Read SS 456-534 The Son of God Became Man.
The Incarnation, from the Latin for “enfleshing,” emphasizes the belief that “for the sake of our salvation” the Son of God became truly and fully human while remaining fully divine (see John 1:14; Gal. 4:4-5). The early Christians saw this as a necessity for the salvation of mankind. The patristic axiom “what is not assumed is not redeemed” argued that Christ chose to enter fully into the human condition in order to raise mankind into the divine life (2 Pet. 1:4). This understanding confronted the Gnostic heresy which denied the goodness of creation in its material and spiritual totality. God’s love for fallen mankind was such that he was willing to empty himself (Phil. 2:7) for our salvation.
The mystery of the Incarnation refers to both the conception and birth of Jesus. The Annunciation is the moment of conception when Mary’s “yes” opened the door for the Son of God to take on human flesh. By means of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, Mary gave to Jesus his human nature, by way of virginal conception. The virginal conception emphasizes that the child Jesus is not the fruit of human love, but of divine love, a gift from God which reveals the Christ child’s divine sonship. We again celebrate this mystery at Christmas when Christ reveals himself as an innocent babe, showing us that we must humble ourselves and become little if we are to be born again into his life.
2. Luke 1:26-38: the Annunciation.
Philippians 2:5-11: a hymn reflecting the self-emptying of Christ as a model for Christians.
3. Questions for discussion:
1) What does the Son of God’s decision to share fully in our humanity say about human dignity?
2) How does human participation, symbolized in Mary’s response, go hand in hand with salvation?
4. Scriptures for further reflection: Luke 2:1-20; 1 John 1:1¬5; Galatians 4:1-7.
The Kingdom: Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven
1. Read SS 535-570 The Mysteries of Jesus’ Public Life.
Jesus’ public ministry began with the proclamation of the kingdom, which called for the faith, repentance, and conversion of those who heard it. This kingdom is not a result of human merit but of God’s gift and mercy as had been promised throughout the Old Testament. Jesus initiates this kingdom through his teaching, preaching, miracles, and, ultimately, by his death and resurrection, in order that God’s reign over the hearts and minds of men might begin. He breaks the powers of darkness which prevent God’s righteousness from taking root in human lives.
This kingdom or reign of God is not primarily a worldly reign, but a spiritual reality. This kingdom is life in the family of God. The Catechism, echoing the Second Vatican Council, refers to the Church as the seed and the beginning of that kingdom (% 541). Jesus announced this kingdom by word and deed. By word, through his preaching and teaching, he invited all, including sinners, to the feast of the kingdom. But to enjoy this feast, one must give all one has (Mt. 13:44-46).
2. Mark 1:14-22: announcing the kingdom and calling the first disciples.
Matthew 6:19-34: seeking first the kingdom of God.
3. Questions for Discussion:
1) How is the kingdom already present in the world?
2) How is the kingdom not yet fulfilled?
4. Scriptures for further reflection: Matthew 21:28-32; Luke 8:4-15; John 3:1-8.
Signs and Miracles: Give us this day our daily bread
1. Read SS 547-550 The Signs of the Kingdom.
One way Jesus demonstrated the coming of the kingdom was through signs and wonders, which we often call miracles. Signs point to realities beyond themselves. The signs and miracles associated with the ministry of Christ are signs and revelations of God’s love and mercy. Sometimes, however, we focus on the signs themselves and lose sight of the realities they point to. In John 6:25-27, following the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus tells the crowd they have not sought him because they have seen signs, but because they have had their fill of bread. They focused on the bread as an end in itself, and not as a sign pointing to the food that remains unto life eternal—the Eucharist which is our pledge and means to eternal life.
Jesus’ signs and miracles are part of the announcement and inauguration of the kingdom. Christ’s power over the natural order, demons, disease, and death demonstrates his power to confront the kingdom of darkness. These signs serve to illustrate the message of God’s salvation as in the healing of the paralytic whose sins Jesus first forgave (Luke 5:17). The material sign, the physical healing, illumines the spiritual reality, which is the forgiveness of sins.
2. Luke 5:17-26: curing a paralyzed man.
John 2:11: Jesus’ signs reveal his glory.
3. Questions for Discussion:
1) How did Christ’s miracles increase the faith of the people?
2) How are sacraments signs which continue Christ’s ministry?
4. Scriptures for further reflection: Acts 3:1-10; John 2:1-12; Luke 9:10-17.
Crucifixion and Redemption: For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered, died, and was buried
1. Read SS 571-630 God’s Redemptive Plan.
Christ’s death on the Cross sums up the mission of his life: to give himself to the Father. His obedience, even unto death, is the means by which we are saved. Through Baptism, we are united to Christ’s death so that we can share in the resurrection. Death frees us from sin, and resurrection gives us new life. We die to sin to be raised to new life. At the Last Supper, Jesus institutes the Eucharist as a symbolic and prophetic sign by which he freely and willingly gives himself to the Father in anticipation of his total self-gift on the Cross at Calvary. He instructs the apostles to continue to do this as a memorial, that is, in a manner that prolongs and continues in history the one saving sacrifice of Calvary.
Jesus is doing what he has always done from eternity: offering himself to the Father. Now he gives the Church the opportunity to enter into his self-offering through the Eucharistic memorial. Our celebration and reception of the Eucharist is the way we enter into communion with Christ and his sacrifice. The Last Supper anticipated that sacrificial offering and the Christian Eucharist prolongs it. The Church enters into the one sacrifice of Christ which is forever present to the Father. We are made one with Christ when we celebrate the Eucharistic feast. We are formed into his Mystical Body, the Church, by virtue of our union with Christ, who is the Head.
2. Isaiah 53: the Suffering Servant.
John 18-19: trial and death of Jesus.
3. Questions for Discussion:
1) How is Jesus’ approach to death a model for us?
2) How can suffering be redemptive?
4. Scriptures for further reflection: Romans 12:1-2; 1 Peter 4:1-6; Hebrews 5:7-10.
Resurrection and Ascension: On the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven
1. Read SS 631-667 The Saving Significance of the Resurrection.
Christ’s death atoned for the sins of mankind. But death was not the final word. God raised up his faithful servant as a fulfillment of both Old Testament prophecy and of Jesus’ own words. The resurrection is the crowning truth of the Christian faith. It is at once both an historical and a transcendent event. It is historical in that it is attested to by many witnesses for whom the empty tomb stands as a sign of its reality. It is transcendent in that it marks Jesus’ glorified existence now sitting at the right hand of his Father. The Church aspires to a similar resurrection. Christ is now raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who fall asleep (1 Cor. 15:20). Through Baptism we enter into Christ’s death and resurrection. We enter into the watery grave to die to our old self in order that Christ can impart the new life of the resurrection. Cleansed by the waters of Baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit to go forth, ourselves anointed, to share in the mission of the Church.
2. 1 Corinthians 15: Christ’s Resurrection and Faith.
John 20: Appearances to the Disciples.
3. Questions for Discussion:
1) Why wouldn’t our salvation be complete without the resurrection?
2) In what ways do you see the resurrection foreshadowed in your own life?
4. Scriptures for further reflection: Acts 1:1-14; Philippians 3:7-11; Revelation 20:1-6.
Jesus Christ’s continuing presence: the Church
1. Read SS 668-682 Christ Reigns Through the Church.
At his Ascension, Christ exchanges one mode of presence for another. Having been with the disciples in a localized presence, he now ascends to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit and be present to the Church universally in an ecclesial and sacramental presence. The mission of the Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, is to continue Christ’s presence to the world. The Church is sent to announce, bear witness, make present, and spread the mystery of the communion of the Holy Trinity (S 738). She does this primarily through her teaching and through the sacraments which strengthen the Church for the trials of this life while preparing her for Christ’s future coming. The Church awaits this final coming in glory, as a bride awaits her husband, knowing that soon Christ will come to judge the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1).
2. John 16:5-16: The Coming of the Holy Spirit.
Luke 24:13¬35: Jesus seen on the road to Emmaus.
3. Questions for Discussion:
1) How is the Holy Spirit present in and through the Church?
2) How does the Church continue the presence and mission of Christ?
4. Scriptures for further reflection: Matthew 16:11-20; Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:1-47.