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Jesus Christ: Yesterday, Today, Forever
by Lawrence S. Cunningham

It has been said that the three great religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—that look to Abraham as their father in faith are "religions of the book." The "book" refers, of course, to the Bible and the Koran. In the case of Christianity, however, the phrase "religion of the book" is somewhat misleading. The center of Christian faith is not a book but a person, Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Anointed One (Christ).

There is a wonderful anecdote about one of the early desert monks who sold his precious copy of the New Testament. He explained that he sold the book to give money to the poor in obedience to the book which told him to do that in order to "follow Jesus." That simple desert hermit understood perfectly that it was Jesus and not the New Testament witness to him copied on a page that was central to faith. He had been obedient to the words of Jesus.

The challenge remains

The celebration of the 2000th birthday of Jesus is almost over. One goal of Pope John Paul's millennium plan was to bring us to a deeper faith in Jesus our Savior, "the key, the focal point and the goal of all human history," in whom all things in heaven and earth are united, the One who was, who is and who ever will be. The celebration is ending but the challenge remains for us—individually and as a community—to grow in our understanding, faith and love of Jesus the Christ.

We can never rest content that we have grasped Christ in his fullness. His life, his deeds and his words paint a very complex picture that emerges from the Scriptures. Is Jesus the first-century Palestinian Jew who preached and healed as he walked through the villages of the Galilee? Is he the man who associates himself with God as he does in St. John's Gospel? Is he the "hidden wisdom" of God as Paul describes him? Is he the judge who will come at the end of time to separate the goats and sheep? Is he the victorious lamb on the throne described in the Book of Revelation? In what sense are we to understand that he is the "Word made flesh"?

Christians believe all of the above not as separate affirmations but as part of a coherent whole. Jesus is a single person who holds within himself a series of paradoxical realities:

He is human; he is divine.
He is from all eternity; he was born in time.
He was a first-century Jew; he is the Eternal Word of God.
He lived two millennia ago; he lives today.
He died on a cross; he is raised from the dead.
He is always with us; he sits at the right hand of the Father.

Fully human, fully divine

In the single person who is Jesus we see what it means to be both fully human and fully divine. If we ask the question, "What is God like?" we can look to Jesus for the answer.

Consider this statement of the Apostle Paul: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law..." (Galatians 4:4). Jesus was not some generic kind of human. He was born into a specific race with a specific history at a specific time. Jesus was a Jew who lived under the oppressive rule of the Romans in a place at the edge of the Roman Empire called Palestine. Paul goes on to say that the sending of Jesus was for the purpose of redeeming us that we might have the spirit of Jesus within us so that, like him, we can cry out "Abba, Father!" (Galatians 4:6). We become by adoption what he is by nature—children of God.

This awesome mystery is classically expressed in the great hymn with which John the Evangelist prefaces his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God....
And the Word became flesh and made
his dwelling among us... (1, 14).

In that same prologue John makes another astonishing claim about the Word but does so almost in passing when he writes: "He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him" (1:10; my emphasis). In his letter to the Colossians Paul says that Christ was the image (icon) of the invisible God and then asserts: "...in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible...all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (1:16-17; my emphasis).

John and Paul, in their own ways, argue that the full meaning of Jesus extends beyond what he did and who he was in the short span of his earthly life. He has a cosmic significance.

When we contemplate Jesus as the Word of God it is crucial for us to keep in mind that the very same Jesus walked in Galilee, healed the sick, preached the Reign of God, told stories of hope and salvation, ate with both Pharisees and sinners, accepted betrayal, died on a cross. In his public life Jesus taught but he asked his disciples not simply to learn his message but to follow him. Jesus is the message: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." Jesus, in other words, is from all eternity the Word and Son of God, but he lived in time and still lives through his resurrection. That is the meaning of the acclamation: "Jesus Christ: Yesterday, Today and Forever!"

Meeting Christ today

How do we, who live two millennia after his earthly life, know this Jesus today? In many wonderful ways:

By faith and prayer: Knowing God's goodness fills our hearts with gratitude. The world in which we live and the life that we possess come to us as a sheer gift from the Creator who utters his Word. Ancient Byzantine mosaics depict Christ as the Pantocrator—the one who holds all things in his hands. We are in awe of the Word who not only brings the world to be but also "sustains" (Hebrews 1:3) that world.

By becoming his disciple: We know Jesus when we accept him as a living person who calls each of us to be his disciple. He shows us what God is like: loving, healing, sustaining, freeing us from sin, promising us the gift of his Spirit and granting us life in him. We know this Christ by listening to him in the proclamation of the gospel—not as merely a historical figure but as one who speaks to us today in a vibrant and compelling voice.

By sharing in a community of faith: We know Jesus when we join other disciples who also know him. Jesus himself promises this to us: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20).

In the Eucharist: Nowhere is Jesus more present to a community than when his disciples gather to hear his words and "break the bread" of the Eucharist. In one of the most compelling stories in the New Testament, two disciples walked with Jesus after the great events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday but they did not recognize him. The high point came when the strangers invited Jesus to share their hospitality. While they were together breaking bread "their eyes were opened and they recognized him..." (Luke 24:31). A bit later, reflecting on their conversation with him they said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32).

The story holds a series of crucial Christian lessons: On our life journey we meet Jesus in community. It is Christ who is the meaning of the Scriptures. We learn to know Jesus in the Eucharist. And finally the disciples hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the community that they had met Jesus on the road. When we meet Jesus we are eager to tell others about him.

In people: We know Jesus when we see him in others, especially those in need. In a pivotal sermon Jesus says that when "the Son of Man comes in his glory" (Matthew 25:31) he will gather the nations and then separate those who will be called into the Kingdom of God from those who will be cast into eternal fires. What will be the test by which the "sheep" and the "goats" are to be sent to their respective fates? Christ says that it will depend whether or not they fed him in his hunger, gave drink to him in his thirst, provided hospitality to him when he came as a stranger or visited him in prison. They will ask him when they met him in such trying conditions. The answer of Jesus is unambiguously direct: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40).

The creation account in Genesis says that humans are created in the image and likeness of God (1:27). It is in this great sermon of Jesus that we see that affirmation made in Genesis come to fruition. Every person is created (through the Word!) in God's image; Jesus is the image of the Living God. Those who can see that image, through faith, in the "least" of God's children are worthy of the Kingdom of God.

The path to fullness

But we realize that now we do not know Christ fully. The full significance of Christ will be known only when history is consummated. What we do know is that in following him he gives us the grace and the light to be more like him. In that following we find that we not only grow as Christians but also grow more fully human.

In 1994, when the pope set forth his plans and hopes for the new millennium, in his conclusion he quoted from Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

"The Church believes that Christ, who died and was raised up for us all, can through his Spirit offer people the light and strength to measure up to their supreme destiny. Nor has any other name under heaven been given to people by which it is fitting for them to be saved. The Church likewise holds that in her most benign Lord and Master can be found the key, the focal point and the goal of all human history. The Church also maintains that beneath all changes there are so many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and forever..." (Gaudium et Spes #10).

That is a compact summary of who Christ is today and in the future: the key which unlocks the human mystery, the focal point of the world in which we live and the end or goal towards which the world and humanity strive. For all the different perceptions of Christ in the Christian tradition the fundamental reality of Christ never changes: Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Those who follow Christ are not followers of a book but followers of the person about whom the book testifies. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope the pope insists, "Christ...walks through the centuries alongside each generation, alongside every person...as a friend." He adds, "At the end of the second millennium, we need, perhaps more than ever, the words of the risen Christ: 'Be not afraid!'"

Lawrence S. Cunningham is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of 17 books and writes the "Religion Book Notes" for Commonweal magazine.

 


 

Paul Henderson 

Church bells rang, champagne corks popped and fireworks exploded around the world as clocks approached midnight December 31, 1999. Meanwhile, Paul Henderson was at home in Silver Spring, Maryland, with family and friends for a quiet evening of prayer, food and camaraderie. For him, the new millennium doesn't arrive until midnight of the final day in December this year. "I'm a purist," he says good-naturedly.

But he is no ordinary purist. As director of the U.S. bishops' Jubilee Year office, the 47-year-old single native of Washington, D.C., has been helping Catholics prepare for the arrival and celebration of the Great Jubilee (1997-99), observe the Jubilee Year (2000) and, finally, enter the new millennium in 2001 as "renewed people."

Still, he doesn't quibble with those who have already welcomed the third millennium. More important, he told Millennium Monthly, is the opportunity for personal renewal. "We are celebrating 2,000 years of Jesus Christ's presence in human history!"

Mr. Henderson looks back on the Great Jubilee Year—and the time of preparation leading up to it—as a graced period in his own life and, he hopes, in the lives of Catholics around the world. "The Jubilee Year has offered us all an opportunity to be more reflective and aware, to take stock of where we are and want to be." To what degree that happened for individual Catholics cannot really be measured, he knows, but the office he has headed for the past several years attempted to facilitate the "greater search for connectedness with God" that such a moment in history can bring. "We realized we didn't have to do everything ourselves," he said of his small staff. "Our goal was not to create new things but to weave jubilee themes into what parishes were already doing."

Those themes included reconciliation, justice and Third World debt. Also, the "Encuentro 2000" event held in Los Angeles in July was, he said, an important celebration of the Church's multiculturalism, "of our unity in diversity."

Mr. Henderson, who worked in youth ministry, liturgy and religious education at his parish of St. John the Baptist before working for the bishops, saw a good deal of unity and diversity in his travels over the past few years. He found a Church "blessed with wonderful people who give their hearts to Jesus. Whether conservative or liberal," he continued, "their sense of caring for each other is remarkable. Jesus is our unifying force."*

— by Judy Ball



 
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Closing the Door

"I will go into your house, Lord. Open for me the doors of justice." With those words Pope John Paul II opened the bronze Holy Door in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome December 24, 1999. A few hours later on Christmas Day local churches in Rome, Bethlehem and Jerusalem as well as the rest of the world unsealed specially designated church doors at blessing services designed to mark the opening of the Great Jubilee Year.

Now, as the year 2001 approaches, the Holy Door in Rome is about to be sealed—on January 6, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany—marking the official conclusion of the Jubilee Year in Rome. The day before, local churches will celebrate the closing of the Jubilee Year in area observances.

The following prayer, recommended for local churches, offers a reminder and a challenge to all Christians: "Though the Jubilee Year has drawn to a close, our work is not done. As we opened the doors of our hearts to Christ, so must we open the doors of our church, our homes and our schools to those who feel excluded and unwanted. We must bring the Good News of Christ to the world, so that we may hasten the coming of the Reign of God."*

 

 
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