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Who is Jesus Christ?

Thoughts on the crucial question of our faith

By Fr. Engelbert Recktenwald

The Catholic faith is not about opinions, but about a person. It opens up for us a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That is why the God-man is the centre, the goal and the primal source of our faith. The most deeply divisive question in the Church today is not the question of celibacy, the pill or the ordination of women. The positions that form around these issues are simply the extensions of a division that is taking place at the cornerstone of our faith, which has become a stumbling block. The discussion of those questions in the public light is omnipresent; the erosion of faith in its innermost substance, however, remains hidden. If the Church allows the advocates of the pertinent demands to impose these issues on forums, synods, ways and dialogues, this means, in effect, that the core of the crisis is allowed to remain hidden, and that the Church is distracted from her most sacred duty. This duty consists in the effective concern for the proclamation of the authentic image of Christ from pulpits and academic chairs. The biggest scandal is not the rejection of "Humanae vitae" or the demand of women's ordination, but the distortion of the image of Christ. The belief, for example, that Christ erred in the imminent expectation of the Kingdom of God, has become almost the standard of contemporary theology, but this fact remains relatively hidden from the public and is apparently not acknowledged by the responsible pastors, even though it is ultimately worse than any desire for reform and lack of discipline. Because this is about Jesus Christ! This is about Him for whose sake we believe everything else in the first place. Everything else is also relevant, but the one who makes it relevant, is Jesus Christ. If Christ is not God Incarnate who died on the cross for me to save me from hell, then I could not care less about the rest, either. Then I do not care if priests get married or if women become priests. It is bizarre to observe how it is in part the same circles that on the one hand demand the ordination of women, and on the other hand deny the institution of the priesthood by Christ, because they no longer consider Christ divine. If the priesthood does not originate from Christ, there are no priests, and what the deniers of the institution of the priesthood call "priest" is something else. Against this background, the current discussions adopt almost ghostly features.

We can only scare off the ghosts if we trace all the controversies in the Church back to the crucial question of our faith. But which question is that? Nobody in this day and age is denying the humanity of Christ. It is different with His divinity. The bishop who once said that there are even priests who no longer believe in it, actually put his finger on the deepest wound of the Church. But very few of those affected would openly admit it. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to treat this question in the theological debate as a mere academic exercise which allows so many conceptual distinctions and abstractions that any clear creed disappears from the scene. The crucial question must be such that it excludes any juggling with concepts. It must have the same dogmatic significance as the question of the divinity of Jesus, and at the same time, it must so deeply affect my relationship with Christ that I can not avoid a clear statement. What could this crucial question be? Among the many possible variants I would like to consider this one: "Did the historical Jesus know me when He suffered on the cross?"

This question is dogmatically crucial in that it shows whether one is serious about believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and at the same time it is of the highest importance both existentially and spiritually, because it has decisive consequences for my relationship with Christ. Only if I answer, without hesitation, in the affirmative can I build that personal relationship with Christ that He expects of me.

The Crucified One knew me. Let us think about what that means. As God, Christ was omniscient. As a human being, He participated in divine knowledge. From the beginning, Christ knew about His mission even in His human nature. He knew that He had come into this world to suffer and to redeem us through His suffering. He knew every single person for whom He was suffering. Pope Pius XII. teaches in his encyclical "Mystici Corporis Christi" (1943) that immediately after conception in the womb of the Blessed Mother, all the members of His mystical Body were present to the divine Redeemer incessantly and at every moment.

Every Christian believer has the right and the duty to say to himself: Christ already knew me then, who I live now, 2000 years later. He thought of me without ceasing. He died for me! His death was not an inescapable destiny imposed on Him, but a voluntary abandonment of life, a sacrifice. Christ not only obediently carried out the divine counsel, but He Himself originated it. His death was the highest act of love. He Himself says, "Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (St. John 15:13)

This means that the historical Jesus on the Cross not only knew me, He loved me, too! He died for love of me. He did not die for an anonymous crowd. He died for you and me, and He knew it. He knew and wanted it because He loved you and me.

The distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, to which most exegetes attach so much importance, is completely out of place, if it seeks to limit the validity of Christological beliefs to the Christ of faith. They then no longer apply to the historical Jesus. The Christ of faith is nothing but a pious self-deception then, and His love for me is of no use to me because it never existed in historical reality. To cling to such a Christ of faith regardless is to say, "I believe it to be true because it is so beautiful." On the contrary, I believe it is beautiful because it is true!

If I believe this truth, my life changes. I then live under the gaze of another. It is a loving gaze. The love in this gaze is infinitely greater, purer and more sincere than any love I have ever experienced in my life. It is gentler than the love of my mother, stronger than the love of my father, more sincere than the love of my spouse, more ardent than the love of all the angels. It is the love that has moved my Creator to become man and to die for me. In Jesus Christ the love of God has become visible. It has received a countenance in Him, and whoever sees Him also sees the Father.

This gaze is now turned towards me. It bridges all temporal and spatial distance. This is why I can now enter into a very personal relationship with the Crucified. When Christ was suffering back then, He had in mind what I am doing now. My sins of today tormented Him then, and my present love comforted Him then. The same historical Jesus who suffered then now sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father, and He now looks at me with the same gaze of love as then. His whole earthly life is present to Him, just as in eternity our past lives will always be present to us. This mystery of the coexistence of time and eternity facilitates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where the redemptive event is mystically made present.

The gaze of love that Jesus Christ addressed to me 2,000 years ago is the incarnated gaze of that love with which God has been looking at me from eternity. My Creator has been carrying the thought of me in His Heart from all eternity, and this Heart has become the Heart of the Crucified One, pierced by the lance. The fount of love of His gaze is in His Heart. Sister Isa Vermehren once pointed out in a profound lecture that precisely the worship of the Sacred Heart is most suitable for protecting the personal character of our faith from any ideologization, institutionalization and functionalization. Nothing and nobody can relieve me of the task of taking a stand on this love. My innermost freedom is addressed and called. Christ opened His Heart to me and showed me the source of His consuming love. He looks at me with an infinitely loving look. In it lies the longing for my love in return. Christ has given me His Heart, and with infinite patience, loving longing and agonizing thirst, He is waiting for mine. No ecclesiastical activism, no critical dialogue and no social commitment can relieve me of an answer. Every engagement takes on the character of a flight when it distracts me from entering into a personal and loving relationship with the Lord. Dodging is unacceptable! The gaze of the Lord rests on me, and at some point I have to meet this gaze -- in death, at the latest. St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori says that in death this gaze will be either a look of love or of anger.

But he who meets this look already in this lifetime, can always count on His love. For as long as we live, Christ does not want to be our Judge, but our Redeemer. Because it is the love of a Redeemer, my sins do not hinder His love. By turning towards the love of Christ in faith and trust, those sins lose their character as an obstacle. They do not hinder my love for Christ, because my devotion has already become a reality and has thus become stronger than the renunciation that lies in sin. And they do not hinder the Lord's love for me because through my devotion they become the subject of His mercy. Yes, my devotion is already a sign and fruit of the first successful working of His love in my soul. When I give up my resistance to His love, it finds its first and preferred field of activity precisely in the misery of my sins. It becomes forgiving love, mercy. Thanks to His mercy, I am allowed to feel fully accepted as I am, with all my sins, mistakes and weaknesses, my failures and my guilt. I need fear no rejection, no reproach and no storm of indignation. As soon as I believe in the love of Christ and eventually entrust myself to this love in the sacrament of penance, I step into the light of His redeeming mercy, which can now accomplish its work in my soul: it removes my guilt, it frees me from the entanglement with sin and distress, it heals the wounds of my soul.

Anyone who begins to love Christ has a strange experience: the more he desires to give, the more he experiences himself as the recipient. The more he wants to love Christ, the more he realizes how small and wretched his love is, and at the same time he learns that Christ still loves him. This is exactly what makes His love so delightful. I realize how little I deserve His love and how I am loved by Him regardless. Christ gives me His love because He is so good, not because I am. The more my need grows in view of my inability to love Him, the more my bliss grows in light of His perseverance in continuing to love me. The more I recognize and acknowledge my poverty, the more I am bestowed and made rich by Him. St. Vincent Pallotti writes, "Nothing and sin is all my wealth, nothing and sin is my whole life. But through the love of God and His great mercy, the whole life of our Lord Jesus Christ is my life."

It is one thing to experience the love of God in this way, and a different thing to rely on the love of God in order to persist in sin. On closer inspection, the latter turns out to be a distortion of the love of God. It then no longer consists in forgiving our sins and delivering us from our misery, but in trivializing our sins and leaving us in our misery. Therefore one can not demand the admission of the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, for example, by appealing to the love of God. Love does not say Yes to sin, but gives the strength for repentance. He who encounters the love of the Lord experiences it as a love that can not tolerate anything unholy in its vicinity and that demands the highest purity of soul. The love of Christ is both forgiving and demanding, tenderly inviting and strictly commanding, infinitely gentle and surprisingly strong. These are only apparent opposites. Anyone who has experienced the forgiving love of the Lord knows how irresistible the urge is to return love for love. The gentler the experienced love, the stronger this urge; the more blissful the experience of its gentleness, the more distressing the awareness of one's inability to love Christ as He actually deserves.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus relates the great grace which was the catalyst for her decision to offer herself as a burnt offering of merciful love. It was the grace to see more clearly than ever how much Jesus longs to be loved. This longing has nothing self-centered in it, but meets our need that to the one we love, our love is precious. We need to be needed, says C.S. Lewis, therefore God, who lacks nothing, wants to need us. That Jesus becomes a person who is thirsting for our love, stems in turn only from the overabundance of His love for us.

The centre of our faith is this heart-to-heart relationship that craves development. Just like St. Thérèse wrote the "Story of a Soul", the Lord could write the "Story of a Love" for each soul He will eventually have with Him in heaven. Each soul is personally loved by Him, and the life of each human being is nothing but the story of how he responded to that love. This story can be very changeful, the story of a struggle of the love of God with the resistance of man, the story of the blossoming and withering of human devotion, of falling and rising again. But the person who has always escaped the gaze of the Lord, and did not even believe that the Crucified One knew him and looked at him, did he ever live?

Whoever encounters the love of the Lord not only experiences the budding of a deep longing to love the Lord, but also of the desire that He should be loved by as many souls as possible, as well as the longing to participate in the realization of this desire. This experience is what made the love of St. Thérèsa missionary, and it is often described by her. In the light of this experience, the significance of many concerns that nowadays dominate the Church headlines and stir up the emotions is put into perspective. What weight do they carry compared to the preeminent reality of the love of Jesus Christ? Once I have encountered it, all that burns in me is the wish that this love be reciprocated. And now, should I discuss celibacy? How boring! That Christ might become more and more recognized and loved is my most pressing, my only concern. And now, should I listen to the zeitgeist and waste my energy on the debate on women's priesthood? What an imposition! The evaporation of the faith in Christ is drying up the life of the Church, and now I am to expect a renewal of the Church from the adaptation to a sexualized and permissive reality of life? Ridiculous!

Our belief is not about opinions but about Christ. Opinions can be discussed, Christ must be confessed. Opinions are the subject of dialogue, Christ is the goal of unconditional faith. When opinions dominate the Church's climate, she becomes a quarreling debating club; when Christ reigns in the Church, she becomes one in love.


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