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Ignatian Retreat

(July 1974)

Jesus Christ - The Master Theme of the Bible

Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Developments Since Vatican II

As a preparation for the main subject of this chapter, let us scan a few of the new and very welcome developments in the appreciation and wide-spread use of the Bible in our post-Councilor age.

The Second Vatican Council told us not only how important the Sacred Scriptures are, but also that the Scriptures are to be the source of our spiritual instruction and especially inspiration. The Church has also gone on record in recommending how we might better profit from the Sacred Scriptures. The Council insisted that there be easy access to the Scriptures. The variety of editions and translations of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is one development of that recommendation.

Again, the Vatican Council explained that the Scriptures are not self-explanatory. They therefore require the Church's guidance and notably her early tradition to understand what is revealed in the Bible. Among the unexpected recommendations, I quote this one: "The Church encourages the study of the early holy Fathers of both the East and the West." These should be known because they are the earliest and because they are the closest to Biblical revelation. They are, in many ways, the most authentic means of our understanding what the Bible means.

Finally, the Church has recommended, even mandated, that there be a homily commenting on the Biblical Word of God at every Sunday Mass and Mass of a Solemnity, and has highly recommended a homily at every Mass at which there are some of the faithful present.

Quoting the closing paragraph from the Vatican Council's "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation", the Council says: "Through the reading and study of the sacred books ‘the word of God may spread rapidly and be glorified’ and the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may more and more fill the hearts of mankind. Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similarly we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which 'lasts forever' (Isaiah 40:8 and I Peter 1:23-25).".

Clearly, our spiritual life should be in a way what it has never been before - a Biblical life, strongly founded on the revealed Word of God as found in the Old and New Testaments and as explained and communicated to us by the Church of God. But why should the Sacred Scriptures be so important and why all this seemingly exaggerated recommendation?

Christ, The Master Theme

The reason in one sentence is that the better we know the Bible, the surer we become that the Bible is the Word of God in two profoundly significant senses. It is the Word of God because it has been communicated by the Holy Spirit and written out in human language; it is God's mind expressed in human words. But it is also the Word of God as the Logos of the Father. Christ, the Word of the Father, is the Master Theme of biblical revelation.

This Christ in His very Name spans both Testaments, because what does the name Christ mean? In Hebrew it is "Messiah"; in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written) it is "Christos". Christ therefore means Messiah, foretold and fulfilled, and Christianity is in the deepest sense of the word, "Messianity". As Christians we are, what our name means: Messianists. We are those who believe that the Messiah was foretold and that Jesus Christ's coming fulfilled the prophecies.

The Old Testament is likely to be slighted because we may consider it as over and done with, as only "that which preceded Christ". Who says preceded? That temporal distinction about before and after is ours, not God's!

It is understandable, however, that we do not expect the Old Testament to say much about Christ, but it is filled with Christ because it is all about the Messiah, and that is His name. We might keep in mind that from Genesis, when the Savior was dimly foretold, all through the Pentateuch and the prophets, the Jewish people were not only being prepared for the Messiah, but they also had been given an immense body of revelation about the personality and mission of the Messiah. That is one reason why the Gospels are so short - the evangelists presumed that those to whom the Gospels were addressed already knew about who the Messiah was supposed to be.

The Jews also were told a great deal about the community to which the Messiah's chosen people would belong. We are the new Israel! They were told about this new community which would exist in all ages and in every culture, and also much about the destiny of those who would be faithful to God's covenant with the human race.

Consequently, in reading the Scriptures, reflecting on them and using them in our prayers, we are really reading about the biblical Christ or we are not reading the Bible. That is all, for any practical purposes, about whom the Bible is written. It is all about Christ.

Notice, however, I am not merely saying that Christ is prominent in the Sacred Scriptures nor that He is just the most important person in the Sacred Scriptures. I am indicating that the Scriptures are about Him. They derive their meaning only from Him; nothing in the Bible makes sense except in terms of Christ. We will find what we are looking for, if we are looking for Christ. We shall find Him in the Scriptures - He is there.

It follows logically that if the Scriptures have as their master theme the person and mission of Christ, then to read the Bible is to read Christ. What is less obvious, however, is the character of this biblical Christ. Here there may be quite an accumulation of, I don't say misunderstanding, but at least of the things that may obscure such respect for the Bible as Catholics should always have had. One reason why there had been something of an eclipse in the Catholic appreciation and use of the Scriptures is because a large segment of Christianity broke with Roman unity in the 16th century and wrongly based its whole claim on the idea that everything is uniquely and inexhaustibly contained in the Bible, and that we don't need a Church even to tell us what the Bible means. Clearly that is a misrepresentation of the Scriptures. So, with an understandable human reaction (this is my explanation), Catholics have not used the Bible as much as they formerly did before the Reformation nor, thank God, as they are using it once again.

Turning to the Scriptures then, what is the character of this biblical Christ? There are many ways in which we can find Christ. Looking at it from another viewpoint, there are many physiognomies that Christ has. We can see Him in the teachings of the Church; we can see Him in our fellowmen; we can see Him with the eyes of faith really and truly present on the altar. We can also see Him and learn to know Him in the Bible.

I'm going to begin by pointing out the kind of a Christ that seems to be in the Bible, and then the kind that really is, hoping not to obscure the issue but clarify it.

The biblical Christ may seem to be an archaic Christ. After all, the Old Testament was written millennia ago and even the New Testament is almost 2000 years old - that is pretty archaic: He seems to be a dated Christ who lived and died and rose from the dead so many generations ago - and you know the modern attitude towards anything which is past! To use another word that sounds the same, it is passed; it is gone.

Again, there seems to be in the Bible a static Christ who did His work which had been foretold for centuries; He died, then returned to His Father and left us only a pleasant memory of His stay on earth. The very word "stay" is etymologically in the same family as static. Pleasant, interesting, like ancient history it was: nice to know about and then to turn to our modern world.

Then too He seems to be, coining a word, a deistic Christ. According to the deists, God is an absentee God. He made the world like winding up a clock and then left it to unwind. So, the Christ in the Bible seems to be this kind of a deistic person who remains detached, in some imperium ideal world above, some never-never land, far removed from our personal and social concern. I repeat, these are all "seems-to-bes".

He finally seems to be a Christ who was foretold and who came and who finished His work. He said that on the cross. Of course we know better, but I thought it was useful to recall that the Christ of the Scriptures is not where our imagination, caught up in the almost psychotic modernity of the present, may think. Otherwise, I am afraid we shall not know Him as He wants to be known and since we are engaged in the apostolate, we shall not communicate Him through ourselves to all those whom God somehow wants to be affected by us. Whatever else we do in the apostolate, no matter what name we give it, it must always be the "Apostolate of the Communication of Jesus". We are both sent by Him and we are bringing Him. Clearly, then, it is well to remove some misunderstanding before we look at what I call the real qualities of the Biblical Christ.

This Biblical Christ has four attributes. Christ of the Scriptures is a living Christ; He is an active Christ; He is (to use a strange expression) a calling Christ; He is finally, a coming Christ.

He is a living Christ who is alive and in our midst today. He is in the Church of which He is the invisible Head, and His Spirit is the animating principle of her life. He is a living Christ who is alive in the Sacraments, of which He is always the principal minister, and especially in the Eucharist which we simply call The Sacrament, where He is present in the fullness of His divine and human natures.

He is living in the people we meet, whom we believe He puts into our lives and us in theirs. That is what He meant when He said, "Where two or three" (or twenty or thirty) "are gathered together in My name, I am living in their midst". He is living in the events of history. He is the master of history. As John tells us in the Prologue of his Gospel, it is this Word who existed with the Father before the world was made, and it was by this Word that the world was made and its history is being fulfilled.

How are we to respond? Remember, it is one thing to know something and another thing to react to it. The first is knowledge, the other is realization, which I define as "doing something about what we know". What should be our response to this fact of the living Christ about whom the Bible speaks so eloquently?

It calls on our part for awareness, for conscious sensitivity to His indwelling presence in the universe, in all the ways we just mentioned and myriad other ways in which faith further tells us He is living and active, from the smallest event in our lives as into the interstellar regions and beyond the skies into the eternal heavens. It calls for an awareness that this Christ is alive, active and doing, and that the pages of the Scriptures are to be catalysts to arouse our awareness.

It is no wonder that Thomas Aquinas, who as you know used very measured language when he wrote, did not hesitate on one occasion to speak of the Scriptures as an "eighth sacrament". He didn't mean that there were literally eight Sacraments, but that the Scriptures, provided they were used with faith, produce effects in a way analogous to those resulting from the Sacraments-far beyond the minimum ritual which we perform or the object we see or receive. The Scriptures quasi-sacramentally, if used in faith, give us an understanding and a depth and love for the things of God far beyond any other reading that we can do or any other study in which we can engage.

He, this biblical Christ is an active Christ who speaks to us in all the ways that He is alive, and who works in our favor by the constant outpouring of His grace. He is not only alive, and not only doing a lot, but He is active in our own personal favor. The fact that there are now over three billion people in the world makes no difference to Christ! He is God.

As we read the Gospels we are inspired to see what marvelous things He did in favor of those we call His contemporaries. But we are also His contemporaries! If we have faith and believe this, we find He will do marvels no less great now, because it is the same Jesus. This calls for appreciation-to recognize that this very living Christ is personally interested in us, working in our favor in a way that no one but God could possibly do.

Our attention and affection are necessarily confined and limited. We tend to divide our love. Not God - and Christ is God. One person or a billion people, He is no less active in favor of one of us as though we were the only one in the world.

This biblical Christ is also a calling Christ who is asking His followers to join Him in the advancement of His mission of salvation to the world. This vocation, therefore, that we sometimes talk about so casually, is not something which happened; it is going on. He is calling us. Remember, the essence of a vocation is to be called to do something.

Vocation is to be called by Christ for a purpose. That purpose is the apostolate and that apostolate is that, having been called, we are to be sent, missioned. The details of the vocation will vary according to the calling God has given to us, but the end of every vocation remains the same: to bring the Word of God either to those who don't know Him, or to those who knowing Him have lost Him or to those who don't know Him and don't love Him as much as they should. This calls for commitment. Having been called, we must give ourselves to the call and keep giving ourselves, because a vocation is an ongoing thing; so too is commitment.

Finally, He is a coming Christ, and in this sense all the predictions of the Old Law and indeed those of the New, are still to be fulfilled, because although this Jesus has come into the world, He is still to come to us. Though the world had its Bethlehem, ours is yet to come. He comes to each one of us individually and personally when, as we say, we die. This is a concession to human language. Who says, "When we die?" Rather, "When we come alive:" He will come too, corporately to the human race, to the whole society of mankind also.

This is one reason why the Fathers of the Church would give homily after homily, especially during the season of Advent, on our span in this life, as being one more or less lengthy Advent. We are waiting. For what? No, for Whom? We are waiting for our Savior. All of this and infinitely more is locked up in what we so casually call the Bible.

We should desire, indeed we are bidden to communicate this vision of the Biblical Christ to others. We shouldn't just think about people in distant lands or across the seas, or on the other side of the country, but instead be conscious especially of those near us, next to us in the immediate family into which God has placed us. But regardless, whether distant or near, if we are to communicate this vision of the biblical Christ to others, of the Christ who is living, acting, calling and coming, we must ourselves have caught the vision and must be acting under its constant inspiration. If we have come to know and love this Christ of the Scriptures, we may be sure that all those we touch by our lives will also come to learn from us about the same Jesus as He wants to be known and loved and served. That is why, after He went to His Father, He sent the Spirit to complete the inspiration of those sacred writings which speak mainly of Him.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

Transcription of the Ignatian retreat given and recorded on July, 1974
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the:

Handmaids of the Precious Blood

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