Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith
By Father Robert Barron
Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man
It all begins with a jest. The essence of comedy is the coming together of opposites, the juxtaposition of incongruous things. So we laugh when an adult speaks like a child or when a simple man finds himself lost amid the complexities of sophisticated society. The central claim of Christianity—still startling after two thousand years—is that God became human. The Creator of the cosmos, who transcends any definition or concept, took to himself a nature like ours, becoming one of us. Christianity asserts that the infinite and the finite met, that the eternal and the temporal embraced, that the fashioner of the galaxies and planets became a baby too weak even to raise his head. And to make the humor even more pointed, this Incarnation of God was first made manifest not in Rome, Athens, or Babylon, not in a great cultural or political capital, but in Bethlehem of Judea, a tiny outpost in the corner of the Roman Empire. One might laugh derisively at this joke—as many have over the centuries—but, as G. K. Chesterton observed, the heart of even the most skeptical person is changed simply for having heard this message. Christian believers up and down the years are those who have laughed with delight at this sacred joke and have never tired of hearing it repeated, whether it is told in the sermons of Augustine, the arguments of Aquinas, the frescos of Michelangelo, the stained glass of Chartres, the mystical poetry of Teresa of Avila, or the little way of Therese of Lisieux. It has been suggested that the heart of sin is taking oneself too seriously. Perhaps this is why God chose to save us by making us laugh.
One of the most important things to understand about Christianity is that it is not primarily a philosophy or a system of ethics or a religious ideology. It is a relationship to the unsettling person of Jesus Christ, to the God-man. Someone stands at the center of Christian concern. Though Christian thinkers have used philosophical ideas and cultural constructs to articulate the meaning of the faith—sometimes in marvelously elaborate ways—they never, at their best, wander far from the very particular and unnerving first-century rabbi from Nazareth. But who precisely was he? We know next to nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus's life. Though people have speculated wildly about these hidden years—that he traveled to India to learn the wisdom of the Buddha; that he sojourned in Egypt where he became adept at healing, and so forth—no reliable information concerning Jesus's youth and young manhood exists, except perhaps the tantalizing story in Luke's Gospel about the finding of Jesus in the temple. Since Joseph, the husband of Mary, Jesus's mother, is described as a carpenter, we can safely assume that Jesus apprenticed to the carpentry trade while growing up. As far as we can determine, Jesus was not formally trained in a rabbinic school, nor was he educated to be a temple priest or a scribe, nor was he a devotee of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or the Essenes—all recognized religious parties with particular convictions, practices, and doctrinal proclivities. He was, if I can use a somewhat anachronistic term, a layman.
And this made his arrival on the public scene all the more astounding. For this Nazarene carpenter, with no formal religious education or affiliation, began to speak and act with an unprecedented authority. To the crowds who listened to him preach, he blithely declared, "You have heard that it was said . . . but I say . . ." (Mt 5:21-48). He was referring, of course, to the Torah, the teaching of Moses, the court of final appeal to any faithful rabbi; therefore he was claiming for himself an authority greater than that of Israel's most significant teacher and lawgiver. To a paralyzed man, he says, "Courage, child, your sins are forgiven" (Mt 9:2). Grasping the outrageousness of this assertion, the bystanders remark to themselves, "This man is blaspheming" (Mt 2:3). Moreover, Jesus demonstrated a mastery over the very forces of nature. He tamed the storm that threatened to swamp his disciples' boat; he rebuked the dark powers; he opened deaf ears and brought vision back to sightless eyes; he not only pardoned the paralyzed man's sins—he took away his paralysis; he even raised the daughter of Jairus back to life. All of this made Jesus a figure of utter fascination. Again and again we hear in the Gospels how word of him spread throughout the country and how the crowds kept coming at him from all sides: "and on finding him [the disciples] said, 'Everyone is looking for you' " (Mk 1:37). Why were they drawn to him? Some undoubtedly wanted to witness or benefit from his supernatural power; others wanted to hear the words of an unsurpassably charisma