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By Brad Miner   
Tuesday, 06 July 2010

In an earlier column (“The Great Caesura”) I wrote: “As an editor and – especially – as a writer, I’m drawn to the omitted narrative and fascinated to imagine what it was like for those who knew Jesus before they knew who Jesus really is.” It’s a version of the classic query of the investigative journalist: What did they know and when did they know it?

How did the Apostles grasp what theologians call the hypostatic union – the dual nature of their (and our) Lord? It seems pretty clear the followers of Jesus had difficulty understanding that He was a man and God. More about this below, but it might be asked of Jesus Himself: What did He know and when did He know it?

In the manger in Bethlehem, even as He took his first breath, did Jesus know the world – past, present, and future – as its Maker? Or, in His kenosis (self-emptying), did he become a human infant with a normal baby’s innocent ignorance? This other theological (or Christological) term comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-8): 

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. [Emphasis added]

This question has been a source of heresy throughout history, and just to be sure we understand the Church’s view: “the abasement of the Word consists in the assumption of humanity and the simultaneous occultation of the Divinity” (Catholic Encyclopedia).The man, Jesus, was capable of suffering but not of sin. Jesus is perfect love, but he had a body and as a growing child may have burnt his fingers and so in that sense “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52).

My interest here though is with His earthly companions and their understanding of His identity, especially prior to the Transfiguration, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost. Few passages in Scripture resonate more strongly for me than Christ’s words to Thomas near the end of John’s Gospel: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (That’s some astonishing verbal usage – spoken by the One who knows: As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.) Amen.

We recently celebrated the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and the Gospel reading was Matthew 16:13-19. That’s the passage in which Jesus asks the Apostles: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” I imagine some shuffling of feet, some throat clearing, some shrugs, furtive glances at one another, and the answers are . . . plausible but wrong: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. But then Simon speaks up. You sense he all but bursts to say it, and that, maybe, he really is not who speaks – but the Holy Spirit through him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” He all but shouts it, the words exploding from his chest, from where his heart is, leaving him breathless, I suspect, and the other Apostles wide-eyed, silent.

We sometimes refer to the Baptist as the last prophet of the Old Testament, but I don’t see why that distinction isn’t better given to Simon, who in the next moment becomes Peter, designated leader of the coming ecclesia. (Actually, I do see it, because the New Testament was already being proclaimed.) And yet, although the all-knowing Lord indulges him, Peter was probably dredging up a complex tangle of messianic expectations, affirming that Jesus is the Chosen One of the Chosen People: a great leader to fulfill Jewish destiny. And Jesus is all that, of course, but He is so much more. No Jew ever imagined the Promised One would be YHWH himself. And in a short time, Peter’s actions will indicate that when he proclaimed Jesus the Christ that day in Caesarea Phillipi he probably wasn’t acknowledging Him as the Second Person of the Trinity. The full force of that recognition would come later and be fully revealed only at Pentecost. Peter’s precious, irresolute humanity would be evident throughout the rest of his days, yet he preached the Good News: Jesus is “the author of life” (Acts 3:15).

Of course I’ll never know what it was like to learn – it was, as we like to say now, a process – that the man you admire and even love is God come to earth. This is how we later Christians encounter Him now. The Apostles knew He was not another wild-eyed messiah-wannabe of the sort Israel knew too well. Peter, and Matthew, John, and the rest only got the whole story bit by bit. But they got it directly from Him – not just from his words but also from His expressions, the look in His eyes, and the sound of His voice. We live on the words of the Word. They knew Him face to face. He was the Promised One but more than the One expected by Israel and anointed by God. He was God.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said,” C.S. Lewis wrote (his famous trilemma), “would not be a great moral teacher.”

He would either be a lunatic on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God: or else a mad man or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool: you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon: or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and author of The Compleat Gentleman.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
They knew Him face to face
written by Faith on the High Wire, July 06, 2010
Wonderful considerations. I really enjoyed this.
Hyper-active union
written by debby, July 07, 2010
i loved this post, brad. very personal wonderings out-loud. questions i've asked too as i place myself in the Gospels. This Pauline quote is also one of my favorites. everything that is wrong with me is me not following this kenosis of Christ. If God emptied Himself for my sake, what less can my loving response be? to stop grasping as Adam & Eve did and empty myself, to be poured out for love of Him to serve those around me. then He will unite Himself to me and we will be one. all of us, one in Him.
so much to ponder!
my young son loves to listen to Ven Archbishop Fulton Sheen's Advent/Christmas sermon while going to sleep during that time of year. He told his oldest sister he was learning about the "hyper-active union of Jesus." She said, "You mean Hypostatic union." His response, "Yeah, when All GOD became All Man All together." Sheen is proud.
God and Man
written by Joe, July 07, 2010
A beautifully crafted piece, Brad. Profoundly poignant.
Thank you!
written by Graham Combs, July 07, 2010
As it happens, I was listening today to a local (southeastern Michigan) minister and radio host interview the Jewish head of Christians United for Israel who made the point that he -- the Jewish guest -- loved to read the New Testament and that Jesus was a great moral teacher. The host, Paul Edwards, gently but firmly told him that for Christians Christ could never be only or merely that. It is the truth that unites Catholics (I'm a convert) and evangelicals alike. Now, Rev. Edwards is on record as saying that "Catholicism is not an option," so I'm not sentimentalizing here. Of course, Lewis was not a Catholic either. In any event, what a beautiful and true essay. The Catholic Thing remains essential reading for, well, Catholics...

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