We are all Christians so our faith and the meaning of our life are focused on Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God made man. We are heirs to a tradition enriched over 2000 years of history. I would like to invite you to begin putting yourselves in the situation of being Jesus’ contemporaries, as if you were just one more member of the people of Israel, faced with this “fringe Jew” called Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant preacher on the dusty roads of Galilee in the first century. We do this, naturally, following the New Testament approach, also knowing that we do not have a “real life” story of Jesus, and that the Gospels are testimonies of faith that, just the same, are based on the Lord’s historical reality.
2. “…Who is this man?”
Jesus of Nazareth is presented as a fascinating individual who attracts the crowds who seem so enthused listening to him that sometimes they even forget to eat. His voice, good and strong as it is (sometimes thousands were able to hear him), passes on a message which, first of all, strikes us for the authority it has: his language is “different from the Scribes and Pharisees” (Mk 1: 27); even the ignorant soldiers understand him: “no one ever spoke like this man” (Jn 7:46): an authority that is not imposed or intransigent but which instils certainty and confidence in whoever is listening because of the certainty he speaks with, including when his words seem to run counter to the conventional thinking of his time.
Along with this authority the practical nature of what he says is fascinating: he is neither complicated nor abstract but speaks simply, in a way that everyone can understand, even the little ones and the unlearned; he prefers a tool that helps people follow what they have heard much better: examples from everyday life – men and women, adults and children: mainly using parables, one of the best-stated approaches in pre-Easter Christology.
This way of speaking, however, does not do away with the effort of reflection: instead it is an invitation to do so and makes it essential, so that many, even though they are listening, do not understand (Cf. Mk 4:12 and ff.); it is necessary to involve the mind (avoiding superficiality) and heart, feelings and therefore lies at the core of conversion. His word is a seed which, should it fall on the road and be trampled by passers-by or eaten by birds, does not produce fruit (cf. Mk 4:4); or if it is misunderstood, it brings rejection including amongst those who follow him. (cf. Jn 6)
This rejection however is not simply caused through misunderstanding but because his teaching does not correspond with what the Jews were used to hearing, or what their leaders were used to proclaiming. His attitude of freedom cannot be detached from the authority with which Jesus speaks; a fascinating freedom, no doubt, but also disconcerting, not bound by family, social or Jewish religious traditions. It is enough to recall the sermon on the mount (cf. Mt 5-7), and the opposites that Jesus establishes between his message and “what was said before”: and here he was talking about the Torah, and God’s law, no less!
This attitude of Jesus is revealed, for the most part, in his way of living: he goes with anyone. At times we find him eating in the homes of Pharisees or doctors of the law (at least twice: Lk 7: 36-50, and 11:37-54). Nevertheless what causes most scandal is his preference for “bad companions”1, to the point where they coin an offensive expression to describe this way of behaving: “glutton and drunkard, friend of publicans and sinners” (Mt 11:19), and the Evangelist puts these words in Jesus’ mouth! Furthermore: maybe 2000 years later, we are too used to seeing Jesus “dogmatically”… Faced with this attitude of the “fringe Galilean”, how would we have reacted? Would we have believed in him? It is certainly easy to criticise his enemies from our perspective; it would be more difficult, without a doubt, to put ourselves in their position…
It is also undeniable that the authority of his language and the novelty of his praxis, new and scandalous as it was, are seen to be supported – and in some way contrasted – by the actions he does in God’s name: the miracles (which John the Evangelist, from another theological perspective calls “signs”). Very important, regarding this fact is the encounter of Jesus with John the Baptist’s disciples. From prison, where his life is in deadly danger (later verified in fact, cf. Mk 6:17-29 ff.), he sends them to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or must we await another?” (Mt 11:3). Jesus replies by letting them see his actions. St Luke says that “at that time (Jesus) healed many of their illnesses, infirmities and evil spirits, and gave sight to the blind” (Lk 7:21). But Jesus especially underscores the sign par excellence of his messianic role: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf gain their hearing, the dead arise, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Lk 7:22), and he finishes by linking these “signs ” with his preaching and his disconcerting actions: “Blessed is the one who is not scandalised by me!”(v. 23). This relationship between his works and his profound identity culminates in John’s Gospel because Jesus indicates the ultimate roots of this way of speaking and acting: his nature as Son. “If I do not do my Father’s works,then do not believe me; but if I do them, even if you do not believe me, at least believe in these works, so that you know and understand that the father is in me and I am in the Father” (Jn 10:37-38). All this is summed up in the Salesian Constitutions in a brief sentence with so much in it: “predilection (Jesus) for the little ones and the poor; in preaching, healing and saving because of the urgency of the coming of the kingdom” (C. 11).
Faced with these extraordinary works (miracles/signs), the immediate reaction once again is: “Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him.” (Mk 4:41).
As we can understand in the message sent to John via his disciples, the meaning Jesus himself attributes to the signs/miracles leads to the heart of his mission: “the poor are evangelised”. Jesus is fully aware of a mission: showing, making visible and “tangible”, the love and mercy of a God who is Abba, Father, or even more so “Papa”. This love and mercy comes into play through a twofold attitude (they are distinct but not absolutely separate): in first place his solidarity with the most despised amongst the people, those thought of as being furthest from God. Just being amongst them was a “sign” of the Father’s love and inevitably also a reason for scandal; but the most disconcerting thing was that this solidarity was meant to show God’s gift par excellence in his life, something that could only come from God: grace in the concrete form of freely offered forgiveness. It was not just his going with sinners and eating with them that was causing scandal but especially what this implied and that made them complain: “How can this man talk like that? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God? “(Mk 2:7). In all these actions Jesus is practically taking God’s place, and as always this gives rise to the question: “Who is this man that he even forgives sins?”(Lk 7:49).
When we encounter Jesus of Nazareth we never see him alone; he is always with his friends, the “disciples”, of whom Mark says: “He summoned those he wanted. So they came to him and he appointed twelve; they were to be his companions and to be sent out to preach, with power to cast out devils.”(Mk 3:13-14). Following Jesus in discipleship is not just a source of and example for Christian spirituality but carries theological weight too, which we need to explore.
Some years ago the Rector Major wrote in the Salesian Bulletin: “Recalling that line from Mark, discipleship implies, essentially two aspects: living with Jesus, growing familiarity and friendship with him, and being part of his mission: proclaiming the Kingdom of God, accompanied by ‘signs’ which authenticate it.”2 He went on:
“It is a relatively new issue, given that traditionally we thought of the sequela Christi in moral and spiritual terms for the most part. But today it has recovered all of its biblical and theological value to the point where it is considered one of the basic elements allowing us to understand the mystery of Jesus, the Son of God, during his mortal life.
At first sight it would seem that Jesus is behaving like a Rabbi, a teacher like the others. But there are considerable differences. Nobody, for example, can ask Jesus to be listed amongst his disciples: ‘You did not choose me, no I chose you.’ (Jn 15:16). besides, following Jesus means leaving everything: ones goods, profession, family too: what Jesus is asking is more than Elijah did when he called Elisha to succeed him in his prophetic mission (Lk 9:59-62 and Mt 8:21-22 compared with 1 Kg 19:19-21). It touches on not only occasions for teaching but covers all of life, sharing with Jesus the precarious nature of his itinerant existence, its difficulties and dangers including the threat of persecution and death.
Only Someone who is more than just a man can demand this; only God can ask us to go beyond sacred human bonds: ‘Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me’ (Mt 10:37-38)”3.
Again the question arises: “Who is this person who can change my entire life?” Once again it is Jesus himself who puts the question at a decisive moment in his ministry: the three Synoptic Gospels present this turn in the Lord’s life, beginning from the moment he begins to talk about his passion and death. “Jesus and his disciples left for the villages around Ceasarea Philippi. On the way he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say I am?’ And they told him. ‘John the Baptist,” they said ‘others Elijah; others again one of the prophets.’. ‘But you,’ he asked ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter spoke up and said to him: ‘You are the Christ’ “(Mk 8 :27-30, cf. And with some details that are different, Mt 16:13-20, Lk 9:18-21 ). The first replies, inexact as they were, pointed to a typical figure of the Old Testament: the prophet, characterised not as someone proclaiming the future or denouncing unjust or sinful situations, but in first place someone who speaks and acts on God’s behalf.4
The question of Jesus’ identity appears, as we have seen, as the first dimension of all the ones we see in Jesus’ ministry: his word, his actions, his miracles, his solidarity with sinners, his claim to forgive offences committed against God: sin.
But it also appears in an extraordinary way in the men and women Jesus meets up with personally. We need to understand this, since it is central to Jesus’ life… and our lives, since it is a paradigm of our personal encounter with the Lord.
Jesus meets up with all kinds of people , and for everyone he is a ‘very special’ person, beginning with children who approach him because he caresses them and blesses them (cf. Mt 19:13-15 and pars.) causing his disciples to be surprised and the Lord to be indignant about their attitude. Those who approach him hoping to be cured of their illnesses receive much more: they feel personally loved by God, receiving not only their physical health but also their salvation (cf. Lk 17:11-19: the ten lepers; St Augustine comments: everyone was healed, only one – a foreigner – received salvation …). In one of his first miracles when they presented him with a paralytic, Jesus told him tenderly: “Courage my son, have faith,your sins are forgiven you ” (Mt 9:2 , Mk 2:5); to a woman who had been sick for many years- and certainly someone older than him whose faith produced a “psychosomatic” reaction in Jesus, he also says: “Courage my daughter, your faith has saved you: go in peace and be free from your complaint.” (Mk 5:25-34 , Mt 9:22).
We could go on talking about his compassion for the people who feel abandoned, “like sheep without a shepherd” (cf. Mt 15:32), including where it brought him to tears: outside Jerusalem, thinking of its destruction: (cf. Lk 19:41 ff.), or when his friend Lazarus died and seeing the sorrow of his sisters, Martha and Mary (cf. Jn 11:35); or when he sees the closed attitude of the leaders of the people, he feels a mixture of anger and sorrow (cf. Mk 3:5), and when the Pharisees ask for signs, Jesus replies “with a sigh that came straight from his heart” (Mk 8:12). The tenderness with which he treats the Widow of Naim, suffering because of the recent death of her son, made him suffer too: “When the Lord saw her he felt sorry for her. ‘Do not cry’ he said. Then he went up and put his hand on the bier and the bearers stood still and he said, ‘Young man I tell you to get up’. And the dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”(Lk 7:13-15).
The Letter to the Hebrews puts it in this impressive way: “For it is not as if we had a high priest who is incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.” (Heb 4:15).
It is John the Evangelist who presents these encounters with Jesus in the profoundest way: already from the beginning, with the rather disdainful Nathaniel, he has words of appreciation (and maybe a touch of humour), and the brief encounter brings about a radical change in the one who hears him say “An Israelite… incapable of deceit” (cf. Jn 1:47ff.). Further on, the dialogue with Nicodemus brings about a “new birth” for the Pharisee, member of the Sanhedrin: from his visit one night (possibly out of fear of his colleagues), until his courageous attitude when faced with Jesus’ death (cf. Jn 19:39). The healing of the man born blind shows an extraordinary journey of faith which begins with the miraculous gift of physical sight butt hen contemplation of the Lord through the eyes of faith: ” ‘Lord, I believe’. And he worshipped him.”(Jn 9:38).
Especially with people who feel their life is in ruins, not only because of others’ contempt but because they are alienated from God through sin, Jesus shows his deep compassion and at the same time his more intimate “demand”: offering them God’s love and forgiveness, since in practice he represents him. With the Samaritan woman who had practically everything going against her, at least in the Jewish mindset, when Jesus spoke to her the Lord was revealing himself with touching kindness and mercy but without ignoring her past: he invited her to change her life and she forgets her pitcher of water and “runs into the town” (Jn 4:28) thus becoming the first “evangeliser”: “Many Samaritans of that town had believed in him on the strength of the woman’s testimony “(Jn 4:39).
We see another moving episode in Luke’s Gospel: Jesus, a guest in a Pharisee’s house, receives the homage of love and gratitude from a public sinner, causing a “just” Pharisee, Simon, to be scandalised. It is important to underscore, by contrast with superficial or mistaken interpretations, that the root of this woman’s conversion was faith. I think this is an extraordinary detail: it is the only time, other than the miracle accounts, where Jesus tells someone: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Lk 7:50): The encounter with Jesus provoked in this unknown woman an experience of faith – she felt loved and forgiven by God, and she meets this with “greater love” (v. 47).This shows what also occurred in the healing of the paralytic: that forgiveness of sins by God is a greater marvel still than the miraculous healing from a physical illness. It is a pity that the Pharisee takes refuge in the law, thus closing himself off from the gratitude of God’s love; he does not feel “in debt” and therefore has no need of God’s forgiveness!
Doubtless this reminds us of what Joseph Ratzinger calls “maybe the most beautiful” of Jesus’ parables: the parable of the two brothers and the merciful father (cf. Lk 15:11-32). St Luke tells us of the encounter between Jesus and the chief of the Publicans in Jericho, Zaccheus: when Jesus called him by name he felt loved in a completely gratuitous way by God himself; and this brings about a radical change in him, to the point where we can apply Paul’s words to him: “Because of Christ I have come to consider all these advantages that I had as disadvantages” (Phil 3:7). The scene ends with Jesus’ words: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham, for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.” (Lk 19:10).
We cannot but mention what is perhaps the most beautiful and ‘scandalous’ encounter with Jesus, one that St Augustine speaks of so powerfully: “Great poverty and great mercy met face to face”: this is the encounter with the adulterous woman in John 8. It is important to note that once Jesus has “cleared the ground”, he does not minimise the woman’s sinfulness, neither in itself nor in her relationships with others; he does not say, for example, “See? Others are more sinful than you”; on the contrary, only then does she become aware of her unique and personal situation faced with the great and undeserved love of God shown in Jesus, whom she calls “Lord”: he has opened up for her a new way full of hope after she was, just a moment before, looking ignominious death in the face, “Neither do I condemn you. Go away and don’t sin any more.”(Jn 8:3-11).
John also gives us the final encounter of the Risen Lord with Peter: Jesus does not want to remind him of his shameful betrayal: what he is interested in doing is offering him his love and renewing his fidelity once more: “Lord, you know everything: You know that I love you.”(Jn 21:17).
We can conclude this part of our reflection by emphasising: everywhere, his way of speaking ‘with authority’ and the content of his message, focused on the Kingdom of God who is “Abba”, Father; his miraculous actions, most of which are about forgiveness of sins; his personal encounters give rise to the question: “Who is this man?”, a question always heading in the direction of God. Jesus is the “place” where God manifests his love, forgiveness and salvation. We are not far from the sentence that John puts in Jesus’ mouth at the Last Supper : “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? To have seen me is to have seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). This is reflected in an extraordinary way in 1 John: “Something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our hands: the Word who is life – this is our subject. That life was made visible: we saw it and we are giving our testimony, telling you of the eternal life which was with the Father and has been made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we are telling you so that you too may be in union with us, as we are in union with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1:1-3).
3. “…we ourselves have known and put our faith in God’s love towards us…” (1 Jn 4:16)
We cannot stop here, of course, either with regard to the story of Jesus or the identity of our Christian faith. Without a doubt his violent death on the cross as a blasphemer and criminal, discredited by the leaders of the people and apparently by God himself, brought on a radical crisis in those who believed in him, beginning with the disciples themselves: “We hoped that he would be the one to free Israel … “(Lk 24:21).
With regard to this the Rector Major writes:
To better understand what the resurrection of Jesus means we need – paradoxically – to take his death seriously … I do not refer only to the completely real fact of the Lord’s passion and death, but also to what it mean for the Jewish way of thinking.
For the People of Israel, God shows himself through the events of their history and the history of the world. In the concrete case of Jesus, his death on the cross meant for a Jew that God was not with him: that his messianic claim was worthless and even more so his claim to be Son of God. Until we take this into account we have not taken the death of Jesus on the cross seriously from a theological point of view. As a consequence, the disciples of Jesus expected nothing more to happen after his death: some speak of ‘hallucination’ or some simply say ‘they saw what they hoped to see’, but other than ignoring the concreteness of individuals amongst the people, this minimises or even ignores this fundamental feature of the Israelite.
In his letter on “Salesian Christology”, Fr Pascual quotes a beautiful homily by Gerhard von Rad, commenting on the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Jesus6. With regard to the expression: “Mary stood outside near the sepulchre and wept …”, the great German biblical scholar wrote:
Mary, dear brethren, had reason to be sad; yes, we could say that there is no other reason in the world more than this to be so desperately sad: she has lost her Lord, the Christ. She had heard his call, had lived with him, found peace in his presence and it had all finished with a great catastrophe. Her hope and consolation were destroyed along with the meaning of her existence, as we like to say today. It had just been a game, a nice illusion … No other disappointment that the human being could experience in life could be compared to the terrible loneliness and disappointment of Jesus’ disciples after his death.
Only by taking the Lord’s death seriously can we base our Christian faith on his resurrection, the Trinitarian activity par excellence. God raised up Jesus through the power of His Spirit. We cannot, obviously, spend time to go into this central Mystery of our faith, of which St Paul says: “If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain: you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).
Instead, in relation to our topic, we can underline that the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate key to interpreting and fully understanding, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all Jesus’ life and activity during his public (“pre-Easter”) life.8
The answer to the question “Who is this man?” we emphasis clearly, lies in the resurrection. And so, two great directions emerge which in some way come together:
- the Holy Spirit of God “dwelt” in fullness in Jesus, even during his earthly life. Peter says this in the house of the centurion, Cornelius: “You must have heard about the recent happenings in Judaea, about Jesus of Nazareth and how he began in Galilee, after John had been preaching baptism. God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God was with him Jesus went about doing good and curing all who had fallen into the power of the devil.” (Acts 10:37-38).
- At the same time, and not only as a continuation of the way of understanding the mystery of Jesus, the belief that Jesus is the one sent by the Father was taking shape: a belief of the primitive community which was already mature by the time of John’s Gospel, but which appeared quite early in the piece (contrary to what some exegetes and theologians today claim). Regarding the most impressive New Testament hymn, the one St Paul gives us in the Letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:5-11), Martin Hengel (whom Joseph Ratzinger quotes often in his work on Jesus of Nazareth) writes:
On the occasion of the Pascal feast in the year 30 a Jew from Galilee is crucified in Jerusalem accused of having made claims to be the Messiah. Around 25 years later, Paul, once a Pharisee, in a letter addressed to members of the messianic community he founded in the Roman colony of Philippi quoted a hymn about this crucified one … The discrepancy between the infamous death of a Jewish political delinquent and the profession of faith presenting this condemned man with the features and nature of a pre-existing God who becomes man and is humiliated by his death as a servant throws light on the enigma on the genesis of Christology in the primitive church. As far as I can see, also for the ancient world this was a previously unheard of discrepancy, … Hence we are tempted to say that after not even two decades the Christological phenomenon was caught up in a process whose proportions are greater than any for the following seven centuries, until the dogma of the ancient Church was complete.9
The process Hengel was alluding to, which led to the great dogmatic proclamations by the Councils in the early centuries of the Church, is too complex to sum up in a few words. What we can say Is that the question of the mystery of the true God and the deepest identity of Jesus go fully together: furthermore, they are interdependent from the moment that, as St John says in his first Letter, “We ourselves have known and put out faith in God’s love towards ourselves. God is love and anyone who lives in love lives in God ” ( 1 Jn 4:16). This is not an abstract philosophical definition of God but, as Eberhard Jüngel says,10 ‘it is the most perfect synthesis of the Christ event’. On the one hand there is the growing conviction that “Jesus cannot be God”, if we take seriously that he revealed to us, definitively, the face of the true God, the love of a God who is Abba, Father. But precisely because of this, it is not possible to ignore the fact that the most profound secret of his existence is that of being Son (therefore “different” from God): “If you loved me you would have been glad to know I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I “(Jn 14:28). On the other hand, the “protagonist” of the primitive Church is the Holy Spirit, whom the Risen Jesus sent on the Father’s behalf; and as the great Fathers of the Greek Church used say, “how could the Holy Spirit sanctify/divinise us unless He himself were God?” Certainly, not even the Holy Spirit is the Father. This apparent impasse was the source of much heretical speculation until the dogmatic definitions at the Council of Nicea ( 325 ) and Constantinople (381).
The central truth of our faith, the Mystery of God who is One and Three, who is Love in the perfect unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has its deepest roots in the Mystery of Christ, the Son of God made man. I conclude this part with a beautiful text by a great Belgian Catholic theologian, the Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx:
Is the living God, then, not the Infinite, the incomprehensible one? Could we ever point him out in this world and say: God is there?
When the children come to the Crib and say joyfully: ‘look at the donkey’, ‘and the star’, ‘oh, the Magi and the gifts’, ‘the camels’, ‘the baby Jesus”…, the believer bows his head: ‘…God is there’. He, the living God, knows that his infinite presence, which comprises everything and shines forth in everything, is deeply obscure for man, who because of this wants to find him in some place at his own level, point to him, be able to suggest in some way to those seeking him: ‘warm!’, ‘cold!’, like children do when they play, when they are getting close or further away from the hidden object. God knows the human heart. The infinite became finite in Christ Jesus. Now God is in our midst under a finite form, under a form that we can truly encounter: in the home of the Publican, Zaccheus, or at Jacob’s well or on the peak of a mountain; yesterday he came, today he left for Jerusalem. He is in the Temple or the garden, to the south of the city. He is there… on the cross. We cannot full conceive of the immeasurable presence of God when it is ‘brought into time’ according to our limitations, when it is established beside us, takes a face and talks to us, when it comes to live beside us so we can note it is a man, but a man like we have never seen before.
In truth, none of that eliminates the mystery of God. Not even the Christ has let us see God as he is in himself, suppressing the mystery. Certainly he has shown us God, but he has especially shown what is a man who is totally consecrated to God, to the invisible Father.11
4. “…as long as we love one another, God will live in us” (1 Jn 4:12)
Going back over where we have come in our reflection, we have tried to follow the Church on its journey from the first encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, the wandering preacher of Galilee, putting ourselves in the shoes of his contemporaries. Now we need to return to where we really are, enriched I hope by this journey in space and time, to ask ourselves: how can we be disciples and witnesses of ‘the God of Jesus Christ’ today? And more specifically: How can we do this as a Salesian Family?
The Church today invites us to experience a path of “new evangelisation”. Often, and wrongly, this “novelty” is understood as a rejection of the past, while in reality it is renewal, that is a return to our roots to take up once more the task of being witnesses and apostles: sent to bear witness through our life and words, of the love of God manifested through Jesus. It seems to me – this is a very personal opinion – that the times we live in, certainly very different from a past era, paradoxically present us with the same challenge as the primitive community: to offer a “credible” God, beginning with the radical humanity of the Lord. Regarding this we have a clever line from St Augustine to guide us: Per hominem Christum tendis ad Deum Christum12: “It is through the Christ Man that we lean towards the Christ God”. This seems to me to coincide with the programme of the Holy Father, Francis, as the direction of his pontificate. I consider that amongst us Christians too, especially where young people are concerned, we can apply what Steiner says about Dostoevsky, commenting on the Augustinian line: “differently from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky was keenly convinced of the divinity of Christ However this divinity moved his soul and attracted his intelligence powerfully through the human aspect”13. It is not a case of “lowering” the Christian demand, adapting things by accepting (often more out of sentiment than reason) a Jesus who is “perfect Man”, but rather one of indicating the likely point of departure, especially for those who are estranged from the Church and God perhaps because they reject – with good reason – an inadequate image of the God of Jesus Christ: they are the first to say that being Christian is believing in Jesus Christ, Son of God incarnate.
If we answer that this point of departure seems too “secular”, we need to recall the Lord’s words: “By this love that you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (Jn 13:35): it does not point to any “religious” or dogmatic aspect but to what Christians are to do in concrete.
The human and historical reality of Jesus, inasmuch as he is Son of God made Man, implies also that he is in space and time. From the Ascension on, his real presence amongst us is an object of faith (including his Eucharistic presence): now we do not see him, hear him, do not touch him as did his contemporaries in Palestine. So how then is God’s plan of salvation to continue in the world? Does God once more become an inaccessible God, the “unfathomable Abyss” of whom the Gnostics spoke?
On two occasions St John used a frightening sentence: “No one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:18; 1 Jn 4:12). Certainly, in both cases the power of this expression accentuated the contrast that follows. The first time he says: “…it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Instead the second time he adds: “as long as we love one another, God will live in us and his love will be complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12). What a wonderful thing it is to recognise that this very mission of Jesus is the Church’s mission, the mission of all of us who call ourselves Christians; and, in the Church, in a specific way and with our preferential target group, it is the mission of the Salesian Family, which St John Bosco left us as our precious inheritance.
In a certain sense we should also be able to say, with Jesus and like him: “Whoever sees us as a community living in love and fostering fellowship in building up the Kingdom, sees God”. This is the deepest meaning of what the Rector Major has given us this year, 2014, as a Strenna: “the glory of God and the salvation of souls.”
The “glory of God” has nothing to do with obsolete triumphalism, and still less with divine “narcissism”. Beginning with the etymology of the word, both in Hebrew and Greek (kabod-doxa), it indicates the desire that God be felt in our world, show himself in a visible, palpable way and be heard. He did so already, once for all, in Jesus Christ; and he invites us to continue this fascinating mission. Perhaps we have heard more than once from somebody’s lips: “I cannot believe in God because I have never seen him, nor have I ever met him”; instead of chiding such a person, or giving them a theology lesson on the visibility and inaccessibility of God, should we not consider that deep down it is we they are chiding for not carrying out the mission God has given us?
Saint Ireneus said very clearly: “the glory of God is man alive”. Translated in Salesian terms it might be put this way: “The glory of God is that our young people, especially the poorest and most abandoned, may have life, and have it to the full (= salvation of souls)”.
The contemplation of Jesus in his radical humanity, in which the love of God is shown to its maximum through his sharing everything about our life, can only but culminate in contemplating Her who made the Incarnation possible, by the work of the Holy Spirit: the Blessed Virgin Mary. If St John was able to say: “What we have seen, what we have heard, what we have touched …”: she could say in a unique way, she who gave flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood.
There is a moving though little known text that describes this unique closeness between Mary and Jesus: no less than by Jean-Paul Sartre, in a theatrical work written in a concentration camp in Treviri, in 1940, where René Laurentin says: “Sartre, a declared atheist, let me see better than anyone else, except for the Gospels, the mystery of Christmas”14.
What we would need to show in her face is a marvellous anxiety that appears only once in a human figure because the Christ is her son, flesh of her flesh and fruit of her womb. She carried him for nine months, gave him her womb and her milk was to become God’s blood. The temptation is strong enough to make her forget that he is God : cradling him in her arms , she calls him ‘my little one!’ But at other times she thinks: ‘He is God’… But I think that there are other fleeting moments when she feels that Christ is her son, her little one, and that he is also God, both together. She looks at him and thinks, ‘This is my God-child, this divine flesh is my flesh, is made up of myself, has my eyes, and this shape of his mouth is the shape of my mouth. He looks like me’. No woman has received her God all for herself, like this: a God so small that she can pick him up in her arms and cover him with kisses; a warm God who smiles and breathes, a God she can touch and who laughs. It is in one of these ways I would paint Mary if I were an artist. I would try to render the air of tender, shy courage with which she would hold out a finger to touch the soft skin of the little Child – God, feeling his warm foot on her knees and seeing him smile at her15.
We need to go beyond this though. Here begins a journey of faith so deep, so radical and – let’s not deny it – so painful, like no other believer has experienced. This unique closeness between Mary and Jesus does not substitute for faith; on the contrary it demands it, an ever more unconditional faith to the extent that it seems to demolish the human, maternal, Jewish expectations Mary has, finally arriving at the culminating moment of the cross. The Rector Major writes: “At this crucial moment in Jesus’ life … we find Mary at the foot of the cross: three verses of amazing density (Jn 19:25-27). … I dare to apply to the Mother of the Lord the expression of John’s Gospel (Jn 3:16) speaking of God the Father: “Mary so loved the world she gave her son for it”16.
The Most Holy and Immaculate Virgin the Help of Christians is our model for carrying out our Salesian mission: bringing Jesus to so many boys and girls, to so many of our brothers and sisters, everywhere in the world, and they are begging us: We want to see Jesus! (Jn 12:21).