Matt C. Abbott
June 12, 2014
'To Know Christ Jesus'
By Matt C. Abbott

Below is the foreword to the book To Know Christ Jesus, by Frank Sheed (1897–1981). Thanks to John Riess of Angelico Press for allowing me to publish this excerpt in my column. Click here to order a copy.



This book is not a biography. There is too much of Christ's life upon which no light falls for us; and the accounts we have of the two or three luminous years are written by men not biographically-minded. It is not a Gospel commentary either, though written in light shed upon the text by many scholars. My concern with the Gospels is to see the Face which through all the centuries has looked out from them upon men. The object is not to prove something but to meet Someone – that we should know Christ Jesus, know him as one person may know another. As Christians we love him, try to live by his law, would think it a glory to die for him. But how well do we know him?

The Creeds, concerned only to give us a kind of blueprint of our Redemption, go straight from his birth to his Passion and Death – "born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate," says the Apostles' Creed, "made man, crucified for us under Pontius Pilate," says the Nicene. That summarizes the position for a great many – a blaze of light about his birth, another about his death, but dimness in between. An occasional miracle stands out, a few parables. But there is no shape to the knowledge, no depth or connection. We seem curiously incurious about the life of one who is the life of our life.

Perhaps I exaggerate our general un-knowledge. I hope I do. Here are three quick tests. At the Transfiguration Moses and Elias spoke with Christ: what were they talking about? Again – once, once only, we are told that Our Lord was joyful: one would expect that episode to stand out like a star: does it for most of us? Once more – one has heard unbelievers asking why we do not drop the cruel doctrine of hell and return to the simple, loving teaching of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the rarest thing to find a layman making the obvious comment that in that sermon Our Lord warns his hearers of hell five separate times: nowhere else does he speak so much of hell.

Not to know these things means that we have not followed Our Lord through the years of his teaching. If we would know him as he is, the Infancy and the Passion are not enough. The Infancy is not enough, since one baby looks much like another. The Passion is luminous, but with a special light. For by then he had yielded himself up as a Victim, and we feel him different. For full knowledge we need to see him in the Public Ministry as well, for only then do we see him simply being himself – walking the roads of Palestine, meeting with his friends, answering his enemies. The difference is focused for us in the matter of Judas. In Gethsemani, as Judas kisses him for the betrayal, Christ says, "Friend, what have you come for?" That was not at all the way he spoke of him in Capharnaum – "Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?"

Not to know the two years or so of the Public Ministry, not to have lived through every incident of it, is not to know God-made-man as he dwelt among us. There are those who regard this kind of knowledge as an extra, interesting but not essential. Our salvation, they remind us, was not wrought by what he did in those years. It is by his death and resurrection that we are saved, it is in the Risen Christ that we now live.

But it is the Christ of the earthly life who is now at the right hand of the Father – that Christ, now risen, in whom we live. And, in any event, our salvation is not all that matters in religion, or even what matters most. That was the mistake of the old-type Bible Christian: he was saved, the rest was mere theology. His fellow Bible Christians might believe that God was three Persons or one only, that Christ was God and man or man only – these were secondary, the sole primary being to accept Christ as one's personal Saviour. It made the self unhealthily central, un-Christianly central. "This is eternal life: to know thee, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John xvii.3).

To know Christ Jesus: if we do not know him as he lived among us, acted and reacted and suffered among us, we risk not knowing him at all. For we cannot see him at the right hand of the Father as we can see him in Palestine. And we shall end either in constructing our own Christ, image of our own needs or dreams, or in having no Christ but a shadow and a name. Either way the light he might shed is not shed for us – light upon himself, light upon God.

For the kind of ignoring I have in mind cuts off a vast shaft of light into the being of God. The truth "Christ is God" is a statement not only about Christ but about God. Without it, we could still know of God, certainly, but in his own nature only – infinite, omnipotent, creating of nothing, sustaining creation in being. It would be a remote kind of knowledge, for of none of these ways of being or doing have we any personal experience. In Christ Jesus we can see God in our nature, experiencing the things we have experienced, coping with situations we have to cope with. Thereby we know God as the most devout pagan cannot know him.

The first step is to return to the Gospels to learn what the Holy Ghost has willed us to know of the coming of God the Son into our race, the infancy and boyhood, the ministry, the suffering and death, the resurrection and ascension into heaven. There will be words and acts in which we cannot see meaning, but the evangelists did not write them idly, nor the Holy Ghost idly inspire them to. We must read intently, growing in knowledge of his words and acts, building our intimacy with himself.

What I am attempting here is a first outline. From it, the reader who would advance in the knowledge of Christ Jesus has two ways open to him. He should take them both.

One way is to study the thrust of the Old Testament into the New – direct quotations or paraphrases, beginnings brought to their completion, whole patterns in the relation of man to God repeated at a new level. I have indicated a handful of these, but there are scores, hundreds, with light in all of them. The other way is to plunge deeper into the study of the theological roots and fruits – what is there, in the Gospels, to be learnt about God, about man, about the God-Man – the doctrinal implications of all his activities and teachings.

Ancillary to both these will be a study of the four Gospels as books – manuscripts and dates, authorship, relation to one another, what can be conjectured as to the plan and purpose of the writers and how events in the new Church may have affected their decisions about inclusion or omission, ways of thinking and writing in the first century, contemporary writings and contemporary religious movements which influenced the evangelists or were influenced by them. I have called this ancillary. I might have called it a third way of advance. For some of its practitioners it is primary.

Even to make the beginning that this book envisages will require a growth in our reading power – including the power to relate things said in different Gospels or in different parts of the same Gospel. It will require what is rare in modern readers, a total concentration of the mind. Take two examples from one of the parts of Our Lord's life on which the light does fall for every one of us – his three hours on the Cross.

St. Luke tells us he said to the repentant thief, "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise"; we tend to think the thief went straight to heaven. But St. John reports Christ as saying to Mary Magdalen after his resurrection, "I am not yet ascended to my Father." What, then, was paradise?

We all know, and rejoice to know, that Our Lord said to Our Lady, "Behold thy son," and to St. John, "Behold thy mother." But there is an intensely dramatic element that we must miss unless we remember, from St. Matthew and St. Mark's accounts of the Crucifixion, that St. John's own mother was standing there.

Nor is it only the Gospels that shed light upon the Gospels, but the whole Bible. For an example of what the Old Testament has in it to give, take one more of Our Lord's seven words from the Cross – "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" It is a profoundly mysterious saying: great spiritual masters have found deep – and various – meanings in it. But these words were not new words wrenched from Our Lord by the agony of the moment. They were a quotation. They are the opening words of Psalm xxi. So we must find what the words mean in the psalm. Finding this, we find something else, which must have startled every Jew within hearing, even more than the words themselves. If you do not chance to remember what this is, read the psalm.

Besides Scripture all sorts of other things – but two, especially, the general history of the period, and the religious atmosphere at that particular moment – will help us towards the vivid seeing, which should be ours, of Our Lord as he lived.

General History: we need to know, for instance, what the Romans were doing in Palestine, why the Samaritan woman was so surprised that a Jew should speak to her, who Herod the Great was – the massacre of the Innocents is easier to believe when we know what experience he had in massacre.

For understanding, the religious atmosphere matters most of all. Take a single example. Our Lord said, "It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man but what comes out." Obvious, we think, in the spiritual order; indeed we wonder why he troubled to say it: till we remember the Old Testament distinction between food clean and unclean, and learn how far beyond this the scribes had gone – argued, for instance, whether it was sinful to eat an egg if the hen had laid it on the Sabbath.

One last word. We read the Gospels, not as if no one had ever read them before, and all is still to discover. We are not exploring virgin territory, wondering what we shall come upon. From his Church we know that Our Lord Jesus Christ is God, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word of the Father, equal in all things to the Father, eternally God. And we know that at a point of time, the Word took to himself and made his own a human soul and body, became man. He did not temporarily cease to be God – the phrase is meaningless. The Jesus who was born of Mary was God and could do all that goes with being God, was man and could live man's life in its fullness. He was true God and true Man. But that in him which said "I" – whether he was uttering the infinite reality of his Godhead or the finite powers and limitations of his manhood – was God the Son.

With this in our mind we read the Gospels. To know Christ Jesus – which is the sole concern of this book – it does not suffice to meditate on what divinity means and what manhood means, and see how we can fit them into one picture without too much distortion of either. It is easy to turn the one Person and the two Natures into a diagram, deducing all sorts of propositions from it: building up a highly intellectual devotional life from it. But Christ Our Lord was not a diagram. To study him solely so would be like deriving all one's ideas about man from the definition "Man is a rational animal" – plunging deeper and deeper into the meaning of rationality and animality, and combining the two sets of findings. Of course we must examine the definition, but we must also study men. In them we find scores of things for which the definition has not prepared us – irrationality, for one, the rational animal's continuing unreasonableness!

One has met people who give their lives to the study of the theology of the Incarnation, and hardly know the Gospels at all. When they come across Gospel incidents which do not seem to fit their diagram, their tendency is to dismiss them – almost as though Our Lord should have known better. But the one certain way to know what a God-Man could do is to see the one God-Man in action – not could a divine person have done thus or thus in a human nature, but what did Christ Jesus do, what did he say? Return from the Gospels to the dogmatic formulation, and we find it glowing with new richness.

When the apostles were choosing a man to replace fallen Judas (Acts i.21), they stated the essential qualification: "There are men among us who have walked in our company all through the time when the Lord Jesus came and went among us, from the time when John used to baptize to the day when Jesus was taken from us. One of these ought to be added to our number as a witness of his resurrection." Knowledge of Our Lord's Public Ministry was an essential requirement for an apostle then. For the apostolate, it still is. St. Matthias, pray for us.

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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