Monday, June 02, 2008

Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church

Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church
By Pope Benedict XVI
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Price: $14.95/hardcover

In Jesus, The Apostles and the early Church, we meet the same Pope Benedict whose recent visit charmed so many Americans.

The Pope’s manner of writing is pastoral and deceptively simple. He writes with authority not only because of his station within the Catholic Church, but also primarily because he is a superb theologian. In the late Middle Ages, theology was considered the “queen of sciences” because it contained all the other sciences, including what we moderns would call textual exegesis.

Consider the following commentary on an incident with which most Christians would be familiar: We know that Peter, the “rock” upon which Jesus was said to have built his church, denied Jesus three times before he was taken away by Roman soldiers to be executed. After the Resurrection, a transfigured Christ appears to some of the apostles, Peter among them, on the shore of Lake Tiberius, where the thrice fold denial is undone. Here we see Peter affirming Christ three times.

The pope does not hesitate to call Peter’s denial a betrayal: “The moment comes, however, when he gives in to fear and falls: He betrays the master.” It is only after “the humiliation of betrayal” that Peter is ready for his mission. His name change – “Petros” in Latin -- signals the assigning of a commission. “Once Peter’s attitude changes,” following his betrayal, “and he understands the truth of the weak heart of an unbelieving sinner, he weeps in a fit of liberating repentance. After this weeping, he is ready for his mission.”

This happens one spring morning on the shore of the Lake of Tiberius. The “word play” between the risen Christ and Peter is crucially important.

The word “filo” in Greek signifies the love of friendship; the word “agapao” signifies love without borders -- total, unconditional love.

Upon meeting Peter, Christ asks: “Simon, do you love me (agapas-me)” with this total, unconditional love? But Peter, who has betrayed his Lord, knows his own measure and responds humbly, “Lord, you know that I love you (filio-se).” Again Christ asks: "Simon, do you love me" with the love I want? And Peter, wounded by his betrayal and unable to ascend to this love, responds “Kyrie, filo-se” – Lord, I love you as I am able to love you.

Then comes the miracle in the word play. Though he has ascended, Christ now descends to Peter in friendship, and he asks a third time, “Peter, filios-me?”

Bruised to the heart, Peter at last understands that his poor love is sufficient.

“It is this conformity of God to man,” Pope Benedict writes, “that gives hope to the disciple who experienced the pain of infidelity.” From that Spring day on the shore of Lake Tiberius to the end of his life – and according to the testimony of Origen at the end of the second century, we know what Peter’s last day was like; in humility, he chose to be crucified with his head downward because he did not consider himself worthy to die in the manner of Jesus -- Peter “…followed the master with the precise awareness of his own fragility; but this understanding did not discourage him… Peter succeeded in entrusting himself to that Jesus who adapted himself to his poor capacity of love.”

This is what it means to be forgiven in such a way that the repentant heart is utterly transformed. Call it divine forgiveness, an agapao beyond the capacity of most men. But what is impossible for men, as Peter well knew, is possible for God.

Jesus, the Apostles and the Early Church is a slender book, only 163 pages. The Pope devotes a chapter to each of the twelve apostles. Peter, John and Paul are given three chapters each, as befits their importance to the Christian religion.

The penultimate chapter is concerned with a married couple, Pricilla and Aquila, associates of Paul. All three practiced the art of making tents and large draperies for domestic use. Paul writes to the Romans, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Jesus Christ, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the gentiles give thanks; greet also the church in their house.” Christians did not have churches of their own until the third century. Until that time, the sacred mysteries were celebrated in private homes among gatherings of Christians called in Greek ekkleisa.

The last chapter is devoted to “Women at the Service of the Gospel.” Among Jesus’ disciples, there were many women: the Prophetess Anna, the Samaritan woman, the Syro-Phoenician woman, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna, Mary Magdalene, “the first witness and herald of the Risen One, and of course the Virgin Mary, regarded by the Catholic church as it’s first theologian and collaborator in the Redemption, called by Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, “Blessed among women.”

In this book, one is taken back to the well waters of Christianity, where the earliest disciples give us a view of the “Jesus of history” and lay the foundations of the Christian faith. Those who saw the pope during his visit to America will not be astonished that Peter’s successor is, like Peter himself, a man of humility -- and deeply human. Indeed, if word play may be permitted, it is not possible to be a deeply human Christian without being leavened with humility. Both words share the same root idea: humus, of the ground or earth.
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