‘Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ; Who are you? What have you sacrificed?’
Jesus is the most famous figure in history. Christians call Jesus, God’s Son, the definitive divine revelation, dear and beloved Saviour of the world and transcendent teacher and friend of all who look to him. To Islam he is a great prophet of God and to leaders of other world faiths a teacher of great moral and spiritual insight and power.
The person of Jesus continues to invite endless questions summed up by two taken from the pop musical Jesus Christ Superstar: ‘Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ; Who are you? What have you sacrificed?’
Who is Jesus and what has he done for us? Most of the Apostles’ Creed is devoted to responding to these questions.
Jesus the Man
This article of the Creed asserts Christian faith in Jesus, a real person, a Jewish man of first century Palestine; a teacher and wonder-worker who gathered around himself a group of disciples who after his death and resurrection set out to preach and teach him as the longed for Messiah and saviour. ReJesus among a great deal of other material, answers questions about the historical evidence for the life of Jesus. Mgr John Meier discusses both the value and the limits of research on the historical Jesus. Wayne Meeks tries to answer the question ‘What can we really know about Jesus? on the popular and well set out From Jesus to Christ site.
The Christ of God
Often people think of the word Christ as a kind of surname of Jesus but it is really a title which refers to the relationship between Jesus and God. Christos in Greek, Mashiach (Messiah) in Hebrew, Jesus is the ‘anointed one’, the Messiah, of God. While we are all God’s sons and daughters, having being made in the image and likeness of God, the Creed affirms Jesus as the Christ and as ‘only Son’, because he alone is the perfect image of God.
The revelation of God, in the history of Israel, in its writings and prophecies, in its wisdom and prayer culminates in Jesus Christ, God’s consummate Word. It is through him and for him that everything was made. In Jesus Christ, God enters into a new relationship with humankind. If we want to see what God is like we look at Jesus. He not only speaks God’s word as did the prophets but embodies and enacts God’s love and justice. Jesus Christ: Why the Word became Flesh explores the mystery of the Incarnation further.
The Creed then continues with a stream of verbs concerning Jesus Christ. He is conceived, born, suffers, is crucified, dies, is buried, descends, rises, ascends, sits at the right hand of God. When God speaks one Word, things happen!!
Have you heard about the little boy who was frightened one night during a great thunderstorm. He called out to his father from his bedroom and said, ‘Daddy, I’m scared. Come in here.’
His dad, who had settled in for the night and wanted to go to sleep, told the little boy, ‘Son, it’s all right. God is with you in that room right now. You’re OK.’
There was a moment of silence. Then the little boy shot back, ‘Dad, right now I need someone with skin on.’
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary
The extraordinary circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus announce the uniqueness of the Son of God and also that he is of both heaven and earth. Christians have inherited a wealth of material in scripture and dogma (story and creed) surrounding the birth of Jesus. The belief that God, in Jesus, took on human nature and became flesh is at the heart of Christianity. This mystery is called the Incarnation. Jesus is not only the eternal Son of God; he is also the fully human son of Mary. He is not simply God ‘with skin on’ but in every way except sin, a human being with the same nature, needs, desires, hopes and limitations as all of us. His whole life and ministry and especially his passion and death would have been an elaborate mockery if he had not been truly human. That is why the Virgin Mary, Mother of God is so important in the Christian tradition. Her virginity asserts the divinity of Jesus and her motherhood the humanity of Jesus.
Suffered under Pontius Pilate , was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to hell
The creeds omit any account of Jesus teaching and ministry, moving straight to the events of his passion, death on the cross and his resurrection. These are the mysteries which are at the heart of Christianity because they reveal Jesus entering the darkness of human suffering, sin and death, recognising it, meeting it and conquering it.
Catholic tradition has been reserved about definitive statements about the saving death of Jesus but it is central to Christianity to believe that ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’ not that ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’. It is human sin, anger, violence and vengeance that are met and overcome in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is not placating an angry God. On the contrary, God in Jesus asserts everlasting solidarity with suffering, sinful humanity. In Jesus, God ‘spills his blood to reach us’.
Since the Cross, there are no depths of human pain, alienation and loss that God has not entered with us. This is the meaning of Jesus descent to hell (or to the dead, in some versions of the creed). Jesus’ descent to hell helps Christians understand that henceforth there is no hell that human beings can make for themselves in which they cannot be reached by the love of God. Jesus cross opens the gates of the underworld and many icons of the Orthodox Church show him drawing our ancestors in faith forth from the clutches of death to share in the joy of his resurrection.
For 2000 years Christians have struggled to put into words their deepest convictions in relation to Jesus death and its meaning. In a fine article on the ACU site English priest James Alison expresses his interpretation of the Atonement thus: ‘God overturns our violence by making himself the victim who approaches us with all-embracing forgiveness, enabling us to participate in the fullness of creation as if death were not.’ Gerard Hall’s paper on the same site is also a very clear presentation of the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus and how the early community of believers interpreted it.
On the third day he rose again from the dead
Belief in the resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of Christian faith. ‘If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.’ (1Cor 15:14)
However, the nature of the resurrection is a mystery. The gospel accounts of the empty tomb and the encounters with the risen Christ all attest to the historical fact that the disciples who were shattered and scattered at his death, experienced him alive amongst them. But nobody witnessed the resurrection. No-one can say what happened or how Jesus’ physical body was transformed into a ‘spiritual body’ as Paul puts it. Nevertheless, because of the resurrection we know with the certainty of faith, that hatred, fear and death will not have the final word over us and that we can live in hope, knowing that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In the meantime, it is not primarily as an historical figure that Jesus is present to believers: ‘even if we did once know Christ in the flesh, that is not how we know him now’ (2Cor5:15). We know Christ now as Risen Lord, alive in the Church through the Holy Spirit. It is this living Lord that Christians spend their lives learning to know and to follow.
Dr Gerard Hall’s account of the Resurrection of Jesus and its interpretation is also worth reading.
He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty
Risen in glory and having shown himself to his disciples over forty days, Jesus ascends to take his place at the right hand of God. He is forever present to God as befits the divine Son of God. In contrast to their fearful retreat behind closed doors after his death, the disciples go joyfully to the Temple. They have not lost the sense of his presence with them. From Jesus’ return to the Father will come the Holy Spirit who enables the disciples to continue and extend the presence of Jesus in the world. Only a small group of people actually knew Jesus as a human being, but through his Spirit alive and active in the world, millions upon millions have known him, can listen to him, be touched by him, be fed by him, through him can love and serve others.
St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica reflection on Christ at the right hand of God explains the meaning of this article of the Creed, demolishing a corporeal understanding of God’s right hand. Quoting John Damascene he says ‘We do not speak of the Father’s right hand as of a place, for how can a place be designated by His right hand, who Himself is beyond all place?’ Thomas organises his teaching in the Summa by posing a question then listing popular objections to it and then answering the question and one by one dealing with the objections. Though this method seems a little stilted to modern readers Thomas’s lucidity and patience show why he is such a great theologian.
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead
This article of the creed looks to the future – the end of time when Jesus Christ will come again in glory. There is nothing precise in Jesus own words or in the rest of the scriptures about this future however we can look forward in confidence to ‘the Day of the Lord’ because the victory over sin and death has already been won. Yet the mention of Christ as judge of the living and the dead in this part of the Creed reminds us that our manner of living now will be the basis of any mode of existence in the world to come. Jesus is both merciful and just; how we choose to live here and now matters.
Quests and Questions
‘To be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of lack of depth,’ says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. ‘We ask questions, not because we doubt, but because we believe.” There are, however, three conditions for asking questions rightly:
- a genuine desire to learn;
- a readiness to accept the limits of our understanding;
- and realising that, when it comes to faith, we learn by living and doing’.
What kinds of questions do you have about Jesus Christ? How has studying this unit addressed them? How will you continue to pursue these questions in the course of your ordinary life of study, work, recreation, relationships?
Choose one of the many quotations (scroll up and down for more) from well-known people about Jesus and discuss the opinion of the writer. What point is he or she making about Jesus? Do you agree or disagree? Explain your reasons carefully.
(Alternatively, the quotations may be printed out and cut into slips to be chosen at random and responded to either in writing or in small groups.)
Visit the gallery of images of Jesus on the Rejesus site. Choose the image of Christ you least empathise with and try to analyse what it is about the image that most confronts your own image of him. Then share your responses with others in the group.
Alternatively, choose an image of Christ (there are many more here) which most clearly suggests his divinity and explain what it is about the picture that conveys this.
Why do you think the creed omits any reference to the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus?
What do the last words of Jesus on the cross tell us about who he was and what he was doing?
How does Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection show us what God is really like?
Express any connections you see between the suffering of human beings and Jesus’ cross and resurrection in verse, mime, paint, or power point presentation.
Find some music that expresses your response to the exaltation of Jesus.
Choose a film on the life of Christ and write a review, critiquing it according to the insights you have gained in this unit.
They Call it Easter presents not only great art associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus but also ideas for reflecting on the Easter mysteries with students.