The second volume of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth covers the events in the life of Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to his even more triumphal resurrection.
One emphasis which flows through the chapters like a watermark is the pivotal position of Christ bridging the Old and Testaments, bringing one to fulfilment and inaugurating the other. In the mysteries of Holy Week Jesus is revealed as the eternal high priest and sacrificial victim as well as the King of his people.
In an address given in Jerusalem in 1994 at the invitation of Rabbi Rosen, Joseph Ratzinger described Christ’s crucifixion as an ‘act endured in innermost solidarity with the Law and with Israel’ and he noted that the crucifixion was the perfect realization of what the signs of the Jewish Day of Atonement signify. As he explained, all sacrifices are acts of representation, which, from being typological symbols in the Old Testament, become reality in the life of Christ, so that the symbols can be dropped without one iota being lost:
The universalising of the Torah by Jesus, as the New Testament understands it, is not the extraction of some universal moral prescriptions from the living whole of God’s revelation. It preserves the unity of cult and ethos. The ethos remains grounded and anchored in the cult, in the worship of God, in such a way that the entire cult is bound together in the Cross, indeed, for the first time it has become fully real.
Similarly, in an address to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Paris he noted that both the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John go beyond the link of the Last Supper to the Pasch and view the Eucharist in connection with the Day of Atonement. Christ, who makes an offering of himself on the Cross, is the true and eternal high priest anticipated symbolically by the Aaronic priesthood. To borrow a phrase from the Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill, this was ‘no bloodless myth.’
The Atonement of Christ as both the eternal high priest and sacrificial victim not only fulfils the Old Testament in the sense of transfiguring its symbols into a new reality it also gives rise to a new sovereignty, a new kingship.
This theme of the sovereignty of Christ has been addressed by a number of high profile contemporary theologians, including John Milbank and William T. Cavanaugh. In the fifth chapter of Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon, Milbank provides an application of Giorgio Agamben’s account of the homo sacer in Roman jurisprudence to an analysis of the trial of Jesus. According to a treatise of Pompeius Festus, after the secession of the plebs in Rome it was granted to them the right to pursue to death someone whom they as a body condemned. Such an individual was declared homo sacer, and his death was not exactly by homicide, punishment, or sacrifice, rather, such a person was sacer, in the sense of cast out and utterly abandoned.
Milbank suggests that Jesus was presented in the Gospels as a homo sacer three times over:
Once, because he is abandoned by Jewish sovereignty to the Roman executive. Twice, because he is abandoned by Roman sovereignty to the sovereign-executive mob; three times (at least according to Luke and John), because he is in some obscure fashion handed over by the mob to the Roman soldiers and executed after all in a Roman fashion.
Milbank concludes that neither Jewish nor Roman law had really succeeded in condemning Jesus, only the mob did this—it became in effect the sovereign power and the Romans its irregular executive. Sovereign power and plebiscitory delegation were thereby uniquely collapsed into one another. Paradoxically, however, the crucifixion replaces the sovereignty of the mob with the sovereignty of Christ. As the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper famously expressed the principle: ‘there is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”
However while the first Good Friday was the ultimate Day of Atonement and while the cross represented, as St. Augustine suggested, something of a ‘mouse-trap’ for the devil, (in the sense that Christ set the Cross as a trap with his blood for bait, with the result that the devil, having shed the blood of one who was not his debtor, was forced to release his debtors), until Christ’s triumphal return at the end of the world, the devil will contest this sovereignty and incite the mob to worship other gods, to engage in various forms of idolatry.
When the sovereignty of Christ is contested by the sovereignty of the mob, the consumption of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharistic Feast (commemorated in a special way on Holy Thursday) becomes supplanted by ersatz rituals. The human desire for self-transcendence and an experience of solidarity is sought to be quelled in other ways. Hence football matches and rock concerts can become quasi-liturgical events and shopping can become the mechanism by which one cobbles together at least a surface-level self identity.
According to Naomi Klein, the author of the 2002 best seller No Logo, brand-name multinational corporations sell images and lifestyles rather than simple commodities: ‘Branding is about ideas, attitudes, lifestyle and values all embodied in the logo.’ The ‘transcendental logo’ replaces the corporeal world of commodities, of ‘earthbound products.’ The market power of brands and logos attests to a sublimated need in post-modernity for the sacramental, that is, for signs and symbols which give definition to the individual self.
In a fascinating essay on St. Francis and McDonald’s which compares the reception of the stigmata by St. Francis of Assisi, with the mechanisms by which brand logos are engraved on the human memory, Yves de Maeseneer develops the thesis that brand-name multinational corporations have their own theo-aesthetic programme. They foster a peculiarly post-modern form of idolatry. Places like Eurodisney are not only, as the French say, a ‘cultural Chernobyl’, but a secularist analogue for sacred spaces which hold out the promise of an escape from the mundane.
William T. Cavanaugh in his ‘The World in a Wafer’ essay suggests that the kenotic or self-sacrificial love of God ‘creates the possibility of a human subject very different from the consumer self’ however he reaches the conclusion that the Christian solution to the homeless ego in search of a symbol by which to define itself, is currently eclipsed by the false idols of consumer culture. The logos of designer brands replace the Eucharist as the source of the unity or disunity of the self.
In contrast to the ideology of the brand-name multinationals, Cavanaugh believes that Eucharistic theology ‘produces a catholicity which does not simply prescind from the local, but contains the universal Catholic within each local embodiment of the Body of Christ.’ As a consequence, ‘the consumer of the Eucharist is no longer the schizophrenic subject of global capitalism, awash in a sea of unrelated presents, but walks into a story with a past, present and future.’
Christianity is therefore the tradition in which the division between the universal and the particular, the parish and the global community, can ultimately be reconciled. Within this tradition there is a most sacred place, but it exists beyond time in the eternity of the New Jerusalem; while in the period between the first Easter and the consummation of the world, the Eucharist unites the universal and the particular in a multitude of sacred places across the globe.
This vision of the Eucharist as both an affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual person, and a source of social unity, was poetically expressed by the poet Gottfried Benn. In Verlorenes Ich (The Lost Ego), he wrote:
Oh, when they all bowed towards one centre and even the thinkers only thought the god, when they branched out to the shepherds and the lamb, each time the blood from the chalice had made them clean/and all flowed from the one wound, all broke the bread that each man ate—oh, distant compelling fulfilled hour, which once enfolded even the lost ego.
In The Pope and Jesus of Nazareth (Veritas Press, 2009), Simon Oliver argues that the notion of the descent of Christ to the dead on Holy Saturday with its kenotic (self-empyting) Christology is for Benedict a kind of hermeneutical key for reading the whole Gospel narrative: ‘Christ arrives to reveal the theophanic nature of creation, and by means of a new light to intensify creation’s (and therefore reason’s) theophanic character.’ As Oliver expresses this theological insight:
The incarnation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is therefore one aspect—the supremely revelatory and salvific aspect—of a theophanic and christoform creation. This is revealed in the maximal and singular union of the divine and human in Jesus. We might even say that the universe was created so that God might become incarnate, revealing creation as a descent from the Father of lights which is itself a participation in the eternal begetting of the Son.
It is this incredible divine gift which Christians across the globe celebrate on Easter Sunday, following the celebration of the gift of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday and the gift of Atonement and a new kingship on Good Friday. As the choir sings in the Liturgy of the Blessing of the Holy Oils:
Christ, our King, our Priest, our Prophet Sealed as God’s beloved Son, With your chrism anoint your people, Make them holy, keep them one.
Republished with the gracious permission of Crisis Magazine.
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